Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolutions and the Crystalization of Desire

Let's talk about resolutions.

It's a list. A list of desires, to be exact. To look at it, what one does when writing a list of resolutions is essentially, putting one's desires to ink. I want to lose weight, I want to have a lower, I want to read 12 good books- I want, I want. And barring the case where one's resolutions are forced by another hand (in which case it still a desire, merely not yours), it does appear that resolutions are, at the heart of it, a crystallization of want and desire.

Typically we discourage people from having a heart full of desire. Two reasons, greed is bad, and we don't like to remind people how dissatisfied they actually are with their lives. What's so special about resolutions?

It is that we are both the recipient and the sender. Perhaps obviously, we list resolutions not in the vain hope that somehow they will come true (ha! false premise here), but to remind ourselves to act such that they come true.

Or at least, I hope that's what we're doing. It does lead us to think along certain lines, though. Let's be honest, most resolutions fail. Could this be related to the state of mind when writing the resolution?

Perhaps people that draft resolutions while thinking only of their desires would fail. This is good to have, this is good to be. Perhaps those resolutions that are realized are expressed in terms of the costs to be paid. This is good to do, this is good to work for.

In the end, for the resolution to be resolved, we need to have resolve.

Imagination and the Importance of Being Bored

The times where most ideas come to me are the times where I am bored without recourse. On the commute, while having meals, and even when taking stools; all these times seem extraordinarily productive.

Ironically it is difficult to think of anything when in front of a computer. There are too many options to satiate a restless mind. Even with force of will, imagination does not flow naturally, for the very force of will imposes an unnatural tax on the fountain of ideas.

The best times are naturally when no other options present themselves, where the best refuge is one's mind. Perhaps a prison cell devoid of things would be the perfect place for the muse.

It is thus a pity that many have sought to occupy themselves with inferior means when on the commute, whether by music, or by new-spangled toys, or by books. They suffer none but their chances of dreaming.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Half of the World is Below Average

Actually, it is incorrect to say that half of the world is below average. This confuses the statistical notions of average and median.

It is more correct to say that half of the world is below median.

What an entirely pedantic and useless correction.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Problems with Friends

A is a friend of B if and only if B is a friend of A.

Problem 1:
There are N people in the world, N > 1. Is it possible for everyone to have a unique number of friends?

A person is popular if none of his friends have more friends than him.
A person is a loner if none of his friends have less friends than him.

Problem 2:
In general, are there more loners or popular people?

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Inconsequential Take on WikiLeaks

A disclaimer: All that follows is my own useless and unresearched thoughts on WikiLeaks.

Let us first set aside the ethics debate about WikiLeaks, for it will mire us. Instead, I ask the question, if I am an entity interested in my own gain, how is it possible to utilize the current state of affairs to my own advantage?

The current state of affairs is, of course, the great attention paid by the media on the interesting revelations provided by WikiLeaks. A number of them are shocking, even. The nature of such news provokes a limited response from the agencies exposed in such disclosures; limited denials, claims that such information is confidential and obtained illegally, or weak distractions pointing to the potential dangers caused by the disclosure. Sometimes there is no official comment, an attempt to bury the issue.

Such official responses do not help to clarify the exposed information. Understandable, considering that it is a PR disaster and the best response is often to distance oneself from it and hope that it is forgotten. Unfortunately, this very response may be exploited for the propagation of false, and possibly malicious, information.

I believe it is possible to create some fake "revelation" and "disclose" it online, possibly spread by social media. Not difficult, just a tweet or a Facebook post linking to a page discussing the newest "leak", supported by perhaps one or two links to similarly crafted pages of equal veracity. I doubt that anyone performs any serious fact checking, since the confidential nature of the disclosures prevents verification. After a few rounds of amplification on the nets, more analysis and posts discussing the leak will appear, eventually forming a self-perpetuating network of "facts" surrounding the leak. It is even possible to pull the original sources offline after a while, claiming that they were removed due to "intervention", which would further add an aura of authenticity to the whole charade.

I'm not claiming that doing this is good, of course. I'm just saying it could be done. Perhaps it has already.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Google AI Challenge

For the past month or so I've been participating in the Google AI Challenge. The contest itself is quite interesting; you're supposed to write an AI to play a game similar to Galcon, and your bot will be pitted against other bots.

Now, the game is not quite as abstract, because what you're doing is moving ships around and attacking or defending; you can sort of explain or rationalize each move, or imagine some flavor or dramatic backstory to it. I find this to be good because you can actually do pretty well with heuristics or relatively simple decision rules.

Let me spend some time crowing about my bot, which I think did pretty well (446/4617 entries, or 90th percentile). To be honest, it's not all that elegant, being cobbled together from many generations of bots. The core algorithm is simple to describe: For each turn, each planet sends all (all!) its ships to attack a suitable target, which is determined by its distance, growth rate, owner, and number of defenders. There's also a simple defence algorithm in place to assist planets that are under siege, and a routine to expand optimally during the first turn. Surprisingly it did quite well, though I don't forsee it evolving further due to its limiting framework.

You can review some of the final matches at the bot's history page. Just click on "View Game" to view a game.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Preserver

I recall an elderly man from my childhood. He could always be found on a bench overlooking the main lake of the park. On days of fair weather people tended to gather about the lake, feeding the ducks.

Often when I looked up I could see him sketching away on a notepad. Sometimes he merely observed. When I was a child I was more curious, and at many times wondered what the old man was drawing. Was he sketching the same thing daily? How boring! Or did he switch subjects all the time, secretly taking notes like a spy?

One day I got up to the small overlook. He did not seem to mind me. Peeping from behind the bench, I then saw that he was drawing people, or more specifically, the people down at the lake. They were rough sketches, quickly drawn, and every few minutes or so he would flip the pages of the notepad and begin drawing another subject.

"Why are you drawing everyone? Are you a spy?"

He did not give me an instant reply. It was only after he completed the current drawing that he spoke, seemingly to himself and not addressed to me.

"In 100 years time how many will be remembered? In 200 years time, perhaps the only evidence that they ever existed will be my drawings."

It was many tens of years ago when my family moved away. I did not see him again after we moved; I supposed he must have died.

I wonder if anyone else remembers him today. Perhaps the only evidence that he ever existed is from this very story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mental Laziness

There are some people who don't seem to know two hoots about anything of importance; not the name of the people running the country, nor of the workings of the world, nor of matters of common sense. You can't discuss literature with them, nor argue philosophy. And we think, how vacuous their minds are, perhaps not by any lack of capacity or ability, but by a strain of mental laziness, of a reluctance to examine.

But then we tend to endear ourselves to the idea of an absent-minded professor, someone so deep in thought that daily life seems to be neglected. He does not know about social graces or modern dresses, and has little opinion about food and gossip. But by some measure is this not also mental laziness? Is the neglect of the mundane considered a less troubling instance of laziness?

Maybe we should get off our high horses. Perhaps those who know naught about "higher things" are truly ignorant idiots in some sense, but then again, we are quite the same in other senses.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Alternatives to Platform Screen Doors

Instead of installing platform screen doors for MRT stations, there are flashier alternatives. Effectiveness is not guaranteed, except in terms of dramatic terms.

It is not necessary to install complex door mechanisms that open with each aligned train carriage. My research finds that massively electrified fences have a greater deterrent effect against people attempting to commit suicide by jumping onto the train tracks in the face of oncoming trains. Not only does it serve as a physical barrier, it also serves as an active barrier! A further benefit is that it can coral recalcitrant idiots that refuse to line properly for the trains. Of course, some may ask how people may board the trains with the electrified fences in play; it is obvious, simply disable the electric supply to allow people to climb the fence when the trains arrive!

Another great idea is to line the platform with fountains dispensing vertical columns of fire. With this feature, commuters can barbecue food while waiting for the next train to arrive. The columns of flame also serve as cheap lighting during the evening. One crucial point to note while implementing this system is to ensure that the flames are turned all the way up, otherwise people may actually land on the train tracks while not being totally incinerated. We don't want people to die after being crushed by oncoming trains, do we?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tale of Madness

It was first reported in the papers of some minor nation, and even then it was treated as a matter of trifling importance; A man wielding two blood-soaked cleavers was seen walking down the major shopping district, muttering "This is a boring day."

What historical records remain note that his final words were "Tomorrow will be more exciting."

A lot of tomorrows later, there were many who looked similar to the Man. These creatures had a brain, 2 ears, a mouth and a pairs of eyes - furiously, furiously bloodshot. And in fervor they rampaged.

The world seemed doomed. They were everywhere. But one day, a solitary hero, one man by himself, stood up to these creatures. The final battle was in a large gorge. No one truly knows what happened, but it is rumored that a loud bellow was heard echoing from the valley.... "I LOVE PEACE !!!"


A button was punched on an unimpressive looking outdated Nokia handphone. As a monophonic ringtone played, a flurry of warheads freed themselves from their respective pads scattered across the globe.

Then it rained drizzles of missiles and nuclear clouds bloomed everywhere one after another in the unfolding of the last day of Mankind of Earth.

