Murray can’t read. He is a smart dog but he is illiterate. So, we don’t follow the signs during our walks. I swear it’s the truth when I say he may recognise a few words. Otherwise, why would he pee on the post that said ‘No Dogs Allowed’ at the entrance to a grand old private property? You’ll have to forgive him, he hates being left out or singled out. Like me, he hates being discriminated. No dogs allowed? Teach them, Murray. You may piss on their post. He never attended lessons on how to read and interpret road signs. If he did, he would surely protest at why there are road signs for kangaroos, koalas and wombats but none for dogs. There’s even a sign for sharks. Isn’t that discrimination? He ignores me even when I tell him the dark, brooding clouds are just ahead of us; even when heaven is spitting at us, Murray will ignore the signs of impending rain and continue ahead. Nothing seems to stress him, honestly. Yesterday, I quailed as a big Great Dane ran at high speed towards us from a distance. I must confess that I took a few steps back, putting Murray between The Great Dane and me. Luckily, it only walked around me once but decided to smell Murray’s butt instead. Murray seemed to enjoy the experience – I know because he was wagging his tail. True tale. If a great Dane or German or whatever bloke from whichever country rushes over to smell my butt, I would be wagging my finger and crying out “Rape! Rape!” Murray reads the signs wrongly, I am sure. How can he treat that as a sign of friendliness when his butt is being examined at close range by a strange dog?
I have lived here in this leafy eastern suburb of Adelaide for twenty odd years. But, it is only following Murray and not following the signs that I have discovered many interesting places close to my house. He even led me to Undelcarra, the original stone cottage that was built in 1848 by one of the earliest settlers in South Australia, a Scottish farmer by the name of Peter Anderson. In 1876, the house and 30 acres were sold to Simpson Newland – much of the estate is now named after him. Yesterday, Murray took me to a small white cottage that sits on a rather large and very beautiful corner of a reserve a mere 12-minute walk from home. There are no signs to lead me to this gem of a place. It is just off busy Glynburn Road which was a quiet road with just the occasional car spluttering exhaust fumes when we first arrived here. It was more suited for a horse and carriage, I thought at the time. A slow “klop, klop, klop” sounding off a cobblestone path would have been perfect. Big old deciduous trees line along it to provide a lush green canopy in spring and summer and colour it golden in autumn. The small cottage is well hidden from view, so idyllic is its location. It is only 10 minutes by car to the CBD of Adelaide, yet you would think it is in woop-woop, away in the sticks, if you look at the photo. The cosy stone cottage with a section of bricks painted white, from a distance, beckoned me to walk closer. The white French windows further emboldened me to approach them. I like everything French, especially my L’Occitane body lotion. The grey Colorbond roof matches nicely with a cloudless blue Adelaide sky that hangs a great distance away in heaven, in stark contrast to the low threatening skies often weighed down by grey moody rain clouds that frequent places such as London and Penang. The homestead is hugged by mature gum trees not quite a stone’s throw away in the front and in the far rear, two old trees rise majestically a third way up the sky. A man was tending to the garden of agapanthus, lost in his world of deep green fleshy leaves and vivid blue flowers. I deliberately scrunched hard at the thick carpet of brown fallen leaves – a sacrifice made by the gum trees to welcome our summer – but the noise I made did not stir the man. I was hoping to ask him if his property was for sale but I could read the signs very well. He was beset by a paroxysm of coughing and wheezed heavily before resuming his tender caring of the agapanthus around him. He was fully absorbed in his garden, oblivious to the sounds of a stranger nearby and his obvious disinterest with my presence and time spent admiring his secret paradise told me he wouldn’t be a seller. He didn’t have a care in the world.
