Tuesday, December 30, 2003

I received my order of L5R cards, finally. They took more than 3 weeks to get here from New Zealand :p But the stamp used has Gandalf on it, and makes it all worth the wait.

I wish I had the whole set of Return of the King stamps.
Anita Mui, HK pop superstar, has passed away of cervical cancer at the age of 40.

I was never a fan of hers, mainly because I never listened to Chinese pop beyond what I had to for my Mandarin classes. By all accounts she was a likable person and a fervent community service volunteer despite her hectic schedule -- she apparently worked up till the day she fell into a coma. In fact she was supposed to launch her new book here in Singapore in mid-December, with all proceeds going to the Children's Cancer Foundation. She never turned up, and with hindsight she was probably already being ravaged on the inside by the cancer.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Now this article provides plenty of thought for Public Policy majors. Andy Ho always does a good job of making science accessible to the layman, but without cheapening or dumbing down his content. Since The Straits Times only keeps articles for 3 days, the column in question has been reproduced for your reading pleasure :)

Inoculating the world against the wrong flu
By Andy Ho

IF YOU are not one of the 300,000 Singaporeans who have taken the flu shot, count yourself lucky.

The current vaccine against influenza A was made to be used against a strain first isolated in Panama in 1999. However, there is a new strain plaguing the world, called Fujian, which bears 23 significant mutations, some of which are very dramatic, Harvard bioengineer Henry Niman told The Sunday Times.

This means that the vaccine now in use will offer less than the usual 70 to 90 per cent protection rate, and probably way below 50 per cent, since 75 per cent of the cases are now Fujian.

First identified in China (Beijing), the United States (Massachusetts) and Japan (Osaka) late last year, Fujian was already causing severe illness in Australia and New Zealand by February this year.

Coincidentally, that is also the time of the year when the major pharmaceutical firms decide, in collaboration with governments, what flu strains to manufacture the annual vaccine against.

Most knew about the emerging Fujian strain, but decided to stick with Panama anyway.

How was that decision made in the US, the nation so far worst hit by the Fujian flu?


Its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the fateful call on March 18. A transcript of its proceedings can be read on the FDA website.

Except for a lone voice of dissent - and two abstentions - 17 physicians and public health specialists voted to bring back the Panama shot.

A close reading of the questions posed shows that, though experts in their own fields, few seemed familiar with genetics or vaccine production. Instead, they appeared dependent on the presentations by two speakers who briefed them before a vote was taken.

People about to cast an important vote are duty-bound to do some homework beforehand but the proverbial dog could have eaten all their homework, save for one person.

Came decision day, three sins committed went unexpiated because only one member could recognise them.

First, the threat that the new strain would likely pose was underplayed.

Fujian was already spreading geographically and had caused disease in the southern winter, thus heralding a new epidemic.

Moreover, the fact that two of the 23 mutations in Fujian had first appeared in the 1968 pandemic, then disappeared, only to reappear now, was nowhere noted in their deliberations.

If they had only studied the genomes of the flu strains available on the Internet, they would have seen the telltale mutations.

Second, they were told that there was no way to produce the Fujian vaccine, the strain having failed repeatedly to grow in chicken eggs. The Europeans and Japanese were experiencing similar difficulties.

(The difficulty in growing the virus should have been a broad hint that Fujian was significantly different from Panama.)

In fact, there were other ways to grow the virus - through cell cultures alone, or through cell cultures followed by transfer of the rapidly growing virus into eggs.

The Japanese did successfully grow the Fujian virus in a cell culture and transfer it into eggs. These could have been used to begin making the vaccine.

But the Americans refused the same procedure, fearing that cell cultures might introduce other extraneous agents, some potentially cancerous, into the vaccine.

In fact, chicken eggs might also introduce similar agents but, never mind, eggs have always been used.

The FDA was unlikely to approve the use of viruses that had been through a cell culture even once, the participants at the vaccine advisory committee were told.

And even if it did, approval would take months - too late to use them this season because manufacturing the vaccine using eggs takes eight months and so must commence by early April if they are to get to market by the cold season at year's end.

Yet, had they done their homework, they would have come across a firm called Solvay Pharmaceuticals with one cell culture licensed for use in vaccine production.

Using cell cultures alone without subsequent transfer into eggs produces vaccines much faster, possibly in time even for use this season.

This had been successfully tried out on an industrial scale in Austria last year, where the vaccine worked safely and effectively in 2,500 volunteers.

In addition, having voted to use the old Panama strain, it behooved the American health authorities to inform the public that this year's flu shot wasn't going to offer much protection against the expected bug.

