Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Redwoods of Beijing

I was hiking through a valley in a remote corner of the Beijing Botanical Gardens the other morning when I had this strange feeling that I was walking through a redwood grove. Turns out I was! A short walk from the yoga retreat there is a stand of dawn redwoods that were planted here in the 1970s. The trees are a distant cousin of the redwoods found on the West Coast and were thought to be extinct until the 1940s when they were rediscovered in southwestern China. Dawn redwoods are a lot heartier than true sequoias and are thus able to make it here in the northern China climate. All of the trees I saw still looked on the relatively young and scrawny side, but no one really knows just how big they can get. I may have to check back in in another 50 years or so.

While on the topic of trees once thought to be lost only to be rediscovered in China, it turns out ginkgos--the trees now found in city parks the world over--have a similar story. It seems that for much of the last 1000 years the only place these trees could be found was inside the courtyards of Chinese and Japanese temples. The trees were "discovered" by Europeans in the 17th century in Japan and quickly spread around the world thereafter. The temple where Rachel often teaches (see photos on the right side of this blog) has a massive ginkgo that easily predates the Euro discovery.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

World Record In The Bird's Nest

Rache and I took in a night of track and field last night at the Bird's Nest. It was really fun to get inside the Olympic Green after all of the hype we've been exposed to here this summer. Watching an Olympic track and field event is a lot like a 3, or perhaps 5, ring circus. There were often several events--discus, long jump, pole vault, steeple chase--all going on at the same time, often while the awards ceremony from a prior event was under way.
Highlights from the evening included seeing Jamaican sprinter Usain-The-Lightning-Bolt crush the competition, again, this time in the 200 meter quarterfinals, and seeing Lolo Jones do the same in the women's 100 meter hurdles warm up. Yet what made the evening truly unforgettable was seeing women's pole vaulting superstar Elena Isinbaeva clear 5.05 meters to set another world record!
Enclosed are some photos from the evening. Our seats were up near the rafters for the majority of the night, but towards the end of the evening--just before Isinbaeva attempted to set her 24th straight world record--we snuck down to just above track level.

Other Olympic Odds and Ends

Earlier in the eve. we watched through binoculars as Brazilian pole vaulter Fabiana Murer was throwing a fit about something.--At one point she stood in front of Chinese pole vaulter Gao Shuying physically barring her from her next vault. It turns out that someone misplaced one of Murer's poles and it was nowhere to be found. In the end, she had to use a longer pole than she wanted to and wasn't able to clear the bar in all subsequent attempts.

I missed this one watching CCTV, but my cousin Rob points out that the first US finisher in the woman's marathon on Monday was Blake Russell. I interviewed Blake, a resident of Marina, CA, a few years back for the Monterey County Weekly. As part of the interview she let me run with her for a 1/2 mile or so until she finished her warm up and left me in the dust. She seems to have overcome some nasty foot injuries from last year and hopefully we'll be hearing more from her again soon.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Usain Bolt, Julian Marley, and Rachel

Rache and I were at a party hosted by the Jamaican Embassy the other night to watch Usain Bolt set another world record in the 100 meters. We watched on a giant projection screen as Bolt not only dusted the competition and set a new world record, but did so with one shoe untied and jogging the last 30 meters.
After the race we were all hanging out waiting for the second half of the evening's entertainment--Bob Marley's son, Julian, and his band--to show up .
There was a group of dreadlocked Rastas hanging out near the stage and, as this is a rather unusual sight in the PRC, I had Rache and a friend pose for a photo with them.
When the band started up we realized the guys they'd just had their picture taken with were Julian and his right hand man! (see photos). It was a pretty amazing concert, a Bob Marley cover band led by one of his [many] sons for a crowd of less than 100.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Phelps, Deng Linlin, Georgian Brazilians and other musings

[The following post comes from guest blogger MeanGene; my brother]

Michael Phelps, who tied Paavo Nurmi (among others) in 9 gold medals, has this in common with the Finnish runner - the ability to bounce back quickly and do it again. Paavo Nurmi, in 1920's, won gold and set world records in the 1500m and 3000m races in one day. But "one day" is misleading. He had only 26 minutes to rest between these races. He won 3 other golds in the same Olympics with 1500m as his shortest run.
Another athlete with this remarkable ability to bounce back is Lance Armstrong. We don't know about Paavo Nurmi, because he died in the 70's, but Lance and Michael Phelps have an ability to remove lactic acid from their bodies at a rate seen in almost no other athletes. In fact, a scientist studying lactic acid in swimmers has tested 5000 other swimmers and always found a lactic acid level, post-competition, from 10-15 millimoles/liter, whereas Phelps level is about 5. Last night they showed Phelp's schedule for a day in which he got 2 more golds and 2 more world records and it included total swimming (including competition, warm up, training) of 5 miles. --Check this story for more freak of nature Olympians.

