Monday, September 29, 2008

Professor Xu

We received word last week that our friend Professor Xu Hua died from a stroke. He was the chief organizer of several of the AIDS/HIV prevention workshops we attended in China. His title when we first met him was Secretary General of the China Foundation for Sexually Transmitted Infections and AIDS Prevention.

Our first workshop was in Jilin City, in the Northeastern part of the country. At one point we were taken to a citizen’s home who had AIDS. He got the disease because he gave blood to get a little money. After the plasma was extracted, the remaining blood was mixed with others and re-injected back into the donors so they could give blood again sooner. Professor Xu (pronounced Shoe) is to the right of Judith.

Professor Xu always posed for a photo with a sober face, but he smiled a lot. Here is a photo of him taken when he was not posing. We were in Dunhuang and after our camel ride we came to a restaurant that had a “band” and at various times we joined in either playing instruments or singing.

At the dais
When we were in Lanzhou Professor Xu particularly wanted his photo taken in front of the statue called “Mother Yellow River”.

He spoke excellent English although his accent took a while to incorporate into understanding, at least for me.

In Beijing we had lunch with him and his daughter and son-in-law. They have since moved to Canada as the son-in-law saw that his opportunities were better there. He was the one who told us of Xu’s death.

I don’t know how old Professor Xu was, but I believe he was older than me. Xu could eat. I saw Xu in a wide variety of locations eating all kind of different ethnic dishes. Never, ever saw him pass on anything. And he ate with so much enjoyment!

While it is not possible to discuss politics with the Chinese, we do know that Professor Xu lived through WWII, the communist takeover, the cultural revolution, and the Beijing Olympics. He was a fun, decent man. Good-by my friend.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Busy Weekend

The Almighty had a busy weekend.  She had to induce the last Houston Astro batter to chase a 3-2 pitch a foot outside the strike zone to preserve Cub pitcher Carlos Zambrano's no hit, not run gem and move the Cubs close to cinching a play off spot. 

And then she had to reward Barack Obama's White Sox with a double header win to keep them in first  place in their division.

Then she had to punish the Bears for stupidty for failing to get a first down on 2nd and 1 yard to go with 2.01 left in the game.
But first she had to punish Houston for hosting the worse hate filled right wing radio talk shows in the nation.  Now I didn't use to think that the Almighty was so petty and capricious as to punish many innocents to get at the guilty few, but then I listened to what members of the religious right had to say about the cause of New Orleans' distruction by Katrina.  And I thought perhaps I should try to keep an open mind about our so-called natural disasters.  

Being liberal minded, naturally I have a different slant on things, but I feel obligated to assign blame here.  Thanks to Bay Area Houston for the rest of this post.

The Center for American Progress and Free Press today released the first-of-its-kind statistical analysis of the political make-up of talk radio in the United States. It confirms that talk radio, one of the most widely used media formats in America, is dominated almost exclusively by conservatives. “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio” 

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out in Houston. Houston's airwaves is completely dominated by right wing radio. Case in point, KTRH (Keep The Rightwingers Here). KTRH used to be one of the best stations in Houston with the Garden Line with Randy Lemon, Tom Tynan on home improvement, Astros Baseball, news and weather together, and Tom Martino with consumer issues. 

Now KTRH is composed of some of the worst right wing talk radio in the state.
Tom Martino. 9-11. Tom has been a consumer advocate for many years, but has recently branched off into a "Sean Hannity" wannabe with his ranting and raving on social issues. His show has become less about helping people and more about complaining about them.

Rush Limbaugh. 11-2. An overweight loudmouth conservative once addicted to oxycontin. Enough said.

Chris Baker. 2-6. Four hours of sheer (edited thanks to Matt the spelling bee winner) ignorance. Baker, a self proclaimed "independent conservative" is a Republican party hack, too ashamed of his own party to associate himself with it. Baker's style is to bring a very complicated issue down to the level of an idiot. Keep it simple. Keep it wrong. Baker is known for walking off the set of MSNBC after being schooled by another talk show host, calling immigrants "Gimme grants", and Katrina survivors "Katrina Trash" among a list of other things. A real class ass.

