A rather delicious fish and reaction rates

I try to infuse what I teach my child with wonder, humour and relevance, though it must be said, much of the International Baccalaureate Diploma chemistry syllabus for chemistry is rather dry.

I am stuck with teaching her about catalysts: energy diagrams, industrial applications, features. It’s no fun, unlike thermodynamics where we could debate endlessly about the universe, the concept of free energy and chaos.

So here goes:

Perhaps the most incredible catalysts are the biological ones, namely enzymes. They are remarkably complex and specific, often made from many thousands of atoms and a few metal ions. Enzymes are folded in such a way that they can hold the reactant molecules in their “pockets” of their complex structures, using hydrogen bonds and electrostatic forces between groups of atoms with opposite charges, to facilitate a particular reaction happening. And because biochemical reactions often happen in a series of discrete steps rather than in a simple straightforward manner, the interactions between the catalyst and the reactant molecules change with each different stage, like some molecular ballet taking place within the living body, stabilising the intermediates birthed from each pirouette. It is these multiple interactions that make enzymes so specific in their participation, and what that makes the living body truly a miracle.

You want to do an amazing chemistry experiment on catalysts? This is what you need:

1 whole fish, cleaned
Juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
1 inch ginger, peeled and grated
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Marinade the fish in lemon juice. Leave in the refrigerator overnight. Then place the fish in the middle of a large sheet of baking parchment. Season generously with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil generously on the fish and scatter parsley and grated ginger over it. Bake in an oven heated to 375°F for 30-40 minutes, until the flesh flakes off.

The acid in the lemon juice catalyses the breakdown of peptide chains in the fish protein in a process called hydrolysis. The H+ ions of the lemon juice (citric acid) accelerates the reaction of the amide group (-CONH-) with water, bringing about the breakage of the peptide link (C-N bond).

In fact, you don’t even need to cook the fish – for example, the Peruvian dish Ceviche – but that’s another experiment altogether; the Kadazan-Dusun folks from Borneo has a dish called the Hinava, which is pretty similar to Ceviche, and I have had the good fortune to taste it on several occasions.

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Photo from recipegreat.

‘Book’ Street, Saigon

There is a beautiful street, the most beautiful, in Saigon between Hotel Intercontinental Asiana and the Notre Dame Cathedral that is lined with cute little bookshops and a book cafe. For a bookworm like me, it was a gem in this bustling city.

If you are ever here, it is well-worth a visit. Though most of the books are in Vietnamese, they are lovely:

In the meantime, here’s a contest to free books for the rest of your life!!! Click here.

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And after a blissful late afternoon at the cafe in Book Street, may I suggest that you take a leisurely stroll to this lovely place for an early dinner?

It is called Quon An Ngon 138.  It’s a beautiful, open-air colonial building that housed stalls selling local fare. You can even watch the chefs cooking it for you!

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The address is: 138 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Bến Nghé.

And for a romantic finish to your idyllic day, do pop into Cafe Soi Bar for some mellow live music. No children allowed!

Have a good stay ❤

 

Towards Heart-Centred Capitalism

One of the most common regrets of parents in the developed world is the lack of time to spend with their children when the children were growing up. For these precious childhood years, when gone, are gone forever. You would have missed the most magical part of your children’s lives. And yours, too.

Yet not all parents who would like to spend the whole day baking or reading with their offspring are able to do so, because economics drives at least one parent out of the door into the world of work. If one chooses to live in an expensive city such as London, the household often requires two working parents to keep it afloat financially.

I would like to write a little piece on heart-centred capitalism. I am not trained in classical economics, though in my varied career, I once worked for an investment bank where I managed over U$800milion in equities for institutional clients. I, the scientist/medic, ended up working in an investment bank because I needed to pay the mortgage on my Knightsbridge flat. It cost me dear.

It led me to think, maybe economics in the capitalism-as-we-know-it framework does not work?

Many men – and I am being sexist here – work for big corporations. The so-called multinationals, which are often as large as a small country, proudly trumpeting their global reach as well as their ability to understand the local markets. But do these conglomerates practice what they preach when it comes to their employees, or are they proletarian in nature? In the olden days, these powerful large companies use their considerable assets to look after their employees, providing loyal staff with cradle-to-grave job security. The company was like one big, happy and close family where members look after each other.

