Friday, 30 December 2011

"The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see."
- James Baldwin

Thursday, 29 December 2011

A Man

"A man carries cash. A man looks out for those around him — woman, friend, stranger. A man can cook eggs. A man can always find something good to watch on television. A man makes things — a rock wall, a table, the tuition money. Or he rebuilds — engines, watches, fortunes. He passes along expertise, one man to the next. Know-how survives him. A man fantasizes that kung fu lives deep inside him somewhere. A man is good at his job. Not his work, not his avocation, not his hobby. Not his career. His job. It doesn’t matter what his job is, because if a man doesn’t like his job, he gets a new one.

A man can speak to dogs.

A man listens, and that’s how he argues. He crafts opinions. He can pound the table, take the floor. It’s not that he must. It’s that he can.

A man can look you up and down and figure some things out. Before you say a word, he makes you. From your suitcase, from your watch, from your posture. A man infers.

A man owns up. That’s why Mark McGwire is not a man. A man grasps his mistakes. He lays claim to who he is, and what he was, whether he likes them or not.
Some mistakes, though, he lets pass if no one notices. Like dropping the steak in the dirt.

A man can tell you he was wrong. That he did wrong. That he planned to. He can tell you when he is lost. He can apologize, even if sometimes it’s just to put an end to the bickering.
A man does not wither at the thought of dancing. But it is generally to be avoided.
Style — a man has that. No matter how eccentric that style is, it is uncontrived. It’s a set of rules.

A man loves the human body, the revelation of nakedness. He loves the sight of the pale bosom, the physics of the human skeleton, the alternating current of the flesh. He is thrilled by the wrist and the sight of a bare shoulder. He likes the crease of a bent knee.
Maybe he never has, and maybe he never will, but a man figures he can knock someone, somewhere, on his bottom.

A man doesn’t point out that he did the dishes.

A man knows how to ridicule.

A man gets the door. Without thinking.
He stops traffic when he must.

A man knows how to lose an afternoon. Playing Grand Theft Auto, driving aimlessly, shooting pool.
He knows how to lose a month, also.

A man welcomes the coming of age. It frees him. It allows him to assume the upper hand and teaches him when to step aside.
He understands the basic mechanics of the planet. Or he can close one eye, look up at the sun, and tell you what time of day it is. Or where north is. He can tell you where you might find something to eat or where the fish run. He understands electricity or the internal-combustion engine, the mechanics of flight or how to figure a pitcher’s ERA.

A man does not know everything. He doesn’t try. He likes what other men know.

A man knows his tools and how to use them — just the ones he needs. Knows which saw is for what, how to find the stud, when to use galvanized nails.

A miter saw, incidentally, is the kind that sits on a table, has a circular blade, and is used for cutting at precise angles. Very satisfying saw.
He does not rely on rationalizations or explanations. He doesn’t winnow, winnow, winnow until truths can be humbly categorized, or intellectualized, until behavior can be written off with an explanation. He doesn’t see himself lost in some great maw of humanity, some grand sweep. That’s the liberal thread; it’s why men won’t line up as liberals.

A man resists formulations, questions belief, embraces ambiguity without making a fetish out of it. A man revisits his beliefs. Continually. That’s why men won’t forever line up with conservatives, either.

A man is comfortable being alone. Loves being alone, actually. He sleeps.
Or he stands watch. He interrupts trouble. This is the state policeman. This is the poet. Men, both of them.

A man loves driving alone most of all.

A man watches. Sometimes he goes and sits at an auction knowing he won’t spend a dime, witnessing the temptation and the maneuvering of others. Sometimes he stands on the street corner watching stuff. This is not about quietude so much as collection. It is not about meditation so much as considering. A man refracts his vision and gains acuity. This serves him in every way. No one taught him this — to be quiet, to cipher, to watch. In this way, in these moments, the man is like a zoo animal: both captive and free. You cannot take your eyes off a man when he is like that. You shouldn’t. Who knows what he is thinking, who he is, or what he will do next."

- Tom Chiarella, What Is a Man? (for Esquire)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Conjuring Thoughts of a Return to Eden

Stars - Changes

This time in between the day and the night
The light kills my sense of life
So scared, I'll turn it on, turn it on, turn it on

It's dull, this dusk, this desk, this dust
My eyes adjust, I'll blow out the flame
Can you and me remain

Changes, I've never been good with change
I hate it when it all stays the same
Caught between the gold and the gain

Changes, I've never been good with change
I hate it when it all stays the same
Caught between the cold and the wave
My heart beats up again

Once said, words make a world of their own
I misread, I can't get you back on the phone
So tired, I'll turn it off, turn it off, turn it off

How's that last week we were whole
You're far away and I hardly know
Can you and me delay

Changes, I've never been good with change
I hate it when it all stays the same
Caught between the gold and the gain

Changes, I've never been good with change
Troubled when it all stays the same
I'm caught between this cold and the wave
My heart beats up again

Are you my trouble
Are you my trouble
Are you my trouble

Are you my trouble
Are you my trouble
Are you my trouble

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

If you want to win,

you can't be afraid to lose.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Cleverbot is Clever!

I was messing around with Cleverbot, and this conversation was recorded.

Me: You're not that clever.
CB: Neither are you.
Me: I never said I was, but you're Cleverbot, which implies that you're supposed to be clever, so therefore my assertion that you're not that clever makes more sense.
CB: I'm not avoiding that subject at all. In fact, I've admitted to that fact.
Me: Well played, Cleverbot.
CB: Sarcasm, how nice.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Valued Things

Things that are of value are double-edged swords. We can get immense happiness, joy and utility from having things that we value, but at the same time we are susceptible to the pain of not having those things we value. Additionally, we are also liable to experience the troublesomeness of having to strive for those things we value. For example, a woman who wants a man who is both competent and good looking certainly has more on her plate to deal with than one who would just rather have competence. But at the same time, having more things to value means that you're more selective, which means having higher standards. People chasing things they value are likely to enjoy the hunt itself and play it like a game.

Choosing to follow a philosophy of life that is more zen (where detachment means no loss and no unhappiness) or more liberal (where it is better to have loved and lost than not loved at all) might ultimately be a matter of what one tends to gain or lose.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Last Dance

Oh when the cold wind blows
I feel it to the bone
Oh when you say you know
I feel I am not alone

And even though I may return
To empty places on my own
Where I remember everything you want me to forget.

And you provide a parachute
When I am falling like a stone
And I remember there's a life that I have not lived yet

You and I
Truth and lies
I’ve been fooling myself too long
You and I
Breaking ties
How could we be so right and so wrong?

I hear the words you say
Your mouth against my skin
My world just falls away
You light me from within

And even though I may return
To empty places on my own
Where I remember everything you want me to forget.

And you provide a parachute
When I am falling like a stone
And I remember there's a life that I have not lived yet

You and I
Truth and lies
I’ve been fooling myself too long
You and I
Breaking ties
How could we be so right and so wrong?

Friday, 14 October 2011

What Can a Simple Physical Attractiveness Rating Exercise Tell Us?

Recently, as part of a larger study I'm doing with my professor on the effects of social status and desirability, I had to get a large sample of photographs (of both men and women between the ages of 19-24) pre-rated for attractiveness.

I found the following patterns:

1) Men showed more agreement in ratings when the female was highly attractive. That is, if a female was very pretty, the ratings would be high, and the standard deviation would be low.

2) Women showed more agreement in ratings when the male was very unattractive. That is, if a male looked ugly or weird, the ratings would be low, and the standard deviation would be low too.

3) Men generally showed more agreement in ratings overall (there was less variance in the ratings), while women generally showed less agreement in ratings overall (there was greater variance in the ratings).

I don't think these findings are groundbreaking, because there's bound to be research out there already formally documenting such results. But it was interesting to just deduce on my own the implications of these results.

Firstly, these show that men all know a good-looking female face when they see it. This indicates that physical attractiveness is an important marker of whether a woman is desirable or not and what constitutes physical attractiveness (in a face, at least) is quite universal (in the culture these male respondents come from, at least). Attractiveness ambiguity at the lower end of the spectrum suggests that men are still willing to give some women who might be less attractive benefit of the doubt. Men are thus more sensitive to the higher end of the female facial attractiveness spectrum.

