Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shark Week: On shark's fin soup, and alternatives

It's Discovery Channel's 26th Shark Week! Of course everyone has to write something about sharks this week, so here's my small contribution. Being Singaporean Chinese, the obvious shark topic then would be shark's fin soup. 

Back when I was a kid, attending wedding banquets and fancy Chinese dinners usually meant putting on my best dress, sitting with strange people for three hours and eating shark's fin soup. The soup, a gluey concoction of mostly starch and water with some crab meat and real shark's fin dispersed in it, was more or less a standard item on the menu at every respectable fancy Chinese dinner I went to. I always add a huge dollop of black rice vinegar to it, because the soup by itself is actually quite tasteless. It was more like a vinegar kick for me each time.

Shark's fin soup. The dark color is usually because of added black rice vinegar, which provides most of the taste. Image obtained from Wikipedia Commons, by harmon from Austin, TX (shark's fin soup, uploaded by Caspian blue)
Like many have realized and pointed out, shark's fin soup doesn't have magical medicinal or nutritional value, it's more or less tasteless and the shark finning industry continues to make huge dents in shark populations worldwide. It's only a symbol of status and wealth in Chinese society, as only those who can afford it are able to serve the soup at their children's wedding banquets. And really, it's kind of depressing to think that my ethnic group is causing so much trouble with our traditions and customs and beliefs, especially when it is all for feeding egos. (There's another one: starting today 7th August, the first day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, the air surrounding my parents' apartment block back in Singapore where I grew up will be clogged with smoke, ash and the smell of burning incense paper. This is because the seventh month is "Ghost month" and we have to appease the spirits by burning offerings. The festivities will last until the "Gates of Hell" close on the last day of the seventh month, 4th September this year.)

But on the bright side, the younger generation has begun to turn away from this status symbol. Bonnie Tsui gives an elegant take on it here in a New York Times Opinion piece. Indeed, I was very proud when my elder sister did not serve shark's fin soup at her wedding banquet two years ago. In the NYT piece, Tsui makes a note that French wine is beginning to take on a similar role to shark's fin soup as a status symbol. But then, will the same thing happen with French wine? This reminds me of any situation in which a single, or a few, items carry the responsibility of representing something so important as a human's status in society. Perhaps we can only really move on from our traditions and beliefs when there is a diverse range of status symbols to choose from, or better yet, we accept that there is no need for any item to represent our status in society.

Anyway, I have actually tried a "shark's fin soup" that, in my memory, was far better than any shark's fin soup that I've had. Behold Cucurbita ficifolia, literally "shark's fin melon" as translated from its Mandarin name, 鱼翅瓜. 

Cucurbita ficifolia, or shark's fin melon, spaghetti squash and figleaf gourd. It has a texture very, very similar to that of shark's fin, except it also has a subtle sweetness to it. Image from Wikipedia Commons. 
My mum made soup out of it once, and it was pretty damned good. OK, maybe it was because my mum made it. Here's a recipe for shark's fin melon soup from NoobCook, no starch to thicken it, no need for black rice vinegar to give it some taste. Maybe when, or if, Cucurbita ficifolia takes over shark's fin as the status symbol in Chinese society, we should start worrying about its spreading plantations causing deforestation and loss of habitat and the like. Till then, don't put yourself in dangerous situations like trying to kiss a shark on the lips!  
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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Electrifying Wastewater: My first video for Bytesize Science!

After ten long weeks of internship, I finally produced a complete video for Bytesize Science! Although this was not one of my pitches, but more of an assignment, it's still pretty sweet to produce something related to energy and sustainability.

Microbial fuel cells are devices that run on wastewater, yes, wastewater is the fuel here and bacteria that feed on the wastewater produce electrons that are harvested as electricity. I should stop here or there'll be no reason to watch the video anymore.

Anyways, this video was also like a training exercise for me to learn basic (really, really basic) animation and get acquainted with After Effects. It was a real humbling experience (something that I imagine an animation intern does full-time) animating those hundreds of electrons and oxygens and bacteria and bringing them to life. Many thanks to Bytesize's Kirk Zamieroski and Elaine Seward for all their help and pointers!