In my everyday life, signs are very important to follow. I’ve known for many years when to switch off the TV during The Ashes. Somehow the soothing voice of Richie Benaud during Australia’s summer in the 1980s and 1990s was an unfathomable trigger for The Mrs To transform herself into an emotional wreck. It still baffles me that the sound of Aussie summer which my eldest son and I thoroughly enjoyed had such a strong hold on her mind. She found both Benaud’s and Tony Greig’s voices monotonous and annoying, especially on hot late afternoons when what she rather preferred I did was to water her precious garden. I wasn’t alert to the helpful signs that she was throwing at me for many summers until the day she told me grown men with beer bellies should not laze around at home watching cricket when they had better reason to be helping with garden chores. That day, I found her voice much less soothing than Richie Benaud’s but I knew to read the signs that told me to bite my tongue. There was this dark cloud hovering just over her head, see? I told The Mrs both great men of cricket taught me their sport was the best game to follow, but The Mrs gave me the finger sign instead. Maybe she didn’t but my conscience sure thought she did. Sometimes, the signs are very encouraging, such as after dinner just now. She put on a rarely seen demeanour, one I hardly remember these days. She grabbed me playfully around my waist with both hands from behind and teased me to visit her garden outside. I had to quickly suck in my extended tummy which was untimely bloated with an extra big serving of spicy fish-head curry and jasmine rice. My mind had to cast back to our courtship days to recall that sweet docile voice she used to coax me to watch her ginger plant grow in the front garden and to admire that single skyward-pointing chabai burong on her chilli plant. “It’s big,” she purred, reminding of the time when she said my, er, ego was big. After that, she tried to coax me to the back garden to watch her tomato plants grow. The signs were safe enough for me to politely decline her invitation. Her diadia voice (嗲 嗲) being employed to lure me to her garden indicated her coyness and sudden sweetness. But, watching plants grow isn’t my cup of tea; so I casually walked back to the house and as soon as I was out of sight, I rushed to the TV to watch the 5th Ashes test, live from Bellerive Oval in Hobart.
Whilst watching the movie Dune from my big screen TV, I was intrigued by the planes used by non-Fremen in the planet Arrakis (sounded and looked uncannily like where Iraqis live). I could not resist and paused the film to google to confirm whether these ornithopters could actually fly. I marvelled at how these planes, powered by flapping wings, are actually operable. Science is remarkable when it can copy nature so well. The dragonfly has two sets of wings that work independently, allowing it superior agility in the air. It will still be able to fly should it lose one wing. The wings beat so fast our eyes cannot follow their movement. I enjoy watching futuristic movies, as they often show us a glimpse of what our distant future will be and how science will shape the technology of tomorrow. I was curious to see that the battles being fought did not feature any advanced weaponry. In fact, there were no guns used at all. The warriors were limited to hand combat and the weapon of choice was the humble dagger! The combat scenes were inspired by a Filipino martial arts style known as Balintawak Eskrima. Mind you, the 1965 story written by Frank Herbert is set in the year 10,191. How can there be no guns in Dune? Again, I had to pause the movie and google for the answer! The science theory offered is that advanced technology made high-speed projectiles ineffective against the body shield that uses a force field which works like an electronic barrier. Only a slow-moving blade from close range can penetrate the shield. Any weapon that has a high velocity will be rendered useless. No guns in future, what will the gun lobbyists in America say to that?!
My favourite niece sent me a photo today via WhatsApp. I had not known such a precious photo existed. “Was it from a digital camera or film?” I asked. I didn’t even remember posing for the camera. It was a portentous moment in my life, yet I could not recognise where it was taken. It was clear to me what the occasion was but if not for the photo, a lot of the details would have been lost, so defective is my memory. The year was 2001 when Second Son won the national competition in Sydney, so it had to be a film photograph. None of us could afford a digital camera in those days and the phone camera was not invented until the following year. That makes the phone camera 20 years old! Today, it feels inconceivable that we do not take a photo with our mobile phone at least once in a week, be it a selfie or a photo of our breakfast to prove the endurance of our intermittent fasting regime. Before this breakthrough in science, we did not take photos unless the occasion was special. A special dish in a special restaurant setting would not justify the cost of a film. It had to be a birthday party or someone’s wedding or winning a national competition. Processing film photos was expensive in those days – we had to be discerning of what or who to justify the cost of a photo.
