Saturday, February 28, 2009

Evolution or Devolution?

Feb this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the English naturalist, Charles Darwin.

In 1859, his book 'On the Origin of Species' established the theory of evolution. His works were seen as both revolutionary and revolting, depends on your moral beliefs, core values and guiding principles.

His theory sparked critics from many as it was tough for some to accept the link between man and apes. Amidst the arguments and discussions, the term 'Darwinism' was born. Today, the term is used to mean philosophies about biology as well as society evolution. The idea of "survival of the fittest" is an offshoot of "Darwinism".

Darwin's works were controversial but highly influential. When he died in 1882, he became one of the few non-royal persons who were given a UK state funeral during the 19th century.

Now, lexicographers are also getting involved in evolution. They studied the evolution of English words and have identified some oldest words. They claim that "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Using a supercomputer, the researchers found out how rapidly words evolve and are replaced through time. Their computer model can also predict which words are likely to become extinct in the future. For some reasons, words such as "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" stand a high chance of being the next casualties.

Today, every other thing is going through evolution, not necessarily in the biological sense. Among all, the fastest evolution must have come from the technological arena.

If we trace the history from the time of the British Industrial Evolution in the 18th Century, the speed of technological evolution appears to be going towards an exponential rate. Today, new technology hits the street everyday.

New terms and ideas such as 'screenless display', 'genetic engineering', 'nanotechnology' and 'bio fuels' are just some mind boggling emerging technologies. Before you know it, emerging technologies soon become passe leaving us to wonder what comes next.

Homo sapiens, aka, human, evolved 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. I take it that we have become better through evolution to get to where we are today. If that is the case, we indeed have taken a very long time.

Human evolution will not stop here. What is interesting to ponder is how technology might interfere in the natural pace of evolution. Will we evolve at a faster rate simply because we are now good at using technology to hasten and modify our bodily capabilities?

With technology, we may one day think like computers, run like antelopes, live a long life like the giant tortoises, have eye sight of eagles and hearing of dogs.

I am not sure if all these sound exciting to you but I am not particularly looking forward to any of them. There are probably many reasons and partly it could be due to my lack of ability to adapt fast enough. Besides, I feel sick just picturing us turning into humanoids.

Right now, I am sleepy. I hope that one day, human can stop relying on sleep as a way of energy renewal. When that time comes, sleep will just be a pastime, a luxury and a lifestyle.

For now, sleep is a necessity and I am signing off to do just that.

Good night.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Day To Get Nutty

Today is Pistachio Day!

I know, it sounds weird but there is no harm feeling nutty on a day like this and find out a little more about, well, the nut itself.

Pistachio nut is not native to the regions around Singapore. In fact, I don't remember eating it during my childhood days at all. The type of nuts I was familiar with were those found on the Kachang Puteh stalls which were usually outside cinemas. Interestingly, Pistachio is one of the earliest snacks dating back to the prehistoric days. For more than 9000 years, human have been snacking on the nut and it is one of the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 43:11).

Due to its high nutritional value and long storage life, pistachios were frequently carried by earlier travelers across the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the West.

Pistachio originated from the Middle East but today, California is one of the major producers in the world, second to Iran. It is a hardy desert plant and is highly tolerant to harsh weather conditions. However, it cannot withstand high humidity and that probably explains why it is not found in this region.

The nut has a hard shell and a characteristic open hull when it is ripe. Its split hull resemble a 'laughing mouth' and thus it is also known as 'smiling nut' in Iran and 'happy nut' by the Chinese (开心果).

Pistachio plants are 'polygamous'. In the orchards, one male plant usually goes with 8-12 female plants. Female trees produce their first 'offspring' at about age five and can go on for a long time till they are 200! In fact, Iran claims that they have a 700-year-old tree still living. Wow! Perhaps there is truly some correlation between being happy and longevity :)

The nuts are usually harvested during end summer / early autumn. Mechanical tree shakers are used to shake the nuts off the trees and the nuts must be hulled and dried immediately to preserve their delicacy quality. Quite an amusing sight, actually. Take a look at the
video if you are curious to see how the nuts come raining down.

