A designer’s spiky vest makes your personal space an unwelcome zone for other people.
Sometimes you’re crammed into a line or on public transportation and don’t have much choice other than to snuggle up with strangers. Industrial designer Siew Ming Cheng’s Spike Away vestensures unknown people won’t want to squeeze next to you.
Cheng created the vest for a workshop at the National University of Singapore. “Trains are usually crowded during peak hours. Everybody will push each other to try and get onto the train. How can I protect my personal space? The idea was then conceived,” Cheng writes.
The materials came from the gardening section at a hardware store. The strips of spiky, plastic material were originally meant to keep prying birds and curious cats out of plants. Cable ties hold the strips together into a form that can be worn as a vest.
The vest manages to look like a piece out of a futuristic fashion show. The design itself is simple, but the concept could be pretty effective. If I saw someone wearing it, I would head for the other side of the train. Mission accomplished.
Wow, that is quite a bit of cash
That’s been great for many vendors, but some companies’ staying power may be in doubt.
As providers ready for meaningful use Stage 2 attestation and policymakers start designing Stage 3, CMS announced that the Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive programs have paid out just shy of $17 billion to spur adoption thus far.
As of the end of October, more than 430,000 eligible hospitals and professionals have achieved meaningful use, with 93 percent of eligible hospitals and 80 percent of eligible professionals registered for the program.
More than 236,000 Medicare-eligible physicians and 139,000 Medicaid-eligible physicians have attested so far, along with more than 4,600 or 85 percent of all eligible hospitals.
The incentive program “has allowed 1,000 flowers to bloom,” those being EHR companies, said Rob Tagalicod, director of CMS’s eHealth Standards and Services office, during a meeting of the Health IT Policy Committee.
"The question remains: which of these blooms will be hardy enough to meet the challenges of summer," he asked, referring to Stages 2 and 3.
It’s worth asking, Tagalicod said, because “not all providers are satisfied with their current system,” and about 30 percent of office-based physicians are poised to change vendors.
While attesting for meaningful use is the challenge for providers, for HIT companies, the challenge is to offer providers integrated solutions for the new realities in healthcare — interoperable EHR systems that support not just basic digital documentation, but also population health and payment reform.
Indeed, this point in time in the meaningful use program and the winter season is a good time to reflect on the future, said Jacob Reider, MD, the acting national coordinator for health IT.
"I found myself talking about one of my favorite books, ‘Tribal Leadership,’" said Reider.
The book considers the culture and behaviors of different organizations, categorized by stages. For stage 1 organizations, “their unifying theme might be ‘life sucks,’” Reider said. “Stage 2 might be, ‘My life sucks.’”
Stage 3 in the book is, “‘I’m great and you’re not,” he continued. “Lots of academia is this way: They’re individual contributors who don’t operate all that well in teams.”
Stage 4 is, “‘We’re great.’ As a team they recognize we can accomplish extraordinary things.” Stage 5, meanwhile, is, “‘Life is great.’” They “can see the pinnacle of what we’re trying to achieve,” Reider said, “but they need to work together to get there and function.”
While there are more stages in “Tribal Leadership” than the meaningful use program, the analogy holds because many different sectors of the healthcare delivery continuum, some of them competitors, are working together.
"This group continues to be the guiding light for this industry," especially as the HIT Policy Committee works on Stage 3 "to make it less prescriptive and focus on outcomes, so providers aren’t struggling so much," Reider said.
Last month I dug into drive failure rates based on the 25,000+ consumer drives we have and found that consumer drives actually performed quite well. Over 100,000 people read that blog post and one of the most common questions asked was:
“Ok, so the consumer drives don’t fail that often. But aren’t enterprise drives so much more reliable that they would be worth the extra cost?”
Well, I decided to try to find out.
In the Beginning
As many of you know, when Backblaze first started the unlimited online backup service, our founders bootstrapped the company without funding. In this environment one of our first and most critical design decisions was to build our backup software on the premise of data redundancy. That design decision allowed us to use consumer drives instead of enterprise drives in our early Storage Pods as we used the software, not the hardware, to manage redundancy. Given that enterprise drives were often twice the cost of consumer drives, the choice of consumer drives was also a relief for our founders’ thin wallets.
There were warnings back then that using consumer drives would be dangerous with, people saying:
As we have seen, consumer drives didn’t die in droves, but what about enterprise ones?
In my post last month on disk drive life expectancy, I went over what an annual failure rate means. It’s the average number of failures you can expect when you run one disk drive for a year. The computation is simple:
Annual Failure Rate = (Number of Drives that Failed / Number of Drive-Years)
Drive-years a measure of how many drives have been running for how long. This computation is also simple:
Drive-Years = (Number of Drives x Number of Years)
For example, one drive for one year is one drive-year. Twelve drives for one month is also one drive-year.
Backblaze Storage Pods: Consumer-Class Drives
We have detailed day-by-day data about the drives in the Backblaze Storage Pods since mid-April of 2013. With 25,000 drives ranging in age from brand-new to over 4 years old, that’s enough data to slice the data in different ways and still get accurate failure rates. Next month, I’ll be going into some of those details, but for the comparison with enterprise drives, we’ll just look at the overall failure rates.
We have data that tracks every drive by serial number, which days it was running, and if/when it was replaced because it failed. We have logged:
Commercially Available Servers: Enterprise-Class Drives
We store customer data on Backblaze Storage Pods which are purpose-built to store data very densely and cost-efficiently. However, we use commercially available servers for our central servers that store transactional data such as sales records and administrative activities. These servers provide the flexibility and throughput needed for such tasks. These commercially available servers come from Dell and from EMC.
All of these systems were delivered to us with enterprise-class hard drives. These drives were touted as solid long-lasting drives with extended warranties.