Pilfered from a collaborative story with an incredibly insane inkblot.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bamboo Charcoal

A friend recently expressed his interest in buying a bamboo charcoal product, which was said to be able to reduce electromagnetic waves and radiation emitted from daily electronic products such as monitors. I gave him a dressing down.

It is pseudoscience, I said. It only requires a basic understanding of physics to know that the product cannot achieve what it pretends to do. Buy a lead sheet, and that would be more effective at blocking radiation.

A simple test for detecting pseudoscience products is to ask whether there is a plausible mechanism for action. If the action of the product cannot be explained, that it is no different from a magic bauble. If one thinks that a bag of bamboo charcoal, placed somewhere near the monitor, is somehow able to attract and absorb the electromagnetic radiation, then one must either presume that the bamboo charcoal is a black hole, hence bending local space to redirect the path of radiation, or has an immense electromagnetic field by which to alter the waves. This does not seem sound.

It might improve health, or at least the perception of health, by the placebo effect. But then again, after my cruel lecture, even that effect may be lost.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Page Flipping in the Lecture Halls

One lecturer likes to provide lecture notes consisting of many slides. As it is costly to print out that many number of pages, most students fit multiple slides onto a single page to reduce the number of pages needed.

A useful consequence of fitting multiple slides on one page is that one only needs to flip the page every X slides, where X is the number of slides on one page. This itself leads to the interesting phenomenon of there being a loud series of page flipping sounds every X slides, since most students need to flip the page to get to the next slide.

One day, I fell asleep during the lecture. I was awoken by the sound of page flipping. Apparently, the lecturer had just advanced past a slide. No worries, time to pay attention. The lecturer continued to teach, and slowly finished two more slides. Another loud series of page flipping sounds echoed through the lecture hall. Then he taught another slide, and when he was done many students began flipping their pages as well.

Glancing about myself, I suddenly realized that students tended to fit 4, 6, and 9 pages onto a slide. And, knowing that the lecturer had not taught past slide 50, I was able to deduce which slide the lecturer was on when I woke up.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Requirements of Knowledge

I have made several mistakes in my thinking. Perhaps the arguments do not seem wrong, but that itself is irrelevant, for one does not need to be correct to seem correct; sufficient style is often able to make up for substance insufficient.

The key error is that my arguments follow from my position. If so, reason serves not to seek the truth, but to support whatever stand that has been chosen. This is not correct. Instead, the reverse method should be adopted, and a position decided based upon facts and reason.

To increase objectivity even for subjective affairs, I propose to first define a set of criteria by which one would be convinced or doubtful of a certain position. Often it is too easy to be mired in a debate where both sides have reasonable but not fully convincing arguments, where it is difficult to objectively and consistently weight both sides.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Woman with the Scowling Lip

She seemed to have a lower lip that was somewhat larger than her upper lip; the lower lip appeared to protrude ungracefully outwards. The lips seemed ready to pull itself into an easy scowl or frown; on a whole, it was a face that lent itself to unhappiness.

Perhaps her scowling lips were not born of a natural asymmetry, but rather acquired by dour habit. After all, one's moods affect one's looks, and vice versa.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Shirley Williams. Age 23. Previous occupation, secretary, currently self-employed. Therapy sessions, 7 to date, weekly intervals.

"Shirley?", the psychiatrist inquired, eyes peering from his clipboard as a smallish figure entered the room. Dressed in a maroon sleeveless long blouse, the woman confirmed her identity as Shirley Williams.

"You seem well today, Shirley. I would like to complement you on your choice of dressing, it is quite stylish. But let's move on to discuss your, condition, shall we? How is it?"

There was a hesitant pause before she spoke.

"I-I think it has become worse. I-I can't even recognize myself in the mirror anymore. Everything's become generic, eyes, nose, mouth, even my hair- do you know what it's like to not even have a clue about what hairstyle you're wearing, even if you staring right at it in the mirror? Sometimes I'm even startled by my own reflection, and I need more than a moment to realize it's me."

The psychiatrist took some time to jot down the conversation, something he always did slowly to gain time for a meaningful response.

"Yes, it appears that your condition, which was previously limited to your perceptions of other people, has now worsened and affected even your perceptions of yourself. Let me state that I do emphasize very much with your predicament, which must be absolutely horrible. You must learn to cope with it! It'll not be easy, and you'll need to make certain adjustments to your lifestyle. But I digress, and let us return to the topic at hand. You have discussed your condition in visual terms. How about your auditory perception? Has it too degraded?"

"I can still recognize my own voice, thankfully, it's perhaps the only thing that's keeping me sane. Rooted to my identity, even. But I can feel it s-slipping- I'm feeling quite scared that one day, or even tomorrow, I'll lose even this. It might be soon- I think it was only about two weeks after I first started seeing everyone as having the same face that I started hearing everyone with the same voice. And that leaves about one, one and a half, weeks?"

Then she started to cry. It was a while before the psychiatrist managed to calm her down.

"I have not told you this previously, Shirley, but you must steel yourself for the eventualities. In fact you are not my only client with such a condition, nor even the first or the most advanced in progression. From what I have seen, the progression of the disorder parallels your own- one day, you start seeing similarities in the faces of people, then slowly, you lose the ability to differentiate between their faces, even the specifics of hairstyle beyond the length of it. Next is a loss of auditory differentiation, and all people start to, in your own words, have the same voice, which is not monotonous, but nonetheless indistinct. Then, perhaps the final stage of the disorder is a loss of ability to even perceive one's features, ending with your perceived loss of distinctiveness of your voice.

I don't wish to scare you, but from what I know of this condition in the medical circles, there is no known prescription or procedure that is able to reverse, or even slow the progression of, this disorder. To be truthful, we're unable to even pin down the cause or origin. We all have our hypotheses, of course. The leading hypothesis is that it is caused by limited brain damage, possibly to some parts of the brain that governs perception. Now, there are prior medical cases where individuals have suffered brain damage and have similar symptoms to those experienced by yourself, but the question is why there is an considerable increase in the number of cases seen recently. And they propose certain as yet undetected viral or bacterial agents that cause the brain degradation. Surely a horrific hypothesis, and a chilling thought, but it is as yet unproven. I have, however, my own thoughts on the matter."

It was at this moment when the psychiatrist's eyes seemed to light up for a moment, and when his voice seemed to take on a more energetic quality.

"Have you, perhaps, heard of the term, "memetic virus"? A meme is simply an idea that can be transmitted from one person to another, say by writing, speech, song, or by any means of communication. And there are some memes that are, once transmitted, nearly impossible to eradicate from the mind, for example a catchy tune. One might suppose that such an hardy and infectious meme has the qualities of a virus, hence the term, memetic virus.

But that is only half of my hypothesis. How is this related to the shift in one's perceptions? My argument is this: One usually believes that one's perceptions are complete, and hence stable. But it is not the case! Often what we perceive is but filtered to the barest essence of things! Consider what you are hearing now. You may perceive only my voice, but if I direct your attention to the sound of the ventilation vent, you will realize that your perceptions are incomplete. Now, what if there were some perceptions that had the properties of a memetic virus? In fact there are some optical illusions that appear random and structureless, but once you perceive the object it is impossible to revert to the initial perception of randomness. It is the same thing here, that once you perceive the true indistinctness of things it is impossible to change back."

The voluminous explanation did not go well with Shirley, who was squirming uncomfortably in her recliner. The psychiatrist noticed this, and noted to himself that he had to end things quickly.

"Don't worry too much. You're coping well, and I see that you've changed jobs so that you needn't face quite so many people. It's a good beginning to things, though you'll need to do more to deal with people. For starters, try to recognize people though other means, such as their dressing, height and build, and their mannerisms. These cues will give you some limited means of differentiating between people. After that you'll need to practice so that you condition is not immediately obvious to others. You'll get the hang of it, eventually.

Finally, though this may be small comfort, know that even in the worst of cases, you'll still be able to recognize faces, and by extension yourself, in photographs. It's a strange exception to the disease and one that we can't explain, but I suppose you'll have to be grateful for the small things."

The session ended shortly after. The psychiatrist pushed a button on his phone, which connected to the reception desk outside. A voice greeted him.

"The next appointment is Ms. Heather. I'm sending her in."

"Hi, is this Jenny or Colleen? Please get me a jug of water, thanks."

Someone entered the room. Short skirt, tight blouse, longish hair. Colleen, thought the psychiatrist.

"Where's the water, Colleen?" asked the psychiatrist in a slightly annoyed tone.

The psychiatrist realized his mistake when another figure entered the room moments later, carrying a jug of water.

Damn. Almost gave up the game. Next time, I should get clients who dress less coquettishly.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Perhaps the worst thing about gambling is that it is quite so easy to condemn those who gamble, and to then wash our hands off their affairs. Those who have acquired gambling debts are often viewed with contempt, for their situation is almost entirely of their doing. After all, the choice to gamble, and often the intent to continue, was entirely theirs; oft it is mentioned that "nobody forced them to continue gambling!".

I might agree, but I also feel that there is something quite so subtly wrong.

