Saturday, August 30, 2008

Supernature

A couple of days ago, I took the day off to run some errands and to visit the bookstore (Borders at Wheelock Place). I also took some time out to visit a place I've been meaning to visit for a while now.

The local organic grocer Supernature.

Now, I've blogged about my thoughts on Supernature and other upscale organic food purveyors in Singapore before, and I wanted to see with my own eyes what they are like.

[I'm also in the process of running an ongoing organic 'price check' to find out which organic grocer in Singapore offers the 'best value', value that's not necessarily measured in dollars and cents. More in a future post.]

Supernature is located in a rather obscure location for a grocer.

It sits on the ground floor of Park House, an oldish private condo in one of the toniest parts of town, at the intersection of Orchard Boulevard and Tomlinson Road. The closest MRT station is Orchard, and it's quite a walk. The closest bus stops are at Camden Medical Center, about a 5 minute walk away.

At first blush, you would think it odd that a grocer would locate themselves at such an obscure location. But when you actually step into the shop, you'll realize why.

As far as organic grocers in Singapore go, Supernature carries a wide selection of goods, better than some I've seen. But the prices are nothing short of breathtaking. If Whole Foods Market has been derisively called Whole Paycheck, then Supernature should be called Supernaturally Expensive.

You have leafy veggies at about $11 a bunch, sealed packets of ~80 grams of handpicked dried blueberries at $14, organic wholewheat spelt flour at about $10 a kilogram, lots of packaged sauces and seasonings at similarly high prices...you get the idea.

No wonder Supernature locates itself in a condo in the upscale Orchard area, because that's where its target clientele resides. While I browsed the shelves, expatriate couples speaking in foreign languages were busy consulting each other on the labels stuck onto the products.

Despite all the rhetoric on its website about "real" food, and "real" living, Supernature is most definitely not about "real" people. Not unless you're making money hand over fist and can afford to shell out.

In addition, there is the issue of the ethos of the organic movement. Going organic may conjure up those warm and fuzzy feelings of saving the planet, but if you're inclined to shop at a place like Supernature for that reason, think again.

Going organic is probably healthier for you no matter where you shop, but if part of why you want to go organic is for the good of the earth, then you should pay attention to the provenance of your food. Veggies that are lovingly cultivated organically, but are airflown from Japan to Singapore in chilled cargo holds, probably don't represent the best use of carbon-based fossil fuels. The same goes for washed and cut salads from Earthbound in California, or imported handpicked blueberries from Virginia. 

And please don't fall for the fiction of "helping small farmers" by going organic. With so many layers from field to storefront, chances are good that most of what you pay at an upscale distributor like Supernature go to rent (remember, it's located in Orchard), transportation costs, middle-men, and a hefty markup to the owner of Supernature (and the Como Group). God knows how much of the premium that Supernature customers pay end up in the small farmer's pocket. And this is if Supernature sources its products from small farms and not large corporate organic growers such as Earthbound.

I think there are better local alternatives out there, but I'm still in the process of checking them out in my organic 'price check'.

Of course, when all is said and done, customers are still free to purchase from grocers such as Supernature, and feel healthy and virtuous doing so. Certainly, the products on sale there do look wonderful, and if you can afford it, no one's stopping you. Just don't think that you're doing the earth a favor. 

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Does Silicon Valley Face an Innovation Crisis?"

Her book is going right onto my books-to-checkout list.

From The New York Times
Published August 28, 2008
By Claire Cain Miller


Judy Estrin, who has built several Silicon Valley companies and was the chief technology officer of Cisco Systems, says Silicon Valley is in trouble. In a new book, “Closing the Innovation Gap,” which will be in bookstores Tuesday, she writes that the valley’s problems are symptomatic of a crisis in innovation facing the country as a whole.

In an interview in her Menlo Park office Thursday, Ms. Estrin said that the United States is stifling innovation by failing to take risks in sectors from academia to government to venture capital. “I’m not generally an alarmist, but I am really, really concerned about this country,” she said.

In her book, Ms. Estrin discusses everything from problems in elementary education to drug development, but her expertise is in information technology. Beginning in 1981, she co-founded three tech companies: Bridge Communications, Network Computing Devices and Precept Software. In 1998, Cisco acquired Precept and appointed her chief technology officer. She left in 2000 and co-founded Packet Design, now JLABS, where she is chief executive.

Ms. Estrin traces Silicon Valley’s troubles to the tech boom. She said that’s when entrepreneurs and venture capitalists started focusing more on starting companies to turn around and sell them and less on building successful companies for the long term.

“Starting in 1998, there was such a shift in Silicon Valley toward chasing money and short-term returns,” she said.

Part of the reason, she said, was that Cisco and other fast-growing big companies started acquiring start-ups with innovative technologies instead of developing new ideas internally. Entrepreneurs began founding companies with the goal of selling to a big tech company, and venture investors encouraged that.

Ms. Estrin acknowledged that innovative ideas still appear all over Silicon Valley. But, she said, the technologies at the root of new products like Apple’s iPod or the Facebook social networking service were actually developed several decades ago. If entrepreneurs do not continue to develop groundbreaking technology, she said, the valley will be in dire straits in another decade. She compared the situation to a tree that appears to be growing well, but whose roots are rotting underground.

“In some ways, we have the problem that it looks like innovation is flourishing, but too much of it is short-term, incremental innovation,” she said.

Since the tech bust, she said, venture investors have been too cautious. “What venture capitalists should do is start taking more risks again,” she said. “Taking risks and failing is one of the most critical aspects of innovation.”

The successes of her own career would not be possible in the current environment, she surmised. “The environment that was so rich and helped me start my career really is not there for my son,” she said.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Running Routes: Rifle Range Road

I mentioned Rifle Range Road in Running Routes: Buona Vista Loop.



Rifle Range Road is a rather special road for runners (and cyclists). If you look up Rifle Range Road in the street directory, you will see that it ends in a cul-de-sac.

In actual fact, the end of the road leads directly into the western end of Macritchie Reservoir Park. Hence, from the end of Rifle Range Road, it is possible to access the numerous trails within Macritchie Reservoir Park and reach, among many other places, the HSBC Treetop Walk, Jelutong Tower, the famous zig-zag bridge, and the Thomson area east of Macritchie Reservoir.

I won't say anything further about these trails as there is ample information available out there on Macritchie Reservoir Park and I am certain the area is also familiar to many runners. In addition, Rifle Range Road is a single road without junctions or turn-offs, so there is no possibility of getting lost. I have some notes though, that may be interest to runners.

Notes:

There are some small off-road trails such as the Kampung Trail and Durian Loop in the copse off Rifle Range Road. These are small, insignificant local trails that eventually lead to Jalan Kampung Chantek just in front of Murnane Service Reservoir.

These trails are not worth bothering with unless you are hunting for wild durians, rambutans, longans and the odd wild jackfruit or chempedak.

You will pass by two army camps along Rifle Range Road as well as go along a flyover. You will see the company "Advanced Materials Engineering" at the end of the road.

You may see monkeys. As always, don't feed them. Doing so will encourage aggressive behaviour.

The road is steep in some sections, so be prepared for some hill work.

You may catch sight of a dirt trail leading around the perimeter of Murnane Reservoir and then trailing off into the woods just off Rifle Range Road. This leads to a narrow strip of clearing that runs between the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the BKE. Very close by is the Belukar Track and further north, the Chestnut Track of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve [More in a future post].



In addition, as mentioned in Running Routes: Buona Vista Loop, Rifle Range Link just off Rifle Range Road (nearer the Dunearn Road end) allows access to the heart of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Elites aren't really nasty people; they're just clueless

I've been motivated to write this post after reading the comments on an article on The Online Citizen.

Broadly speaking, there's generally a great deal of negativity in the Singapore blogosphere surrounding the issue of 'elites' as produced by the system of meritocracy in Singapore. Elites are usually regarded as arrogant, lacking in empathy or common sense, with an inflated sense of entitlement. We saw this with the infamous Wee Shu Min incident. In addition, government sponsored scholars are also frequently derided as being scholar mandarins or scholar mafia, and gifted really is a dirty word in Singapore.

My answer to that is that the public is actually right, but things are not as simple as they are perceived to be.

What makes me qualified to talk about elites? In the interest of (my) privacy, I seldom talk about my personal life. But it happens to be relevant here for this post.

I was a student in the Gifted Education Program. I attended one of the premier secondary schools in Singapore, when there were only three secondary schools offering the program. I attended a top 5 junior college, and in my JC, I was in a 'stream' class, where all the best students were. My class had the highest number of student councillors in my year, and after 'A' levels, a considerable number of us got into NUS medicine, law, architecture or took up scholarships. I myself applied for and received an overseas government scholarship. I was funded to attend a US university, and majored in what is frequently called the most prestigious biomedical engineering program in the nation [it's a good program, but the prestigious part is a bit overrated].

Now, before you hurl accusations at me for being elitist, let me follow up with other details.

My family was and is solidly lower middle class: my mother was a homemaker who also worked part-time assembling electronic parts at a JVC factory, while my father was a technician who worked shifts at an offshore oil refinery.

I was a latchkey kid from the age of eight. I walked to school every morning, often past the huge Mercedes Benzes that ferried the other kids to school. I wore those ubiquitous white canvas shoes that you hardly see kids wear today, while most of my classmates wore Asics shoes. On rainy days, I would actually wear slippers and a dorky raincoat, and change out of the soaking wet slippers into shoes once I reached school, often eliciting weird looks from other students. During NS, I was a corporal in a combat role, and many of my platoon mates came from far less privileged backgrounds than I had previously encountered. Most of my friends from school were at OCS, and almost all of them were at a certain very special company. 

So yes, by the trappings of my education and my qualifications, you might imagine that I am one of the elite crowd. But if you saw only my socio-economic background, you wouldn't have guessed that.

The interesting thing about how I grew up was that I had a supremely good vantage point from which to observe how the elite live. And continue to live, because I still keep in touch with several friends.

And yet, my background is literally a world apart. That gives me a unique perspective on the more privileged segment of society.

[For brevity, I will refer to the more privileged segment of society as the 'elites'. Although, how I hate this word! I who have been labeled so many things before that I know labels are just a form of stereotyping. Take it from someone who belongs to a vanishingly small minority, people should NOT be put in boxes. It's just not a healthy way to start a discussion.]

