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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

How NOT to do CPR

Just watched Casino Royale (2006) on DVD with my family, and despite the rave reviews that Daniel Craig received, I must say that he just doesn't jive with my mental picture of how James Bond is supposed to be.

Let me explain what I mean:

I thought that James Bond is supposed to be a suave, charming and sophisticated ladykiller.

Pierce Brosnan certainly oozes charm, has a disarming smile and a relaxed composure that makes it easy for women to warm up to him.

Daniel Craig on the other hand looks so craggy (sorry), creepy and intense that I find it more likely that women would run away screaming when he approaches.

Try as I might, I can't feel any charm emanating from him. When the Bond girls throw seductive glances at Daniel Craig, I feel that they are just acting.

In fact none of my family members really believe that he is James Bond. My father thinks that Daniel Craig looks more like a Russian spy. My mom thinks that he doesn't look like the "real" (read Pierce Brosnan) James Bond.

As for the movie, James Bond's trademark cheesy humour and double entendre one-liners have been replaced by a lot of frenzied chasing, leaping from immense heights and brutal bloody brawling. There is so much running around in the first half that my sister commented that it felt like a Jackie Chan movie.

I understand that the filmmakers are trying very hard to revitalize this old franchise, but in the process they have removed many fun elements that the brand name represents.

If you really want a serious, gritty spy thriller - watch Jason Bourne.

Hey I just noticed that their initials are both J.B.! How cool is that!?!

Ok that doesn't mean anything.

Anyway the pace of the movie was quite uneven, frantic in the first half and slow in the second. The tone was super-serious and intense throughout...

... until one scene which made my entire family burst out in uncontrollable laughter.

Heh heh. What an anti-climax!


I don't want to spoil your fun so scroll down only if you have seen the movie.

James Bond tries to perform CPR on Vesper Lind to save her life. Unfortunately, he is so clumsy with the procedure that he fumbles around and accidentally grabs her boobs instead.

Compare the above screenshot with this diagram of how CPR is supposed to be done:

Maybe it wasn't accidental.

Would you like to know more?

About Cardio-pulmonary Resuscitation:
- Introduction to CPR

About Movie Nitpicks:
- (About Casino Royale 2006)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Evolutionary Biology: Recent Highlights

Sometimes I forget that Fresh Brainz is supposed to be some sort of science blog.

Truth be told, that part is easy to forget. It's tough to write anything fun about serious science since 99% of the original research that I read is about as exciting as watching mud dry.

In slow motion.

Luckily for humanity* there is still some cool science out there that must be highlighted in this blog!

Here are three of the finest findings in evolutionary biology so far this year:

1. Planet of the Apes. Now with Spears.

Human beings have been killing each other (and small defenseless animals) with evil, sharp implements for so long that we believed no other animal can do it.

Actually they just don't want to do it, being the nice, peaceful animals that they are.

They'd much rather puncture your juicy jugular with their amiable teeth and slash your abdomen open with their friendly claws.

However, a group of researchers have noticed that some chimpanzees in Senegal prefer to hunt their prey using sharpened sticks, just like early humans.

Scientists already know that chimpanzees can use tools for a number of years; the chief novelty of this study is the detailed observation of the tool sharpening process.

Which actually involve the use of teeth.

Now that chimpanzees have learnt how to use spears to hunt, we should all shudder in fear of ... "Death by Britney"!

Seriously, we've all had enough of that Spears.

Click here to read more.

2. Mice with Better Colour Vision than Some People.

The worst enemy of most people is some people. Some people rob. Some people kill. Some people like country music.

Some people write science blogs.

In addition, some people are red-green colour blind. Mice are also red-green colour blind because they lack a type of photo receptor that are found in the eyes of most people.

When researchers inserted the human gene for this receptor into mice, the genetically modified mice could now distinguish the difference between red and green much better than regular mice.

This demonstrates that the mammalian brain already has sufficient flexibility to adapt to modular changes in colour vision. You don't need to change a large number of genes and rewire the whole brain to allow the mice to benefit from this enhancement.

Just one gene will do.

Another nail in the coffin for Irreducible Complexity.

Check out more details here.

3. Do Dinosaurs Taste Like Chicken?

Why does everything taste like chicken?

Is existence merely a massive game of virtual reality where powerful supercomputers manipulate the lives of millions of innocent victims?

But enough complaining about taxes.

Scientists have successfully isolated protein fragments from the inside of a 68 million-year-old T. Rex bone uncovered in Montana, USA. They sequenced these fragments and found that it resembles a similar protein found in modern chickens.

Direct molecular evidence of the close evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and birds.

The principal investigator of this study, Prof. John "Jack" Horner actually mentioned the project last year when he came to Singapore during a dinosaur exhibition. So I am happy to see that they have produced spectacular results in such a short time.

