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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, March 30, 2008

Blogger Forum on AIDS

Yesterday I attended the first blogger forum organized by the Health Promotion Board and Nuffnang Singapore, on the topic of AIDS.

Actually, I haven't been paying much attention to the AIDS situation in Singapore. In 2005, the adult HIV prevalence in Singapore (PDF poster) was around 0.3%, which is among the lowest in the region and comparable to Western Europe (and lower than the USA).

Thus, I don't really have any strong opinions about this topic.

However, a recent review article (PDF file) has shown that HIV infection rates have been on the rise in the past few years. What is particularly worrying is the increasing incidence of sexually transmitted infections in young people between 10-19 years of age, and the gradual shift of primary contacts from sex workers to casual partners. So there is some cause for concern.

In addition, I am really curious to know what the other bloggers think.

So off I went!

Like many youth events nowadays, there must be music!

The organizers of the "Open Your Heart" campaign have invited some local musicians to perform as part of their activities. So I stood and heard them play while waiting for the other bloggers to arrive.

This rock group is called King Kong Jane. Pretty damned good actually.

And here is their resident drummer. There are two more guitarists in their group.

I especially liked their bemused expressions when a hot babe stopped and snapped a photo of them with her cell phone.

When the bloggers have fully assembled, it's time to check out the display booth. The booth was manned by many young volunteers. As you can see, there were more lady bloggers than men.

Once inside the booth, two video presentations were screened. The first one was a video interview with HIV-positive individuals, who discussed the social alienation they experienced. They appeared in silhouette to protect their identities.

The next video, shown above, was sort of a romantic short film about two people in love - one of them is HIV-positive. It is a well-made film, with an idealized narrative. From the feedback later in the forum, the lady bloggers seem to like it.

Personally, it didn't have a strong emotional impact on me. Perhaps it's because I am a geek.

Next, it was time to view the photo gallery. Each photograph was accompanied by a descriptive panel positioned below. Two of them captured my attention.

One of these was a photograph of the back profile of a woman scratched out by a pencil eraser. I think its caption accurately summarizes the main purpose of the campaign - to raise the awareness of the situation of people living with HIV.

More on this later.

Another striking photo featured a dead chicken trying to incubate an egg. The caption has a rather odd (possibly oxymoronic?) title, but reinforces the notion that HIV is not merely a personal issue, but has wider consequences for the family of the afflicted.

Time to head to the preview lounge for the blogger forum!

The forum was kicked off with two rounds of ice-breaker games. Next, there was an awkward moment of silence when the organizers try to encourage the bloggers to voice their opinions.

Eventually a keen-witted blogger brought up an interesting point: was the focus of this forum about reducing the social ostracism of people living with HIV, or was it about reducing the incidence of HIV infection by encouraging more people to go for HIV testing?

Based on the information in the display booth, it appeared that the emphasis was on the first issue, but during the forum the organizers often talked at length about the second issue.

Bloggers soon realized that these two goals may require contradictory approaches.

1. Reduce Social Stigma?

One member of the organizers contrasted the social discrimination that individuals living with HIV face in Singapore, compared to other industrialized nations. She felt that it was an "Asian" mentality to consider these individuals as morally indecent people.

Another blogger agreed, noting that any disease that is associated with sex carries a negative connotation.

I think to humanize the situation of HIV-positive people, the disease should not be moralized, and there should be greater emphasis on the fact that a HIV-positive diagnosis is not a death sentence.

Firstly, the latency prior to the onset of AIDS is ten years on average. Second, although there is still no cure for AIDS, current antiretroviral therapies (and new classes of medicines on the horizon) has prolonged the lives of numerous AIDS patients by many years.

As treatments improve, survival rates rise and prevalence drops further, the stigma of the public towards HIV-positive people will gradually fade.

I mentioned during the discussion that I believe in time AIDS will be considered no different from any other chronic infectious disease.

Take for example Hansen's Disease, better known as Leprosy.

Since ancient times, Hansen's disease sufferers have been subject to severe social ostracism, abuse and neglect. Due to their obvious and ugly sores, these people were considered by the public as "unclean" or "cursed by God". They were labelled as "lepers" and swept under the rug of society by housing them in "leper colonies".

It was not until the early 1980s that an effective multidrug treatment for the infection emerged, halting the disease progression and rapidly reducing its prevalence. Today, only two decades later, Hansen's disease has left the public consciousness in Singapore and nobody really bats an eyelid about "leprosy" any more.

