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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, October 28, 2007

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Last Sunday, Fresh Brainz went on a day trip to the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Although the nature park has been open since 1993 (and gazetted as a Nature Reserve in 2002), I've never been there before.

Let me think of an excuse for myself... er... I'm a white-coat biologist, not a green-coat biologist, so I can park my lazy butt in the lab all day! HAHAHA!

I see from your expressionless face that it was a pathetic excuse.

How about... erm... I melt in the sun and Sungei Buloh is closed at night?

Anyway, I finally went there.

I hopped on bus service 925 at Kranji MRT station, from the bus stop on the same side of the road as the station.

If you're going there for the first time, it's a good idea to ask the bus uncle where the Sungei Buloh bus stop is, because the entrance isn't very obvious.

It's just a sign by the side of the road. The visitor centre and carpark are concealed by trees and cannot be seen from the main road.

On the way in, I noticed this letterbox that's shaped like a birdhouse.

Heh, a nice touch, and it reminds us who the real stars of this park are.

The visitor centre! Even on a Sunday, there isn't many people. Unlike major attractions like the Singapore Zoo, the entire park seems very quiet. A good place to be when you want to get away from the maddening crowd.

I went to the ticket counter and noticed that there is a discount for students! WHOOPPIE!

So I handed a staff member my one dollar coin. He promptly plopped it into his cash box.

"Here's your ticket sir," he said cheerfully.

Then I looked at him with a puzzled expression.

He suddenly remembered.

"Oh and here's your 50 cents change. Have a nice day!"

There was a time when 50 cents meant diddly-squat to me. Those days are long in the distant past.

Once inside, I toured the mini-museum that housed a number of wetland exhibits. There are many superb photographs mounted on the wall - they appear to be taken using powerful telephoto lenses.

Here's an exhibit showing the diversity of beak shapes and lengths in the wetland habitat. Anatomical variation allows different bird species to find their niche food source and co-exist together.

The mini-museum is clean and well-lit, but based on the out-of-sequence numbers on exhibit placards, I believe that some of the original exhibits have been removed and were not replaced. In addition, some display models were missing, leaving behind empty spaces.

This gives me a feeling that the park is sort of a second-class attraction, since it isn't the kind of touristy place that can rake in the dollars.

A nice feature in the visitor centre are these rubbish bins that have original artwork on them. It isn't a sticker - what you see is an actual oil painting that is directly painted on the metal cover.

Now - time to take a walk along the Mangrove Boardwalk! The first organisms to capture my attention are these weird looking yellow flowers.

Then more weird looking flowers greeted me. This type of flower tends to be fiercely infested with ants for some reason. Maybe they are exceptionally sweet!

The boardwalk is supported by concrete legs that raise it about a metre over the mangrove itself.

Walking along the boardwalk reminds me of the short story "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury, except that the only penalty you get from veering off the assigned path is a pair of muddy shoes.

Or maybe more mosquito bites.

Did I forget to mention them? It's a good idea to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and bring along some mosquito repellant. While I didn't run into a swarm of them that day, I did get a few bites on my arms and face.

The roots of the trees in the mangrove really stand out. They look evil.

As you can see, it was low tide at that time, so most of the roots are exposed. Look at this tree - the roots almost go up two stories high!

I was about to leave the boardwalk when I saw this guy carrying a massive bazooka camera and a tripod that is sturdy enough to hold a movie camera.


Despite the immense weight of his equipment, he wasn't slouching, no sir... he was striding along tall and confident - a REAL man.

Next, I crossed the main bridge to embark on Route 1, a trail that would take me closer to the birds.

On the bridge I saw this crocodile warning sign.

Oh yes, I forgot that this is not a zoo! Wild animals can enter the park anytime.

The bridge spans the Sungei Buloh Besar river (Sungei means river), which is quite big indeed (Besar means big). In this photo I was facing north - the buildings you see in the distance are across the sea in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

To allow visitors to observe the birds without alarming them, and to provide protection from the weather, wooden shelters are built along the trail.

This main hide is the largest one.

They thought of everything - the wall is adorned with information on how to identify the birds, long benches provide comfort and an extended platform lets you set up a tripod or rest your elbows when using binoculars.

The first birds I saw were these sandpipers by the mudflats. I know this isn't a spectacular photo, but they were really far away, and I realized that even a 190mm zoom isn't good enough for birding purposes.

Time to consider the Panasonic FZ18!

In addition to shelters, there is a number of wooden screens like this one that lets people observe the birds without being noticed.

