Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One month!

I realized yesterday that it had been exactly one month since I had set foot in Singapore.  I decided to write a blog entry to commemorate this.  I was however thwarted by some internet difficulties so that entry was pushed back until today.  So, one month and one day.  It certainly feels like it has gone by very quickly, which I think is a good thing.  I like my research a lot and it feels like I'm making some progress (I have TEM time again tomorrow, so I'm being optimistic here).  I'm still enjoying exploring the city and meeting people here.  I start my Chinese class next Monday, so hopefully these will help me get past just making weird sounds at my computer when I'm using the CDs I have.  And I should be hearing back soon about the project that I'm hoping to get started with Lien AID (the NGO that does water sanitation projects).  So, all in all, pretty happy with the way things are going.

Not that there aren't things that I don't like about Singapore.  I can decisively say that I would not want to live here past my 9 months that I have planned.  While some areas of Singapore have a "personality" the majority of it seems to be quite planned and ends up feeling sterile.  I really dislike the mall culture that they have here in which the mall is basically the center of each town or area, contains everything from the bank to the grocery store, and is where everyone goes to hang out in their free time, but then again I've always sort of disliked malls.  The crowds definitely still get to me, although not as much as they did at first.  One interesting ideological clash that I noticed the other weekend was that people here don't seem to be very independent and won't go out and do things on their own.  Last Saturday, as astute readers will remember, I headed out by myself for some museum visiting and a trip to Little India.  When I later told my Singaporean friends about this and that I had gone and done it by myself, they seemed amazed.  They couldn't understand why I would want to just go and do something by myself.  I realize that most people in the US also don't understand this, but the ideological clash seemed a bit more extreme here - my desire to just hang out with myself was unfathomable to them. 

Anyways, I finally remembered to take my camera to school, so here are some pictures!  First, the materials science building where I work:
And the nice view you get when you turn around:

This makes me laugh every morning as I walk down the stairs to my desk:

It's written on the airducts that run down the side of the building.  It is, however, erroneous, because I work on the bottom floor and I totally fall into the RAD category.

Also, here's a picture of the condo that I live in, taken from my window.

There are always a sorts of reckless children running around the pool and I have to exercise restraint no to yell at them to WALK PLEASE in my best lifeguard voice.  And finally, here is my room:

One more con about Singapore: things are always made WAY more complicated than they need to be.  Case in point: my internet (this is connected to the story of my work pass, which is in a similar vein).  It's late and I'm tired, so I'll save that story for another post.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Second update this week - go me!

Thursday at work I finally got a time slot to use the TEM (transmission electron microscope), so it was time to look at all the samples I had made and see how they were going.  None of them were, in fact, just as I wanted.  Some were too big (here, too big means 300 nanometers across instead of the 100 I was going for), the wrong shape (this indicates a different crystal structure, meaning that I didn't get the phase I wanted), and some contained entirely the wrong compound (due to having to work with a very air sensitive chemical that partially oxidizes everytime I open the bottle for more than 1 second).  But, there was still a lot to learn from my failures.  So, this week I'll be making the same samples over again, but this time with more of an idea what not to do.  I guess that counts as progress.  Friday I had a stellar day in which I technically was running a reaction all day for 8 hours, but this reaction involved about 15 minutes of set-up time and 5 minutes to remove it from the oven at the end of the day, which was great because it left me with tons of free time and I got to still feel like I was working.  I went to a program at the International Student Center about Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which is the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan; it actually occurred last weekend.  They told us a little about the history of the holiday and made us sing a song in Malaysian about it and then taught us how to weave these little pouches that are used to cook rice in to make these compressed rice blobs that are a traditional food Hari Raya food.  Thanks to wikipedia, I now know that these are called ketupat and are traditionally made of banana leaves.  Here are some unopened ones.

However, everyone soon gave up the weaving to enjoy the large amounts of free food (including the rice blobs).