Elites have been accused of being arrogant and out-of-touch. But the truth is that most elites are for the most part, genuinely nice people. As the title of this post states, elites aren't really nasty people; they're just clueless.

Do you know what is the hardest part about attending a school where the median income of your classmates' families is literally an order of magnitude higher than your own? It's not the snobs that need worrying about; you can always ignore the snobs.

It's having friends, good friends, who think nothing of going out after school and spending the equivalent of your week's allowance on movies, meals and stuff, and asking, would you like to come too? And you making up excuses to avoid saying no, I can't afford to.

I can come up with endless variations on this example. Four words. Story of my life. The important idea here is that the elite aren't bad or vindictive or arrogant; they're simply not clued in to a life that is different from their own.

For someone who belongs to the upper classes, worrying about how to fund their university education is not a problem. The problem is not getting into an Ivy, or NUS medicine, or landing that scholarship.

Worrying about getting a summer internship at a bank is also not a problem; the 'rents have already lined one up with their connections. Struggling to get a job is definitely a non-issue. Failing to get into McKinsey, or Goldman Sachs, however, would be utter disaster.

Rising prices? Inflation? Elites don't generally bat an eyelid. I recall one memorable dinner with a good friend whose father, a CEO of a listed firm, took us out to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Bayswater, London. Well, actually, it was the father's JP Morgan banker who took us out to dinner. She was the one with the expense account. And one interesting vignette that was dropped by the banker was how kids of a certain friend of hers had never eaten in a hawker center before. Never. Always restaurants. Imagine that.

If you've been following so far, you'll note that the elite really are out-of-touch. With the problems of regular people that is. It's a fair accusation. But the fault doesn't lie with them, it lies with the circumstances under which they have lived their lives. Their reference points, their standards are all different from regular people. I repeat, they simply aren't clued in to a life that is different from their own.

They can't comprehend the normal problems that regular people face simply because these have never been problems they've had to deal with before. It's like an Eskimo trying to explain the 17 words they have for snow to a non-Eskimo, or explaining the concept of color to someone who is blind. 

[As an aside, you might want to think about how you lack perspective on the different, less fortunate lives that other people live. Some Singaporeans don't actually have to look very far; they have maids in their own homes who work 7 days a week, for admittedly not very much pay, far away from their own families, and yet these same Singaporeans may talk endlessly about work-life balance and better baby benefits.]

The next time you have to deal with insensitivity from an elite, a sharp rebuke will do, but don't make it personal. There is no reason to criticize a person's character unless they really are in need of it. Sometimes, you only need to ask that the person consider a different perspective. That might make all the difference.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Special Interests Strike Again on Baby Benefits!

Ongoing continuation of my thesis on Singapore = Special INterests Groups Are Part Of REsidency…

The Saturday edition of the Straits Times (23 August 2008) carried two more examples of special interests on the better baby benefits proposed during the PM’s National Day Rally Speech.

Political Correspondent Lee Siew Hua’s column mentioned a reader who called her to “argue animatedly that now that the Government wants more children, it should also offer a financial cushion should parents lose their jobs. There’s no longer an iron rice bowl, said this man, who works in sales. He wants a third child, but worries about retrenchment.”

The reader continues, “The Government should go through the Central Provident Fund data to pinpoint the couples who may need help with kids. Give them $20,000 right away instead of baby bonuses and other complicated perks.”

I don’t think I need to point out how preposterous these demands are, and if readers feel I have to, please find a different blog to read. Preferably one that advocates that children should be renamed “Unemployment Insurance”, or a blog that supports the use of children as professional beggars by their parents.

[I realize of course, that Straits Times columnists have the habit of citing isolated egregious examples of obnoxious Singaporeans to bolster their (usually pro-government, or “Singaporeans should wake up their idea!”) arguments. Nonetheless, even if I am disinclined to take the bait, egregious examples of Singaporeans should still be roundly panned.

Digression: To learn how to read newspaper columns more critically, you need to be aware of the tricks they use. Straits Times columnists, to be sure, are rank amateurs at writing.]

Second example of special interest groups – “Backdate bonus perks to January this year”, as written in to the forum page by Mr Daniel Heng and Dr Shannon Heo.

I anticipated a letter like this. After a hue and cry from pregnant mommies, the qualifying date for the baby benefits has been brought forward from January 1 2009 to August 17 2008. Naturally, this has invited envy from mothers who gave birth between August 17 2008 and 1 January 2008. I believe the operative word used by the letter writers was the ever popular (and unimaginative) “unfair”.

One wonders when the start date should be pushed back to in the interests of avoiding being “unfair” to people, who obviously interpret the word to mean “disadvantageous to us”.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

For the past few days, I’ve been pondering about how the law of unintended consequences might apply within the context of better baby benefits (BBB), in particular extended maternity leave (now 4 months) for working mothers.

As the mainstream media so lightly puts it, employers in Singapore have had ‘mixed’ reactions to the enhanced BBB. Even though the maternity leave will be funded by the government, companies will in many cases need to hire a part-timer or temp staff to replace the working mother on maternity leave. Naturally, this is an extra expense and is probably highly disruptive to the normal flow of work, hence the cool reactions of many companies, particularly SMEs, to the BBB.

Even though the government has legislated that companies must still pay for maternity benefits if a working mother is dismissed ‘for no good reason’ within the last 6 months of pregnancy, this is probably cold comfort to working mothers who lose their jobs as a result of getting pregnant.

So. What are the possible unintended consequences of BBB? Perhaps employers will be less enthused about hiring married women of childbearing age in the first place? This may impact the job market for all women. Such a situation isn’t impossible. Certainly, we have already seen anecdotal evidence of Singaporean men being discriminated against for reason of their NS liability. So the real winners in the job market in this case may not just be male workers, but to be more specific, male foreign workers. After all, they come with the least amount of baggage. To borrow a phrase from HR professionals, foreign male workers have “zero drag”.

One of the most interesting things the government has taken to habitually proclaim in recent years is that foreign talent is ultimately good for Singapore, because not only does foreign talent enhance Singapore’s competitiveness, it also makes the employment market more resilient, as foreign workers will take the brunt of the first wave of job losses. Presumably, foreign workers would get laid off first and then pack up and go home, reducing the surplus labour in the job market.

Personally, I’ve never fully bought that argument. One reason is that it’s awful PR. If you’re trying to attract foreign talent as hard as our government is, it would hardly do well to emphasize to Singaporeans that foreign workers are economic shock troops on the employment front, doomed to take the first wave of job losses, and all in earshot of every foreign worker professional on the island. It hardly encourages faith in the belief that this island is a great place to live and work. Certainly, it doesn’t encourage foreigners to take up citizenship.

On the other hand, there is some data to support the idea that foreign workers help to cushion job losses (they also help to soak up jobs during an economic boom). The overall effect of having some 30% of our workforce composed of foreigners seems to be to smooth out volatility in the employment numbers for Singaporean citizens (which is something good). Unfortunately, the data from the MOM report is too coarse; we can't tell for sure if the effect of having foreign workers is salutary across all industries, particularly the high value, high skilled jobs that comprise the core of middle class living. [I could dig into the Labour Force Surveys, but I'm too lazy.]

But I digress. Let’s focus on the situation at hand. The labour market in Singapore is currently quite tight due to recent growth, but the global economy is now on the cusp of recession. This, in my opinion, presents an excellent opportunity to test once again the hypothesis that foreign workers will take the first wave of job losses.

Or perhaps the opposite will occur. As I mentioned above, Singaporean men have their NS liability hanging around their collective necks like a millstone, while the employers-have-mixed-reactions BBB are restricted largely to female Singaporean citizens. It may be that the easy and available supply of foreign workers with zero drag becomes preferred to local Singaporeans during the coming recession, when cost-cutting inevitably becomes the watchword of the day. This is especially so when we consider the large numbers of finance professionals moving from the key financial capitals like New York and London to Asia.

Of course, I am cognizant that the government could institute measures during a recession to make hiring foreigners more expensive, such as raising the foreign worker levy or making employment passes more difficult to obtain. Such measures could have helped stem job losses among Singaporeans in the past Asian Financial Crisis and the dot-com plus SARS bust. These measures may once again help to make Singaporeans more competitive vis-à-vis their foreign counterparts.

Don’t bet too heavily on this though. Our government has a track record of favouring employers over workers. In addition, just look at how compromised our unions have become. When the economy starts its slide, companies are going to start clamouring for more business friendly policies, and in a high-inflation environment like today (inflation is NOT going to go away, whatever the oil price is currently doing), they’re going to do whatever they can to cut costs.

Cutting costs could well mean cutting loose Singaporean workers, instead of foreigners.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

National Day Rally Speech: Baby Benefits - The Aftermath

As expected, Singapore's special interest groups have chimed in in the last two days on the new baby benefits. Here's an update on my previous post:

  • Eligibility requirements for subsidies for in vitro fertilization have now been revealed. Subsidies will be restricted to women no older than 40, in an effort to ensure reasonable success rates. An accountant interviewed by the Straits Times calls this "unfair". She also deems it inconsistent, as Medisave can be used for in vitro fertilization up to the age of 45, and not just 40. Of course, she says this without a trace of irony, despite the known fact that Medisave is not a government grant or subsidy, but rather a form of forced personal savings. Naturally, the remark that the subsidy is "unfair" needs to be read knowing that this accountant is above the age of 40.
  • A stay-at-home mother has written in to the forum page decrying the emphasis on working mothers, while bemoaning the lack of recognition her ilk receive. She proposes that the tax benefits that stay-at-home mothers do not receive be made available to their husbands instead. Stay-at-home mothers shouldn't be "penalized" for making the decision to prioritize their kids above their careers. Funny, I didn't realize that ineligibility for state-sponsored benefits constituted a form of penalization. I thought that only applied to singles who are barred from purchasing HDB flats, AIDS patients who, for lack of anti-discrimination legislation, risk getting fired when they reveal their HIV status, or gays and lesbians who have discrimination against them enshrined in the country's laws.
  • An in vitro specialist interviewed by the Straits Times states that the in vitro subsidy should be made available for treatments at private fertility clinics instead of just government clinics, reasoning that private clinics have extended hours, and that not all employers would be so understanding as to permit time off for their employees to undergo fertility treatments during office hours. How thoughtful of her. When she was referring to private clinics with extended hours, perhaps she was referring to the one that she runs herself.
  • A reader wrote in to the Straits Times forum page suggesting that firms permit 2-hour long lunch breaks for working parents so that they may eat lunch with their kids. The extended lunch break may be balanced with extended working hours either earlier in the day or later in the evening. Translation: I want to eat lunch with my kids, so give me those 2-hour lunch breaks! My answer: Why don't you broaden your argument and suggest flexi-time arrangements for everyone at work instead, rather than just focus on your own narrow parochial interests, dumbass?
  • Another forum letter asked for benefits to be extended to single parents, which I would normally look favorably on, knowing how short-changed this marginal segment of Singapore society is. Except that the writer of the letter asked specifically that the benefits be restricted to widows and widowers, or in her words, "single parents who are not single parents by choice". Translation of letter: I'm a widow, and I don't want to miss out on those benefits! But knowing that asking for benefits for all single parents, including those irresponsible, sexually precocious single mothers, is political dynamite, I will ask only for those benefits to be limited to widows and widowers. That will increase the chances of me getting the benefits! As for the single mothers out there who are single by choice, to blazes with them!
My hypothesis for special interests in Singapore holds. Now, I can go back to flipping the forum page every morning without reading any of that drivel.