It might be said that there is some element of addiction in gambling, but perhaps I am too harsh, for it might be more accurately be desired as a form of tunnel vision acquired in the pursuit of gains, or recovery of losses. Decisions taken by one in such states of mind are different from those taken in a normal state of mind. If so, we cannot fully blame the victim for his choices, for those choices are affected. Part of the moral responsibility must lie elsewhere.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Disaster Relief

Consider the following thought experiment, which I present as a series of questions.

1. Would you donate to help feed a starving and homeless person, who has no money to feed himself because he lost all his money gambling, or has spent all his money on drugs and similar vice?

Probably not, I might guess. On to the next question, then.

2. Would you donate to help feed a starving and homeless person, who is a victim of a natural disaster?

Most likely yes, assuming that one is not in greater need. Now, finally:

3. Would you donate to help feed a starving and homeless person, who is a victim of a natural disaster, given that it is also known that the person is the same fellow as in question 1?

There are two possible answers, and both raise interesting thoughts.

If we agree to help the person, then the strange scenario is that from the position of the drug addict/gambler, a natural disaster is more favorable than no natural disaster. The position may also be inconsistent.

Conversely, if we refuse to help the person, the scenario becomes somewhat morally distasteful. Should we then introduce background checks or means testing prior to dispensing aid? Or should we just dispatch help to areas which are more 'deserving' or 'worthy' of assistance?


Everyone talks about leadership and its importance, but this is quite clearly problematic. Not everyone can be a leader, and the use of the word "can" is meant in both senses. Some lack the ability, and furthermore the scenario where everyone is a leader and leading simultaneously is patently absurd.

Perhaps we should consider the opposite art of followership, for the very emphasis on leadership projects a skewed perception of affairs. Should all the credit and blame lie solely on the leader, the man on the top? Of course not. And then, if we acknowledge that it is the entity as a whole that is important, why then do we only teach people leadership, but not equivalently teach people to follow?

In my conception, followership may be more complex and less monolithic than leadership, for the sole reason that whereas leadership goes from one to many, followership goes from many to one, and many to many. There are a variety of roles that can be adopted as a follower in a team, each offering various possible benefits and detriments. Finding the right mix, and teaching it, is probably difficult.

Clearly, I ramble on too much about a subject about which I know nothing about. However, I do find the emphasis on leadership amusing, but then again, I suppose it's not every attractive to tell an employer that "I'm trained in followership'"!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Asking Questions

I think everyone should give some thought to the art of asking useful questions.

Perhaps the most useless form of question are one-syllable questions, like "How?", "Why?", or "What?", being quite so open-ended and ambiguous that it is entirely likely that the received reply, if any, would answer all but that which you desired to learn about. The sole exception is when your aim is not to learn something specific, but rather to gain insight from the way the question is interpreted.

It should therefore first be required that questions be more specific, or at least multi-syllabled. But even questions that appear specific can fail to be good questions. Situations can, and often, occur when the intent or context of the question is not understood. A seemingly simple question can have multiple answers, only one of which is most valid for a specific context. One might encounter such situations when a young child asks a straightforward question, for example, "Why are the police chasing that man?". One might have to estimate the level of intelligence or knowledge of the child when answering, "Because the man did bad things" may suffice for very young children, but is clearly insulting for an older child who of course knows this and merely wants to know the crime committed.

In the technical and academic arena (where I 'work') this problem is quite ever-present. Whenever a person asks a technical question, I have to determine the appropriate level of expertise of the questioner before answering. Some people desire only a general or intuitive overview, whereas others are more interested in the details. It is particularly hard to answer questions like "How do you do X?", especially if X consists of multiple parts, only one or a few of which are your major contributions. One has to quickly decide if interest is in the general entirety of X, or in the areas of new contribution.

But of course, one can always clarify the question, which also buys more time for the formulation of a response.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On Self-Depreciating Jokes

It's somehow acceptable for a person to make fun of his own race or culture, but when an outsider makes jokes of the same thing, it's suddenly racist or offensive. We find it to be good humor when we joke about our nation, but feel defensive if a foreigner supplies the same material. That's some double standards there. Are jokes really non-transferable?

Might it be because there are two possibilities, that of a joke being in good jest, and that of it being offensive to some degree? And, since one cannot conceivably (or at least, sanely) have reason to raise a joke to offend oneself, it must therefore be interpreted that the joke was intended for the purpose of humor. A religious joke told by a man of the faith cannot possibly have a malicious intent, and hence must be meant to invoke humor; whereas the same joke by a different purveyor might have the slightest possibility of being told in ill will, and it is this slightest possibility that mars the joke.

Another explanation, perhaps simpler, is that it is acceptable to laugh at yourself, but not to be laughed at. Thus, the person who tells the joke is important, and depends on whether he is an insider or an outsider. Is it then possible to reduce this phenomena to mere in-group/out-group dynamics? It seems trite, though.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the General Uselessness of Anecdotal Evidence

Anecdotal evidence is quite a poor basis for well-founded decisions. Here, I will distinguish between the different possible levels of anecdotal evidence and point out how our decisions may be misled.

The basest level is hearsay, where the evidence is not experienced firsthand or with proof of veracity. It suffices to say that the truth of such evidence is in doubt, much less any general conclusions which may be drawn from it.

The next level is evidence experienced firsthand, but of which the impact is greatly and improperly amplified by our innate cognitive biases. The availablity heuristic modifies our expectation of an event's frequency based on how salient the event is in our mind. Often, the perceived frequency deviates significantly from the true frequency.

The top level is evidence experienced firsthand, but without cognitive bias. You may ask, what could the problem possibly be, since the evidence is both true (being observed firsthand) and free of mental bias. The problem is that anecdotal evidence is implicitly a local measure of things, and not an indicator of the larger and true picture.

Consider the following scenario: In a (somewhat racist) town, the NA people say that there are too many CL people; each NA reports a 4:1 ratio of CL:NA. However, the CL people say that there are too many NA people; each CL reports a 4:1 ratio of NA:CL.

The interesting thing is, nobody is wrong or lying; everyone's anecdotal evidence is correct. The town is a salt lattice, where each atom is surrounded by 4 atoms of a different type. In actual fact, the ratio of NA:CL is 1:1.
Image from Wikipedia CommonsAnecdotal evidence is a mental shortcut for making quick decisions. However, as shown by the NaCl example, it may not be wise to draw generalized conclusions based on such evidence.

Stone Soup

There once was a town which was ravaged by a harsh winter. Food was scarce, and everyone kept and hid whatever supplies that they had.

It was during this period of great scarcity that a tramp passed through the town. Curiously, the tramp trod to the town center and began boiling a pot of water. Within the pot lay a stone.

One townsman, being sufficiently perplexed by this weird occurrence, approached the tramp and inquired about the contents of the pot. To this question, the tramp replied that he was making a marvelous pot of stone soup. However, the soup would taste better with additional ingredients.

The townsman, tempted by the strange soup, decided to contribute. And so, in went some potatoes which the townsman had previously saved. The other townspeople, being similarly curious, followed suit, each adding their items to the pot.

Eventually, the pot of soup, now endowed with many ingredients, came to a boil. Unfortunately, the uncoordinated mess of random contributions resulted in a terrible soup which tasted like sewage. Deeply angered by this act of deception, the townspeople lynched the tramp and used his flesh to make a fresh pot of soup.

Conventional Moral:
Too many cooks make crap soup.

Philosophical Moral:
It is a mistake to believe that all properties of things are additive.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I think that perhaps we ascribe too much motive to the actions of our peers. It is almost as if they are but automatons slaved to purpose, without room for innocent randomness.

Perhaps we read too much into things, as if every minor movement is an indicator of some deep and unvoiced meaning. A momentary flitter of her gaze- ah, a sign of embarassment, or excitement!- or no, perhaps she's really feeling irritated? All this, or perhaps a grain of sand in the eye, and not necessarily hers.

The brain sees what it wants to see, tries to enforce a bit of order onto noise and nothingness. And perhaps there is nothing wrong with thinking too much, except when it causes unnecessary worry, grief, or false joy and hope.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


It was raining hard. By some stroke of fortune I had managed to reach the bus stop without becoming far too wet, but my sneakers did not share my fate; rainwater had gotten into them, and now my toes were sloshing around soggily. It was an uncomfortable feeling that I hated, but there was little else I could do.

I count myself amongst those who enjoy the sound and feel of rain, but my love is limited to when I am indoors and certainly not when I am bearing the brunt of it. Rain is beautiful, romantic even, so long as you are not inconvenienced by it. And in this particular case, there was much inconvenience; the flow of traffic slowed to a hesitant crawl, and I resigned myself to waiting for a surely delayed bus.

Sharing the rather empty bus stop was a mother and her young son, probably no older than five years of age. The w0man stood at an angle facing the direction of the incoming traffic, ostensibly looking out for her bus, but also at the same time just barely positioned to keep an eye on her son. The boy was staring at the passing cars, perhaps mimicking the actions of her mother.

Unexpectedly, the boy started waving at the cars passing the bus stop, yelling excitedly, "Hello! Hello!". My eyes darted from the boy to the traffic, trying to discover the reason for the boy's sudden action, before I realized that his mother was looking around trying to learn the same thing. The puzzled look on the mother's face told me that she too had little idea of what sparked the sudden outburst.

