Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chinks and Japs

Let me preface this writing by confessing that I know very little about Japanese -- their culture and their history. Excepting my acquaintance with a few Japanese scientists, my love of Sushi and eel over rice, and my fondness of Japanese anime, I have no knowledge of Japanese literature and art, or its customs and mores. I have not read a single Japanese literary masterpiece, or seen more than half a dozen Japanese paintings, or known its long history, or visited any Japanese city, or learnt hiragana, or spoken its language. Recently, this began to alarm me. Having lived and been educated for twenty three years in China, a strait away from Japan, I feel uncomfortable about my ignorance about my neighbor. What concerns me more, though, is Chinese's collective ignorance about Japan. Nothing is taught about Japan in Chinese schools except the bigoted notion that the Japanese culture is rooted in the Chinese culture, and that Japan invaded China in the 1930's and was driven out after eight years of bloody war. Few Chinese learn the Japanese language, and no Japanese book is included in the school syllabus. In contrast, most of my Japanese friends at least have some knowledge of the Chinese language and the Chinese literature.

Yet there is an ingrained hatred in many Chinese for the Japanese, a neighbor they barely know except that some of their great grandfathers have died fighting this neighbor in the eight-year war. This hatred may date further back to the end of the nineteenth century, where the Japanese Navy defeated the Chinese Beiyang Navy in a series of short and decisive battles. These two Chinese-Japanese wars should be reason enough for the Chinese to learn more about Japan. Instead, they fostered blind animosity.

Blind, and humorless too. The Brits and the French have fought each other for centuries, and even today they have a contempt for each other. But they express their nationalistic prejudice by laughing at their old foes. I recently listened to Monty Python's John Cleese in a speech. Being British, Mr. Cleese opened by making fun of the French:

"Why did the French have so many civil wars?"
"So that they can win one."

"How many Frenchman does it take to defend Paris?"
"Nobody knows, it has never been tried before."

I do not remember hearing a Chinese joke about the Japs, neither would I know if the Japanese ever joke about the Chinks. How do you make up a joke about something you barely know?

There is, however, a true story that is almost funny. My mother-in-law's college classmate in China has been a professor in Japan for twenty years. Recently he took a vacation in China. To his surprise, many of his Chinese friends sympathetically asked him if the Japanese ever harassed him because he was from China. "It must be difficult for a Chinese to live in Japan." his friends said to him. When he returned to Japan, he was again surprised. Many of his Japanese colleagues sympathetically asked him if the Chinese harassed him when he was traveling China. "It must be hard for a man from Japan to travel in China." his colleagues said to him. This is probably the closest to a joke that the Chinese and the Japanese can tell about each other.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why I Am Not a Vegetarian

Nobody turns vegetarian for the taste. Mothers always tell their children to "eat your vegetables", apparently because we do not have an innate appetite for the green leaves or the red roots of domesticated plants. From day one of our existence in this world, we hunger for an animal product: milk. Evolutionarily, we are genetically wired to eat meat: our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed high protein and calorie food to support their energy-hungry brains. Culinarily, meat is more versatile than vegetables: beef is stewed, roasted, broiled, grilled (to different degrees of cookedness), pan fried, stir fried, seared, or served raw in steak tartare; lettuce and tomato are chopped and served in salad; lobsters are boiled, baked, stir fried, stuffed in ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and crab meat, and served with baked potatoes or French fries; potatoes are baked or made into French fries, and served as a side to lobsters and burgers. Vegetable is secondary to meat in the following cuisines: French, Italian, British, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Brazilian, Argentinean, Russian, Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, and, if it counts as a cuisine, the American. Entrees in the menus of the above-mentioned cuisines usually feature meat: veal, pork, lamb, duck, chicken, turkey, and a variety of fishes, accompanied by a modicum of vegetables.

Yet more and more people forgo meat in their diet. Vegetarianism, an ancient form of dietary restriction practiced by the Hindus and the Buddhist monks, has gone secular. Of course, involuntary vegetarians are common all over the developing world: people do not eat meat simply because they cannot afford it. In Mozambique, the average meat consumption per capita per year in 2002 is 5.6 kilograms, roughly the beef in 50 Whoppers from Burger King. Even as I was growing up in China in the seventies and early eighties, meat was scarce and rationed, and I did not see meat in my meal every night, and I recollect many fights with my cousin over who got more meat in his plate when we did have it. For most of the world population, meat is still not plenty. But this may not appear so in the United States, where the average meat consumption per capita per year in 2002 was 124 kilograms: 3 Whoppers a day. In the United States, we are eating too much meat.

Hence the epidemic obesity, and the attendant health problems. Throughout millions of years of evolution, when no animal can be sure of its next meal, the storage of the surplus calories in the form of body fat is crucial for survival. But evolution could not have foreseen this century of calorie abundance. Our bodies continue to store the excess calories, although we no longer need them, and each day we have even more calories to spare, which turn into more fat, until one day, someone woke up astounded by the body mass of Americans and announced that the nation had become too fat.

Hence the blame on meat. Multiple studies have shown that vegetarians have lower risks of cardiovascular diseases, lower mortality, and longer life expectancy than the carnivorous. These studies, of course, have been interpreted by many as the evidence for the health benefit of vegetarianism, even though further studies show that there is no significant health advantage of vegetarian diet over a similar diet with moderate amount of meat. The problem is not the meat, but overeating it, as anything taken to the excess can be harmful. Nonetheless, meat, with its high cholesterol and its high calories that once made it the most desirable item in our ancestors' menu, is suddenly shunned as a health hazard by the health-conscious.

Further undermining the meat's position is a group of ultraliberal people going by the name People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. Well, these people are the kindest of all people of the world. So kind, in fact, that they can not tolerate the slightest cruelty in this world. But this world is full of cruelties: the oppression in Iraq, the malnutritioned children in impoverished Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, the civil war in Bhutan. All this torments the kind people of PETA, but none of this troubles them so much as the cruelties that we commit to animals in this seemingly civilized country.

PETA first gained public attention in its fight for the animal rights in scientific labs, but it soon spread its interest to animal farming. PETA states that animals share same sufferings as you and me, and should be respected for their individual lives. Its propaganda vilifies the modern practice of meat industry. The animals, according to PETA, are raised in close quarters (like us in New York), overfed (like us in America), and cruelly slaughtered (like the folks in Iraq). They are also often mutilated to prevent internecine fights due to unbearable stress. They are bred for the sole purpose of being eaten. They have never experienced any joyous stimulus in their lives.

All PETA says is true. But the animal farmers are also kind and honest people. They also wish for world peace and like everyone to be happy, and they make everyone happy by making their meat cheap and plenty to everyone. They are also the simple people whose compassion usually do not extend beyond the order of primates. They can be kind to their chickens or cattles by having them living in spacious farms, but their families may not enjoy the diminished income.

Humans may be the only animal capable of compassion for its food. Of this, obviously, nobody can be certain. I will never know if the sharks had a pang of remorse when they tore off the legs of the hapless swimmers, or the wolves had a moment of hesitation when they carried off the human babies to feed their own calves. But they did it anyway. So maybe next time I eat my steak I will remember the cows' sufferings. But right now I am hungry, and I need to think whether I want beef, pork, lamb, chicken, or fish for dinner.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Chemistry in Haiku

Cis retinal sits,
Quietly, until the light hits.
Isomerize. See!

Today AMBER works,
Yesterday CHARMM does better,
Force Fields are like that.