Joe Pags. 6-8. Pags comes from God knows where and should return there. He's a fast talking, simple minded conservative hack, who out talks his callers, continually changes the subject when being overrun by facts, or simply cuts off call. Try to get a fact in edgewise.

Dennis Miller. 8-10. Dennis Miller? There is so much wrong with Dennis Miller on KTRH, that saying Dennis Miller is an idiot, is insulting to idiots.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Erhu in a perekhod

I took this photo in Beijing from the steps of a street underpass (called a perekhod in Russia).

The Chinese man is blind and is playing this traditional Chinese fiddle called an erhu, (pronounced are-who).They were brought by barbarians into China in the Han Dynasty (140 BC); the erhu itself was first described in the Song Dynasty (AD 420-79).

It is a two-stringed instrument, played sitting down and held vertically, with the body resting on the knee. The strings were originally of silk but are now usually steel. The small 6-sided body has a wooden resonator and a belly of python skin; the hardwood neck is long and narrow, and the hairs of the bow pass horizontally between the two strings, which are usually tuned to D and A. The horsehair bow rests on the body of the instrument and points inwards, at right angles to the normal angle of a violin bow.  Because both sides of the bow are used, both sides must be rosined.

Unlike on a western fiddle, the strings are not pressed down onto a fingerboard; exceptional bow control is needed and the finger pressure on the strings is critical. 

Both strings are fingered simultaneously, but the direction of pressure on the bow allows one or the other string to be sounded. The resulting tone is close to that of the violin, though more nasal in quality. Vibrato and trills are widely used, and the instrument is capable of great sensitivity and can be hauntingly evocative and soulful.

I was moved by this scene and the sound coming from the erhu.  But unfortuately, an elbow from a passerby got in the picture.

I have no experience using Photo Shop but through trial and error, I has able to remove the elbow.  My efforts aren't perfect, but I decided to stop because I didn't think further efforts would make it better.  

But I am now adding the result into my "BEST PHOTOS" file.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sichuan Earthquake Schools

As I have posted before, I was in China when the devastating earthquakes hit Sichuan Provence and watched much of the continuous TV coverage. The coverage from the Chinese media showed many heroic efforts from the government to save people and then help them in any way possible. During this time, the Chinese government also allowed the BBC and CNN to cover the happenings. They reported that children were in schools when the earthquakes hit and thousands of them died when the schools collapsed. In one town, only the school collapsed, while government buildings remained intact. As they showed on TV, the construction of the schools was shoddy. In some cases heavy wire had been used to reinforce the concrete instead of iron bars. I wondered at the time whether the Chinese government would have to acknowledge this. Western TV showed parents grieving and angry as they pointed to the remains of the schools.

Today we get an admission from the Chinese government that its true. From the New York Times --The school collapses have become the most politically sensitive issue to emerge in the aftermath of the earthquake. This summer, grieving parents held street protests to challenge local governments and demand that officials conduct proper investigations into construction quality. Local officials felt so threatened by the parents that they ordered the riot police to break up protests — officers even dragged away crying mothers — and offered the parents compensation money in exchange for their dropping their demands.

Many schools in the earthquake zone crumbled while buildings around them remained standing. According to some estimates, as many as 7,000 classrooms collapsed and up to 10,000 students may have died. In all, nearly 70,000 people died in the quake and 18,000 are considered missing; officials now say those still missing are almost certainly dead. The quake was the deadliest natural disaster in China in more than three decades.

At a news conference in Beijing on Thursday, Mr. Ma said more than 1,000 schools suffered from at least one of two major problems: they were built on the fault line and collapsed like many other buildings around them, or they were poorly built.

This second problem “is the construction quality of the building itself — its structure is not completely sound or its materials are not very strong, which is possible,” Mr. Ma said. “Recently, we’ve built school buildings relatively fast, so some construction problems might exist.”
Mr. Ma also acknowledged how important the issue had become to the public, and said the government had sent 2,000 experts to the quake zone to examine the schools.

“This is an issue people are paying attention to,” he said. “First, the parents of schoolchildren are paying a lot of attention, as well as education departments. And even people across the entire country are very much paying attention to this issue.”

When the teams from the central government showed up in the quake zone, some local officials wanted to exaggerate to them the intensity of the earthquake so that poor construction or corruption would not be blamed for building collapses, Mr. Ma said. Some officials also wanted to report greater financial losses in their areas than what had actually occurred to get more aid money, he added.

