Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frederick Sanger (1918-2013)

If there is ever a God in biochemistry, Frederick Sanger is (was) the one.  Sanger died on Nov 19, 2013.  His work has been enshrined in every biochemistry textbook and well known to everybody in the field.  He was the first to sequence a protein (insulin), winning a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1958.  He then devised a simple and easy way to sequence DNA, earning the second Nobel prize in chemistry in 1980.  An advisor of mine spoke of seeing Sanger at a meeting in the 1990s like someone greeting the Beetles.

Few people had won the Nobel prize twice.  An interesting comparison is with Linus Pauling (1901-1994).  He won the prize in chemistry in 1954 and the peace prize in 1962.  Although the Nobel peace prize is nothing more than a joke (earlier blog “The Overhyped Nobel Prizes”), and the peace prize committee seems to have the mentality of a pupil trying to fill out a blank in an exam as the time is up, e.g., recent awards to the EU and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  But Pauling was the first to predict secondary structures of proteins.  He then tried to predict DNA structure but lost to Waston and Crick. Had he succeeded, he would have achieved the equivalence of hitting two grand slams in a world series.  The difference might be that Watson and Crick, but not Pauling, saw a DNA X-ray photograph.  It just shows that even a genus mind can’t work consistently in a vacuum.

Sanger retired in 1983.  Not young but still early, considering many scientists work into their 80s or until death.  A reason was that Sanger believed it would be hard for him to top his DNA sequencing achievement.  It is true.  There doesn’t seem to be any dark matter left in a cell on the planet Earth, and even if it existed, it might not be as important as DNA.  Few Nobel-winning scientists were/are able to top their Nobel-winning discoveries after their signature discoveries or Nobel awards.  This is because it always involves a degree of luck, and lighting doesn’t usually strike the same man twice. A case can be made that David Baltimore should get his second for discovering NF-κB and RAG-1 and RAG-2, the master regulators of immunological processes.  Nobel prizes have been given to finding water channels or determining a structure of a protein or complex.  I don’t think they are more significant that finding NF-κB and the RAG genes.

Sanger’s work was truly the Nobels of the Nobels.

Two small steps for a man, two giant leaps for biology.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Problems with Chinese courts and laws

There are a number of high profile judicial cases in China in recent years that have garnered a great deal of attention and stirred strong emotions and reactions.   It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the same things had happened in the US.  China and the US have very different systems.  The Chinese system is similar to that of many countries in the world, while the US to others.  So if China and the US would give different verdicts, speculative for sure, it should be interesting to know why.  Or, if both would likely give the same verdicts, it will also say something. 

The first verdict is in Bo Xilai’s case, as the judge sentenced BXL to life in prison earlier this week.  My take and comparisons to the US system are already discussed in the blog “Mature vs immature societies: on the trial of Bo Xilai”.  In sentencing, the judge in Jinan completely took the prosecution’s words and ignored the defense, making one wonder if defense, in any case, not just in this one, is ever useful.  The judge did not have a mindset of “reasonable doubt”, so in case of conflicts and valid issues raised by the defense, he just believed the prosecution.  This happened when BXL confessed but recanted in court, when BXL never confessed, and when (most of the times) all prosecution had was “he says she says he says” with a long line of irrelevant physical evidence and no cross examinations in court.  People understand it is a political trial, so the result is not surprising.  But it begs the question: why bothered, when you can’t promise fairness?  If in the US, BXL, if he indeed did some of the things, like his wife being involved in murder and his police chief in a cover up, would be forced to resign long ago.  If he accepted bribery in the accused, rudimentary form, he would be charged in the US.  But with that kind of evidence shown in China, it will be a stretch of imagination that any DA will ever take it to a court, and the judge and likely the jury will laugh at a guilty request.    

The second case is about 夏俊峰(XJF).  XJF was a street vendor accused of stabbing death of two street inspectors (SIs) and seriously wounding another in 2009.  He was convicted of murders and sentenced to death in 2009, which, after appeals, was finally upheld by the Highest Court in China on 9/25/13.  It is not a complicated criminal case, but received a lot of attention for two reasons.  One is that SIs have a bad name in China, justified or not.  What they do is maintaining order and cleanness in the streets, which pit them against unlicensed vendors and vendors setting up shops in unauthorized areas.  Dirty work, getting all the blames with no flower, and the SIs are not rich by any means.  Unfortunately, those vendors are usually also poor people themselves who often can’t make a living without breaking certain rules in China.  So this kind of conflict is not going away any time soon.  People don’t like the SIs, but imagine what will happen without? 