The boy continued to wave and greet the oncoming cars. Then I felt a small chill down my spine; perhaps I was wrong to assume that he was greeting the cars, but rather, he was greeting something quite unseen and possibly sinister.

My fears were soon laid to rest, when thankfully the boy provided an inadvertent explanation. He had asked his mother to wave too, but his mother, perhaps sharing the same discomforting thoughts that had occurred to me, asked him what he was waving at.

"The cars are waving at us! They wave at us with their two hands!"

It was then that I realized that the boy had been returning the waves of the cars, or more accurately, the waving motion of the windscreen wipers. Upon this revelation, I almost wanted to laugh on the spot over the ridiculous bafflement of two adults by the innocuous actions of a child.

Then again, at least I knew the secret answer; I suppose the drivers of those oncoming cars remain puzzled to this day, more-so for those few that did return the wave with human rather than plastic arms.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Questionable Value of Novelty in Travel

I've been on a couple of student exchanges abroad, and spent a couple of months in different cities. I get somewhat embarrassed, though, whenever I'm asked if I ventured much beyond the city (of the university I visited); that's because the answer is no, I was never very much an explorer.

The conversation would then go, "Ah, what a waste! You ought to have at least toured other neighboring cities, if not countries!", by which time I would attempt to skirt around the topic before diverting attention to other issues.

There might be something wrong with me, but I don't consider it particularly important to explore as widely as possible. I'll concede that doing so does broaden limited views, but then again the strategy of visiting many places briefly seems quite superficial compared to the through exploration of one sole city.

Sometimes in my absurd imagination I envisage tourists arriving at an attraction or place of local interest, ticking off a checklist, and then hurriedly moving off to the next location on the list. And that's what it is, isn't it- seeing as many places as possible. Perhaps it is a desire to get the most bang out of your buck, or making the most of a rare opportunity out of home. After all, you don't get many chances at a student exchange, and you don't get many days of holiday or leave.

But it seems to defeat the purpose, if the purpose is to enjoy. My idea of a holiday is something quite relaxing and laid-back, a time to drop the pace and take in the local atmosphere. Exploring all over, trotting everywhere, this all seems so exhausting in comparison. Such a holiday does seem more well-spent, at least on paper, but in my mind it seems akin to someone who stuffs himself fuller than full at a buffet. Such a person has 'enjoyed' more items, but whether he has truly enjoyed himself is in doubt.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Time Units

To be honest, many of our most commonly used time units are quite rubbish. Consider, for instance, the hour, the minute, and the second; these divisions of time, in units of 24 and 60, render many computations of time difficult. A small saving grace is that they are more suited for fractional computations, but then again the utility of such fractional convenience is limited since most people think in whole units, if one scale down. Beyond this small saving grace, these units of time are almost entirely arbitrary.

On the other hand, the day, month, and year are elegant and logical measures of time, in that they can be easily (in terms of required technology) calibrated against natural phenomena. Hence, these units of time have been independently invented by almost every civilization.

Take the day, for instance. It requires no explanation as to how it is defined. It is measured by the length of time for the Sun to move from the apex of the sky to the apex of the sky again (i.e., noon to noon). However, taking this fact into account, it seems inherently more sensible for the day to start from noon rather than from midnight, since one requires additional tools to accurately determine the onset of midnight.

The month, though a nebulous construct of varying lengths, also has a natural basis. This is the moon phase cycle, which can be easily observed to wax and wane with regularity. Unfortunately, while the lunar month can be accurately calibrated, calendars cannot be constructed based solely on it as it does not exactly cover the length of a year. Attempts to reconcile the two have led to many workarounds, such as variable length months, leap days, months, etc. Very messy work, not at all elegant.

The final regular unit of time, and quite possibly the one with the greatest importance, is the year. While we all know the year to be the length of time for the Earth to complete 1 orbit, it does seem quite difficult to measure this. The seasons do indeed repeat on a yearly basis, but variations make it impossible to use this fact to measure the length of a year. The easiest way is to observe the positions of the stars in the night sky; the patterns should change as the Earth orbits, and match again once the Earth has moved to the exact location it occupied one year ago. However, even this method is not simple, requiring some manner of astronomical technology. It may be easier to automate the process by constructing special structures that are only aligned with certain stars or constellations on a particular day of the year; many such structures exist. If I were to have the time and resources, I might find it interesting to design and construct a simple version of such a year-measuring device.

The worst time unit is, in my opinion, the week, which is entirely arbitrary and illogical. It is neither correlated to any naturally repeating occurrence, nor does it allow for simple computation, fractional or otherwise. It boggles the mind as to how it came to be adopted. Still, as with many things, it is so deeply entrenched in our societal model that it may be impossible to rectify this aberration.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts on Gattaca

I have just finished watching Gattaca, which I found it to be an extremely good movie. The theme of the movie is genetic determinism; the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, is a naturally conceived and thus genetically inferior person in a world where genetic screening and engineering has created an upper-class of the genetically superior. With his "in-valid" DNA, he is denied even an opportunity to become an astronaut; however, by deceiving the ever-present genetic tests with the exceptional genetic profile of a paraplegic ex-swimming star, and through keeping the disguise with intense passion and will, Vincent proves himself to be "as good as any, and better than most".

Without a doubt, the viewer empathizes with the situation of Vincent, and must surely agree that there is something more to humans than our genes; the greatest achievement is not in meeting our potential, but in surpassing our limitations.

And yet, at the same time, I find it difficult to refute the position adopted by the society in the world of Gattaca. Is it truly discrimination if there are significant differences in ability between the engineered and the merely human? The argument is barely weakened even if the possibility of a naturally conceived person being better (at a job) than one conceived artificially is acknowledged to exist; there seems to be little reason for a company to risk itself on such a gamble, or to spend extra resources to verify the ability of individuals that are unlikely to be the best candidate.

I must imagine that Gattaca's society would look unfairly upon "borrowed ladders", or people who deceive genetic tests by borrowing superior genetic profiles. The film may cause us to empathize with Vincent's position and view such deception in a positive light as a tool against genetic discrimination, as a equalizing weapon for those that are unfairly discriminated. But then again, in my mind I constructed a parallel scenario existing in our very own reality, of people who purchase false credentials, certifications, and qualifications. We would naturally find such actions contemptible. And yet, for at least of some of them, their lack of legitimate qualifications are not due to a lack of quality or ability, but by the unfairness of fate and circumstance. How different are the scenarios, and how different are our attitudes?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Supporting National Sports is Rubbish

I'll never understand why people support sports at a national level, like the Olympics or the World Cup. What really confounds me is how people can suddenly feel some sense of elation when their national team wins a medal or trophy, or experience disappointment when their squad are utterly thrashed or humiliated. I mean, I can understand if you feel happy if you've participated and won something, but then you've not. Technically it's your team, but then again it's a bit of a stretch to go out and say that you have anything remotely to do with their victory or defeat. You could legitimately be entitled to share in their joy (or anguish) if you knew someone in the team personally, in the sense of "Oh I'm happy for your victory, my friend/cousin/neighbor/sister's friend's uncle's butcher's son ". But it's clearly not justified to look at someone you only know through posters or the TV screen and say, "Oh I'm happy for your victory, Mr sportsman that I do not know personally".

I don't mean that it's stupid to support all sports. I can understand how it's actually logical to support some (non-national) sporting franchise, and celebrate when they win; you're happy because it is a validation of your choice to support that particular franchise over alternative franchises. When your team wins, it says that you have the analytical skills or uncanny intuition or unbroken heritage to select the winning team. It gives you bragging rights over the neighbor-twit in the next cubicle who supports a second-rate team. I can understand how all this works, but for national sports? You don't use your analytical skills or intuition or magic dust to choose the team you support, in fact you don't even have a choice to justify- you're stuck supporting the team of the country you live in (or sometimes, the quasi-independent geopolitical entity you live in). And there are absolutely no personal bragging rights when the national team wins, though it might probably be plastered over the newspapers in an attempt to piss off the neighboring belligerent states.

I can understand how one may be happy if the college or school team wins, because in that case it does say something about yourself, like "Hey I entered into a place with a tradition of winning some otherwise inconsequential but relatively shiny piece of silverware that's gold plated". It's somewhat, not entirely but somewhat, justified by the fact that you had some manner of choice or at least alternative that happens to endear yourself to this particular college or school over competing alternatives. This argument is clearly non-functional for sports at the national level, where the only reason you're supporting the team is because a stork happened to deliver you to the same geopolitical entity as the players in the national squad (but sometimes and increasingly often, not always true). And clearly, "vagaries of fate" is no grounds for justifying a sense of common achievement!

In the end, the only reason for feeling any euphoria or sadness is nationalist patriotism, which is itself something not entirely sensible. The problem with placing a flag onto a team is that it somehow compels you to support that team (assuming it is your nation's flag, and that you recognize it). It also becomes somewhat wrong to support other national teams; the logic must be that anyone supporting a foreign team is a fanatic agent of a foreign power whose only burning desire is the utter and absolute destruction of our nation's traditions and way of life.