There are also two platforms that extend into the Straits of Johor, providing a nice vista of the coast and an unobstructed view of Johor Bahru.

This location is so near Malaysia that my cell phone keeps switching to Maxis service, and I received four "Welcome to Malaysia" SMS messages.

When I was at platform 1, some enthusiasts were observing something through their spotting telescope. They were using what looks like a 50mm instrument, which is adequate for birding purposes.

But I was constantly thinking to myself: "it's a midget compared to my 80mm Celestron astronomical telescope. Us space geeks have the fattest glass in the business. MUAHAHAHAHAR!"

Sorry ladies... it's a boy thing.

As I mentioned earlier, even at full optical zoom I couldn't get much detail out of my Nikon L5. I tried to use digital zoom, but I got a smudgy-looking result instead.

Here is a photo of a heron from about 30 metres away - I would have preferred to see the details of its eyes, but I guess that's the reason why you'd need a bazooka telephoto lens.

And here's a plover that was dipping its head in and out of the water to peck for food, making pretty circular waves around it.

Quite a noisy little chirper.

Awww it's so cute, just like a little ducky!

Though birds are the star attractions in this park, occasionally other interesting animals also wander into view. Take for example this butterfly, resting on a leaf.

Or this beetle that strayed into the gravel footpath and scurried away towards safety. It had such a bright red colour that it looked like a plastic toy.

One can imagine the delight that Wallace felt when he collected beetles like these in Singapore over 150 years ago.

And last but definitely not least, the magnificent Malayan water monitor - a common sight in the wetlands area.

Over 1.5m long on average, it's quite agile and can also be seen swimming casually in the ponds around the visitor centre.

Psst, tell you something... I saw a pair of these lizards engaging in lurid PDA (public displays of affection) just outside the ticket counter.

Such scandalous exhibitionism in front of curious, underaged kids.

(Of course I took a video of it.)


Please people, won't anyone think of the children!

Aside from the natural sights on offer, there are many thought-provoking signs scattered throughout the park. This quotation by Emerson is a good example. Often we like to think of success and failure as opposing states on a single dimension, but in reality they are very context-dependent.

In fact, the exact same reason why something fails for one purpose can end up making it useful for another purpose. 3M stickies is a classic example, but there is another obscure example in stem cell biology, which I'll talk about some other time, if people want to know.

Here's another thoughtful sign. Intended as a reminder not to litter the park, I find that it has deeper meaning.

For one day, like the great dinosaurs before us, nothing will be left of our presence on Earth save a few fossils and footprints.

What is the footprint that you wish to leave behind for future generations?

Is a poem? A song?

A mountain of non-biodegradable plastic waste?

(Note to self: do NOT mention Paris Hilton.)

Or an infamous sex video?


There are funny signs too. Here's a cafe that doesn't cater to human customers - quick bites for hungry shorebirds on the go.

"Waiter, the soup is too salty!"

Of all the signs in the park, this has to be my favourite.

PhD students know what it means.

(If it doesn't make sense to you, wait until the third year.)

Finally - there is an 18m-tall observation tower in the middle of the park, also called an Aerie. An opportunity to take yet another panorama!

In this panorama the camera is facing east. Johor Bahru is on the left and the main hide is slightly left of centre. You can see some white birds in the centre of the photo.

And that concludes my tour of the park. If you have some free time this weekend, why not go to Kranji MRT and check out some animals in action?

Then, after you're done with the horse races, come to Sungei Buloh for a bit of the ol' peace and quiet.

I'd bet you'll need it.

Photo Gallery Five

Fresh Brainz photo galleries are usually about funny pictures, but this one marks a somewhat poignant moment.

After 18 months of good service, our workhorse camera has suffered a sensor malfunction and can no longer take photographs.

Here is its last collection of photos before the band went silent...

(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Leaving port
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Last catch of the day
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

...and this is the last photo it took, a clusters of flowers in bloom - photo number 2230.

Here is the portrait of the machine itself.


Yes I feel a little sad. Only geeks will feel sad when a machine dies.

On the upside, Fresh Brainz will continue to bring you many pretty photos with a new camera!

The Nikon Coolpix L5, which I won in a photo competition (using the S600, no less).

And the first assignment for the L5?

A trip to Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, coming right up!

Would you like to know more?

- Photo Gallery Four
- Funny Signs

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

Tagged by Glendon, our accomplished science-loving artist!

A blogging and scientific experiment.