The specific systems we have are:
We have also been running one Backblaze Storage Pod full of enterprise drives storing users’ backed-up files as an experiment to see how they do. So far, their failure rate, has been statistically consistent with drives in the commercial storage systems.
In the two years since we started using these enterprise-grade storage systems, they have logged:
Enterprise vs. Consumer Drives
At first glance, it seems the enterprise drives don’t have that many failures. While true, the failure rate of enterprise drives is actually higher than that of the consumer drives!
It turns out that the consumer drive failure rate does go up after three years, but all three of the first three years are pretty good. We have no data on enterprise drives older than two years, so we don’t know if they will also have an increase in failure rate. It could be that the vaunted reliability of enterprise drives kicks in after two years, but because we haven’t seen any of that reliability in the first two years, I’m skeptical.
You might object to these numbers because the usage of the drives is different. The enterprise drives are used heavily. The consumer drives are in continual use storing users’ updated files and they are up and running all the time, but the usage is lighter. On the other hand, the enterprise drives we have are coddled in well-ventilated low-vibration enclosures, while the consumer drives are in Backblaze Storage Pods, which do have a fair amount of vibration. In fact, the most recent design change to the pod was to reduce vibration.
Overall, I argue that the enterprise drives we have are treated as well as the consumer drives. And the enterprise drives are failing more.
So, Are Enterprise Drives Worth The Cost?
From a pure reliability perspective, the data we have says the answer is clear: No.
Enterprise drives do have one advantage: longer warranties. That’s a benefit only if the higher price you pay for the longer warranty is less than what you expect to spend on replacing the drive.
This leads to an obvious conclusion: If you’re OK with buying the replacements yourself after the warranty is up, then buy the cheaper consumer drives.
The news out of Detroit on Wednesday, Dec. 3, might alter state pensions the same way the Enron bankruptcy changed 401(k) accounts back in 2001.According to the Judge Steven W. Rhodes :
“Pension benefits are a contractual right and are not entitled to any heightened protection in a municipal bankruptcy.”
This is shocking because in many US states, including Michigan, pension benefits are guaranteed by the state constitution. Each year you work, you accrue a larger pension benefit based on your tenure and salary. The guarantee not only promises the new accrual, but also that once you’ve started work, you’ll accrue future benefits at the same rate until you retire.
Until today that guarantee meant people assumed the benefit was risk free, meaning you get your pension no matter what happened to markets or your city. This sort of guarantee is extremely valuable—it was like free insurance .But states and municipalities assumed they could provide that insurance for free. That meant many states and municipalities, not just Detroit , over-promised and gave away perks they couldn’t afford.
The bankruptcy in Detroit and the resulting need to revisit pension promises is precisely what happens when you don’t adequately account for financial risk. It is similar to the counter-party risk that was realized in the financial crisis. In that case, too, people counted on an asset paying off no matter what happened to markets, but whoever sold them the promise didn’t account for how much the guarantee really cost.
The ruling in Detroit will force people in other states and municipalities to realize the fragility of their guarantee—and this is just the beginning.Economists Josh Rauh and Robert Novy-Marx estimate in the next 10 years we’ll see many other states and municipalities run out of money to pay benefits. Before today it was assumed the benefits would be paid at the expense of other services, now that’s not as certain.
Some state employees, including the fireman in Detroit, don’t even have Social Security. They are entirely exposed to the financial management of their state or municipal pension board. When Enron went bankrupt, many employees were distressed to discover their 401(k), which was invested heavily in Enron stock; they lost their job as well as their retirement account. Now, there’s greater awareness that this is bad idea and default investment rules encourage better diversification.
Realizing the true risk in state-defined benefit pensions today could have equally profound consequences as pensioners realize they are more vulnerable than they thought. For example private accounts like 401(k) or 403(b) plans, where individuals explicitly bear the risk, may become more palatable. At least the assets are yours, under your control, and by definition fully funded . As a guest on Wisconsin public radio , I was surprised a few callers (wholly dependent on their state pension) lamented they didn’t have a private account to fall back on.
The silver lining is that states and municipalities might start to account for the true cost of what they have promised. If they can’t afford to make those promises, with today’s ruling, there’s now scope to lower accrued and future benefits to something more realistic. But it may be pensioners in depressed areas who pay the price.
I’m kind of surprised this exists: 300: Rise of an Empire - Official Trailer 2
Andy Rubin is the engineer heading Google’s robotics effort. He is the man who built the Android software for smartphones.
PALO ALTO, Calif. — In an out-of-the-way Google office, two life-size humanoid robots hang suspended in a corner.
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If Amazon can imagine delivering books by drones, is it too much to think that Google might be planning to one day have one of the robots hop off an automated Google Car and race to your doorstep to deliver a package?
Google executives acknowledge that robotic vision is a “moonshot.” But it appears to be more realistic than Amazon’s proposed drone delivery service, which Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, revealed in a television interview the evening before one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.
Over the last half-year, Google has quietly acquired seven technology companies in an effort to create a new generation of robots. And the engineer heading the effort is Andy Rubin, the man who built Google’s Android software into the world’s dominant force in smartphones.
The company is tight-lipped about its specific plans, but the scale of the investment, which has not been previously disclosed, indicates that this is no cute science project.
At least for now, Google’s robotics effort is not something aimed at consumers.Instead, the company’s expected targets are in manufacturing — like electronics assembly, which is now largely manual — and competing with companies like Amazon in retailing, according to several people with specific knowledge of the project.
A realistic case, according to several specialists, would be automating portions of an existing supply chain that stretches from a factory floor to the companies that ship and deliver goods to a consumer’s doorstep.