There are many researches done on pistachios as a health food. It is found that pistachios are ranked as one of the top nuts to improve heart health. This is due to the rich content of phytosterols, a type of plant chemicals that have been shown to reduce cholesterol. Another study also found that eating pistachios may reduce your body's response to the stresses of everyday life.

What a coincidence - eating the 'happy nut' can indeed make you happier, or at least, less stressed.

Pistachios are also great as a cooking ingredient. There are tons of recipes on how the nuts can be used to form part of a dish. One of the most popular uses of pistachios is ice cream, a creation credited to a James Parkinson in the 1940s.

The next time you munch on Pistachios in front of the TV, don't discard the shells. Even the shells can be useful. For example, you can use them as drainage chips in pots and plants. Not only you can save some money during this credit crunch time, the shells also serve as snail deterrent as they dislike the sharp edges and the salt on the shells.

As I was checking out about all the nutty facts, I found one thing really fascinating about pistachios. Apparently, these nuts are highly flammable when stored in large quantities. They are prone to self-heating and spontaneous combustion because of their high fat and low water content. I cannot imagine our Lunar New Year pistachio packet, sick of being left alone for too long and decides to set itself aflame on my food console table.

Inspired by the wonderfulness of Pistachio yet? You can consider becoming a fan of
Pistachios on Facebook and get nutty about it!

It's indulgence time and be happy...

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Invasion Of The Web

Last week, it was reported that Singapore is now the most wired nation in the world.

At 99.9% household broadband penetration rate, the number is close to 'pure gold'. At this rate, we are ahead of South Korea (92%), Hong Kong (83.8%) and Taiwan (76.8%).

This is quite a feat considering 3 years ago, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) was just aiming at 90% by 2015. At that time, the penetration rate was 50% and the 90% target seemed rather stretched, if not, realistic.

I admit that my initial reaction towards the improved penetration rate was a skeptical one. I know many people do have access to broadband at home. However, 99.9% seems incredibly high!. As it turned out, it was because of the way the statistics were put together.

The IDA explained that the high rate is due to the fact that some families have more than one mode of broadband access, such as, having a fixed home connection and a portable modem as well. So, on an average, the overall access rate is high.

The improvement is also largely due to cheaper charges by telcos. Three years ago, telcos were charging $47 a month for Net-access speeds of 512kbps. Now, a user can surf at speeds of 10MBps for less than that.

In fact, the 99.9% does not include subscriptions to 3G plans and Wi-Fi hotspots, which are accessed outside homes. Putting all these together, it gives me a feeling that almost every other person here ought to be connected to the Internet.

If that is the case, are we now more informed than three years ago? I am not too sure about that.

I was having a casual chat with a co-worker just the other day and our conversation kind of strayed into the domain of wireless, a topic which I did not expect to last beyond a few sentences as I did not really have much to say.

But to my surprise, it was terminated before we could even begin as she asked cluelessly, "What is wireless?"

Well, I supposed we still have that 0.1% to work on.

However, compared to many other countries, the issue of digital divide is not very big here. It helps that we are a tiny and compact city state and getting connected is relatively simpler than doing the same over a huge mass of land.

Picture this: In a backward village in Nepal, people live in simple huts and grow their own food. In their living rooms, the dwellers surf the Internet with their computers, just like what I am doing now, wirelessly.

Difficult as it may be, the Internet has already penetrated the rural parts of the world, thanks to the availability of technology which enable them to set up wireless base stations at more affordable cost.

Many of these villagers are using the Internet free of charge or at very low cost. They are the beneficiaries of some charitable organisations which are committed to bring the world wide web to the less privileged.

One Singapore company, Smartbridges, which has set up a charitable foundation for this purpose, is one such example.

Increasingly, the ability to access to information quickly has become key to survival, both for developed and developing nations. Internet connection will soon become, if not, has become as basic as other needs such as food, clean water and sanitation. It is no longer a luxury.

To live up to its name, world wide web must indeed be 'world wide' and we are on our way there. Given this, if we, the people living in the most wired nation, are still giving ourselves excuses not to get connected effectively, we are merely waiting to be replaced.

Don't let that happen to you.

"A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about.”- Douglas Adam (British Writer)

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Slumdog: Glamorization Of The Poor

It is just one more day to the 81st Oscar Academy Awards.

