Monthly Archives: 六月 2007

Ten things I’ve learned last week (ending 24th June)

Apologies: this week’s “Ten things…" is a little later than usual, owing to my uselessness and a relatively event-packed weekend/Monday.

1. Not so much something I’ve “learned", but an interesting fact. Including Yumiko Cheng’s name in my blog has proved to attract quite a bit of traffic, owing to her recent “wardrobe malfunction" – her tube top slid down during a dance routine on live TV. I guess everyone’s trying to get their hands on a video clip…how grim.

2. My list of celebrity lookalikes range from surprising to the downright alarming: from widely acknowledged good-looking Korean actor Bae Yong-Jun or 裴勇俊 (72% similarity down mainly to glasses and fringe), to firebrand MP George Galloway (God knows how they worked that out), to Canto-pop diva Joey Yung (I guess we happen to be striking similar poses in our photos). In a way, I’m pleased to know that I’m pretty unique.

3. Pardon my ignorance, but I only just found out the meaning of a “litotes", which is “a figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite", according to Dictionary.com. An example would be “I’m not the most knowledgable when it comes to grammatical terminology".

4. In the same vein, pulchritude is apparently another word for physical beauty (with pulchritudinous being the adjective). I would never have guessed.

5. Scientists might have found a potential genetic cause for autism – introducing a mutant form of either neuroligin-1 or neuroligin-2 into mice causes the connections between nerve cells – known as synapses – to drop in number, rendering cells less excitable. This effect on the neural circuitry could be responsible for traits observed in autistic individuals. (See BBC News coverage on the subject.)

6. Edinburgh University is starting to conduct tutorials in the virtual environment of Second Life (see this Wikipedia entry for a more detailed description). It strikes me as a little pointless – surely tutorials can be broadcast over the internet without relying on Second Life, unless the tutorial is about the sociological impact of the virtual world. For example, Baroness Susan Greenfield of the University of Oxford has been warning of the dangers of providing a means of complete withdrawal for the socially inept or reluctant.

7. Peter Kay, Mickey Mouse (well, Walt Disney) and Banksy beat Leonardo da Vinci and Jane Austen to make it into the top 10 list of artistic heroes/heroines as voted by 18- to 24-year-olds. I hope they had their tongues wedged firmly in cheek…(more at the Telegraph website)

8. Half of Britons say they couldn’t live without email. I sympathise.

9. Some croquet-related trivia: the game is said to be invented in Ireland in the 1830s; the winning side is the first to score 26 points; and France won all the medals in croquet at the 1900 Olympics, as they were the only country to field contestants! (Muchas gracias to the Quiz Society again.)

10. I don’t know anything.

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Exit, stage left

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Oh, Mrs Fanny Law. How Hong Kong will miss you – your frequent gaffes have provided so much drama and entertainment to this city ever since some fool put you in front of a microphone.

A tiny bit of background for the uninitiated – Mrs Fanny Law has been a dedicated civil servant ever since 1975. Post-handover, she was promoted to the position of Office Director for the then Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Mr Tung Chee-Hwa. Now those two have so much in common that it seemed like a match made in heaven, if only in retrospect. Both have the best interests of Hong Kong at heart, but often end up with foot in mouth in front of the press, and, perhaps unfairly, have been made scapegoats of Hong Kong politics. Mrs Law handed in her resignation the day before yesterday, stepping down as the Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) from 1st July. This was the culmination of a panel hearing regarding the alleged misconduct of Mrs Law – back when she was the Permanent Secretary of Education and Manpower – and the Secretary for Education and Manpower (yes, it confuses me too), Dr Arthur Li, with the panel ruling that Mrs Law wrongfully interfered in the academic research at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

I do not for a minute believe she is evil – she almost certainly means well most of the time. Besides, one prerequisite for villainy is intelligence, and much as I have full confidence in her capability as a civil servant, she has zero tact and thus does not qualify as intelligent in my books, at least as far as politics is concerned. One major “achievement" of hers during her time as Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower involved sparking a protest by one insensitive statement. When suggested that her policies might have contributed to the pressure of two teachers who committed suicide in a short space of time, she retorted, “If that’s the case, shouldn’t more teachers have killed themselves?" Another classic from Mrs Law was her claim that students were the “least qualified" to criticise Mr Tung as, without the then Chief Executive, they would never have had so many resources. These faux pas betray such an abject lack of diplomacy that I’m surprised she’s survived in politics for this long. However capable she might prove to be as an administrator, she is a liability to the government, and she must go. Although we do not yet enjoy the privilege – no, the right – to universal suffrage, the SAR government is to an extent accountable to us, since our 7 million residents are a major force to contend with, democracy or no democracy. Even Mr Tung stepped down before the end of his term after endless criticisms.

