Thursday, December 8, 2011

On language and nano-cleanup.

I did not learn English the traditional way: A B Cs to sentences. I learned to speak from reading and I learned reading by jumping from word to word in text books guessing to the best of my ability what the sentences meant to me. From the limited vocabulary I had at the time, it was the most efficient way to guess what I am to do with my homework. I did not have time to learn my A B Cs correctly or my grammar properly because I simply had to write an expose of Hamlet with only “yes” “no” and “my name is.” The faster I adjusted, the less I felt behind; coming from a very competitive grade school in Beijing, feeling behind the curve is a tragic thing.

Funny story about “yes” “no” and “my name is . . .” (please excuse the attention deficit)

On the second day of my coming to America, I had to catch a bus for school. I was all slicked out in my white pants, collared shirt, a vest, and my hair glued back with my mom’s hair gel. I felt American, like Bruce Lee American only modern day. I found the bus stop no problem, there were already a few kids waiting. I stood to the side, tried to stay out of view to avoid having to speak. Not that I wasn’t curious and didn’t care to ask anyone about this new thing called America, I didn’t know how to ask—I doubted anyone spoke Chinese.

I got on the bus, sat towards the back against the window in an empty row. Just like those days I would rattle against a window on a train from Beijing to Lanzhou, I rattled half-asleep to school.

What I failed to realize was the bus twisted and turned through a well-lit gas light district picking up even more kids. My empty row slowly filled up with chatters and laughs.

The girl who sat next to me turned and said something. She was polite and warm. She had a smile and strange sounds came from her mouth. I assumed that was what American English sounded like. All I could muster was “I no English. My name is Jin.”

I couldn’t understand why she was so puzzled and why she kept asking me things and expected me to answer her sensibly. I told her repeatedly “I no English.” So leave me to my rattles.

Thankfully the bus ride was short and the next few months were a blur I no longer remember. I didn’t even catch her name.


Crazy days and crazy nights
Shallow pools and dizzy lights

That was the whirlwind of my adolescence—in a desperate rush to learn how to survive by skipping the details and focusing on the meaning of things. I read anything I could get my hands on to avoid having to talk to people on the school bus. For the most part I did not understand what the pages were saying, but I had a general sense of the books’ stories. Then I began to know the sentences but still completely ignorant of some words. Slowly, the words came into focus and my English became acceptable.

At the beginning though, another kid who sat next to me on a school bus asked if I knew how to read or am I just looking at the words. I think he wanted to make a conversation. I told him I was just looking at the words trying to learn how to read. He looked puzzled and avoided me for the rest of that year. I was too busy to notice while lost in the plots of Lonesome Dove.

Today, I have developed a habitual neglect for the details from my reading habits. I notice this in my studies and in my writing. Everyone who had the ill fortune to know me knows that I am not one for perfection. But I am one with a lot of misguided passion. They forgive me and allow me the time to adjust still—I never knew growing up could be so hard.

The advantage of growing up is seeing these things for their correspondences in things. I hear a lot of chatter these days about the EPA coming under fire. Everyone seems to want less regulation and more independence. The argument is roughly that regulations stifle innovation and economic growth. The less government regulate, the more we are able to create.

That’s the same as saying “the less we speak a common language, the more we can succeed in building a community.” How much sense does that make?

I believe the EPA is not just some arbitrary regulatory body, our courts and the Constitution make sure it is more than that. Agencies are more like me, picking through what they can sensibly understand from the politicians to create a common recorded body of language with regards to society. Poor sad souls, so misunderstood; trust me, I know.

If we see agencies, such as the EPA, as tools to give us this common language—a common understanding—of the elements of our society, we are better positioned to strive for cooperation and progress jointly. Those who make an argument to rid of government regulations neglect this essential agency function: to define our common language of progress (checked and balanced).


Of course you don’t have to agree with me. The fact is our agencies do not see themselves as the great knowledge builders of a common context. They see themselves more as regulators, so I don’t fault the House Republicans for their misdirected efforts. Their call to arms against the EPA is only a reaction to the Agency’s own doing.

So it’s time we call this to our attention: the American Agencies compose a body of experts in various fields of knowledge and practical experiences best suited to define a common context for our society. From this context, we can speak a unified language to understand our problems and create more efficient solutions. Our academia should be focused on teaching, not “publish or perish” that is supplemental to agencies’ incompetence in defining the knowledge context.

This would probably make a lot of talents that work at the agencies happy. Finally they can work to make meaningful contribution to society—not just the paper pusher that they are today. They are charged, essentially, the work to understand the stories, then the pages, then the words, then write new stories of our common history.

To give you an example, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (DEPA) took the initiative to develop a new categories of nano-identification/categorization to build a knowledge base with regards to nano-pollutions. Nanomaterials are being used in a rapidly increasing number of products and are available for industries and private consumers.

The DEPA thought that risks of these nano-pollutions should be defined as a combination of the likelihood of exposure and adverse effects, i.e. any chance of an adverse outcome to human health, the quality of life, or the quality of environment. They have developed a screening
tool, NanoRiskCat (NRC), able to identify, categorize and rank exposures and effects of nanomaterials used in consumer products based on data available in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and other regulatory relevant sources of information and data.

Their primary focus was on nanomaterials relevant for professional end-users and consumers as, as well as nanomaterials released into the environment. The wider goal is to help manufacturers, down-stream endusers, regulators and other stakeholders to evaluate, rank and communicate the potential for exposure and effects specific applications of a given nanomaterial. Their proposal is to map and report groups and categories and color-code exposure potential.

The benefit of this is that regulators could use NRC as a screening tool to identify possible
uses where risk management measures may be further examined. Companies can use NRC to communicate develop guidelines. Down-stream users (e.g. consumers) can use NanoRiskCat to select the safest material on the market. Academics and nongovernmental organizations can use the tools to learn more about what companies know about exposures and effects of their nanomaterials.

Everyone works together to make progress.

This is, IN EFFECT, what the U.S. Agencies—the EPA—is already doing. Our Congress passes laws with check and balances for profit as well as social and environmental justice. The political compromised statutes are often vague and ambiguous. Agencies decide on the best course of interpretation and submit their rules for notice and comment. The industries and NGOs, as well as individuals, respond. Then a final rule is offered in a concise general statement (often hundreds of pages long) on what the right thing to do is.

The process fails at the voluntary compliance from industries. Given a strong motive for profit, companies will try and either push the boundaries of agencies’ enforcement power or completely ignore the agencies. The Courts are often called upon to resolve these things.

So let me ask this: if we remove the body of experts who are help us interpreting what we should be doing, are we left to the individuals and industries to self-police their actions? Have we not seen what they are capable of?

But on the other side, are we so sure we cannot expect one day the industries become symbols of our community progress, taking Corporate Social Responsibility to new heights?

I’ve made a lot of progress from my “I no English” days. I can safely say our society have also made significant progress form the days of rampant pollution, discrimination, lack of du respect for the elderly, etc., (the list goes on). I continue to learn my English and filling in the details as I go along. I hope our society is doing the same.

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