The other reason is XJF’s own situation.  He was a poor guy working very hard to support his parents, wife, and a son who has a talent of drawing.  This relates to a lot of people in China.  He and his wife had had numerous fights with the SIs because of setting up shop at the wrong places.  On the fateful day in 2009, he and his wife were ordered off the street by the SIs again but refused as before.  A scuffle broke out, and XJF was taken to the SI office.  What happened there had no other witnesses, but XJF used his vendor knife to stab three SIs numerous times before fleeing.  It is a truly tragic event, with losses for at least three poor families.  XJF cited self defense in the SI office, but there was no evidence (video, eyewitness, testimony) supporting him.  While most of XJF’s supporters did not dispute the evidence, they nevertheless wished to spare his life, to no avail.  In fact, even what happened on the street is in dispute.  A few other people said that the SIs beat XJF, but XJF maintained they did not, only did so in the office.  XJF might have intended to show that his injuries was sustained later, but there is again no evidence of his injuries, certainly not the kind serious enough that justified killing two and injuring one.

What would have happened in the US, in a state with a death penalty?  It must say that the verdict is not an outrage in China; it largely leads to a sad, what-a-waste feeling.  But in the US, XJF would likely have been charged with three first-degree murders, and the chance is high he would be given death as well.  His only hope was to convince the jury that he killed those people as they were beating him in the office, for which there was no evidence.  It wouldn’t help if retaliating against the street beating.  There might be a chance of a plead bargain that could save him, but very slim.  I suspect XJF should have pushed harder for his injury report, but am not sure if it ever exists or is possible, because the injury could have resulted from his capture later that day.  In the US, if a similar fight breaks out in the street, a trigger-happy cop, who does or backs up SI work, could have shot and killed him right there and then got off easily.  Some Chinese claim this is a false analogy because regular Chinese can’t have guns.  But many do have knifes, so is it OK for a cop to just knife somebody then?

The third case is another simple criminal case.  (HL) was accused of hurling an almost 3-year-old baby to the ground, killing her, in a rage, and was convicted and sentenced to death in Beijing on 9/25/13.  On the night of 7/23/13, HL (not driving) and a friend tried to park their car close to a bus stop, and a woman named Li didn’t move and used her stroller to block their way.  HL and Li had a quarrel, then a scuffle.  HL was so mad that he took something out of the stroller and smashed to the ground. 

Much of what happened is clear, and there is video camera evidence for the entire episode.  HL’s defense was that he is near-sighted, had a number of drinks before, and mistook the stroller for a shopping cart, so didn’t think it was a girl.  However, the best defense is (was) perhaps that HL was in a state of madness at the moment that he didn’t realized what he did, as it took place in just 2-3 seconds.  In a recurring theme by now, the judge completely sided with the prosecution.  The judge may have also been influenced by the fact that HL had served a prison term for theft.

Most Chinese probably agree with the verdict.  But what would have happened in an American court?  If a lawyer can show that HL was temporally out of his mind, for just a few seconds, due to darkness, alcohol, and heated arguments, then he might be guilty of man slaughter only. 

The last one is the most complicated, of a gang rape charge.  It involves Li Tianyi, the son of a famous Chinese couple (singers of the military), and his 4 friends, and a woman, in one night in Jan 2013.  Li and three of the friends are underaged (<18).  Li had a previous, minor run-in with the law so has a bad reputation, although his family background leads to hatred in a few people’s online clones as well.  What happened is again she says he says, and we don’t even know right at this time what the woman does or did for a living.  According to her lawyer, she was a student, a white collar worker, who was a friend of some people in a bar or worked part time in the bar, and she was kidnapped by the gang of five and raped.  But what we know now is that she likely has a complex background.  Perhaps even a prostitute or a bar girl who enticed people to drink at the bar and whatever later.  The gang of five claimed that it was all a sex trade.  There is zero video evidence that she was kidnapped, but a lot of video evidence that she actively followed Li and others in multiple locations despite that they wanted to drop her.  She further had many chances to get away or ask for help but did not.  A bar manager who introduced her to the gang, a star witness for the prosecution, also lied about what happened the night.  And while some people’s DNA was found on her, Li’s DNA was not; Li claimed that he didn’t have sex with her.  After the night, some people from the bar called Li’s family for hush money.  And there are inconsistencies in her recounts of the events and her injury report. 

On 9/26/13 Li was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in Beijing, the longest among the four under-aged, because he maintains his innocence all along.  But this case is full of holes.   

To start off, all the evidence implicating Li is she says, her friend from the bar says, and Li’s co-defendants say during interrogation.  There is little physical evidence, with the only being her injury report, made 1-3 days after the night.  Even that is suspicious: how do you know it was not by someone else later?  The most problematic against Li is co-defendants’ words, but by themselves not necessarily damning, obtained during intense police interrogation, and there are suggestions for coercion at the time.  In fact, witnesses had recanted, and other, objective witnesses were favorable for Li and company, yet the judge simply chose to believe what they said under police interrogation but not in court or under cross-examination.  

Chinese laws are tilted towards women if they claim rape.  If she agreed to sex but changed her mind after the fact, the prosecution would take the case.  It is hard to contest it otherwise for a man because nobody else was there.  Even if the woman lied about herself and what happened, as long as she said she was forced.  Is this really justice when the other side basically has no chance?

There is another issue of underage drinking and sex here.  The bar actually invited those people, most <18, to drink and then hinted at sex, which was not disputed in this case.  How come this issue, potentially bigger than the whole rape case, is never taken up or even addressed by the police? 

