Scientists reinvent millenium-old toy?

Was rather confused when I read this article about a mono-monostatic object – an object that can right itself to a single equilibrium position no matter its starting position – discovered by Hungarian mathematicians.


Watching a demonstration on their website, it struck me that I’d seen something a little bit like this – and suddenly remembered a little song we used to sing in Primary School about righting yourself after you fall, just like a ä¸å€’翁.

If you can’t read Chinese, Wikipedia’s English Page describes it as a “Daruma Doll“, a self-righting doll. It’s been around in China more than a millenium, though it appears not to have penetrated into the West.

So now I’m a little confused as to what the big fuss about the Gomboc is. Unless homogenous Daruma Dolls can’t right themselves (which in my mind seems entirely likely), the Gomboc just seems like that US multi-million-dollar-pen project (vs the Russian pencil). But if so, then the last paragraph of the NYT article doesn’t make much sense:

Yet the scientists now say that Mother Nature may have beaten them in the race after all. They have noticed that the Gomboc closely resembles the shell of a tortoise or a beetle, creatures whose round-shelled backs help them right themselves when flipped over. “We discovered it with mathematics,” Domokos notes, “but evolution got there first.”

Because we know that turtles definitely aren’t homogenous. They contain intestines and stuff.

Anyone any wiser?

Update: turns out that the traditional Chinese toy, in fact, is only able to right itself because it is not made of a uniform material (usually hollow or weighted). The Gomboc, on the other hand, is a mathematical marvel because it is of a uniform material and thus will work with any material. This article on explains all (but is unfortunately in Chinese) and also points out that the Hungarians know how to have fun with Maths – they invented the Rubik’s cube too.

Intuition begone!

The RIAA Needs New Programmers


For those who don’t understand, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has exposed the SQL script used to generate the results of some data directly in the page’s address. This could potentially lead to SQL injection attacks, or in the case above, a giant search result that will most likely crash the server when too many people start visiting the site.

An amusing example og how this can be abused here:

The RIAS, Singapore’s version of the RIAA, has a somewhat more secure site (because it’s all static) that is sadly disappointing in its plainness. The “RIAS Chart” isn’t up – clicking it brings up a 404 error. Perhaps to protect lawyers’ asses from getting whopped by Singaporean pirates?

Update: Within a day the problem was corrected. Just hope no one lost their job over this.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse is a singer from the UK who has entered the mainstream for her incredible talent and her various problems with eating and drugs. She seems to get thinner with every new MTV released, and I’m not certain it’s just direction. She’s been known to appear at performances and slur her way through, high or drunk. She’s been charged on possession of drugs in Norway. She has enough tatoos to put a sailor to shame. She’s cut herself. She’s married to a man with whom she shares her drug addiction. She’s only 24.

Can you blame the public for their interest? There’s an almost morbid anticipation of her death – in fact there’s a website promising an iPod Touch to the person who can predict when.

It’s Billie Holiday all over again. And she certainly has the voice for it.


Sometimes ABBA just don’t cut it.

Posed a rather innocent question Friday to my colleagues if they’d ever considered purchasing their name-domain-names, which was actually an excuse for me to bring up the evil 3 year-old Alex Huang Jae Huang, whose parents have purchased the domain name till 2011. I usually don’t feel like working very hard the last hour of Fridays.

This ended up in a Google searchfest for all our colleagues’ names, including of course myself.

That turned up this blog.

So my colleagues started reading, as my mind raced to recall if I’d ever posted anything derogatory about any one of them. Because I couldn’t remember, I ended up trying to shut down the whole site, but it turns out WordPress, for all its development does not have a dooce-prevention button conveniently positioned in its admin interface. I didn’t have FTP access (damned network security at work blocks FTP access), so I did the only thing I though posible – I deliberately screwed up some site settings in a self-destruct-so-the-enemy-gets-nothing mindset and–voila!–all that happened was CSS went haywire, so not only could my colleagues read what I REALLY thought about them, they could read it completely unstyled–the naked truth, as it were.


Turns out I needn’t have bothered, though. My laziness to post in recent months due to my dead-end wonderful new job has saved me the embarrassment of having written anything potentially damaging to my career or hurtful about my colleagues. In fact, my Friendster profile turned out to be more damning, where a “friend” of mine had posted some comment about having sex with me (in context it was supposed to have been funny), and had my small-minded, conservative lovely colleagues looking at me with sanctimonious righteous contempt.

Phew. I REALLY dodged a bullet there, not writing how I really felt.

(as an aside, some of my colleagues were more interested in 3-year-old Alex’s website showcasing stomache-curdling pictures of his youthful cuteness rather than my much-more-intellectually-stimulating blog, which should tell you something about how truly evil he is)

If anything good has come of this little incident, I have learnt how to instigate people into Googling their own names. Just try to start a conversation with “Have you ever tried to register your own name as a domain name?” I shall employ said tactic just before performance review, after writing glowing reviews about my boss – maybe something like this.

Alternatively I could post disgustingly graphic slash fiction about myself and any other colleague whom I might potentially be up against with for a promotion and then leer at them curiously once in a while before questioning them on whether they knew their domain name was free. Their resulting Google search for their own names should result in a request for a transfer to another department pretty quickly.