I do not think that mentality exists now. The world is more dog-eat-dog, more competitive, and the job market is more fluid. Technology has changed a lot of things. Big structures have found to be unwieldy and unsteady, as the former Soviet Union proved, and as the current precarious state of the European Union shows. The economic crisis of 2008 was yet another indication that we have to rethink our current framework. I do not think global economy has fully recovered from 2008, and we are bearing the pain through a rising pension age for the workforce, privatisation of education and healthcare, and a huge burden of debt for many ordinary young people. For me, this smacks of a return to slave capitalism that predates industrial capitalism.

But if you look beneath the surface, you will find a thriving alternative economy based on collectivism and solidarity. If you are a parent, you would be familiar with carpooling. You would be familiar too, with babysitting arrangements with other parents. You might even do group-buys. Expand that into the world of work, and you get Wikipedia, which has $3billion in revenues, which put the encyclopedia business out of existence, which was built solely on collectivism. In 2006, Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize. He developed Grameen Bank. Grameen Bank lends to those that commercial lenders would not touch: the bank is founded on the belief that people have endless potential, and unleashing their creativity and initiative helps them end poverty. And despite never ever having any legal agreements with those whom it lends money to, there have been very few defaulters. Contrast that with the now defunct Lehman Brothers. We are still paying back Lehman’s fallout one way or another.

Isn’t it about time we rethink capitalism? Do we live to work until we are 70 years old, merely to buy the things that we do not need or a lifestyle that we do not want?

I am hoping to persuade my partner that after over a decade of serving as a loyal servant in the corporate world that he should step out of it and into this wonderful place with me where we will live on fresh air, sunshine and love. This is the time to abandon the sinking ship of slave capitalism and dissolve the punishing market forces to create a paradigm of parallel currencies, cooperatives, non-market products and shared resources of heart-centred capitalism. We will live well, and with meaning.

Legs Are For Walking

Parenting is a very personal journey, and I am sure I will be slated for this post. However, I will still post this, because I would like to see a shift in mindset towards raising healthy kids.

Each time your child whines, “Carry me” and you give in, you are not ‘spoiling’ your child emotionally. You are de-skilling your child. You are taking away his opportunity at that moment, to learn resilience. You are also not giving him the opportunity to work on his developing muscles.

Let us start from the scientific angle. Children need to develop muscle tone. It is that muscle tone that allows a flexible foetus to be curled up in the womb, to develop into a baby who could sit up, crawl and eventually walk upright. The primary muscles required for this is the group of muscles that are loosely referred to as the core muscles. The core muscles can be visualised as a broad belt encircling the human body. Weak core muscles are the cause of bad posture, which over time, can lead to chronic back pain. For a child with weak core muscles, you see slouchy sitting position (exacerbated by hours sitting down). A floppy child is also often tired, because in that suboptimal position, he is not breathing efficiently. Her internal circulation may also be compromised. She may not be as active as she should be for her age group. Having weak core muscles is certainly not a good foundation for a young body that still has many decades of living to get through.

As children do not go to the gym to strengthen their core muscles (and there is no need to), they need to walk at every opportunity. On the emotional development side, children also need to learn to be resilient and self-sufficient. By three – yes, during the Terrible Threes – they should be learning about their body and the world they live in. Walking is one of the fundamental movements in life, and it also moves a child towards being independent from the mother. It empowers them.

If a child has strong physicality, she feels empowered. She is not afraid of feeling breathless or hot or tired. She embraces the different experiences. She feels confident about exploring the world and confident of her place within it, once she is comfortable with her body and its many experiences. You are empowering your child, when you move her from whining “Carry me” to “Yes, I can, Mummy.”

Children need to move for their brain development, and being attached to a parent like a limp rag doll does not constitute moving.

It is also about learning boundaries. Children need to know that there are certain things in life that they have to do for themselves, which Mummy cannot do for them. And walking is one of them.

Teaching boundaries to children is one of the challenges of parenting, namely how to teach them with love so that they grow up joyous. For me, over the course of five children, I discovered that it is with love, laughter, firm rules, consistency, joy, forgiveness and unconditional love that we teach our children that they have to accept parental autonomy. Parenting is not about giving in all the time, but a healthy balance of meeting your child’s needs as well as teaching him the things he needs to learn.