I suspect Li would have fared much better in an American court.  Because undeniably the woman lied a lot, there is a fat chance that the DA would drop the case.  Because of the conflicting accounts but little, indisputable evidence, a jury might have just set Li free.  See the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal in NYC in 2010, also the Duke lacrosse case in 2006.  I think Li has a good chance in appeals, but still, the Chinese legal system being so biased for the prosecution does not encourage confidence.  Not to say that the American system is perfect, because in the end they all revere power, see “Justice is selective and blind: Manning's 35 years”.  But the Chinese system sorely lacks the appreciation of an adversarial defense and the concept of reasonable doubt.  And I have yet to see any Chinese judges or lawyers as the legal experts as some Americans are. 

Lastly, Chinese criminal laws leave a lot to be desired.  At the high end, penalties are too severe.  Death and life in prison are too common.  At the low end, too light.  Street fights leading to minor injuries often get a clap in the wrist (a small fine and a few days in detention).  Even when the intentions or actions could have led to serious injuries or death, avoided only when the victims ran away or other people intervened.   For some cases the US would have filed an attempted murder charge, but in China it is only a public disturbance.  The consequence is that many trouble makers are free on the streets, undeterred to do it again.  This may keep the prison population low in China, but not crimes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mature vs immature societies: on the trial of Bo Xilai

The biggest news in China in August 2013 is the trial of Bo Xilai (BX) in Jinan, Shangdong.  BX had been a major of Dalian, governor of Liaoning Province, Minister of Commerce, and lastly chief of Chongqing before being arrested in 2012.  While his fall is widely viewed to be more political in nature than anything else, it is sensible to focus on the charges on hand and prudent to ignore all other rumors, many frankly too outlandish to believe, like the one that BX was responsible for a plane crash.  

Most people actually ask this after the 5-day trial: Is that it?  After one year and a half worth of investigation and hundreds of manpower, this is what the prosecution got?  One has to wonder, if the same evidence was presented in other countries, like in the US, what would happen?

The court considers three charges against BX: bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.  BX mounted a strong defense against all three.  What we know about the trial comes largely from the court transcript.  The transcript is incomplete and contains a few errors, but it paints an indisputably faithful picture of what happened inside the court room.  We now know more beyond the transcript based on “leaks” form people actually attending the trial, but the overall impression remains.

The bribery charge rests in two parts.  First is 唐肖林 (TX) giving a total $140K worth of money to BX from 2002 and 2005.   The evidence came from testimonies from TX and BX’s wife, 谷开来 (GK).  BX also confessed about this but recanted by claiming he was pressured into false confession.  TX and GK did not attend the trial and provided testimonies on paper and video only.  TX said giving the money to BX three times. GK said that she took out the money from the safe of their family for her or their son’s use. 

BX denied getting such money from TX.  He and TX had known each other way back, and so when TX worked for a company or companies owned by the governments at the time, helping TX was legit from BX’s standpoint, but he never asked for nor received any money.  GK’s testimony about taking out the correct amount of money each time TX gave BX the money was simply unbelievable.  GK was a rich lawyer with perhaps 40 million RMB herself.  How could she remember to take out just what TX gave BX each time?  How can you be certain it was not her own money?

--------In essence, it was BX’s words vs TX’s words and to a less extent GK’s words.  No other, hard evidence.  Whom would you believe?  TX and GK are in their own legal troubles, so testifying against BX might be a way out for themselves.

The second bribery part is centered upon 徐明(XM), head of a large, private company based in Liaoning.  It is more complicated but interconnected.  The most eye-catching item is that XM bought a 2.3 million euro home in France (or used his company’s money as collaterals) in 2001 for GK and her son’s studies abroad.  The prosecutor claimed that BX helped XM’s company in various business deals, although it was no apparent impropriety, and none emphasized.  Instead, the prosecution pointed out how XM paid for the expenses, and how BX knew about it, from testimonies from XM in person and GK in video.

BX claimed he never knew about the house and any dealings.  He had only vague memory when he once came home and saw GK and XM watching a powerpoint presentation of the house, and BX offered little or no comment at the time.  The only other time XM could tie BX to the house was when XM went to see BX in Beijing in 2004 and BX thanked him.  But BX claimed not to remember this episode.  In any case, XM admitted BX never said anything directly about the house or money any time, under cross examination by BX, which was a highlight of the trial.

But BX still had to face GK, who said telling him about the house and about XM paying for son’s other expenses.  GK didn’t attend the trial, so no cross-examination.  BX countered that GK spent most of her time overseas after 2000, and he was busy.  So they didn’t spend much time together, and GK wouldn’t have talked about such trial stuff when they met.  BX said he never knew or used the house or money, that he has an elder son who also studied abroad without accident, that he thought GK was rich, and that GK never complained to him about money shortage.   GK was obviously in a lot of trouble then and now, so can you trust her video testimony?

------In essence, it is still BX’s words vs GK’s words, and to a much less extent, XM’s words.  XM is a close friend of GK’s rather than BX’s. 