Secondly, when a man is potentially attractive, not every woman may agree - each may have her own idea of what an attractive male looks like. This thus suggests that what makes a man desirable may not lie in his physical attractiveness; more information is needed about the man before most women are willing to be attracted to him, such as his status, character and background. Looking at a picture of a man therefore provides insufficient information for most women to make judgments about his desirability. But they tend to agree when a man looks unattractive. Women are thus more sensitive to the lower end of the male facial attractiveness spectrum.

Taken together, when we look at how come men look out for the higher end more while women are highly sensitive to the lower end more, it suggests that there are different payoffs in the mating strategies between males and females. For men, it is more costly to miss an opportunity to get to know a very attractive woman (what we might call a Type I error). On the other hand, for women, it is more costly to get attracted to a man who is potentially very undesirable (a Type II error).

Furthermore, the most attractive male will never be as highly rated as the most attractive female, while the most unattractive female will never be as poorly rated as the most unattractive male.

What does this imply for the society I live in at large, if we at least assume the ratings to reflect psychological dispositions and preferences of men and women in Singaporean culture?

For the men, it suggests that you're screwed if you're below the threshold of desirability, whatever that threshold depends on (looks, status, personality etc). Women will be sensitive towards these below-threshold men, so that they can be avoided.

For the women, it suggests in a rather morbid and cynical manner, that unless you're at the top (of what society defines as attractive), most guys won't be paying attention.

Why do these extrapolations seem to mirror what really is happening in society? Because our success at reproduction lies at the heart of our actions and behaviours. We wouldn't care about how high our mate value is, if it didn't matter. But the truth is it does (at least to some extent), because we are constantly rated by members of the opposite sex (and they also make use of how the members of our own sex rate us to make secondary judgments).

Because we care enough, we strive to better ourselves in those ways that eventually lead up to the kinds of patterns we see in society - men trying to peacock themselves up with material adornments, such as nice cars, suits and jobs (so they won't look down-and-out at the bottom of the ladder), and women trying to one-up each other on physical attractiveness, such as make up, clothing and even cosmetic surgery now in countries where such surgeries are readily available and social norms permit them (so they can be at the top).

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


I'm reading Sleights of Mind by neuroscientists Stephen L. Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde. It is a highly engaging and entertaining double-up between neuroscience and cognitive psychology (think brains, neurons, vision, perception, attention, memory, etc), and magic. Two topics that I have a fond loving for since I was a little kid.

Anyway, here's a nice excerpt on perspective paintings that are life-like (unfortunately nothing to do with magic, but all to do with illusion all the same):

"Artists have been utilizing visual illusions since the fifteenth century, when Renaissance painters invented techniques to trick your brain into thinking that a flat canvas is three-dimensional or that a series of brushstrokes in a still life is a bowl of luscious fruit."

"Trompe l'oeil is a French term that means 'trick the eye'. It flourished in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. The lifelike pictures appeared to jump from the frame.

An early and perhaps apocryphal example of trompe l'oeil, reported by Pliny the Elder, is the legendary competition between two renowned painters in ancient Greece, Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Each artist brought a covered painting to the contest. When Zeuxis unveiled his work, his painted grapes were so realistic that birds flew from the sky to peck at them. Convinced of his victory, Zeuxis tried to uncover Parrhasios's painting to confirm the superiority of his work. He was defeated, however, because the curtain he tried to pull back was Parrhasios's painting itself."
After getting out of the train at Bras Basah MRT, I hopped into the passenger lift which would bring me up four storeys to the main gantry exit area. That was when I realised I was the only guy in there, with about 7 or 8 females. So, I just thought, it'd be a pretty nice time for the lift to endure a breakdown there and then. And I pictured myself saying, "ah, sorry to inform you of this, but I have a very contagious virus on me." What happens next is up to the imagination; perhaps throwing out "just kidding" and garnering relieved sighs and maybe some smacks for kino haha.

Then the lift door opened and off to work I was, as everybody mundanely shuffled out.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Attractiveness and Beauty

Affluenza by Oliver James explores the idea that "there is a correlation between the increasing nature of affluenza and the resulting increase in material inequality: the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens" (my lazy literal quoting from Wikipedia).

After reading some reviews, the book is not without its critics. But there is one particular point he makes which I find interesting enough that I want to extend on it: the distinction between attractiveness and beauty. His definition is simply a perspective and is by no means objective, but the one he provides is useful to distinguish between superficial attraction (obvious, immediate, instinctive indicators and cues of sexual and physical attractiveness, such as waist-to-hip ratio, long hair, big boobs, a typically slim frame, skimpy clothing, etc) and beauty (a quality and attractiveness that transcends physique and enamates from within, by virtue of one's character, personality and how one carries himself/herself).

There is, for example, little doubt that a bombshell is attractive. Men are instinctively wired to be drawn to such cues of physical attractiveness. Beauty, conversely, has greater subjectivity to it, and is often in the eye of the beholder in the sense that if one is drawn to it, one just is, but at the same time, appreciating Oliver James's notion of beauty requires going one step further than just visually appreciating a person. It involves studying a person in the context of her behaviour and what she says, and then realizing that there's something more to her than simply meets the eye.

What is interesting about Oliver James's distinction is that very often, when it comes to attractiveness, there is often some societal or cultural standard that is in place, and everyone who wants to be attractive will be compelled to emulate it (and he argues that in affluenza-stricken cultures, there is greater incidence of such obsessions to emulate, such as South Koreans all aspiring to look a certain way through cosmetic and plastic means). On the other hand, what is beautiful has nothing to do with aspiring to look or behave in any particular way that is defined or demanded by society. A beautiful girl shines because of who she is, for who she is.

So, in that sense, seeking to be attractive deindividualizes, while being beautiful brings out one's individual beauty and never comes about through conformity to a societal standard. There can be many people who look the same, attractively, while there can never be two or more people who are beautiful in the same way.

I don't want to make this an issue of sex differences, but for simplicity's sake, a relevant example for men could also be in terms of their jobs. What appears to be an "attractive" occupation in Singapore, quite clearly, is to be a banker. This is perhaps the sort of job that a man would often hide behind in order to conceal his lack of individuality or personal choice in carving out a career path that he can call his own. I'm not trying to criticize the industry or its employees, but from personal anecdotal experience, I don't really know of many bankers who actually love their job. It's just something that is worth pursuing because it has high social prestige and pays well. In that sense, it is an attractive job, and it is a job that certainly deindividualizes. It is a big industry where nobody is really his own man. Conversely, having an interesting, "beautiful" occupation would be one where an individual has carved out and determined his own career path and whose job he will shape, rather than have the job shape him. I'm leaving this one at that, because this isn't my main point, but rather simply to explore what other forms this attractiveness/beauty divide can take.

My main insight is that it is quite clear, in which case, a person may feel more or less secure. A person who has a societal standard to live up to will certainly feel less secure than another person who has only his or her own personal standards to live up to. A woman who is compelled to look attractive according to a certain way will be afflicted with the insecurity either that one day, she will no longer look as attractive as what her culture deems "young and hot", or that her value pitted against thousands of other women vying to look just like that attractive exemplar defined by society will only be miniscule. Ugly competition is likely to be rife in this scenario. Contrast this to the woman of beauty whose attractive power comes from the beat of her heart, the thrill of her soul and the strength of her character, and this lady is her own woman - she cannot be bogged down by needless comparison.

It is silly to believe that any of us can be free of this affliction to conform and disregard the pressure that society and others put on us. Even I'm not spared, as I'm pelted quite regularly with social pressure by countless people who are curious, cynical or disdainful about the PhD route I'm taking. But I believe in my path. With every small step we take to actively switch from believing beauty lies in some exemplary ideal and striving to be like that (just like everyone else), to believing that beauty lies in being comfortable with who you are and bringing out the best in yourself for what you believe in, I think we can start to observe a positive shift in our collective self-esteem.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Encounter with Xiao Li

I met a Chinese national, presumably a foreign worker because of his adornments, today at my bus stop while I was headed to SMU. He approached me to ask if the buses were going to the Serangoon MRT station. I replied in the affirmative, and as my bus arrived I told him that I was headed to Serangoon MRT too so we could head down together. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but I thought I caught a glimpse of surprise in his eyes as he enthusiastically said, "好(great)!" and we got up the bus and took a seat together.