“The opportunity is massive,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”
Google has recently started experimenting with package delivery in urban areas with its Google Shopping service, and it could try to automate portions of that system. The shopping service, available in a few locations like San Francisco, is already making home deliveries for companies like Target, Walgreens and American Eagle Outfitters.
Perhaps someday, there will be automated delivery to the doorstep, which for now is dependent on humans.
“Like any moonshot, you have to think of time as a factor,” Mr. Rubin said. “We need enough runway and a 10-year vision.”
Mr. Rubin, the 50-year-old Google executive in charge of the new effort, began his engineering career in robotics and has long had a well-known passion for building intelligent machines. Before joining Apple Computer, where he initially worked as a manufacturing engineer in the 1990s, he worked for the German manufacturing company Carl Zeiss as a robotics engineer.
“I have a history of making my hobbies into a career,” Mr. Rubin said in a telephone interview. “This is the world’s greatest job. Being an engineer and a tinkerer, you start thinking about what you would want to build for yourself.”
He used the example of a windshield wiper that has enough “intelligence” to operate when it rains, without human intervention, as a model for the kind of systems he is trying to create. That is consistent with a vision put forward by the Google co-founder Larry Page, who has argued that technology should be deployed wherever possible to free humans from drudgery and repetitive tasks.
The veteran of a number of previous Silicon Valley start-up efforts and twice a chief executive, Mr. Rubin said he had pondered the possibility of a commercial effort in robotics for more than a decade. He has only recently come to think that a range of technologies have matured to the point where new kinds of automated systems can be commercialized.
Earlier this year, Mr. Rubin stepped down as head of the company’s Android smartphone division. Since then he has convinced Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Mr. Page, that the time is now right for such a venture, and they have opened Google’s checkbook to back him. He declined to say how much the company would spend.
Mr. Rubin compared the effort with the company’s self-driving car project, which was started in 2009. “The automated car project was science fiction when it started,” he said. “Now it is coming within reach.”
He acknowledged that breakthroughs would still be necessary in areas like software and sensors, but said that hardware issues like mobility and moving hands and arms had been resolved.
Mr. Rubin has secretly acquired an array of robotics and artificial intelligence start-up companies in the United States and Japan.
Among the companies are Schaft, a small team of Japanese roboticists who recently left Tokyo University to develop a humanoid robot, and Industrial Perception, a start-up here that has developed computer vision systems and robot arms for loading and unloading trucks. Also acquired were Meka and Redwood Robotics, makers of humanoid robots and robot arms in San Francisco, and Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems that were recently used to create special effects in the movie “Gravity.” A related firm, Autofuss, which focuses on advertising and design, and Holomni, a small design firm that makes high-tech wheels, were acquired as well.
The seven companies are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot. Mr. Rubin said he was pursuing additional acquisitions.
Unlike Google’s futuristic X lab, which does research on things like driverless cars and the wearable Google Glass device, the robotics effort — moonshots aside — is meant to sell products sooner rather than later. It has not yet been decided whether the effort will be a new product group inside Google or a separate subsidiary, Mr. Rubin said.
The Google robotics group will initially be based here in Palo Alto, with an office in Japan. In addition to his acquisitions, Mr. Rubin has begun hiring roboticists and is bringing in other Google programmers to assist in the project.
While Google has not detailed its long-term robotics plans, Mr. Rubin said that there were both manufacturing and logistics markets that were not being served by today’s robotic technologies, and that they were clear opportunities.
This is not the first time that Google has strayed beyond the typical confines of a tech company. It has already shaken up the world’s automobile companies with its robot car project. Google has not yet publicly stated whether it intends to sell its own vehicles or become a supplier to other manufacturers.Speculation about Google’s intentions has stretched from fleets of robotic taxis moving people in urban areas to automated delivery systems.
Mr. Rubin said that one of his frustrations about today’s consumer electronics industry was its complexity. He is hoping robotics will be different.
“I feel with robotics it’s a green field,” he said. “We’re building hardware, we’re building software. We’re building systems, so one team will be able to understand the whole stack.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a small design firm that makes high-tech wheels. It is Holomni, not Holonomi.
US exports touched a record high of nearly $193 billion in October , thanks, in part, to a jump in petroleum exports . The jump in outbound shipments helped shrink the US trade deficit to $40.6 billion.
The rise in US exports is just one of the ways that the US energy production boom is reshaping the global economic and political calculus. As this chart from Citigroup analysts shows, the US is rapidly gaining ground in production compared to energy giants such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, which whom the US has traditionally had delicate relationships.
Yes, it’s true. Wonder Woman / Diana Prince will make her big screen debut in Zack Snyder’s upcoming and as yet untitled Superman and Batman film. Israeli actress Gal Gadot of the “Fast & Furious” films has been confirmed for the coveted role, joining Henry Cavill as Superman / Clark Kent and Ben Affleck as Batman / Bruce Wayne.
“Wonder Woman is arguably one of the most powerful female characters of all time and a fan favorite in the DC Universe,” said director Zack Snyder. “Not only is Gal an amazing actress, but she also has that magical quality that makes her perfect for the role. We look forward to audiences discovering Gal in the first feature film incarnation of this beloved character.”
The film also reunites MAN OF STEEL’s Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and Diane Lane as Martha Kent.
The film begins principal photography early next year and opens in theaters on July 17, 2015.
DJ Earworm Mashup - United State of Pop 2013 (Living the Fantasy) (by Dj Earworm)
What an amazing woman
In the ’90s, a gynecologist named Gao Yaojie exposed the horrifying cause of an AIDS epidemic in rural China — and the ensuing cover-up — and became an enemy of the state. Now 85, she lives in New York without her family, without her friends, and without regrets.