On Saturday, I first visited the Peranakan Museum.  Peranakan is the name for the descendents of Chinese immigrants that settled in Malaysia and Singapore many hundreds of years ago, and whose historical culture is a mix of Chinese and Malay traditions.  The museum was built in a traditional Peranakan house from the early 20th century:

The museum mostly consisted of artifacts that represented the Peranakan lifestyle during the 19th and 20th centuries.  The museum highlighted various aspects of the Peranakan culture such as their wedding rituals, mourning rituals, religious beliefs, food, etc.  The wedding rituals were very elaborate and traditional weddings lasted for 12 days.  Throughout these 12 days there are many ritual exchanges of gifts between the bride's family and the bridegroom's family, meant to represent the ways in which the bridge and groom will support or provide for each other.  For example, the groom's family gives the bride some lengths of cloth to symbolize that the groom will provide for her, and the bride gives the groom a new set of clothes that she has made to show that she is talented in sewing.  The jewelry worn for traditional Peranakan weddings is crazy!  Here is a picture of one typical set:

The hat looking thing on the top is actually just a bunch of hairpins that the bride would wear all over her head.  I think it must have been heavy!  The special exhibit in the museum was about traditional Peranakan jewelry - they have very distinct styles and types.  The most popular is a traditional brooch, sometimes worn in sets of three.  There were a lot of interesting examples showing the evolution of the style through the ages.  Another interesting thing was that silver jewerly was only used for mourning and was not worn at other times.  They didn't allow pictures.  I'm always sad when museums don't allow me to take pictures.  Here are some household deities that would be kept in a house on the family alter to generally protect the family and give them good luck.  Sometimes they were for a specific purpose, like the god of memory that was often kept by students.

After the museum, I headed to Little India to check out the Deepavali market.  Deepavali is the Hindu festival of light.  I think the legend behind it involves some hero/god who saved the world from an evil dark king.  I'll get back to you on that one.  Anyways, all of Little India was really pretty and lit up and they had a big bazaar selling things like lights, incense, flower garlands, clothes, shoes, and cookies.  It was pretty interesting to wander around in, but it was super crowded, so I went and ate some delicious Indian food somewhere less crowded.

Today, I woke up bright and early to go hiking with my friend Brian.  We went to a place called Mac Richie Reservoir, which is about in the middle of Singapore.  This is some of the only undisturbed/forested land on the whole island.  Part of the trail that we hiked was actually a suspension bridge way up in the treetops.  Here I am on the bridge:

It was a really nice view and it was actually not too hot this morning, so it was a very enjoyable hike.  At the end, we saw monkeys!  We were almost all the way back, and I heard some weird noises in the forest and saw a man standing around and looking like he was watching something, so I asked him and he pointed them out to us.  From my research that I did just now, I think they were Long-Tailed Macaques.  Here they are:

I realize it's pretty hard to see, but if you look about in the middle of the picture, you can probably find it's tail.  Anyways, they monkeyed around (hehe) in the treetops for awhile and then one started to shimmy down the tree on the right side of the picture.  It stopped on a branch a few feet above the ground and then we could see that it had a baby on it's back!  It was super cute!  I got really excited and didn't manage to get a picture of it.

Aaaand, I even have a bonus picture.  Here is the condo that I live in.  It's quite tall, and yellow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Various Exciting Things

OK, so I realized that my lack of updates since I've been in Singapore puts me dangerously close to being on the list of people who start blogs and they're really interesting and then they give up 2 months later and never write anything again.  And those people annoy me, so I've resolved not to be one of them.  I think my trouble in updating my blog comes in several forms: being really busy with school, being really tired all the time because of this ridiculous tropical climate, and not doing huge amounts of touristy things because of the aforementioned business with school.  But,over the past few weeks I've done a lot of fun stuff, so here are some various exciting things that I've done.

I went to the Botanic Gardens in Singapore, which are really famous here and are the first place that people tell you to go when they learn you are a foreigner.  Most of the gardens were just very nice and tropical, but they had a few specialty gardens, the most exciting of which were the Orchid Garden and the Ginger Garden.  Orchids are really a big deal here and the gardeners at the Botanic Gardens spend a lot of money and time trying to create new hybrids with special qualities.  As a result, the orchids are really beautiful but really expensive (so don't touch!).  Here is the national orchid of Singapore, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, so named because it was discovered by Miss Agnes Joaquim in her backyard in 1893.

They also had a lot of orchids that were named after famous visitors and politicians to the Orchid Gardens.  Some were really random, and were named after people like the President of the Czech Republic in 1996 or something like that.  Here is the Nelson Mandela orchid:

 Another interesting garden was the Ginger Garden.  Apparently, ginger just looks like little sticks in the ground when it's growing (which is why I didn't feel compelled to take pictures).  I also learned that many plants are members of the ginger family, such as the banana tree.