The second, embezzlement or corruption charge is about the 5 million RMB of government money 王正(WZ) allegedly gave to BX in 2002.  WZ testified in court that he met BX twice to try to give him the money, BX rejected it the first time, but agreed to let WZ talk to GK the second time.  Then GK arranged to transfer the money.    

BX admitted letting GK and WZ talk in a prior confession, but renounced it during the trial because he claimed he was pressured.  BX said he had forgot the 5 million RMB until investigators asked about it in 2012 and that because a few other people knew it was government money, it was highly unusual anyway for him to try to pocket it.  BX said he remembered the second meeting with WZ was not what WZ described, at least not his own intention, and he didn’t know or ask anything about the money afterwards.  GK said that BX didn’t say what to do with the money when BX asked her to talk to WZ, but as a couple she knew what he meant.

BX pointed out WZ was under investigation himself, so he might have just tried to implicate BX to get off easier.  BX said WZ’s testimonies contained many contradictions, and that he knew how money goes in the official channel, so it was impossible for him to suggest otherwise.  The prosecution countered that BX didn’t denied he and WZ met twice, only the interpretations by him and WZ differed. 

-------- This may actually be the most serious or credible charge, but then again, there are holes.  BX and WZ met twice in 2002, then BX never mentioned the money afterwards.

The third charge is abuse of power.  In short, GK supposedly murdered a Briton named Neil Heywood (NH) in 11/13/11 and asked 王立(WL), the police chief of Chongqing, to cover it up, on 11/14/11.  WL somehow told BX on 1/28/12.  BX went home to ask GK, who denied it.  Then BX berated WL and slapped him in the face on 1/29/12.  BX also relived WL of his police chief position, investigated other police members, which prompted WL to escape to the US consulate on 2/6/12.  This started the whole thing and BX’s downfall.  Prosecution charged that BX blocked murder investigation, wrongly removed WL, leading to his defection.

It should be noted that there is neither evidence nor charge then and now BX knew about the murder before 1/28/12, or believed it on 1/29/12.  The prosecutor alleged that the slapping was intended to block further investigation, but there can be many explanations, e.g., why did WL lie about GK and the murder, why didn’t WL tell him earlier, etc.  One assumes that WL had had enough evidence on 1/28/12 already.

BX admitted mistakes, but he famously opined in court: it is not easy to produce a traitor by one slap.

While this charge is the most dramatic, and BX didn’t contest as many facts as in other two charges (he did contest some interpretations of the events), this charge may be the least serious.

Instead, since 2012, the public is the most interested in the relationship between BX, GK, and WL. 

NH was involved in GK and XM’s French house’s dealing (perhaps in others as well, but we have no official acknowledgement).  NH had a fallout with GK, and GK asked WL for help.  We didn’t know what WL said to GK, but it was apparently WL who made NH come to Chongqing in November 2011.  Killing somebody was a major task, but GK didn’t tell BX at all.  Is it because GK wanted to leave BX out of it, or because GK trusted WL more than BX?  We don’t know, but if GK didn’t tell BX everything, how much did she always tell BX about her accepting money from XM and WZ?  If GK intended to kill NH and did it, what was her mental state?  How much can her words be trusted?

According to BX’s words and other reports, GK has illness with poison and has been mentally unstable for some time.  WL and GK know each other longer and are closer friends even though BX was WL’s superior.  BX even stated that WL had a romantic feeling for GK.  So slapping might be personal as well. 

Salacious details aside, how should the court judge?  More importantly, how should an objective entity judge?  BX admitted making mistakes, both at home and at work, but were they crimes as the prosecution argued?

The third charge is the least controversial but also the least important.  And it is hard to say how much BX dealing with WL really led to subsequent events.  It also depends on what slapping WL meant. 

The bribery and embezzlement charges are mostly he said, he said, and she said.  Legally, the prosecution doesn’t need to prove BX acted properly or improperly in help others’ business, only that BX got money (for whatever reason) either before or after.  BX’s family receiving money also counts, but here is the disconnection: what if the family received money but BX didn’t know about it?  GK said BX knew, BX said no.  Because of GK’s mental issue and legal troubles, is she believable?   The prosecution produced a lot of payment receipts to show the movement of money, but they invariably stopped at GK, not directly to BX.  In BX’s own words: what does all this have to do with me?

A question of longer lasting significance is, is there a better way, or what is the best way, to judge such things?  What would happen if in a different, say US court?  This comes down to a difference between mature vs immature societies.

The US society is more mature than China in the sense that domestically rules are more clearly stated and better followed. 

BX wouldn’t be in a position to dismiss WL like that in the US.  For covering up a crime, WL would have been in a lot of trouble already.

And there would been plenty of early, conflict of interest flags regarding BX’s dealings with TX, XM, and even GK.  People tend to think one gave to GK only to please BX, forgetting that GK was quite influential herself.

But if limited to the trial, perhaps the US prosecutors won’t even press charges if this is all they have.  The Chinese prosecution produced a lot of paper trail that seemed irrelevant.  What we need is things like wire-tapping, as in the Rod Blagojevich corruption case.