The enormous brick fortress in West Harlem was built in the mid-1970s as a visionary housing project, a new model for an affordable, self-contained urban community. Today, on a balmy September afternoon, it is a low-income housing compound lined with security cameras, guards, and triple-locked doors. A few drunks shouting at nobody in particular linger outside. Pound for pound, though, the most dangerous person living here may just be a diminutive 85-year-old Chinese grandmother dressed in a stylish purple sweater set with black leopard spots sent by her daughter in Canada.
This is not a slum. Neither is it where you would expect to find an internationally known human-rights warrior living out her golden years. In her one-bedroom apartment, Dr. Gao Yaojie — known to many as “the AIDS Granny” — moves with great difficulty through her tidy clutter and stacks of belongings. In the small kitchen, she stirs a pot of rice and bean porridge, one of the few things she can digest. She lost most of her stomach in surgery after a suicide attempt four decades ago and suffered multiple beatings during the Cultural Revolution.
A large bed where Gao’s live-in caretaker sleeps overwhelms the living room. In Gao’s bedroom, two twin beds are piled with stacks of books, photos and quilts. Her desk is heaped with papers, medications, and yet more books. Gao’s computer is always on, often clutched to her chest as she lies working in bed.
“I left China with one thing in each hand,” Gao says to me in Chinese. “A blood-pressure cuff to monitor my high blood pressure and a USB stick with more than a thousand pictures of AIDS victims.”
Before she agreed to meet me at all, she set rules via email: There would be no discussion of China’s politics, the Communist Party’s future, or the myriad issues that concern other dissidents. These are inexorably tied to her own life, but Gao does not want to be known as a multipurpose Chinese dissident. A lifetime of looking over her shoulder for danger has left her wary. She never learned English.
“I seldom see anyone,” she says. “Many people from China are very complicated. I don’t know what kind of intentions they have. I see them as cheating to get food, drinks, and money. They don’t really do any meaningful work.”
Gao believes she is watched here, just as she was in China for so many years. Given China’s well-documented pattern of stifling critical voices abroad, it’s impossible to rule out that someone is monitoring or harassing her, even in Harlem.
Money is tight. She had a fellowship through Columbia University for her first year in the U.S. Now she gets by on private donations that cover roughly $35,000 a year in expenses, the largest of those being her rent at Riverside. She has a few teeth left and can’t afford dental work.
She spends her days in bed, sleeping, writing, researching online, and obsessively analyzing what she witnessed in China in a lifetime that bridged tremendous tumult. For hours, she clicks away on her keyboard, emailing contacts back home for information and putting final touches on her newest book. She learned to use a computer at age 69.
This will be Gao’s 27th book and the ninth to chronicle China’s AIDS epidemic, a public health catastrophe that decimated entire villages and put her on the government’s enemy list. “You wouldn’t understand the earlier books, they were too technical,” she says, flashing a near-toothless grin.
“Although I am by myself, appearing to be lonely, I am actually very busy,” she says. “I am turning 86 soon and will be gone, but I will leave these things to the future generations.”
Her unplanned journey from Henan province to Harlem began 17 years ago, six months after she retired as a gynecologist and professor at the Henan Chinese Medicine University hospital in Zhengzhou. She went from being a retired grandmother to China’s first and most famous AIDS activist, and became such a thorn in the side of the regime that she eventually fled to New York for safety, away from her family and everyone she knows.
She turns to her computer and pulls up a photo of a gravely ill woman with an incision up her abdomen. Gao did not set out to become a dissident.
“I didn’t do this because I wanted to become involved in politics,” she says. “I just saw that the AIDS patients were so miserable. They were so miserable.”
In April 1996, Gao, then 69, was called from retirement to consult on a difficult case. A 42-year-old woman, Ms. Ba, had had ovarian surgery and was not getting better: Her stomach was bloated, she had a high fever and strange lesions on her skin. She grew sicker and her doctors were stumped. After finding no routine infection or illness, Gao demanded an AIDS test for the young mother.
Gao knew from her work that AIDS had entered Henan, the heartland Chinese province. Yet her colleagues scoffed: How could a simple farmer have AIDS? China had only a handful of confirmed cases. The government said AIDS was a disease of foreigners, spread through illicit drugs and promiscuous sex.
Gao insisted on a test. The results came back; Ms. Ba had AIDS. Her husband and children tested negative, which puzzled the doctors further. The patient was not a drug addict nor a prostitute, so Gao began to investigate. She determined the source was a government blood bank — Ms. Ba’s post-surgical blood transfusion infected her with HIV. “I realized the seriousness of the problem,” Gao later wrote. “If the blood in the blood bank carried the AIDS virus, then these victims would not be a small number.”
With no treatment available, Ms. Ba died within two weeks. Her husband, Gao remembers, spread a cot on the ground in front of her tomb and slept there for weeks in mourning.
Witnessing his grief launched Gao on a relentless campaign. She began investigating AIDS in Zhengzhou and nearby villages, conducting blood tests, compiling data, and trying to educate farmers about the risks carried by blood donations and transfusions.
Over months and years, her research into the epidemic took her across much of rural China. What she found astounded her: villages with infection rates of 20, 30, 40% or more; whole communities of AIDS orphans, zero treatment options, and little awareness of what was sickening and killing a generation of farmers. Worse, the population did not know how the disease spread. The numbers of how many were infected and died remain secret, the officially released data almost universally believed to be far too low.
Gao had finally found the cause. “Even now, the government is lying, saying AIDS was transmitted because of drug use,” she says. “The government officials were very good at lying.”