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ...".

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

*You can leave them exactly as is.

*You can delete any one question.

*You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...:, or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

*You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...”.

*You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the "parent" blog you got them from, e.g. Fresh Brainz to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My parent is The Flying Trilobite.

The best time travel short story in SF/Fantasy is:
A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury.

The best romantic movie in scientific dystopias is:
Blade Runner (1982).

The best sexy song in rock is:
All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You (1990) from Heart.

I call upon the following to continue this scientific experiment:

The Ethical Palaeontologist

Evolutionary Middleman

Otterman Speaks

Live long and prosper!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Exorcism vs Psychiatry

Sometimes when I read news like this, I feel like I'm still living in medieval times...

Woman in exorcism suit hid long psychiatric history: defence lawyer

(Strait Times 24 Oct 07)

MADAM Amutha Valli, 50, who is at the centre of the exorcism suit against Novena Church, did not tell the priests who came her help of her long medical history of mental disability, which her family members knew about, said a defence lawyer at the opening of the trial on Wednesday morning.

Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim, who is defending Father Jacob Ong, one of the 10 defendants being sued by Madam Valli, dismissed her allegations as an 'incredible story', and 'a well-hatched up scam'.

In his opening statement, Mr Yim dwelled at length on Madam Valli's psychiatric history, culled from reports by doctors at National University Hospital where she had been seeing since 1986.

'If the plaintiff's family, who were in the best position to assess the plaintiff's condition knowing her past medical and psychiatric history, had formed the view that medical assistance would have been more appropriate in the circumstances, they could and should have brought her to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which is no more than several hundred metres away from the Church,' he told the court.

'The plaintiff has a long medical and psychiatric history of mental disability which the family members knew about but which was not mentioned to the defendants at anytime that night.'

From the available information it does appear that Madam Valli was in need of psychiatric treatment long before the incident happened. I don't know where this case will go.

However, if I see a person "slithering like a snake, shouting and screaming like Satan* and marching like a soldier", it's a good time to call a doctor.

NOT a good time to sprinkle holy water on her and restrain her for hours in a confined space.

Do you really need to know her psychiatric history in order to know what to do??!?

When somebody suddenly collapses in public, I would assess the person's condition, call for an ambulance and perform CPR if necessary.

No need to know about that person's medical history at all.

So how would you differentiate between a behaviour that is caused by evil spirits and one that is caused by psychiatric illness?

And if such outbursts can be potentially caused by evil spirits, why are evil spirits so afraid of antipsychotic drugs?

If exorcism works, please show us the data so that we can spare schizophrenia patients the suffering of side-effects such as extrapyramidal symptoms.

In the meantime, remind me not to make friends with people who would "help" me in this manner the next time I behave erratically**.

Which happens, oh... at least twice a week.

On a good week.

Would you like to know more?

How it feels like to be a schizophrenia patient:
- My 12 hours as a madman (by Sidney Katz)

*My question for Mr. Tito Isaac, defence lawyer representing Father Simon Tan:
How do you know what Satan sounds like?

**Erratic relative to social norms, which is looking less and less normal to me nowadays.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pop Goes The Tyre

I had planned to blog about my visit to a nature park last weekend, but something unusual suddenly popped up this evening.

A tyre, in fact.

Though nothing serious, seeing a bus tyre pop just below me is a fairly uncommon experience, so you get to hear about it!

This is what happened.

I got on a double-decker bus during the evening rush hours and went to the upper deck.

At first the bus was nearly empty, but as it neared the destination it was jam-packed with people who had just gotten off work.

I was looking down on the left side of the bus when suddenly I felt a slight rumble.

Then *WHOOSH* a tyre jumped out onto the road!

It actually rolled alongside for a few seconds, just like in those video games!


Anyway, the bus driver must have felt it (or felt the controls getting sluggish), because he pulled the vehicle aside and gradually brought it to a halt.

He then hopped out to take a quick look at the damage. I could see from his disappointed expression that he knew this would be a long evening.

Some people weren't sure what was going on.

I turned to inform the poker-faced passenger next to me that we just lost a tyre.

He removed his earphones.

"We just lost a tyre," I said again.

I'm not sure if he understood me or not, because he simply stuffed the earphones back into his ears without changing his facial expression.

A true blue Singaporean!

Well, apathy or no apathy, the bus clearly wasn't going anywhere, so I went to the lower deck.

The bus driver was busily issuing complimentary tickets for the passengers to catch the next bus.

