Must-Read Reports

Will Centaurus Wreck Our Live?

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Malaysians travel outstations to savour king of fruits, the durians, leading to spread of Covid-19 virus.

Centaurus is not an alien but a new subvariant of Covid-19 virus. We note an alarming development in the Guardian today (July 13th, 2022), as reported by Linda Geddes.`
The report noted virologists have voiced concerns about the emergence of another fast-spreading Omicron variant, which is rapidly gaining ground in India and has already arrived in the UK.
The BA.2.75 variant – nicknamed “Centaurus” – was first detected in India in early May. Cases in countries like UK have since risen steeply – and apparently faster than those of the extremely transmissible BA.5 variant, which is also present in India, and is rapidly displacing the previously dominant BA.2 variant in many countries.
BA.2.75 has also since been detected in about 10 other countries, including the UK, US, Australia, Germany and Canada.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) designated it a “variant under monitoring” on 7 July, 2022, meaning there is some indication that it could be more transmissible or associated with more severe disease, but the evidence is weak or has not yet been assessed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is also closely monitoring the new variant, although its chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, said there were not yet enough samples to assess its severity.
In addition to its apparent rapid growth and wide geographical spread, virologists have been alerted by the sheer number of extra mutations BA.2.75 contains, relative to BA.2, from which it is likely to have evolved. “This could mean that it has had the chance to evolve an advantage over an already successful virus lineage, said Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds.
“It’s not so much the exact mutations, more the number/combination,” said Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, who was the first to identify Omicron as a potential concern back in November 2021. “It’s hard to predict the effect of that many mutations appearing together – it gives the virus a bit of a ‘wildcard’ property where the sum of the parts could be worse than the parts individually.
“It is definitely a potential candidate for what comes after BA.5. Failing that, it’s probably the sort of thing we’ll have come along next, ie a ‘variant of a variant’.”
Even if it does not take off in other countries, its growth in India suggests it is likely to be an issue there, at the very least, Peacock added. “It’s clearly growing pretty well in India, but India hasn’t got much BA.5, and it is still very unclear how well it fares against [that].”
Griffin cited it as yet another example of the virus’s impressive capacity to tolerate changes in its spike protein – the part it uses to infect cells, and which most Covid vaccines are based on.
“This time last year, many were convinced that Delta represented an evolutionary pinnacle for the virus, but the emergence of Omicron and the vast increase in variability and antibody evasiveness is a sign that we cannot as a population follow an influenza-like plan to keep pace with viral evolution,” said Griffin.
In addition to vaccines, longer-term plans should include variant-agnostic measures to prevent infections and reinfections. “This includes creating infection-resilient environments through improved ventilation, filtration, or sterilisation of indoor air, sensible re-provision of lateral flow tests, and appropriate and supported isolation periods that will actually reduce ongoing transmission,” he said.
In Malaysia, there have been growing cases of Covid-19 infections. The Government expect a spike in cases as there were many holidays and people were travelling to their home towns. Many of them travelled to enjoy the king of fruit, the durian, which is now in high season.
Centaurus subvariant will likely be arriving in Malaysia as we welcome a huge number of visitors from India and returning Malaysians from India. I will be wearing my mask and avoid crowded places.

Must-Read Reports

How does soil become fertile?

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Soil is an astonishing ecosystem

Some parts of my small garden are fertile where papaya trees are growing nicely. Why are they fertile and support healthy papaya trees? An article by George Monbiot in the Guardian, May 7th,  2022, would help explain this phenomenon. 

He noted that beneath our feet is an ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil.

Under one square metre of undisturbed ground in the Earth’s mid-latitudes (which include the UK) there might live several hundred thousand small animals. Roughly 90% of the species to which they belong have yet to be named. One gram of this soil – less than a teaspoonful – contains around a kilometre of fungal filaments.

When I first examined a lump of soil with a powerful lens, I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. As soon as I found the focal length, it burst into life. I immediately saw springtails – tiny animals similar to insects – in dozens of shapes and sizes. Round, crabby mites were everywhere: in some soils there are half a million in every square metre.

Then I began to see creatures I had never encountered before. What I took to be a tiny white centipede turned out, when I looked it up, to be a different life form altogether, called a symphylid. I spotted something that might have stepped out of a Japanese anime: long and low, with two fine antennae at the front and two at the back, poised and sprung like a virile dragon or a flying horse. It was a bristletail, or dipluran.

As I worked my way through the lump, again and again I found animals whose existence, despite my degree in zoology and a lifetime immersed in natural history, had been unknown to me. After two hours examining a kilogram of soil, I realised I had seen more of the major branches of the animal kingdom than I would on a week’s safari in the Serengeti.

That this thin cushion between rock and air can withstand all we throw at it and still support us is a dangerous belief.