Shi Peijun, vice chairman of the earthquake committee, said at the news conference that the total direct financial loss from the earthquake was $123 billion.

Mr. Ma did not give any further details on the findings of the experts or say when the government would release a final report. The purpose of the news conference was to update reporters on recovery efforts. Mr. Ma did not mention the school collapses until he was asked about them.

So when I of hear tales from the liberal media about lack of transparency and secrecy in our won government, I can't help acknowledge what the last 7 1/2 years have been like. And even today, the first order from the Republican Convention is "the biased liberal media is out to get us".

"America is a better country than this."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Traditional Male Circumcision Ceremony

As I have posted previously, our trip to Malawi was to observe male circumcision ceremonies held at Yao villages, so see if there are opportunities to impart AIDS/HIV prevention information to the participants. We found the circumcision rites have evolved considerably in that they are no longer linked with imparting sexual knowledge to the participants mostly because the boys are much younger now and would not be able to grasp the information.

The reasons why the boys are younger has to do with status and economics. There is cost involved because the circumciser has to be paid and extra food is expected to be provided to various people. So as soon as money is available the tendency is to spend it now rather than wait because the money may not be available in the future.

The other main change involved religion. The Yao are Muslims due to their association with the Arabs in the slave trade. Unless a male is circumcised, he is not able to enter the masque to pray. There is an effort afoot to do away from the traditional ceremony associated with the rites because some Muslims don't approve of them. In the non-traditional circumcision rites, the boys are just herded to the lodge where they are circumcised and remain until their wounds are healed.

I have no idea why the cause of disapproval, but because I was able to witness both kinds, my analysis is that the traditional kind imparts more of a sense of passage within the social framework of the village and therefore, is better.

I restricted myself from posting much of my experiences due to concerns of confidentially. But my wife Judith, says that any part of the ceremony open to anyone is not confidential and I am free to share photos and descriptions about what took place before the boys were lead off to be circumcised. So here goes.

The group of us arrived early Sunday evening to witness the ceremonial dancing by the village women. However, we were early and sat around for a while until a fire was built and people gathered around. Eventually, the women gathered and started singing and clapping as two drummers provided the rhythm after the Ngaliba’s (the circumciser) assistants showed up and danced for those gathered. They play out some male and female thing as one of them is dressed as a woman. The initiates are brought out and sit in front of the mothers and the other village women.

I was told that, the boys’ mothers have a set of beads, designed by her that she wears around her abdomen next to her skin. These beads are known only to her husband and are used in some matter during sexual foreplay. When her son is to be circumcised she places these beads around her son’s neck indicating that he is her son. The beads can be seen on the boys during the previous evening’s dancing but I don’t know exactly when they are placed on the boy. One thing the boys are told is to never enter their mother’s bedroom again.

I can't help but interject something here. I took a psychology course at Ball State University long ago and the text book talked briefly about Freud and his "theories" saying that his findings appeared to be only related to western culture. I argued vigorously in class saying that this could not be so. The professor, a rolly-polly little man who always wore a bow tie and called his wife mommy (this is before Reagan was elected), seemed totally ignorant of anything Freud ever said. And I was kind enough to let it slide by. So I offered this evidence in support of my long held insights.

I was told that the mothers sing about the forthcoming event of circumcision using the words (translated of course) “that you are coming to experience some pain nothing like I felt when I gave birth to you”. The also sing that “they can accept a man’s penis the size of an arm”!!!! And I am told that in the past, during the female equivalent of coming of age ceremony, she is taught to periodically pull on her labia to extend it.

In the morning, the ngaliba’s assistants first showed up and then the Ngaliba. Here is picture of them with the Ngaliba being 2nd from the left.
To the right of the boys is a basket of flour, applied to the initiates head, with the charm used by the Ngaliba sitting in the flour.
Just before the boys leave for the camp they were lined up and the Ngaliba’s helper places the charm on each boy’s head and says some words.
At the proper time, the boys were led away and the Ngaliba and his helpers raced ahead of the camp. I was told that the boys have no idea what is going to happen and probably think the initiation is over and now are going to receive some kind of reward. Oh, the humanity!