They didn't - and yet they are still telling at-risk groups to take the shot.

I'm befuddled: Annual shots are recommended because the flu virus keeps changing, the experts say. Yet the strain used in making the influenza A vaccine has remained completely unchanged since 2000, even though the virus has mutated.

The 17 members of the committee seemed to have voted less on the science and more on regulatory considerations and industrial concerns - decidedly not their areas of expertise too.

Had the vote been 20 against Panama, it might have forced the FDA's hand to make a quick decision about using the licensed cell culture to produce the Fujian.

But it's too late now for the families whose children have died from Fujian. Looks like a long winter ahead for the Americans.


I bring this article to your attention, because these are the kind of situations that Public Policy (at least the way I was taught it at the University of Chicago anyway) equips people to study. At first glance, it's easy to conclude that the decision-makers were negligent or even amoral (this seems to be Mr Ho's slant as well).

This is in no way a criticism of Mr Ho's writing, but I observe that lots of people (not including Mr Ho) think that government policy is a matter of the right people waving a magic wand. It's a whole lot more complicated than that. I wish more people would appreciate the sheer difficulty in coordinating different groups all with their own agendas. I wish more would consider the political give-and-take decision-makers play to get the best deals for their interests. I wish more people were able (or willing) to grasp the concept that routine and organisational processes can and often do blind a person to change -- even if she is the most upright person in the world.

This is why the world needs good Public Policy majors.
Rocket Mania is damn addictive.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Am taking a short break from Quicksilver, having finished the 1st book. I thought I'd read Dance Dance Dance, but I was thumbing the first pages of that book when I remembered that it was kind of a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase. Didn't feel right not to reread that, so into my bag it went and me into bed.

Then this morning on the bus I recalled that A Wild Sheep Chase used characters from Hear the Wind Sing. Somehow it had never struck me that all three could be read in succession. Wouldn't hurt to try, and Murakami's work is worth rereading anyway.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

j�nigatsu nij�yokka
anata wa
nani wo shiteru
watashi wa
machi no dokoka de
zutto anata wo matteruuuuuu

T�ky� wa itsudatte
itsudatte nigiyaka da kedo
j�nigatsu nij�yokka
hitori-kiri wa sukoshi samishii


Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Clarissa Oon, journalist and arts critic for the lifestyle section of The Straits Times (titled, in a fit of style-masquerading-as-creativity, Life!), has discovered Murakami Haruki.

I would link to her column, but since the ST only keeps its online editions, well, online for 3 days linking probably wouldn't be of much point. Nonetheless --

Where can I find a Murakami man?

btw, Miss Oon has written a short comedy too:

Say The Right Thing (1997)

Relationships are strange creatures. I hope you find the one you're looking for, Miss Oon. (Alas! I'm about 4 years younger and I don't cook. But Murakami's men only do pasta anyway and I can handle that.)


I'm reading Neal Stephenson's latest: Quicksilver. Irreverent wit and esoteric concepts intelligently meshed together -- once again. I keep thinking of rereading his earlier Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash (the latter was what got me hooked on Stephenson), but somehow other books keep shoving themselves in the way.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

This has been a very good weekend. Sean Yeo and Jonathan Lim (rumoured lovers btw) were uproaringly hilarious in Chestnuts Unloaded. Their Christmas comedy revue's in its 6th year, and the duo are still pulling in the crowds with endless witty parodies and spoofs of almost everything in local entertainment that's happened this year. Video cameos by the Architect himself (!), Frodo and Sam sing Eminem, The Matriarchitect, Theatreworks does the News, and endless, endless jibes at the Esplanade. Descriptions are insufficient -- Chestnuts must be experienced in all its wit, energy and ingenuity.

Damn -- I'm definitely going back next year.


Seen Return of the King yet? Peter Jackson is truly admirable. He has not only made Tolkien accessible to a general public, but has done so in three movies of consistently jaw-dropping quality. Granted, they were shot as one movie but the sheer duration of it all is nevertheless daunting. There is no doubt that The Lord of the Rings is a fine work even when divorced from its print counterpart. There have been excellent print-to-screen adaptations before, but for an iconic fantasy novel that essentially estalished the genre? Only the Star Wars trilogy (of course not those cursed prequels) can compare. Probably.


Discount coupons for Kinokuniya and Borders in Saturday's paper? Why, don't mind if I do. Buying Murakami Haruki's Dance Dance Dance at 20% off is a fine way to end any weekend.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Whoo! One week to Christmas! :D

Monday, December 15, 2003

So the U.S. got Saddam.


