Craving for some pho

A few days ago, I started to crave badly for Vietnamese food. What sparked it off was my reminiscing about a backpacking trip in Vietnam I did a few years ago. And the highlight of that trip for me had been Vietnamese food.

Deciding to satiate this craving, this Saturday we searched for Vietnamese restaurants in Singapore. The number is surprisingly few, considering how many Vietnamese are here. A small joint named Long Phung came highly recommended and we headed off there.

It is located in Joo Chiat Road, an area off Bugis which I had never explored. The region is full of old two-storey Chinese longhouses which have been converted into small restaurants, bars and hostels. We arrived at Long Phung at 6PM, but the place was already packed. The customers were mostly Vietnamese, which I noted as a good sign that the food would be close to authentic.

Gỏi cuốn (salad rolls)
Gỏi cuốn (salad rolls)
Chả giò (fried spring roll)
Chả giò (fried spring roll)

The menu is in Vietnamese, but thankfully it has photos, so I knew what to order. We started off with Gỏi cuốn and Chả giò. Gỏi cuốn is rice, prawn, pork and herbs rolled in rice paper. With the accompanying peanut sauce, it was delicious and quite heavy. Chả giò is a fried spring roll of minced pork. This was just right, crispy and not-so-oily.

Phở Gà (chicken noodle soup)
Phở Gà (chicken noodle soup)

Gỏi cuốn was quite filling, but I had to have my pho. We ordered Phở Gà, the chicken version of the Vietnamese noodle soup. It is a bowl of chicken, rice noodles, various herbs, onion and broth. The taste was quite similar to what I had eaten in South Vietnam. The flavor of the herbs was a bit muted though.

Vietnamese filter coffee
Cà phê sữa nóng (Vietnamese coffee)

We ended the journey with the closest cousin of South Indian filter coffee: Cà phê sữa nóng. You choose whether you want it hot or color and with or without milk. Every cup of Vietnamese coffee comes with its own filter. The cup is filled with cold milk, you place the filter on top with coffee powder inside it. Pour hot water into the filter and it drips down and you have your coffee. The coffee was rich and a pleasing end to the meal.

When we left, the joint was full with a crowd waiting outside for a table. The weather was cool and windy and we took a walk along the road. Though there were a few other Vietnamese joints nearby, this was the only one which was full. Waiting for our bus, I realized how you could relish so many old memories with just some food.

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Ubuntu Made Easy

I recently started to use Linux, specifically the Ubuntu distribution, as my primary operating system after a hiatus of many years. Finding Ubuntu and Unity quite a different world from the my years with RedHat and SuSe, I decided to pick through Ubuntu Made Easy by Rickford Grant and Phil Bull. The only other contender which seemed relevant for the job was The Official Ubuntu Book (7 Ed) by Matthew Helmke.

Ubuntu Made Easy is just the latest in a series of introductory Linux books written by Grant. The book covers everything: installation, Unity interface, keyboard shortcuts, installing applications, all kinds of usage scenarios and even a very helpful chapter on how to get involved with the Ubuntu community. The book is hands-on, so newbies can try various projects to get familiar with the OS. The chapters on Unity, keyboard shortcuts and Ubuntu community were the most useful to me. I just flipped through the rest since either I knew it or was irrelevant to me.

The authors have a fun and laid back tone to their writing that makes the book a joy to read. There was a lot of trivia about Ubuntu that I was not aware of that made Ubuntu quite interesting in my eyes. At ~480 pages, the book is quite a tome. It is aimed at the new user and seems to get that job done well. But if you know the ropes around Linux already, I recommend picking it up at the library for a few quiet hours.

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology is one from the many in the manga series by No Starch Press. For a while now, I have had my eye on these English translations of works by and from Japanese. This particular manga on molecular biology is written and illustrated by Masaharu Takemura. The motivation is to use the story-telling, action-oriented and illustrative powers of the manga to introduce a science that is quite hard to grok.

Though weak and laughable, there is a story and a few principal characters here to support the cause of the manga. Ami and Rin are two students of molecular biology who have not been attending classes regularly. In order to help them, their Professor, named Moro, brings them to his private island where he has a lab. Over the next few days, his assistant Marcus uses the virtual reality machine in their lab to help these two students understand this science.

There are 5 important entities of molecular biology that the manga sets out to explain: cell, protein, DNA, RNA and gene. These entities are present in every cell of our body and are constantly in action. In every being on this planet, cells are working hard producing a myriad of proteins and are reproducing all the time. By literally taking the students (and the reader) on a trip inside the human cell, employing the virtual reality machine, the manga quite successfully brings the world of a cell to life.

I liked this manga maybe due to the fact that I did not study biology after class 10. There are a few compelling reasons why I think this manga was really good. The author has a real intuitive understanding of the science. Cells are not static, but are composed of molecules moving around and accomplishing work. The reader gets to view this action, both at the atomic-molecular level and the cellular level. Almost all textbooks restrict themselves to boring 2D figures. In this manga, we get to see how everything is organized and working in 3D. And finally, all of this content is nicely organized so that the reader is gently taken to complex concepts like DNA replication, DNA-RNA transcription and RNA-protein translation.

You might be wondering that you already know many of these concepts. So, why pick this manga? I thought so too. Here are a few tit-bits to titillate you. The cell has a cell wall. If it is a wall, how do proteins and other molecules move in and out of cells? DNA is a double-helix string. If you peek into the nucleus of a cell, will you see DNA strings floating in goo like seaweeds in water? The answer is no! Chromosomes are typically drawn as X-shaped entities. Why? During cell division, DNA replicates by making a copy of itself. If you were to zoom down to the DNA-level during replication, what would you actually see in action in front of your eyes? What is the factory-robot-like molecular machinery that is holding a DNA string, like a person holding a beaded string and methodically copying over every bead (alphabet) over to a new string? The answers to this and more will literally blow your mind!

Manga is typically read very fast. I have seen manga readers on Tokyo trains flipping a page per second. Here though, every page takes time for the mind to visualize and to imagine how the machinery moves and interacts in 3D. This manga of ~256 pages took me 2 days to read. I must also warn that the drawings, while sufficient, are not as fantastic as what is in popular manga series. Given that Takemura is a lecturer, I think this is easily forgiveable.

In conclusion, the concepts in this manga might be rudimentary for a person knowing molecular biology. But for me, it was so revealing that I had to, yet again, question the origin, the why and how of life itself. Inside every cell on this planet, is an incredibly complex molecular machinery whose working is nothing short of amazing. Pick up the manga and dive into this tiny cosmos!