So if you have a child who is older than three, I would like to suggest trying to do away with the pushchair/stroller and see the changes. You will thank me in a few months time … big smile.

Photograph: 2 year old Georgina trying to keep up with her parents and siblings in foot-high snow.

Education for Tomorrow

People are often confused about my education philosophies.  My children’s father and I are both unapologetic beach bums living on the paradise island of Phuket, with no ambition beyond walking the beach each day. Our older children have all grown and flown the nest, back to our home country (UK) and making strides in their adult lives. Now, there is only Georgina left. She is our last child, and her father and I are living the last years of our parenting journey with her (or should I say, through her).

We both have seen a lot, as one does with over a decade of travelling, living in foreign lands, meeting unusual people and raising five kids. Oh, the wisdom we have acquired from the road, it is nothing like what the books tell you. Of course, as parents, we want to impart the real-life wisdom to her – after all, what parents don’t.

A couple of the important things that we have learned: happiness is internal (therefore don’t go chasing big job titles) and in a world that has become increasingly fast-paced, we have to hold on to good old-fashioned values. And thus, we tell our child, you get the best learning at home (well, on the beach) and in church.

But here’s our dilemma – we have a child who is gifted (I hate the word) and who storms ahead, propelled by her curiosity of the world around her, her impatience at not knowing answers, and her desire to rule the world and see her name in lights.

With the benefit of hindsight, experience and years on the road, we want to tell her this:  a lot of what you obsess about is not important, anymore than exam grades are.

Fortunately, we live on a holiday island and she attends a progressive British international school, so the focus on exams is missing from her psyche. Thank goodness.  I could not have coped with exam stress for the second time in my life (coping with my own was bad enough), and exams say nothing about a person’s capabilities anyway.  I give you an example: despite her tender years, Georgina is one of the most erudite, vocal and critical thinkers I know, and English is her mother tongue. Yet English Language is one of the subjects that she consistently scores lowest in exams.

But dear parents, it does not mean that we just let our child’s fertile brain just rot. We teach her. Teach as in giving her the building blocks to build her own framework, rather than telling her what she has to know. Because a lot of what we know is rubbish anyway, come tomorrow, but the learning process remains and paves the way for future, yet-to-be-known experiences.

Here’s what I mean: whilst I was at Oxford, the superstar of the Astrophysics department was a young scientist called George Efstathiou, who was heavily lauded for discovering cold dark matter. A few years later, his theory was found to be flawed and cold dark matter was dead. And then, it revived again….it goes to show that nobody really knows The Truth, not even parents.

Georgina’s father has a Bachelor in Education degree, so I derive some degree of comfort in the fact that at least one of us know what he/she is doing when it comes to educating this child. We want to educate her for a better world (she, and all the other youngsters, are our world). It sounds rather pompous, so in company, I always say, “Education for tomorrow”.

And this is it about education for the new world: our children are going to grow up to be someone’s husband/wife, parent, employee, employer, leader, friend, helper, and a whole gamut of unofficial occupations. Look around you at these people in your life – what do you love and cherish about them? What do you admire about them? What is it about that special person that makes the world better?

Now turn the mirror inwards to your parenting self. Are you raising that wonderful person, or are you too obsessed trying to create a genius out of a moderately clever child?

I often post on social media about the challenges of raising a child who does not want to follow her parents’ footsteps and live on the beach, existing solely on love, fresh air and sunshine.  I post about her asking questions on isotopes, grammar rules, marine plywood, universal proof and a whole lot of other things that are quite frankly beyond my rusted brain. I often struggle to find the answers and have invested hours rereading my old books and doctoral thesis to bring myself up to date.

However, my intention is not to create a monster – sorry, I mean genius. I have no ambition whatsoever of raising a scholarship student either. And there is nothing I find more irritating than a precocious child spouting rubbish that he/she had picked up from the Internet or from reading unsuitable books – the saying ‘empty vessel makes the most noise’ springs immediately to mind.

No, we teach our child to learn. Relativity, Quantum Theory and other big-ticket topics that fire the imagination are merely tools for learning, and not the actual Holy Grail. These subjects teach a child that the world is not known, much as we like to think it is, and orders are rapidly changing.  This is why Ptolemy is proven wrong, whilst Einstein’s legacies are work in progress. Learning how to think is expansionist and cannot be converted from textbook learning.  It is from a different branch all together.

