Kite

Watching an eagle soar across the hilltop circle of Bukit Dumbar Reservoir Park, and then be ambushed from seven o’clock by a Brahminy kite with its cotton-white head and red-rust body, and seeing a large snake writhe in the eagle’s claws as the two birds fly off into the distance still squabbling, with the little god of war in hot pursuit of the larger bird is quite a different experience than reading on Wikipedia that the kite “indulges in kleptoparasitism”.

But this is what I love about science, you can read about some random fact and then a long time later, have the chance to see it confirmed in front of your face. The feeling I had seeing the kite try to steal the snake is the same feeling as when, working on my own with makeshift reagents, I first managed to infect cells and stain them and see the brown-rimmed plaques and be like “muahahaha I HAZ CORONAVIRUS”.

Because we’re raised in a system where rote memorisation and blind obedience are rewarded, you just learn to keep your head down and your eyes blinkered against the living world. That some books actually contain knowledge about the real world and not just some bullshit that old people made up – the first time I experienced that, that connected all the dots, that was when the magic happened.

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When the sky is starless

My man put his book down, turned off his headlamp, and rolled over, back to me. We were planning to wake up before sunrise to get a good start on the long drive back to Cape Town airport, so although I wasn’t sleepy yet, I decided it was a signal to wind down too. I tossed my tablet aside and clicked my headlamp from white to red.

I unzipped the tent flap and fumbled for my toothbrush and Colgate in the toiletries bag. I find things by touch – that’s why I have an ostrich-leather wallet even though I dislike its look of chicken skin, magnified. One of my younger friends once dramatically declared that he would kill himself if he ever lost his sight. I hope I never lose mine either, but if it should happen I would regard it as a metamorphosis rather than an existential crisis.

I squirmed into my sneakers and crouched in the small vestibule, zipping the tent shut before unzipping the rain fly, as if in an airlock. Warm air mustn’t be wasted when you’re camping in the winter. The sea wind walloped my upper body as I stood up from the shelter of the campsite’s dry-stone wall. The reflective threads woven into the guylines sparkled eerily under the red lamp, like some species of demonic poison caterpillar.

In the direction of the roaring there is still a thick white band of seafoam visible, but beyond that, nothing but featureless grey until the faintest hint of starshine marks the sky at the horizon. If it had not been overcast I might have seen the black and amber beds of dying kelp still tossing up and down in the waves, their long twisty blades giving an illusion of seals breaching and diving.

I took from the cold firepit a half-litre Coke bottle filled with water that we had boiled and then treated with colloidal silver. When we came to these campsites at the mouth of Groenrivier we had realised that we had been mistaken in assuming that there was a piped water supply. As we had been about to make our way back to the reception office to fetch water – several kilometres away, with sunset approaching – I had spotted two JoJo tanks outside an rangers’ cottage just next to the campsites.

The cottage seemed to have been disused for some time; its door sagged on the hinges, the half-drawn curtains were dusty, and a toolbox abandoned outside had become a solid oblong of rust. The taps of the rainwater tanks were rusted and jammed shut, but my partner hoisted me onto one and I lifted the lid and filled our few bottles. Probably nobody would mind, but it had a slight savour of burglary. “I’ve had enough diarrhea for one weekend,” I insisted, having just recovered from some bad airport food. So fire, then silver.

Coming out of the stone circle, I walked around and crouched down in its lee to brush my teeth, looking around at the sky. Every five seconds the lighthouse a kilometre to the south swung its beam around clockwise. When it passed, the sky was velvety with a faint stippled texture. The only other light in that direction was a tiny artificial star, a torch or headlamp belonging to some late sleeper of our neighbours two hundred metres away.

The vegetation across the dirt road was Vantablack. In the daytime, we had seen beds and clusters of succulents with bright blooms and bushes with silvery grey needle-like leaves and tiny pale flowers. At night, its myriad textures simply drank up all the scant light.

To my left I was surprised to see another huge beam of light sweeping across the sky and wondered for a moment if there was another lighthouse to the north before realising it was only the beam of the southern lighthouse playing on a screen of clouds. Far, far to the northeast, just above the horizon, two faint stars finally peeked under the curtain.

Well. So much for stargazing in the unpolluted wilderness. I spat and rinsed my mouth twice, trying to dissolve the white detergent foam so that it wouldn’t be visible come daylight.

I crawled back into the tent filled with my sleeping partner’s warmth and scent, repeating the airlock process in reverse, writhed into my sleeping bag, and reached for my tablet. Listening to the wind scratching at the rain fly like a curious cat, I sat up to write.