But even more arresting than soil’s diversity and abundance is the question of what it actually is. Most people see it as a dull mass of ground-up rock and dead plants. But it turns out to be a biological structure, built by living creatures to secure their survival, like a wasps’ nest or a beaver dam. Microbes make cements out of carbon, with which they stick mineral particles together, creating pores and passages through which water, oxygen and nutrients pass. The tiny clumps they build become the blocks the animals in the soil use to construct bigger labyrinths.

Soil is fractally scaled, which means its structure is consistent, regardless of magnification. Bacteria, fungi, plants and soil animals, working unconsciously together, build an immeasurably intricate, endlessly ramifying architecture that organises itself spontaneously into coherent worlds. This biological structure helps to explain soil’s resistance to droughts and floods: if it were just a heap of matter, it would be swept away.

It also reveals why soil can break down so quickly when it’s farmed. Under certain conditions, when farmers apply nitrogen fertiliser, the microbes respond by burning through the carbon: in other words, the cement that holds their catacombs together. The pores cave in. The passages collapse. The soil becomes sodden, airless and compacted.

But none of the above capture the true wonder of soil.

Let’s start with something that flips our understanding of how we survive. Plants release into the soil between 11% and 40% of all the sugars they make through photosynthesis. They don’t leak them accidentally. They deliberately pump them into the ground. Stranger still, before releasing them, they turn some of these sugars into compounds of tremendous complexity.

Making such chemicals requires energy and resources, so this looks like pouring money down the drain. Why do they do it? The answer unlocks the gate to a secret garden.

These complex chemicals are pumped into the zone immediately surrounding the plant’s roots, which is called the rhizosphere. They are released to create and manage its relationships.

Soil is full of bacteria. Its earthy scent is the smell of the compounds they produce. In most corners, most of the time, they wait, in suspended animation, for the messages that will wake them. These messages are the chemicals the plant releases. They are so complex because the plant seeks not to alert bacteria in general, but the particular bacteria that promote its growth. Plants use a sophisticated chemical language that only the microbes to whom they wish to speak can understand.

When a plant root pushes into a lump of soil and starts releasing its messages, it triggers an explosion of activity. The bacteria responding to its call consume the sugars the plant feeds them and proliferate to form some of the densest microbial communities on Earth. There can be a billion bacteria in a single gram of the rhizosphere; they unlock the nutrients on which the plant depends and produce growth hormones and other chemicals that help it grow. The plant’s vocabulary changes from place to place and time to time, depending on what it needs. If it’s starved of certain nutrients, or the soil is too dry or salty, it calls out to the bacteria species that can help.

Take a step back and you will see something that transforms our understanding of life on Earth. The rhizosphere lies outside the plant, but it functions as if it were part of the whole. It could be seen as the plant’s external gut. The similarities between the rhizosphere and the human gut, where bacteria also live in astonishing numbers, are uncanny. In both systems, microbes break down organic material into the simpler compounds the plant or person can absorb. Though there are more than 1,000 phyla (major groups) of bacteria, the same four dominate both the rhizosphere and the guts of mammals.

Just as human breast milk contains sugars called oligosaccharides, whose purpose is to feed not the baby but the bacteria in the baby’s gut, young plants release large quantities of sucrose into the soil, to feed and develop their new microbiomes. Just as the bacteria that live in our guts outcompete and attack invading pathogens, the friendly microbes in the rhizosphere create a defensive ring around the root. Just as bacteria in the colon educate our immune cells and send chemical messages that trigger our body’s defensive systems, the plant’s immune system is trained and primed by bacteria in the rhizosphere.

Soil might not be as beautiful to the eye as a rainforest or a coral reef, but once you begin to understand it, it is as beautiful to the mind. Upon this understanding our survival might hang.

World Unique Innovation

Everyone should have this appliance from Cana

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Every beverage we drink is mostly water. Beer, soda, juice, coffee, tea – all are at least 90% water, plus a little sugar, alcohol or flavor compounds.

Scientists at a Californian company Cana Inc. have figured out how to identify and isolate those molecules that drive flavor and aroma to recreate thousands of drinks – without moving bottles filled mostly with water around the world.

Cana rebuilds each beverage at the molecular level using hundreds of ingredients — all within a single ingredients cartridge. The sugar and spirits cartridges complete the system, and all are automatically shipped to consumers.

Cana says it is the world’s first molecular beverage printer that combines all-natural ingredients with novel technologies that dispense compounds at the milliliter level of accuracy. The result is an infinite variety of chilled and carbonated beverages in under 30 seconds.

In addition, a beverage can be customized thanks to a 7-inch touchscreen, or from a mobile phone. Over-the-air software updates also ensure latest updates on beverages formulated  by celebrities.