There are many award categories but all eyes are usually on the "Best Picture" award. "Slumdog Millionaire" is one of the "Best Picture" nominees that caught my attention. This movie has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, quite a feat for a low budget movie, set and filmed in India by British Director Danny Boyle.

The movie is about the story of a young man from the slums of Mumbai who was on his way to the last question in the famous "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" game show. His unexpected progress in the quiz show has aroused suspicion. Few could accept that a slum boy could have known so much or that he has been so lucky.

The general reaction towards the movie is just phenomenal and it has received tons of critical praises. I shall not go on with the plots lest I will be accused of being a spoiler. For now, I just want to go into a more sombre issue of child poverty.

The UN believes that there are 44 million children in India who are working when they should be schooling and they live in deplorable conditions in slums. That number is probably a conservative estimates as no one, not even the Indian Government, knows precisely how many children are growing up in slums, denied access to education and basic amenities.

Some of these children are trafficked and are forced to work or beg. Some of them inflicted with bodily harm so as to make them more 'effective' in begging. It is not uncommon to find children maimed or blinded and they are often abused, exploited or neglected.

The movie reveals much about life in the slums and gives an honest portrayal of child poverty. It has created lots of awareness for people outside India especially those in the West. However, the Indians are not particularly happy about it.

First of all, the title of the movie is considered offensive and derogatory to many Indians. "Slumdog!" Why dog and not other choice of words such as boy, child, kid or hero? In fact, a lawsuit has been filed against the movie makers for the inappropriate title.

The child actors of the movie, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail were plucked from one of Mumbai's slums to star in this Oscar-winning movie. Ironically, their lives have been greatly affected by the success of the movie.

Their families are upset as they feel that the actors were not adequately paid and that they continue to live in slums. In fact, Azharuddin is worse off now as their illegal hut was demolished by the local authorities and he now sleeps under a plastic tarpaulin sheet. They obviously need cash and not the Oscars.

The Indians are protesting against the movie portraying the darker aspects of life in their homeland. They are not proud that people outside are getting excited about their slums and digging in to find out more. Many of them are used to the glittering and escapism style of the typical Bollywood movies and they now find "Slumdog" harsh and unpolished.

Some of the Mumbai's poor also clearly unhappy about the movie. They protested with banners reading "Poverty for Sale" and "I am not a dog" outside the home of Anil Kapoor, one of the film's stars.

The local papers carry critical reviews on the movie and their headlines which say "Slum Slam" and "Poverty Porn" speak loudly of their displeasure.

On the other hand, the movie makers claim that they have paid the actors and their family money. They explained that the welfare for the children have been their top priority and for that reason, they have enrolled them in school.

The movie makers also said that they set up trust funds for the children but will not disclose the amount, other than saying it is substantial. They are concern that the disclosure will make the kids vulnerable to exploitation.

The movie is an adaptation from the book "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup. I have not read the book nor have I watched the movie. I am not sure if I will be more inspired by the book or the movie, but, my brief knowledge about the story is enough to sadden me. I am bothered by the millions others who are still trapped in poverty.

The slum kids live in conditions which are worse off than prisoners in many countries. Most of them will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. For crimes that they did not commit or will probably never commit, they have been sentenced to life imprisonment right from the time of birth.

I do not rule out that I might like the movie (yes, I very much would like to watch it soon). However, I am somewhat taken aback by the excitement shown in the west.

Are they thrilled because the movie helps to heighten the world's awareness on the suffering of the people living in the Indian slums?

Are they awakened because they never knew the slums existed while they whine about the slightest set back in their lives?

Are they disturbed because the film seems so real and contrasting

to their much cushier life which they have taken for granted?

Or perhaps it is just a simple case of glamorization of the poor leading to the hype awaiting to fade off?

When the viewers watch the labyrinthine Mumbai slums, their hearts are naturally drawn towards the slum people in the movie. They feel for the characters, they are moved by the story and they are inspired by the hope. However, it remains to be seen if the movie is going to make any difference to the majority of the Indian population who are living in grinding poverty. After the initial enthusiasm dissipates through time, "Slumdog" is probably just another piece of history in the silver screen industry.

I guess while the Indians prefer the extravagant melodramatic Bollywood movies, those outside enjoy taking a peek into something more real. The last time an Indian movie stirred a similar sensation was in 1982 when "Ghandi" was screened. The epic movie presented India's poverty, crime, corruption and communal tensions with little reservation. For that, the movie swept eight Oscars.

