Thursday, November 26, 2009

"One white can cover up three ugliness”

Here's an interesting article I came across today about Asian's (especially Asian women's) obsession with light skin.  (Side note - yay, I finally figured out how to put in those nifty little links!)  I hadn't really realized the extent of this obsession until I came to Singapore.  Although it's most often overcast here, a lot of the women always use umbrellas when they walk outside, so as to avoid the sun.  Also, whenever I go lap swimming at the pool on campus, I'm the only woman in the pool, which I think is because all the others are staying inside away from sun.  I recently needed to buy some face lotion, and it took me quite some time to find one that didn't include claims of skin whitening.

A lot of the obsession is historical - if you had white skin, then you were rich enough to not work outside in the fields all day long.  But did Westerners ever have this same obsession?  I haven't heard of it in any recent history, at least.  Now we have the reverse: people striving for the "perfect tan", which will prove that they have the time/money to laze around all day long tanning.  Anyways, I'll stick to my sort-of-tan that I've gotten in spite of going through several tubes of sunscreen in the three months that I've been here.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Research Sucesses

So recently I actually made some pretty significant progress in my research and solved a couple of the major problems that had been hindering my progress.  This was very exciting!  Even though now I have lots and lots of work to do because I feel like I'm a bit behind after taking so long to resolve these issues, it's really good to have something new to work on.

First off: I solved my problem with my iron oxide compound.  Previously, I was having difficulties getting the synthesis product completely clean, and this was really annoying.  I now have devised a several day, multi-step process for washing away various impurities to get a clean product.  Complicated and time consuming, yes, but it works.  Here's a TEM picture!

And a close up:

(The scale bar is really small, but that dark black bar in the second picture represents 5 nm.  So, each little particle is about 10 nm across!)

See those nice lines across each particle in the second picture?  Those are actually the planes of iron and oxygen atoms, nicely arranged in the configuration I want.  These are responsible for creating the x-ray diffraction pattern below, which proves to me that this is actually the compound that I want:

Sorry it's kinda fuzzy, but basically here I'm proving to myself that I actually have about 95% magnetite, which is the iron oxide phase that I want.  The issue here is that these particles are pretty thermodynamically unstable, mostly because they are so small that they have all sorts of surface energy issues (small particles have a larger surface area/volume ratio than normal size particles, and this causes all sorts of stability problems because of strains within them).  So, they tend to transform into goethite (another iron oxide phase) if you add any small amount of heat.  You can see here that I have about 5% goethite in my sample, which is an OK level.

The other exciting research development is that I made some very nice, titanium dioxide coated, silicon dioxide spheres.  The coating procedure is really complicated, and uses a very air sensitive compound.  If the chemical is exposed to air for more than about 10 seconds at a time, it will oxidize and ruin the synthesis.  So, throughout the whole process, I am required to work with ninja-like quickness.  But, I now have these great-looking spheres:

The inner spheres are made of silicon dioxide, and the darker ring on the outside of each is titanium dioxide.  The little bits outside the spheres are rogue clumps of titanium dioxide that form when I expose the compound to air during the synthesis.  Guess my ninja skills are not perfect yet!

So now I just have to do the in-between part: coat the iron oxide with silicon dioxide.  Then, I'll just put more titanium dioxide on top of that, similar to the previous picture.  However, no one has actually done the silicon dioxide coating on iron oxide, so that part is up to me to figure out.  Should be fun!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Toy Museum and Dragonboats

OK, I apologize for my lack of posts lately.  I've been either (1) super busy at work, or (2) sick and not doing anything exciting.  But, I was feeling better this weekend, and had the time to do several exciting things.

On Saturday, I visited the Museum of Shanghai Toys.  Anyone who has travelled with me knows that I love completely random museums.  I think the best example of this was a combination internet cafe/indigenious burial jar museum that I made Claire and Rebecca visit with me on La Isla de Ometepe, in Nicaragua.  And it turned out to be a really cool museum!  Anyways, this museum seemed to fit the bill, so I decided to check it out.  It was actually really neat.  It was started quite recently by a Singaporean who is just enthused about toys, and wanted to showcase his collection and use them to illustrate cultural movements and historical events throughout the 20th century in China.  A lot of the toys were pretty funny and creepy looking.  This toy, made out of celluloid from the early 20th century, gets the prize for weirdest/most inexplicable toy:

The museum traced the modernization of China and the various social movements that influenced toys during the last century.  At the beginning of the 20th century, China was still closed to nearly all Western goods and influences, so the toy market was not very developed and most toys were very crude and made out of paper or straw.  However, when more Western goods, including toys, started appearing in Chinese markets, this created a push for the Chinese to modernize their own toy industry.  Another interesting example is that, before around the 1920s or 30s in China, it was not believed that toys could be at all educational.  Again, due to Western forces, the Chinese then realized that educational toys such as puzzles and mazes could be used to help children learn various skills, and this sector of the toy industry exploded.  One funny example of the Chinese toy market imitating the Western market was a collection of knock-off Disney toys, such as these creepy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs masks.