Some bloggers also raised a point that stigma could result from the insecurity that many people feel when they meet people with HIV. Is it really safe to physically contact them? What if the both of you have open wounds?

I think these concerns can be alleviated with wider publicity of existing information about the modes of disease transmission. Here are some resources that address common misconception about HIV/AIDS:

Rumors, Myths and Hoaxes (CDC USA)
About AIDS - Myths and Misconceptions (HPB Singapore)
HIV and AIDS misconceptions (Wikipedia)

2. Reduce HIV prevalence?

On the other hand, emphasis on the treatability of AIDS and the normalcy of people living with HIV can be counterproductive in the efforts to discourage people from risky sexual behaviour.

Although the HIV infection rate is low, it is on an upward trend. In the review mentioned earlier, it is noted that only about 50% of sexually active adolescents were using barrier protection. Despite being aware of the potential for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, there are people who choose to disregard what they have learnt.

I think one way of discouraging such complacency is to use a shock effect, similar to the approach taken by the anti-smoking campaign. However, it is easy to see how this strategy could further alienate existing HIV-positive individuals from integrating with society.

One of the organizers described this as a difficult balancing act.

An outspoken blogger felt that all this talk is fruitless and proposed action: mandatory HIV testing for everyone in the country, similar to the approach for child vaccination. Since it will involve everyone, there will be no discrimination against any particular group.

Some of the bloggers and organizers are supportive of this idea. I have no strong views either way, though I remember that Angry Doc had written on this topic before - perhaps he may comment on it. Personally I'm not sure if the rise in infection rates is high enough to warrant island-wide mandatory testing, but I'll let the better informed experts weigh in on this.

After a lively discussion, it was time to have some light refreshments and mingle with the other bloggers. Overall it was a successful forum - many key issues were highlighted and the intellectual quality of the discussion was high.

Kudos to Ming, the co-founder of Nuffnang, his staff and the HPB team for organizing this interesting and thought-provoking forum for all of us.

*Update (03 Apr 08) - Here's a poem from the HPB regarding this topic:

“Why do you see me through tinted glasses?
It breaks my heart into a million pieces.
The day I knew I was positive,
all people around me turned negative.

Some of you think that I deserve it,
and so in your society I no longer fit.
But just like you I did not know,
so now my tears abundantly flow.

I had faith in my partner,
that he loved me and none other.
But the truth was revealed;
that one mistake and my fate’s been sealed.

Please don’t look at me through tinted glasses,
support me as I pick up my life’s broken pieces.


Would you like to know more?

Recent reviews about the origins of HIV and new treatment for AIDS
Origins of HIV and the Evolution of Resistance to AIDS (Science)
HIV entry inhibitors (Lancet)

First Voice Recording In History

In our current world of ubiquitous high quality digital sound, it's hard to imagine that until about 150 years ago, there was absolutely no way that a person's voice could be captured, stored and replayed at a later time.

Once the words have been spoken, once the songs have been sung, these transient vibrations in the air dispersed into nothingness, lost forever.

Then in 1860, French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville created a device that could etch sound waves onto a piece of sooty paper, which is called a "phonautograph".

Researchers have recently translated these etchings back into sound, and have recovered the earliest known recording of a human voice: a woman singing part of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune".

Click the below link to hear the reconstructed sound clip:

Au Clair de la Lune (1860)

A haunting voice emerges again from ages past.

*Update: Here is a YouTube video that shows you details of the phonautograph machine.


Also, compare the 1860 recording with a recording of the same melody (with different lyrics) about 100 years later by singer France Gall.

Au Clair de la Lune (1964)

Would you like to know more?
First Sounds (website dedicated to the earliest sound recordings)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Photoshop Disasters

Coming from the old school of 35mm photography, I've never been a fan of post-processed photos.

Well, exposure correction and colour adjustment is fine.

But digital manipulation of the main elements?

Not my cup of tea.

Still there is no denying the amount of photoshop work that is done behind the scenes in many media photographs today.

At least it is hoped that these enhancements will remain behind the scenes...

... but unfortunately that doesn't always happen.

Sometimes the finished product is so blatantly photoshopped that it captures your attention, captures your attention and captures your attention yet again.

Fresh Brainz is strangely amused to introduce to you a new blog, Photoshop Disasters, that specializes in showcasing such outstanding examples of shoddy work in commercial photography.

And just like any other disaster scene, the sight is so horrendous that you simply can't tear your eyes away.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

New Discoveries In March

In this month, scientists in Singapore achieved a bumper crop of notable discoveries. Fresh Brainz highlights three of them:

1. New genes involved in Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease is a debilitating neurodegenerative disorder that mainly strikes the elderly, gradually destroying their memory abilities. Amyloid plaque deposits that disrupt brain function is a key feature of this disease.