Update 22 August 2008:

It would appear that the baby benefits were originally slated for introduction on 1 January 2009. But with so many pregnant women (who are due before then) up in arms over this decision, the government has relented and allowed the benefits to kick in almost immediately. Chalk one up for special interest groups again. No word on whether these feisty pregnant ladies decided to stand up for their less privileged counterparts such as single mothers.

"A Trained Eye Finally Solved the Anthrax Puzzle"

From The New York Times
By NICHOLAS WADE
Published: August 20, 2008


When the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it had cracked the long-unsolved anthrax case, the turning point cited by the bureau was its identification of a laboratory flask as the source of the anthrax.

The dots, or in this case more than a thousand separate anthrax samples, were connected with the help of a group of scientists working secretly for some seven years. They succeeded by using a combination of new techniques not even invented in late 2001 when the anthrax-laced letters were sent, and that most old-fashioned attribute of expert scientists and detectives: a trained eye.

Now, in their first interviews, after being released this week from their vows of silence, several scientists explained how they charted a new frontier in microbial forensics, one that could have the same evidentiary power as DNA fingerprinting in criminal cases.

The scientists say they are confident the F.B.I. has identified the source of the anthrax, a flask in the custody of Bruce E. Ivins, whom the F.B.I. considers to have been the perpetrator of the attacks. But almost a hundred other people were known to have had access to cultures from the flask, and the scientists say they have no opinion as to whether Dr. Ivins, who committed suicide last month, was the culprit. Some former colleagues and other experts have questioned whether the government was right in suspecting Dr. Ivins, a researcher at the Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md. But the technical feat of matching the attack anthrax to its source is itself a gripping tale of scientific detection.

The scientific chase began in late 2001 as the first person to contract anthrax from powder in a letter lay dying in a Florida hospital. The victim, Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at The Sun, a tabloid, was suffering from pulmonary anthrax, and the F.B.I. needed to know whether the anthrax in the attacks, which began a week after Sept. 11, was natural, or a biological weapon.

A sample of anthrax from Mr. Stevens’s body was flown to Paul Keim, a biologist at Northern Arizona University who two years earlier had developed a test for distinguishing the various strains of anthrax found in nature and in biological weapons laboratories. Of the anthrax strains used as weapons, the most virulent was one known as the Ames strain.

Dr. Keim confirmed the fears of intelligence agencies: it was the Ames strain that infected and eventually killed Mr. Stevens.

Dr. Keim’s test could tell two strains of anthrax apart but it could not tell the bureau what it needed to know next, which of the many cultures of Ames anthrax around the world the attack anthrax might have come from.

The F.B.I. decided to go back to basics and to try decoding the entire DNA sequence — some five million units — of the anthrax genome to see if some clues to its source might be developed. For this job it turned to the Institute for Genomic Research or TIGR, a leader in decoding the genomes of microbes. Its director was then Claire Fraser-Liggett, who is now at the University of Maryland. The F.B.I. asked her to form a group, with as few people as possible, to decode an anthrax genome, without telling her it was the one that had killed Mr. Stevens.

In contrast to the way science is usually done, the research overseen by the F.B.I., which took seven years to finish, was highly compartmentalized. The scientists, who work at academic institutions, say they did not understand important details of the case until a news conference on Monday — which they and their scientific directors in the F.B.I. attended.

For the bureau, the compartmentalization was an essential safeguard against the nightmare that one of their many advisers might turn out to have prepared the attack anthrax. “It may have been in people’s minds that someone in the room could have been one of the perpetrators, which ended up being the case,” said Chris Hassell, the F.B.I. laboratory director.

By early 2002, the TIGR team had completed the genome and were able to compare it with a culture of Ames anthrax maintained at Porton Down, the British biological weapons establishment. Anthrax is a highly stable organism that changes very little from one generation to another. But the scientists found several differences between the Stevens and Porton Down genomes, raising the possibility that the source of the attack strain might be distinguishable from other cultures of Ames anthrax.

“The finding was very good news for the investigation by giving hope that molecular forensics might bear fruit but, if so, large numbers of samples would need to be analyzed,” Dr. Fraser-Liggett said.

All Ames anthrax is derived from a cow that died in Texas in April 1981. The F.B.I. acquired a sample from Fort Detrick of the original strain, known as the Ames ancestor. Decoding began on that, with the idea of constructing a genealogy that would show the Ames ancestor begat the source culture which begat the attack strain.

The TIGR team decoded the Ames ancestor and then turned to decoding the anthrax from one of the attack mailings. Each decoding took three to four months and cost about $250,000, said Jacques Ravel, a leading member of the TIGR team who is also now at the University of Maryland.

But when the decoding of the attack genome was finished in 2002, the TIGR scientists had a major surprise and disappointment. In virtually all of its five billion units, the attack anthrax was identical to the Ames ancestor. There were no differences that could tie the attack strain to any of the many known cultures of Ames held in laboratories around the world.

At the regular meetings the TIGR scientists held with the F.B.I., they received very little information or feedback. But they could tell that their counterpart scientists in the bureau were as discouraged as they were, Dr. Fraser-Liggett said. Anthrax genomes looked like a dead end.

Then an Army microbiologist from Fort Detrick made an unexpected discovery. Using an old-fashioned microbiological technique, he spread out some attack spores on a bed of nutrient and let each form its own colony. All the colonies looked identical except one, which, to his trained eye, seemed very slightly different. Different-looking colonies are called morphotypes or just “morphs.”

“Had that task been assigned to someone less experienced, these morphotypes might never have been seen or their significance never realized,” Dr. Fraser-Liggett said.

Because of the obvious possibility that the morph might look different because its genome was different, the F.B.I. asked the TIGR team to decode its genome. Four months later, the TIGR scientists were elated when they discovered the morph had a major genetic change in its genome, known as an indel, short for insertion or deletion of DNA. “We were extremely excited,” Dr. Fraser-Liggett said.

With the morph, the attack strain was at last developing a genetic signature of its own. Though 99 percent of its spores were identical with the Ames ancestor, some 1 percent or less were morphs.

Dr. Ravel was asked to decode seven more morph genomes, a task that two years. He could do only one at a time for fear of cross-contamination in his laboratory. Dr. Fraser-Liggett said she did not know why the F.B.I. did not ask other laboratories to share the task and speed up the critical process.

One of the many mysteries the TIGR team had to live with under the bureau’s management was the puzzle of why the attack spores contained as many morphs as they did. At the news conference they learned why, when an F.B.I. scientist explained that the flask in Dr. Ivins’s custody, known as RMR-1029, held the product of 13 production runs of anthrax made at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground and 22 spore preparations made at Fort Detrick. Some 160 liters of material, the scientist said, had been concentrated into the liter held in the RMR-1029 flask.

The vast number of spores, and the many different culturing procedures, Dr. Keim said, “guarantees you will see these mutants, and when you mix them together you will have a characteristic signature.”

Other scientists chosen by the F.B.I. selected four of the morphs as having the most reliable indels. All the attack letters contained these four morphs as well as the predominant form of Ames ancestor-type spores. The bureau at last had a signature of the attack strain.

Hoping for just this breakthrough, the bureau had been building a repository of Ames anthrax samples, taken under subpoena from laboratories around the world. As the morphs became available, the F.B.I. started testing samples. At first, some had one or two of the morphs. None had three of the morphs.

By late 2005 to 2006 it became clear that just eight of the 1,070 samples collected included all four morphs. And one of the samples was the ancestor of the other seven. The seven samples came from Fort Detrick and another laboratory in the United States, F.B.I. scientists said at Monday’s briefing at F.B.I. headquarters.

The source of the seven was a master flask of Ames anthrax known as RMR-1029 which was kept by Dr. Bruce Ivins. “That’s when the genetics caught up with the investigators,” a Department of Justice prosecutor said.

There, the scientific conclusions end. The bureau then began a second phase of the inquiry, that of ascertaining who had access to the flask and its seven descendants. The F.B.I. investigated almost 100 scientists who had had access to cultures from the flask or were in some way associated with them.

At the news conference, it emerged that Dr. Ivins had in fact submitted two samples of RMR-1029, one in February 2002 and a second in April 2002. The second tested negative. The F.B.I. rejected and destroyed the first sample because it had not been prepared according to a strict protocol that the F.B.I. says Dr. Ivins helped in devising.

A duplicate of the first sample was later located in Dr. Keim’s laboratory, where all duplicates were sent, and tested positive. Asked why Dr. Ivins would submit a true sample of his flask in February but a false one in April, the F.BI. scientists said they could not speculate about his motives.

Dr. Keim said he believed the bureau had correctly identified the source of the attack anthrax. “The science on that is pretty solid,” he said. As to whether Dr. Ivins was the perpetrator, Dr. Keim said that only a jury could make that decision. He said Dr. Ivins had been a friend and he faulted the F.B.I. for not having prevented his suicide. “Whether Bruce did it or not I prefer not to think about,” he said.