For background, Claudius Ptolemy was an influential mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and poet. Ptolemy was famous for a number of discoveries, out of which the most famous was a theory that expounded that the earth was the centre of the universe (though some might argue that Ptolemic system holds true for some isolated cases). We now know that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, and nor is the universe the centre of other universes. There is no centre, though no one knows for sure, not even the ‘experts’ with their space-age, multi-billion dollar toys. And this is what I answered to a mother today who suggested that I seek experts to help my daughter with her maths: there is no expert, and the best teacher for a 15 year old child is her parents. Maths knowledge – or any non-contextual knowledge for that matter – will not make her a better person, or a happier one, or a successful one, if your definition of success is a balanced, productive adult with a fulfilling personal life.

I was once asked, when I was giving a talk at the Science Museum London, what I thought about Einstein’s Relativity equations.  Thinking on my feet, I responded immediately, “They kind of work, because Einstein left gaps in it for things that he did not yet know.” I was terrified of being misquoted afterwards, as it was a high profile event and I shared the stage with Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson and A.S. Byatt. To compound my worries over my unscripted grandiose statement, the ultimate head of my department at that time was Professor Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who was the Director General of CERN, the European multi-billion pound research facility in Geneva. The dressing down never came (maybe I was correct, but who knows), and a few weeks later, I won the Department of Trade & Industry’s SMART Award.

I don’t use any of it. Except maybe to win arguments with my child.

But this is the important lesson I learned from Einstein: as time passes, we will continue to grow and gain a deeper understanding of things, and we will see things differently. We must allow for the empty spaces in the present.

As my child succinctly summarises, “Oh, the textbooks are not always right then.” And neither are parents.

Real knowledge has to be discovered, either in the real world or within the unplumbed depths of your mind. It does not come spoon-fed to you, either in books or the Internet. And that is what we are teaching our child: to think critically, to question relevantly, to search effectively, to create workable frameworks, and most of all, to find joy in the living and meaning in the caring.

I dedicate this article to my dear friend Richard Boyle, who understands what I am trying to teach my child, keeps me inspired and gives me much joy.

Motivating a teenager

Parents often ask me, “How do you get your children to be motivated?” The simple answer is, a happy child wants to do well. There is no need to bribe, persuade or cajole – a happy child wants to keep the status quo of her environment.

I also truly believe that every child started off in life as a happy being. That is the natural state. So full of curiosity, optimism and wonder. It is what we do that shut them down, and we bog them down with our expectations. Sure, children need rules and boundaries, but not parental ambition.

And as someone wise once told me, “The best job for the next generation hasn’t been invented yet.”

I have lived through that. When I was growing up, those who can do medicine, law, dentistry, accountancy, science. Nobody heard of IT. Nobody heard of hedge funds. Yet these two areas provide a world of opportunities for my peers undreamed of by the previous generation.

So we are relaxed about exam grades. However, to our surprise, G loves school. Today, she is marching off into her school happily, looking forward to a good hearty lunch and lessons which she fares well in.

Well, she must really love school, because she turned down our invitation to sit on the beach with us. “I’ll do that on the weekends,” she said. “Not on school days.”

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A magical human bean

A pregnant first time mum-to-be asked me, “What is so special about pregnancy and childbirth?”

My dear, it is pure magic.

This is G, the human bean I made with her father. She does not have his signature blue eyes, but my God, she does have his smile alright. Almost thirty years since I first saw that smile, I am seeing doubles. And she has his devilment and his eternal sunshine in her DNA.

Therein lies the magic: I picked the best part of him, and made it into a human bean that is me and him ❤

I can’t wait to make more human-beans.

Dare To Be

When I was at school, the prom queens and the UK-cheerleader equivalents made my life a misery. They didn’t like me based on the fact that firstly, I did not care to follow their style dictates, and secondly, I did not beg to join their silly little clubs. And girls can be mean, much meaner than boys. I would have preferred a straightforward punch-up in the playground than years of subversive torture that I was subjected to by the fairer sex. Little things of mine went missing: calculator, homework book, gym clothes. Nobody would partner me for science experiments. I was told the wrong things to do for homework. I was called names, unpleasant ones, just because I dared to be myself rather than follow the herd or fade into the background.

