Monday, August 31, 2009


By some standards, I may be held to be a hypocrite, in that I sometimes propound views which I do not hold, or that I sometimes do not act according to the views that I hold. Dismissing the argument that I am merely human, I propose the following defence:

I argue that there are multiple levels of belief; it is not a mere binary between believing and disbelieving. For instance, I may very strongly believe that the Earth is round, whereas I may weakly believe (from the weather report) that it will not rain tomorrow.

The distinction between the levels of belief is important when deciding whether to act upon the beliefs. Reusing the example of the belief in the incidence of rain tomorrow, my belief in the report may be weak enough for me to justify carrying an umbrella despite this being contrary to my belief that it will not rain.

By the same token, a belief may be held, but not to a extent strong enough to motivate behavior consistent with the belief. In particular, a person who demands a higher level of evidence or faith in any issue would neccessarily have a higher threshold of belief before acting.

Interestingly, the word hypocrite has its roots in the Greek words "hypo" and 'krinein", meaning "under" and "to sift or decide" respectively. In other words, hypocrisy was an inability to decide, which concurs with my earlier analysis.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Explorations on Population Aging

Consider the following set of premises:

1) People ought to be responsible for the consequences of their own choices and actions.

2) People ought not be held responsible for the consequences of actions and choices that are not their own.

3) The economic problem of supporting the elderly is primarily the result of the diminishing base of younger taxpayers.

4) The lack of younger taxpayers is the direct result of the elderly not reproducing enough earlier on.

Taking the above four premises, one arrives at the following two conclusions:

1) From premises 2, 3 and 4, we conclude that it is unjustifiable for the younger taxpayers to assume a larger share of the financial burden of supporting the elderly.

2) From premises 1, 3 and 4, we conclude that it is justifiable for the elderly to be held to a greater level of responsibility for their own upkeep.

Note that the above argument is meant as an philosophical exploration on the issue of population aging, and does not reflect the entirety of the author's views.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Prisoners and Boxes

In a certain despotic nation, there are many prisoners being jailed. To alleviate the problem, the Emperor has decreed for all the prisoners to be "removed". What is decreed must be done; however the person doing the actual work is the High Jailer.

The Jailer thinks that the cost of bullets to execute everyone is too high, so he offers the prisoners the chance to earn their freedom. He proposes a game. There are X boxes in a room, with each box having the name of one unique prisoner. Since there are X prisoners, each prisoner's name is found in one and only one box.

The game is as follows: Each prisoner will be allowed to enter the room one at a time. The prisoner can then open all but one of the boxes; however, if the unopened box contains his name, everyone will be executed. If he does find his name in the opened boxes, he must restore the room to its original condition and leave the room. The prisoner will not be allowed to communicate to any prisoners that have yet to enter the room. If after all the prisoners have visited the room and found their names, they will all be released.

Needless to say, the boxes are arranged randomly. Still, each prisoner has a fairly good chance of finding his name; there is only a 1 / X chance of failing outright.

One of the prisoners, who is an amateur mathematician, remarks that the chance of everyone surviving is ( (X - 1) / X ) ^ X . He notes that by applying limits and using l'Hôpital's rule, the chance of surviving will increase with X, reaching e^-1 (0.368) when there are infinity prisoners. Not too bad a chance, he thinks.

At this point of time, another prisoner, an expert mathematician, speaks up and claims to have a better strategy! He shouts, "Why, with my plan, it is almost certain that we'll all survive!"

What is the mathematician's plan, and what is the chance of survival?

Note: This problem was derived from The condemned prisoners and the boxes, but the solution for our problem is more easily obtained.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Introduction to the Nguyen-Williamson Hypothesis

I first met him during my first year in college. Then, he appeared to be an unremarkable person with average grades; one would not have noticed him if not for the severe allergy attack that he suffered once during a lecture. Things changed after that.

Nobody really expected Nguyen to ace the exams after that. Thereafter, he continued to attain stellar results for some of the most difficult papers in the college. Some suspected that he had gained "unique abilities" after the allergy attack; others(myself included), dismissing the absurd, believed that he had resorted to some as yet undetected method of cheating.

Being of an inquisitive sort, and having a student registration number that seated me just behind him during examinations, I was equipped with both the intent and opportunity to observe firsthand whether Nguyen had cheated. However, even after a few observations, I had failed to discover any cheating. I did note, however, that he had an unusual habit of consuming a few peanuts during examinations.

Initially, I had thought that it was for some psychological effect, perhaps a reflexive habit to calm himself. My suspicions were raised, however, when an invigilator barred eating from one of the examinations. Interestingly, Nguyen did poorly for that particular examination.

In my mind, I was absolutely certain that the two events were related, that the "peanuts" had something to do with Nguyen's success. But were they peanuts? Perhaps not. Could it have been some advanced psychotropic drug designed to improve brain activity? I had to know.