If you like my work with Bytesize, or fun-filled chemistry videos, subscribe to our Youtube channel or follow us (me, for now) on Twitter!
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Traveling for Bytesize Science: Animals, machines and a little bit of history

I'm back from a long week of travels filming for Bytesize Science. If you haven't yet, check out the video series online at! There will soon be videos by me up there =) And here's a photo of the team:

Bytesize Science team in our studio. Clockwise from top left-hand corner: Elaine Seward,  me,  Sean Parsons,  Kirk Zamieroski, Janali Thompson, Adam Dylewski. Photo taken by Sean Parsons (10-second timer)
On hindsight, we more or less chose a terrible week to run that gig because everywhere in the Northeast was just so, so, so hot. It was like being back in Singapore, except I really don't appreciate the heat with a ton of equipment on my shoulders. But I learned many, many cool things from this Great East Coast Science Excursion filming trip! Here are some of my favorites, in chronological order.

At MIT, Markus Buehler explained to us that in building strong and resilient materials, one doesn't need complex chemistry but rather complex structure. A strong and resilient material doesn't have to be made of fancy atoms and molecules glued together with fancy bonds. Instead, if we take a simple building block, say a Lego piece, but stick them together in a complex arrangement, that can produce a strong material as well. 

This was my favorite day of the week: Animal Day! We spent the day filming at the New England Aquarium, and one of the most important lessons that I learned was lobsters can be that big (see picture below.) And that was just a moult, that lobster continued to grow bigger after shedding that! 

NE Aquarium researcher Michael Tlusty (not pictured) holds up the claw from a lobster moult to Kirk Zamieroski's neck. 
A baby lobster that NE Aquarium researcher Michael Tlusty put in my hand. When held, the lobster initially stiffens (that's what it's doing in the picture) so that anything trying to eat it will have a real hard time. Taken by Kirk Zamieroski.

I also learned that many sea turtles get hit by boats which sometimes causes their shells to crack and sometimes their intestines come out and the boats that struck the sea turtles normally don't realize that the turtles were struck and so sometimes the sea turtles don't get found and rescued until they're almost dead, floating on the surface of the sea. But luckily, the sea turtle that was struck on Tuesday was brought to the Aquarium for surgery. I hope it's fine now. Also, New England has sea turtles, around Cape Cod, during the summer, so watch out for them!

Machine day! We went to Sylvia Ceyer's lab at MIT where they showed us their machines. Seriously, Terminator-looking machines. A little bit more impressive than the Jaegers in Pacific Rim (I love the movie's soundtrack.) There, I learned that gold can be a lubricant, so if you're working with a machine that cannot use liquid lubricant, you can use screws that are plated with gold. Pretty damned cool. 

In New York City, we were introduced to Columbia's Havemeyer Hall and its history. A large part of the Manhattan Project, Havemeyer Hall is a National Historic Chemical Landmark and we spent some time on the sixth floor where the experiments for the Manhattan Project were carried out. Now, there are no labs on the sixth floor, just faculty offices.

At Princeton, we went around the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) facility in the new Frick chemistry building. NMR is a very useful tool, to say the least, in chemistry research today and while I had quite some experience with it, I learned that actually, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is NMRI (nuclear magnetic resonance imaging) because it uses the same principles as NMR, but the first word, "nuclear" was dropped because many people are afraid of that word. I will elaborate on that fear in a later post. 


So, I had quite the week, and am now very physically tired, very mentally well-learned and very loaded with work to do for my internship. I'm quite excited for the videos that I'm going to produce in my last six weeks with Bytesize! Watch this space (and for them!

Many thanks to Bytesize for the opportunity to experience a week-long filming gig on the road. =)
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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dear Readers,

I am alive! And I am appalled at myself for not having posted anything since 21st April. I can spout all kinds of excuses - I had crazy end-of-semester projects, I went nuts over an essay for a class, I met a boy - but it's probably better to just start putting content (that's way overdue) on this baby.

First, some updates. Last semester ended with a pretty cool urban agriculture project that I completed with four classmates, a 3-minute photoessay with audio about two teenagers who learned how to grow vegetables in Boston, an essay that nearly drove me nuts about money and sustainability, and a profile on a very cool lady. I will never let that essay see the light of day, however, I will probably blog about money and sustainability very soon. The topic really shook me up.