I took one and went outside to look at the busted tyre.

Here's one reason why you should carry a camera wherever you go:

As you can see from the photo, the bus was practically running on the metal rim of the broken tyre for the past hundred metres or so.

Despite a full load of passengers the vehicle did not exhibit any noticeable tilt after the tyre burst - testament to its sound design.

On closer inspection you can see what appears to be the shredded remains of an inner tube. I was a little surprised to see this because I thought that modern car tyres no longer have a separate inner tube.

Maybe it's different for buses.

Oh and you can also see a spot of silver on the rear corner of the wheel well. I'll come back to this later.

Stuck on the side of the road, the bus driver dutifully issued complimentary tickets while expressionless passengers filed silently out of the bus.

People were walking ahead to catch another bus, but your good narrator walked in the opposite direction instead.

Why? I could have sworn that I saw one whole tyre jump out onto the road, but if the bus used tyres with integral inner tubes, then maybe it was simply a large broken fragment.

To check that my eyes were not fooling me, I walked about a hundred metres back.

Scanning the left side of the road, I could only find some scraps of torn rubber.

But when I looked at the central divider...

... there it was, the intact outer layer of the tyre looking rather forlorn as rush hour traffic passed it by.

Some passing vehicle must have kicked it onto the central divider.

What's more interesting are the purple-coloured marks on the tyre. When I was at the scene I had no idea where they came from.

Later while examining these photos at home, I saw the silver patch in the rear corner of the wheel well and realized that the poor tyre must have been jabbed by the sharp corner after it burst, scuffing off the paintjob and leaving tell-tale purple marks on its surface.

The potential energy stored in the tyre when it was caught between the wheel well corner and the road would have wound it up like spring, causing it to jump away from the bus.

Hey this sounds a little like that CSI show!

I Won Something

National Stadium Photography Competition 2007
(Merit Prize)

Would you like to know more?

- I didn't win this competition

Things That No Longer Make Sense

I like advertisements.

Weird and dramatic print adverts.

TV commercials with catchy jingles (ultra-absorbent diapers anyone? 谁怕谁,乌龟怕铁锤!) or credit card/ jewellery/ car commercials featuring hot babes.

Not like I'll really remember what they're selling, but I certainly can't forget that song.

Or that hot babe.

I am appreciating advertisements as a art form in itself!

(Technically that means they failed on me.)

Unfortunately, doing science has diminished some of my simpler pleasures in life.

The ol' "upstairs" doesn't work like it used to.

Take this FedEx ad for example:

Anyone can clearly see what it's trying to say.

"Choose an unreliable delivery service and risk making many, many, many people angry... so choose FedEx!"

But my philosophy-battered brain sees two disjointed statements that do not connect in any meaningful way.

The first statement itself already lacks qualification (do late deliveries always make people angry? They make me resigned to fate, for example).

But the second only gives you China's population size.

It doesn't say anything else and it certainly doesn't follow that some late deliveries can somehow piss off 1.3 billion people at the same time.

Here let me rewrite the first sentence so that you can see the problem more clearly.

"Pretty flowers make people happy. China has 1.3 billion people."

So invest in Ah Lim's flower company and become rich, rich, RICH!

Not quite.

Pretty flowers don't make everyone happy.

China doesn't have a 1.3 billion-strong market for pretty flowers, and they also have their own flower companies.

Besides, Ah Lim's flower company cannot produce 1.3 billion flowers anyway.

See why it doesn't make sense?

To make things worse, my psychology-clobbered brain sees something else - the two statements hints at a subconscious desire to dominate the delivery market in China.

Rather than showcasing the efficiency of their company, they are dripping with ambition.


Such complex thoughts and strong emotions from a simple, eye-catching advertising billboard.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Section 377A Dickfight!

You know, I used to think that Singapore is filled with completely boring, poker-faced people.

Now... it's still filled with completely boring, poker-faced people.

But our comedic talents are highly underrated.

Not to be outdone by (see earlier post), proponents of criminalizing homosexual conduct have set up the website to let the "majority" have their say.

Although I doubt that the administrators of either website will admit it - this has turned into a classic dickfight!

So... who has the longer penis now?

As of 11.00am this morning, repeal377A has 6957 signatures and keep377A has 6444 signatures, so repeal377A is currently in the lead.

However, we must bear in mind that keep377A is only one-day-old, so it's a strong showing for the new upstart!

Concerned with the phenomenal growth rate of keep377A, the administrators of repeal377A has decided to extend their deadline from 19 to 21 October.

