Thursday, July 29, 2010

WCU Biomodulation GSR Symposium: Part I

Nice surprises might be the conduit through which the mathematical laws of nature remind you that life isn't so bad after all. They also say that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and so I guess the best philosophy is to always be ready for everything.

Not long ago, I was abruptly asked by my professor "How would you like to go to a science conference in Jeju tomorrow?"
Prior to this disorientating question, it was supposed to be a Friday afternoon in winding-down mode. The conference was due to begin on Saturday.

Around twelve hours later, I found myself mildly dazed in Kimpo airport clutching a backpack, a boarding pass and a brochure for the Germ Cell, Stem Cell and Reproductive Biology Symposium.

I like flying for three reasons. The first is because I like eating aeroplane food. Tasty or not, there's just something I find intriguing about buttering bread rolls and removing tin foil lids from steamed dishes at 30,000 feet. The second reason is because in-flight entertainment these days is much better than the plastic Cathay Pacific airplane model kits I used to get when I was young. You can watch all sorts of documentaries and movies on board. I really like the multiplayer trivia game on Malaysia Airlines, although no one onboard ever wants to play with me.
On our short flight to Jeju we received neither aeroplane food nor in-flight entertainment. But I still enjoyed it for the third reason that I like flying.

And that is because you're going somewhere distant.

We arrived at Jeju airport in the afternoon and were taken by coach bus to the symposium venue, the Hyatt Regency. Although the other student participants were accommodated at a nearby discount minbak, we were somehow fortuitously booked into the Hyatt, possibly because our professor is Canadian.

In general, Korean and Western professors have differing opinions when it comes to graduate students.

The rooms were nice. I've come to notice that you can often gauge how good a hotel room is by seeing how well the curtains block out the light during the day time. Cheap hotels are generally fairly bright during the day, even with the curtains drawn. If you have nice heavy duty curtains though, it keeps the room really dark, making it easier to accidentally sleep in and arrive late for the morning seminars.

This was the hotel lobby, which adequately embodied my definition of a lobby fit for a James Bond type of secret agent. 

Which is how I felt, at the time.

Live music played in the background, oblivious to whether anyone was listening. We later made friends with the musicians, whose names are Mark and Gigi.

The architecture of the building from the inside was quite inspiring. An engineer once told me that the optimum spacing between load-bearing columns supporting a roof is usually between 3 and 4 metres. This hotel had no columns and a large unsupported natural skylight spanning the tenth floor, which made me wonder what engineering ingenuity was at play in the blueprints.

When I was younger we had an enormous Lego set, and the Farrand brothers spent many weeks constructing various Lego citadels, complete with electronic railways with lights that worked. Stretching my mind back to that period, I guessed that the roof of this hotel was possibly constructed using I-beams.

This is Patrik Vahlberg, a Swedish post-doc who arrived to work in our lab. Right now, he and I are the only two people in the Tsang Lab at SNU. Patrik is a smart guy and suitably geeky for the position. He knows more about Star Trek than me, and enjoys playing Sid Meier's Civilization games. Nothing says geek more than turn-based strategy, and Patrik occasionally quotes voice actors from the game when the need arises. 
I thought I knew a lot about Star Trek in general, but during a lengthy discussion of the mythology I asked  him "Did you know there's a species from fluidic space who happen to be immune to Borg assimilation?"

His reply?

"Yes, that would be Species 8472."
Our first dinner was at a Jeju pork restaurant. The island is famous for pork meat, including 'poo-pig', which is the meat of our porcine friends who have been fed entirely on a diet of human excrement. Apparently there are places in the countryside where the toilets drop directly onto an enclosure, from which excited squeals emanate every time you drop a parcel.

But at this restaurant, we didn't eat poo-pig.

And the next morning we woke up to one of my favourite things in life, a good buffet breakfast. I really like nice surprises, as well as buffet breakfasts. Therefore, should my wife read this sentence rather than simply scroll past looking for interesting photos, she may (in her infinite wisdom) conclude that an excellent christmas/birthday/chuseok gift could be a surprise buffet breakfast.