As we traveled along by bus and then later by train, I learnt that his name is Xiao Li and he had lost his way while trying to get supplies from Serangoon Gardens. Having just moved here from Henan six months ago and living at Yishun now, much of Singapore is still alien to him and he knows not a word of English. My mandarin is terrible, but we got along well enough. Sometimes, the great thing about such encounters that involve language barriers is that you end up trying to transcend the limits imposed by things like language, ethnicity, nationality or creed, and as a result connect more as fellow humans. As trivial as it was knowing that he had recently bought a computer from Little India and that the heat in Singapore takes some getting used to (Henan is predominantly cold), it was good company, and I felt happy knowing that he's getting by with some friends he made while on the job. It must not be easy traveling thousands of kilometres away from home to work in a country that is quite obviously xenophobic and elitist against such individuals.

In one TV programme that interviewed foreign workers in Singapore, one Bangladeshi worker was asked what he thought about Singapore. He said, as his voice cracked, that Singapore is a beautiful country, but when it comes to Singaporean people, sometimes he feels that Singaporeans respect and care for dogs and cats more than people like him. We virtually dehumanise these people and relegate them to a level lower than animals.

That sentiment really hits me hard. It is compounded by the fact that right now, in order to facilitate a study that my professor is trying to run, I need to recruit people who work low social status jobs as participants. However, more specifically, we need low social status workers who fit this demographic: Singaporean Chinese males aged 20-24, and Singaporean Chinese females aged 17-21. After two weeks, recruitment has yielded almost nothing, and I've come to realize that, insofar as a job can be considered "low social status" in Singapore, Singaporean Chinese aged 17-24 are very unlikely to be found there. As a Singaporean Chinese man myself, it is quite clear that we are the privileged lot in society.

I think more tribute should be paid to the people working the jobs we do not want to do. We may not like the policies that lead to such a crazy influx of foreign immigrants (I personally think these policies are problematic and do not solve more deeply-rooted economic problems), but we do not have to blame and shame the people who have arrived on our shores as a result of bad policy. When we utilize the things that constitute our high standard of living, such as clean public toilets and beautifully architectured buildings, a less privileged person dirtied his hands so that we are able to. A less privileged person took up that "low social status" job so that we didn't even have to entertain the possibility that such jobs are on the market for us to consider. I know that for most of my educated Singaporean Chinese counterparts, it is highly discomforting to imagine taking up one of these "low social status" jobs; I've been there. I've worked as a temp labourer to shift things before, but I'll bet I did so only because I know that few people know about this (it's different to say that I used to be a shifter - that can even be something to brag about - compared to if I am now and telling people about it). When I helped out at the SMU gown collection as an usher, ushering my fellow school mates who were from my year to the gown collection point, there were many instances where I had to endure questions that revolved around the idea of: "Why are you doing this kind of job?" Regardless of your own self-confidence, such questions still test your resolve. Jobs are low social status not ultimately because of how much they pay (although that is often partly the case), but simply because there is a stigma associated with them (just imagine comparing between working as a McDonald's waiter versus working at a yoghurt stall - both may pay the same and both involve the same job scope, but many people will find working at the yoghurt stall more trendy and palatable).

As a people, we can be more gracious, and sometimes by just taking that one step to put aside our prejudices, we can be a lot happier too. It's a choice and one that, I believe, many Singaporeans are capable of making.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Let's Hear it for EP

The last three evolutionary psychology-themed books that I had read are:
Demonic Males by Richard Wrangham
The Murderer Next Door by David Buss
Naturally Selected by Mark van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja

Evolutionary psychology has often been dominantly been associated with the mating stuff, and while that is an important aspect of evolutionary psychology (one hugely important layer of the foundational bedrock, in fact, because reproduction is vital to the spreading of genes), it has taken a form of its own and its less credible and less cautious adherents may take it to extremes and give the entire field of evolutionary psychology a bad name. To quote what a rather vocal school mate of mine once remarked on Facebook when he heard that evolutionary psychology was finally being offered as a module in SMU, he said, "Serious? But what is evolutionary psychology besides the American pick up artist crap?"

But evolutionary psychology's scope, once we extend beyond the basic tenets of sexual selection and mate preferences (i.e. due to the different value bestowed upon males and females' resources and the amount of parental investment in offspring), delves into why the human mind accomodates the capacity for aggression, coalitions, cooperation, reciprocity, morality, fairness, guilt, sadness, friendships, food taste preferences, loss aversion, attachment styles, jealousy, insecurity, fear, maternal feelings, love, hypocrisy, leadership, dominance, hierarchies, in-group/out-group bias and - I should stop here because the list will continue for quite a bit more - murder.

After four years of undergraduate studies in psychology, I'm personally certain that an evolutionary perspective holds the promise for the ultimate question of "why". We may know everything we know so far in disparate fields ranging from cognitive psychology to cultural psychology to neuroscience, but without understanding the adaptive nature of how our mind is designed, nothing really makes sense. It's like knowing that the human body is made up of stuff like kidneys and brains and hearts but not knowing what any of these things have got to do with each other and how a human being works. This is not to say that other psychological disciplines are unimportant. We need other specific psychological perspectives to give us greater texture on the mental adaptations that evolutionary psychology seeks to uncover. Every field is now increasingly working together to push the boundaries of understanding our mind. But I feel that it is important to clarify the promise that evolutionary psychology holds for the entire field of psychology as a whole.

The more I read too, the more I'm convinced that discovering our evolutionary and ancestral heritage holds the key to nipping our monkey instincts in the bud. The more adaptive and instinctive behaviours we can uncover, the more we can come up with creative solutions to deal with the undesirable ones. As a reknown analyst on terrorism once wonderfully put it, when posed with the question of how to deal with terrorists, he said, "don't hate the enemy." Because as long as you hate the enemy, you will never seek to understand it, and if you don't seek to understand it, you will never get the better of it. For much of the past century, many scholars have tried to deal with human evils by condemning them to the academic hallows of being aberrations, figments of violent western culture, or psychopathy (to name a few notorious red herrings). Refusing to believe that humans have adaptations for atrocities like violence and war just won't cut it anymore.

I'd acknowledge the ape in me, because that takes me out of the dark.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

I'm just ab-sal-lutely cooked right now. I've been wanting to blog about my grad trip for the longest time - officially 3 weeks, unofficially months - but it's hard to pen the perfect journal when you don't have time. It's now half done, sitting in the drafts of blogger.

Here's a typical outline of my day. Today, I headed out at 0830 to start early so that I could recruit fast food restaurant staff for a study that SMU is doing (details are P&C). It's a pain to talk to fast food restaurant staff (or any eatery staff for that matter) later in the day because there are always going to be customers you're standing in the way of. It's lunch time, it's impossible to talk to fast food restaurant staff anymore, so I make my way down to my office at SMU's School of Social Sciences. I get some coding work done for a professor who's researching the creativity of chocolate design, and intermittently I try and work on my publication. It's 2.45pm. I decide to give the recruitment task another go, and manage to pique the interest of some staff to participate. No word of commitment though, so I'm left to "okay, just drop an email to the address on the paper when you've decided," so I'll just have to wait for their email later. It's 3.15pm, so I rush down to School of Business for the negotiation class I'm doing teaching assistantship for. I try doing research assistantship work while being a teaching assistant. Class ends at 1845. I head back to my office at School of Social Sciences. Time to take a break from work - so I spend two and a half hours crafting out emails to prospective mentors (prospective grad students like me need to send these emails out to acquire the interest of professors who will then look out a little more for your graduate school application). I give myself a crash course on their work and research interests, eventually sending out three emails. Two of them reply, so I reply to their replies. It is about ten o' clock at night. Spurred by hunger, I head home, but decide to take the long 147 bus ride (50 minutes) instead of the train (30-35 minutes), so that I can get some video coding work done on the bus. I reach my home bus stop at 2315, and make a stop at my favourite prata shop to packet nasi goreng ikan bilis home. I finish dinner while checking my email, take a shower and now here I am at midnight wondering if I should continue working or head to bed, since I'm heading out early tomorrow morning again to repeat the recruitment process.