The webmaster has also sent an email to people who signed their online petition to encourage more family members and friends to sign the letter.

Wha...? Has this turned into a numbers game?

Eventually the whole purpose of this exercise will be forgotten and people will be so busy comparing penis lengths that they'll won't even remember what Section 377A means.

Or maybe they never knew what it means to begin with.

Just look at the comments section of both websites!

To be fair, many people seem to know what's going on, but it won't take you long to uncover gems like these (my comments in parentheses):

from Repeal377A...

"Dear PM Lee,Please also repeal the laws against bestiality, necrophilia and sex with minors! Afterall, those people are also like us and cannot help the fact that they are born this way! Let's all be GAY together and turn Singapore GAY! Yay!" (Wrong website, buddy.)

"Please maintain this law. " (Wrong website, buddy.)


"What's next? Allow pedophile to roam freely just because they cannot control their urge or they are "born" with it?" (Wrong website, buddy. Look people, this is now a dickfight, so don't help your opponents by bolstering their numbers OK?)

"Our integrity sells for so little but it's all we really have. It is the very last inch of us but within that inch we are free."(Leave my integrity and my last inch out of this.)

"There has to be a certain limit to things." (Some things are limitless.)

"This act if passed will be a case of human rights violation in sunny singapore" (Section 377A has been around since 1938. So you didn't pass.)

"Everyone is born differently in different environments. Including albino. Right?" (Wrong.)

"Whether a person is a robber, a thief, a homosexual or a lesbian, he or she can carry on with their activities. Just don't get caught, for, you'll be charged under Section XXX of the Penal Code. Think about it!" (No thanks.)

from Keep377A...

"I do not subscribe to discreminate ing condemnation and judgement of private activities. They are private in nature and are so are private matters. And also being aimed at one particular group and act, while ignoring like Lesbians, etc. And so this Penal Code should not have been around in the first place. Please see my comments under the same in under repeal377A to find out more." (Wrong website, buddy.)

"Having 2 lovely children have given me a stronger resolve to anchor my beliefs and what I want my Singapore to be when they grow up. Imagine where we would be if our parents were single sex and had a dog instead. I will love the person but will NOT support the lifestyle." (Something sounds seriously wrong here...)

"What succession will there be in a nation if there is no natural pro-creation in a family unit?" (Good question. See the above comment to see how it'll work.)

"Yes, I don't support gay lifestyle. Anyway sex is a private affair and if they want to do it, will anyone know if they both agree to keep to it and are agreeable? Why should they repeal the gay sex laws and make gay lifestyle mainstream? As a straight guy, I feel threatened and vulnerable. Who knows one day if some horny gay man will sneak up on me and try to rape me? And I can imagine the law letting the rapist go because he did not break the law ... " (He would have broken the law. So go read a book.)

"Absolutely a no-go. First and foremost and divinely authoritative, God utterly condemns homosexuality. He created man and woman, Adam and Eve, and commanded them to multiply. He did not make Adam and STEVE and surely he did not issue any such commandment to Adam and Steve because there was no Adam and Steve." (Leave Steve out of this.)

"God abhor homosexuality and may destroy the city that condones or practise homosexuality. Thus, please retain Section 377A, Penal Code to protect the people in Singapore. Thank you." (Ho ho, is that right? Are you expecting a divine catastrophe that will destroy USA, South Africa, UK, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and China? Tell you something, my friend, a catastrophe is already happening. It's called global warming. And we are not exempt.)

"The Universe move forth in just ONE direction. Anything that tries to go against it is just going for destruction." (Which direction is that?)

"If man is supposed to have sex with man, then why have woman?" (Another superb question. If woman is supposed to have sex with woman, then why have man, you sexist pig.)

"It was Adam and Eve God created. Not Adam and Steve. :)" (What's with the obsession with STEVE!?!!)

This is turning into an embarrassing black comedy.

Wait... that gives me a great idea!

If you are fed up of all this dick-waving, go to Piahzui377A and leave a *wink* there.

Don't be a silent silent majority!

Would you like to know more?

Critiques of NMP Thio Li-Ann's speech regarding Section 377A in parliament:
NMP Thio Li-Ann and her intellectually inferior arguments - In the land of the blind, one eye man is king. (Easy to read)
Hiding behind rhetoric - Used brains for sale (With additional legal insight)
- Thio Li-Ann's speech in Parliament - La Nausée (Intellectual rebuttal with some difficult words)