Dr. Fraser-Liggett said, “I am absolutely convinced the F.B.I. has the right source flask,” but added that she had no opinion as to who the perpetrator might be.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

National Day Rally Speech: Baby Benefits

The government will be doling out even more generous benefits to couples to encourage them to have more kids.

Although I'm single and will not benefit from these policies, I can see why it would be good for the country to have more kids, so in principle, I support these increased benefits even should they result in (slightly) higher taxes.

I am, however, opposed to financial aid for in vitro fertilization.

In vitro fertilization is expensive, and success rates are not high. Even the successful cases frequently require multiple cycles, with the cost mounting with each additional cycle. From a cost-benefit point of view, it seems difficult to justify funding couples for such a procedure.

More problematically, having kids is a joy, but it's not an entitlement. In vitro fertilization is an elective procedure, and in an era of high inflation and escalating health care costs, I find it unseemly that tax dollars will fund such a procedure while costs for medical care continue to ratchet upwards. There are lots of Singaporeans concerned about rising medical costs; why spend tax dollars on an expensive elective procedure (that has a low to middling rate of success) that will benefit only a handful of people?

Thirdly, fertility is ineluctably tied to age. A woman's fertility starts to decline post-30ish. A substantial proportion of women who opt for in vitro fertilization do so because they are older and as a result less fertile or infertile. Now, people postpone having kids for a variety of reasons. Career is a common one, and I have absolutely no objections towards women prioritizing that choice over having kids. Neither would I say that such women "deserve" to be infertile because they have decided to postpone having kids.

What I will say is that subsidising in vitro fertilization lowers the opportunity cost associated with prioritizing career over kids and hence postponing having kids. It is inconsistent and counterproductive for the government to encourage its citizens to "settle down" and start a family while simultaneously  introducing policy that reduces the opportunity cost of starting a family early.

Of course, I am aware that the decision to undertake in vitro fertilization hardly boils down to dollars and cents. It is a painful (literally), inconvenient, expensive and emotionally fraught (due to disappointments over cycle failures) procedure not lightly undertaken by any couple (including gay couples in more progressive countries).

My point is that we should not be using tax dollars to fund policies that are inconsistent or counterproductive to each other. Add in the part about cost-benefit analysis and elective procedures and this makes me feel very strongly that we should not be subsidising in vitro procedures.

[As an aside, in light of these generous benefits, I wonder what the reaction of singles, stay-at-home mothers, and single mothers will be. I am watching the special interests of Singaporeans closely.]

"Life Is Short..."

From The New York Times
By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: August 18, 2008


Sure, Michael Phelps may have snapped a string of Olympic records like so many Rice Krispies in milk, but what was this child of Poseidon up against, anyway? Elite human athletes from 250 countries.

A small, speckled, asparagus-green chameleon of Madagascar, by contrast, holds a world speed record among just about all of the nearly 30,000 different animals equipped with four limbs and a backbone.

Admittedly, it’s not a record many of us would aspire to best. As researchers recently reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the entire life span of the Furcifer labordi chameleon — from the moment of conception to development in the egg, hatching, maturation, breeding and right through to its last little lizardly thud to the ground — clocks in at barely a year.

That hypercondensed biography, the scientists said, may well make the chameleon the shortest-lived tetrapod on Earth, a creature chronologically more like a butterfly or a sea squirt than like the other reptiles, frogs, birds and mammals with which it is taxonomically bundled.

Equally bizarre, said Christopher J. Raxworthy, an author of the new report, the chameleon spends some two-thirds of its abbreviated existence as an egg buried in sand, with a mere 16 to 20 weeks allocated to all post-shellular affairs.

Moreover, the chameleons operate by a synchronized schedule, hatching, growing, mating and dying at more or less the same times and at the same pace throughout the year. As a result, said Dr. Raxworthy, associate curator of herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History, “if you go into a forest during the dry season, the whole population of chameleons there will be represented by eggs.”

Counterintuitive though it may seem, the extremity of F. labordi’s schedule could prove valuable for tracking down genes and other biological factors that promote longevity. The researchers observed that the chameleon is not merely short-lived as a matter of averages. It is an obligate annual species, destined for death after a single spin around the sun, and that stated fate differs markedly from the varying degrees of perenniality found throughout the tetrapod clan.

“There are about a dozen lizard species known to be short-lived, in which a good proportion of individuals die off by a year,” said Kristopher B. Karsten of the zoology department at Oklahoma State University, another author of the report. “But there are always some that make it to the next year, so the species’ maximal longevity is greater than one year.”

No such luck for our bug-eyed Malagasy friends, which live in the arid, scrubby southwestern region of the giant island. “Once they reach the end of the season,” Dr. Karsten said, “they’re done,” and they will drop from the trees with the papery grace of autumn leaves.

Assuming the execution orders are somehow part of the chameleon’s program, researchers might be able to identify the specific genetic or hormonal assassins in lizard cells, find their analogues in human cells and put a cap in them.

The new work also underscores the growing use of so-called life history theory to trace the history and contours of life on Earth.

Scientists have determined that many essential features of an animal’s portfolio are linked, among them whether at birth it looks fetal and helpless like a newborn kitten or precocious and competent like a neonatal giraffe; how big the average litter is; the speed with which the animal reaches sexual maturity; the length of time between births; and the pace at which an adult ages.

Try to improve or optimize one of these parameters and you end up paying somewhere else along the line. “One of the most robust things to come out of life history theory is that trade-offs exist,” said Steven N. Austad, the author of “Why We Age” and a professor of cellular and structural biology at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

“If you increase the number of young, the cost is often accelerated aging. If you get something that lives longer, you get costs early in life, with lower fertility and even sterility.”

Selective pressures in the environment push species toward one life history course or another. One example is that if you’re a species in which the great majority of adults end up being killed by predators or disease, it’s best to invest your resources in breeding early and often and not to bother worrying about long-term needs like a robust DNA repair system. And so it is that rodents beloved by carnivores everywhere have high fecundity and relatively poor longevity.

If you’re a species in which infant and juvenile mortality is comparatively great, as it is with giant tortoises, for example, the emphasis is often on making the best of adulthood, with delayed maturity and extended life spans.

Catastrophic extrinsic changes may quickly rewrite a species’ game plan. In another new report from the National Academies journal, researchers presented evidence that Tasmanian devils, the largest of all carnivorous marsupials, have responded to an epidemic of fatal transmissible tumors among adults with a 16-fold increase in precocious puberty among the young. If you’re likely to be gone tomorrow, you’d better start begetting today.

Furcifer labordi’s extreme life history likewise seems born of extreme adversity and volatility. The chameleon is one of the smallest members of its genus, and adults are readily, avidly snacked on by birds and snakes. The local climate is harsh and unpredictable, lowering the odds of survival beyond a single rainy season.

In addition, the rainy season, which begins in November, when the chameleons hatch en masse, is brief and must be frantically exploited. The young coil-tongued lizards immediately start lassoing insects, and they eat so much, Dr. Raxworthy said, “that they practically grow in front of your very eyes.”

By January the chameleons are ready to mate, a nasty, often violent business of males fighting males, females fighting males, and all of them wishing they were somewhere else. Despite their cuteness, Dr. Raxworthy said, “chameleons can be very antisocial, and if you crowd them, they’ll happily fight to the death.”

Dr. Karsten suspects that Furcifer labordi’s compressed breeding season fosters such high levels of aggression that the chameleons die, in part, of hormone overdose.

Another athletic career cut tragically short by steroids.

________________________________________________________

Bolded text in the article is by me. I've been skeptical of recent research in a number of areas dealing with longevity and exercise physiology. Through it all, I've kept asking myself, "so what's the catch?"

Longitudinal studies naturally take a really long time to complete, so we won't know what are the long term effects associated with such pharmacological intervention for some time to come.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Running Routes: Buona Vista to the Chinese Garden

I have a previous post on the Buona Vista Loop.

There was one point in that post where I mentioned that it is possible to deviate from the Buona Vista Loop to reach Jurong East and the Chinese Garden.

This post will discuss exactly that.

From the massive overhead bridge across the PIE on the Jurong East side, there will be a sign indicating where the two ends of the adjoining park connector lead to.



The park connector end that connects to the AYE (2.1 km) and from thence to Buona Vista MRT Station (an additional 4.5 km) has been discussed in a previous post.

The other end of the park connector leads to Jurong West (5.5 km).

The park connector basically runs south beneath the North-South MRT line to near Jurong East MRT Station.

The connector will then deviate from the MRT line and go along Jurong Town Hall road, where you will eventually cross an overhead bridge and continue on to the Chinese Garden.

The connector will pass the rear entrance of the Chinese Garden (just opposite the Chinese Garden MRT Station).

From here, you may continue running along the park connector which will join up with the Jurong Park Connector. Along the way, the connector will be interrupted by construction work on the dredging works of Jurong Lake and several roads. The end-point is near Jurong Bird Park.

A more pleasant alternative (which I usually choose) is to run within the Chinese Garden (open 6:00am to 7:00pm).

Notes:

Bear in mind that these sections of the park connector are interrupted by roads and traffic junctions. It may not be immediately obvious where the connector picks up again until after you have crossed the road. Refer to the maps at the nparks website if unclear.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

On drinking treated wastewater

I thought I should clarify my stand on drinking treated wastewater as I’ve been mulling it on and off over the past few days.

Basically, in my comment on a New York Times magazine article, I mentioned that the failure to detect any contaminants in wastewater does not necessarily imply that there are no contaminants whatsoever.

I still stand by that, as it is in the same spirit as the dictum “If all the swans that you see are white, it does not necessarily mean that all swans are white. Just one black swan will overturn your hypothesis.”

I followed that statement by stating that there may be some wisdom in mixing treated wastewater with untreated water, and allowing the mixture to percolate through layers of sand and gravel for months into an underground aquifer, from which it will be pumped out and treated again for drinking.

What I meant to say was that notwithstanding treatment, there still exists the possibility, albeit small, that there may be undetectable traces of unsafe, long-lived chemicals in treated wastewater. There are limits to any science, and it wasn’t so long ago that trans fat was accepted as being a healthy fat, or that PET bottles were blithely reused or that Nalgene bottles were praised (and then condemned). Who’s to say that, perhaps years after treated wastewater has become acceptable enough to drink straight from the faucet, scientists discover that we’ve been unwittingly accumulating alarmingly high levels of some obscure chemical along with our H2O?