Of course, this isn't literally typical - the details change. But for about a month now, the work has been quite crazy, so I'm really looking forward to my Behavioural Sciences Institute (BSI) employment come October. For legal purposes, I'll have to wean myself off all these disparate (and very numerous) RAships and TAships so that I'm clean for full time work as a researcher for BSI. While the per hour pay that I'm getting now for all that RA work has been good so far, it's just not sustainable because the work is really random and both too little (won't add up to a substantially liveable amount) and too much (really) at the same time.

On the other hand, the email sending so far has been pretty good I think. I have been getting very positive and welcoming replies. Of course, one could really argue that these professors are returning templated emails to me; even I suspect that sometimes, especially when they do not bother starting with any address to me, such as "Dear Jose". But at least they aren't just instant-deleting my mail or sending back negative templated emails, so I'll take that as a good start. I sent my first email out on the 7th of September and, 9 days on, I've sent out a total of 8 emails. It gets easier and easier each time.

I think I'll call it a day here. Once October comes the proper blogging catch up can begin.

Friday, 26 August 2011


The days go by, and weeks turn to months. While I've repeatedly resolved to start updating and writing here again, a lack of time and will has consistently shoved its fat ass in the way. Enough of that; today will end the hiatus. There has been a lot, at least from my own egocentric perspective, to write about. This includes the following list of significant events that have conspired since the end of May (the venus flytrap stuff doesn't count, and it has sadly passed already by the way, due to my lack of competence in caring for it):

1) Graduation trip - South Asia
2) Association for Psychological Science 23rd Annual Conference at Washington DC
3) Holidaying in Hong Kong
4) all the other scattered yet interconnected things that have happened between Hong Kong and today

I'll start on my grad trip... Tomorrow or the day after. Uh oh lol.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A Thin Margin

"The big lie about capitalism is that everyone can be rich. That’s impossible. Capitalism works only if the vast majority of the population are kept poor enough to never quit working, are kept poor enough to accept distasteful jobs society cannot function without. If everyone were a millionaire, who would empty the trash or repair the sewers? It follows that the poorer the general population is made, the greater the worth of the money held by the wealthy, in terms of the lives which may be bought and sold with it."

— Michael Rivero

I can't say for sure where my future will take me. I do harbour very serious hopes of eventually becoming an academic researcher who writes his own books and gives conferences on subject matters pertaining to human nature, and this is a profession that is likely to pay well if I get far ahead enough.

But I will never forget that this privileged route I can choose to take, just to even give my passions and ambitions a shot whether I succeed or not, means that I am adequately fed, clothed and housed upon the hardships of others, many of whom will never have the opportunity to get a formal education, leave the borders of their country, contemplate career choices, survive until the age of fifty, or live without the insecurity of those things I am privileged with - food, clothing, shelter and social stability. Who I am and what I can do rests on the shoulders of primary workers who began an agricultural revolution thousands of years ago such that division of labour freed some people from being chained to the soil. I belong to that category of people free from hard labour so that I can, in economic speak, "put my resources to better (more efficient?) use". With a cosmic roll of the dice, I might very well be a poor labourer who has no access to any of the opportunities I have now.

For those reasons, it would be a sin not to make the most of my potential. I will strive to ensure that I make the most out of what I can do and contribute and, as far as I can manage, give back to society where it has allowed me to chase my dreams.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Can't believe how easy it was to not see it coming. I'm thankful that at my trough, a friend I've once helped came giving me my own advice.

Never externalize your insecurities. Feel low? Avoid situations in which you will be judged socially or where you're expected to "be yourself". Take some time off alone to work your issues out before dumping them on a cherished one. Some of those cycles of despise, when allowed to start during moments of weakness, can be awfully hard to get rid of.

You'll find yourself, alone.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

My First Plant - The Venus Fly Trap

Against the superstition of my parents, I got myself a venus fly trap from Takashimaya Cold Storage two days ago! (I used to own a typical female tree lizard when I was 11 years old and had to release it into the wild when my mum became pregnant with my brother because it was 'inauspicious'.) Why only now? Because I had never seen it sold anywhere else around Singapore before. This is officially the first plant I have ever owned, and as an evolution and natural design junkie this is probably THE plant to own.

Costing a silly $28.50, the venus fly trap has always been a childhood fascination for the simple fact that it is a very different kind of plant, which makes it cool. It doesn't just sit around, immobile, settling for bland water. It lures, seduces, attracts and kills, which means it has personal tastes and an appetite. Awesome.

You can read up all about it at HowStuffWorks, but in a nutshell the venus fly trap is an ode to evolution. It is native to the coast of North and South Carolina, because of the abundance of wetlands and humidity. Most plants can't survive in these areas because the soil is acidic, and minerals and other nutrients (which are necessary building blocks for plant growth) are scarce. The venus fly trap has evolved the ability to thrive by finding an alternate means of getting key nutrients such as nitrogen via living creatures like insects which also contain additional energy-laden carbohydrates.

As a result of trying to own a venus fly trap outside of its natural wild habitat, my venus fly trap is quite a baby for the care it requires. In order to mimic its natural conditions, distilled or rain water is needed as it cannot survive off tap water that is treated with unnatural chemicals. The dissolved solids in tap water - sodium, calcium, alkaline salts, sulphur, chlorine and magnesium - are detrimental to its health. My brother and I had quite a bit of fun trying to distill our own pure water, using a trick I learnt from the survival tip on how to extract drinking water from sea water (click here for another variant of this trick that can be done at home). Other simple, practical and readily available sources of pure distilled water include condensed water from air conditioners and car battery water.

The venus fly trap may survive without eating prey, but it certainly flourishes when it has nutritious food sources. So, if the venus fly trap is not located in the wild, feeding must be manually done. Good food includes flies, spiders, crickets, slugs and caterpillars within the length of 1/3 an inch (one inch being the size of an average trap). 2-3 bugs a month constitutes a healthy diet.

In the absence of a brain and animal perception, the venus fly trap accomplishes its task of capturing prey through specialized leaves that are both mouth and stomach in one. The leaves forming the trap secrete a sweet nectar that attract insects in search of food. It's a very interesting process but gets a little bit scientifically technical from here on, so a copy and paste from the HowStuffWorks page will have to do:

"When an insect enters the trap, it is likely to run into one of six, short, stiff hairs on the trap's surface. These are called trigger hairs, and they serve as a primitive motion detector for the plant. If two of these hairs are brushed in close succession, or one hair is touched twice, the leaves close down upon the offending insect within half a second.

What causes the leaves to squeeze shut? Nobody knows exactly how the sequential, mechanical stimulation of the trigger hairs translates into closing the trap. The prevailing hypothesis of the day is that:

1. Cells in an inner layer of the leaf are very compressed. This creates tension in the plant tissue that holds the trap open.
2. Mechanical movement of the trigger hairs puts into motion ATP-driven changes in water pressure within these cells.
3. The cells are driven to expand by the increasing water pressure, and the trap closes as the plant tissue relaxes."

The plant is thus capable of "distinguishing" between prey and inedible debris according to whether more than one trigger hair is touched. The food selection process may not be perfect (because real food in the form of flies and spiders may be crawling all around the plant, but the fly trap may be closed shut over something useless such as a leaf or twig), but this simple strategy has allowed it to do without muscles or a brain, which are very costly organs and tissues to sustain.

The digesting process is also very remarkable. Once the trap fully closes, the leaves form an airtight seal through long hair-like projections known as cilia so that digestive fluids and insect parts are kept inside the trap and bacteria and molds cannot enter. The finger-like cilia create the awesome impression of spiny teeth that has captured the imagination of monster-plant story spinners, but they are really only used to keep the trap latched shut.

Sometimes, a trap does not close shut and as a result may suffer from a bacterial infection, rot and fall away. The venus fly trap can tolerate losing traps because it can eventually sprout new ones. However, beyond this, the venus fly trap is also capable of losing traps "strategically" through "planned obsolescence", and this is one of its most amazing characteristics to me. When a trap runs its course of about 10 to 12 closures, it loses the ability to capture anything. The leaves of a trap remain spread wide open and it then devotes all its energy to the process of photosynthesis for the remainder of its life span, usually around 2 to 3 months. This former trap thus no longer goes through the ritual of attracting insects and eating them. In a purely evolutionary sense, this is somewhat similar to how menopausal mammals contribute to their social groups. This way, if a trap is repeatedly stimulated by inedible objects either because it is incompetent or poorly located, the rest of the plant can recoup some of the energy and ATP lost on its inefficient trap and make it focus instead solely on photosynthesis.