I hated school because of girl politics. To make my life better, I could capitulate and beg to join the herd, or I could keep my head down.  Or I could be strong and stick two fingers up at them and do as I wish. I chose the third way, simply on the basis that I would rather be a social outcast than a fashion victim or a wallflower.

Of course, no boy invited me to the prom. No corsage arrived. No hired limo. No wedding-cake dress. No highly strung anticipation or squealing excitement. But did I care?

No.

Reason: I was already dating an older boy, a scion of one of the most influential families in England and having a great time. On the night of the prom, Jamie and I were in the oh-so-romantic Angel’s Garden, lying on a horse blanket, looking at stars, drinking champagne from the bottle. It was waaaay cooler than hanging out with a gaggle of hysterical girls or worse, being fumbled by a pimply date at the prom.

Over the years, I stuck to my own dress code. When my mother asked me (nicely) to dress up in something decent, I put the family tiara on. With jeans and sneakers. But at my first year at Oxford, I capitulated and shoehorned myself into my aunt’s old ballgown for the May Ball. My feet were too big for her dainty shoes unfortunately, but I wasn’t going to buy shoes that I will never wear again. Thus, I went to the ball in the appropriate dress but in wellington boots that I wore to rake out the stables. I had a great time dancing the night away, because my feet weren’t hurting in ridiculous shoes.

My younger daughter is 14. Her wealthier friends wear branded goods. Her less wealthy friends pore over magazines and made do with cheap Far East imports from value retailers. Do you know, you are polluting the planet and encouraging child labour each time you buy an item of these unethically produced cheap clothes?

She shrugged. Like me, she is not into fashion. Or girl politics. Plus, she has no money. That is a blessing, because she has so much fun with boys. And so, this mother-and-daughter partnership has developed our own style concept. It’s called HOBOism. There is no shop or internet store to wear HOBO. The label is your name. The only rule is “enjoy wearing yourself”. (The name HOBO is a take on the great British fashion brand HOBBS).

I ran a competition for HOBOs. Hajar Nadhirah Onn from Malaysia takes the biscuit (or crown). Hajar wears the head covering of her religion with pride, but it has never stopped her expressing her individuality and joie de vivre. She is seen here wearing supercool headphones and a quirky batman mask. When I first knew about her HOBOism, she had a Goth make-up on (read: overdone, smudged kohl), walking around a small town in Malaysia, giving people heart attacks. Way to go, Girl! It delights this old aunty’s heart no end to see this.

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And with the hindsight of experience, I would like to exhort all girls out there to have fun with fashion, rather than let fashion wear you. Wear a tiara/batman mask if you want, dammit, you are worth it.

 

Water safety for teenagers

I told my baby-daddy’s parents that swimming tops my list of life-skills, and that their grandchildren will be in the pool by the end of their first week in the world. It is not only a life-skill, but a life-saving skill.

Being able to swim isn’t enough. Your child has to be a strong swimmer who is aware of the dangers. When I was at school, a couple of my friends drowned because they tried swimming across a narrow stretch of water after missing the last boat home.

G is a fantastically strong swimmer, though she doesn’t think so (which is good). Several years back, our canoe capsized in the dark, in the open sea, and she saved her own life. She could easily swim 50 metres in choppy seas. It gives us some measure of comfort that she knows about rip tides too, and she is sensible about the dangers of the open sea. We are going to Australia for Christmas, and she has researched all the dangers about Australian seas already.

Yesterday, she was fooling around on a yacht; this Saturday she is going out on a yacht with a bunch of teenagers. We just gave her four laws that she must obey: (1) when in open seas, never swim more than 20 metres from the yacht (2) always inform someone if you are swimming in the sea (3) if jet-skiing or water-skiing, you must wear the right lifejacket, which is the one that lifts the head out of the water and (4) do not dive!!!!!

“It is also a social skill,” G smirked. “Many girls can’t swim, or are feeble swimmers, and they just sit around looking pretty and helpless, whilst I have real fun. With the boys.”

Roadmap for raising Gs: https://raisinghappystrongkids.com/2014/08/18/roadmap-for-raising-children/