That GK could testify against BX but was not cross-examined in court is utterly unfair.  GK’s testimony is essentially the only thing tying BX to the money, and her mental stability had been questioned before and is being questioned more now.  Pitting a wife against the husband is highly unusual already, and not letting the defense to question her is even more wrong.

Lastly, regarding the Chinese bribery law.  It is not necessarily bad, but is it too broad and easy to abuse?  Corrupt officials could spread wealth among family members, so the law aims to prevent that.  Yet what if the official really doesn’t know?  Convicting someone in a criminal case needs beyond reasonable doubt.  Are words of a family member sufficient? 

What happens if we apply the same criteria broadly?

Say you are an official and help a guy in an entirely proper way.  Then 5 years later, he knows your wife needs $10K and give the money to her.  You have never asked for anything from him, may be in a different position or are retired now, and your wife doesn’t tell you.  But under the Chinese law you can be charged with bribery, when the guy now tries to rat some big fish to save himself, and your wife is divorcing you.  I don’t know how many officials in China can avoid this pitfall now or later.  This is why after the trial, a lot of people actually think BX is not bad, at least not as corrupt as many others. 

In a twisted sense of reality, one does it all the time, legally, e.g., in the US.  By free speech protection, this guy can donate to your (re-)election campaigns in practically unlimited amounts himself or as PAC.   He can arrange for your speaking tour after you retire, where you are paid for $200K per.  Or you can lobby your old colleague officials, serve on the board of a company, be a CEO, etc.

TX and XM, or most convicted Chinese businessmen, wouldn’t have been in any trouble if they had ever had this option.

And nobody calls it legalized corruption for nothing.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Justice is selective and blind: Manning's 35 years

Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years by a US military court judge today. 

My previous blog "American Heroes, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald" predicted the situations with Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  For Edward Snowden the prediction became meaningless when he flied to Russia soon after.  But for Manning it is now proven off.  Sure, he was clear of the most serious, aiding the enemy charge, but still convicted of most other charges.  The judge even considering that charge was indeed a sign.  And 35 years, despite a potential, earlier release, is hardly light. 

What these events truly show is that the US society, and perhaps the West in general, is no longer what it professes to be, or the public thinks it should be.  Or, did it even ever exist?

Most glaringly, justice is always selective.  Never indicted are the war criminals in the highest offices, torture enablers, leakers who sprout government's spins in media outlets (this is in fact encouraged), and liars from the administrations to the Congress, which is consisted of liars as well, but still.  Torturers, murderers, and rapists from the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan get off so easily that it feels like nothing happened.  As on the Wall Street, all the CEOs are safe, even if under their watch we have this Great Recession.  Now someone exposed the dirty secrets, and he got 35 years?

The lesson inescapably is that if you have big boys behind you, you will be fine doing XYZ.  But if you don't and do XYZ, you are in trouble.  If you ever dare to go against the big boys, well, you are doomed.  Even people close or remotely related to you.  For example, David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, was interrogated at the London airport for the maximum of 9 hours on 8/18.  Even the Bolivian President Evo Morales had his plane stopped in Europe in July because big boys thought Snowden was on that plane.

So every time I hear some high officials talking about democracy, freedom, human right, justice, etc, I can't help but thinking: these are good words, how come they leave such a bad taste when coming out of those people's straight face?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Table Tennis and Tennis, all in one Paris, 2013

First of all, the 2013 World Table Tennis Championship was held in Paris, France, in May 2013.  The biggest news is perhaps that Zhang Jike repeated as the world champion in men’s single.  In mere 3 years, he has won two world championships, one world cup, and one Olympic Gold, equaling Waldner’s major hauls.  It seems silly to ask if Zhang is as good as Waldner, but this is not so inconceivable.  A big praise for Waldner is his longevity, but one can argue that Zhang’s star burns brighter, because he wins so many so quickly.

On closer inspections, though, Zhang may owe his titles to more luck than Waldner.  What would you think if Waldner had won all the big ones by beating the same Jean-Philippe Gatien in the finals four times?  In Zhang’s case, it did happen with Wang Hao instead.

Zhang’s playing style can be summed up as control with power/spin, same as Wang Hao’s.  For comparisons, Waldner and Ma Lin’s style is control with variations, Wang Liqin’s power with control, while Ma Long’s motto is faster and faster.  A big advantage of Zhang over Wang Hao is that Wang Hao’s peak is in 2006-2009, so beating a slowly declining Wang Hao is not easy but still not the biggest deal.  Wang Hao tried hard in Paris, 2013, but at this stage, his movement is only slightly better than Ma Lin’s, which is, sadly, like a flag pole.  Zhang won the final (and previous encounters) by getting to better forehand positions faster.

Yet, if Wang Hao is so “weak”, how come he was in the final, not others, like Ma Long?

In Zhang Jike’s four majors, Ma Long played in only the two world championships due to quotas, and he lost both times to Wang Hao in the semis.