More stuff can be found here.

Would you like to know more?

About other forms of fun research:
- Boob Physics

*The term "humanity" includes all Fresh Brainz readers, most dolphins and some bonobos. It excludes most other human beings (especially Brad Pitt) and any talking cats.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Impossible Quiz

A new Flash game is sweeping through the bioscience community and wiping out any semblance of productivity this week.

It's called "The Impossible Quiz".

No, it's not really impossible but it's filled with such twisted humour and bizarre logic that Fresh Brainz feels right at home with this cruel-joke-masquerading-as-a-puzzle-game.

For the want of a shoe, my friends.


Would you like to know more?

About other people with a sick sense of humour:

- Tom Weller
Despair Inc.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Face Transformer

Just found this impressive online toy that morphs a photo of your face into a number of interesting variations.

Oooh I love gadgets! So I went right ahead and submitted my own mug.

Here are some of the results:

It's obvious that whichever ethnicity or even species that I morph into, the geekiness still shines through. *sigh*

This certainly isn't the first online face morphing tool, but I must say that the results are surprisingly plausible. The application was designed by a research group at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, so perhaps that's the reason why the output looks professional. People are getting really good at doing this.

Click Face Transformer to go there and submit your own photo (or the photos of your enemies).

It's a simple two-step process to produce a morphed photo.

So, which are my favourite results?

That's me in the year 2047. I know many of you ladies would rather not know how you will look like in 40 years, but this was the first result I selected - and I quite like it actually. Despite the wrinkles and spots, my elder self has a look of serenity and contentment that is missing in the 2007 original. I hope I actually look as wise and at peace by that time.

I also like the Manga version of me, with the big nerdy glasses and awkward smile. Almost looks like an engineering student who has a such a pure heart that a bunch of horny goddesses would fight over him at school.

Oh my fantasy!

Would you like to know more?

About other gadgets:
Calculate your nerdiness!
- Pop-up photos!

About other goddesses:
- Olivia Newton-John (Terpsichore)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Audio Cassettes: Simplest Explanation of Cancer

Just a couple of weeks back I found a drawer full of old audio cassettes containing pop songs from the 1980's and early 90's.

I was thinking of recording some of this music into MP3 format, since the magnetic tapes in these cassettes have been deteriorating so badly. One inconvenience of living in the tropics is that fungi tends to grow on all sorts of stuff.

For some reason they really like to eat magnetic media and optical surfaces. Video cassettes have it the worst - they are usually unreadable after only one year. We didn't have one of those expensive dry cabinets so some of our cassette tapes have endured the humid environment for decades.

As I was saying, I wanted to find out how many of these tapes are still readable, so I went out to buy a new cassette player (these are nearly extinct nowadays amidst the truckloads of MP3/MP4 players) and took a listen.

Sure enough, the newer cassettes were still fine, but the condition of 20-year-old tapes was much less consistent.

Some were only readable for a few songs, and the rest sounded muffled. Others were a scratchy mess throughout. Most of these old tapes clogged up my player's magnetic head with rust and fungal gunk after a few songs. All of them showed their age.

In contrast, all the CDs I bought still sound like new, including my first CD - the "Empire Strikes Back" soundtrack - which is 15 years old.

Ah, the wonders of digital technology!

Wait. That suddenly makes me think of something.

Fresh Brainz is proud to bring you the simplest explanation of cancer in the blogosphere - using audio cassettes as an illustrative analogy!* (see footnote).

Imagine you have an audio tape full of your favourite songs.

Magnetic tape is similar to a DNA molecule in a number of ways:

1. They require physical contact to be read and copied.
2. The analog copying process is imperfect and successive copying will lead to information alteration or loss.
3. They are both subject to wear and tear over time.
4. They have two anti-parallel streams of information. In DNA these two streams are complementary, whereas in an audio tape they usually encode two different streams (Side A and Side B).

Let's assume that you have recorded the same set of songs on both sides of the tape.

You love those songs so you play them everyday.

Now for the challenge...

How would you make your songs last 20 years?

Well, you could maintain the original cassette as carefully as you can.

Unfortunately, you need to use it everyday, so the tape is subject to constant wear and tear. Environmental effects like background magnetism, humidity or static electricity will also degrade the signal.

Thus, you will need to check the cassette regularly to see if your songs still sound the same. Luckily you have the same songs on both sides, so any one problem is unlikely to happen to the same part of the both songs. You can use an audio editing machine to copy an intact song on one side and overwrite the damaged song on the other side.

This situation also occurs in living cells. DNA repair mechanisms use one strand as the template to repair the other.

