Monday, April 14, 2008

Arthur C Clarke

Some linkage in response to the passing of Arthur C Clarke (a nice article I found on Most people that know me, know that I've been a big fan of his work because he's one of the handful of people that brought science to the mainstream. His was one of the great minds of the 20th century whose ideas changed the way we experience life.

Above are some photos from my trip to Sri Lanka, where I tried to meet him by knocking on his door. He was already in hospital at the time (January) but his business partner and best friend Hector Ekanayake kindly showed us his office and home.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Chanel Mobile Art

A new exhibition will begin in Hong Kong, 'Chanel Mobile Art,' a contemporary art container designed by the Pritzker award winning Zaha Hadid. This temporary structure will house exhibits by 20 artists, which include Yoko Ono, Nobuyoshi Araki, among others and all the pieces will be inspired the classic quilted chanel bag. After Hong Kong the exhibition will tour through Tokyo, New York, London , Moscow and Paris over the next 2 years.

The Zaha Hadid Blog

Intelligent Design

When I first heard the term intelligent design, I thought it referred to some new Sony robot toy. Instead I found that it's an updated term for 'creationism'. There have been heated debates particularly in the political arena on this subject. The main issue being, whether or not it should be taught in school as part of a science curriculum. As a recall, I was taught that people believed in creationism prior to Darwin, and I was also taught about Lamarckism. It is fine to teach the fact that people have different believes when it comes to evolution, but don't teach it as a science. Fundamentally, they cannot be compared.

I have also read that creationists have launched their own 'peer-reviewed' scientific research journal, Answers Research Journal. The website looks great, possibly intentionally reminiscent of Nature and articles include, 'Microbes and the days of creation' and 'Catastrophic granite formation'. Again, I don't understand the need to present beliefs and religious views as scientific fact. It is completely illogical to put them in two columns for comparison, let alone for competition.

Manon de Boer

A friend of mine gave me the tip to look up Sylvia Kristel before I came to Holland. After being here for 2 weeks I was pleasantly surprised to see that Rotterdam's Witte de With gallery had an exhibition by Manon de Boer featuring a documentary about the 70's "Emmanuelle" celebrity. The documentary is 40 minutes, with Sylvie Kristel speaking of her experiences in Paris during the rise of her stardom. She repeats the same story 2 times, revealing inconsistencies in her recall.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

moving to the north



Humans carry a lot of cultural baggage when it comes to skin colour, but to scientists it is increasingly a simple matter of a vitamin.

Around the world, scientists have observed that the farther human communities live from the equator, the lighter their skin colour tends to be - the result of an evolutionary adaptation related to vitamin D synthesis.

At higher latitudes, such as those prevailing in Northern Europe, it's only possible for people to make vitamin D the natural way - through skin exposed to ultraviolet sunlight - during spring and summer. That means over time there was an evolutionary advantage for humans living in these areas to develop lower levels of melanin, the natural sunscreen that gives skin its dark pigmentation, but causes reduced production of the vitamin.

By developing lighter-coloured skin, humans in northern parts of the world were able to make more use of the available sunlight for vitamin D production and build up stores of the nutrient for the long period during winter when light is too feeble to make any of it.

Esteban Parra, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, says there are a number of competing scientific hypotheses for differences in skin colour, but the vitamin D explanation, and the need to have protection against ultraviolet light in the tropics, appears to make the most sense.

The impact of having lower levels of melanin, or lighter skin colour, is huge, when it comes to the synthesis of vitamin D.

It would take someone with dark skin of African or South Asian ancestry about 60 minutes at the same time of day to make the amount of vitamin D that a person of European ancestry would make in about 10 minutes, estimates Reinhold Vieth, one of Canada's top vitamin D experts and a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.

He says a rough rule of thumb is that people can only make vitamin D when the sun gets high enough in the sky that their shadows are shorter than they are tall, explaining why Canadians can't make any during the winter.

Although light skin hue is an advantage in northern areas, the opposite is true in tropical and subtropical regions because of the more intense ultraviolet sunlight, which allows for year-round vitamin D production, but holds other health risks.

There, having higher levels of melanin offers protection against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light - sunburn and lowering of folate levels, an essential nutrient that is destroyed by exposure to strong sunshine.

With people of different racial backgrounds now living around the world, health implications are emerging from these evolutionary adaptations to sunlight.