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Mendahului propaganda anti-vaksin Covid-19

Sumber (versi asal dalam BI): https://www.malaymail.com/news/what-you-think/2021/02/23/pre-empting-the-anti-covid-19-vaccine-propaganda-amar-singh-hss-alan-teh-ke/1952040

23 FEBRUARI – Rencana ringkas ini bertujuan membantu kita memahami sebab-sebabnya jika berlaku beberapa kematian dalam kalangan mereka yang menerima vaksinasi Covid-19, terutamanya golongan warga emas.

Tujuan rencana ini adalah menentang pengaruh lobi anti-vaksin serta sebarang ancaman terhadap keberkesanan program pemvaksinan COVID-19 kebangsaan. Dalam rencana ini, kami akan merujuk kepada data dari United Kingdom (UK), Amerika Syarikat (AS) dan Kesatuan Eropah (EU) untuk menerangkan maksud kami.

Di AS, kadar kematian yang dilaporkan bagi golongan berusia 65 tahun ke atas pada tahun 2019 adalah 3,917 bagi setiap 100,000 bilangan penduduk (1,765 bagi setiap 100,000 untuk golongan yang berusia 65-74; 4,308 untuk golongan yang berusia 75-84 dan 13,299 untuk golongan yang berusia 85 tahun ke atas).

Sebab utama kematian bagi golongan 65 tahun ke atas di AS dan EU ialah penyakit jantung, strok (penyakit pendarahan otak), kanser dan penyakit pernafasan paru-paru; lebih kurang sama dengan Malaysia.

Andai kata kadar kematian ini adalah lebih kurang sama untuk rakyat Malaysia, ini bermakna bahawa bagi setiap 100,000 warga Malaysia berusia 65 tahun ke atas, lebih kurang 4,000 akan meninggal setiap tahun (dengan kadar yang lebih tinggi bagi yang lebih tua).

Ini setara dengan 75 kematian seminggu bagi setiap 100,000 orang yang berumur 65 tahun ke atas. Data daripada Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia (DOSM) menunjukkan bahawa 7.1 peratus daripada penduduk Malaysia berusia 65 tahun ke atas, iaitu 2.34 juta orang.

Ini bermaksud bahawa 1,755 kematian seminggu dijangka berlaku dalam kalangan warga Malaysia yang berusia 65 tahun ke atas, walaupun tiada vaksinasi Covid-19. Ini merupakan “baseline” (kadar dasar/kadar biasa) kematian yang dijangka setiap minggu.

Oleh itu, jika kita memberi vaksin Covid-19 kepada 100,000 warga Malaysia yang berusia 65 tahun ke atas, kita menjangka sekurang-kurangnya 75 orang akan meninggal dalam tempoh tujuh hari disebabkan penyakit lain misalnya serangan sakit jantung atau strok.

Ini BUKAN kematian yang disebabkan oleh vaksin, tetapi sebenarnya kematian yang sudah dijangka berlaku kerana penyakit-penyakit lain. Walau bagaimanapun, kerana vaksin Covid-19 telah diberi, beberapa individu mungkin mendakwa bahawa kematian tersebut disebabkan oleh vaksinasi dan turut menghasut pihak anti-vaksin.

Pada detik ini, melebihi 200 juta dos vaksin telah diberi di merata dunia. AS (CDC Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) dan UK (Department of Health Yellow Card reporting system) sedang memantau sebarang kejadian buruk yang berlaku selepas vaksinasi.

Setakat ini, daripada 26 juta dos vaksin yang sudah diberi di dua negara tersebut, beberapa kematian (kadar biasa) telah berlaku seperti yang dijangka, tetapi tinjauan laporan kematian tidak menujukkan bahawa vaksin memainkan peranan dalam kematian tersebut.

Satu-satunya kesan sampingan yang serius yang telah dikenal pasti ialah reaksi alahan berat (anaphylaxis) yang berlaku dalam 4 hingga 11 kes, daripada setiap 1,000,000 dos.

Kementerian Kesihatan kita akan memantau sebarang kejadian demikian selepas vaksinasi dan akan mencari bukti jika adanya kaitan antara vaksin dan sebarang kesan buruk.

Kita hanya perlu khuatir jikalau kadar kematian nyata meningkat besar dari kadar biasa.

Sedangkan kita akan memulakan program vaksinasi Covid-19 negara, amatlah penting untuk orang ramai memahami hakikat ini. Barangkali orang yang kita sayangi akan meninggal selepas vaksinasi, tetapi ini TIDAK mungkin disebabkan vaksin.