Or possibly a request for my transfer to another department. The department of mental services.

In any case–blogging about work? Never a good idea. You have to be pretty stupid to do it. Which I can be at times, judging from my actions today.

Went down to Junction 8, my local mall, to support the Banana for yet another one of her singing competitions, this one in particular organised by the Science Club. To raise money for the event, they set a 15% of the judging criteria to be audience participation – in the form of 50-cent votes. This, of course, sparked off the somewhat offbeat competitive streak in me and I ended up spending $60 to get the Banana up to second-most popular singer. We just barely beat a Japanese-wannabe singer whose Hokkien-speaking mother and boyfriend bought votes for, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I saw nihon-jin-in-training looking at the Banana and then wistfully at the voting panel, where she was just 5 votes short of being second-we had practiced the dirty trick of last-minute voting to prevent a bidding-war.

It was rather tragic, really. Some of the little schoolgirls there were pooling together spare change to buy votes for their friends. I feel a bit lousy for having crushed their innocent delusions of people-power, but I suppose a university-organised-small-time singing competition is as good a time for them to learn about the pecking-order-of-economic-power in Singapore, of which I thought the results of the votes were pretty representative of:

  1. First place: rich guy whose parents got him first place (the monied, connected crust of the Singaporean elite)
  2. Second: the banana, who just happened to have a crazy friend with money to blow (middle-class working professionals)
  3. Third: Kawaii-Hokkien (The Other not-so-well-educated Chinese)
  4. Losers: various other minorities and schoolkids (Various minorities and people without certificates-to-prove-usefulness)


So really, I HAD to vote for the Banana, you see, otherwise some schoolgirls might have gone home thinking that they’d managed to make a difference or that together friends could change the world rather than the important life-lesson that they were simply unimportant drones in a largely uncaring society where money was power.

Harsh? I suppose. But important! I am entirely justified in my actions.

And I don’t mind at all having had to spend $60 to spread tough love.

Not at all, not even if the Banana refuses to give me a treat.

Pictures up when I can find time to upload.

Banana plants “walk”

Watched an episode of QI where Sean Lock mentions that Banana plants “walk” (about 2:14 in the clip below). Steven Fry confirms it a little later, according to a “little voice in his head”.

(aside: I’m beginning to think it was scripted, because I found the transcript of an interview he gave for the Science Show where he says something about reading about Malayan dendrology and walking banana plants, so Steven must have known about the moving plants–but perhaps they thought people would believe Sean more)

It’s been haunting me ever since, because I simply cannot imagine how a plant can walk. There’s the issue of roots which make walking tautologically impossible, aren’t they?

So of course being the internet-savvy-type that I am, I queried Wikipedia, and got this:

… the individual stools or planting sites may move slightly from their original positions as lateral rhizome formation dictates. Latin Americans sometimes comment that the plants are “walking” over time.

Aha! I proudly thought – so banana trees DO walk! I MUST tell absolutely everyone I know!

I’m not sure why the question came back to haunt me today, but it did, and I puzzled over the long cab ride home why no one had ever taken a capture of a banana tree walking. Surely a horizontally moving plant would be YouTube fodder or at least of some interest to the Discovery Channel?

So I did a bit more research and now I’m ready to kick myself in the ass, because I’d actually been given all the information I needed to connect the dots, but didn’t. There doesn’t seem to be a ready internet answer to this, so in apology to the people I may have given erroneous information to, here’s an attempt at a reconciliation of the facts.

My basic assumption in thinking that “banana trees can walk” was entirely false – the fact that bananas are trees at all. They aren’t. Bananas are herbs. What that means is that the thing you see sticking out of the ground with the leaves and fruit (the pseudostem) only comprises a part of the banana tree. The actual stem of the banana tree (the corm) is underground (think of ginger).

Banana plant

The pseudostem “matures” in 6 – 8 months, producing fruit and then dying. Usually, another smaller pseudostem will have simultaneously started growing at the same base of the original pseudostem, which will then take over the job of photosynthesis and any other pseudostem roles and responsibilities. The new pseudostem will be, of course, slightly displaced from the position of the old one (see image). Because a banana plant can be cultivated for 25 years and the pseudostems have a relatively short lifespan, as pseudostems die and get replaced it can look as though the plant has “walked” whereas in fact it is the change in position of pseudostems as they replace each other. The only thing that has really “walked” is the position at which the banana corm grows its pseudostem.

In fact I should know this from experience, because I’ve tried to cut down a banana plant and remove its roots (as I thought then) before, and do remember thinking to myself that they extended a bloody long distance and were ridiculously thick. I guess being in a jungle sweating it out with a parang and spade don’t incline you towards pondering the oddness of Nature.

So there you have it. Banana plants don’t walk, not in the slightest. The illusion that they “walk” is due to the withering and resprouting of pseudostems from the underground stem. I’ve learnt something new today (thanks to QI) and I hope you have too. Now go forth, and spread your newly-found wisdom!

But do remember to make use of the air quotes.