The breadbasket of China, Henan is cut by the Yellow River and its seasonal, devastating floods. Through generations of extreme poverty, it developed a reputation as a place where people lie, cheat, and steal. In reality, rural Henan is not unlike Middle America, with its sweeping, open pastures, peaceful landscapes, and hardworking people. But among the poor agrarian landscape, dark and deadly ideas for amassing wealth germinate. In the early 1990s, emerging from several decades of manmade and natural disasters, floods, and famine, its best resource was people, nearly 100 million living in a China operating under the notion that “to get rich is glorious.”
Among the cruelest of these schemes was the “plasma economy,” a government-backed campaign from 1991–1995 that encouraged farmers to sell their blood. Fearing the international AIDS epidemic and viewing its own citizens as disease-free, China banned imports of foreign blood products in 1985, just as disease experts began to understand HIV and AIDS were transmitted through blood.
Modern medicine requires blood, and importantly, blood plasma, which makes albumin, an injection vital after surgery and for trauma victims. It is also used in medications for hemophilia and immune system disorders. And plasma is a big-money business — and a deeply controversial one — worldwide. Giving plasma is more time-consuming and painful than donating blood, so fewer people contribute for free, and it attracts people who need quick money: In the 1990s, inmates in United States prisons were pulled into a plasma donation schemes; today, Mexican citizens cross into the United States to border town plasma collection stations.
Though the donors of Henan got a pittance for their blood, middlemen grew relatively wealthy on what was believed to be a pure, untainted plasma supply. Plasma traders worked to convince Chinese people traditionally opposed to giving blood — thought to be the essence of life — to sell it. Villages were festooned with red sloganeering banners: “Stick out an arm, show a vein, open your hand and make a fist, 50 kuai” (at the time, about $6), “If you want a comfortable standard of living, go sell your plasma,” and “To give plasma is an honor.”
Local officials in some places went on television, telling farmers that selling plasma would maintain healthy blood pressure. (It doesn’t.) Traders pressured families, especially women. Since females bleed every month, the cracked reasoning went, they could spare a few pints for extra income.
Though some villages were spared, often thanks to foresight of skeptical local leaders, Henan’s poorest places, especially those with bad farmland, jumped into the blood trade with gusto. Henan officially had around 200 licensed blood and plasma collection stations; it had thousands of illegal ones. Collection stations were overwhelmed. Needles were reused time and again, as were medical tubes and bags. Sometimes, stations sped up the process by pooling blood, unknowingly re-injecting people with HIV-tainted red blood cells.
The system became a perfect delivery vehicle for HIV. Thousands upon thousands of the farmers who sold plasma to supplement meager earnings left with a viral bomb that developed into AIDS. In the years before education and life-extending antiretroviral drugs, it was a death sentence.
As Gao made her discoveries, another doctor, Wang Shuping, was finding the epidemic further south in Henan. Both tried to get provincial health officials to act, to warn people about the risk of AIDS via blood donations and transfusions, and to shut down the system. Both say their bosses and government officials told them to keep quiet.
For several years, Gao, Wang, and other doctors spoke out, but the scandal was hushed up. When people started getting sick and dying en masse, the epidemic became harder to hide.
As soon as she began making her discoveries, Gao started giving public lectures, printing AIDS education pamphlets for villagers, and speaking to the press. Still, local officials managed to keep the news contained for a few years.
By 1999, some brave Chinese investigative reporters started writing about the plasma economy and AIDS epidemic. In 2000, international media seized on the story, and Gao became a favorite media subject, seemingly unafraid, always willing to provide detailed statics and talk about what she had found in the hidden epidemic.
Gao and the other doctors finally convinced China to ban plasma-for-cash programs and shut down unlicensed blood collection centers, but the damage was already done to thousands infected with HIV and hepatitis. (And despite the reforms, smaller illegal plasma operations still continued to pop up in rural villages.) This was not without pushback: Gao was threatened, blocked from speaking, had her own photos of AIDS victims confiscated, and believes her phone was tapped for years. Then there were the young men who followed her everywhere, forcing her to sneak out to do her work in rural areas under cover of night.
Gao continued to work to educate rural people about the disease and push for legal rights for victims. She inspired dozens of young volunteers, like the activist Hu Jia, to travel to Henan to donate money, food, and clothing over the years. But as the government tightened its controls and increased threats, volunteers stopped going. Gao, targeted more than most, kept sneaking in. She traveled undercover, visiting families and orphans and passing out her pamphlets.
Her charity embarrassed local officials who weren’t doing the job, and several became enraged. In one particular AIDS village, Gao learned the mayor had put a 500 yuan ($82) bounty on her head. Any villager who caught her in town and told police would get the huge sum. In all the years she visited, donated, and brought journalists in to investigate, Gao says, “they didn’t even try to catch me, they didn’t want to turn me in.”
Gao focused her attention, and her own family’s bank account, on the AIDS orphans, chastising the government to admit what had happened and make reparations. For that she became a target, as did those who accepted her gifts. Local officials wanted credit for helping AIDS victims, though according to her, most did very little.
“I gave them money,” she says, nodding toward a photo of a young woman. “She sold blood at age 16 and died at 22. I gave her 100 kuai ($16). If you gave them money and other things, they had to say it came from the government; they would have to thank the Communist Party.”
China has never provided a full accounting of the infection rate and death toll from the plasma disaster in Henan and surrounding provinces. Low estimates say 50,000 people contracted the virus through selling blood; many more sources put the number at at least 1 million. Another million may have contracted HIV through transfusions of the contaminated blood. Gao believes as many as 10 million people might have been infected, but she is alone in that high estimate.
China recently acknowledged AIDS is its leading cause of death among infectious diseases. In 2011, a joint U.N.–Chinese government report estimated 780,000 people in China are living with HIV, just 6.6% of them infected via the plasma trade, in Henan and three surrounding provinces. The real numbers are subject to debate and almost certainly higher, say global health experts. That figure also includes China’s original, larger AIDS epidemic that entered from Burma into Yunnan province along the drug trade route in 1989, about which the government has been much more open. There is no way to trace how many of China’s acknowledged AIDS cases are linked to the Henan plasma disaster. This is not an accident.