Cana’s beverage appliance

The machine builds each beverage at the molecular level using hundreds of ingredients, all housed within an ingredients cartridge. And unlike pod-based systems that make a single drink per pod and generate lots of waste, Cana’s cartridge system can make thousands of drinks before being replaced (and recycled). The ingredients cartridge works with a separate sugar cartridge, spirits cartridge, water reservoir and carbonation cylinder to make the magic happen.

According to the company, it can serve an infinite variety of drinks, including cold brew coffee, tea, soda, juice, hard seltzers and specialty cocktails. Apparently, this thing can even make wine, although it’s hard to know if we’re excited or scared of that fact. It can also update its beverage catalog with new brands from partners and creators around the world, so that tally should only increase.

The drinks catalog can be tweaked per individual preference, and through the touchscreen  elements like sugar and alcohol content, caffeine level and flavor intensity can be altered. .

It has an interesting pricing system. The cartridges, which last about a month, are free and automatically shipped to consumers when one is running low, so one never has to think about replacing them. Rather than paying per cartridge, similar to pod-based coffee machines, a consumer pays per drink. For example, sparkling water is 29 US cents, iced tea is 79 US cents, and a cocktail costs US$2.99.

According to Cana  a patent-pending cartridge holds small amounts of 84 essential flavoring ingredients that are precisely blended with tap water, sugar, alcohol and carbonation inside the machine to create the drink you select from a Roku-like touchscreen interface.

Are Cana’s beverages tasteful?

Cana says our perception of taste relies on a small subset of compounds, not unlike the way a high-res video stream removes most of the original video information but doesn’t look like it did. Cana also relies on the fact that, to some degree, we taste what we’re told we’re about to taste: The color screen on the device brings each drink to life with a vivid description and thematic video clip while it’s being made.

Clear drinks will be offered first; Some traits such as viscosity, opacity and pulp will be harder to achieve until future versions of the device arrive.

Drink creators will earn a cut of the price of each drink made from their formula, not unlike the stars of social and video platforms.

Potential applications other than at home

Many food outlets in many countries, such as Malaysia, are having problems to recruit drink makers. They move from one establishment to another to seek for higher salaries. I believe  more up-market restaurant would need Cana’s appliance to offer a wide variety of beverages for their customers. 

This appliance is a great idea!

Coca Cola, Pepsi and F&N (a big brand in Malaysia), “Are you watching?”


Malaysian Innovators

Basic: What is a NFT?

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An illustration of a NFT

Recently, the media has seemed to catch on the new invention—NFTs. NFT is a unique, non-interchangeable digital asset basked by blockchain ledger technology. Non fungible characteristic of these tokens or assets refers to the unique and non-replicable nature of this digital-crypto assets, compared to, for example a Bitcoin or a US$1 bill, where each unit of the asset is interchangeable and is the same.

Examples of NFTs range widely from digital art, domain names, games, and collectibles to are audio and video recordings. NFTs are created    (i.e., minted) on a blockchain, such as Ethereum, which authenticates the ownership and the NFT asset (i.e., where it comes from, where it originates, and who is the owner).

In the physical world, a tangible example would be Mona Lisa’s painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. Although there are many replicas, there is one original Mona Lisa in the world, and this piece of art is unique, creative and indivisible.

Similarly, NFTs are creative works of art that, for the most part, do not allow for fractional ownership. Some NFTs can be very expensive, with a price tag of millions of dollars.  

Some trace the origins of the NFTs back to 2012-2013 when colored, small denominations of bitcoins were created. These coins represent different assets with different uses, ranging from collectibles to access tokens. These colored coins were “unique and identifiable from regular bitcoin transactions. “

In 2014, Robert Dermody, Adam Krellenstein, and Evan Wagner founded a peer-to-peer financial platform, Counterparty, which was built on top of the bitcoin blockchain. In 2015 and onward, trading cards and memes became prevalent. Various video games popularized the creation of digital assets to be stored on blockchain technology; these included swords, shields, and even digital parcels of real estate.  Crypto kitties became famous in 2017, launched by the Vancouver-based company Axion Zen.

In 2021, NFTs have gained more momentum and have started to permeate the mainstream economy in some unexpected ways. The NFTs are poised to create a brand-new aspect of the  digital.        

In fact, we are launching our own NFTs based on a series of paintings by a famous Sabah artist, Dato’ Sri Wilson Yong, who called himself the Borneo Art Creator.    

Please note this article also appeared on my special blog,

World Unique Innovation

Rubber: The first major industrial commodity

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Rubber tree: An important economic tree in British Malaya

British Malaya (then Malaysia) used to be the major producer of natural rubber, gutta percha and tin.  These three commodities made British Malaya an important British colony in the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

Natural rubber industry is no longer important in Malaysia, as rubber has been replaced by oil palm as the most important industrial crop in the country since the 1970s. However the economic and social impacts of the natural rubber industry have been very significant for Malaysians during the period from late 19th century to 1970s.

