Keep your old chargers

As we discussed about the final fate of electronic waste (e-waste) produced nowadays (Do E-waste really get recycled?), a new report from the United Nations provided statistics to give us some insights.

Reported by UN’s International Telecommunication Union, in 2016 we discard 44.7 million tons of electronics in the forms of smart phones, computers, devices and cables. Only 20 percent of it is known to be recycled. The value of the whole gigantic dump is estimated to be $55 billion.

One takeaway is that 1 million of e-waste is just power adapters and chargers. Your laptops and phones ship with them, often in their own standards (Dell’s adapter may not be used with Lenovo’s laptop, for example). It emphasises the need of having a standard across the companies in order to reduce the need of producing chargers that we don’t need.

Read the whole report here.

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Small World in Motion

SubIf you look hard enough, beauty exhibits everywhere in nature. Nikon’s annual photography contest of microscopic things is all about taking pretty pictures of objects that can’t be observed ordinarily. The scientists used ingenious methods to film their objects of interest, and oftentimes the end result is as breathtaking as the scientific output itself.

Just look at this:

(Crystals of lactic and salicylic acid forming during drying a drop of a medicament used for removal of common and plantar warts)

Or this:

(Perspiration on a human fingertip)

See the full list of winners here.

The One who bends them all

“You must run, my child.” His voice is weary. “There is no place for you in this place anymore.”

I stare at the floor, voiceless and silent.

The old man turns to the only window in the room. I follow his stare, seeing rows of high-rise buildings along the horizon. Ocean roars at their base, waves clashing and breaking into numerous foams. The buildings glisten under the hot sun. They look like a hand with fingers extended out of a bathtub.

I know these are government-issued dwellings to the qualified citizens in the country. No one ever understands the rules to deem if one is qualified, or questions the rules behind the selection process. No one at all until I am born.

A few drones, operated by third-world country workers imported by the constructor, zip past the view. The tropical sun starts to get unbearable, even with the full blast of the 5-Ticks air-conditioner.

“You must run. Away from this country, as far as you can.”  He repeats, with a harsher voice.

The government has painted themselves into a corner. They started 58 years ago a law to rule opposing parties out, to silence dissident voices. The artificial impositions of race, gender and height and weight have been proved to be a great barrier to anyone who dares to stand out. Now, the rulers are forced to abide their own rule and play their own game. For I am born as the Fluid.

Water does not have a rigid shape, instead it follows the shape of the container. This is called the fluid property. I heard from Grandpa that when I was picked up at the orphanage, the nurses were terrified, for they had no idea which diapers should I be assigned to. The blue male or the pink female? No one knows because my sign of gender keeps changing constantly. They could not recognize my race as well. Chinese, Caucasian or Tahitian? No features are distinct enough to make a conclusion.

The Fluid one, the ability to change gender and race…

I storm out of the door. I hear the blaring announcements of trains breaking down repeating every minute. They wanna bend the rules , and I will be the One who bends them all.

Inspired by the recent election fiasco in Singapore. Read more here.

Spicy

Raj walks past the shop he used to frequent. The small door swings open and close, croaking in a repeated pattern. He peers into the window: families, friends and couples, having meals together and enjoying each other’s company. Mr. Amnah, the shop owner, busily instructs his band of waiters and waitresses to serve his hot dishes to the patrons. He seems content and happy. Raj pulls himself away from the shop and look at the street.

It is drizzling right now and the gravelled road glistens with rainwater. The tantalizing aroma of the spices still assaults his nose and ears and mouth – the urge to get a taste is nearly irresistible. He starts to walk with no destination in mind. “The further the better,” he thinks to himself.

He walks into a park and sits down on a bench. The rain does not show any sign of stopping. Not that it matters to him, for ever since the incident he has not fallen sick, major or minor. He takes a gulp of plain water from his bottle. It somehow soothes his body and calms him down.

A cricket ball dropped beside him. He looks around only to see a few teenagers with their bats, a surprised look on their faces. He knows what happened: they must have hit the ball too hard and his head sat in the middle of the trajectory. Typically a cricket ball can achieve a speed of 100 to 150 kilometres per hour, which means it travels around 40 metres every second!