“You understand the situation?” Gao asks. “One thing is lying and the other is cheating. Fraud. From top to bottom, you cannot believe in government officials at any level. Cheating, lying, and fraud are what they do.”
When Gao was 5, her parents decided she was too much of a tomboy and had her feet bound, even though the cruel tradition was dying out. Gao’s feet were bound (“loosely,” she says) until she was 11, when her family moved near relatives who had more modern opinions about girls. In those years, her mobility curtailed, and she became a voracious reader. More than seven decades after removing the bindings, Gao still walks with a hobble.
In one of the volumes of her autobiography — she has written several, but only one has been translated into English — she describes arguing her way into medical school at a time when women were not widely accepted. Gynecology was the only field open to female doctors, so that’s what she studied. At the same time, she married and had three children of her own. Her husband, Guo Mingjiu, was gentle and quiet, a hardworking doctor who didn’t mind looking after the household while his wife immersed herself in the maternity ward.
Their neighbors gossiped about the strange female doctor living at the hospital during the week while her husband took care of the kids and the home. The arrangement made practical sense, though, she says, because her husband had a “cushy” government job. Gao was at the mercy of labor and delivery — medical events that couldn’t be scheduled.
Gao laughs at those old neighbors and shows off a treasured family photo from that era, the mid-1960s. She and her husband bedecked in Mao suits with their three young children posed in front of their home, all smiling, Gao cradling her favorite cat. “This cat lived to be 9 years old,” she says proudly, her voice trailing off.
Everything changed when the Cultural Revolution, Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaign of officially sanctioned class warfare, seized China. As an educated doctor, Gao was among the unlucky, branded the elite class and a counterrevolutionary. After months of being beaten and denounced by Red Guards, on Aug. 26, 1966, Gao tried to kill herself by taking 40 tablets of the sedative thorazine. The date is burned into her memory.
“To kill myself in protest against the bitter humiliation that I was suffering, and to rid myself of the unbearable pain…seemed to be the only way out,” she wrote in her autobiography. She awoke from a coma two days later to the sound of her children crying. “Finally, I found the greatest inner strength of a woman — motherhood — to withstand attack and hold firm.”
She would need it. The following year, her 13-year-old son was accused of drawing an anti-revolutionary cartoon on the wall of a public bathroom. Authorities falsified his birth date to indicate he was 16, then sent him to prison for three years. Gao herself ended up doing more than a year in a forced labor camp — an often brutal system of quasi-imprisonment that was common punishment for political prisoners.
In 1973, Gao and her family were reunited and began to piece their lives back together. Her children, including the son who was imprisoned, excelled in school and prepared for college. Gao resumed her hospital duties, walking into another strange chapter that placed her in the crosshairs of one of China’s most gruesome interludes: enforcing the one-child policy.
“The obstetrics ward was hell on earth,” Gao wrote. “Most of the cases were late-term abortions and labor inductions. Since we had specific instructions to make sure that no living babies left the hospital, we sometimes had to induce abortion on a woman who was at the end of her full-term pregnancy, which made my stomach churn.”
Dozens of times, hospital staff managed to sneak babies out to adoptive parents, or even back to waiting relatives. Gao remembers one particular baby boy smuggled out of the hospital. Years later she met him; he was unaware of his past. Like his adoptive father, he’d become a public security official, part of the machine responsible for enforcing rules like the one-child policy. As she has done for decades at many important moments in her life, Gao wrote a poem about it:
Greed breeds riches, rich bring along power,
Day and night, night and day,
You wine and dine, dine and wine your own self,
Talking money, talking power,
Like a vampire, you have the people’s blood on your hands.
Blind to their suffering, deaf to their sharp words,
The gully of greed can never been filled.
For more than a decade after she met Ms. Ba, that first AIDS patient, Gao’s life in China was full of friends, young volunteers, activity, and people working toward a common purpose. Her home in Zhengzhou was a gathering place for conscience-driven activists, despite the perpetual presence outside of a team of men assigned to monitor Gao’s every move. The feeling of a dragnet closing in had an undeniable effect on her psyche.
Gao was chastised for speaking out, and put on a leash that grew shorter each year. It wasn’t just authorities who tried to restrict her. Gao’s husband, ever tolerant of his wife’s rebellious streak, finally took over household spending and gave her a strict allowance after she spent all her award money and most of the family savings on AIDS orphans. Her increasing profile earned her the nickname “AIDS Granny” across China but alienated her own family.
When she planned to travel to the U.S. to receive an award in 2007 from the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a group co-chaired by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, local government officials flew into a fury. They pressured her son, Guo Chufei, the one sent to a prison camp at 13 and now a teacher, to stop her. Gao says he fell to his knees begging, but she went anyway. Both mother and son say the same thing today: Gao is a good doctor, but “maybe not the best mother.”
When I reached him by phone recently in Zhengzhou, Guo declined to speak about his mom. “I need to live a peaceful life,” he said simply.
That moment was a turning point for Gao. Her loyal husband, who had supported her dangerous work for so many years, was nearing the end of his life, and her own son was humiliated. The dragnet was closing in.
“They put me under house arrest; the real house arrest. Do you understand?” she asks urgently. She speaks of the quasi-legal detention that has trapped many well-known Chinese who run afoul of the regime; their movements and contacts severely limited even though they are not charged with any crime. Gao’s close friend Hu Jia is now in that limbo.