Once the insect is firmly gripped by the trap, a process of digestion begins. The trap secretes acidic digestive juices that dissolve the soft tissues and cell membranes of the food, serve as an antiseptic to kill bacteria and enzymatically digest DNA, amino acids and other cellular molecules into small pieces that can be eventually ingested by the plant. The process continues until only the hard exoskeleton of the prey remains. Once the prey's nutrients are depleted, the plant reabsorbs the digestive fluid. This serves as a signal to reopen the trap, and the prey's remains are left behind. In natural conditions, wind and rain water helps to remove the remains but, indoors, I'll have to manually remove them for my plant.

As this is my maiden attempt, I'm not certain of my ability to keep my venus fly trap alive. But I'll give it a shot. Most plants hardly pique my interest but this high-maintenance creature certainly is a beauty!

Friday, 3 June 2011

Chinese Prayer

When I go to the chinese temple to pray, I usually experience a sensation of reverence. This is quite a recent and novel development, given how it was that only about four or so years ago I was anti-religion to some degree.

However, much of the awe and humility isn't so much because of the holiness and spirituality behind the religion and practice (although they do play a huge part still), but rather because of the fact that it belies a long-standing tradition. When I get on my knees, I am acknowledging that this practice arises from a philosophy and way of life that has sustained the lives of thousands of generations before me.

I find it virtually impossible not to pay my respects to that.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Been offline for a pretty long while, but the girlfriend and I have departed Southeast Asia and headed off for the India-Nepal leg of our trip. At this point, we had just left India after 5-6 days traveling around the bustling cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, and are nicely nestled in Kathmandu. 6 days here, and then I'm off to Washington DC for my psychology conference!

Actually, there's a transit point between South Asia and the US for me, where I'll be in Singapore for a day. I think that day is a Monday... Bad ass fate.

Once more, get updates from Angie's blog, where she details our adventures around South Asia!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring

I'm currently out of the country at the moment on my long-awaited graduation trip. For updates, do head over to Angie's blog, for a really awesome coverage of our journey!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

No Yong, Chin & Ng (2011), YET

Fudge. We didn't get SUPC, so there goes the chance for the Asian Pillars of Psychology trio to make our mark as undergraduates. There's always more ahead.

Meanwhile, this comes as a very relevant article (forwarded to me by my evolutionary psychology professor) after last night's eventful visit to Le Baroque, with the NUS law exchange students holding some kind of post-exam party:

Is Love Color Blind?
by Steve Sailer

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Challenge Accepted, Challenge Done

About a month and a half ago in Whine and Dine, I basically allowed myself to rant about the mountain of work I had to do (a rather rare occasion that I did about something mundane). In it, I said that I had to grapple with:

1) four modules
2) one thesis
3) three essays
4) three presentations
5) at least two publication projects
6) the Stanford Undergraduate Conference project
7) planning my graduate trip
8) working out my APS presentation in Washington DC
9) Graduate Record Examination
10) running a friend's psychology study
11) teaching assistantship
12) research assistantship
13) and more

all at more or less the same time, and that the one-week mid-term break was a make-or-break point where I either pull through or completely crumble, my dreams turning to dust and my GPA going down the drain.

Yes it was a rant post, but I ended it off basically saying CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

Today, I stand relatively unscathed, having completed almost everything and making it through (with the sole exception of the Stanford Undergraduate Conference not garnering a reply yet). Because of this, which I do consider to be quite a success on a personal level, I therefore feel compelled to reiterate some personal mantras I always tell myself, at the risk of sounding pompous.

  1. Negativity never helped make anything better. It might make you feel better in some small kind of way, but just by rationally thinking about it, panicking, stressing out and complaining never improved things, especially if the odds are against you. Why make your looming mountain of work harder for yourself to complete, and worse still, irritate other people around you? It does not suffice to say that sometimes we can't help it. All it does is satisfy some part of our brain responsible for emotional gratification, or our primal desire to bail out or seek sympathy. You can continue to think that way if you do not want to accomplish anything. Perhaps the only negativity that is permissible is associated with hate, such as a burning desire to destroy or own your work so as to get it out of your way.

  2. Just do, part one. Many times, the worst part of doing something is the part before we even get down to doing anything, because we contemplate the fear of failure, we experience the anxiety of embarking on a task that is potentially difficult or painful, and we entertain the apprehension of even trying. That is the worst and most unforgivable thing that can stop us - when we don't even give it a shot. If failure doesn't even get a chance, forget about success.

  3. Just do, part two. You are often more resilient than you give yourself credit for. The moment you're thrown into the deep end, you'll find a way to survive. Of course, there's the odd failure, but going back to point 2, at least you found out. It would be extremely silly to miss the chance of finding out that you can succeed. And in most cases, we make it through somehow. Those times we make it through will give us the confidence we need to take on greater tasks in future.

  4. Just do, part three. There's a lot of work to be done and you haven't started, so the road ahead looks like an examination paper with twenty questions, or a blank document expecting to be filled with 10,000 words. JUST GET STARTED. Do the more enjoyable parts first, or do the questions that are easier first. Once you gain momentum doing the tasks that are least costly to your time and efforts, you'll usually find that the rest of it isn't as difficult as you thought. The most daunting part of an essay is knowing that your document is completely blank. Start filling it out. The rest gets easier once the content starts to flow and your job list starts to shrink.

  5. Enjoy the ride. Relish the challenge. Think of life as a journey, and that this is a small bump in the road. Years down the road, you'll laugh ridiculously at how difficult you thought your problems were then. Get real.

  6. Point 5 requires you to be optimistic. Yes, you have to be, otherwise you would not dare to do anything. Like point 1, pessimism about your own capability is a feeling to be entertained if you don't want to pull through. It is not going to be easy for people who are dispositionally pessimistic, I'll grant that, but whatever it is, find a way to suppress your pessimism. Talk to people, get social support, and most importantly, do that because you WANT to remove your self-doubt, not because you want others to agree how uniquely dire your situation is.

Yes, the truth can sometimes sound like tough love, but truth is not a democracy. Carpe diem.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Human or Spiritual?

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

- Teilhard de Chardin

I'm not sure where I stand on this one but it does provide some food for thought.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Last Spanish Class

I guess I've always thought this, though I've never felt compelled enough to write about it until today when my Spanish class came to an end. We spent the last class studying about the festivals in Spain, and our Professor explained to us the significance behind the festivals which are heavily influenced by Catholicism. Finally, we finished off the lesson with a video showing the various festivals celebrated by natives across the country.

As the video went on I couldn't help but marvel at the diversity and the richness of the culture and tradition I was witnessing. It struck me that it is really the small but very embedded things like these - looking forward to your holiday festivals, carrying out the rituals of the tradition (the Spanish eat twelve grapes while counting down to the new year, carrying the "Three Wise Men" (Los Reyes Magos) on platforms while the whole town is gathered on the streets, getting chased by bulls while wearing red in Pamplonas, dancing and making merry in public), visiting friends and family on important dates, always having something to cheer, drink, dance, sing and celebrate about - that make one proud to be part of something and want to perpetuate these things, generation after generation. I almost felt like crying for some reason. I think I feel quite strongly that I'm missing out on something important.

Cultural traditions like these retain the child-like innocence and longing in those who have been captivated by them when they were kids. They grow up, get married, have kids and want their own sons and daughters to experience what they did, because the experience is so significant and personally meaningful, and therefore important. Art, beauty and performance in culturally rich countries like these live on because these festivals allow those forms of expressions to thrive. It does not take some profit-driven economic nonsense to determine if art to them is worth pursuing or not. At least from what I saw, art and performance is important because the tradition and the culture is worth preserving. And boy were those festivals huge. On fiesta day, my Professor says that nobody stays at home. Sometimes, Spanish who are overseas miss it so much that they gather around television sets watching the celebrations back home, because it is inconceivable to forget about the celebrations. What longing and devotion that is. Maybe that's really what it takes to feel like part of something, and how a character that is guided by the heart, so that ideals and beliefs are stood up for, is formed.