Whites living in tropical or extremely sunny areas, such as Australia, are at elevated risk of skin cancer and need to take sensible precautions against sunburn.

But non-whites are at higher risk of not being able to make enough vitamin D if they live outside the tropics and subtropics.


I got a very nice photography book from a friend for christmas. To remember my Japanese roots. The photography is erotic and deviant so I don't recommended it for the faint of heart.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Top Ten scientific discoveries

As Time magazine sees it, the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2007

1. Stem cell breakthroughs
2. Human mapped
3. Brightest supernova recorded
4. Hundreds of new species
5. Building a human heart valve
6. Hot jupiters discovered
7. A big birdlike dinosaur
8. Man's migration out of Africa
9. The world's oldest animal
10. Real-life kryptonite

Man's migration out of Africa also relates to the human genographic project, where they found the location where races diverged. Man originated in Africa, some 60,000 years ago and Asian people and caucasian people split off in the middle east. Seems obvious when you look at people and the similarities held in facial features.

All of this was done by sequencing mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on directly from the mother so it is possible to trace a genetic history.

Top 10 scientific discoveries

The human genographic project

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

letters to the editor

I've written 89 pages so far and my brain has been milked dry.

While procastinating, I wrote a letter to the editor of SCMP. The ended up publishing a severely edited version.

In response to a previous letter regarding the level of science education in Hong Kong, I agree that it is a shame that there isn’t more funding available for students to learn the practical side of science. Being a PhD student at the University of Hong Kong, I would hope that my children would have the opportunity to learn the practical side of science. This would require a laboratory equipped with the apparatus for experiments to facilitate an understanding of ‘how things work’ and how to apply that knowledge creatively. Science has been progressing at a rapid rate in the past decade and high school education needs to account for it.

However with this letter, I would like to state there is little point in pursuing a career in science in Hong Kong. Yes, this is a cosmopolitan world city, but hardly a place for nurturing scientific talent. From 2000-2005, Singapore and Japan invested 2.25% and 3.14% of GDP in R&D per year, respectively, compared with Hong Kong's reported figure of 0.60%. To put this in perspective, HK spends proportionately less on R&D than Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Uganda and Morocco. The PhD student stipend at HKU has decreased more than 20% since 1998. The reality of a career in science is that 10 years of your life will be spent contributing to a better understanding of the cognitive world. Then by the time you have received a doctorate, you have no savings and you will feel like a career in retail or foodservice would’ve held more promise. Actually I don’t feel all that, but I am trying to make a point. However, if I did have a child, I would tell them to steer clear of science and go into another field where passion, tenacity, creativity and innovation are valued in today’s society. Science throughout history has had a checkered reputation indeed, but for much of the Twentieth Century, it was hallowed educational ground, and top scientists really enjoyed rock-star status. Whilst this is still somewhat the case in Europe and the USA, it has been tempered a good deal. In Hong Kong, however, it would be pure delusion.

I still believe in science and I respect the accomplishments that have been and continue to be made. Advances in science directly affect how we experience life. So why is it that society places such little value on it? Perhaps it is too abstract; scientists only have to communicate with other scientists, but rarely with the public. Like any sector, it should be marketed to gain appeal. Or perhaps scientists don’t bother complaining. It would be interesting if the local (because they do in other parts of the world) hospital and university staff went on strike in the same way as Hollywood writers or ESF teachers, perhaps in the wake of the next outbreak. However, the fact remains, that this government should invest more in research and development; create platforms for seeding new biotech or knowledge service spin-off companies that could capture new markets in China. Entrepreneurial enterprise should be nurtured with more effort should be made to commercialize such knowledge. And of course, the people that have committed to this field should be rewarded appropriately.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


I've just been introduced to dubstep - reggae, drum n' bass influenced electronic music after listening to the Burial - Untrue CD. It's well produced with soulful vocals - that are broken, distorted and edited so it becomes part of the music, like another instrument, which works for me because I can't listen to lyrics while writing. Don't know why but London underground music is so much better than what they have here in um.. Hong Kong.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

World Aids Day

World Aids Day.. HIV has been around for more than 20 years and there is no cure. There are presently 39+ million people living with HIV with 4.5 million newly infected people each year. There have been some advances made- reducing the transmission rate from mothers to babies, the revelation that circumcision reduces the rate of transmission, development of new therapies. This is actually a preventable disease which means that in an ideal world, HIV could be eradicated within 1 generation. but there has been a general mis-education of the public since it's advent and prevention conflicts with certain cultural practices.