According to cables released by WikiLeaks from the then-U.S. ambassador to China, Vice Premier Wu Yi — the highest-ranking woman to ever serve in China’s communist party government — intervened personally to force Henan officials to allow Gao to travel to the U.S. to accept the award. The U.S. ambassador writes that Henan officials feared Gao would embarrass them and ruin their chances of promotion. A personal appeal from Sen. Clinton to Wu Yi pushed the trip through in the end.
When she made that trip to the U.S. in 2007, Gao says she began laying the groundwork for her permanent escape from China. “I needed to leave to protect my children and my family,” she says.
Gao still speaks fondly of both Wu Yi and Clinton. And she still changes the subject when asked how she managed to flee China permanently in 2009, flying to New York from the southern city of Guangzhou, shortly after her husband died. She smiles coyly, making it clear she will protect those who helped her get out.
Only after she left did China’s own media report on how the beloved “AIDS Granny” had been harassed and threatened for years.
No government official was ever held to task for the AIDS crisis in Henan. Instead, the men in charge of the province during the plasma scandal and its aftermath have risen to the highest echelons of China’s national government. The topic remains taboo — as recently as June,provincial officials banned state-run media from reporting on AIDS-afflicted villages. Li Keqiang, provincial governor of Henan from 1998–2004, was accused of helping to lead the cover-up of the AIDS scandal. Earlier this year, he was promoted through the ranks to become the Chinese premier, the country’s second-most powerful politician.
Henan AIDS patients are threatened to keep quiet, and thugs have beaten and chased journalists who visit the epidemic zone. By forcing out the most vocal experts and intimidating victims and journalists, the government has effectively managed to silence the issue.
Gao is not the only high-profile casualty of China’s crackdown on AIDS activists. Dr. Wang Shuping, perhaps the first to expose the problem in Henan, fled China for the U.S. more than a decade ago. Outspoken Hu Jia served three and a half years in prison for his involvement in creating a human rights petition and now lives in a virtual prison at home. Doctor and educator Wan Yanhai lives in exile in Connecticut after threats of arrest for leaking government documents about the Henan epidemic.
Today, China has programs offering free health care and antiretroviral drugs to AIDS sufferers and is more open about preventing transmission through drugs and sex. Henan AIDS victims now receive monthly payments under law, but many still travel to Beijing every year on World AIDS day Dec. 1 to beg for more compensation, aid, and acknowledgment. They routinely are harassed or detained before they even board trains for the capital.
Months before becoming premier, Li held a groundbreaking meeting with AIDS patients from Henan and promised compensation. He reportedly also mentioned Gao. She was not impressed.
“Li Keqiang. I’ve met him,” Gao says dryly. “He is very good at being a government official.”
At the same time Li was rising to national prominence, along with another former Henan official, the pressure on Gao ramped up to unbearable heights.
Two decades after the plasma catastrophe, Shangcai County, a particularly poor district in Henan, retains the eerie atmosphere of a place bombed. After news broke about Henan’s AIDS crisis in 2000, China’s central government tried to quantify and contain the epidemic by designating 38 villages as the worst hit and most in need of money and medical aid. (Critics maintain the list is inaccurate and incomplete.) More than half of those villages were in Shangcai, a district of just over 1 million people to the south of the province.
Development is sparse and buildings are run-down. Concrete barriers block the one-lane road through the county seat from connecting with a highway to larger, wealthier places. The biggest, newest building is an AIDS hospital. China’s central government has made a point of funding health care centers in the epidemic zone, but economic development that has swept the rest of the country is largely absent here.
Locals say many twenty- and thirtysomethings in Shangcai stay close to home rather than going to work in far-off factories and send money home, like millions of others their age. Because they were born during and lived through the AIDS catastrophe, even those who are HIV-negative fear discrimination by virtue of their birthplace. If they have the virus, free lifesaving drugs are tied to household registrations, only available once a month in government dispensaries in their hometowns.”Many people stay here rather than taking any risk,” says a 35-year-old resident who didn’t want to be identified. He explains it’s simply too expensive to go work in a factory hundreds of miles away then return every month to refill a prescription.
In the years since it helped create then failed to contain the epidemic, the government has at times gone to absurd lengths to conceal it. In May 2012, ostensibly to clear farm fields for production and urban development, the government ordered families to demolish and clear millions of tombs across four counties. Families in this part of Henan cluster graves, piled-high earthen mounds, on the edges of their land, rather than inside generic public cemeteries. In the Chinese heartland, paying tribute to one’s ancestors is fundamental; failure to do so, tradition holds, can bring generations of bad fortune. In all, 3 million tombs were to be cleared, their contents shifted to orderly rows in modern public cemeteries. Some bodies were moved, others not.
The campaign sparked fierce opposition, mostly among older farmers. In the uproar, though, one obvious fact went unspoken: The region marked for tomb demolition encompassed some of Henan’s worst-hit AIDS regions. Gao and others believe the tomb-clearing was intended to destroy evidence of the epidemic. There is no definitive proof, only the coincidence of location.
“When so many people died so close together, there were all these tombs,” Gao says, bringing up a photo of the tombs on her computer screen. “You see how many there were? They surrounded the villages. So many people.” The earthen mounds, she believes, were evidence the government couldn’t have lying around.
Many of the region’s residents are seasonal laborers. When millions returned home for Chinese New Year in February, they rebuilt the tombs in protest, in many cases piling mounds even higher, almost a million altogether, almost overnight. The fertile fields are now dotted with new graves, leaving the unsettling impression that generations died just this year. Rather than making graves disappear, the policy inadvertently made them more pronounced.
Henan finally stopped the tomb demolitions, proving that mass protest sometimes works, even in rural China.