Ma Long historically has had problem with Wang Hao, owing to their playing styles.  Ma Long has balanced forehand and backhand, but he looks to win points faster, so he uses and trusts his forehand more.  In the old days (<2010), Wang Hao would initiate attacks with his penhold backhand over the table, pin down Ma Long at his backhand corner,  then out-rally Ma Long with forehands when Ma Long was younger with less power.  Zhang Jike can’t win like this because both he and Ma use shakehand, Ma Long can go toe-to-toe in backhand, and Ma Long’s forehand is faster and less predictable than Zhang’s.  Zhang can beat nowadays’ Wang Hao because when it comes to finishing points with a forehand, Wang Hao simply can’t get to as many balls as Zhang Jike.

But how about Ma Long vs a now-weaker Wang Hao, especially, why didn’t Ma Long win the semi-finals in 2011 and 2013?  The explanation is that, in 2011, perhaps just a coin toss, in 2013, Timo Boll.

In 2011, the semi between Wang and Ma was close.  Ma Long was leading 2:1, and it was not apparent who would win until the end.  But in 2013, it was clear from the very beginning that Wang played much better.  Ma long made a ton of mistakes, and more tellingly, when Wang Hao attacked his forehand down the line, Ma Long didn’t even move.  Wang raced to a 3:0 lead before Ma Long responding bravely with two sets and then running out of gas in the sixth set.

What happened in the semis, including the other semi that Zhang Jike beat Xu Xin even more badly?  Well, much can be attributed to the fact they played two matches on the same day.  Wang Hao beat a teammate, a less stressful situation,  Zhang Jike beat the weakest opponent of all, Baum, but Xu Xin and Ma Long used most of their energy beating their earlier opponents.  Thus, Xu and Ma can be excused for being both physically and mentally drained in the semis.  This is a reason I wrote this post, as I found few people had pointed out this obvious, at least in the print media.

Anyone who watched Xu Xin beating MATSUDAIRA truly appreciated how much running and energy Xu spent.  The 4:2 score does not tell the full story.  How many times did Xu Xin run around his backhand to play forehand loops to win just a point?  Xu Xin always has a hard time against Zhang Jike attacking his backhand, but Xu Xin’s performance at the semi was way below his usual.

Ma Long played Timo Boll, no doubt the biggest non-Chinese challenge in men’s singles.  The match is arguably of the highest quality in the whole event, with numerous fast attacks and counterattacks.  Both players gave their best.  A number of times I was impressed with Boll even bothering a long run to cover his wide forehand in a hopeless cause.  Ma Long played fast and furious out of the box and managed to maintain the high gear through six sets, the last five in close contests.  The focus of Ma long, likely of the Chinese team as well, was to stop Boll.  Once he achieved that, Ma Long was just out of focus, out of goal, and out of gas.

To illustrate the point, this scenario can happen to everybody.  Remember Zhang Jike in 2012, fresh off his London singles’ Gold, lost to Boll in the teams?  It is not that Zhang can’t lose to Boll, but in that match, Boll completely dominated the latter half of the match.  And that was already quite a few days after the singles.

In other words, Wang Hao won the semi against a tired Ma Long.  Zhang Jike was lucky in a sense that he has never played Ma Long for his four major titles.  It is not a given Ma Long would beat Zhang, of course, because Zhang Jike seems to play better and better into the events.  But it is always a regret in sports fans’ mind to not see arguably the best two players meeting in the majors.  And as Ma Long gets older, one wonders how long he can still maintain his quickness.  For Zhang Jike, his style is more geared up for longevity.

Now turn to the 2013 French Open tennis.

Nadal won his 8th title (see post "2012 French Open men's final"), with an epic, semi-final win over Djokovic.  Nadal is returning from an injury and long absence, has been winning a few tournaments already, but not without question marks, since he had to come back a number of times, including in Paris, in early rounds.  But he started to play better in later rounds.  In the meantime, Djokovic looked eager for the title, 3:0 beating Dimitrov and Haas, who beat him earlier in the year.  Dimitrov basically forgot how to play tennis in Paris.  Haas missed a few put-away forehands, but Djokovic ran hard and retrieved a lot of balls to overcome Haas.

Nadal was in a winning situation for most of the semi-final.  He went ahead first in the second set, and ahead, twice, in the fourth set, but lost both sets.  Nadal did come back from the fifth set, when Djokovic got tired at the end.  One has to wonder if his tired legs had anything to do with his failing to stop during the famous net play at a crucial time.  Sort of surprising, since their 2012 AO final was an hour longer, in favor of Djokovic.  Watching the match, Nadal’s backhand stood its ground better than before, and this allowed him to cover his forehand, with many straight forehand down the line winners (for more analysis see post "Sports news before 2012 Olympics").  But Nadal’s serves were poor, and fell apart when he got ahead in the second and fourth sets.  How many second, 90 mph serves did he do in those games?  If he wants to have any chance in All-England, Nadal needs to improve his first serve percentage.

Serena Williams won her 16th GS titles.  She is by far the strongest, and smartest woman player right now (see "Sports news before 2012 Olympics").  Next stop is 18 GS titles, then she has a chance at Graf’s record of 22 titles.  An earnest question is, is she the greatest ever?