But why would the brain produce such a harmful substance? A team of scientists from IMCB and NUS have discovered that this plaque is actually a by-product of the normal brain cell regeneration process. They have also identified two genes that are involved in this pathway, TAG1 and Fe65. This is an important finding because drug companies can now focus on these genes to reduce the plaque production.

Original paper: A TAG1-APP signalling pathway through Fe65 negatively modulates neurogenesis (Nat Cell Bio)

2. New core circuitry in embryonic stem cells

Previous work by other researchers have shown that a gene called Klf4 is important for reprogramming somatic cells in order to give them stem cell properties.

However, Klf4 is dispensible in the self-renewal and pluripotency of embryonic stem cells. How can this be?

Scientists from the GIS discovered that the reason is due to the redundant function of other members of the Klf family. If Klf2, Klf4 and Klf5 are simultaneously depleted, the stem cells will differentiate. They uncover the importance of the core Klf circuit to the properties of embryonic stem cells.

Original paper: A core Klf circuitry regulates self-renewal of embryonic stem cells (Nat Cell Bio)

3. Biodiversity of phages

Viruses that infect bacteria are called phages. Since they appeared in the fossil record 3.5 billion years ago, some phages have been living in viral communities in organosedimentary structures, also known as microbialites.

Using a comparative metagenomics approach, a team of scientists from the USA and Singapore have discovered that phages in modern microbialites are not only different from each other, but also different from phages in any other ecosystem so far.

The evolutionary significance of this finding is that modern microbialites are the remnants of ancient ecosystems. The technological significance is that this is the first large-scale use of DNA sequencing technology to discover unknown viruses in various environments that can impact human health.

Original papers: Biodiversity and biogeography of phages in modern stromatolites and thrombolites (Nature) , Functional metagenomic profiling of nine biomes (Nature)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Onto The Bright Face Of Japetus

Renowned science fiction writer and space visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away on Tuesday at the age of 90.

Fresh Brainz salutes this prolific novelist and day-dreamer for his contributions to the literary world and his ideas to the world of technology.

May we all find our blue, chewy food on the other side of the Monolith.

Would you like to know more?
Clarke's top predictions

Monday, March 17, 2008

Welcome To The Hotel Singapura

The biggest social challenge that comes with a massive influx of immigrants is not the cultural difference between Singaporeans and foreigners, but that their arrival reveals just how little Singaporeans have in common.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Photo Gallery Eight

Pink is the new black.

No actually it isn't.

As us science-types know, black isn't really a colour; it's an absence of light.

However black will always be important in photography, not only as a stark contrast to light and colour, but also for its own mysterious quality.

In this latest photo gallery, Fresh Brainz explores the beauty of darkness and shadow!

Angel of cleanliness
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Chasing shadows
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Dark lamp
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

(2008) Nikon L5

Pass the bucky
(2007) Fuji S6500fd

(2008) Nikon L5

(2007) Nikon L5

Would you like to know more?
Photo Gallery Seven

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Controversy In Evolution

Fresh Brainz brings to you the long-awaited second vlog episode about controversy in evolutionary theory.


Would you like to know more?

Vlog Episode One: History Of The Pipette

Saturday, March 08, 2008

What Do You See In The Mirror?

Short, sharp and powerful.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Counterintuitive Science - Abstinence Doesn't Reduce Pregnancies

This is one of earliest counterintuitive results that I learnt about.

Many years ago, I walked past a booth set up by eager undergrads at the Students' Union Building at my university.

It was an information booth promoting the awareness of the HIV/AIDS and encouraging safe sex practices.

One of the colourful billboards contained a table about pregnancy rates corresponding to different birth control methods.

I don't remember the exact percentages now, but it said that condoms are over 90% effective at preventing pregnancy, while abstinence is ... over 80% effective.


Not 100% effective?!??

How can NOT having sex have a higher chance of producing babies than actually having sex?

I asked one of the volunteers at the booth, and she explained that the main reason for this is that people claim that they'll abstain, but go ahead and have sex anyway - except they do it without any protection.

The result is completely opposite to what common sense would predict.

In addition, recent studies have shown that advocating abstinence has no effect on the sexual activity of teenagers, and more worrying, doesn't increase the rate of condom use.

This is dangerous, because abstinence-only sex education programmes also aim to reduce the risk of HIV transmission, and current data indicates that they are not effective at all.