This is the Jeju Hyatt from the outside. The architecture of the building reminds me of something specific, but I still haven't figured out what it is. A Dalek, perhaps? A cruise ship? I still have no idea.

Part II coming soon. Have a good weekend everyone!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Quote Dump #16

"Blender: Do you ever pick a subject at random [out of the encyclopedia] and learn all about it?
Lil Wayne: No. I’m a millionaire.
Blender: What’s that mean? Millionaires still have things they can learn!
Lil Wayne: Are you a millionaire? No. So don’t tell me what millionaires do. "

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Korea Toastmasters 3rd National Conference

Toastmasters events are great places to strike up a conversation with friendly strangers. Even if you go by yourself, assuming that you're relatively sane and can string a coherent sentence together, you'll make friends. On the other hand, when I go to science conferences, people seem less friendly on average and more socially awkward. And conversation generally revolves around a narrow topic field. Not to dismiss the scientific community entirely though, they have been known to drink a post-conference beer or three and duly experience 'declining social inhibition as a result of ethanol intoxication'.

But at Toastmasters, the whole focus is on improving communication and interpersonal skills. So if anyone gave you a cold shoulder after you greeted them, it would be they who were in the wrong place.

The 3rd Korea Toastmasters conference and speech competition was held at the Dragon Hill Lodge, on the US army base at Yongsan.

I'd never been here before, and was impressed with the gardening. You know you're getting old when you go to a garden party and get more excited by the garden.

Ka-Hee likes Toastmasters, but doesn't often get to attend due to work commitments. Every time I post a photo of her on this blog, I promptly ask her if she's seen it yet.

The answer is usually no.

One thing we both like are refreshments. I usually wait until she takes the lead.

The conference kicked off in the main building. The MC for the night was the same as last year, a funny man who runs the show with military precision.

"Testing! Testing! 1..2...3! Your attention please! The conference will begin in exactly 2 minutes. Exactly 2 minutes ladies and gentlemen. 2 minutes. Be ready!"

During the event, one of the workshops we attended was on voice projection, run by Jinsuk Lee (a reporter for MBC). Apparently if you practice trying to speak clearly with a chopstick in your mouth, your clarity will improve. Sitting next to my wife in this photo is Ka-Yong, who we just met. She's a student in my department, in the forest ecology lab.

Inspecting the pink camera in this photo is Ju-Hee, an SRTM member who found my blog online. She said she really likes it. Thanks Ju-Hee!
To the right of her is Pil-Soo Oh, the CEO of Lundbeck Korea. I still tutor his employees during the week. He likes to play golf and is a pretty friendly guy.

Around 240 guests showed up for the event, and more wanted to come but tickets were limited. I'm guessing next year they'll have to do it someplace bigger. No one in Korea Toastmasters is paid a penny, everyone is a volunteer and all proceeds go into further club events.

The food was not very good, and there wasn't enough to go around.

But we're a forgiving bunch.

Here's our very own Ron Cahoon who represented SRTM in the speech competition.  Ron is a gifted speaker and has a very powerful presence. The standards of all of the speeches were admirably high.

And this is Keith Ostergaard, an international Toastmasters director who flew here from Beijing for the event. He has three DTM awards, which means he has completed at least 165 prepared speeches, plus various other leadership activities. If you earn the DTM award, you get a wooden plaque and a letter from HQ to your employer, explaining what you have accomplished. A single DTM would take a focused person quite a few years. 

DTM: The Distinguished Toastmaster award.

And here's our table. We're a happy bunch. Next month we plan on going to the beach together.

Want to get involved?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Our New Professor and the World Cup

Professors are a fascinating breed of human. While resembling normal people in many important aspects, they do, however, have uniquely identifiable features. My observations of the subject have determined these features to include a lofty irreverence for adolescent vocabulary, an unwavering ability to remain unfazed by perplexity and a general benign indifference to popular norms.
They also have the remarkable ability to make you feel that you know a decreasingly small amount about a subject that you previously thought you knew a lot about. That amount directly decreases in proportion to the amount of time a professor spends giving you feedback on a research proposal.