Last weekend, I visited the Istana (meaning "palace" in Malay), the traditional home of the president.  The Istana is only open on public holidays and Sunday was Hari Raya Puasa, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.  The grounds themselves were very pretty (even though they were mostly a golf course) and parts of the actual palace was opened up but no pictures were allowed.  Inside it was quite ornate.  In one room, there was a display of official state gifts that had been given to Singapore from other countries.  Compared to all the other gifts, the ones from the U.S. looked pretty cheap!  Here is a picture of a statue of Queen Victoria that was a gift to Singapore:

Here's a sign that appears to be telling us not to pinch the fish.  My friend Clayton illustrates.

I talked about all the things that are outlawed and the ridiculous fines that go along with these offenses in one of my earlier entries.  In order to make the illegality of these offenses clear, there are lots of warning signs around Singapore.  Often, these signs don't contain text, only pictures (when you have four official languages, even short bits of text are cumbersome).  However, the pictures are sometimes quite confusing.  One example are the signs in the buses meant to illustrate "no spitting".  For several weeks after I got here, I thought that the person on the sign was throwing up, and assumed that throwing up on the bus was outlawed.  I got really concerned every time I got on the bus that I would all of a sudden become ill and throw up and be slapped with a ridiculous fine, until I figured out that the person was actually spitting instead.

A couple weeks ago, I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is a museum that has exhibits about countries and cultures from all around Asia.  The museum had a good exhibit on the history of Singapore, which apparently involved a lot of opium smoking (and paraphernalia like these pipes):

Most of the museum, especially the portion on South Asia, made me feel like a total retard because it was about contries and cultures that I had never even heard of.  Very educational.  My favorite part of the museum was an exhibit on how the museum's collection came to be.  It talked about the adventurers and explorers employed by the museum in 19th and early 20th centuries to journey off on expeditions and live with native cultures and collect specimens.  Of course all the explorers were hearty British chaps with pith helmets; I like to imagine them using phrases like "Tally-ho" and "Bob's your uncle".  There were a lot of old-timey preseved animals, like these crocodiles (alligators?  I can never keep the two straight):

This is the only good picture I got because the guard came and told me I couldn't use flash, and my camera sucks without the flash.  What was really interesting was reading about the different explorers' methods for befriending and integrating themselves into the native cultures and the different way that they portrayed these cultures in their writings and reports.  In general, I thought this kind of meta-exhibit was a really neat idea because it's not something one normally thinks about when viewing objects in a museum.

The museum was located in downtown Singapore, so here's a bonus picture from the area.  The low buildings in this picture used to be used as warehouses and staging areas for goods about to be shipped.  They are called "godowns"; the origin of this word is debated.  Now, they mostly house trendy restaurants/bars/clubs and this area, Clarke Quay (pronounced "key" if you don't want to sound like a dumb American), is one of the trendy areas popular with tourists.

I think that's about it for now.  I'm putting my camera in my backpack in the hope that I will be motivated to take more pictures of my condo, my neighborhood, school, etc.  We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Durian Challenge!

Last week, my American friend Clayton and I decided to undertake "The Durian Challenge!".  The challenge here was to eat some durian, referred to in Singapore as "the king of fruits".  First, some background on the durian.

Here is what the durian looks like:
It's a tropical fruit that is in season in Singapore from about June to August.  When it's in season, people go crazy!  They sell it in all the markets and grocery stores, most often already removed from the spiny outer part.  I don't understand why, but wherever they are selling it, there is always a guy who stands there and yells out to people about how great his durian is and that they should buy it over all others.  This makes sense in the big fruit markets, but I don't understand why they also do it in the grocery stores.  Just now I attempted to google 'durian caller' but got no useful results, so I guess the mystery will stay unsolved for now. 

Durian is SMELLY.  When I first got to Singapore, I would be walking around and suddenly smell this horrible stench and wonder what had died and rotted to produce such a horrible smell.  I soon learned that this was the durian I was smelling.  The smell is so bad that durians are banned from buses and trains (see: my last post) as well as most hotels.

Since people in Singapore LOVE durians, when they meet someone who is not from Singapore, they will of course ask them if they have tried durian.  Clayton and I, tired of hearing this question, decided to finally try it.  We bought some durian at the marketplace:
You can see that is has some slimy looking flesh around a really big seed.  With all the windows open and the fan on in my apartment, we got ready to try.  Here is Clayton looking excited for his first bite.
It was pretty horrible.  The taste is similar to the smell but not as strong.  The basic taste is like that of a banana or other fruit that has gone bad, but it also has some weird undernotes.  The texture is really strange also - slimy and mushy but also sort of fibrous and stringy.  We decided that the texture was most like a half-way cooked sweet potato.  The taste we are still at a loss for an analogy - it's just that horribly unique.  If you want a laugh, check out the section of the wikipedia entry for durian where they include quotes from people trying to describe the taste.