The older I am, the more interested in science I become. Are the signs becoming ever undeniable? Increasingly clearer? With fellow cohorts lisping after losing their teeth, or fumbling in dim light not finding the black buttons on their black remote controls or not knowing how to operate their mobile phones or how to find their vaccine passports in their phone wallet, or staring at things without comprehension of what they do, or seeing old schoolmates alarmingly ageing too quickly and worse, receiving news of ailing friends in hospitals. Looking at the above photo of my two cute little nieces who are both now professional health workers further reinforces the fact that I am already an old man. It is a sobering fact, the signs of which I can no longer ignore. So, maybe I have a newfound interest to look at the advancements of science as a way forward instead. No, it is not for the hope of finding a cure for ageing, I am comfortable about growing old. Years as a gardening hobbyist have taught me to respect the laws of Nature. What grows must eventually mature and die. It is increasingly likely that our longevity can be increased by 20-30 years; not just years but years of healthy life. They call it healthspan rather than lifespan.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already helping us in this new frontier and it is within our reach today to slow or reverse the ageing process. In olden days, kings and emperors drank the blood of young subjects, hoping to stay young or escape death. Today, scientists are attempting to make this hope a reality by successfully transferring blood plasma of fit exercising mice (runners) to old sedentary mice to rejuvenate the organs of the old mice. Amazingly, most of the beneficiary effects of running were transferred to the sedentary mice via the runners’ plasma. The effects on neurogenesis were clearly noticeable, such as improved learning and memory in the sedentary mice.
Other exciting developments in medical sciences include Binah.ai, powered by AI. They recently announced they can measure our blood pressure within a few seconds, by looking at the camera of a smartphone or laptop, i.e. totally contactless. There is also the AI design company Iktos which is partnering with South Korean biotech Astrogen to expedite drug discovery for the treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. Iktos’ deep learning generative modelling will speed up the discovery of new therapies.
In the field of nanotechnology, researchers have created a super powerful molecule that will allow them to make more advanced nanostructures (artificial DNA structures) for detecting diseases as well as for treatment of diseases. Also very exciting is the second-generation AI-powered digital pills which aim to improve outcomes and reduce side effects. Examples include digital pills that contain sensors that can pick up internal bleeding or pills with sensors or cameras when swallowed will swell to the size of ping-pong balls so that they do not immediately pass out of our guts but remain in situ in our body for longer. AI can take photos of the patient’s bowels and send it to the medical team as it travels along the gut.
Another device is a corkscrew-shaped microrobot that can swim through blood vessels and unblock blood clots. Its design was inspired by the tails of bacteria such as E. Coli. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong inserted the robot into a synthetic vein filled with pigs’ blood and found it made clot-busting drugs work almost 5 times better than the drug itself.
There is also exciting advancements in refining the effectiveness of deploying CAR-T cells in the fight against cancers. Currently, once they arm killer T cells onto the Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CAR) and release them into our blood, these are amazing at killing cancer cells but unfortunately, they will also kill normal cells that happen to carry the same protein as the cancer cells. That would cause a great deal of carnage to the good cells of the patient – a cytokine storm could lead to multiple organ failure. So, researchers are using synthetic proteins that only activate the CAR in the presence of blue light. Another team is using ultrasound radiation as the on-off switch to control the CAR. Other researchers are working to develop new CARs that function like biomolecular computers, i.e. man-made genetic circuits that are able to independently make logical decisions to attack cancer cells.
In the wearable tech sphere, instead of watches we now can wear a tiny ring on our little finger. The Movano ring tracks users’ health along a wide range of parameters, including sleep, heart rate, heart rate variability, activity, respiration, temperature, and blood oxygen. The ring can improve the wearer’s quality of life by gauging their lifestyle and their resultant health consequences more accurately. In the brain mental health area, there is a new development by iSyncwave. It is a comprehensive EEG solution (hardware-software-remote telehealth solution) that can screen the brain and use deep-dive predictive analysis to detect not only neuro-related diseases but also potential mental conditions in just 10 minutes. It does this by integrating both EEG brain mapping and LED therapy.
Another recent news that excites me is researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Cancer Research Centre have identified a way to repair genetic damage and prevent DNA alterations using machine learning techniques. If we understand how DNA lesions originate, AI will find better targeted cancer treatments whilst also protecting our healthy cells. Perhaps the most exciting for me is the project headed by Elon Musk to implant Neuralink chips in human brain. Last year, they successfully inserted a chip into a monkey that controlled its mind to play ‘MindPong’. Musk hopes to get FDA approval later this year to implant his Neuralink chip on a human with severe spinal cord injuries. Sadly, Christopher Reeve died almost two decades ago, otherwise, he might have loved to be considered for this trial. Clearly, the signs are there for science to ultimately triumph and increase our healthspan substantially.