My new professor is pretty cool though. He drinks beer and likes fried chicken from a place called 'Chicken Mania'. His wife once gave me a piece of cake, as a consolation prize for not being able to fix their printer.

He also likes to sing in noraebangs and knows a lot about ovarian cancer.

Smiling in this photo is Seo-Jin, who is a Biomodulation student in Professor Lim's lab over at Building 200. She's very helpful and translates class assignment questions for me, which are often written in Korean.

Before our professor took off for Canada, he organised a poster competition, which went well. He likes to organise things in general, and doesn't sleep much. Sometimes I get replies to my emails timestamped at 4am. In Canada he organizes charity fundraisers that auction things like 'lunch hosted by an ambassador'.

He told me that businessmen go nuts for those kinds of things.

Here he is, giving the first prize to Sam, who won the poster competition. Sam's poster was about functional food and tumors in mice. You'll hear about it in the newspaper one day.

The foreign faculty in Biomodulation only stay here for four months of the year, and spend the rest of the time back in their home countries. The program was designed to bring international influences here to our university and boost the quality of research that we do. Has it worked?

Ask me again in a couple of years.

That particular day we had a farewell dinner, and our professor gave a short toast. To his left is Professor Han, who is the Main Man when it comes to Biomodulation. He's got a lot of responsibilities resting on his shoulders, but is doing a remarkable job of getting things going.

One thing he can do is go around the table and have an individual soju shot with every professor in the department (13), as well as a good chunk of the students. And then he can recite the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The World Cup came and went. I like soccer a lot, but in Korea they go kinda nuts whenever anyone Korean accomplishes any kind of sporting achievement. If a Korean were to become a croquet champion, the Croquet World Cup would be instantly catapulted into the number one most popularly watched event. And demand for croquet instructors would go through the roof.

Which is fine, I guess. But as Carlos Pavao at SRTM says, it's important to be able to laugh at yourself every once in a while too.

For the Korea vs Uruguay game, we had some people over at our place. I like hosting people in general, but our place is pretty small. We hope to move into a bigger place next year and then we can do all sorts of interesting things, like Vietnamese Cold Roll Parties.

In the end, Spain ended up winning the World Cup as predicted by Paul the Octopus. Which, as a mathematics professor pointed out, is not that remarkable because we never heard about all of the psychic animals that made the wrong predictions. The media only made Paul famous after he had already selected quite a few winning teams.

According to the Wikipedia article: The animals at the Chemnitz Zoo in Germany were wrong on all of Germany's group-stage games, with Leon the porcupine picking Australia, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus spurning Serbia's apple-topped pile of hay, Jimmy the peruvian guinea-pig and Anton the tamarin eating a raisin representing Ghana. Mani the Parakeet of Singapore, Octopus Pauline of Holland, Octopus Xiaoge of Qingdao China, Chimpanzee Pino and African Red River Hog Apfelsin in Estonia's Tallinn Zoo all picked the Netherlands to win the final.

Sorry to burst any psychic animal fantasies you may have had...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Quote Dump #15

"With so many jaded slackers in one place, somewhere a Burger King is running itself.."

"My ex-girlfriend wrote a book called STOP DATING LOSERS."

"Your avatar is a shoe, man."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Make Your Own Mossarium

The study of moss is called bryology. Apparently there was a huge fad for it in the 18th century, with people building large moss exhibits in their gardens. Since then, moss has quietly faded into the shadowy backstreets of the popular psyche.

Walking around the Seoul National University campus, we see a lot of different kinds of moss and it piqued my interest in the stuff. Traditional Japanese gardeners often encourage the growth of moss to add an element of history and serenity. Here in Korea, it just seems to grow where it pleases.