Sebagai orang umum kita patut ambil tahu tentang sains dan data terkini, bukan menjadi mangsa kepada khabar angin dan propaganda anti-vaksin.

* Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS, Pakar Pediatrik; Dr Alan Teh Kee Hean, Pakar Hematologi; Dr Lim Joo Kiong, Pakar Bedah; Professor Dr Nor Azmi Kamaruddin, Pakar Endokrinologi  dan Datin Dr Lim Swee Im, Pengamal Perubatan.

Diterjemahkan oleh Hwa Shi-Hsia M.Sc., ahli virologi. Terima kasih kepada SML, AR, dan HYY yang memberi bantuan. Saya meminta maaf atas segala kesilapan.


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Addressing the rumour that mRNA Covid vaccines can cause infertility

Cross-post from Facebook

===

I’ve now had 2 different friends on 2 different continents mention the rumour that mRNA vaccines will cause infertility due to “shedding of the genetic instructions” for the corona spike protein messing up the “naturally occurring spike proteins” in the human body. So i decided to post a copy of my answer publicly in case anybody else needs it.

===

Human reproductive tissues don’t contain any “spike” protein. I assume this is the result of confusion with placental syncytins which are derived from the ENVELOPE protein of endogenous retroviruses. These are retroviruses which became integrated into the human genome millions of years ago and now form an important part of the mother-baby interface in the placenta. 

Retroviruses are completely unrelated to coronaviruses so it’s highly unlikely there’s any similarity between the SARS-CoV-2 spike and placental syncytins.

About the “shedding” part of the question: neither of the mRNA vaccines contains sequences that would allow them to be self-replicating so it’s also extremely unlikely that they would be shed in any meaningful quantity. The mRNA molecules might stick around in your body for a few days or weeks but they’re gonna disappear eventually.

About the objection that nobody has “compare the genetic instructions to create the proteins to one another. He only compared the final product of the spike protein”:

I know you know what translation is, but in case your friend needs a little review – there’s no way for the “genetic instructions” i.e. the mRNA itself to trigger a specific immune response or anything else that could mess up reproduction or fertility. The whole point of mRNA is that it gets translated into protein and it’s the proteins that do stuff. It’s like the difference between the blueprint to build a machine, versus the actual machine. 

I hope this is enough to set your friend’s mind at ease.
#TolongViralkan #covidvaccines #mythbusting #fakenews

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As in a mirror, dimly

(crossposted from Facebook/added links/might expand on my thoughts later)

Someone on a Malaysian expats group shared that they were trying to learn Chinese so other people started sharing their experiences, I wrote a very cheong hei comment so I thought I’d repost it to my own timeline if anybody cares.I grew up in an anglophone family because mum Hokkien dad Cantonese. Unfortunately when growing up we didn’t get exposed to a lot of Chinese TV or other pop culture because my dad is a pastor so we weren’t allowed to watch stuff with supernatural elements (rules out all the kungfu and hantu stuff). I’ve tried to learn Chinese a few times in my life, the outcomes so far…

1. My mum tried to teach me with some old-fashioned primers… I cried crocodile tears until she released me. I could read very fast in English at an early age and didn’t see the point of struggling to reading boring “kindergarten baby” books in a more complicated script.

2. Sent to POL* class in Standard 3, total disaster. The laoshi focussed on teaching the other kids who could already speak a bit of Chinese, so I with zero was left behind. The next year my parents didn’t force me to continue. * (“pupil’s own language”, Mandarin and Tamil classes held for Chinese and Indian students respectively in Malaysian national schools, usually outside school hours)

3. Took Chinese (Mandarin) for 1 year in college in the USA. I actually managed to make some progress with this and enjoyed a 2 week field trip to Beijing and Shanghai. But dropped off afterwards because I didn’t have any opportunity to use it.

4. What really burned me on trying to learn Chinese any more was the bitchy attitude of my colleagues in Singapore. I had some Singaporean and ex-Malaysian Chinese colleagues who were all-around horrible people and hostile to any outsiders including non-Chinese and bananas like me. After that I gave up trying to learn Mandarin for a long time.

5. During the pandemic I discovered Chinese BL novels** through a random comment on Facebook about The Untamed/Chen Qing Ling and ended up reading two different English fan translations of the novel it’s based on, Mo Dao Zu Shi, and watching The Untamed as well as the anime.

**Yes, I know BL novels are problematic, written and consumed mostly by heterosexual girls and women, fetishising gay men, promoting toxic relationships, etc. We’re in a pandemic, I’ve become considerably less judgemental of what other people do to blow off steam. I finally understand my friend who years ago said she needed “Twilight” to get her through Christmas at her in-laws.