Unfortunately, this is a lot of work that takes up time and energy. Constant editing and overwriting makes your cassette age quickly. Similarly, continuous DNA repair work is exhausting for individuals cells and they grow old fast.

Moreover, the rest of the cassette is growing old anyway. The case can crack, tape can get torn off the spools - you might even accidentally drop the whole thing into a river one day.

It isn't safe to put all your eggs into the same old, rusty basket.

So, why not make copies of the original cassette? Before it gets worn out, transfer the music to a fresh new cassette. Simply repeat this cycle and voila! You will have songs that remain forever new.

This will work for digital files, but unfortunately for audio tapes and genomes, the copying process (replication) is not perfect. Analog tape duplication introduces artefacts such as reduced signal intensity, increased noise, wow, flutter and others. Similarly, DNA replication (using polymerases) has an error rate of at least one base pair per million, usually more.

The result: successive copying adds more and more errors to the songs. In a cassette tape the final product is poor quality music; in the DNA of a living cell, the replication error may end up in critical parts of the genome (shown as red sections in the diagram) that causes the cell to divide uncontrollably.

Which leads to cancer.

However, constant cell division is necessary to keep the multicellular organism young. Even if a cassette tape gets destroyed (shown as a red "X") the music still survives. Thus there is tug of war going on between DNA repair and replication.

If I must summarise the opposing forces that a cell must manage into a single statement (yes, it is an oversimplification), it would be:

Young and Restless -vs - Stable and Dying

A cell would rather be young and restless, because it doesn't mind the replication errors that turns it into a super reproductive machine. It hates spending excess energy on DNA repair, because that makes it old and grey. Cells are good at dividing and lousy at dying - this must necessarily be true, otherwise we wouldn't be around.

However, with the exception of certain cell types (such as reproductive cells), the entire organism would rather its cells be stable and dying, because an aggressively spreading tumour will destroy the whole system much faster than the slow ageing process.

I think it is curious that complex multicellular organisms contain a number of such features that are beneficial but yet destructive at the same time.

Living systems can be functionally superb, but no existing species can possibly be perfect because, why, perfection tends to take a long long long time.

Would you like to know more?

- Prof. Jarle Breivik (University of Oslo, Norway) has an informative
homepage and a link to an easy-to-read Scientific American article about evolution and cancer.


I made up these definitions a while ago. Illustration by analogy is always inaccurate, but due to its simplicity and clarity, it is still a popular communication tool today.

Explanatory Analogy - This type of analogy so closely parallels the problem of interest that it can provide explanations and predict results. For example, some Gedanken experiments in Physics use explanatory analogies.

Illustrative Analogy - This type of analogy is similar to the problem of interest in only a few ways and is simply used to provide a clearer mental picture for communication purposes.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Lonesome Science Blog

My BlogPatrol account informs me without much fanfare (actually no fanfare) that Fresh Brainz has just seen its 10 000th unique visitor since September 2006.

A big thanks to all Fresh Brainz readers!


While reaching this important milestone is encouraging, I've observed something that is making me rather worried.

In the nine months since the inception of Fresh Brainz, the total number of blogs tracked by Technorati has gone up from about 50 million to an astonishing 79.2 million today.

Yet the total number of Singaporean science blogs remain at two.

The only other Singaporean science blog I know of is The Biology Refugia.

The Singaporean blogosphere isn't dying you know.

It's growing every day. Last I checked there were a few hundred thousand blogs.

Of which two are about science.

Despite the millions of dollars spent and thousands of new researchers engaged in this nascent endeavour.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Concert Review: ONJ in Singapore

You may not know this, as geeky and smart-alecky as I appear to be, deep inside I am really a hopeless romantic.

Yes, I know it's hard to believe, just like discovering that "I can't believe it's not really butter" isn't really butter. But it is true.

So when I found out from TV adverts that Livvy "Neutron Bomb" Olivia Newton-John was coming to Singapore for her first concert here, I promptly went and bought a ticket.

The cheapest ticket, of course. I'm a student - I need to eat!

I am quite a Livvy fan. I have five of her CDs, two cassette tapes and her Xanadu movie on video. In fact I think that Xanadu is her best movie.

"WHAT!?!! Are you a frakin' Xanadude?" you ask.

Wait, let me explain.

First of all, I hate Barbara Streisand and neon-coloured clothing.

Second, I first watched Xanadu (1980) when I was like ten years old, so the story was romantic and magical to me then. Of course now I know it has a stupid plot; boy do I know - I recently watched it side-by-side with Ridley Scott's awesome Alien (1979) that was released around that time.

The contrast is just mind-blowing. I mean chest-bursting.

As I was saying, Xanadu is great because it had a kiddy plot and a hot babe on skates.

And one more thing.

Feathered hair.