When I visit Gao in Harlem a second time, just a few weeks after our first meeting, she seems far more fragile and confused. Her speech is scattered, sometimes rambling of long-dead relatives and weeping over what has become of her life. Or maybe she just feels comfortable enough now to be herself. “You came back a second time,” she tells me, “so I can tell you’re sincere.”
She speaks of being monitored by Chinese agents and even other Chinese dissidents in New York. The night before we were to meet, she emailed to say that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng wanted to join our interview and I should tell him it was an exclusive, with her only. There is no evidence Chen contacted her; it’s impossible to rule out that someone else did.
Fleeing China changed her life but clearly did not end her anxiety. “They will scold me again when your article is published,” she says, stone-faced.
Gao tears up talking about her family. To get through the difficulty of being alone, she says, despite her health, her age, all that she’s endured, Gao keeps writing. She believes that without her books, the AIDS victims of Henan will be forgotten. “I came here to write in peace,” she says. “I wanted to write. I could not write in China.” Her tough shell, which she clearly put on for our first meeting, seems worn away by years of fighting.
“I want to stop, but I cannot,” she says. “I am too old. I feel powerless to all things. The purpose of writing these books is to ask for justice for the victims and leave it for the later generations to judge. It is also a mental comfort for me.”
She suddenly points to her computer screen and a photo of a skeletal man in his thirties, sprawled atop a thin cot in a barren farmhouse. “Look. This is Cheng Tiecheng. He sold his blood when he was in his thirties. His entire family died.”
Gao moves purposefully to the next case, reciting details of sickness and death with the clinical language of her profession. AIDS orphans, young mothers who died after selling their blood, patients who had tainted blood transfusions and never understood what was killing them. Chronicling the epidemic brought her here to this solitary place, and she fights any distraction, even her own sadness.
She is understandably suspicious of the people who make her life easier, including dozens of Chinese students at Columbia who volunteer to visit her. Many say they never heard of her in China, which is entirely possible. Yet she worries they will report on her and cause more trouble.
For now, Gao has chosen solitude, perhaps the closest thing she can find to peace. Her daughter wanted to visit recently from Canada. Gao said no. “I told her to come when I am really sick. After I die, take my ashes home. Do not build a tomb for me. Today’s society in China is very chaotic, always moving and changing, so I will not be kept in a tomb.”
The remains of her husband, who stood by her as she devoted their golden years to sick strangers and AIDS orphans, are waiting back in Henan.
“I want my ashes and my husband’s ashes spread together in the Yellow River,” Gao says, clasping her hands firmly and nodding decisively. “There will be nothing left.”
OVER the past year the Senkaku islands, a clutch of five uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, have shown their ability to convulse relations between China and Japan, Asia’s two biggest powers. They have even raised the spectre of military conflict, which America fears it might be dragged into. The stakes are high. So who actually owns the Senkakus?
If possession is nine-tenths of law, the answer is simple: Japan. It claims to have “discovered” the islands, a terra nullius belonging to no one, in 1884. In early 1895 it annexed them, shortly after Japan had defeated a weakened China in a brief war and seized Taiwan, which lies just to their south, as war spoils. One Tatsushiro Koga was licensed to develop the islands. He set up a bonito-processing station whose 200 employees also killed the once-abundant short-tailed albatross for its feathers. The Koga family’s last employees left during the second world war. Upon Japan’s defeat in 1945 control fell to the Americans, who used the islands for bombing practice. In 1972, at the end of the American occupation, the Japanese government resumed responsibility for the Senkakus.
By then, however, oil and gas reserves had been identified under the seabed surrounding the islands. China, which calls them the Diaoyu islands, asserted its claim, as did Taiwan, which is closest to the islands (and which is also claimed by China). China’s claim is vague, and is based on things such as a Chinese portolano from 1403 recording the islands. It all speaks to an earlier world in which China lay at the heart of an ordered East Asian system of tributary states—an order shattered by Japan’s militarist rise from the late 19th century. What this history tells you is not—contrary to modern Chinese claims—that China controlled the Diaoyus, for it never did. Rather, the islands were known to the Chinese because they served as navigational waypoints for tributary missions between the great cosmopolitan Chinese port of Quanzhou and Naha, capital of the Ryukyu island kingdom, China’s most loyal vassal. In 1879 Japan snuffed out the ancient kingdom. Naha is now the main town on the main island of Japan’s archipelago prefecture of Okinawa. Some Chinese nationalists call not only for the Senkakus’ return, but for Okinawa too.
In the late 1970s China and Japan agreed to kick the dispute into the long grass. But China’s attitude has hardened, especially since September 2012, when the Japanese governmentbought from their private owner three of the islands it did not already own. It was in order to prevent them falling into the hands of an ultranationalist, Shintaro Ishihara, then governor of Tokyo. But China saw it as a provocation and sent vessels and aircraft to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkakus. China’s announcement on November 23rd of an East China Sea“air defence identification zone” which covers the Senkakus is further evidence of its attempt to alter the status quo. Much more than presumed oil and gas reserves, emotion is now driving China’s actions, in particular notions of national honour and a desire to regain the centrality in East Asia that it for centuries enjoyed. This dispute is a microcosm of that desire, which makes it so potentially dangerous.
I took the wrong classes…
“The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-,” the school’s dean of education said today, according to the student newspaper . Even more stunning: “The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”
That ought to dispel any notion that Harvard is tough on its students. Grade inflation may be a victimless crime, but what is the point of having a range of grades if half of them are A- or higher?
Accusations of grade inflation flare up frequently at Harvard and other college campuses. Harvard, in particular, has been accused of grading more softly than some of its rivals in the Ivy League.
Larry Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, was highly critical of the practice while he was president of the university. After he stepped down, hetold an interviewer : “Ninety percent of Harvard graduates graduated with honors when I started. The most unique honor you could graduate with was none.”