I think what's proper is to acknowledge that national teams have utterly nothing to do with oneself. It is quite absurd to believe that singing the anthem or flying the flag create an mystical and unbreakable bond between the athlete and the sports viewer! If they win, well good for them, but it's not really my business to celebrate or care for their behalf. It simply does not make sense to do such a silly thing!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How to Argue Effectively

This is a quick tutorial on how to argue effectively. Most people fail to argue effectively due to a lack of professional training or relevant experience in the matter; however, this can be quickly corrected with some mental pointers.

A key factor behind argumentative failure is a lack of focus into the aims of the argument, and consequently, the use of arguing methods unsuited to achieve those aims. The untrained arguer uses the same methods for all occasions, a mistake that often leads to frustration.

People may argue with one or more of the following three aims in mind. Each aim may best be pursued with a different method.

1. To Convince Another Of One's Views
One common aim is to convince another of one's views. It may be to convert another person to adopt one's views, or to get the other to perform some action according to one's suggestions. The motive here is to convert or subvert.

The untrained may attempt to use logical reasoning to achieve the task, but this is an extremely poor and inefficient method. Rather, sophism should be employed. Sophism is a style that employs the prejudices and emotions of the other to achieve the goal of conversion. Logic and reason are not necessary; in fact most people tend to be wary of such things. A brilliant and convincing statement often trumps the effects of any factual inaccuracy or logical inconsistency.

2. For Personal Satisfaction
The other common purpose of argument is as a vehicle of personal satisfaction. Pseudo-dominance is often established through verbal sparring, with the corresponding trophies of pride and bragging rights.

Most people fare decently here, but those that fail to understand their motives earn only frustration. Once again, logical reasoning is barely useful here; logic sometimes adds to the smug satisfaction of ridiculing the other, but it is too inefficient a weapon. The proper method is to attack the opponent's being. Personal attacks that are relevant should be employed with the aim of triggering an satisfying negative reaction in the other. Other underhanded methods of offense can similarly be considered.

3. To Explore A Topic
Logic is best used in cold and calm situations where the aim is to arrive at wise conclusions. Unfortunately, nobody really argues for the sake of gaining greater wisdom, not in today's age. Thus, we can safely ignore this rare category of argument.

I hope that after this very brief tutorial, the reader would have obtained a greater understanding of the tactics and strategies used in arguing, and such understanding subsequently put to use for the greater(!) benefit of society.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

A Clockwork Heart (Part I)

A terrible sequence of events (which I do not wish to discuss) caused me to lose my heart. It did not prove to be a serious problem, however, as I simply had it replaced with a clockwork heart made of springs and cogs.

To be truthful, I was afraid of what would happen if people were to learn of my new organ. It wasn't that I feared people giving me queer looks and wary stares; somehow I didn't seem to care what people thought anymore, and in any case the clockwork heart was in no way visible, just like a heart of flesh and blood, hidden within the chest opaque to the view of men. Rather, I absolutely loathed people making a fuss over my new heart and bringing forth a multitude of inane questions which I had no wish and desire to answer. And thus, I kept silent, and nobody quite knew.

It wasn't difficult to keep the secret, but there were one or two complications that required me to be on my guard. The first problem was that I had to wind my clockwork heart twice a day, otherwise it would run down and cease to work. Needless to say, this was not an outcome that I desired. Twice a day meant twelve hours between windings, which wasn't a lot of time to work with. In the beginning I would try to get by with a winding just before leaving work and another just after work. However, events often made such a plan difficult and risky; there was one time when I was stuck in the commute with nowhere to get off and wind the heart in private; fortunately the traffic cleared up and I got home with minutes to spare. But after that one experience I thought to myself that there was no way around it, and I had to work out a plan to wind myself during work.

Initially I tried hiding in a toilet cubicle and winding myself in secrecy. A few days after, there were murmured rumors of an unknown toilet onanist in random Men's toilets of the office building. I suppose the sound of the clockwork mechanisms being wound did, after reverberation in the hollow cavities in my chest, sound like dampened hum of a vibrator. It did baffle me as to how and why people thought that someone, presumably male, would use a vibrator, but somehow I didn't really want to know the answer. In any case, a new and better plan was required.

This story is incomplete and will be continued later.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Measuring the Volume of a Container

My sister was packing for an overseas vacation when she found herself with a small bottle of hand moisturizer. Unfortunately, she was uncertain as to whether the bottle was of a size within the travel limits, which was 100ml. My assistance was sought.

The first and probably the most commonsensical solution I came up with was to compare the size of the bottle with other containers of known capacity, such as my water bottle which has 100ml markings. But this method was unsatisfactory as the precision was poor.

I then suggested to fill the bottle with water, and to then measure the amount of water contained. However, this too was unfeasible, since the container already contained some moisturizer.

Being trained or born with scientific and mathematical thinking, I then came up with a most intelligent approach. First, I observed that the container was almost a perfect cylinder. Thus, using a ruler and the simple volume formula, I was able to calculate that the container was almost certainly a 100ml container.

Basic mathematical knowledge proves to be useful to daily life.

In retrospect, a fourth solution is possible, but this is rooted in more science. We can simply immerse the container in a beaker of water such that it is fully submerged. Then, the volume of the container is simply the amount of water displaced. This solution is clearly generalizable to all shapes of containers, assuming they are watertight.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Auction Game

I am keen on running a game that has some elements of game theory. The particulars of the game are described below.

The game is an auction game, where each player aims to end up with the most amount of money. The items to be auctioned are bundles of money. As with typical auctions, the highest bid win the auctioned bundle of money. However, there are two important differences. Firstly, the auction system is sealed-bid, meaning that each person places his bid in secret. Secondly, the auction is all-pay, meaning that everyone pays the amount they bid, regardless of whether they won anything. Hence, the auction is an all-pay sealed-bid first-price auction.

Thus, the rules are:

1) Each player starts with the same amount of money, S dollars.
2) The X bundles of money, and their denominations, are announced in advance.
3) Each player may place, secretly, up to one bid per bundle of money, so long as the sum of his bids is equal to or less than S. Each bid must be a positive integer.
4) Everyone pays an amount of money equal to amount they bid.
5) After each player has placed his bids, for each bundle of money, the person(s) with the highest bid(s) share the bundle of money equally.
6) Any remaining unclaimed bundles of money are forfeited.
7) The final score of each player is equal to the total amount of money he has; i.e., the sum of money won and money not spent during bidding.
8) The final score is used to rank the players in the game.
9) No communications are allowed between players before or during bidding.

An exception to rule 9 is that before the bidding begins, each player may issue at most one public statement, viewable to all players. The public statements are displayed on a first-post-first-displayed basis.

10) At any point before the bidding phase, each player is allowed to make at most one public statement which is viewable by all players. The public statement will be displayed immediately.

A trial run of the game is provided below.

Preparation Phase:

There are three players, A, B, and C competing. They have $10 each.

There are 4 items being auctioned. The items are:
#1: $3 note.
#2: $5 note.
#3: $5 note.
#4: $12 note.

Before the bidding begins, it is possible to make public statements. C makes a first public statement, “Hello, I love money.” Everyone is notified of C’s statement.

A also wishes to make a public statement, “I will not make any bids.” Everyone is notified of A’s statement.

B forfeits his right to make statements as he does not wish to make any statements.

Bidding Phase:

The bidding phase begins. Each player independently and secretly makes their bids for the items.

A bids $2 for item #2, $2 for item #3, and $6 for item #4.

B bids $10 for item #4.

C bids $2 for items #1, #2, #3 and #4.

After each player has submitted his bids, the bidding phase ends. Each player pays for his bids. A pays $10 for his bids, and he has $0 left over. B pays $10 for his bid, and he has $0 left over. C pays $8 for his bids, and he has $2 left over.

Settlement Phase:

It is time to settle the auctions, and compute the final scores. Item #1 is won by player C. Item #2 is won and shared by players A and C. Item #3 is won and shared between players A and C. Item #4 is won by player B.

Player A has $5 in the end.

Player B has $12 in the end.

Player C has $10 in the end.

Player B has the most money, and wins.

If there are any willing participants to try this game, please contact me by some means. I will post more details if/when there is sufficient interest.

Monday, May 17, 2010

At the End of the Road

There is an abandoned temple at the dead end of a road. In that temple, one of the innermost rooms overlooks the river nearby.

It is said that one of the windows overlooking the river is cursed.

One day, three boys decided to test their bravery. When the sun set in the evening, they met outside the temple; they came armed with some joss sticks and candles to provide light. And so, separately, they went to look at the window in the temple room

X went in first. He came out after some time.

He said, "I saw nothing leh".

The second guy, Y, went in after X came back. He too came out after some time.

He said, "I saw my reflection in the window. X, you must be coward lah, didn't even go look right?"

X denied this and claimed he looked at all the windows, but perhaps he got the wrong room.

Finally, it was Z's turn. And so, Z went in. After a short while, Z screamed and came running out.

"Fuck, I saw an old person's face in the window!"

X and Y didn't know whether Z was joking, but Z seemed to be in serious shock. They felt spooked also, so they all ran home.

A few days, then a few weeks passed. Eventually X,Y, and Z came to think less and less of the events of the temple.