HIV is growing in Asia- in China and southeast Asia. There needs to be more emphasis on prevention and education, a better approach than waiting for pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs that will be too expensive for the majority anyway.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Terry Richardson

Art again. It's always interesting to get the impressions afterwards- like 'Who buy's this crap?". I actually like his photographs but then again I find 70s porn amusing- I appreciate that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Just recently the winners of the 2007 Nobel prizes were announced. There are 6 prizes in literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and peace. These prizes places a person in the same company as Pavlov, Koch, Barbara McClintock, Stanley Prusiner, Rutherford, Marie Curie, enrico fermi, niels bohr, max planck and einstein.

This year the prize in Medicine was divided between 3 scientists, Mario R. Capecchi, Martin J. Evans and Oliver Smithies for their discoveries of "principles for introducing specific gene modifications by the use of embryonic stem cells". (Only 3% of science nobel prize winners have been women- another blog for another day).

Stem cell research is highly controversial at the moment and different countries have different legislations when it comes to research. These laws depend on the religious outlook of that country. Christian countries feel more strongly about banning such research, whereas buddhist or hindu countries are more open.

The reason why this is such a controversial research area is because it requires the use of embryonic cells- using an embryo for research raises a lot of ethical questions. Stem cells research CAN be done using other cells, such as skin cells, which is more acceptable from an ethical standpoint.

The reason why stem cells are interesting, is because they are totipotent and undifferentiated, they are 'uncommited' and can follow any destiny. A stem cell has the potential of becoming an eye or a heart or a toe or a liver. At a certain point a cell will commit itself to these roles which is irreversible.

So why bother with stem cell research if it's so ethically questionable? If you have a defective organ, either a result of cancer or parkinsons, etc etc, wouldn't you want at least an option for treating it? At this point stem cell research is still in early days- and is heavily hindered by legislation. It has been used for treating leukemia using bone marrow transplants. Regardless, this research is important and should be pursued.

This has also become a commercial endeavour for some- some parent store their placenta's in liquid nitrogen immediately after childbirth. Just in case stem cell research advances and it can be used for the child when they get a disease. (this is a luxury item... it costs a lot)

What the 3 Nobel scientists did was to generate genetically modified mice using embryonic stem cell technology. This is a useful tool and technology because it is possible to create a model for human disease caused by defective genes, such as cystic fibrosis. It also has other applications such as in the study of gene therapy. (Gene therapy is the treatment of disease by replacing a defective gene with a good one- using a viral vector... also a controversial subject). Transgenic mice have been used for over 20 years, and it's good that they are getting rewarded for it. The science has been used in countless applications for the study of several diseases. The genomes of man and mouse contain about 22,400 genes- already thousands have studied individually. This provides insight into particular genes relation to development and disease.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In Bed - Ron Mueck

My friend showed me this today. There is an obvious play on proportions but I like how it's clinical and technical. I also thought I needed to punctuate my blog with pictures.

1918 pandemic flu - learning from the past

The 1918 pandemic flu killed 40 million people in 1 year. Imagine every psychotic diabolical warlord throughout history (Hitler, Milosevic, the Japanese in WWII, Bush, Sadam) rolled into a tiny micro-organism composed of 8 gene segments. So when scientists discovered a woman in the Alaskan permafrost from 1918 who had died of spanish flu- what did they do? They sequenced all the genes and reconstructed it, unleashed it and bought a bunch of property. (No, they aren't THAT clever.)

Using a technique called 'reverse genetics' we are now able to reconstruct viruses de novo with just the genetic components. Basically you throw in the genes into some cells and they assemble into viruses which can later be studied. Terence Tumpey had the honour of doing this in a highly controlled environment in the CDC. The tested the virus on several animal models and are still trying to figure out how the immune system succumbs to the infection. The technique also allows you to mix and match viruses, swapping genes with less potent flu virus genes to compare and determine how some virus parts can contribute to virulence.

What is important about 1918-
pathogenicity- the fact that it can kill so quickly, experiments on mice showed that the virus was 100 times worse that the viruses that circulate in yearly epidemic form.
Transmissability- the virus could spread between humans.
Comparison to H5N1- the current highly pathogenic strain that's circulating at the moment has several similarities to the 1918. Important to know more as H5N1 evolves.

Baron de Rothschild, "When there's blood on the streets, buy property"