After last semester, I moved to DC on 18th May with classmate Matt Hardcastle and officially began my internship with the American Chemical Society on 20th May. I now have a pretty sweet 9-5 paid job, forty hours a week, sometimes more, and I get to travel around on shoots. The internship is like a dream, sometimes like a nightmare, but mostly like a dream. In the video production unit, I get to come up with my own stories, research them, film, write script, edit, animate.. pretty much every step in the process of producing a video short of narration. The videos go on and I've just about completed the first video about microbial fuel cells that I've been working on for the last few weeks, among five others.

An exciting thing about my internship - I've started tweeting! Mostly for BytesizeScience, but I probably should put as much effort into my own handle as I do for Bytesize. Writing for Twitter is a strange experience. I spent a good week reading all sorts of articles online about best Twitter practices, writing for Twitter, pretty much this Mashable manual here. Anyway, for brief updates on my thoughts or what I've been reading, follow @BytesizeScience or @limxiaozhi

I've also been trying to move this blog, but not much success so far. This is my one big excuse for putting off updating - I'll move the blog, reformat it and then type a nice long post to go with. Nopes. Not a good idea.

So yupps, that's the end of my hiatus from this site. Dear readers, I hope you're all enjoying flip-flops and summertime.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Hotpot, a shared act of creation

Here is a recent class assignment, a short narrative piece with emphasis on place. Many, many thanks to Poncie, Sony and Matt for joining me at Shabu-Zen for a very fun hotpot dinner that the piece is based on. When you are done reading, check out Poncie and Sony's fabulous blogs here and here.


I had a reservation for four at 7 pm on Saturday night. I had reminded the three friends joining me for dinner to be punctual, and we were all at the restaurant as the clock struck seven. Still, we had to wait fifteen minutes before we were finally seated in the crowded restaurant. I liked the thought that our loud conversation on socially awkward topics at the front door probably hastened that process.

We were at Shabu-Zen, a hotpot restaurant in Allston, Massachusetts. As we settled into our booth by the window, the cacophony of voices speaking in English, Mandarin and Korean mixed with the clatter of plastic plates gradually coalesced into an incomprehensible din. The noise hung like a heavy fog, as if trapped by the humidity from the permanent clouds of steam over the pots of boiling broth on the hotplates in the middle of each table. The earthy brown furnishings glowed in the soft, warm light. We did not hear the ambulance as it passed by on Brighton street right outside our window. Here, it was OK, if not normal, to place your elbows on the table during the meal, and to reach over to take or place food on your companions’ plates without asking.

Having moved across the world from Singapore to Boston, Shabu-Zen is one of the few places where I could indulge in my favorite way to have a meal. Hotpot is an immensely enjoyable eating style from Asia that requires participants to cook and eat from a central, shared pot of broth. The meal becomes an intimate, personal experience, as participants put in their energy and effort to cook collaboratively. This is not an activity for a business lunch or a first date; this is something to do “with people who are important, or whom you want to be important to you,” explained Chris Maggiolo, a graduate assistant in the gastronomy department at Boston University.

Sharing food – a precious resource – is always regarded as a symbol of care and hospitality, Maggiolo said. In hotpot, we have to be extra conscious of putting raw meat or seafood in the pot, as raw meat or seafood can introduce bacteria into the pot that could contaminate the food that is nearly done. Then, someone at the table would have to make a hard decision to let the food overcook, or risk having a stomachache later.

Our food arrived. An array of raw seafood – slices of cod, salmon, scallop and squid, shrimp neatly cleaned and cut down the middle, clams and a single mussel – lay limply on a fish-shaped plate while bright red slices of beef and pork came in perky rolls. We attacked the vegetables, emptying the napa cabbage, corn, carrots and mushrooms into the broth, so as to let the broth absorb their flavors. Once the broth started bubbling angrily, I picked up a slice of meat with my chopsticks and dunked it. Two friends promptly followed suit. We put in some extra meat for the one friend who was still wrestling with his chopsticks. I barely took two breaths as we watched the meat unfurl, shrink and shrivel into a wrinkled, grey morsel. Itadakimasu, I said, and listened impressed as a friend explained to another that it is the Japanese version of bon appétit.