With the assistance of some perhaps unsavory contacts, I was able to obtain a sample of the "peanuts". I sent the sample for analysis. The results indicated that it was indeed all-natural peanut. I was stumped; clearly the secret to intelligence could not be mere peanuts. There was only one way to know; I confronted Nyugen for the truth.

He was initially unwilling to reveal anything; it was only after I revealed my knowledge of his peanut consumption that he told me anything.

He revealed that during his first allergy attack, he had very vivid and clear recollections of his life. It was the famed flashbacks before death, except that he did not quite die. He then had the brainwave to use his allergy to his advantage. Experimenting with controlled dosages of peanuts (which was his allergy), he was able to discover that consuming a very small number of peanuts induced a minor near-death experience, triggering a flashback of sufficient length to be of use. In this fashion, he was able to emulate a perfect photographic memory.

I did not believe him, and stormed away. But as fate would have it, it was scarcely a few months later that I suffered my own nonfatal allergy attack, except that mine was from seafood rather than peanuts. And, as Nyugen had described, I did have vivid flashbacks of past events.

Having experienced firsthand the truth of his words, I approached him to initiate further research into his promising discovery; this was how the Nyugen-Williamson Hypothesis was first born. Unfortunately, our ideas were initially not well-received by the community. In particular, considerable evidence was put forward against our hypothesis, such as there being no cases of flashbacks for certain classes of near-death experiences, such as car accidents or falling from heights.

Indeed, our own research had also suggested that there were no reported cases of flashbacks for car accidents. Was our proposed model for flashbacks during near-death experiences flawed? It was only later that we discovered, through cunning experiments, that victims of car accidents did indeed experience flashbacks at the point of the accident; however, the subsequent brain damage and trauma hampers recollection of the flashback. It is hence our suspicion that the same mechanism is present for the cases of falling from heights.

Having given a brief introduction to the history of the Nyugen-Williamson Hypothesis, I sincerely hope that the reader as well as future researchers will continue to pursue research into this promising field.

Dr Liebig Williamson

Saturday, August 15, 2009

New Thoughts on Organ Compensation

The idea of organ compensation has been raised in Singapore, and with considerable controversy. While there are many arguments on both sides, my view is that some forms of compensation, such as lifelong medical insurance, may be more morally (and politically) acceptable than other forms of compensation, such as outright monetary reimbursement. But that is not the point of this post, which is to question the basic assumptions of organ compensation.

Setting aside the moral assumptions of the policy (which is the idea of providing appropriate compensation to the donor such that he is not adversely affected by his altruistic act), the core motivation of organ compensation is to increase organ donations. Hence, the key assumption of the organ compensation policy is that by providing adequate compensation to a donor, there may be less hesitance or reluctance for a potential donor to donate his organ.

From an intuitive perspective, this assumption seems sound. After all, before one decides to donate an organ, one must invariably be hesitant due to the great negative impact such an act causes to oneself. Conversely, if one receives sufficient compensation to offset these valid concerns, such as a lifelong medical insurance plan to offset the risks to health caused by the act of donation, one would be more inclined to donate his organ.

The theory does seem intuitive. However, intuition is not always reliable, particularly when money is involved. I've recently read a book on social psychology, in which research notes that money causes people to think in different frames of thought. In particular, consider the example of the Swiss town of Wolfenschiessen, where a nuclear repository was proposed to be built. Then, a poll was conducted to test the receptiveness of the townspeople to the construction of the nuclear repository in their area. 50.9% were willing to accept this, as it was considered a sort of national duty. When a later scheme proposed some monetary compensation for building the repository, contrary to expectations, only 24.6% were willing to accept the building of the nuclear repository.

The example illustrates that contrary to belief, monetary compensation may actually have a negative effect, in that altruistic considerations are unwittingly converted to more monetary considerations. Hence, if not implemented correctly, the organ compensation scheme may backfire and reduce the number of organ donations.

I have previously written on organ transplantation; these articles are linked below. Note that not all views are consistent, some being explorations on the topic.

Goodworks Organ Bank
Organ Trading
Applying the Principle of Desert to Organ Allocation
The Dignity of a Corpse

Sunday, August 09, 2009

On Patriotism

I do not think that watching little tanks and soldiers parade by is a mark of a patriot, nor is saying the pledge in unison a sign of patriotism. To believe so might be a tad superficial, in my opinion.

At the great risk of offending sensibilities, I feel that true patriotism is reflected by the love of a nation, and manifested by a desire to improve the condition of the nation's people. Waving small flags and singing songs does little toward improving our well-being; it might be nationalistic, but it is not patriotic.

Perhaps one does feel some pride welling up in the chest due to being a member of this nation. Perhaps one does think this is a great place to live. But if one does not help improve one's society, to improve the lot of others coexisting in that same society, one is not a patriot.

It is the little things that are the most telling; whenever I see the selfish and self-absorbed refuse to shift further in public buses, whenever I see people littering and bespoiling the streets, whenever I see food and drink being consumed on public transport, whenever I see people conversing loudly on mobile phones in libraries, I reach the undeniable conclusion- that perhaps there are very few patriots indeed.