However, the best toys were ones from the second half of the century.  Toys were one of the many ways used to indoctrinate Chinese children with Communist ideology during the Cultural Revolution, so there was a large exhibit on this.  Here is one toy that is entitled "Child Soldier":

There was also a list of some of the other toy names, which included "Ten thousand tonnes hydraulic machinery", "White Hair Women", "Female Mine Workers", "Sales Girl", "Defeating Paper Tigers", "Oil Refinery Pagoda", "Little Civilian Soldier", and, my favorite, "Offer Congratulations Truck".  I can just imagine little Chinese kids running around: "Hey guys, let's play Oil Refinery Pagoda!"  "No, I want to play Female Mine Workers!".   

Another large collection focused on Space Race themed toys.  I really liked the different renditions of what toy designers thought spaceships would look like in the future.  Here is one good one, the Universe Boat:

Something interesting that can be seen here - a lot of the "people" figurines in these toys were actually very Western looking, with blonde hair and big blue eyes.  There was a series of posters for Chinese children, which, I think, were supposed to illustrate lessons such as going to school, being polite, obeying your parents, etc, but all the children in these posters were white, even though the writing was in Chinese.  I actually still see this today in Singapore - often when cartoons are used in advertisements, public service announcements, etc, the cartoon people are obviously white.  I saw one at the grocery store the other day that tells people not to shoplift, and features a cartoon of a freckled, red-haired man getting caught shoplifting.  (Those darn gingers!  Always causing trouble!)  I find this really strange, since these images don't represent the large majority of the target audience.     

Anyways, here is one last picture from the toy museum.  It is the saddest panda ever!

Today, I met up with some friends to watch Dragonboat races in the Singapore River.  Dragonboats are traditional Chinese boats that are very long and skinny and have decorative dragon heads and tails.  They used to be used mostly for folk or religious rituals, but today Dragonboat racing has evolved as a serious sport.  This weekend's event was huge!  Races ran all day Saturday and Sunday, from about 9 AM to 5 PM.  There were all sorts of teams - high school/college, serious adult teams, company teams, and expat teams from various countries.  One of the cool parts about Dragonboating is that, instead of caller (such as in crew) to keep time and tell the paddlers when to stroke, there is a drummer who beats out time.  The drums are huge and the drummers are normally teeny tiny girls, so it's pretty funny to watch.  We had fun hanging out on the riverside and watching the various races go by.

Also, if you read my last blog post, I talked about the various government campaigns here in Singapore, and specifically the most recent kindness campaign.  In the train station on the way home, we ran into a relic of the previous kindness campaign: Singha the Friendly Lion.  He reminds you to let train passengers out first before you board.

In other news:

Research success!  I'll probably post some pictures and an explanation sometime this week when I'm bored at work.

In order to fully complete my transformation into a cranky old lady, I've taken up knitting.  It's really fun, and has the ability to completely mesmerize me for multiple hours at a time.

I finally finished Infinite Jest!  Maybe I'll write about it here, if I can ever get my head around it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

NYT Article about Singapore

Here's an article about Singapore from Sunday's edition of the New York Times:

It discusses Singapore's many 'campaigns', the most recent of which is the Singapore Kindness Movement.  I was especially amused by this quote near the end of the article:

" in Singapore the law is very strong. They tell people to be kind, they must be kind. Cannot be rude.”

 This quote embodies what I think is a quite typical Singaporean attitude - when the government tells you to do something, there's not really any point in resisting, because they'll just fine for it until you give in eventually. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chinese Class

The books we use in my Chinese class are pretty hilarious sometimes.  Lately, the books have instructed me with such useful phrases as:

"Excuse me, do you know how many children I have?"
"I would like to introduce you to my lover."
"Here are two Americans, one of them is my friend, the other is not my friend."
"I like capable people."
"We all know that he has lots of money."
"Your girlfriends are certainly numerous."

The book also contains sample conversations that depict everyday occurrences, such as commissioning paintings, debating the relative merits of watches vs. clocks, and buying tape recorders.  One entire conversation is devoted to discussing a shady figure named Mr. Zhang, who is rumored to have a very attractive girlfriend.  Really, quite a lot of emphasis is put on the supposed girlfriend's high level of attractiveness.  In a surprise twist at the end of the conversation, the reticent Mr. Zhang reveals that he doesn't even have a girlfriend and that his more talkative friend Mr. Li has been spreading these rumors to their mutual friends.  Now that's what I call drama.