I've thought hard about it, and I honestly can't say anything about my own personal culture that I'm particularly very proud of, nor do I even really know what it really is. I just was never brought up adequately that way, and I think my brother is there too (although he's far less aware of how potentially important this can be, which can be bliss seeing how agonized I am about this issue). Chinese New Year isn't half what it was one or two mere decades ago, and most youths I know of aren't proud of it or see it as a chore. I think Christmas fares somewhat better, but it is so terribly commercialized that I think many people are chasing commercially-fabricated dreams rather than celebrating traditions and values. Kudos to those who still genuinely put in the yearly efforts to re-establish kinship ties.

I must go to Spain one day to see for myself what this is like, right in the flesh. I will never truly know what they're experiencing, because I never grew up there and I think that it is in our developmental years that these things capture the heart. But I think it will be more than enough for me to experience it vicariously through the emotions on their faces.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

"But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"

- Albert Camus

Friday, 11 March 2011

Is Philosophy Dead?

I am reminded of the latest book Stephen Hawking published late last year titled The Grand Design. In it, he proclaims that "philosophy is dead."

I can only hope that he said those words in the spirit of a publicity stunt, because if he really meant it, I must say that I am sorely disappointed. For someone whose enterprise is dedicated the search for knowledge, meaning and truth (and no less someone many people admire for his intellectual brilliance), the statement demonstrates that he has completely and utterly missed the point.

Since the beginning of man's ability to philosophize, thinkers who consider themselves the end-all-be-all of knowledge have been trying to kill philosophy over and over again to no avail. I am reminded of Hegel's belief that philosophy ended with him.

One only needs to return to Albert Einstein for insight on why seekers of knowledge even do what they do:

"The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religion."

To quote a few useful rejoinders to the statement that "philosophy is dead,"

By Angie Hobbs from Angie Hobbs' Blog:

"It's an extraordinarily ill-informed view of what philosophy is, even if we leave to one side the vital work that philosophers like Zeno did in kicking off mathematics. What of the valuable work in, for example, ethics and political theory and aesthetics and philosophy of mind that philosophers do when they have studied the supposed 'facts' with which scientists present them?"

"... What of the fact that philosophers are often asking different kinds of questions from the ones that Hawking asks? Aristotle says that one can look for four different kinds of 'cause' or 'reason' (aitia) when examining any thing or fact or state of affairs: material, formal, efficient and final. I suspect that if Aristotle were to read The Grand Design he might suggest that Hawking has concentrated on the material and efficient explanations of the cosmos, and simply not fully understood the force of questions about possible formal and final explanations."

"To say that the law of gravity allows the universe to create itself from nothing won't do: is the law of gravity supposed to be 'nothing'? Why is there a law of gravity and not no law of gravity? Appeals to M-theory will not satisfy either. Quite apart from the fact that this theory is by no means polished or finalised [...] appeals to M-theory are only pushing the problem upstairs: even if all the maths eventually works out, we can still ask 'Why M-theory and not nothing?' This does not mean that the answer is necessarily a designer God [...] though again, there is space for such a view. It does not even mean that there has to be any answer at all to the search for a 'final' cause of the cosmos; but humans can and will still ask the question, and some of us will feel that Hawking has not understood what such questioners are asking."

By Wes Alwan from The Partially Examined Life:

"... We should really ask people what Hawking and his ilk think of literature and the humanities in general. “I am only interested in the hard sciences and everything else is squishy and impractical and insufficiently number-ish” is not an argument. It simply reflects an orientation toward activities that are as far away from social concerns as possible. It’s what we associate with being a nerd, and in a sense these sorts of pseudo-philosophical Papal Bulls by the popularizers of science are simply the ultimate revenge of the nerds.

Worse, they are a rejection of interiority, a rejection of the idea that reflection is a worthwhile endeavor. Our own thoughts and feelings cannot be “data”; me [sic] must concentrate only on empirical objects. It’s an attempt to kill off large areas of inquiry, because those areas of inquiry defy easy answers and point to the limits of scientific inquiry."

And personally, as a cheap jibe at "philosophy is dead" (Hawking, 2010), the statement is inherently self-defeating because it is a philosophical statement.

Returning back to Einstein's quote, if philosophy ever dies, so will humanity.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Great Philosophy

Great philosophy is transcendental in the way that it is timeless, universal and requires little context. One can peer into the depths of a philosophy and know it speaks of truth without the cumbersome and lengthy explanations that science has to go through just to get close. Our automatic connection to great philosophy is instantaneous and revelatory because the unifying theme is humanity.
I think existential awareness or consciousness, a term I will loosely use, can be a double-edged sword. A lot of human experience is rich because we just go through them spontaneously, without entirely knowing that we are. Well, maybe we can know we are experiencing such emotions and experiences - that will be far better than if we went through life not knowing anything - but I think the modern tendency to want to scientifically and rationally know everything can be extremely detrimental to savouring life's experiences.

Those who know, just know. It is like how, if I had to explain what love is to you, you will never know love. I think the myriad self-help books capitalizing on science to teach everyone how to do everything from love, relationships, leadership, to immortality, will eventually lead everyone to miss the point.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

(Almost) Perfect Brains

"Turing's original insight is as singular as Darwin's idea about natural selection, and like all great ideas, its simplicity hides its depth.


It has been said about Darwin's theory of evolution that it's the ultimate tautology - the survivors survive. This faux complaint presents a powerful feature of evolution; whatever works to keep you alive and get your genes into the next generation is just fine, no matter how weird the reasons or the results. But there is another feature of survival that is often not emphasized so much - survival is hard, desperately hard. Darwin understood this clearly and emphasized it in his title to Chapter 3 in The Origin of Species - "The Struggle for Existence." Mere persistence from one moment to the next is a struggle. So the augmented tautology becomes "The survivors survive but their life is desperate."

... all early humans can be seen as quite desperate, living a hard life with the threat of starvation as a constant motivator. Hunting and gathering is simply not very efficient, and until agriculture was discovered, early humans were always just one major mistake away from starving to death. This point is hard to overemphasize. Life is unforgiving, and so life's mechanisms had a constant pressure to be efficient - to capture, store, and process energy efficiently. And when we look at the components of life, cells, they are literal wonders of efficient energy-handling.

Out of the pressure comes efficiency. We all know that we become much more efficient and creative when we are desperate - when circumstances dictate that we absolutely must find some solution to a problem even though and money have almost run out. Desperation is indeed the mother of invention. Plato called it necessity, but he really meant desperation. Life itself responds the same way: The tougher the times, the more crafty and efficient the solution; such is the power of evolution" [italics mine]

- Read Montague, computational neuroscientist, Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect

Cognitive neuroscience, computational theory of the mind and evolutionary understanding are indeed strange bedfellows that have come together to realize the potential of understanding human consciousness in the coming century.

And the italicized points are precisely, to me at least, why evolutionary thinking cannot be taken lightly. Detractors may dismiss it because of its tarnished past (brought on by determinists or extremist right-wingers with moral motives) or its whimsical present (pop books and magazines wielding evolutionary reasoning for sex and attraction and just-so stories), but its underlying logic still presents us a vital window to understanding why our brain is simply so efficient. And evolutionary psychology has still a lot more to offer insofar as the brain continues being a decision-making information processor. Computational theory of the mind (CTOM) combines to bridge the gap between 'machinery' and consciousness, and there we will find answers in the future as to how what we have always regarded as the mind - spiritual matter, consciousness, ideas, thoughts, etc - can be produced by a warm mass of tissue and neurons.

It really doesn't hurt at all that its not just the evolutionary psychologists who are touting or at least acknowledging the reasoning power of evolution with regards to studying the human mind. Read Montague is one such case. Regardless of whether we have to skirt the terminology of evolution which bears the baggage of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, we will continue to find the logic and terms of adaptation and functionality in future studies of the mind if we are to understand consciousness in a scientific manner at all.

Will be eagerly devouring the book in the next week or so. CTOM holds immense promise.

Friday, 25 February 2011


Yeah it's a TC Bank advert, but it's still a darn good video which strikes right at the heart of what it means to live.

Sometimes I play soccer on Sunday morning and we still see some uncles bringing a team down and taking on the young'uns. Some of them are in the 40s range, but they're still up and running, alive and kicking.

Maybe most of all, they're still bros who've got each other.