The Hong Kong civil servant system seems to foster the kind of aggression exemplified by Mrs Law – get to the top at all cost, and if that involves offending a person or two, so be it. Little are they prepared for the top positions – a delicate balance at such precipitous heights, demanding so much more than simple brute force. As Mrs Law can tell them now (if she’s not too proud to admit it), the fall can be pretty painful. Exercise some grace and tact, she could tell them, and that can get you far.

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Science: It’s About Time!

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Browsing through the BBC News website a while ago, a particular headline caught my eye: “Viagara could aid jetlag recovery". I was immediately intrigued, for this subject remains close to my heart. Before you say or even think it, no, I’m not talking about the little blue pill; rather, I meant the study of the body clock, specifically the circadian clock, to which I dedicated four years of PhD research.

My doctoral thesis begins thus:

The solar system is such that geophysical rhythms dominate life on the planet Earth: at regular intervals, the sun rises and sets, the tides flow and ebb, the moon waxes and wanes, the seasons come and go. It is a testament to the power of evolution that a wide range of organisms have developed systems to attune themselves with these cycles in order to improve their chances of survival in this rhythmic environment."

One of these systems confers approximately daily rhythms – also known as “circadian rhythms", where “circadian" derives from the Latin for approximate (circa) and day (diem). Circadian rhythms are found at many levels of the evolutionary tree, from certain bacteria all the way up to humans, which underlines the importance of synchrony with the solar cycle. A central feature of such rhythms is that they are innate – in other words, they are hard-wired into our biology, our DNA, so that in the absence of time cues, we will carry on exhibiting circadian rhythms. Experiments involving human volunteers have been performed, where they were confined in spaces without any knowledge of the time in the outside world – the results showed that the subjects continued to sleep and wake in roughly 24-hour cycles, lasting for months. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that there is a (circadian) clock ticking inside each of us, instructing our bodies to do things at certain times. The most obvious example, as far as humans are concerned, is the regulation of rest-activity cycles, although many other aspects of our physiology – blood pressure, heart rate, hormone levels – also fall under circadian control. (One thing to note, however, is that sleep is not entirely orchestrated by the circadian clock, but also receives input from the “sleep homeostat", which determines how much sleep we need.)

So if the circadian clock controls so many different things, it would be a good idea to have a “headquarters" to co-ordinate the various subsidiaries. The “headquarters", it so happens, is indeed in the head, specifically in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, . A small group of approximately 20,000 nerve cells – collectively known as the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) – is (we believe) all it takes! Consequently, mice (and humans) whose SCN are damaged fail to sleep and rest with a regular, daily pattern. These highly specialised cells also receive direct input from the eyes, via the optic nerves, thereby allowing the circadian clock to adjust itself according to the light/dark cycle of the environment. This property of the clock allows us to synchronise with the solar cycle, and is especially important when we experience significant shifts in time, exemplified by air travel across time zones. Jet-lag occurs as a result of our circadian clocks trying to accustom themselves to the new environmental time, and the sympotms are alleviated once the internal and external times are in sync.

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More recently, a number of mouse genes have been uncovered that are responsible for orchestrating our circadian clock, and with the human genome having been sequenced, it was found that these genes are evolutionarily conserved in us too. Presently, the challenge remains to find out how the circadian clock ticks inside a cell – for almost every cell in your body possesses its own clockwork, which is brought into synchrony with other cells by your SCN. Understanding the precise molecular mechanism is the Holy Grail of circadian research – targets will then become available for treating jet-lag and other circadian-related sleep disorders.

Regarding the effects of Viagara on jet-lag, a group of Argentinian scientists have shown that an injection of the drug into hamsters made them adapt faster to a 6-hour phase advance, equivalent to an eastward flight across six time-zones: from New York to Paris, for example. The cynics amongst you might want to know that this dose was not enough to cause an erection in the little cuddly rodents, so any effect observed should not be groin-related. Having read the primary research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, I would say that the effect is convincing enough, though how it extrapolates to humans is yet to be seen. If all goes well, perhaps a change in marketing strategy is necessary. How about Viagara: guaranteed to make you get up sooner?