I'm sure you've all heard of an aquarium before, which is a glass container for holding aquatic life. Similarly, a terrarium holds earth and air, for animals like frogs to be exhibited. Well a mossarium is for holding moss. They're very easy to make and can be used for decorations as well as producing small amounts of oxygen indoors. The best thing about them is that they are very easy to take care of, more so than indoor plants. All you need to do is spray the moss in a small jar with water every so often, and it will live happily in low amounts of light, while trapping and degrading dust particles in the air.

When collecting moss, it's best to try and get it from places out of sight, so that passers-by can still enjoy it. This is one of only two guiding principles of 'moss etiquette', a term which I believe I have coined myself.

The other guiding principle is to refrain from throwing it at others.

Although this looks like me, it's actually my alter-ego: Mossarium Man. I must admit, the resemblance is striking. His superhero abilities mainly revolve around the skillful making of mossariums and educating others about them.

I like moss because it grows in odd places and just makes do with what's around. This little tuft of rock moss had a slater bug on it, which is a good reminder that even a small outcrop of moss provides a living habitat for millions of microorganisms and their grazers. In a way, you could think of that slater bug as a miniature cow.

I certainly did.

All you need to make a mossarium is a glass jar and a tool for collecting the moss. We used an old spaghetti jar, which is coincidentally an excellent example of upcycling.

It also helps to have a poking device to put the moss inside carefully. Chopsticks are good, or you can use a twig or two.

With a bit of artistic input, you can arrange the moss inside so that it pleases the eye. This one has a few rocks thrown in for good measure and contains three different kinds of moss. One thing to remember is that you want a bed of sand or small rocks under the moss. Soil might sprout dormant seeds or mushrooms, which you want to avoid.

Look how happy Mossarium Man is in this photo. That's because the moss is happy. It makes a great desk ornament or a gift, and our first mossarium is going quite well. The stuff grows so slowly that you really don't need to worry about it much. Best of all, it didn't cost us a penny and was a great way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. 

So, dear reader, when are you going to Make Your Own Mossarium?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Birthday at Home Together

We spent my birthday in May at home together and I'd forgotten about this video.

My wife is funny.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Korea Toastmasters Picnic

The successful separation of work and life can be a difficult thing. And working in a Korean lab, one often experiences a blurring of the distinction between the two. I saw a speech recently about happiness, and the speaker was saying that if you're asked why you work, a deeper analysis always reveals that the ultimate goal is the happiness of yourself and those you care about. So he called 'work' a rather inefficient way of obtaining something that is already in abundance.

Which is the ability to enjoy ourselves on a day-to-day basis, if we try hard enough.

Working in the new lab, there seems to be a lot more freedom in terms of self-determination. Different professors have different management styles that work well with different kinds of students. I'm more of a Toastmasters kind of student and I like to go to Toastmasters events. In case you haven't heard of it before, Toastmasters is an international non-profit social organisation that focuses on developing public speaking and leadership skills.

At the Korea Toastmasters Interclub Picnic, we ordered a few more pizzas than we needed. The day was a social event organised for the clubs in Seoul to meet and mingle.

Public speaking is a funny thing. The majority of people who enjoy it are those who have done it enough times to be good at it. Clubs like Toastmasters tend to attract the same sorts of people, which could be defined as those willing to volunteer their free time to improve their public speaking skills and help others do the same. The initial reason I joined was to practice toward becoming an engaging science lecturer.

We played a few team games, with this one being quite memorable. There were different team colours, and the idea was to tie a coloured balloon to one foot and then work together and try to stamp on your opponent's balloons.

It started off predictably enough, with the same coloured teams huddled in defensive groups. But eventually chaos ensued.

As with many such chaotic games, offense was the best defense.

Here's me and Alice with another girl we were talking to that day, whose name I forgot. We started talking about blogs and I said that I'd post this picture.

We had a great time that day. Although I only joined last year, the Toastmasters experience has been one of the highlights of my time in Korea. Wherever you are in the world, you should track down your nearest club and take the plunge.

You'll probably be glad you did.