Despite it being seemingly wasteful and irrational, it may be wise to hedge our bets and dilute treated wastewater with untreated but unpolluted lake or reservoir water, and then process the mix only after months of percolation through sand and gravel (where any long-lived chemicals would hopefully have broken down).

As a scientist and engineer, of course I’m aware of the irony of how sceptical I am towards drinking treated wastewater. I should be one of those championing reverse osmosis and all that newfangled membrane engineering technology! And not one of those Luddites advocating pumping the treated stuff back into the lake.

That said, I think I would be comfortable quaffing straight from the discharge tube of a clean Milli-Q dispenser. De-ionized, low TOC content and ultrapure, Milli-Q water is probably safer to drink than sipping from the water-cooler outside the lab.

[Of course, municipal water is probably not going to be treated to the same exactitude as Milli-Q water, and the Milli-Q dispenser does draw its ‘feedstock’ from a regular faucet, rather than the sewer.]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"While a Magician Works, the Mind Does the Tricks"

From The New York Times
By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: August 11, 2008


A decent backyard magic show is often an exercise in deliberate chaos. Cards whipped through the air. Glasses crashing to the ground. Gasps, hand-waving, loud abracadabras. Something’s bound to catch fire, too, if the performer is ambitious enough — or needs cover.

“Back in the early days, I always had a little smoke and fire, not only for misdirection but to emphasize that something magic had just happened,” said The Great Raguzi, a magician based in Southern California who has performed professionally for more than 35 years, in venues around the world. “But as the magic and magician mature, you see that you don’t need the bigger props.”

Eye-grabbing distractions — to mask a palmed card or coin, say — are only the crudest ways to exploit brain processes that allow for more subtle manipulations, good magicians learn.

In a paper published last week in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a team of brain scientists and prominent magicians described how magic tricks, both simple and spectacular, take advantage of glitches in how the brain constructs a model of the outside world from moment to moment, or what we think of as objective reality.

For the magicians, including The Great Tomsoni (John Thompson), Mac King, James Randi, and Teller of Penn and Teller, the collaboration provided scientific validation, as well as a few new ideas.

For the scientists, Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, it raised hope that magic could accelerate research into perception. “Here’s this art form going back perhaps to ancient Egypt, and basically the neuroscience community had been unaware” of its direct application to the study of perception, Dr. Martinez-Conde said.

“It’s a marvelous paper,” Michael Bach, a vision scientist at Freiburg University in Germany who was not involved in the work, said in an e-mail message. Magicians alter what the brain perceives by manipulating how it interprets scenes, Dr. Bach said, “and a distant goal of cognitive psychology would be to numerically predict this.”

One theory of perception, for instance, holds that the brain builds representations of the world, moment to moment, using the senses to provide clues that are fleshed out into a mental picture based on experience and context. The brain uses neural tricks to do this: approximating, cutting corners, instantaneously and subconsciously choosing what to “see” and what to let pass, neuroscientists say. Magic exposes the inseams, the neural stitching in the perceptual curtain.

Some simple magical illusions are due to relatively straightforward biological limitations. Consider spoon bending. Any 7-year-old can fool her younger brother by holding the neck of a spoon and rapidly tilting it back and forth, like a mini teeter-totter gone haywire. The spoon appears curved, because of cells in the visual cortex called end-stopped neurons, which perceive both motion and the boundaries of objects, the authors write. The end-stopped neurons respond differently from other motion-sensing cells, and this slight differential warps the estimation of where the edges of the spoon are.

The visual cortex is attentive to sudden changes in the environment, both when something new appears and when something disappears, Dr. Martinez-Conde said. A sudden disappearance causes what neuroscientists call an after-discharge: a ghostly image of the object lingers for a moment.

This illusion is behind a spectacular trick by the Great Tomsoni. The magician has an assistant appear on stage in a white dress and tells the audience he will magically change the color of her dress to red. He first does this by shining a red light on her, an obvious ploy that he turns into a joke. Then the red light flicks off, the house lights go on and the now the woman is unmistakably dressed in red. The secret: In the split-second after the red light goes off, the red image lingers in the audience’s brains for about 100 milliseconds, covering the image of the woman. It’s just enough time for the woman’s white dress to be stripped away, revealing a red one underneath.

In a conference last summer, hosted by Dr. Martinez and Dr. Macknik, a Las Vegas pickpocket performer and co-author named Apollo Robbins took advantage of a similar effect on the sensory nerves on the wrist. He had a man in the audience come up on stage and, while bantering with him, swiped the man’s wallet, watch and several other things. Just before slipping off the timepiece, Mr. Robbins clutched the man’s wrist while doing a coin trick — thereby lowering the sensory threshold on the wrist. The paper, with links to video of Mr. Robbins’ performance, is at http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nrn2473.html.

“That was really neat, and new to me,” said Dr. Bach, who was in the audience. The grasp, he said, left “a sort of somatosensory afterimage, so that the loss of the watch stays subthreshold” in the victim. The visual cortex resolves clearly only what is at the center of vision; the periphery is blurred, and this is likely one reason that the eyes are always in motion, to gather snapshots to construct a wider, coherent picture.

A similar process holds for cognition. The brain focuses conscious attention on one thing at a time, at the expense of others, regardless of where the eyes are pointing. In imaging studies, neuroscientists have found evidence that the brain suppresses activity in surrounding visual areas when concentrating on a specific task. Thus preoccupied, the brain may not consciously register actions witnessed by the eyes.

Magicians exploit this property in a variety of ways. Jokes, stagecraft and drama can hold and direct thoughts and attention away from sleights of hand and other moves, performers say.

But small, apparently trivial movements can also mask maneuvers that produce breathtaking effects. In a telephone interview, Teller explained how a magician might get rid of a card palmed in his right hand, by quickly searching his pockets for a pencil. “I pat both pockets, find a pencil, reach out and hand it to someone, and the whole act becomes incidental; if the audience is made to read intention — getting the pencil, in this case — then that action disappears, and no one remembers you put your hand in your pocket,” the magician said. “You don’t really see it, because it’s not a figure anymore, it has become part of the background.”

The magician’s skill is in framing relevant maneuvers as trivial. When it’s done poorly, Teller said, “the actions immediately become suspicious, and you instantly click that something’s wrong.”

David Blaine, a New York magician and performance artist, said he started doing magic at age 4 and quickly learned that he did not need any drama or special effects. “A strong and effective way to distract somebody is to directly engage the person,” with eye contact or other interaction, Mr. Blaine said. “That can act on the subconscious like a subtle form of hypnosis.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a dove, a plume of smoke or a burst of fire. As long as it doesn’t break magic’s unwritten code: First, do no harm. Frightening neighborhood parents, however, is allowed.

Running routes: Buona Vista Loop

This is my main training route. This training route is long and suitable for more experienced runners, but recreational runners can still use it by truncating it at suitable points.

More frequently called the Ulu Pandan park connector, I’ve extended and adapted this route. My description of the route follows. As always, it helps to have a street directory handy while you’re reading this.

The route starts at the eastern end of the Ulu Pandan park connector, just opposite the Buona Vista MRT station. The park connector is a popular running route and many people use it on most days.



Start running westwards on the connector along the canal. There are distance markings conveniently printed onto the tarmac if you need them. After 2 km, you will reach Clementi Road, which bisects the connector.



Step off the connector onto the sidewalk, turn right, and follow Clementi Road north. As you run, you’ll pass by SIM and Ngee Ann Polytechnic on your left and King Albert Park on your right. Eventually, you’ll reach the massive cross-junction where Clementi Road meets Bukit Timah Road.

Carefully avoid the traffic and continue running north onto Jalan Anak Bukit. The road should then veer to the northwest. You will pass by Bukit Timah Plaza and Beauty World Center on your left. Your objective is the intersection with Hindhede Road on your right.



That’s right, we’re headed towards Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Turn right onto Hindhede Road and follow the road upwards to the visitor’s center. Don’t feed the monkeys! At the carpark in front of the visitor’s center, you will see two dirt trails, one on your right (Senapang Link), and one on your left (Hindhede Way).





They’re both really biking trails, but I choose to ignore that, as do a few other runners. Pick one trail and follow it. The trail you pick will skirt either the eastern or western edge of the nature reserve, and join up with Dairy Farm Pass, which runs east-west along the northern edge of the nature reserve. There will be two exits on Dairy Farm Pass that lead north to Dairy Farm road. One exit is a very close to a large grassy clearing in front of a disused quarry massif.







The other exit is near the point where the cycling trail is bisected by a footpath and blocked on both sides by rails. Keep a lookout for the exits, otherwise you’ll make a complete loop and wind up back at the visitor’s center.

Take either one of the exits northwards and leave the nature reserve to reach Dairy Farm Road. Then turn left and run west towards the intersection of Dairy Farm Road and Upper Bukit Timah Road. Veer left onto Upper Bukit Timah Road and you will see an overhead bridge, the Salvation Army, and further on, the Rail Mall.



Cross the overhead bridge, run south past the Standard Chartered Bank, then turn right onto Hillview Road. There will be a park connector here. Keep running until you reach the circle, then turn left and continue south along Hillview Avenue.




This is a long stretch, and you will pass by several blocks of condos. Once you’re past the Petals condo, Hillview Avenue becomes Bukit Batok East Avenue 2. A short while after this, you’ll run past the entrance to Bukit Batok Nature Park on your left. Your objective is to reach the junction of Bukit Batok East Avenues 2 and 6.

Coming from the north, turn right onto Bukit Batok East Avenue 6. You want to run along the southern edge of East Avenue 6, so you will probably need to cross two traffic lights at the cross junction. Keep running westwards on East Avenue 6 until you reach the junction of Bukit Batok East Avenue 3.

Cross Bukit Batok East Avenue 3. You will immediately see the unmistakable black tarmac of a park connector that runs along East Avenue 6.



Step onto the connector and follow it. It will take you to the PIE and a massive ramped overhead bridge. Note the monsoon drain to your left. It empties into the Ulu Pandan Canal, as we shall soon see.