It is a pity that "Slumdog" is rated NC-16 here. The Singapore Board of Film Censors has explained that the higher rating is due the repeated use of several strong, course Hindi expletives. I can understand where they are coming from but for goodness sake, the so called 'course language' is in Hindi and few are likely to be affected by it. Besides, these unacceptable expressions are not shown in the the subtitles.

The Board could have exercised flexibility in lowering the rating to PG but warn the Hindi speaking viewers of the possible disturbing use of the language. Let the viewers exercise their discretion.

I personally feel that the movie will be an eye-opener to our youngsters. Life in Singapore can be tough, especially given the current recession. However, even if you are living in a small flat and earning a meager income, the movie can still sting you with a harsh reminder that you are to count your blessing. Compared to the poverty stricken slum dwellers, your spartan flat is their palace and you are their millionaire.

No matter what you are going through right now, cherish your blessings. You can't be worse than those miserable beings stuck in the slums.

If you have watched the movie, do share your thoughts.

Lastly, if you wish to know the outcome of the Academy Awards, tune in to the live telecast on Monday, 9am, on MediaCorp's Channel 5. You will also get a glimpse of the child actors who have been flown to L.A. to attend the Oscars.


Similar Story:

Set Them Free!

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's In A Gr8 Name?

It wasn't too long ago when I wrote about names. I shall do it a again. (See What's In A Name?

You see, name is a special privilege for human. Not all animals have given names unless they happen to be human pets. Names stay with us for as long as we live and for a long time after that as well (hopefully, and in a good way too).

The Straits Times reported on 15 Feb that having a double western name is an in-thing today. Names such as Shaun Perry Png and Melissa Penny Tan, feature a middle name. As the concept of a middle name is unusual in Asia, having it gives a certain aura of uniqueness and perhaps, sophistication too. Well, so long as you stay away from the juvenile version such as Tom Jerry Lim or the quirky version such as Passion Feliciality Tan.

While names are fairly fanciful today, it was not the case many decades ago.

In the last one or two generations, our old time parents were usually quite clueless as to what they would name their children until they were born.

Our folks in those days were usually illiterate farmers, fishermen and workers and naming was not an easy thing. To them, simple names like "Ah Moi" (little girl) and "Tua Tow" (big head) were good enough. For some reasons, names of animals, such as "Ah Kow" (dog) and "Ah Gu" (Cow) became common as they were seen as good for the children. It was believed that giving meaningful names using words such as "long" (龙,dragon) could be too 'loud' and the children may end up being punished by gods.

Some parents left the matter to the midwives. For greater efficiency, the midwives would 'recycle' names and many "Ah Kow's" and "Ah Gu's" left the labour rooms everyday.

Try looking into a telephone book and you should be able to find many "Tan Ah Kow's" which is our local version of John Smith. I personally know more than a handful of "Ah Kow's".

Today, it would be seen as insane to name our children after household pets or farm animals. If you hardly see any such names around, it is because many "Tan Ah Kow's" and "Lim Ah Gu's" are hiding behind names such as "James Tan" and "John Lim". Some probably have a middle name too.

I was lucky not to be given a name of that genre and I am grateful that my parents considered naming a serious business. In fact, it got too serious that mom and dad could not compromise on their choice name. So, I ended up with two.

Being the head of the family, dad's choice got into the official document aka birth certificate and mom's was used by people in the family and neighborhood. I was only told about the existence of my 'official' name when I went to school.

Naming is usually a matter left to the parents. However, the National Registration Department of Malaysia has decided to intervene. They are mindful that the country's multi-ethnic community comprising Malays, Indians and Chinese and some names may be 'undesirable'.

The department has put up a list of such names in a bid to spare a child the blushes when he/she grows up. Listen to some of these no-no names: Ah Gong (unsound mind), Chai Too (pig), Kai Chai(chick) and Sum Seng (gangster).

While it is crass to name your son, Ah Kow (dog) or Karruppan (black fellow), other Indian words like Sivappi and Vellayan (both meaning fair), and Amma-Kannu (mother's eye) are also on the list.