Then, a few months later, Y died in his sleep.

It was unusual for a young boy to die while sleeping, though it was not unheard of altogether.

But he died in his sleep with eyes left half-open.

It reeked of a supernatural flavor, but investigators could find no cause other than "natural death".

X and Z were scared, but somehow they convinced themselves that the events were unlinked.

And so, as fate would have it, nothing else seemed to happen. A few years passed, and they both grew up.

X took up a job in a small machine shop, while Z went to the city and had a cushier desk job. Then one day, Z received a call, and then he learnt that X had suffered a most gruesome death. X had apparently had a fatal accident while on his job.

X's head was severed while he was cutting some sheet metal.

The entire head was cut clean off.

Nobody was nearby when it happened, but investigators surmised that he had tripped while operating the rotary saw cutter.

An accident.

But to Z, it was clear. It was unnatural, and it was somehow linked to the events that happened many years ago at the temple. Hurriedly, Z ran to the nearest temple in the city for help. Eventually, he was directed to an elderly Taoist priest with expertise in such matters. Z recounted the events that happened many years ago, and the fates of his friends.

The priest then asked, “Does the temple overlook a river? Is the temple at the end of a road?"

Z was shocked at the priest's knowledge, but he replied in the affirmative.

"Ah ! Then it is clear." The priest then explained.

“A river at the dead end of a road has great spiritual energy and supernatural significance. A dead man walks for 7 days and comes to a river that divides the mortal realm from the afterworld.

Of course, it is not always that when a river meets a dead end that supernatural events occur but the temple, abandoned, may have contributed to matters.

Still, that is only half of matters. The window directly overlooking the river to the underworld offers a glimpse into the underworld. But also, it reflects the view of the dead man before he enters the underworld. In other words, what you see in the window is simply a reflection of you when you die.

Y saw a young boy, and hence he was fated to die at a young age.

X saw nothing, but what he really saw was his headless self.

You, Z, thankfully saw your elderly self. Perhaps it did not seem so then, but it is the most fortunate of outcomes. You will not die, except of old age.”

The above is the original version of a story I first told over a MSN conversation. I have since written a more complete and polished version, but it is not available to the public eye.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mother Tongue Reweighing

There has been much furore over the suggested (and later retracted) reweighing of Mother Tongue at PSLE. Much has been said regarding this, but from my observations of forum letters as well as of online views, almost everyone has made a crucial oversight.

The policy, despite being about Mother Tongue, seems almost inexorably argued or discussed in the context of the Chinese language. While it is not wrong per say to discuss one's experiences (which are obviously limited to one's own mother tongue), the apparent lack of consideration or input regarding other languages is disturbing. After all, the suggested subject reweighing affects students of all races and mother tongues, not merely Chinese students.

Despite my hesitance to invoke issues of race or ethnicity into discussions, I suspect that any move to reduce the weighting of Mother Tongue would have a greater negative impact on students of other races and ethnicities than on Chinese students; in general, they have better overall proficiencies in their mother tongues than do Chinese students, and hence would be more likely to be negatively affected by a reweighing.

Of course, now that the policy suggestion has been retracted, the contents of this may no longer be important. However, I do hope that future policies are more considerate of other ethnicities, and are more explicit in such considerations.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fear of Morbidity

Friends may have heard of my view that I am not quite so afraid of mortality as of morbidity. Death, while being something to be feared as it reduces the value of your life to 0, is more preferable (or better phrased, less undesirable) as compared to morbidity, which may quickly reduce your life to a most terrible state of suffering; if we were to subscribe to a utilitarian framework where suffering and happiness are the key measures of value, a severely morbid life would have negative value.

Death has the elegant property of being an end, at least for you. Perhaps that nothingness is frightening in itself. At the same time, however, death seems more preferable than many other things, particularly if you are suffering from such a thing in the first place. Beyond the most evident problem of pain and massive pain, other forms of suffering are brought about by morbidity; it might be accompanied by loss of body function, thus rendering you all but invalid; it might be accompanied by emotional suffering caused in relation to family and friends. And worst of all, morbidity persists for some time until your ultimate demise.

People do not seem afraid of morbidity, at least not as much as mortality. Perhaps it is because the risk of mortality is more salient, whereas morbidity seems to occur much further along the time horizon. Another possibility is that perceptions are relative and may change with one’s age, and death may eventually become less fearsome than morbidity. I am uncertain; perhaps I will be sufficiently intrigued to study this at a later date.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Polarization in Singapore Media

The mainstream media in Singapore is often accused of being biased. This allegation stems from the observation that the mainstream media tends to report only the positive aspects of Government policy. Clearly, this is insufficient, and a severe failing; good reporting should give attention to both sides of an issue.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but think that the online community has committed the same mistake, by tending to report only the negative aspects of Government policy. It may be possible to justify this by claiming that we should hold different mediums to different standards, but this argument is not entirely satisfactory.

My take is that alternative media is reactionary is nature, often in response to the mainstream media. For example, if an article about a policy X is reported favorably in the papers, then arguments against X will be reported in alternative media, to serve as a counterpoint. In this fashion, well-intentioned bloggers (or citizen journalists, though I dislike the term) describe the weaknesses in public policy which are omitted in the mainstream media; a discussion of the positives is often not made as it is implicitly assumed that the reader is familiar with the source material previously published in the mainstream media.

However, the precondition of familiarity with the source material may not be satisfied; thus the intellectually lazy may be presented with an unduly negative portrayal of matters. It is troubling if anyone subscribes to any one source of information, more so if the sources are polarized or biased.

I have portrayed the roles of the mainstream media and alternative media as being complimentary; perhaps those more skeptical will instead have a more adversarial view.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Subs Versus Dubs

The issue of anime subs versus dubs rages on. From my perspective, it seems foolish to argue in terms of quality; good subs and good dubs are not mutually exclusive. A modern codec or DVD is easily capable of accommodating both. The relevant issue, however, involves cost and speed. Dubbing requires more time and money than subbing. It is this issue that the debate should be focused upon.

Fans of subs do not find dubs agreeable because dubbing inevitably raises the delay and cost of a release for limited (in their view) benefit, whereas supporters of dubs consider such delays and costs bearable. Viewed in such a primitive framework, the two options become mutually exclusive if there is to be only one type of release.

However, I wonder why things must be so. If it is not possible to accommodate everyone in a singular release, then having multiple releases may be sensible. Admittedly, the economics of having a early subs-only release and a subs+dubs release later on may be dubious, but the subs-only release, by virtue of greater speed and lower cost, may yet prove to be profitable. Alternatively, it appears that the major economic limiter is the cost of production and distribution with physical media; this seems to suggest that a digital mode of distribution is preferable.

On Writing Online

I read a number of blogs and online forums. In my opinion, arguments quickly devolve into logically poor back-and-forth spats, quite often because of the style of “discussion” which is encouraged by the medium.

The “style of discussion” I am referring to is the decomposition of an opposing argument into a number of separate paragraphs or segments, then critiquing and rebutting each segment on its own. It can easily become a hybrid of cherry picking, quoting out of context, and erecting a straw-man.

Perhaps if arguments were expressed strictly in the (logical) form of premise-conclusion such a style would be suitable. However, most articles are not written as logical arguments. Articles are more holistic, with distinct flows of argument. An approach that dissects writing into separate sections and attacks individual sections in isolation may not be entirely sound. The approach also leads to increasing myopia, as arguments and rebuttals tend to focus on increasingly minor points of disagreement.

The second problem is that it tends to give an impression of disagreement rather than agreement. It encourages one to zoom in on areas of disagreement, and comment on how those particular segments are flawed or incorrect. Inadvertently, one fails to emphasize or draw attention to how one agrees or at least finds sound the remainder of the work. Perhaps people do not see the need to express agreement, and only see the need to express disagreement or discontent, but such a tendency will, accumulated over many individuals, lead to an overwhelming amount of negative feedback quite contrary to the actual perception of the article.

Increasingly, I am favoring posts that are more concise in nature, with only one or two major points. I think that doing so is better as the logical and structural consistency will be higher; a longer article necessarily exposes unintentional weaknesses or areas for misinterpretation. Writing as a medium of argument is unforgiving; whereas speech allows for mistakes to be tolerated by virtue of memory and the fact that rebuttals and clarifications can be made near instantly, in writing your mistakes are open for careful and prolonged examination, and the latency of correction diminishes the impact of your defense.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Marital Conversion

I recently read an extremely long Facebook post on a certain issue, which, upon my analysis, seemed to be more trivial than I first thought. I present the issue below.

If one day your girlfriend or fiance were to make the following demand of you to choose one of the two following options,
A) Believe in X
B) Break up
,where X is some possible belief (for instance, the moon is made of cheese or flowers are nice smelling), what would you do?

The problem seems trivial. I present the following flowchart as aid for those who are unable to discover an satisfactory solution.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Pressure and Euthanasia

A key argument against euthanasia is that people may be pressured towards euthanasia. The argument may sometimes be interpreted solely in terms of the life lost due to such pressure. However, such an interpretation may be too limited and unsatisfactory. While there is indeed something wrong with the scenario of people dying to assisted suicide when they have no wish to, an oft-neglected aspect to the issue is pressure.