People in Singapore swear that you have to try the durian five times before you will like it.  Clayton tried to go for a second round, but didn't even make it through that.  So, the five times strategy is probably out.  But, now we can at least say that we tried it, and it is definitely the weirdest food I have ever eaten.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Some Background on Singapore

Before I get to all the exciting entries about myself and what I have been up to, I decided that I should give some background on Singapore. I know that I myself didn't know a whole lot about Singapore before I applied for the Fulbright; for most people Singapore is a place they hear about occasionally in the news as being a business/finance hub somewhere in Asia. Or, maybe they have heard about all the crazy laws here (more on that later!). Anyways, I have encountered a lot of confusion by people in the U.S. when I told them I was moving to Singapore. I have just realized that I have a habit of picking quite unknown countries to live in, I am forever fielding questions about Denmark as well!

First of all, the name Singapore roughly means "lion-city" in Malay. This leads to the presence of lion states and fountains all over the city. Singapore is SMALL - the whole country has an area of about 700 square kms (270 square miles) and this has increased some since the 1960s due to land reclamation projects. This is just slightly smaller than New York City. There are about 4.7 million people living here, giving a population density of 17,000 people per square mile. This is the third highest population density in the world - only Macau and Monaco are higher. Here is a zoomed out map showing Singapore.

Singapore was originally settled by the British for use as an East Asian trading post, was brutally occupied by the Japanese in WWII, and declared independence from Britain in 1963. Directly after declaring independence, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia but declared itself to be it's own state only two years later in 1965. At that point in time, Singapore was essentially a third world country - there was mass unemployment, housing shortages, a lack of sanitation, and no natural resources to speak of. The main leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew (who acted as Prime Minister from 1965-1990), tackled all these problems with a series of aggressive reforms that transformed Singapore into the first world country that it is today (OK, they actually got downgraded from first world country status recently due to freedom of speech issues, but for all intents and purposes they are definitely a first world country). Since 2004, Lee Kuan Yew's son has been the Prime Minister. The state still has a very strong hand in the running of the country. Especially glaring is the total state control over the media - the "breaking news" each morning is typically the advent of some new state program to help old people, single mothers, children, etc.

Singapore also has a very interesting cultural and ethnic makeup. The country is mainly Chinese (75%) with some Malaysians (14%), Indians (9%), and others (2%). This ethnic diversity also leads to religious diversity - the main religions here are Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Taoism and Hinduism. This is neat because there is always some sort of religious or cultural festival/holiday going on at any given time! Because of all the different groups, Singapore has four official languages - English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil (a southern Indian language). In schools, everyone is required to learn English, as well as one of the three other official languages. In my experience, most people will use Mandarin, or Malay, or Tamil, when speaking to people of their own ethnic group, but of course have to use English when speaking to others. Singapore also has it's own brand of English slang called "Singlish". This is mostly shortenings of words or phrases, like saying "can" as an affirmative instead of "Yes, I can do that". They also use the word "lah" a lot, in a similar manner as Americans use "right" or Canadians use "aye", and tack it on to the ends of statements or questions. In terms of language, I have not had any trouble being understood, but I sometimes have had trouble understanding people because of the Singlish words and cadences they use.

Singapore also has a lot of very strict laws, which sometimes make international headlines. Probably the most well known are the drug laws, which gives a mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, where drug trafficking is defined as being in possession of any types of drugs in any amount, even without demonstrating a desire to distribute said drugs. More minor offenses often carry lengthy prison terms, or caning sentences (yes, this is literally where they beat you with a cane). There is also a ridiculous number of things that can incur huge fines, such as jaywalking, littering, spitting, not flushing a public toilet after use, walking around naked in your own house, and bringing a durian (a horrible smelling fruit) on buses or trains.

In my own experience here, the national pastimes of Singapore appear to be eating and shopping. Eating is most often done in outdoor "hawker" centers that have tons of stalls with different kinds of food. Prepared food is really cheap here - at the hawker centers you can get a good dinner for maximum $4 US. There are shopping malls everywhere, and they appear to be packed anytime of the day or night.