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Ten things I’ve learned last week (ending 17th June)

1. The city of Omaha in Nebraska is named after a tribe of American Indians of the same name. (OK, I probably should have guessed, but what the heck.)

2. There is a variety of potato called King Edward – did he happen to have skin resembling a potato? The King Edward potato has “white skin with pink colouration, cream to pale yellow flesh" and “floury texture", according to the British Potato Council.

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3. Which breed of dog has webbed feet? Answer: Newfoundland. (A fact I learned from the Cambridge University Quiz Society.)

4. Women might settle for “asymmetric men" but shop around (mentally or physically) for symmetrical ones during their ovulation period. In other words, if you’re a heterosexual man whose face resembles a cubist painting, don’t expect to have a faithful partner. (BBC News article)

5. Four genes are all it takes to turn a mouse skin fibroblast, destined to become a skin cell, into a stem cell, which has the potential to develop into any cell type. Japanese and American scientists have published in Nature magazine their astonishing findings – it has previously been assumed that a lot of genetic reprogramming is required for this stem cell engineering. Stem cell research has been highly controversial, and has been resolutely disapproved by George W. Bush, despite its massive potential in the treatment of many disorders. This latest finding removes a number of ethical constraints – the source of stem cells has previously been restricted to surplus embryos from in vitro fertilisation treatments. If the discovery also applies to human cells, that would truly be a Nobel-winning achievement.

6. Croissants might have become staple elements of the Continental breakfast now, but there’s an interesting legend about its birth. Apparently, Viennese bakers created them in celebration of the successful defense of their city against a Turkish invasion – the croissant representing the crescent on the Turkish flag. (Info. gleaned from Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.)

7. Roman à clef is a pretentious way to describe a novel in which real-life events are described behind a facade of fiction.

8. Dried flesh of coconuts is called copra – not the most useful bit of information ever, but still.

9. Ukelele, the string instrument, is actually the Hawaiian term for “jumping flea", which was meant to describe the way the players’ fingers leap across strings. (Kudos to the Times for this etymological insight.)

10. I don’t know anything.

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New Love (Part I)

First love is like tiramisu: it’s overwhelming, sickly sweet, intoxicating. Such was my relationship with Sony DSC-P10 before our tragic breakup (see earlier article, Belated Mourning). With my (relatively) newfound love, I maintain a much less intense relationship – we’d occasionally go out together, and when we do we usually manage to have a ball. Whilst it is difficult not to compare them (resolution has gone up, quality of the lens has gone down), I try to be content with my Casio.

Here are some pics snapped as we left work for our evening date: the tall sleek building in the first photo is where my office (shared with 10 colleagues, mind) is housed, and the next two pics show our building foyer. All very modern and swish, as the building is the latest addition to the campus, being just over a year old! Red brick is, of course, the signature motif of the HK Polytechnic University campus, as you can see in the other pics. One of the best things about working here is that it is a stone’s throw away from a very pleasant path by the glorious Victoria Harbour, which we headed to next…

(to be continued…)

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Filed under Hong Kong, Miscellaneous musings

House on holes

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“You know, I get it if people are just looking for ways to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. They go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their hole. Climb out of your holes, people!"

– Dr Gregory House (of superb TV series House) on religion

Image courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Company

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Get off your high horses

From BBC News:

Vatican urges end to Amnesty aid

The Vatican has urged all Catholics to stop donating money to Amnesty International, accusing the human rights group of promoting abortion…(to see the rest of the article, click here.)

Could the Pope and his cronies please sort out their priorities? Let’s put aside the issue of whether abortion should be advocated. By denying Amnesty International their sources of donations, the Vatican will be actively punishing the people in need of charity. These people should in no way suffer because of the stance of Amnesty International, however immoral in the eyes of Rome. At the risk of offending the Catholics, I’d go as far as to say that this is in exactly the same vein as fundamentalist terrorism, since the Vatican chooses to hold one of their religious values irrationally above the love for all mankind, ironically also preached in their religion. I hereby call on all reasonable human beings, whether or not they believe in Christ, to donate towards the honourable cause of Amnesty International, and to persuade family and friends to do the same – we can show the Vatican how out of touch they are by defying them.

Sidebar: to deny rape victims the right of abortion is the kind of by-the-book, irrational religious practice that, again, is the root of extremist terrorism.

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Filed under Hate