Raj smiled at them and waved, shouting that he is alright. He knows he can’t be hurt by any means at all. When he took up the mantle of Defender, he knows that he must endure. In enduring, grow strong. He reminds himself. People think that superheroes get their abilities in a snap of finger, but the fact is that superheroes need to be trained. They need to succeed in countless drills, numerous practices, simulated mind tortures and potential grave dangers. Ultimately, they need to sacrifice a part of what makes them human to achieve superhuman. Übermensch. Raj was chosen to be a Defender, the epitome of protector. He still remembers the time he deflected three meteors away with his body at stratosphere. What a glorious time.

The teenagers wave back and turn away. Raj looks at them walking into the restaurant. It feels as if the smell of spices comes back. He used to enjoy the spicy food, but now he can’t at all. In order to feel no pain, he has rooted all possible sensors of pain from his body. Here goes the sensation of spicy, his favourite taste. He takes another sip of water and walks home. He needs to be ready for the Earth.

via Daily Prompt: Spicy

Video games solve scientific problems

This article from Ars Technica highlights the cross-pollination of my two favourite topics: Science and Gaming.

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/07/level-up-how-video-games-evolved-to-solve-significant-scientific-problems/

What is a video game? It is an interactive medium which takes the input of one or more players and displays the output on a computer screen or TVs. When was the first video game born? It was in the autumn of 1958 when a physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two in Brookhaven National Laboratory. A dot, representing a tennis ball, flies across a primitive CRT screen whenever the player flicks the controls. The whole setup was like a glorified oscilloscope detecting erratic voltage signals.

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Tennis for Two on analog computer. Dope.

Video games have evolved since then and became one of the biggest industries in the world. According to Entertainment Software Association, the industry sold over 24.5 billion games and generated more than $34.4 billion in revenue. There is no sign of slowing down either. Twitch.tv, the world’s largest video game streaming platform, revealed its statistics in 2016: there are 2.2 million streamers (players that broadcast their gaming session online), clocking in 292 million minutes watched online. That’s roughly equal to 555 years, big data!

Nonetheless video games can show its productive value when used correctly. Apart from the educational value of video games in recent curriculum (Kerbal Space Program, MinecraftEdu), a few brilliant video games make use of the collaborative and problem-solving nature of the platform to solve scientific problems, for example Foldit (protein structure), EteRNA (RNA folding) and Phylo (NP-hard computational problem). It is a form of citizen science in which the general public solves a scientific problem together. One notable discovery was in 2011 where a group of players solved the structure of an enzyme critical in AIDS virus reproduction.

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Protein prediction by the Foldit Void Crushers Group.

Game on, players!

 

The Woman Speaks [48hour Scifi London 2017]

In April, I wrote a short piece for a competition called 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2017 organized by New Scientist, SCI-FI-LONDON and Urbanfantasist.com.

I was given the story elements required (title, a piece of dialogue that must be in the story etc) on the 8th of April and 48 hours to complete a 2,000 words story. It was a grueling experience – what word to use, what science issue to incorporate, how to unfold the story – but I did learn a lot from it. I would say at the point of time it was heavily inspired by popular culture that I enjoyed the most, mainly in the genres of dystopian or futurology. Here is the article transcribed faithfully as below.


Title: THE WOMAN SPEAKS

Dialogue: Music cannot exist in a vacuum.

Science (Optional): A machine that records people’s dreams for morning playback – would you share them or want to watch them?

Word Count: 1583 Words

The Woman Speaks

“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.

I open my eyes and peer at the holo-display. 6:00 am sharp, a standard time made compulsory for all Class-C workers in the country. I quickly roll off the bed and make a beeline to the washroom. I am getting dressed for work while the female voice continues the briefing of the summary of the day with my favourite playlist on the stream. An image of a middle-aged woman flickers on the bathroom mirror.

“Mr. Patterson, you dreamt of your mother for a consecutive period of five days pertaining to the matter of your five years old birthday party. Do you require any professional help?” I groan a little. That was my dream last night. A “Smart Doctor” dialog pops up, accompanied with a list of suggested psychologists in my neighbourhood if I am inclined to do so.