When we stop asking why, when we stop being awesome, when we stop dreaming, we die.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Whine and Dine

Work-life balance is at an all-time poor at the moment. At the rate I'm going I'll probably lose all my hair, develop stomach ulcers, bust an artery or lose my soul like Natalie Portman in Black Swan (except not so glamourously).

There's always school work, of course. Presentations and assignments for four completely unrelated courses (Design Thinking, World Politics, Cultural Arts and Identities, and Spanish), each with its own research essay and examinations, and then the thesis. Throw in my supervisor's publication projects and the Stanford Undergraduate Conference project, and that's three more or so huge projects outside of standard curriculum time, concurrently. Add to that planning for grad trip from April to May, squeezing in the APS Conference in Washington DC at the end of May, and Hong Kong in June. And if I get Stanford, which is also at the end of May, then that's Washington + California in the span of one week (probably have to pass on it). Then there's the GRE retake on March 24th (haven't began preparing for, AGAIN), my friend's study to help run at the moment (as well as the eventual data entry of 100 participants' survey responses), teaching assistantship (thankfully and mercifully ends tomorrow evening) and lastly research assistantship. And a whole list of errands to run - reapply for driving license (which I lost last year), get contact lenses, set up bank joint-account, go for immunity jabs and stuff for the grad trip, etc etc. My list of things to do is hitting the goddamned roof.

Next week, my much-needed midterm break will be here and I have this nagging feeling that if I don't sort out at least half the stuff I have to do, I will flunk everything that I'm doing (or will have to do eventually) - failure to meet coursework deadlines, poorly written thesis, lack of preparation for GRE, failure to send in the submission for Stanford and, generally, messing up my entire life plan (so far) for graduate studies.

Interestingly, while this is an obviously absolutely shitty situation to be in, part of me relishes the challenge. And regardless of what happens, I'm gonna get my ass into graduate school.

But first things first, do or die next week.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Some Thoughts on Goodwill

I woke up to one of the crappiest days I've had in recent times. The past week had been a mess - assignments that piled up, presentations due next week, the thesis to take care of, and other obligations I had to see to. The past three days saw me notching a total of about ten hours of sleep only, and when this happens I get an outbreak of sinus that usually lasts the whole day. The feeling of tiredness and a sneezy, leaky nose is one of the most miserable feelings ever, especially when there's a whole day ahead of you from 11am to 10.30pm consisting of studies to run/participate in, meetings and classes to attend, and teaching assistantships to conduct (of course this is nothing compared to enduring starvation or a lifetime of poverty, but... you get the drift).

I don't really know how to put this, but let me try. In my experience so far I think it is really rare to observe genuine goodwill in our modern day and age. Perhaps it is because our results-oriented societal character makes us think of efficiency all the time. Or maybe we are reluctant to help others because we are afraid, either of not getting immediate returns for our goodwill, or that we will be taken advantage of. People want bang for their buck, and are impatient to get it. People think of "there's no such thing as a free lunch" a lot more than "a little goodwill goes a long way."

I'm certainly not trying to impose or insist on any particular way of doing things here, but what I hope to do is to present a case where what goes around does comes around, even if we may not immediately see it. Goodness begets goodness, and so does evil, in the long run.

How so in my case? I think I've always done my quiet little part for the people who matter to me - nothing more and nothing less. I'm not saying this because I'm consciously doing this in some warped self-interested manner everyday; I'm simply reflecting on it as it happened. And "people who matter to me" are very loosely defined. When my help is asked for - explicitly or implicitly - I seldom see reason not to give it. When people see what I do in research as an undergraduate and perhaps garner some interest in the possibility of going to graduate school, I'm glad to help and give information and my personal heartfelt take on the matter. When I see an elderly person on the train, I give up my seat; absolutely no questions asked. I wouldn't dare entertain the possibly of contemplating my act (often resorted to when people start thinking of costs and benefits), not that I had to. When I do work for others, either because I'm commercially contracted to do so or because I just want to help, I do the work because I want to give them what I can offer. This spans from designing logos, drawing caricatures, running studies, editing a coursemate's essay, taking care of the administration of a class, whatever. It doesn't matter. Do it well, do it good, do it for the fact that you desire to give of yourself first, and then for its external benefits - such as remuneration - second. That's a personal philosophy of sorts to me.

So as I slogged through today with a leaking nose and uncomparable drowsiness from lack of sleep, I was relishing the close of the day at 10.30pm with my negotiation class, for which I was a teaching assistant in. It had been a hectic term, and finally the course was ending - today was the last class before the final examination. I was absolutely taken aback and very pleasantly surprised when the Professor summed up his lesson, changed tack and said, "and finally, we have a very important person to thank today - our TA." He invited me down to the front and handed me some envelopes which I later opened after the class to reveal $100 worth of book vouchers.

Cynics and skeptics may say whatever they wish (my parents took their potshots when I told them, saying, "Oh, maybe he got the vouchers for free, and he could've just afforded them easily anyway"), but at the end of the day those vouchers were of value to a poor student like me. However, more than that, it indicated that there was some degree of recognition of the work I had put in. Cynics can debate the degree of recognition all day long, but to me the fact that the recognition was there shows that the cycle was complete. What goes around comes around, goodwill begets goodwill.

It made a case that my Professor described in class more salient. He recalled a time back in the 1990s when he visited China with his wife. When he checked into his hotel, a street chauffeur approached him and offered him chauffeur services for $50, whereby the Professor and his wife would be brought anywhere they wanted to go the whole day for that price. It wasn't a bad proposition, so the Professor took it up.

The next day, the chauffeur showed up and abruptly changed the terms of their deal. He said it will now cost $60. The Professor was taken aback - how tactical was this move! The Professor had no alternative - in fact, the alternative would be to endure his wife's distress, as she hated to negotiate. So he agreed to the chauffeur's terms, and the chauffeur got the $60 he pushed for.

My Professor then said that the cruel joke here was that the Chinese chauffeur had no clue what he had lost out on. My Professor, being a typical American-Israeli, would have spent the day traveling with his wife for $50, and tipped the chauffeur with an additional $50 for a job well done. But because the calculative chauffeur chose to approach the relationship in such a competitive manner, all bets were off on generosity and giving.

Perhaps it's not the Chinese chauffeur's fault for trying to rip off a traveling Westerner. But the point is that how we choose to conduct our relations with others can and will go a long way. We can choose to either go at it with goodwill or be calculative. What do you lose when you give? I don't know about most others, but for me I think in most cases it's usually very little. I think it often takes a rather competitive and calculative nature to sweat the small losses and perceive some painful cost in every little thing he/she does for others, and in a society where such a nature dictates the norms of social interaction, we stand so much more to lose.

My Professor's little gesture of acknowledgement reinforces my firm belief that if we hold on to being genuine and sanguine about our dealings with others rather than ulterior motives, some day we will get our just desserts.

P.S. It always amazes me how tokens are so much more effective in demonstrating reciprocity than cold, hard cash. Already, gift vouchers are probably the least remote cash items - we certainly find it harder to think of a gift of fruits, a watch or a dress in monetary terms, than a $50 book voucher. Yet, simply because the $50 gift voucher isn't a $50 bill (which would ironically allow me more freedom to choose what I want to buy - Homo Economicus would prefer the $50 bill) I'm still able to perceive it as a gift rather than a payment. This would allow me to remain very much in the realm of social norms, marked by reciprocity and closeness, rather than market norms, marked by transactional relations and coldness.

Thursday, 10 February 2011


“Regret comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are small like when we do a bad thing for a good reason. Some are bigger like when you let down a friend. Some of us escape the pain of regret by making the right choice. Some of us have little time for regret because we're looking forward to the future. Sometimes we have to fight to come to terms with the past, and sometimes we bury our regret by promising to change your own ways. But, our biggest regrets are not for the things we did - but, for the things we didn't do. Things we didn't say that could've save someone that we care about. Especially when we can see the dark storm that's headed their way."

- Lucas Scott, One Tree Hill

"Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."

- Sidney J. Harris

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Perils of Denying/Rejecting Human Nature

The solutions each of us proposes for problems of the world, if we took the time to think about it, depend very much on our intellectual and moral inclinations and starting assumptions.