The best display of team camaraderie - the Croatian water polo team (men's) have all grown moustaches. (I can't find a picture, wish I could).

Synchronized Diving (the Chinese are like mirrors) has made me think of synchronized swimming, which reminded me of this Saturday Night Live skit.

Even the Chinese guys in my office think their gymnasts are underage. There is much discussion on the web about Deng Linlin who some think is missing a tooth, meaning one of her adult teeth has not grown in yet. The story is that a Korean gymnast a few years ago got busted for that when she gave a big smile on the podium. It later came out that she was listed as being 15 years old three years in a row. At the very least, the Olympic committee should call the event "Girls Gymnastics" instead of womens. The more I hear about all the hell they go through at a young age, (from a neighbor who is a former gymnast), the more I don't want to watch.

While there have always been athletes on the US team who were born elsewhere, historically it has been immigration. Increasingly it looks like people try out for their own team, and if they don't make it, hustle to another country where they can. In a very timely match, the Georgian women's beach volleyball played the Russian women's beach volleyball today. The Georgians won, of course, the two woman team were both from Brazil. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Froggfurter's Adventures

I am proud to announce that my wife Rachel--aka The Froggfurter--has been keeping her own blog of our adventures here in the PRC. Check it out! She has lots of great photos--from bathroom stalls to Buddhist temples--and fascinating insights into life as the exotic yogini at a Beijing yoga retreat. (my apologies for not pointing you to her site sooner!)

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Mask on, mask off?

[The Following is a blog I wrote for New Scientist. Check out the original here]

Is Beijing's air safe to breathe?

Members of the US Olympic team came under fire earlier this week for embarrassing their Chinese hosts... by parading through Beijing airport with anti-smog masks covering their faces from ear to ear.

But with the Games' Opening Ceremonies less than a day away, the question remains whether such precautions are a good idea, or worthy of the apology the team members later made to Chinese officials.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the emergency anti-pollution measures enacted on 20 July - pulling half the cars off Beijing's streets, halting construction, shutting down factories - are having little to no effect on the city's pollution levels.

A frequently-updated chart of the city's Air Pollution Index (API), compiled by researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Rhode Island in the US, has found no correlation between the emergency measures and the air quality. In fact, pollution levels nearly doubled in the first week following the 20th, before subsiding.

The reason, says Kenneth Rahn of the University of Rhode Island, has everything to do with wind, and little to do with local pollution prevention measures.

So long as the winds continue to blow out of the south - where the forest of coal-fired plants that powers Beijing is located - air quality in Beijing will continue to worsen, until northern winds out of Mongolia clear the skies. It's a pattern that repeats itself about every two weeks during the summer, and as the Games are about to begin, Beijing is one week into foul air buildup.

But just how bad are pollution levels in the city right now? It depends on who you ask. Most days the API has remained below 100, the magic safe number, as determined by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Yet each country's measurement of API is a little different, making it hard to say just how foul things really are. BeijingAirblog does a good job of converting Beijing's figures to US and Hong Kong API measurements. It finds that the city's current air pollution would register as moderate in the US and, surprisingly, high in Hong Kong.

Walking through central Beijing on Monday afternoon - early in the current week-long pollution buildup - I found pea-soup skies and a sun that disappeared behind a thick haze at 5:30, nearly two hours before actual sunset.

If I were an athlete, I think I'd make whatever apologies were necessary, but give them through the best mask I could find on any days I didn't see blue skies overhead. Still, I wouldn't be pointing any fingers; I doubt the API of Los Angeles in 1984 was much better than today's Beijing.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Eclipse over the Great Wall

Check out the following videos I made of the August 1 total solar eclipse. To take in the event I traveled to the very western end of the Great Wall at a place called Jiayuguan. There, I watched the eclipse with more than 100 others from the top of a Ming Dynasty fort on the edge of the Gobi desert. Totally amazing!

Check out the full story here. Videos © New Scientist. Eclipse image courtesy of Alphonse Sterling, NASA.


Getting to the eclipse site was totally nuts. I flew into Dunhuang, a couple hundred kilometers further west of Jiayuguan on a flight full of eclipse chasers from Germany and the US.
In the days leading up to the 1st, thousands of eclipsers were pouring into the region from all over the world and local officials started to freak! We were told that entrance into the special Eclipse Cities they set up in the desert would now be road blocked and only those with prearranged permits would be allowed in. One group I was hoping to join for the event had to find a new viewing site after the place they'd been planning to use for a year was suddenly barred to foreigners a week before the event.
I couldn't really figure out what the big deal was until someone pointed out that the eclipse path cut through a lot of closed off military land including Jiuquan, the launch site of China's two recent manned space flights. Getting worked up over countless foreigners pouring across the desert with giant telescoping cameras suddenly started to make a lot more sense.

Phil Click Here to Read More..