It was not just food we shared. According to Maggiolo, cooking together is a shared act of creation. At the hotpot, we had to decide together what’s going in, when, and how long it should stay in the pot. My friends and I in Singapore can get militant about cooking our food for the right amount of time. It becomes almost a point of pride if we can get a slice of fish cooked just enough that it melts in your mouth without upsetting your stomach later, and even better if we had made it for another person. But when my friend asked if I thought his squid was done, I honestly couldn’t tell. I just shared my trick with him – when the food looks like it is good enough to eat but you are unsure about it not being cooked thoroughly, count to ten.

Almost two hours went by before it was time to leave and surrender our table. Nowadays, it is unusual to spend so much time on a meal. According to Maggiolo, since the industrial revolution, societal values have changed, placing far more emphasis on production and productivity and leaving no time for people to enjoy a meal with their family. Instead, we would “eat by yourself very quickly and go back to work,” said Maggiolo. Perhaps, that would slowly change as people rediscover the joys of communal eating through hotpot.

Hotpot, or steamboat as we call it in Singapore, during my surprise birthday celebration in 2007. I miss you guys. 
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Sunday, April 14, 2013

An interview with Dipul Patel

Another class assignment, this time a one-minute interview-style video of an expert explaining something that he/she is familiar with. My pick - Dipul Patel of ecoVent.

Smartphones? Smart homes. from XiaoZhi Lim on Vimeo.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

ecoVent for our silly apartments

Whenever it gets cold outside, my room's heat just gets magically sucked out through my exterior wall and window. My Indian roommate has it even worse - she has two exterior walls and windows. These are times when we beg our American roommate, who has the interior room with the thermostat, to turn up the heat. And because she's the only one who isn't from a hot climate and doesn't get cold easily, she has to turn the air-conditioning on in her room to prevent herself from melting while my Indian roommate and I try to prevent our blood from freezing in our fingers. Best - or worst, depending how you look at it - part, our heat and hot water is free, so we don't even get a monetary pinch.

So I was intrigued when I went to the Friday night showcase of the 2013 MIT Energy Conference a few weeks ago and saw the ecoVent Systems display. There was a little model of a house with four compartments, and each compartment was held at a different temperature.

ecoVent prototype on display at the 2013 MIT Energy Conference Friday night showcase. Photo taken by me. 
As Dipul Patel, an MIT graduate student and one of the ecoVent developers, pointed out, the heating system in a typical residential home or apartment building simply leaves all of the vents fully open for hot air to flow out. There is no mechanism to account for the difference in air flow from each vent, and no easy way to adjust each vent's opening to control the amount of hot air it's spewing. There are settings available for manual adjustments, but that would involve fiddling with each vent separately until you get the right amount of hot air. I like to imagine my current apartment's heating system as a blind person who can't see if his audience is hearing him, so he just keeps shouting at the top of his lungs in every direction.

Dipul Patel explaining the concepts of ecoVent to a visitor at the showcase. Photo taken by me. 
What ecoVent does, is to give the apartment's blind heating system eyes and a brain for central communication so that it now knows where it needs to heat and where not to. Patel's team developed vents with built-in wireless communications that can be controlled by an application on a computer, tablet or smartphone. A home-owner or resident, like me, can create 'zones' in the application with different temperatures. For example, I would like my room to be at 80 degrees while my American roommate would probably always like her room to be at 70. Within each room, there will be temperature sensors, very much like night-lights, that 'see' the temperature of the room, report back to the application wirelessly and the application will 'tell' the vents to open up or send the hot air elsewhere.

According to Patel, ecoVent has just been proven in their little prototype, and their team is currently working on testing in real residential homes. Although they have yet to work out the finer details of product cost, marketing and availability, Patel envisions a product that will be close to 75 percent cheaper than any current solutions for creating multiple temperature zones in a home, and pays for itself in energy savings within two to three years.