In the next few articles, we will be covering various aspects of the natural rubber industry, from its development in British Malaya, the innovators of the rubber products and the decline of the rubber industry. Every pupil in Malaysia knew that the seeds of rubber trees originally were smuggled out of Brazil. Later they came to British Malaya.

The first of the article is how I membered about rubber trees  and daily activities revolving around rubber.

Rubber trees and daily tapping of latex

An early clone of rubber tree used to be able to be productive after 5 to 7 years. The bark needs to be tapped to allow the bark to “bleed” a white latex. The white latex is collected in a cup made of porcelain. The work of a rubber tapper started early in the morning at about 6 am. My parents used to have a small holding of rubber trees about a few kilometres from our home in Beranang,  Selangor, Malaysia, in the 1960s. They cycled to the rubber small holding about 6.00 am, with a sharp rubber tapping knife. First, using a headlight light for illumination, they removed a thin slice of the rubber bark which was enough for the rubber latex to “bleed” and to be collected in the attached cup. They would take about an hour to complete the tapping of rubber trees in the small holding. By 8.00 am, the cups would be filled with white rubber latex. Then, they emptied the cups containing rubber latex to a big pail.

The pails would be placed onto the bicycle and transported to a communal rubber rolling centre. Every village would have a communal rolling centre to process the rubber latex into rubber sheets.

At the communal rolling centre, a measured amount of formic acid would be added to the rubber latex which had been poured into a special rectangular steel container. After a while, the rubber latex  would coagulate, separating water from rubber. The rubber was still soft and about 4 to 5 cm thick. The soft block of rubber would be passed through an iron roller to reduce the thickness of rubber block to about 1 cm. The remaining water in the rubber block would have been completely removed  after going through several times of rolling. Finally, the thin rubber sheet was dried in the sun to remove the remaining water. The dried drubber sheet would turn slightly brown after several days under the sun. The rubber was now ready to be sold for cash.

Rolling rubber sheet to remove water

The tapping of rubber trees and the conversion of rubber latex into rubber sheets would take from 6 am to about 12.00 noon, every day.

After resting for lunch, most villagers would go to the their small paddy field to prepare their rice fields or to harvest their paddy. The rice filed would become their supplementary income after rubber sheets. In every town in Malaysia, there would be rubber dealers who would buy the rubber sheets at “discounted prices” after quality checks.

As expected, rubber small holders and the villagers were poor, surviving from selling of rubber sheets. This was compounded by the fluctuations of prices of rubber sheets on the world market. At time of high rubber prices, they would purchase a new bicycle for the family or a having “a feast” with the first-harvest  of rice from the paddy field.

Rubber plantation companies were wealthy

The rubber small holding sector was a not a significant segment of the rubber industry. Rubber  estates or plantations were much bigger with substantial acreage. The rubber estates boomed in the early 1900s to 1930’s when the motor industry emerged in Europe, US and Japan, thanks to Mr Henry Ford. In the early 1900s investment syndicates based in London drew investors, both individuals and institutions, to invest in rubber estates in British Malaya. At the time, British administrators in British Malaya  opened up a vast area of forest to be cleared to plant rubber. Established British companies in British Malaya also attracted investors to buy smaller rubber estates to be consolidated into larger estates.

If we were to travel by car in British Malaya in the 1930s, rubber estates with British names would be scattered throughout British Malaya. These rubber estates would be managed by British planters, with the help of locals. They employ mostly Indian rubber tappers brought in from India, who were paid low salaries.

 The larger rubber estates would have their own golf courses and social clubs. My wife’s late mother described the lives of the British planters vividly. She was about ten and lived in  Rantau, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, where her village was surrounded by one of largest rubber estates in British Malaya.  

“ Every evening, about 6 pm, I saw many cars, driven by Malay drivers, cruising to the Club in the centre of the town. The “missuses” of the British planters wore nice dresses, which were different from those worn by the local women.”

There was the days when rubber was the economic pillar of the economy of British Malaya.

Everyone knew that the rubber sheets sold to local rubber dealers would be destined to Europe. Very few would know that the innovations that led to the use of natural rubber into industrial products, notably tyres, were created much earlier in the mid of the 19th century. Many of these innovators went bankrupt many times during the innovative pursuits.

The next article would cover these innovators, which had transformed British Malaya from a nation of mainly forests to a modern economy driven by rubber trees. As Malaysians now, we should salute these innovators, such as the Hancocks of Marlborough and Charles Goodyear.