Cross the ramped bridge and you will see that the park connector continues.



Step onto the Ulu Pandan connector and turn right once you’re off the bridge. The Ulu Pandan Canal should be on your left.



[If you turn left, the park connector will take you to Jurong East and the Chinese Garden. More on that in a future post.]

Follow the connector until you reach Toh Guan Road East. You are now very near to the IMM shopping mall on your right. Retail therapy anyone?



Cross Toh Guan Road East.


The connector continues until it reaches Boon Lay Way. The Chevrons will be on your right. There’s a convenient fully stocked emart for all army goods if you’re a guy still doing NS.



Cross Boon Lay Way. Again, the connector continues, winding behind the International Business Park.



After a short distance, you will reach the AYE. There will be short section of disused railway track that crosses over the canal.



Take the track and cross over to the opposite side of the canal, where the connector continues again. You’ll start to notice lots of people running here.



Continue running (east) on the connector. You will pass beneath two flyovers, one MRT track and one pedestrian overhead bridge (with white tent-like awning).


If you’re interested, the pedestrian bridge will take you into the Sunset Way area and more to the point, the Clementi Arcade, where you can pick up an ice cream cone from the excellent Daily Scoop.



But I digress. If you continue on the connector, you will eventually reach Clementi Road.


Cross the road using the traffic lights on your left, or take the overhead bridge hidden behind the HDB blocks to your right, and you will be back where you were before. Run the last 2 km on the connector and you will return to the start point.

Total distance: approximately 14 miles or 22 km.

Notes:

The part of the park connector that stretches behind the International Business Park should be avoided after dark. It’s pretty deserted and lots of foreign construction workers frequent the area (empty beer bottles and discarded food).

Like most parks, the nature reserve should be avoided after dark or in the earliest part of the morning, especially for the ladies. It’s best to run with company. See this if you need further warning. That said, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem as the trails are available for use only from 7am to 7pm each day. And lots of cyclists use the bike trails on weekends.

The Nature Reserve Visitor Center is open daily from 8:30am to 6:00pm, although you might see rangers around the center from about 7am to 7pm. Ask for a map from the Visitor Center if you need one. There are toilet facilities and water coolers just behind the Visitor Center.

The trails in the nature reserve do not all conform to what you see in the free map provided by the Visitor Center, or in my description of the route. There are unmarked loops and trails, but generally speaking, as long as you proceed in the direction of the most trafficked route (obvious from the trail condition), you shouldn’t get lost. If in doubt, ask the other users of the trails.

As mentioned above, the trail part of the run is a biking trail, so run carefully as you will be sharing the trail with cyclists. That’s also another good reason not to run before first light.

Due to park regulations, cyclists are allowed to cycle in only one direction: north on Hindhede Way, east on Dairy Farm Pass, south on Belukar Track and west on Senapang Link. Keep this in mind as you will then know which direction from which to expect biking traffic. It’s generally safer to run against the traffic.

Running in the nature reserve is a real pleasure. Yes, you have to watch your footing and the slopes can be steep. But the forest is shady and the temperature within is at least two degrees cooler. Also, the view of the quarry massif is quite magnificent from the western edge of the nature reserve.



This route is mostly flat on the park connectors, but will encounter steep slopes along the bike trails, and also on certain sections such as the approach on Hillcrest Road and Dairy Farm Road. The section of Clementi Road is basically a series of rolling hills.

Feel free to reverse the course of the route. To enter the nature reserve from Dairy Farm Road, run east on the road until you reach the sign that says MOE Adventure Center. Take the first right turn into the vegetation immediately after this sign. You should see the clearing shortly after.

Turn right here after the sign to enter the nature reserve


[In fact, I prefer to run the reverse of this route, mainly because I run in the morning and reversing the route allows me to avoid most of the morning sun.]

There is yet another way to enter the nature reserve, and that is via Rifle Range Trail (just off Rifle Range Road). Rifle Range Trail joins up with Senapang Link along the bike trail. Running along Rifle Range Trail allows you to bypass Jalan Anak Bukit if you are are, like me, averse to breathing in exhaust fumes while running along a major road.



[Rifle Range Road comprises a running route on its own. More in a future post.]

This route is long, and I truncate it for most weekday runs. The easiest way to use this route is to restrict yourself to only the connector. Start running at the start point and follow the connector until it reaches the disused railway track at the AYE, then run back. This also happens to be most popular route for the residents of the area. The roundtrip distance is approximately 9 km.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Can Israel Find the Water It Needs?"

From The New York Times
By ANDREW MARTIN
Published: August 9, 2008


A SOUVENIR in the corner of Doron Ovits’s office attests to the challenges of farming in Israel.

It’s a mangled piece of metal, and Mr. Ovits says it came from a rocket that landed in a field recently, lobbed from the nearby Gaza Strip.

But Mr. Ovits may have a bigger long-term problem than rockets.

Israel is running short of water. A growing population and rising incomes have increased demand for fresh water, while a four-year drought has created what Shalom Simhon, the agriculture minister, calls “a deep water crisis.”

The problem isn’t only in Israel. Many arid regions of the globe, including the American West, are dealing with growing populations and shrinking water supplies. Global warming could make matters even worse.

In a speech earlier this year, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said the shortage of water could lead to violence.

“Our experiences tell us that environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict and would be greater in poor nations,” he said. “Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.” Some economists suggest that arid countries should focus on growing only those crops that give them a competitive advantage, like water-sipping grapes and vegetables, and buy everything else on the world market.

But the recent volatility and high prices in commodity markets have made many world leaders reluctant to rely on global markets. Some oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia are now shopping for farmland in more fertile countries like Sudan and Pakistan.

Others are now more determined than ever to increase their own food production, Israel among them. The question now becomes, at what cost?

“The greatest challenge we face is to try and reduce the dependence on the import of grains, whether by increasing local production or whether by making more efficient use of raw materials in feeding livestock,” Mr. Simhon said in an e-mail exchange. “This must be done, despite all limitations, mainly the lack of water.”

Israel has always been considered to be at the forefront of water efficiency in agriculture. Modern drip irrigation was invented in Israel, and Israeli companies like Netafim now ship drip-irrigation systems all over the world.

Israel has also aggressively pursued the use of treated sewer water for irrigation. Mr. Ovits’s tomatoes and peppers, for instance, are irrigated with recycled sewer water that he says is “even cleaner than the drinking water.”

For all the country’s efforts though, it can’t control the weather. But Israeli officials say they believe they have a solution.

Agriculture in Israel now consumes 500 million cubic meters of potable water and an equal amount of other types of water, primarily treated sewer water. The country plans to provide a further 200 million cubic meters of recycled sewer water and build more desalination plants to supply even more water.

“If the desalination and recycling projects are implemented, a lack of water is not expected in 2013,” Mr. Simhon said.

But is such an investment wise for a sector that contributes just 2 percent to the gross domestic product? Some critics suggest that Israel would be better off focusing on conservation.

Others have predicted a dire future. The chief scientist in the environment ministry, Yeshayahu Bar-Or, was quoted in The Economist in June as predicting that global warming would cause 35 percent less rainfall, contamination of underground water sources and pollution of the Sea of Galilee, this nation’s largest source of fresh water.

In the Golan Heights, Roni Kedar, 46, hopes his farm can survive long enough for a solution.

As a farmer for Kibbutz Ein Zivan, which abuts the Syrian border, he has spent the last 30 years trying to conserve water while growing grapes, apples, flowers and berries.

HIS crops are irrigated with treated sewer water and rain runoff that is captured in a nearby reservoir, which is now severely depleted. He grows plants that do not require much water and feeds them with irrigation lines that drip water directly onto a plant’s roots, minimizing waste. And he is now experimenting in his apple orchards with mesh nets that may further prevent evaporation.

But because of the drought, Israeli officials have cut the kibbutz’s annual quota of water. This year’s cuts were particularly harsh, to 1 million cubic meters from 1.8 million, forcing Mr. Kedar to tear out some of his orchards and rip the fruit off of some of his apple trees, to keep the trees alive but preserve water.

“I don’t even like to go there. It’s a disaster,” he said, motioning toward an apple orchard where the fruit covers the ground. “We just threw everything to the floor and hope that next year is better.”

He estimated that he would not harvest a third of his fields because of the water restrictions. “The decision is really simple. You choose the part of your fields that are hardest to get water to and you destroy them.”

“We just don’t have enough water,” he said later. “It’s frustrating because you work hard to make it grow. The point is to be big and efficient enough to survive. But right now it’s hard.”

"I Like My Ice Chilled Just So"

From The New York Times
By GUY TREBAY
Published: August 8, 2008


PARDON us, but was that Hoshizaki or Kold-Draft that you wanted with your Grey Goose?

Did you say you like your cocktail with a cube or a lozenge or a tube with a dimpled end? Do you want that iced tea served over crushed or would you prefer fragmented?

Questions like those may seem kooky or even risible to those content to cool a summer drink with chunks of ice from the sturdy waffle-bottomed tray parked next to the prehistoric peas in the freezer. But for some, the idea of consuming generic ice is enough to raise goose bumps and not the good kind.

There are those — and don’t wear yourself out looking for statistical surveys on this one — for whom water in chunky frozen form is a source not merely of interest but also obsession. You can find them, of course — alongside every other compulsive with an affinity group or microcohort — on the Web.

They post recipes for making ice with a level of internal clarity greater than that of a D-flawless diamond. They make YouTube videos of a deliberately Captain Kangaroo-style naïveté that demonstrate the beauties of cubes formed by boiling distilled water once to release any trapped air molecules and then boiled again and frozen before being plunked in a glass.

They forego refrigerator ice altogether in favor of the commercially produced kind, ordering products like the Air AI-100S portable ice cube maker, capable of producing fresh ice in 10 minutes, up to 28 pounds of it a day. Some aficionados, like the country singer Vince Gill (who has a Scotsman), even raise the ante by installing commercial-grade ice machines in their homes. And some set out on a kind of gourmet ice hegira (Safeway to Gristedes to Fairway) whenever friends come to drink.

CAROLYN POLK did not start out as “an ice snob.” For most of her life, Ms. Polk, a 41-year-old St. Louis native, staved off the blistering heat of Midwestern summers with the generic cubes that clunk into a freezer bin like clockwork or drop down a mysterious chute in the refrigerator door.