In the objective criterion department (see post "Is Lin Dan the best badminton player ever?"), forgetting the GS titles for a moment, Serena has a winning H:H record against everybody, and has dominated the upcoming generation(s) of players for sure.  But there are caveats.

One is that Serena didn’t really dominate the older generation, most of who just faded away.  That is, the overlap was too brief to be a guide.  Her sister, Venus, may be counted as one.  Venus may be better than Serena on grass at their peak, but Venus hasn’t been a factor in years.  The same generation, the closest rival is Henin, with Serena leading by a close 8:6.  Hingis was also close, but Hingis is long gone. 

Serena has an even bigger advantage against her younger, major rivals, so one also has to wonder about the quality of the younger female players, so dominated by Serana at an “old” age.  Since 2012, at over 30, Serena seems to have a second (or third) spring in her career.  It is almost like Federer dominating his generation and tennis, but Federer did that in his mid-20s. 

In short, it is hard to judge at this point.  Serena faces fewer rivals.  Maybe she is just too good (like Federer, but at an older age).  Is this natural, or a sign that her younger opponents are just too weak?

Monday, June 10, 2013

American Heroes, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald

The bombshell news of the past week is that Edward Snowden has now come forward as the leaker of NSA surveillance programs.  

The story started when Glenn Greenwald reported in the British newspaper the Guardian that NSA has been collecting Americans' phone records through Verizon.  More NSA surveillance programs are revealed in quick successions by Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post.  This is such a significant development that everybody has to respond to these revelations, whether he believes they are justified, lawful, or whatever.  And predictably, people in power are clamoring for the head of the leaker, much like towards Bradley Manning, the so-called Wikileaks leaker.  Nobody needs to wait long: on Sunday, Edward Snowden, a 20-ish American like Manning, currently in Hong Kong, revealed himself.  Edward knew full well he risked a lot for his actions, and he explained in no uncertain terms why he did this.

The whole thing, while dramatic, contains two non-surprises and one semi-surprise.

The first non-surprise is that NSA has such programs at all.  At least since mid-1990s many people me included have known that NSA collects global communication data.  Remember the movie Enemy of the state?  What is novel here is that everybody now sees the most current, solid documents to prove it.  Yet, what else should we expect?  Every country, if it can do it, will do it.  In the US, the big brother is the most powerful government in the world, so it will be silly to think it does not do the most of such things.

One can accept it as a fact of life.  Or consider it a gross intrusion of privacy and freedom.  Or consider that the government is becoming too big; although many anti-big government folks cheer the loudest for these programs.   

People in power are quick to pile up on Snowden.  Most of their responses are so predicted and not worthy of a thought.  There is one that does raise eyebrow; a congressman declared that if Snowden had a problem with NSA programs, he should have come to the Congress.  Never mind the Congress has an approval rate of 10%.  Never mind the there are so many morons and so many idiotic words coming out of the Congress.  Never mind 99% of the Congress quickly fall in line every time "National Security" is invoked to serve as a stop of any conversation.  Never mind the Congress actually passes the laws and supported the practice. 

Thus, what is more revealing and resigning is that, unlike the recent Obama "scandals" such as the IRS scandal, what NSA does is perfectly legal, at least in the eyes of the ruling elites, with the Congress already codifying it with the PATRIOT Act and others, and various Courts always rubber-stamping such requests by NSA, CIA, FBI, etc, for many years.  This is a reason why there has never been real democracy in the world, because the system is so rotten to its core.  What Snowden did is to send the issue back to the people, by itself not a guarantee of anything but is the essence of democracy.  Perhaps the US Supreme Court can even review the constitutionality.

But at it goes, people will talk about it, then likely nothing changes.  A common catch phrase is that 911 changes everything.  A newer catch phrase is, apparently, that Boston bombing also changes everything.  One wonders how many times everything can change, but it is a truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Because NSA has been doing this well before 2001.  

The second non-surprise it who broke the story.  Glenn Greenwald is considered primarily as a lawyer, a writer, and a commentator (see my earlier post "Learning from the Americans"), so it seems odd that he first reported the news, not the other, mainstream news organizations, like NYT, LAT, CNN, ABC (except WP).  But Glenn has been a prominent supporter of Wikileaks and especially of Bradley Manning in the US for the past years.  So Edward Snowden has a very good reason to trust him.  Like Manning, Snowden also contacted other news outlet(s), but received at most lukewarm responses even at WP, making Glenn Greenwald the perfect conduit, and Glenn did not disappoint, in print and on TV.  One would think that the American news media have learned their lessons after the Manning treatments and DOJ investigations of AP and a Fox News reporter.  But they have long become part of the system to be servile to their masters in power. 

While still young, Glenn can go down among the best reporters and commentators US ever sees.  Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden already join Daniel Ellsberg as the most influential leakers in human history.  All three's motives are clear and noble.  Technically the three broke the laws.  Ellsberg escaped due to technicality, Manning is now on trial, and Snowden's fate is unclear.  But what they did simply exposes the dirty work of those in power and the system.  The system covers its behind by legalizing their own dark practice, but it does not change the fact that what they do and try to hide is much much worse than revealing classified information.  Heroes such as Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald give the world hope.