That’s when I decided to give it another go because a) I don’t mind learning a language if there’s content that’s interesting enough for me to latch on to and b) no matter how good a translation is, you still miss a lot.

I also recently saw a blog post, I think it was by Razib Khan iirc, who commented that Chinese culture is basically the only civilisation that has 2000+ years of continuous history (debatable, but…). There was also a tweet by some Chinese girl (Fan Yiyi iirc) saying that in Chinese, it’s totally normal to quote something that someone said 2000 years ago and expect people to understand the reference***.

When you read novel translations there are sooooooooooooooo many footnotes explaining the historical/literary references. And I feel like I’m missing out on all that.

When we were small my dad taught us to recite a couple of the classic poems in Cantonese (the chong chin meng yit gwong one (Jing Ye Si by Li Bai), and the one about the beanstalks cooking the beans (The Seven-Step Verse)) but that’s really all the handle I have on 2000+ years of literature.

*** Of course people do this with Western literature and history too. But from the very cursory impression I’ve had of Chinese pop culture so far, the sheer density of how much people quote and make reference to ancient literature and history is way higher.

So I’m currently brushing up my Mandarin/written Chinese on Duolingo and learning Penang Hokkien on Memrise.

Sekian, terima kasih if you made it to the end of my long story.

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Lord of the Rings audiobook reread

Little details I didn’t pay attention to when I was a kid:

The journal of the recolonisation of Moria was written by multiple people in multiple scripts. Near the end when they were under attack, someone, probably Ori, switched to elven script instead of the runes favoured by the dwarves. Why? They were in a hurry, and you can’t write runes in cursive.

The relationship I enjoy the most in the trilogy is Gandalf and Pippin. Pippin being the youngest in the whole jingbang obviously undergoes the most personal growth, from being this annoying tweenager who throws rocks randomly and complains that hiking sucks, to standing up to the insane Steward of Gondor and saving Faramir’s life. Gandalf doesn’t hesitate to scold him – Gandalf is never a bully, he knows that Pippin’s irrepressible personality can take it. Maybe for him, scolding Pippin also offers a bit of stress relief.

Under the hood, the way he puts up with Pippin being a si gin nah epitomises how he has an abiding faith in the importance of “smallfolk”. Not just hobbits but also various characters who are not kings, aristocrats, or mighty warriors.

It’s quite staggering how the ancient dwarves carved out a complex that extended FORTY MILES east to west and who knows how many levels up and down under the mountains.

  • 11th April in real life, 15 January 3019 , just after losing Gandalf escaping from Moria

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Oh Leila

Half an hour to curfew. The streets are already silent.

People often ask me if I’m afraid to be out at night. To cycle at night. To walk at night, a woman alone in Durban.

It seems foolhardy but in six years no harm has come to me on two wheels. I have had my house ransacked. I have had been robbed at gunpoint on foot and in a car. But at my most fragile, moving at speed on two wheels empty as spiderwebs with nothing interposed between the hard road and my body, I feel invulnerable. And the rush of the wind is most entrancing when it’s cool and dark. The rush hour traffic is gone and the road is mine.

Then when I get home, there’s the dog waiting at the door, wagging so hard her hind feet tapdance. Selfish as I am, I feel terrible saying no to those big dark eyes like a baby seal’s. To prevent the explosion of canine madness while catching my breath I need to pretend to be resolutely callous, to plop myself on a chair and whip out the phone as if I plan to Facebook for an hour. The second I move toward the bedroom to peel off my sweaty jeans for running shorts, she knows what’s up. Her feet do not touch the floor.

The name she came with was Leila. I saw someone explain the reason why animals come with such awkward “shelter names” is that animal shelter workers have so many dogs and cats come through their doors that they don’t have time to pick good ones. Some might, but this dog does not have an ounce of romance in her lean, springy little body, all legs and a jet-turbine ribcage. This is not the Leila of Cheb Mami and Sting’s “Desert Rose”, or the “Layla” that got Eric Clapton down on his knees. I relabelled her.

I don’t dare to go all the way to the park after dark. Just past the school and to the corner with the Italian restaurant so she can eat some of the nice grass on a particular verge and back. I greet a security guard briefly. A few gangly young men in sports clothing are waiting outside the school gate, chatting. They eye me curiously as I pass, this strange boyish woman doing a crazy thing like walking her dog after dark. I wonder if they’re nervous that their parents will not come to fetch them in time.