Having lived through my first winter in Boston in a leaky and blind apartment, I was very glad to find that someone was working on apartment heating efficiency. In fact, last month, the mayor Thomas Menino just announced plans for cracking down on building efficiency in Boston. Even though I can still turn up the heat and not feel pain in my wallet, our situation right now of having to blast the heat to warm the exterior rooms and turn the air-conditioning on to cool the interior room is downright stupid. For next winter, I might just do as Patel recommended - get insulation for my window. But hopefully, ecoVent will be available in stores by then.
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Monday, March 11, 2013

Lithium-ion battery woes, explained.

This is an 'explainer' written for a class assignment a little more than a couple weeks ago. Following the Dreamliner battery woes, I wrote about battery fires and what causes them, including a tiny bit on the mechanisms built within a battery to prevent such incidents. I would like to dedicate the last bit on preventive mechanisms to my mother, who has been constantly freaking out about using a cellphone while it's charging because it's going to explode any moment and we should just let it sit in the farthest, most remote corner of the house until it's fully charged. 

The burnt Dreamliner battery. Image provided by NTSB on 
Explainer for the question: Can the batteries in your laptop catch on fire?

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner fleet recently because of lithium-ion battery fire incidents. Similar lithium-ion batteries are found in many consumer electronic devices such as laptops, cameras and cellphones. Can the batteries in your laptop catch on fire?

Yes, but the odds are very low.

Lithium-ion batteries can store a large amount of energy to provide long battery life, but this energy can easily create a fire if things go awry. Most lithium-ion battery fires start with uncontrolled overheating, or thermal runaway. This can happen when the battery is overcharged, overly discharged or contains manufacturing defects that lead to internal short-circuiting.

In a battery, lithium ions flow to-and-fro between two electrodes in one direction, depending on whether it is charging or discharging. Each electrode needs a minimum number of lithium ions to sustain the charge and discharge cycle. If the battery is overcharged or overly discharged, too many lithium ions move out of one electrode and accumulate at the other. This creates gaps in the electrode’s structure and if all the lithium ions have moved out of one electrode, heat is produced rapidly.

Manufacturing defects typically occur as an uneven membrane or the accidental introduction of tiny metal particles. The membrane that separates the electrodes is extremely thin, and if it gets too thin, electricity can flow through it. Most batteries contain some tiny metal particles, but if there are too many particles or if they all congregate at one spot, an electrical route is created. In both situations, the battery short-circuits and quickly overheats.

With a spark, the hot battery and its plastic encasements can catch on fire. Typically, a rechargeable laptop or cellphone battery contains several cells in a pack, and if one cell overheats, it can set off a chain reaction and the other cells can catch fire too.

Historically, lithium-ion batteries had a reputation for bursting into flames, but today’s batteries and their accompanying devices have numerous built-in safety systems. Electronics that use lithium-ion batteries are programmed to discontinue charging once the batteries are fully charged, or to shut down before the batteries are overly discharged. Additionally, there are at least three safety systems built within the batteries that will go off before it catches on fire. These are a temperature switch that shuts off the battery when it detects a surge of large current, a circuit interrupt device that cuts the internal connection within the battery when it overcharges, and a safety vent that releases gas when there is an internal pressure buildup.

However, these control systems cannot protect against an internal manufacturing defect. While the Boeing 787 fire is still under investigation, it is generally accepted that the fire was caused by a short-circuited cell, sparking thermal runaway that spread to neighboring cells. The reason for the short-circuit is still unknown. [490 words]

Bonus Explainer: Can an airplane be fully battery-powered? 

It is theoretically possible, but it will be extremely expensive and will require many more years of research. Unlike an electric car, airplanes require a lot of energy to support and transport heavy loads in the air. The heavier the airplane, the more energy it needs. Today’s batteries are neither powerful nor light enough to be suitable for use in an airplane. However, they are used for auxiliary systems in the plane such as the lights and entertainment systems, as in the Boeing 787.
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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rise and Shine at Haymarket - Multimedia

For one of my classes, I was assigned to head out in the morning before dawn and document how something gets set up. That was why, two Fridays ago, I pulled myself out of bed at 5 am to get to Haymarket at about 6.30am. Sadly, I was only there for ten minutes before someone came and asked me to leave. Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn't have been so compliant. A Singaporean attitude that I should shake off, I guess.

Anyway, here is my multimedia piece.

Boston Morning: Haymarket from XiaoZhi Lim on Vimeo.

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