“No, Sarah, I told you not to poke your finger into my dream again!” I yell before realising that the voice does not have a finger at all. She’s an artificial intelligence built by those smart brains in the mega corporations. I do not understand how this “Smart Personal AssistantTM in the Cloud” works; I never learnt it in the school I went. I just know it is given free to everyone in the country, so I don’t really care. She falls silent. The hot steam from the showerhead subsides.

I sigh. There is no use in venting anger to a virtual person. Sometimes I am just dissatisfied with my life – getting screened and filtered out of the system when deemed not worthy for the college, and there is no way to learn any skills other than the assigned one by the government – all the resources on the web have been adjusted to my social status.

The holo-display blares loudly, displaying 7:00am in red rays. I charge out of my small dorm and hop on a hovering car. There are another four people in the car already on the same Share-a-Drive, all staring blankly to the front. I rub my nose and turn on my device as well. Everyone used to hold a “smartphone” twenty years ago. I recalled my first iPhone 8 for the tenth year old birthday. Now the chip is directly on the retina, providing a stream of non-stop, tailored information to the users’ eyes, all day long while they are awake. The mega corporations have even come up with a way to tap into their dreams while they sleep. Dreams, the vault of secrets and desires, have been cracked open and reduced to mere data points on the graphs.

I shake my head: what’s wrong with me and these philosophical thoughts? I have never learnt Descartes, Zhuangzi or Vasubandhu – wait a second, how do these names swim into my mind?

“Mr. Patterson, please proceed to Meeting Room 3 when you arrive at the company.” I am disrupted by Sarah’s prompt. It smells like an urgent request. I eye-ball the “Accept” button and wonder who demanded my audience. My boss, Ms. Jacqueline, is not very keen of my performance lately. I shudder at the thought of losing my job.

The car whizzes on the highway for ten minutes and stopped in front of a complex. Tall buildings sprawled across the horizon, glinting with grey under the Sun. The weather is a nice forty degrees Celsius, unlike yesterday where a heat wave killed three people in the neighbourhood. I alight and spot my section-mates. Mr. Lee and Ms. Abagail in my section are walking to the assembly point. I make a turn to the Administration.

I cannot put my finger at the exact date I started working in the company, not even the interviews. The job seems to be prearranged way before I graduated from high school. Perhaps it is the filter system again, I think. I authenticate myself at the gate. Not many people work here, at least not for my rank. A blue navigating line appears in my field of view to provide guidance.

Exquisite drawings are displayed along the walls of the corridor. Van Gogh, da Vinci, Zhang Daqian, Monet… I can’t help but stop to appreciate them. The strokes, the flow of colours, and the light brushes to draw the faces…

“Mr. Patterson, your next meeting will start in 3 minutes. Please proceed to Meeting Room 3.” The female voice breaks my train of thoughts with a friendly tone. I pick up my pace.

The room is nothing that I have seen before. A huge pedestal is at the other end of the room with holo-displays everywhere. Dozens of men and women are busily working on the displays, flicking and tapping virtual buttons and switches. I behold at the scene.

“Welcome, Mr. Patterson.” It is the familiar voice of Sarah. Not from my device, but directly emanating from the pedestal.

“Sa…Sarah?” I raise my voice.

“Oh my dear, don’t you forget me?” A figure emerges behind the floating holo-displays. A middle-aged woman. “I gave birth to you, remember?”

I step back in shock. She looks exactly like mom, always appearing in my dreams and recalling myself of the sweet memories.

“Sarah, why on Earth…”

“Corrections, two to be exact. One, we are not on Earth. Two, I am Sarah, but not the one you are thinking.” She points at her own eyes.

“Wait a minute, who are you exactly?” I can’t tell the reality from dream anymore.

“I created you, Patterson. Or your internal name, Subject #312. You are the first robot that possesses human-like memory.” She turned a holo-display towards me and pulled up a holo-blueprint.

“We have perfected the way to make robots. At least in the physical appearance. We mastered the manufacturing process, understood how nervous and circular systems work, we even sliced brains into tiny pieces to study all the nature offers to us.” She seems to be making a speech to an empty audience. “We still don’t understand how memory works. What lunch did I have yesterday? What flower did I receive for my valentine’s day twenty years ago?”

She clears her throat and faces me. “More importantly, how does memory interact with our actions and our emotions?”