The sodium-yellow lamps illuminate empty roads. The tops of the broken, twisted jacarandas toss lightly in the night breeze. I walk brisk but quiet on sandaled feet, accompanied by the click-click-click of Folly’s claws. The poor thing is neglected; I haven’t been walking her enough and her claws have grown long like a stupid little lapdog’s. When I’m indoors, I’m trapped by a thousand stupid excuses; by work, by poor time management, by internet addiction, by all the necessities of daily life we call “adulting”. But once we’re outside, the free air lifts me like a kite away from the ground.

This dog, if you let her run she would run to the ends of the earth. If the darkness lasted forever, I could walk to the ends of the earth too.

Ya Leila. Oh night.

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What is the taste

Recently, I like to heave open the half-jammed balcony door and take my food or coffee outside. The unspoken, superficial excuse is the piece of paper on the door of the lunchroom printed “Maximum 3 persons in this room”; I pretend to be considerate and yielding. I nod at my colleages before shutting the door on them and sitting down on the narrow tiled floor like a hermit. The private excuse that I first had in my mind was Alan Paton’s phrase “…the stately indigenous trees of the Berea” still stately and beautiful six decades later; one of the little privileges of working here is a few from one of the few high-rise buildings in the Umbilo area.

But the true reason was something that my body yearned for before it was explicit in my mind. I am this weirdo who sits outside in the heat of a Durban summer. Who bakes in the westering sun pouring into the oven between a glass wall and a glass parapet. Who feels the sun draw the sweat from my skin, the tiles radiate into my thighs through the black jeans. I need these breaks from the climate-controlled lab to feel fully incarnate, fully experiencing my body. The lunchroom is also air-conditioned and still doesn’t feel like a far enough escape.

It’s not that I feel disembodied or dissociated in the lab. Something non-biologists don’t understand is how physical, how artisanal lab work is. I can do repetitive tasks over and over again, but it would be completely incorrect to say that I feel like a machine. These are human skills: delicately adjusting the pressure of your thumb to compensate while pipetting liquids of different viscosities, knowing just how fast to mix to avoid blowing bubbles, making a judgement as to when to use reverse or forward technique for measuring out miniscule drops of precious reagents. The focus required is demanding, and the demand is made hundreds of times a day. It is not a career for the incorrigibly clumsly or careless.

But it’s a different kind of physicality. It’s very much an experience of the hands and the eyes. My legs become a mere conveyance. I forget about my entire torso unless it complains. Out on the balcony, I feel everything – tendons stretching as I push my feet against the glass parapet, the muscles of my back against the doors, hair tossing in the puffs of wind that sneak through the gaps in the glass. The soundscape is nothing beautiful – merely the heavy traffic of an industrial road – but it comes through the free air from a distance, not the enclosed space of the lab with hums and beeps and whirs constantly impinging on each other.

Yellow-billed kites wheel over the school up the hill across the road. The coffee is finished and the bowl scraped dry. Back to work.

*Post title is from the Ambition: Nemesis storyline in Fallen London. It is a key phrase in the Chambers of the Heart which activates the quality “One who has Indulged in Unknown Pleasures”.

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The labyrinth

(crossposted to Facebook)

In my dreams there is a labyrinth that comprises the world.

Every landmark building in my earlier life has dissolved into this amalgam. The first time I went to a hospital. The first shopping mall I saw. The stairs of Chowrasta Market. Every church my father has preached in. My schools, primary and then secondary.

Somewhere in there is a food court with stalls that sell the flavours of my childhood. There is an atrium many stories high. If you throw yourself from the railing without caring if you live or die, you will fly. It is riddled with secret passages that I alone know the ways of. These are needed because there is a faceless enemy that stalks me through it.

Again and again I return to its corridors. I have a poor memory for specifics of places. I’m bad with directions. Things shift around in my memory, sliding and rotating like blocks in a game. What I remember are impressions, blurs of colour and feeling.

As I get older, even my young adulthood, university days, begins to fade from the sharp passion of distinct memory and merge with this dreamscape.

I have an extracorporeal vision of myself at twenty-one, in overalls and gardening gloves. Cutting dead peonies outside the library, in the rain, I feel its gray stone walls begin to melt.

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Overseas

“I think that if you go overseas with a superficial attitude, intending to come back home in a year, you won’t get much out of the experience. Particularly if you’re young, you should go with the intention of completely immersing yourself, ready to spend the rest of your life there. You should be determined not to come home until you’ve achieved one goal you’ve set for yourself overseas. “
Tahira Satoshi

I found this quote in literally a plain text file in my Dropbox. Tahira is a high-ranking executive in the pharma company I used to work at before I came to South Africa. I can no longer remember what the context was – probably some big internal company meeting, but obviously I transcribed it because I thought it was wonderful advice and I still do.

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