The situation in Malaysia may sound weird but it is not unusual for government to intervene in child naming.

In this SMS era, spelling words with numbers is not uncommon. For example, "Gr8" means "Great" and "2moro" means "Tomorrow".

A couple in New Zealand was obviously being contemporary and wanted to name their child "4Real". The authorities in New Zealand rejected the name as the rules state that names starting with a number are not allowed.

The couple had argued that since names ending with a 'number' is allowed, as in "John Williams III", they did not see a problem with their choice. It seemed that 'uniqueness' is an important criterion as the couple's second choice was "Superman".

Do you think Singapore authorities should intervene in "creative" naming too? Can you accept names such as "Pondan Choo" or "Bodoh Tan" or "*Gr8est Lau"?

If the general sentiment is "why not", then I think the relevant authorities might want to seriously consider banning unsavoury names.

Parents, spare a thought for the child and do distinguish between 'unique' and 'harmful'.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Making Running An Extreme Sport?

Queer as it may sound but the thought of running is enough to make me tired.

I am sure good runners swear that there are techniques involved in running. Somehow, compared to other sports such as tennis and golf, the so called techniques are less visible. This is because little or no sports equipment is used in running. Surely you do not hear anyone go "Wow! Look at that swing!" when they watch a running event on TV! In fact, in a long distance running race, there is nothing much to watch other than at the finish line.

Running is such a convenient sport and yet it is not my game. I have nothing against running, actually. In fact, I admire runners.

In my earlier blog article (
Running With A Mind Of Steel) , I gave my dedication to marathon runners. To me, running a 42-km race is tough but running a ultramarathon is even more jaw-dropping.

The Brazil 135 Ultramarathon is one such race.

On 23 Jan, 55-year old Singaporean Lim Nghee Huat took part in the race and run five times the distance of full marathon. He came in 26th and became the first Asian to complete the 217- km race, taking a total time of 52h:37m.

Man! I can't even run 2.4 km without feeling like I am halfway to hell and this guy makes running sound so easy!

Brazil 135 Ultramarathon is extremely difficult because it takes place in the Serra da Mantiqueira mountains. Only 20 km out of the 217 km are on flat land and the rest are either uphill or downhill. The cut-off time for this non-stop foot race is 60 hours and that is a solid two and a half days!

The race in Brazil is part of the 135 Mile World Cup Series. The other two are 'Badwater Ultramarathon' which is a race in the desert and 'Arrowhead Ultra', which is a race in the snow.

That was not the first time Lim took part in an ultramarathon. In Jul 2007, he completed the 217-km Death Valley Challenge, the world hottest non-stop foot run with a time of 51h:49m.

Lim is no stranger to the running community. He had represented Singapore in triathlon competitions as well as the grueling Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in 1989, where he was the fastest finisher from Asia outside Japan. He has been a running champion since 1972 and has set two national records when he ran 168 km round Singapore to help raise funds for the National Technological University's Endowment Fund in 2005. He was then 52, the oldest runner and he emerged in first placing with a timing of 24h:45m.

After the Brazil race, Lim is already planning for his next venture. He intends to run a distance of about 1,000 km from the South of Thailand to Singapore. (I would have just taken a plane!)

Since 2005, Lim has been dedicating his ultramarathon runs to raise funds for the community. For his race in Brazil, he raised $20,000 and he decided that it shall be dedicated to the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA). He noted that the STTA has been attaining outstanding achievements in recent international competitions and that was his way to show his appreciation to STTA for making Singapore proud.

However, I am somewhat taken aback by his 'act of charity' for two reasons:

Firstly, $20,000 seems so meagre compared to the effort involved in the race and secondly, why STTA when a long list of people are surely in a more dire situation than the paddlers?

Lim must have felt very strongly about the glory that STTA has brought to Singapore and besides, it is his total prerogative to decide on who should receive the fund. Nonetheless, I hope that for his next race, he will consider raising funds for those who are more in need of help.

If you are inspired to do the same, you can consider starting your training regime like Lim. In order to prepare for the Ultramarathon, he ran 45-80 km every weekend and 15-20 km on weekdays since Oct 2008. (I don't even drive that far!) With that kind of rigorous training, perhaps you too can take part in the next ultramarathon.

I wish Lim all the best in his upcoming 1000-km race.

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