Instead, these programmes are just churning out more young adults who are in denial about sex, but go ahead and boink each other anyway.

Maybe any abstinence-only programme ought to be preceded by a "promise-keeping" programme in order to work, but I wouldn't bet on the effectiveness of that.

Would you like to know more?

- Original review article (Underhill et al. 2007):
Sexual abstinence only programmes to prevent HIV infection in high income countries

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Counterintuitive Science - Paradox Of Choice

Imagine a world where you have absolutely no say over anything, not even your own life.

Someone up there controls everything.

The only thing you can do is to follow the Plan.

Or die.

It's your "choice".

Sounds pretty dreary, doesn't it?

Now contrast that with another hypothetical world - where you can choose from thousands of lifestyles and millions of products. You have the freedom to make every decision in your life, big or small, unfettered by powerful authority figures.

More choice, more happiness.

Well, that sounds positively lover-ly! Perhaps it would be paradise.

Not so, says psychologist Barry Schwartz.

Too many choices can actually immobilize a person from making a decision. In addition, no matter what choice a person makes, it is easy to imagine that there is an even better choice out there, resulting in feelings of self-blame, dissatisfaction and regret.

Here, check out his talk:

Dr. Schwartz has an interesting perspective, but I don't agree with everything he noted.

His point about the mind-boggling variety of consumer goods is spot-on. It's a situation that is difficult to avoid in a free-market society.

However, unless a person has gobs of money, budget limitations alone will help eliminate a lot of these options. For a grad student like me, it's much easier to make that decision - the cheapest item will suffice. Some people will always have trouble deciding while some others don't. I'm not yet convinced that this is an significant cause of clinical depression and suicide.

Also, he seems to be arguing that social conventions are important to help free individuals from being overwhelmed with decisions. That may be true, but who then gets to decide these social conventions, and how will they enforce it? It seems to me that the high quality of living enjoyed by developed nations is at least partly due to the diminishing power of social forces that used to dominate over personal freedoms.

In addition, I would like to add two more comments:

1. Significance Of Choice

George Carlin says this best:

Oh, and freedom of choice, this is the big one, the illusion of choice, we're led to feel free by the exercise of meaningless choices.

There are, for instance, important things — not too many choices, unimportant things-ice cream flavors, what do you want, we've got 31, the flavor of the week, the flavor of the month, but political parties-we're down to two, jeez.

Sources of information, media companies down to five, banks, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, chemical companies, oil companies-used to be seven, down to three, pretty soon it's gonna be two.

But if you’re lookin' for a bagel or a fuckin' donut, hey, what do you want-pineapple supreme, hazelnut; we've got everything you want. Cereals, I counted, personally in the store counted 192 different cereal choices, 192. 140 different cat foods, I counted, and that includes a tartar-control cat food for senior citizen cats, okay?

Dr. Schwartz thinks that "we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare", but what are the types of options that are being considered? Like Carlin, I believe that some of the most important choices that impact our lives (such as sources of reliable information) are still sorely lacking.

We can benefit from a wider selection of important choices.

2. Semblance Of Choice

As I mentioned at the start of the post, "do or die" is an obvious semblance of choice, but it can also be more subtle.

Sometimes when a person hits a bad patch, she might look back and wonder what would have changed if she had made a different decision at a critical juncture in her life.

This sort of reflection is usually made with the benefit of hindsight, and it gives a semblance of choice that person never had at that point in time.

To give a personal example, there are times during grad school that I've wondered how I ended up where I am today. Perhaps I should have stayed in Canada, perhaps I should have continued to be an research assistant, perhaps there is another more ideal ( imaginary?) career for me.

Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

Yet when I look back and examine the key decisions I made, based on the limited information, resources and opportunities I had at that time, there was simply no better alternative. Without the benefit of hindsight, I would have made exactly the same decision again.

Where I imagined I had many choices, the reality was that there was usually only two (or less!)

So it's entirely possible that people can feel unhappy if they believed that they had many choices in the past, even when that is not the case in reality.

Even if we can somehow restrict their choices by social convention, it will not necessarily ease their feelings of self-blame and dissatisfaction.


Still, I generally agree with Dr. Schwartz about how more choices can lead to overinflated expectations and increased self-blame.

Some choice is better than no choice.

But more choice is not necessarily better.

Oddly enough, having many choices can stop you from making a choice.

Fresh Brainz Gets Naked!

stealth rickroll

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Singapore Airshow 2008 Gallery

Last weekend, I went to Changi Beach to watch the aerial display of the Singapore Airshow 2008.