The pressure argument is this: the focus should also be on the negative pressures faced by the terminally-ill patient. It is not sufficient to introduce safeguards to prevent people from ending their lives due to pressure; rather, such negative pressure should itself be prevented. Harm, whether to the life of a person, or of a psychological or emotional nature, is harm. It is unacceptable to consider the former but not the latter.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chope!, or The Problem of Seat Reservation

If I were to have lunch at noon at the campus canteen, the following would invariably occur: I would walk down the stairs leading to the canteen and observe that many tables are unoccupied, and think to myself, "Oh, lucky!". A few moments later, on a closer approach, I would realize that the seats at the "unoccupied" tables are occupied with bags or items - Yes, these tables have been 'Choped', or reserved by the owners of the items. It is a culture prevalent in Singapore.

It is not that I have a problem with items being used to reserve tables. My objection would be equally great if someone (of presumably a party greater than 2 members in size) was left behind to take watch over the tables. The issue is seat reservation. It does not require extensive thought to realize that seat reservation reduces the useful seating capacity of the canteen (or hawker center); simply consider the amount of time that a table is not put to useful work (ie, being used by people in the act of eating). A table is not being actively used when the reserver is out ordering her food. If we were to parametrize the amount of time spent eating as E and the amount of time when the table is reserved as R, then the useful capacity of the canteen has been reduced to a fraction E/(E+R).

The problem can also be considered from the perspective of game theory. The choices available are to not reserve, hence exposing yourself to the risk of having no table to eat at but marginally improving everyone's chance of obtaining a seat, or to reserve, ensuring that you have a seat when you have purchased your food but decreasing everyone's chances of finding a table. In such a situation, given that largely non-observable and minor benefits of not reserving a seat as compared to the considerable benefit of reserving a seat, the outcome is understandable.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Words of Justice Ripper

Perhaps you believe that human life is sacred. I AGREE! But those that I kill are not human, but MONSTERS! Perhaps you believe that behind their inhuman acts lies some kind of tragic tale or unfortunate cause, that they are not villains, but victims of fate. Perhaps you believe that once you understand them, that once you address the root of their base motivations, that they will be restituted, repaired. But have you seen the look in their eyes when they commit their crimes? It is a look without any remorse, without any empathy, without any ounce of care or concern for the plight or well-being of anything other than their pathetic selves! I have seen it. And I was led to conclude that whatever seed of humanity that they once possessed is now so utterly absent and decayed that they are little more than beasts gifted with the element of intelligence. And we must accord to beasts the law applicable to beasts; perhaps we can tolerate them in their state of nature, but if they do but hurt humans, then they must be exterminated.

-Justice Ripper


He turned the corner, and I followed. It was a dead end. The most blessed thing was, it was a dead end! Many months of poring over minuscule details, many months of surveillance, many months of tracking and shadowing, and today, I have finally cornered the criminal known to the public as "Justice Ripper". Perhaps nobody had expected me to make as much progress as I did, particularly not with the meager resources the Department allocated to my investigation; even within the Department, there was some ambivalence to the capture of "Justice Ripper". Perhaps he did kill only the most hardened and remorseless of criminals; perhaps he did kill only those who abused their powers and yet remained above the law though corruption and bribery; but in my superiors' books, and in the books written to govern us all, vigilantism is a crime. Thus he must be stopped.

I drew my service revolver, and issued a single command, "Stop." Justice Ripper turned around slowly, but his arms were not raised. "Drop any weapons and put up your hands!", I barked. He did not comply, but instead edged forwards.

"Stop moving ! Stop moving or I"ll shoot, you bastard !"

"Hahaha !!! What nonsense! I did nothing wrong. I did not kill anyone. Those that I killed were not human, but beasts in human form, lacking human kindness. MONSTERS! Monsters that deserved to die!"

And then he charged forward. He did not get much farther, for I shot him almost instantly, a product of much police training. But it was still a traumatic event for me, and I just sat there for a while, feeling somewhat confused and somewhat lost.

The rank and file corporals and sergeants soon came and cordoned off the scene. The entire affair was quickly over, much faster than I could fully recover and regain my wits. Perhaps pitying my pathetic state, a sergeant, seemingly experienced, came over and gave a single line of encouragement.

"Don't worry, you did nothing wrong. You only got rid of another murdering monster."

But it did not make me feel any better.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Random Musings on Good and Evil

It randomly occurred to me that between the two maxims "Do good" and "Do no evil", the latter might be more advisable. "Do good" does not make any statement on the amount of evil committed, and thus is open to a scenario where some good is done but outweighed (if good and evil could somehow be weighed on a single ordinal axis) by evil acts; thus, the final expectation of "Do good" in terms of moral value could be anywhere between ULTIMATE GOOD and ULTIMATE EVIL. Whereas for "Do no evil", the final expectation is surely non-evil; in the worst possible scenario, wherein the person does no evil but also no good, the final moral value is NEUTRAL, but clearly it is more likely for the "Do no evil" person to do some good (perhaps inadvertently) and thus have GOOD moral value. This is best summed up in the following instructive diagram.

As can be seen, the blue line represents the range of possible moral values that "Do No Evil" can take, and the green line represents that for "Do Good". While both strategies have the same ULTIMATE capacity for good, only "Do Good" can prove evil in the end!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sweets Sharing Puzzle

Two kids (who are not goats), Alice and Bala, have 100 sweets to share between themselves. However, they cannot agree on how to split the shares. Because of their arguing, a random authority figure arrives to impose order. The authority figure demands for Alice to make a sharing proposal (in the form of a sweet split) to Bala, who then has the choice to accept the proposal or not. If Bala does not accept the proposal, he can then make a counter-offer to Alice. This process of offering and counter-offering proceeds back and forth until a proposal is accepted. However, the authority figure, for his troubles, will levy a "friendliness tax" of 20 sweets each time a proposal or counter-proposal is rejected, thus reducing the number of sweets to be shared.

Now, assuming that both Alice and Bala are perfect logicians, and that their aim is to maximize their sweets, what sweet split would Alice make as her first proposal?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Inhumane Treatment of Animals

I read in the forums section a letter by the SPCA regarding the inhumane poisoning of pigeons (for culling purposes). The phrase "inhumane treatment" was used more than once.

To be extremely pedantic, it is obvious that pigeons are not human. To speak of treating animals like humans seems somewhat difficult to support, but I am speaking as a sophist rather than as a philosopher.

Speaking as a philosopher, there does exist a gap between how we should treat humans and how we should treat animals; only the most fanatic would dispute this. But, as with most things, the devil lies in the details; how large should this human-animal gap be? Implicit in the answer also lies the value of the human race; are we merely animals or more than just animals? If we are truly more than beasts, then what separates us from them? And, most chillingly, when we justify X as being the reason for our superiority, what stops us from using X to label those more disadvantaged amongst us as inhumans rather than humans?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Most Used Digits

What are the most commonly encountered numerical digits? On first thought, it does not seem that any particular digit ought to be favored, as numbers seem to be randomly distributed; however, in fact some digits are more common than others.

I recently took a photograph of a used calculator lying around in my house, which should provide an instructive insight into the answer.
The wear patterns on the calculator suggest that the lower digits are used more often, in particular 0 and 1. Possible explanations for this distribution include Benford's law, which proposes that if one compiles several sources of real world data, the most common leading digit is 1; whereas for 0, it may appear often after rounding to a significant figure.

PS: I also wonder whether people would be capable of immediately determining the digit configuration if all the digits were non-visible due to wear.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Portents of the Year to Come

Though I do not seriously believe in astrology, I did note the prediction for the Rat for the Lunar Year during the Countdown programme. One piece of advice that was given was, "Be careful with money and investments, beware of scams".

Prophetically, at 6:10 am, not even 400 minutes into the new year, I received an SMS. The contents of the SMS are reproduced below:
Congratulations! Your mobile phone no.has won (GBP) 560, 000 pounds in the ongoing Nokia UK promo. For claims, call +44702407 & email:
Thanks to celestial advice I will not be taking up this otherwise fabulous offer.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Findings from Playing Diablo 2 Excessively

It is quite evident from the fact that I am still playing Diablo 2 after more than 10 years that I have spent an excessive amount of time on it. However, it is only recently that I was able to attain a small measure of success in it, completing about 6 of the 7 available classes (I am now attempting the last class).

On Saturday I made an unexpected discovery; I was playing Diablo 2 with my earphones on when I was momentarily distracted by the television behind me (to be entirely accurate, it was the television programme, but this ought to be obvious). Since I was in town, there was no danger of any sudden death by stupid causes, so I removed by earphones and split my attention between the television and the usual logistics tasks done in town (selling loot, repairing gear, cubing etc).

I had an excess of gems, so I cubed them. As I was moving a gem into the Horadric cube, I heard a faint ring. Curious, I repeated the gem movement, and the ring was heard again. This was interesting; the earphones were placed relatively distant from my ears, and yet the faint tone was audible. Perhaps it was because the gem sound was sharp and of high frequency, hence it was more easily transmitted.