The semi-surprise is that Edward Snowden is now holding up in HK, China.  There are no inherently wrong and right choices for Edward, only that how HK, China handles the matter is interesting.  What Edward reveals has no direct bearings on China.  HK police is well-known to do wide-ranging surveillance, China is presumed to have similar practice as in the US, although the reach is unlikely on par with the US, and China knows very well US is doing its things globally.  Thus, people in HK and mainland China will not think what Edward did is such a big deal at all, and they will not attach much significance to the case as Americans might think.  But there will be two things to consider.  First is that American business, media and politicians have been accusing China of hacking, and the exposure by Snowden will certainly blow in the face of the Americans.  

Second is that how some people in HK will react.  HK has a group of loud people that antagonize the Chinese central government and sees the US as their savior.  Freedom and democracy are two words in their every sentence.  How will they react now that they suddenly have a truly American problem on hand, especially when the core of the problem is about freedom and democracy?  According to HK laws and in contrast to many pundits in the US say, Edward might not be extradited to the US due to political reasons.  And the Chinese central government can still step in even after HK has opted for extradition.  

It is a problem that HK and Chinese government did not ask for, but how it plays out has global ramifications.  The process will take years, as in the situations of Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  A plausible scenario, if Ellsberg' case has any predictive power, is that Manning will get convicted on some minor counts and receive very mild sentencing.  And as China and US are negotiating, something happens, likely in the US, e.g., DOJ decisions, that makes the entire extradition talks moot.  With Daniel Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden will be idolized in history, no matter what the courts say. 


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gun control, economy, and Boston Bombings

Last posting was in early Nov 2012, so it is almost 6 months ago.  Very busy during this time, which is the main reason.  Another reason is that the events during this period of time have been  largely predictable.  Obama has a new term, but his overall policies are not unlike Bush's.  The US political system has long been paralyzed and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Like, despite all the gun related violence and mass killings, there is zero chance any meaningful changes in gun control will be enacted.  So we will have more killings, more sensational stories, more talks, and then all business as usual.  It is ironic that the senators who oppose more background checks for "personal freedom" are eagerly supportive of the real, offensive, Bush and Obama's surveillance state policies.

Also, the economy, debt talk, entitlement reforms, etc.  Nothing will be done to the structural changes needed to revive the economy.  The US economy is actually quite good compared to others, like Europe and Japan, but there are problems common in all.  In short, the high living standard is incompatible with the work performed in these countries for the long run, in this age of global economy.  In Europe, if you want a good welfare system, you need to work more hours, at least like in the US, to support it.  For the US, being a global military empire will definitively bankrupt the economy.  A larger sum of money should be spent on people in the US instead of making bombs to kill people overseas, which will perpetuate wars and make the homeland less safe and citizens less safe around the world.  And it is rather simple to rescue social security; the best way is to eliminate or increase the cap in SS taxation.  It is harder for Medicare and Medicaid, as the major cause is that the doctors and hospitals are charging too much for various reasons, with Obamacare doing little on that.  While it is difficult to say you can't charge that much and your salary will all be lower next year, it is easier to train more doctors and to slow the increase in costs (drugs, salaries, hospital fees, medical insurance, and legal trouble).  If people are willing to sacrifice, likely 5%, in salaries or taxes, especially those who can afford it, the situation will improve significantly.  Even then, the living standard will change little and remains much higher than in the rest of the world.  It amounts to whether you want to stay in a $500 a night hotel or a $450 one.  But don't hold your breath for any of these actually happening.

In terms of less safety in the US, we got the Boston Bombings on April 15.  One of the killed was a Chinese graduate student, explaining the more reporting, reactions, and emotion in China this time.  A lot of people in China are commenting on it and how well the US handle the aftermath, including the so-called "Public Intellectuals", a misnomer ("Learning from the Americans", http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=3380896742318527928#editor/target=post;postID=3801045415645813639;onPublishedMenu=template;onClosedMenu=template;postNum=17;src=postname).  But as many people around the world have pointed out, every time this happens, where is the equally or even more justifiable emotion from similar bombings in other countries, e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan, which kill more people, including children and babies, on a daily basis?  American citizens may be within their right because it occurred in the US, but why do the Chinese, especially the "Public Intellectuals", need to kiss up?  As Chinese nationals had died in overseas before.  There are likely two main reasons.  First is that this doesn't happens often in the US.  If in the Iraq or Afghanistan, then it is not news.  We don't want to go into why that is now.  The second is that people like to see good looking people in good suits, dresses, or uniforms, with good "toys" like cars, trucks, and guns, speaking "good" languages like English, on the news.  Basically, very shallow things.  This is also true on TV.  Those Arab- or Iranian-looking people speaking broken English instantly have less credibility than the Harvard educated, slick-talking nice suits.  Merits of their arguments and facts be damned.