In previous years I used to buy tickets to view the exhibition, but the crowds are getting crazier every time. It's more enjoyable to "park" yourself on the beach with plenty of space to spare and watch the planes roar by.

The downside is that the aircraft do their more spectacular stunts near the exhibition site, so the angle from the beach is not so great for taking photos. To make things worse, the sky was overcast and hazy on both Saturday and Sunday, causing the photos to have dull colours.

Nonetheless, Fresh Brainz is happy to share with you some of my better photos on the airshow.

Here come the Black Knights! The F-16s from the Republic of Singapore Airforce display team sweep into view, heralding the start of the aerial display.

They were moving so fast that their initial appearance was completely silent, followed by the robust roar of six engines when they flew overhead.

Quite impressive.

Under better light conditions the smoke trails would appear white against a deep blue sky, but even in a hazy sky this formation looks magnificent.

A Black Knight pulls away, showing the underbelly of his aircraft. During the airshow we tend to see more of the underside of planes because it is more tolerable for a pilot to pull positive Gs than to pull negative Gs (which would force blood up into his head).

Negative Gs gives you the sensation that your eyes are going to pop out of their sockets and your brain is going to explode.

That's because your eyes are going to pop out of their sockets and your brain is going to explode.

Black Knight No. 5 flown by Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Chionh (better known as Zoe Tay's husband) makes a close pass for his solo manoeuvres.

On usual days he is sidelined by his celebrity wife, but on this occasion he is sidelined by his big, shiny jet.

Oh well, at least we can kinda see his helmet.

Pulling Gs! Condensation appears over the wings and behind wingtips as the pilot pulls up. Aviation magazines and websites love to take photos of aircraft with condensation over the wings.

It makes them look alive.

In fact, a veteran photographer on never takes photos of aeroplanes on the ground - he feels that they are not "aircraft" until they are in the air.

Pop the brakes! Aeroplanes also look alive when they deploy their flappy moving parts.

From the correct viewing angle these two jets are performing a mirror formation where one jet is right on top of the other.

From my "wrong" vantage point, they look a little too friendly to each other.

Keep your wingtips off my tailpipe!

To conclude a crackin' good show, the Black Knights show their appreciation for the audience with a big heart in the sky.

Can you see LTC Philip Chionh?

Neither can I.

After the Black Knights' performance, it's time for solo military jets to strut their stuff.

First up is the F-18E Super Hornet, a new and improved version with distinctive angular intakes. It has a lower-pitched engine growl than the other military vehicles in the show.

Truth be told I'm not a fan of the F-18, despite its combat effectiveness and widespread popularity. The aesthetics of this design doesn't appeal to me.

Next, the Italian jet trainer Aermacchi M-346 zips through the sky, with its unique "TV antenna" pitot tube. It's a nifty machine but the soft whine of its engines is completely overshadowed by auditory impact of other high performance vehicles.

The public wants "WHAM! BAM! THANK YOU MA'AM!"

More attention grabbing is the Korean T-50 supersonic trainer, which looks like an anorexic version of the F-16 with F-18-styled intakes.

It has a boomy engine. Men like boomy, subwoofer-sounding things.

Finally, the venerable Fighting Falcon, still a popular fighter after all these years. Futuristic when it first appeared, it is now a mainstay of many small airforces throughout the world.

After the military jets exit stage left, there was a brief pause.

Then in the distance, a behemoth appeared.

Super Jumbo at 12 o'clock!

The Airbus A380 floats overhead with incredibly quiet engines while retracting its landing gears.

What a change to see something so big and graceful - it feels rather surreal, almost like a huge toy made out of styrofoam.

Slow it may be, but the Super Jumbo is no slouch in the manoeuvring department. Here the massive passenger jet rolls right to turn on a dime, revealing its registration number: F-WWOW.

Yes, this is the first A380 that ever flew, still working hard to help bring in the dough.

Pulling Gs!?!! Condensation trails appear over the wings, streaming above the giant Trent 900 engines.

Rounding up the show is the team display by the Roulettes of the Royal Australian Airforce.

Here they come!

The use of turboprop aircraft in an aerobatic team has its pros and cons. The slower speed and tighter turn radius allows more spectacular manoeuvres, such as quick formation changes, but the lack of a boomy engine means that the public gets bored real fast.

Still, no matter whether they are jets or props, one move is always a crowd pleaser.

The head-on opposing pass that makes the planes look as if they are going hit each other.

A near-miss!

Or is it a near-hit?