A couple years back, though, Ms. Polk noted a change in the habits of her guests, who casually started bringing their own ice, she said. Her ice, as it eventually turned out, was apparently not to her friends’ liking.

“Maybe the cubes were the wrong shape or they didn’t taste that good, I’m not sure,” Ms. Polk said last week. “But it got to the point where people came for cocktails, and they were bringing different bags of ice.”

“B.Y.O.I. was a turning point for me,” Ms. Polk said of the moment at which she exited the world of generic ice use and entered another. It is one where a cube, formerly a common and readily available commodity heaved out of supermarket freezers or convenience store cases, is transformed into a symbol of yet another type of consumer connoisseurship — not ice but “ice.”

“Ice is a food,” said Jane McEwen the executive director of the International Packaged Ice Association, voicing a mantra often heard in an industry laboring to lend gourmet associations to something seasonal, perishable and cheap.

The average American buys four bags of packaged ice each year; 80 percent of all packaged ice is sold between Memorial and Labor days. Promoters from within the $2.5 billion packaged ice industry would like to change ice’s hoi polloi associations, give it some of the swank that marketing geniuses injected into bottles of designer water.

Ice, as Ms. McEwen said, is water’s “sister product.”

As a sibling, ice is both mutable and fickle. “There are different forms of ice,” Ms. McEwen explained, and while every cube of ice has the same essential end point — and a purpose little understood in countries like, say, England or France — its use can be manipulated, ice experts say, to improve the quality of the drink it cools. Thus, there is fragmented ice (soda fountain drinks), nugget and cube ice (mixed drinks) and ice that is shaved. There is ice with dimpled ends that is ideal for chewing. There is ice manufactured using patented Japanese methods for eliminating the air bubbles that cloud a cocktail, inhibiting it from becoming a beautiful elixir, frigid and mystically clear.

Bottled water, of course, has lost some of its marketplace luster to consumer impatience with the plastic Everest generated from packaging a substance that runs safe and free from the tap. Ice, on the other hand, seems to be making gains in the market, however modest they may be.

“I never use refrigerator ice because it sucks up smells,” Phillip Redding, a visitor to Napa Valley, in California, said last week, his breath frosting as he plucked a 10-pound bag of Arctic Glacier from a freezer at the upscale Vallergas Market. At $1.79 a bag, the ice was good value, if not exactly top of the line.

The very finest ice, in Mr. Redding’s opinion — a true cube that provides greater surface area for faster drink cooling and does not melt as quickly as fragments do — is not easy to find outside a restaurant.

The worst, he added, is easily identified. It is the kind produced by a certain luxury refrigerator that he has at home. “The ice is crescent shaped and when you tilt the glass, it all rushes to the mouth and hits you in the face and spills your drink,” he added, as he made for the cashier.

Ice snobbery, to be certain, is no trend in the making. Packaged ice accounts for a mere 0.5 percent of all sales at American convenience stores, according to Don Longo, the editor of Convenience Store News, a number that has stayed flat for years. (Cigarettes, on the other hand, clocked a brisk 31.36 percent of all convenience store sales in 2007.)

Among the rare notable developments on the packaged-ice front is an uptick of interest in chewable ice — “like something to eat”— and a growing concern with purity, Mr. Longo said. To satisfy the Freudian cravings of the legions of ice chewers (www.icechewing.com), manufacturers have begun making products like Pearl Ice, Nugget Ice and Chewblet, commodities that in texture fall somewhere between the tongue-numbing chips of a snow cone and the molar-shattering hunks from a freezer tray. As for consumers worried that their ice, like their water, may have picked something up on its way from the icy depths of underground aquifers to the supermarket shelves, groups like the I.P.I.A. have pushed to certify ice made by its 240 members.

“You want to be sure you are getting good ice,” Ms. McEwen said. “If it isn’t certified, how do you know?”

Two years ago, the issue of ice purity was unexpectedly brought into focus when a Florida seventh grader, Jasmine Roberts, made national headlines for a science project that compared the purity of water from ice machines to that from the toilets in a variety of fast-food restaurants.

Testing the samples at the University of South Florida, the student discovered that the water from the toilets was purer than that from the ice machines, some of which were contaminated with E. coli bacteria, among other unsavory things.

“Not all ice is the same,” Ms. McEwen said.

And that, among other reasons, is why Ms. Polk uses the stuff pumped out by her refrigerator ice maker strictly as cooler-filler. Back home in St. Louis, she now buys all the ice intended for consumption at Ladue Market, where a 10-pound bag ($1.75) is dispensed from a Kold-Draft machine.

ASKED what it was about Kold-Draft cubes that made them special, Jerry Meyers, the owner of Ladue Market, who was 13 when the apparatus was installed 40 years ago, explained: “It’s one-inch square, a solid cube, no dimple, no hole in the middle. Plus, there’s something in the ice-making process — they use hot gas — that makes it clear when it’s released down the chute from the machine.”

The result is a finely transparent and classically shaped chunk of frozen water that might have brought a flush of pride to the cheeks of the 19th-century ice king Frederic Tudor, the pioneer who first harvested and shipped ice commercially from frozen water bodies (Walden Pond was one).

Can one, though, truly tell a Kold-Draft cube from one made from distilled and double-boiled water? Is there a quantifiable distinction to be drawn between store bought and homemade? The answer is yes, or at least for Ms. Polk it is.

“I never really thought ice mattered that much to me,” she said. “At first, all I wanted to do was make my guests happy. But once you go there, you go there, I guess.”

"A Tall, Cool Drink of ... Sewage?"

From The New York Times
By ELIZABETH ROYTE
Published: August 8, 2008


Before I left New York for California, where I planned to visit a water-recycling plant, I mopped my kitchen floor. Afterward, I emptied the bucket of dirty water into the toilet and watched as the foamy mess swirled away. This was one of life’s more mundane moments, to be sure. But with water infrastructure on my mind, I took an extra moment to contemplate my water’s journey through city pipes to the wastewater-treatment plant, which separates solids and dumps the disinfected liquids into the ocean.

A day after mopping, I gazed balefully at my hotel toilet in Santa Ana, Calif., and contemplated an entirely new cycle. When you flush in Santa Ana, the waste makes its way to the sewage-treatment plant nearby in Fountain Valley, then sluices not to the ocean but to a plant that superfilters the liquid until it is cleaner than rainwater. The “new” water is then pumped 13 miles north and discharged into a small lake, where it percolates into the earth. Local utilities pump water from this aquifer and deliver it to the sinks and showers of 2.3 million customers. It is now drinking water. If you like the idea, you call it indirect potable reuse. If the idea revolts you, you call it toilet to tap.

Opened in January, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System is the largest of its type in the world. It cost $480 million to build, will cost $29 million a year to run and took more than a decade to get off the ground. The stumbling block was psychological, not architectural. An aversion to feces is nearly universal, and as critics of the process are keen to point out, getting sewage out of drinking water was one of the most important public health advances of the last 150 years.

Still, Orange County forged ahead. It didn’t appear to have a choice. Saltwater from the Pacific Ocean was entering the county’s water supply, drawn in by overpumping from the groundwater basin, says Ron Wildermuth, who at the time we talked was the water district’s spokesman. Moreover, population growth meant more wastewater, which meant building a second sewage pipe, five miles into the Pacific — a $200 million proposition. Recycling the effluent solved the disposal problem and the saltwater problem in one fell swoop. A portion of the plant’s filtered output is now injected into the ground near the coast, to act as a pressurized barrier against saltwater from the ocean. Factor in Southern California’s near chronic drought, the county’s projected growth (another 300,000 to 500,000 thirsty people by 2020) and the rising cost of importing water from the Colorado River and from Northern California (the county pays $530 per acre-foot of imported water, versus $520 per acre-foot of reclaimed water), and rebranding sewage as a valuable resource became a no-brainer.

With the demand for water growing, some aquifers dropping faster than they’re replenished, snowpacks thinning and climate change predicted to make dry places even drier, water managers around the country, and the world, are contemplating similar schemes. Los Angeles and San Diego, which both rejected potable reuse, have raised the idea once again, as have, for the first time, DeKalb County, Ga., and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

While Orange County planned and secured permits, public-relations experts went into overdrive, distributing slick educational brochures and videos and giving pizza parties. “If there was a group, we talked to them,” says Wildermuth, who recently left Orange County to help sell Los Angelenos on drinking purified waste. “Historical societies, chambers of commerce, flower committees.” The central message was health and safety, but the persuaders didn’t skimp on buzz phrases like “local control” and “independence from imported water.” Last winter, the valve between the sewage plant and the drinking-water plant whooshed open, and a new era in California’s water history began.

When I visited the plant, a sprawl of modern buildings behind a concrete wall, in March, Wildermuth, in a blue sport coat and bright tie, acted as my guide. “Quick!” he shouted at one point, mounting a ledge and clinging to the rail over a microfiltration bay. “Over here!” I clambered up just as its contents finished draining from the scum-crusted tank. The sudsy water, direct from the sewage-treatment plant, was the color of Guinness. “This is the most exciting thing you’ll see here, and I didn’t want you to miss it,” he said.

Wildermuth went on to explain what we were looking at: inside each of 16 concrete bays hangs a rack of vertical tubes stuffed with 15,000 polypropylene fibers the thickness of dental floss. The fibers are stippled with holes 1/300th the size of a human hair. Pumps pull water into the fibers, leaving behind anything larger than 0.2 microns, stuff like bacteria, protozoa and the dread “suspended solids.”

The excitement and the bubbles were backwash: every 21 minutes, air is injected into the microfibers to blast them clean. The schmutz goes back to the sewage-treatment plant, and the cleaner water, now the color of chamomile tea, is pumped toward reverse-osmosis filters in another building. Before we saw that process, Wildermuth led me underground to inspect several enormous pumps and pipes large enough to crawl through. I noted that everything was clearly labeled and scrupulously clean. Then it dawned on me: reassurance was the reason we’d taken the detour.