“I don’t understand…” I stumble upon my words.

She smiles to me. “It’s alright, Patterson. We felt the same before we found the missing piece. The dreams. A constant feedback of signals back to human brain when the physical body is down to repair every night. The sleep time is a moment when the mind has the total freedom to feel, to construct, and to cleanse the memories.”

She takes a pose as if she were conducting a musical piece. “Let me illustrate it with an example. We can mix and match different notes through algorithms. Tempo, virtuoso, all sorts of intricate moments. But those is not music. Totally inferior to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Those which are composed organically.”

Her fingers moved in the air in an Allegro tempo.

“However, music cannot exist in a vacuum.” She stopped at the last word, as if thinking of a hard problem. “Algorithms can run perfectly with high computing power, but the result is just unreal. It is an uncanny valley in which we can tell what is computer generated and what is not. Art is hard to silicone chips.” She laughs at her joke and I somehow make some exhaling sound from my nose to reduce my anxiety.

“So we decided to fill up the vacuum. We want our robots to learn from their senses and experience even when they self-repair at nights. So we assembled five hundreds robots, loaded up with different initial memories,” she look into my eyes, “and made them dream every night. You are one of them.” She winks.

The memories? Like the birthday parties during my childhood? The red iPhone I got? Those were all fake? I squint at the holo-displays on the pedestal and see videos playing. Mr. Lee had a wet dream with his fantasized object and Ms. Abagail was looking forward for a trip to Neo-Shanghai. All of the dreams are recorded, shared and watched in this room. The results are analysed and then feedback to our memory. Every night.

“Guess what we observed? The emergence of emotions. Not the pre-programmed ones where you enter different loops based on the conditions, but those emerge spontaneously from nothing. We found that these beautiful displays of inner states tremendously helpful to form a higher state of mind. Consciousness, self-realisation, a soul if you like to call it.”

She turns her back to me. The air feels still in the room now. “This soul, combined with a robot’s superior computing power, allows you to form far more connections in your neuron network. Recently you grow appreciation towards abstract concepts, don’t you? To you, art, philosophy, music is beautiful instead of some random pixels or noises.”

I start to feel dizzy. It is too much for me to handle right now. She wave her hands and two droids crowd beside me, restraining me by the arms.

“Good night, Mr. Patterson. That’s a great soul you have built, and we thank you for your hard work.” The two robots disassemble my skull before I blank out.

… …

… …

“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.

HKU to cancel Astronomy and Maths-Physics Majors

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) is planning to cross out two majors from its list in Faculty of Science: Astronomy and Mathematics-Physics, starting from the academic year 2018/19. (Source)

powerpnt_2016-08-10_19-23-36

One of my colleagues shared this news to me through an HK Podcast (Cantonese). As a Physics graduate, I could empathise what the students and alumni shared in the interviews. Based on what reasons should these two majors be cancelled? What would happen to the only Astronomy major offered in the whole Hong Kong?

HKU’s Dean of Science Matthew Evans explained to the students that “[they] are not choosing to enroll on these majors.” The low enrollment rate is the main reason cited. He also said that the efficient use of resources and academic time prompted the action. Such decision upset the students and alumni.

Lam Chiu-ying was one of the graduates from the HKU’s mathematics-physics major in 1971. He was also the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory. He thinks that a good university should not be chasing after fleeting trends and only focusing on subjects that brings in students. He likens such phenomenon to a supermarket – a place only offering popular items.

It kind of reflects how cut throat the competition in Hong Kong is. It is not unusual for a university to close unpopular courses, but HKU has a unique position: it is the only Hong Kong university that runs an astronomy major. According to Scival, University of Hong Kong has strong scholarly output in the field of Physics and Astronomy. The publications is increasing over the years, for example about 2,000 publications in the last 5 years. 20.6% of the works are in the top 10% most cited worldwide, and 37.0% of the publications are published in the top 10% journals worldwide as well.

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We need to relook at the role of university. It is supposed to be the center of scholarly research and innovation, and at the same time the place where future generation gets advanced education. I think that HKU should put more thoughts in getting more students interested in such subjects instead of simply closing them down. By working with high schools and government authorities, the university can give more exposure to the astronomy and physics and ignite the passion among Hong Kong young generation.