... actually doesn't solve anything. The attacks will still go on and may even get worse because now they have Saddam the martyr to rally around. Besides, it doesn't look like Saddam was actively involved with any of the groups that are killing people in Iraq.

Temporary morale boost for the troops. Campaign boost for Dubya. Just don't ask too many questions.

Friday, December 12, 2003

I always look forward to reading Janadas Devan's wide-ranging but lucid articles in The Straits Times. With the handy link on the side menu, now you can too.
What better way to psyche yourself up for The Return of the King than by buying a massive issue of Empire dedicated to the third Lord of the Rings movie?

Other good stuff: a fairly detailed article on Disney's ups and downs, an in-depth interview with Bill Murray (and is Lost in Translation really that good?) and an excellent writeup on Carol Reed's classic The Third Man. Speaking of which, I really should buy the DVD since it's going for a song here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Yah, the second Ramly burger stall is better.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

One of the things I like about Singapore is the neighbourhood pasar malam (lit. night market). These days they're no longer held at night but are whole day affairs, lasting 1-2 weeks on a field or snaking under blocks of flats. Up go the metal housing, then the striped swathes of tarpaulin over that. Then the mounted fans that ventilate more than cool in our hot, humid climate.

The stalls are the usual. Too many selling sinful treats of skewered Taiwanese sausages, deep-fried wantons, chicken nuggets, tea-boiled eggs and more. Of course, you can find local standards too: nasi lemak, mee siam, mee rebus, chicken briyani, chicken tandoori etc etc. Sometimes there's deep-fried ice-cream. Takoyaki was all the rage once, even okonomiyaki but I don't see those anymore.

When you get thirsty from all that food, buy a drink. Choose from bottles of sugar cane and soybean that sit next to cans of Coke and Pepsi, all sweating from the bed of crushed ice they're embedded in.

Eat and drink while browsing the wares on display. Cheap clothes (all knockoffs), bags, CDs, VCDs, sundry goods -- nail clippers, screwdrivers, clothes pegs, small kitchen knives -- handphone accessories and even snake oil peddlers. Before the authorities started paying attention there were pirated software and VCDs too. No-one really goes there to buy but to eat, drink and giah giah (take a walk).

Then after a weekend or a week or two, the stalls close and the metal housing comes down. The scattered litter remains a little longer. Everyone looks forward to the next one.


Lately, the venerable Ramly burger has been seen at the neighbourhood pasar malam. I have fond memories of wolfing down these sandwiches during childhood trips in Malaysia. Egg, sweet tangy chilli sauce and all.

Of course the versions here are more expensive than up north. I ate one yesterday and found it a little... unsatisfying. Perhaps memory is the best condiment, next to hunger. Then again the preparation wasn't quite right. For one thing the burger patties were pre-cooked and just reheated on top of the egg. Then the cheese on top, covered by the sauce before the patty is wrapped up in the egg before being tranferred to naked buns. The chilli sauce wasn't tangy enough either.

I did find a second stall with the large Ramly burger banner displayed. That looked more authentic somehow. The patties are cooked on the spot and the buns are garnished liberally with greens and sauce. I have to try that one.
Justin over at his site kulturbrille:asymmetry has some great links to local online literary magazines. Look below the Love, Actually review.

Monday, December 08, 2003

I'm playing Legend of the Five Rings again. My present favorite waste of time and money. That heady rush that comes with returning to a much-beloved game is beginning to wear off. A natural effect of the days going by no doubt. In this case also helped in large part by the fact that if I want to play a good Scorpion Clan dishonor deck, I'll have to sell my firstborn for the necessary cards.

Naturally, the insanity must stop somewhere. (At one point I was thinking of buying booster boxes. Boxes! Then I realised that at that point L5R was no longer just a game to me...). I'll just cobble a military deck together and try not to think about losing too much.

L5R is a great, story and player-oriented game that I recommend to all and sundry. But it's just that -- a game. Once it stops being fun, there's really no point in carrying on.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Idealism meets real life? That this article got published in The Straits Times in the first place makes it interesting :)

Making their Marx in business

Their leanings are socialist - some might say anti-capitalist - but it is their resolute spirit, sense of integrity and purpose for society that also make them good entrepreneurs

An excerpt:

Leftists and non-leftist entrepreneurs interviewed said leftists have two trump cards in business.

The first is their general integrity, willingness to trust and earnestness to better society, which many entrepreneurs consider vital for building lasting business success [...] the second advantage which predisposes such entrepreneurs to being successful is their non-conformist streak, which he says goes a long way in helping them compete with the best in the current global economy, which emphasises out-of-the-box traits like innovation, intuition and imagination...