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» HERE COMES THE OCEAN (and the Triumph of Slime)

by Brian Awehali

Climate change is causing the sea to rise far faster than scientists once expected, a meter or more by 2100. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so dire to you. Perhaps you read that sentence and think: “Pity; there go some beaches and beach-front real estate.” Maybe you think: “You know, I’ve always liked the ocean more than New York City anyway…” If so, you may not be getting the picture, because a rise of just one meter will literally drown cities and towns across the globe, displacing millions of people, creating food shortages, epic political conflicts and disease epidemics.

It is not just the amount of overall rise that is of concern. That may well be the least concerning aspect. Storm surges will increase dramatically in strength if baseline sea level is higher. Hurricanes and typhoons have already increased significantly in strength and duration, an effect scientists attribute to climate change, and this is expected to continue. More than 10,000 people have been killed in storm surges in the Bay of Bengal alone in the last 300 years, and such surges could increase exponentially in the coming years. This means that the watery ends of Miami, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Dhaka are not just possible, but actually likely.

Their ends might come from the sea, something like this:

…or from the sky, like this:

(The already disappearing island of Kiribati is, of course, already f–ked.)

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» THE DEFINITION OF SCARY: China’s Cancer Villages (癌症村, Aizheng Cun)

by Brian Awehali

I woke up this morning and considered going outside. Lately, I have been avoiding the outdoors here in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, because I fear the industrial haze and the cough I seem to develop whenever I spend more than a few hours out and about. There are ominous smells here: acrid metallic clouds of gas with something like formaldehyde that have me breathing as shallowly as I possibly can when I pass through them.

Despite this, last night I was reconsidering my aversion to the Chinese outdoors, wondering if I was being paranoid. Sunlight is still moderately healthy. And after all, I drink heavily filtered water, wash any fresh vegetables I buy several times (they recommend using diluted bleach as well, but I refuse to trade one poison for another), and I live, sleep, run and work out in a heavily insulated building with industrial grade air filters going 24/7.

I also drink lots of coffee, which I seem to remember reading somewhere renders me all but impervious to cancer.

But then, after my coffee, any anticarcinogenic confidence I had evaporated when I sat down to check email and a friend of mine had forwarded on a ghastly article entitled “Made in China: Cancer Villages,” by Lee Liu, from Environment Magazine. The article goes into great depth about China’s unprecedented levels of cancer and the “grow first, clean up later” approach to industrial development driven largely by the forces of economic globalization.

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» HOW THE NOSE KNOWS: Vibrations?

by Brian Awehali

Fifth-Century Greek philosopher Democritus, the putative founder of modern science and atomic theory, who laughed constantly and lived more than one hundred years, once had occasion to ponder our sense of smell. It was, he theorized, the result of our nose reading the shape of airborne particles. Democritus called these particles “atoms,” and he thought sweet atoms were “round and of a good size,” while sour ones were “bulky, jagged, and many angled.”

This “shapist” theory of smell, or olfaction, continues to this day. It boils down to the essential concept of tiny pieces of things being “read” by receptors in our nose. Democritus called these pieces “atoms,” but he had no sense of atomic theory in the modern sense, which asserts that these pieces are, in fact, molecules. But that’s just a theory, and the truth is that no one really knows how our sense of smell works. The shapist theory has many inconsistencies and demonstrated limitations. Molecules with the same shape produce different smells; inversely, two molecules with completely different shapes can produce the same smell (sandalwood).

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, miles away from the site of the Hiroshima bombing, people reported an impossibly bright light and the smell of burning rubber. This posed a problem for the shape theory of smell: If smell was the result of particulate matter – molecules – landing on receptors in the nose, how then to explain the instantaneous travel of molecules from the blast site to noses miles away?

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» THE CORPSE WALKER: Conversations with China’s Lower Strata

by Brian Awehali

This is the first of several posts on LOUDCANARY about Liao Yiwu. To read my long-form profile of Liao, “Dangerous Words,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here. 

When we arrived by cab at the train station, as instructed, Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) met us in a black car driven by a friend and took us to a riverside tea house, where several of his friends were already drinking tea and eating fried Sichuan peppers. We talked for hours, then ate and drank for several more before the musical instruments came out…

Liao Yiwu’s primary importance lies not in what he says, but in the stories of countrymen he collects, which paint a vivid people’s history of China, a country eager, and engineered in many ways, to forget its past. Many college students do not know about the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, to take one prime example of this willful (and highly orchestrated) amnesiac tendency. In his work, Liao focuses on the diceng (底层)or “bottom rung of society,” a concept hated by both supporters of Mao’s “communist” revolution and the current PRC, as well as by many Chinese people for whom the concept of “face” (mianzi, or 面子) — looking good and having status and, in this case, not making China look bad to the laowai (老外, or foreigners) — is all-important. In an only theoretically classless society, people are reluctant to speak of beggars, thieves, drug addicts or those in poverty, even if their presence is glaringly obvious.

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» THE CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

by Brian Awehali

The first time you kiss somebody, you may well be caught up in romance and various libidinal tides, but your brain and olfactory system are hard at work, gathering information to decide whether to take it to the “next level.” At least that’s how the assembled panelists and journalists at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago saw the process.

“You’re not just kissing,” said one scientist suggestively, “you are likely absorbing information about your partner’s immune system, looking for a good match should you two procreate.”

Other scientists in attendance copiously supported their colleague’s assertion by noting findings in related studies. “A similar tendency has also been found,” asserted one postdoctoral researcher in the Berkeley Olfactory Research Program, “in some rather interesting tests where women sniffing male armpit sweat chose those indicating immune systems complementary–not similar–to their own.”

Certainly there exist women for whom the idea of a long session of male armpit huffing evokes an unseemly dark thrill. You might hope that one or more such women were among those who signed up for this study. But when pondering this pit-sweat-sniffing story, one must consider the long tour of ignominies visited upon countless women that led up to this particular moment in scientific history, and the moment in which each woman in the study was bade: Choose the best armpit.

(Alternately, the study may not have involved live male armpits at all, but rather the sniffing of previously collected male armpit sweat. Either way, it’s an odd study. It also provides me a rare opportunity to link to an only slightly related Old Spice commercial about armpits, men, manliness, and frenching):

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