We followed the pipes up to a sunlit, metal-clad building where the water, now dosed with an antiscalant and sulfuric acid to lower its pH, was forced at high pressure through hundreds of white tubes filled with tightly spiraled sheets of plastic membranes. Reverse osmosis, Wildermuth says, stops cold almost all nonwater molecules (things like salts, viruses and pharmaceuticals). The stuff that’s removed is washed back to a pipe that discharges into the ocean. The filtered water, now known as permeate, moves one building over, where it’s spiked with hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant, and then circulated past 144 lamps emitting ultraviolet light. “Destruction of compounds through photolysis,” Wildermuth said, nodding. Anything that’s alive in this water can no longer reproduce.

Strolling back through the campus, Wildermuth took me to a three-part demonstration sink with faucets streaming. The basin on the right contained reverse-osmosis backwash: it was molasses black, topped with a rainbow slick of oil. “Don’t touch,” Wildermuth warned as I leaned in for a better look at the ocean-bound rejectamenta. The middle basin contained the chamomile water from microfiltration. And on the left was the stuff Orange County would eventually drink. It was clear and had no smell.

But even this suctioned, sieved and irradiated water wasn’t quite set for sipping; it still needed to be decarbonized and dosed with lime, to raise its pH. Finally it would enter a massive purple pipe, which dives into the ground inside a nearby pump house and reappears 13 miles to the north, in Anaheim. There, the water would pour into Kraemer Basin, a man-made reservoir, where it would mix with the lake water and filter for six months through layers of sand and gravel hundreds of feet deep before utilities throughout the county pumped it into taps.

The reservoir is a prosaic ending for a substance that’s been through the glitziest of technological wringers, transformed from sewage to drinking water only to be humbly redeposited into the earth. This final filtering step isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, but our psyches seem to demand it.

To understand the basics of contemporary water infrastructure is to acknowledge that most American tap water has had some contact with treated sewage. Our wastewater-treatment plants discharge into streams that feed rivers from which other cities suck water for drinking. By the time New Orleans residents drink the Mississippi, the water has been in and out of more than a dozen cities; more than 200 communities, including Las Vegas, discharge treated wastewater into the Colorado River. That’s the good news. After heavy rains, many cities discharge untreated sewage directly into waterways — more than 860 billion gallons of it a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However — and this is where we can take solace — the sewage is massively diluted, time and sunlight help to break down its components and drinking-water plants filter and disinfect the water before it reaches our taps. The E.P.A. requires utilities to monitor pathogens, and there hasn’t been a major waterborne-disease outbreak in this country since 1993. (Though there have been 85 smaller outbreaks between 2001 and 2006.)

So confident are engineers of so-called advanced treatment technologies that several communities have been discharging highly treated wastewater directly into reservoirs for years. Singapore mixes 1 percent treated wastewater with 99 percent fresh water in its reservoirs. (In Orange County, the final product will contain 17 percent recycled water.) Residents of Windhoek, Namibia, one of the driest places on earth, drink 100 percent treated wastewater. For 30 years, the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority, in Virginia, has been mixing recycled wastewater with fresh water in a reservoir and serving it to more than a million people. Still, no system produces as much recycled water as Orange County (currently 70 million gallons a day, going up to 85 million by 2011), and none inserts as many physical and chemical barriers between toilet and tap.

Environmentalists, river advocates and California surfers — the sort of people who harbor few illusions about the purity of our rivers and oceans — generally favor water recycling. It beats importing water on both economic and environmental grounds (about a fifth of California’s energy is used to move water from north to south). “The days are over when we can consider wastewater a liability,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group in Oakland. “It’s an asset. And that means figuring out how best to use it.”

As we deplete the earth’s nonrenewable resources, like oil and metals, the one-way trip from raw material to disposed and forgotten waste makes less and less sense. Already we recycle aluminum to avoid mining, compost organic material to avoid generating methane in landfills and turn plastic into lumber. As it becomes more valuable, water will be no different.

“We have to treat all waste as a resource,” Conner Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, says. “Our water source, hundreds of miles away, is drying up. If the population is growing, what are our options?”

Water conservation could take us a long way, as would lower water subsidies for farmers. But sooner or later, stressed-out utility managers come back to the same idea: returning wastewater to the tap.

The process isn’t risk-free. Some scientists are concerned that dangerous compounds or undetectable viruses will escape the multiple physical and chemical filters at the plant. And others suggest that the potential for human error or mechanical failure — clogged filters or torn membranes that let pathogens through, for example — is too great to risk something as basic to public health as drinking water.

Recycled water should be used only as nondrinking water, says Philip Singer, the Daniel Okun Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina. “It may contain trace amounts of contaminants. Reverse osmosis and UV disinfection are very good, but there are still uncertainties.”

And then there are those whose first, and final, reaction is “yuck.”

“Why the hell do we have to drink our own sewage?” asks Muriel Watson, a retired schoolteacher who sat on a California water-reuse task force and founded the Revolting Grandmas to fight potable reuse. She toured the Orange County plant but came away unsatisfied. “It’s not the sun and the sky and a roaring river crashing into rocks” — nature’s way of purifying water. “It’s just equipment.”

The Santa Ana River forms in the San Bernardino Mountains and flows southwest through Riverside and then Orange counties to the sea, the largest coastal stream in Southern California. But that’s not saying much: in the summer, the Santa Ana’s flow is nearly 100 percent wastewater. The river’s base flow — what enters the channel from runoff, rain and wastewater-treatment plants — is increasing. Not only is more effluent entering the river, a consequence of population growth, but as the county develops and paves more surfaces, rainwater runs off the earth faster, sluicing into the river channel before it can sink into the earth and replenish aquifers.

To capture and clean that water, the Orange County Water District has gone into hyper-beaver mode on the river. Twenty miles upstream from Anaheim, the water district has created the Prado Wetlands. It’s a lovely place, lush with willow and mule fat, busy with butterflies and, over the course of the year, 250 species of birds. Moving through a series of rectangular ponds, river water filters slowly through thickets of cattails and bulrushes meant to extract excess nitrate from upstream dairy farms and sewage-treatment plants. Returned to the main channel, the water wends around T- and L-shaped berms that slow the water and maximize its contact with the river bottom. Gates and sluiceways then shunt the water into nine man-made ponds and pits. The goal is to get more water into the county’s groundwater basin, a 350-square-mile, 1,500-foot-deep bathtub of sand and gravel layers, which act as natural scrubbers. The system upriver — using gravity and gravel — and the system in Fountain Valley — in tanks and tubes — both achieve the same goal. Sort of.

It’s one of the many pardoxes of indirect potable reuse that the water leaving the plant in Fountain Valley is far cleaner than the water that it mingles with. Yes, the water entering the sewage-treatment plant in Fountain Valley is 100 percent wastewater and has a T.D.S. — a measure of water purity, T.D.S. stands for total dissolved solids and refers to the amount of trace elements in the water — of 1,000 parts per million. But after microfiltration and reverse osmosis, the T.D.S. is down to 30. (Poland Spring water has a T.D.S. of between 35 and 46.) By contrast, the “raw” water in the Anaheim basins has a T.D.S. of 600.

If everything in the Fountain Valley plant is in perfect working order, its finished water will contain no detectable levels of bacteria, pharmaceuticals or agricultural and industrial chemicals. The same can be said of very few water sources in this country. But once the Fountain Valley water mingles with the county’s other sources, its purity goes downhill. Filtering it through sand and gravel removes some contaminants, but it also adds bacteria (not necessarily harmful, and local utilities will eventually knock them out them with chlorine) and possibly pharmaceuticals.

In other words, nature messes up the expensively reclaimed water. So why stick it back into the ground? “We do it for psychological reasons,” says Adam Hutchinson, director of recharge operations for the water district. “In the future, people will laugh at us for putting it back in, instead of just drinking it.”

Psychologists and marketers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a product, or a process, seem natural. Obviously, framing the issue properly is the key to acceptance. “If people connect the history of their water to contamination, you’ll get a disgust response no matter how you treat that water in between,” says Brent Haddad, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “But if you enable people to frame out that history by telling them, for example, that ‘the clean water has been separated from the polluted water,’ they no longer make that connection.” We abridge history all the time, Haddad adds. “Think of the restaurant fork that was in the mouth of someone with a contagious disease, the pillow that was underneath people doing private adult things in a hotel bedroom. If you think of it that way, the intermediate steps, like washing with hot water, don’t matter.”

All water on earth is recycled: the same drops that misted Devonian ferns and dripped from the fur of woolly mammoths are watering us today. From evaporation to condensation and precipitation, the cycle goes on and on. But in the planet’s drier regions, where the population continues to rise, we can expect the time between use and reuse to grow ever shorter, with purification, pipes and pumps standing in for natural processes. Instead of sand and gravel filtering our drinking water, microfibers and membranes will do the job; instead of sunlight knocking out parasites, we’ll plug in the UV lamps.

You could argue that in coming to terms with wastewater as a resource, we’ll take better care of our water. At long last, the “everything is connected” message, the bedrock of the environmental movement, will hit home. In this view, once a community is forced to process and drink its toilet water, those who must drink it will rise up and change their ways. Floor moppers will switch to biodegradable cleaning products. Industry will use nontoxic material. Factory farms will cut their use of antibiotics. Maybe we’ll even stop building homes in the desert.

But these situations are not very likely. No one wants to think too hard about where our water comes from. It’s more likely that the virtuosity of water technology will let polluters off the hook: why bother to reduce noxious discharges if the treatment plant can remove just about anything? The technology, far from making us aware of the consequences of our behavior, may give us license to continue doing what we’ve always done.

The recycled water coming out of the sink at the Fountain Valley plant looked good enough to drink. Wildermuth didn’t press me to taste it, but I was eager for a sample — to satisfy my curiosity, and to be polite. I filled a plastic cup and took a sip. The water tasted fine, if a little dry; I’m used to something with more minerals. It did cross my mind that any potential health issues from drinking so-far undetectable levels of contaminants would be cumulative and take decades to manifest.

Then I reminded myself: no naturally occurring water on earth is absolutely pure. And most everything that’s in Orange County’s reclaimed water is in most cities’ drinking water anyway.

It was hot, my throat was parched, and I asked for a refill.

Elizabeth Royte is the author of “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”
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My comment:

Inability to detect contaminants may not necessarily mean the lack of contaminants. Perhaps there is some wisdom in allowing water to percolate for months through layers of sand and gravel. Who knows?