We recently learned country and city names.  According to the book, the names for most Asian countries have "historical or literary meaning".  Some of these I was familiar with, such as the "Land of the Rising Sun" for Japan.  However, I was unaware that North Korea is historically referred to as the "Land of Morning Freshness".  The book then goes on to discuss the names of Western countries, which are apparently chosen to represent a pleasant or flattering quality of the country in question.  Here are a few:

USA: The Beautiful Country
England: The Brave Country
Germany: The Virtuous Country

However, I am learning some useful Chinese, and these phrases are great for amusing my Chinese speaking friends and colleagues.  Actually, this book is not the worst language book I've ever had.  That prize goes to one of the Danish books I had early on in the Rotary sponsored language courses that all the exchange students attended.  This book was originally meant for Middle Eastern adults who had immigrated to Denmark.  Our favorite phrase from this book was "What is your caseworker's name?", and we proceeded to repeat this phrase ad nauseam until it drove our language teachers crazy.  Last summer, I visited one of my old friends who was also an exchange student and in the same language class - she had forgotten most of the Danish she had learned, but this phrase was still very clear in her mind!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween, Singapore Style

Happy Halloween, everyone!  Last night I headed out with some friends to celebrate Halloween at Clarke Quay, a popular party spot that is right on the banks of the Singapore River.  The area is full of clubs, bars, and restaurants, but on Halloween the whole area was pretty much packed with people.  I decided on a very Singaporean costume: the durian, king of fruits:

I think that only one person was able to guess my costume over the course of the night, but most people were pretty amused once I explained it to them.  Even if they didn't realize what my costume was, there were still plenty of people who wanted to take pictures with me.  Seriously, my friends and I couldn't walk 10 feet without someone stopping and asking to take a picture with us.  I think that part of this was that most Singaporeans don't get very dressed up for Halloween - a lot of people were there just as spectators.  Also, Asians just seem to really like taking pictures.  (Especially pictures with blond people.  Anytime I go anywhere touristy in Singapore, I end up having to take pictures with a bunch of random people.  It reminds me of how, as a kid at Disneyland, there were tons of Asian people who wanted to take pictures of my brother and me.)  There were a couple people with good costumes, my favorite being a girl dressed up as a Rubiks Cube.  At one point in the night, one of my Singaporean friend and I somehow wandered into a party for a bunch of Singaporean TV/radio personalities and local celebrities.  I didn't realize this until later, when my friend told me so, and then I understood why she had been so excited (I was excited because there was free food and drinks).

Today, I went to an exhibit on the Philippines at the Asian Civilizations Museum.  The Philippines is somewhat different from the rest of Southeast Asia because of the strong Spanish influences, especially in terms of religion - 80% of the population is Roman Catholic.  The exhibit traced the history of the Philippines from its precolonial roots, through the eras of Spanish and American rule, up to the People's Power movement in the 1980s.  What I thought was most interesting was seeing how the Spanish priests mixed indigenous religions with Catholicism to make Christianity more palatable to the natives.  The exhibit had an extensive display of religious icons, most of which were made by Chinese artisans.  This added another cultural influence into the mixture: the icons showed a mix of Christian and indigenous religious symbols, rendered in a Chinese style.  Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed.  However, I did stumble onto a display of Hindu "small gods" on my way out:

Apparently, the Hindu gods most people are familiar with, such as Shiva, Ganesha, Kali, etc, are known as the "large gods".  These are the gods that have big statues in the temples and lots of legends about them.  However, there are also all sorts of minor gods called the "small gods" that are in charge of daily life kind of stuff.  People would normally have these kinds of statues in their homes and would set up small alters on which to place offerings.

Speaking of Hindu temples, last night, before heading out for Halloween, my friends and I went to a really cool restaurant called Annalakshmi.  The restaurant is run by a Hindu temple called the Temple of Fine Arts.  The Temple of Fine Arts puts on all sorts of music and dance performances, as well as running this restaurant.  The catch is that for all of their performances, as well as the meals at the restaurant, there are no set prices, you just pay what you think it was worth.  The food was really good and all the people working at the restaurant are volunteers who genuinely want to be there.  An interesting concept, and a really nice place overall.

Now I am off to make a spectacularly delicious sandwich.  If I had to pick one food item from home that I miss the most, it would be delicious sandwiches.  The lunchmeat situation here is quite dire - the Singaporean grocery stores only have various kinds of weird looking meat called things like "chicken ham" and "beef ham".  The cheese situation is just as bad: most stores only sell the rubbery pre-sliced "processed American cheese food" stuff.  So, today, I went to Carrefour (French Walmart, but much classier because it's French) and bought some delicious roasted turkey and gouda cheese.  Mmm I am so excited for this!

Update: That sandwich was AWESOME!