I next tried moving other items. Skulls were, perhaps expectedly, quite inaudible from the distance, since the dull "plopping" sound wasn't very sharp. The metallic clang from shields was somewhat more audible, but very significantly less so compared to gems. Charms were quite detectable from a distance, almost similar to gems, though it required some training as the sound wasn't quite as sharp as compared to gems. It was an interesting experiment to run.

Another finding made with the earphones off was that the game seemed to run slower; movements seemed more sluggish, and actions more delayed. In retrospect, sound may actually serve to affect our perception of time; a sound effect may not sound long but may actually occupy a significant amount of time and attention.

Perhaps playing without sound may serve to improve my neurokinetics.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Observations During the Safari Zoo Run

Yesterday, I participated in the Safari Zoo Run '10. It was a run of intermediate distance (6.2km) through the Night Safari and the Singapore Zoo. The route wasn't perfect, with some uneven terrain near the end, and a lot of slopes (minor and major) during some parts of the run. Still, despite my relative lack of training (consider 4 years of no exercise and perhaps 4 weeks of running prior), my run timing was more than satisfactory from my own perspective (42 mins).

Though the attraction of the event was ostensibly being able to view the animals while running, I actually found the fellow runners to be of more interest. Some observations made during the run:

1) The Japanese Trio: There was a group of three Japanese runners, each armed with a digital camera. One of their member would sprint perhaps 100m ahead, and take a photo when the group caught up. Another member would then himself run 100m ahead to take the next photo. In such a leapfrog fashion, they managed to capture photos of themselves during the run. It was quite amusing, and the Japanese runners appeared to be quite enthusiastic and jolly about the entire affair, posing and waving for each photo-take. It couldn't have been an efficient method of running, though; I probably left them behind after perhaps the 1 or 2 km mark.

2) The Tudong Runner: There was a Muslim woman running with the tudong headdress. I do not recall whether she was wearing the Safari Zoo dry-fit running tee; but in any case, running with a piece of cloth covering the head doesn't exactly seem very clean or hygienic. However, I do wonder if a specialized running headdress for Muslim women has been invented; I imagine that a headdress made of dry-fit microfiber (the stuff they make running tees and shorts out of that manages to absorb and evaporate sweat fast) would be better than one made of ordinary cloth.

3. Mother and Child: The Safari Zoo run was partly catered for young runners and the family, hence there were a number of parents running with their children. At around the 1km mark, there was a mother chastising her son (while running) for not adopting the proper running technique, while giving her son pseudo-advice (it's a short distance ! Before you know it it'll be over). If I were to be in the shoes of the son I'll be fairly irritated; I might have been motivated to run faster just to shake her off. Furthermore it is a waste of energy to talk while running.

4. Constantly Overtaken: The runners were dispatched in waves spaced about 5 minutes apart, probably to ensure that the running paths are not clogged with runners (which often happens during runs where bunches of runners can form, much like traffic jams). I was in the second wave. I probably overtook all the people that were slower than myself within the first two kilometers; for the rest of the race, I was constantly being overtaken. But, for the same reason, I could have tried to raise my speed as a result, hence I was faster than I expected (I was expecting 45-50 mins, based on some prior training).

5. Jacked Prices: After the run I went to the convenience store in the zoo, just to take a look at the prices. They were indeed inflated. A bottle of green tea usually costs about $1 at the right places; in convenience stores, they cost $2 (due to the 'convenience ' factor); at the zoo, it costs $3. I am intrigued; the traffic to the zoo couldn't have been poor. The rent must have been high, then.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

GDP, GNP, and Quality of Life

It seems to me that measuring national progress against the benchmarks of GDP or GNP is, while not entirely unjustified, somewhat misguided. How does one benefit as a result of such increases in GDP or GNP? It is quite an abstract measure, but perhaps some might defend these queer yardsticks by claiming, "If GDP/GNP increases, this likely means that my income has increased!". Even if such a statement is true (which it may not be), I ask, "So what? How is that good?".

The subtext is, of course, that an income increase is good as it raises one's quality of life. But that raises a question- why not simply use the quality of life as a direct measure of national progress!

We of the modern age run the risk of mistaking financial strength as a core good. It is not; obviously our quality of life is by far the most important. Admittedly, GDP and GNP may be somewhat indicative of the average quality of life in a country, but this is at best a coarse measure. We ought not to focus on increasing GDP and GNP while losing sight of the true goal, which is to raise our quality of life. By concentrating on the wrong measures of progress, we are confounding ourselves, and exposing ourselves to a life of wealthy misery.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wuxia: Part 1

Even the most ignorant of people amongst all the sects and schools in the entire Wulin know about the tumultuous event that happened fifty years ago. Then, the treacherous Shangguan Bo destroyed one of Wulin’s five major sects and almost sparked a war between nations. Fortunately, Shangguan Bo was stopped by the heroic Ren Juzhong, master of the Ren manor. Ren Juzhong was a good friend of Shangguan Bo, but he was able to put friendship aside and justly execute heaven’s way, killing Shuangguan Bo. Thus, a catastrophic war was barely avoided.

Shangguan Bo, before he was revealed to be a traitor and a man of great evil, was widely admired as a master of many arts, well deserving of the character “learned” in his name. He had acquired mastery in astrology, calligraphy, painting, and martial arts, among many other things. But it was his skill in venoms that caused the most harm to the world; he had invented a poison so deadly and ingenious that it was unparallel in history. This poison was called the “Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder”; dissolved in water, it was colourless, odourless, and tasteless, absolutely undistinguishable from just water; after consuming it, the victim would have no indication that he was poisoned until seven days later, where worms would gorge and consume the victim’s intestines from the inside. Lastly, the poison was impossible to neutralise by any medicine or remedy, and could not be expelled by internal energy either. It was indeed an ultimate toxin and weapon.

It was through underhanded trickery that Shangguan Bo managed to get the members of the Mofeng Sect to consume the Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder. None of them had suspected that they were poisoned. On the fifth day, Ren Juzhong arrived at the main hall of the Mofeng Sect with the Divine Doctor Xue and his young pupil. Ren Juzhong had learnt of Shangguan Bo’s evil plans through the great resources of his manor. Originally, the Ren clan was a family of wealthy traders with branches in many cities and towns within the empire, but they found that their trade routes and branches were also good for gathering information. Eventually, they began to deal exclusively in the trade of information, which only their resources and reach could gather effectively; and thus, the Ren manor became the centre of the most massive engine of news and rumors and secrets that the Wulin had ever seen. Thanks to this enormous and unrivalled engine, Ren Juzhong learnt of the poisoning plot, and tried to prevent it, but he knew he was too late. Hence, he had instead sought out the world’s greatest physician, Divine Doctor Xue, in an attempt to save the Mofeng Sect. Unfortunately, the Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder was indeed the chief among poisons; all the Divine Doctor could do was to diagnose that the Mofeng Sect members had been poisoned by some unknown poison. Indeed, at that point of time the Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder was unknown to the world, for Shangguan Bo had invented it in secrecy. Though the Divine Doctor was known for his ability to cure even diseases he had not encountered before, he was truly stumped by this new and mysterious poison; he was only able to witness the gruesome deaths of everyone in the Mofeng Sect, from the most skilled elders to the most junior of disciples. The Divine Doctor was so shocked by this scene of death, and so ashamed by his inaptitude, that henceforth he returned to his home in the mountains and went into a prolonged period of retreat, trying to research some cure to counter this potent poison that could only be described as being a devil’s gift from the eighteenth level of hell.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chinese Blackjack (Ban-luck)

Chinese Blackjack, otherwise known as "Ban-Luck" to some Singaporeans, is interesting in that it is an almost symmetric game between the player(s) and the dealer. This is because the payouts and scoring rules are identical for both player and dealer, which contributes to the simplicity of the game. In fact, if the dealer chooses to play in a particular fashion, namely hitting his cards before revealing the players' hands, then it does become a perfectly symmetric game.

Conversely, a dealer's house advantage comes solely from being able to selectively reveal some players' hands before hitting. In other words, the dealer has an advantage in that he is able to first beat hands which are likely to be weaker (by being busted), and that he is able to further build up his hand to confront stronger hands.

Out of a pure curiosity, I was considering some potential strategies for Chinese Blackjack. However, most player strategies are likely to have a minimal impact, due to the inherently limited strategic nature of the game. Chinese Blackjack forces the player to draw til at least 16, in which case it is (by statistical reasoning) unwise to draw further. The only exception to this rule is when one has a 'soft' hand, comprising of one Ace. Though I have yet to perform a through analysis of the mathematics, I believe that it is better to hit in this case. There is a small chance of improving one's hand, but the main issue is to confound the dealer's opponent model by tricking him into believing that you have a busted hand.

As a dealer, there is much more room for strategic analysis. It is quite possible to compute, via extended Monte Carlo simulation, the probability of a 4, 3 card hand being busted (assuming the basic opponent model given by the hit-til-16 rule). Furthermore, with some computing power or pre-computed tables, it is possible to obtain the precise odds of a player's hand being superior to yours, and the odds of a drawn card improving your hand, given the already exposed hands. However, I have my doubts regarding the feasibility of such implementations.