All in all, Singapore is a really small, really crowded, and really hot and sweaty country. This is made worth it, in part, but the interesting cultural mixes and the diversity they bring to Singapore in terms of languages, religions, and food. I'm really not enjoying having to deal with all the crowds everywhere, but it certainly is interesting.

Monday, September 7, 2009

New Science!

My Fulbright grant here in Singapore really consists of two projects: a materials science research project at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) ad a water sanitation project with a Singapore-based NGO called Lien Institute for the Environment. I'll get to the second project later, but right now I'm at NTU and waiting on some lab equipment, so I thought I would write about the first project.

The main material that I will be working with is titanium dioxide, TiO2, often called titania. Titania has a lot of uses, most often as a white pigment in everything from paint to skim milk and makeup. This widespread use is great, because it means that titania is pretty cheap. The reason I'm investigating titania is because it also functions as a photocatalyst. The means that when UV light strikes titania, it causes changes in the material that create free radicals. These free radicals are super reactive and really want to oxidize any organic materials they come into contact with. Since sunlight contains a small UV component, this reaction is pretty easy to activate. The material can even be reused for subsequent reactions later. Here is a sort of vague schematic showing this process:

Often, these organic materials are pollutants in the water or air (as shown above), or bacteria, either airborne or on surfaces. For this reason, titania is being incorporated into a lot of building materials such as roofs and external paneling (to treat local air pollution), or internal paneling or tiles (in, say, a hospital, to reduce surface bacteria concentrations). Here's a cool picture showing a comparison between ordinary tiles (the super dirty ones) and titania coated tiles (very clean!).

My project uses titania for it's ability to break down organic pollutants in water. This sounds pretty simple: you throw the titania in the water, put it in sunlight, and the titania cleans it all up. But afterwards, how do you separate the titania from the clean water so that you can use it again? This is where my project comes in. I'm going to be synthesizing magnetic titania "core-shell" pebbles. Titania by itself is not magnetic, but what you can do it make an M&M like structure where you have a magnetic material in the core, and the titania around it as the shell. The cool thing about this is that once you've got the water all cleaned up, you simply turn on a magnetic field to separate out the titania for reuse. Easy! The magnetic core is typically iron oxide. So, in order to do this, I first have to make tiny iron oxide spheres, then coat them with titania. Because science is never simple, we have one more problem. The direct contact between the iron oxide and the titania seems to reduce the photocatalytic activity (how well it works to break down the pollutants) of the titania. So, we have to add in a "buffer" layer of silicon dixoide between the iron oxide and the titania. This adds another step to my process: make the iron oxide spheres, coat them with silica, then coat them with titania.

Just making these pebbles is not too hard - it takes time but ultimately it's not all that challenging. Now here's where the fun starts. Materials can be divided into two classes: crystalline and amorphous. Crystalline materials have a very regular, predictable structure in which each atom goes in a certain position. Amorphous ones don't. They're just all jumbled up every which way. Here is a good comparison.Normally the way to check for crystallinity is to use x-ray diffraction, which I've talked about before. But in the case of titania, there is often a pretty significant amorphous content that doesn't show up on the x-ray diffraction spectrum. There are other ways to figure out the amorphous content, but I won't go into them right now because they're pretty complicated of course, I have to do them for this project). But what previous studies have found is that the amorphous content of the titania is possibly related to the photocatalytic activity of the material. So, part of my project will be trying to pin down this correlation. This first requires me to set a standard method for determining the amorphous content of the material (I probably get to use a synchrotron - a huge circular particle accelerator. So cool!). Then, I'll look at the photocatalytic activity and see how that corresponds to the amorphous content and what can be modified in the material synthesis to change the amorphous fraction of the material.

This is probably more than enough work for nine months. Better go get started.

Update: I just tried to go get my materials to start this and they are locked up in this guy Hou Ran's cabinet and Hou Ran isn't going to back until Wednesday and no one has the keys. My postdoc just told me to go sightseeing. Hahaha Singapore is so inefficient like this.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another Short One

Hello there,

So I've moved in to my flat and am currently borrowing my flatmate's wireless, so I'll be quick. Longer posts will have to wait for about 1 week until I have my own internet. Flatmates are all really nice, things at school went well even though I had to fill out massive amounts of paperwork, and tomorrow I should be having my first meeting about research. Also, I have an address now! See the side bar. Because you all know how much I love getting mail.