Here is Livvy next to another sexy denizen of the 70's, Farrah Fawcett.

I love I love I LOVE!

Feathered hair spells S-E-X. It should've never gone out of fashion.

Anyway, let's talk about her concert now.

I took a bus to the Indoor Stadium last friday evening to catch Livvy's concert.

Boy was that a mistake. Four words: Traffic... Jam... Orchard... Road.

'nuff said.

When I arrived a long line of people had already formed. Surprisingly I find a number of younger people in the audience - and some very old uncles and aunties.

Tad outside the target demographic.

I wanted to take some photos of the concert, but there is a big sign on the entrance that said "No Photography".

Oh well. I wasn't there to hear my own voice if I get dragged out of the stadium screaming and kicking.

So you'll have to get your pictures from the excellent Only Olivia website instead. Which is all the better since they have kickass cameras and a much better shooting angle.

Here's one of their photos. Click on the picture to enter their concert resource page.

As you can see, Livvy looks great for a 58-year-old. I think she lost weight for her concert tour.

The stage setup is simple and low-key. Livvy is accompanied by a seven-member band which has multi-talented members. One of the guys can sing, play the harmonica, and even does a mean saxophone.

This sounds cruel, but it is true: apart from the lead guitarist, the other band members aren't pretty to look at. I believe this is no accident. There is a saying in Chinese: "鲜花要有绿叶来陪衬".

Now for my overview of her concert. I won't go into all the details - you can check out what other people have to say at the end of this post.

Instead I will just highlight some notable observations.

The opening performance was sung by Olinda Cho, a Singapore Idol finalist. Her sentimental rendition of Culture Club's "Karma-Chameleon" was just... weird.

New Wave pop - soft rock style? To me it doesn't work.

Next, Livvy's voice floated over the speakers, singing part of "I Honestly Love You" before she made her appearance to the cheering audience.

Her introductory banter was brief and she sounded distant. She said that she hadn't sung in Singapore for a long time, that it was wonderful to be here in our beautiful city and thanked the audience for making her feel so welcome.

I would have prefered country. I am being picky, but these things matter to me.

And then the songs began.

If I can sum up her vocal performance in one word, it would be: Power.

Some reviewers say that her voice is still the same after all these years - I definitely disagree. There is no question that her vocal range is still impressive and and she's still pitch-perfect, but her voice is noticeably lower in pitch and her singing style sounds stronger and brighter than her records from the 70's and 80's.

To me, this emphasis on power and energy makes her sound very different from the more endearing, wispy voice that you hear in the CDs. I believe much of this is due to the inherent nature of a concert - louder, brighter and more impersonal.

However some of this is definitely due to design - for two songs (including the Bossa Nova version of "Physical"), Livvy goes into ear-piercing falsetto, which underscores her superior pitch control and shows off her voice training. While that radiates positive energy, I certainly didn't like those parts.

I sense a feeling of distance throughout the concert. Let me give you two concrete examples.

After every song or two, Livvy would take a sip of tea and say "Cheers!"

The first time she asked "Cheers...what do you say here?" Some people in the audience screamed "Yam Seng!", but she didn't hear it. Which is a pity because apparently in the Taipei concerts she said "Gan Bei!" every time she had a drink.

In addition she asked if there were Aussies in the audience, much to the delight of Australian fans of course. However it made me feel that perhaps she considered Singapore just as a generic city that is somewhere near Australia.

Thus, try as I might, I couldn't feel any romance in the air when she sang "I Honestly Love You" as part of the encore. It sounded well-rehearsed, technically accurate and lacked intimacy.

At the closing of the concert, the appreciative audience gave Livvy a standing ovation. I think it was no mean feat singing with so such accuracy and so much energy for two hours straight. She definitely deserved the applause and cheers from us fans.

But, at the same time, I felt a disconnect. Despite the Livvy's youthful appearance and contemporary hairdo, the reality is that since the 70's she has become a double platinum record holder, an Order of the British Empire (OBE) and Order of Australia (OA) awardee.

A cancer fighter and survivor. An environmentalist. A multi-millionaire. A businesswoman. A mother.

She has received much and been through much in life - it's my own stupid fantasy to believe that she is still the same bright-eyed starlet who started on her path to fame with Bob Dylan's "If Not For You" in 1971.

Or perhaps the image of vulnerability and innocence was a fantasy from the start, a facade that conceals a strong, competitive and ambitious fighting spirit.

Livvy herself said it best in Xanadu: "I am not as I appear to you."

And so I leave you with this well-edited video from Youtube that reminisces on the past thirty years of her singing career.

I'll love you forever, Livvy.

Would you like to know more?

Other ONJ concert reviews
Taipei concert
- Singapore concert (Channel News Asia)
Genting concert