I very much believe that there is a human nature which is innate to every human being that, at the crux, cannot be altered by socialization or some kind of mere hope, morality or ideology. This starting belief informs my intuitive interest in subjects like evolutionary psychology, Realism and Marxism, because such subjects are inspired by how so many aspects of our behaviour do not change despite the long span of human history. The patterns just inevitably keep repeating themselves, as evidenced by the vast literature of war, societal conflicts and love throughout the ages.

Despite numerous social movements that have seen humans living through the chastity of Victorian England, the oppression of Maoist China, the enlightenment of Renaissance Europe to the decadence of the Dark Ages (an obviously inexhaustive yet clearly diverse list), fundamental aspects of aggression, attraction, status hierarchies, coalition formation, kinship and reciprocity, just to name a few, still remain. Despite the promise of Liberalism and Idealism, which are all logically sound philosophies, wars still happen and states are still concerned with security. Exploitation still happens all over the world, at both global levels (the exploitation of third world nations by advanced capitalist states) and smaller levels (the exploitation of the poor by corporations).

I don't think I'm wrong in my judgment of the reality in this sense, even if it may appear rather bleak or, worse, nativist. It is clear that, with recurring travesties of war, discrimination, exploitation etc in the world today, the power of socialization (trumpeted by behaviourists, social constructivists and environmentalists amongst others who believe entirely in nurture/culture while refusing to acknowledge nature) and the power of cooperation (because man is good and rational) requires a serious raincheck. The worst thing to do, given where my intellectual concerns come from, is to deny that human nature exists and dictates a significant chunk of our motives and actions.

This is dangerous because denying our nature and our propensity for certain behaviours is to diagnose the problem wrongly and suggest the wrong cure. It is perhaps striking how so many people are surprised when others behave in a self-interested manner, or are upset in the sense that they get caught off guard when war and conflict happens. It reflects, perhaps, a certain kind of self-delusional belief that social theories of learning and positive reinforcement can eradicate 'bad' traits in humans. John B. Watson (1930), the founder of behaviourism, famously said, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." Clifford Geertz, a firm believer of the culturally malleable human, also defined how many social scientists think today and therefore a large degree of the entire social sciences enterprise. Hence, to these theorists, "change society or culture and you change people... Intelligent, scientific socialization can make us whatever we want to be" (D. E. Brown, 1991).

The attempts to suppress 'bad' human nature have been huge fiascos. Suppression often results in a rebound effect, and large scale oppression of natural tendencies are bound to either fail (consider the Kibbutz movement, the Hippie movement or the feminist movement, just to name some) or will experience some 'leakage' - the secret societies that operate underneath a lawful society, the rich husband who cheats on his wife, the insecure friend who behaves competitively even though the friendship is tight. I guess with such high hopes for a better world, it should come as no surprise that many people are disappointed or jaded with the outcomes.

It should make more sense, then, to find ways to work with/around our human nature, instead of working against it. Monogamous marriage law is a great example to cite. If men are most aggressive when they have no mates, institutionalize monogamy. This solved the huge problem of a lack of females in society for men who weren't rich or powerful enough to get wives (although you get the problem of the cheating powerful husband because he is driven to seek extramarital affairs, but that's a small cost compared to the huge benefits of reduced societal violence). Realism provides the wisdom that states seek security, so find ways to induce balance of power. Zhuge Liang knew this so brilliantly when foresaw that stability will be achieved when the three kingdoms were balanced against each other. Marxism tells us that the rich elite will exploit the poor. So empower the poor - give them welfare and education - and offset the power differential between the bourgeosie and the proletariat. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge exploitation, or perhaps worse, calling it by another name (comparative advantage and mutual gains?) to hide its dark side, will not result in betterment for society.

Betterment will come slowly, as it often does. With my basic starting assumptions outlined above, I believe the creation of institutions that work with human nature are often the solutions that succeed and result in progressive change. A good sense of creativity and level-headedness, with a healthy dose of reality, will go much further than overzealous revolution or radicalism with the refusal to acknowledge that our human nature cannot be denied and won't go away.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Norms are separate from just behaviour, or conduct that is right or virtuous. Just because something is a norm doesn't make it the right thing to do. Just because cold-hearted rationality and efficiency are trumpeted doesn't make it right to not help those in need when the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits.

Have some spine, make a stand, and take a closer look at what we've taken for granted as 'normal'. There are plenty of things we do today that seem right only because everyone follows suit. Human nature entails that we hate to stick as the odd one out. That's true and acceptable only if one has no purpose or place in this world.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to make a difference. The poor have little choice but to do what they must just to survive, and that may mean taking up jobs that are hardly ideal. They are squeezed and are easy targets for exploitation. But people who lead decent lives without fear of hunger or danger must take a stand. If our leaders or the institutions we live in can't make things better, the collective effort of everyone else in the direction of virtue may stand a good chance. In the name of progress and betterment, more can and must be done, and it does not take a lot to nudge the boulder - all it requires is for every individual who can help it to take a stand, rather than blindly follow. Do something because it is right to you, not because you have been told this is how things are done.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Taboo of all Taboos

I was hopping around some interesting reads when I happened upon the psychology of sexual fetishes, eventually leading on to sexual dominance and women's rape fantasies. Here's an interesting comment:

"I suspect the driving force being [sic] rape fantasy is vanity. It is the love of being desired, of being wanted so much that a man loses his reason in order to have possession of the rape fantasist.

Of course, I doubt the fantasist ever dreams of being raped by a skinny little nerd type. The figure she imagines will be a giant amongst men, a man desired by all other women. You only need to read Ayn Rand to get one woman’s account of the ideal rape."

First of all, it comes as no surprise that someone like Ayn Rand would paint as radical a picture as such - to quote another person, "Female sexual power – to be so desirable that the man literally cannot help himself." The starting premises and assumptions of this assertion are debatable (e.g. female power, desirability, etc), but what strikes me is that the logic is sound.

But aside from the deceased Miss Rand, secondly, rape is arguably a real fantasy that exists for either sex. It must of course be stated that having a fantasy does not certainly mean the fantasist desires the fantasy, but to reject the existence of the fantasy altogether may not be a wise move because it limits our understanding and makes us reduce holders of taboo fantasies to being psychopathic.

Discourse on the matter, which will certainly concern/shed light on some of the deepest aspects of human nature, are also painfully slow or limited because it is not easy to broach. I recall the topic coming up in evolutionary psychology class (probably one of the few, if not the only, psychology disciplines that cares to look at it as emotionally-detached as possible), only to be met with some halting comments, discomfort and awkwardness. In many articles written on the topic, writers also spend a great deal of effort self-censoring out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities of others.

At any rate, this website has a really good article on the issue:

But just to pull out some statistics, Matthew Hutson, who raised the question "Why Do Women Have Erotic Rape Fantasies?” for Psychology Today, says: "A recent analysis of 20 studies over the last 30 years indicates that between 31% and 57% of women have rape fantasies, and these fantasies are frequent or preferred in 9% to 17% of women. Considering that many people are ashamed to report rape fantasies, these stats are most likely lowball figures."

Another one found that "in one survey of romance novels (which tend to be written by and for women), the lead female character was raped in 54%."

The article ends off well by saying "we have to accept that there are dark, uncomfortable aspects to both male and female sexuality, and that neither gender in particular is any more guilty than the other. In fact, neither is guilty at all; we are sexual beings equipped with emotions and desires that, although often mysterious, serve a greater purpose than our rational minds can comprehend."

I will leave this post at that, because I think the articles above cover quite a decent bit of ground and the statistics raised here may be compelling enough for you to click and find out more.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

A Brilliant Take on Hypocrisy of Corporations

From Joel Bakan's The Corporation:

Friedman thinks that corporations are good for society (and that too much government is bad). He recoils, however, at the idea that corporations should try to do good for society. “A corporation is the property of its stockholders ... Its interests are the inter­ests of its stockholders. Now, beyond that should it spend the stock­holders’ money for purposes which it regards as socially responsible but which it cannot connect to its bottom line? The answer I would say is no.” There is but one “social responsibility” for corporate execu­tives, Friedman believes: they must make as much money as possible for their shareholders. This is a moral imperative. Executives who choose social and environmental goals over profits — who try to act morally — are, in fact, immoral.

There is, however, one instance when corporate social responsibil­ity can be tolerated, according to Friedman — when it is insincere. The executive who treats social and environmental values as means to maximize shareholders’ wealth — not as ends in themselves — commits no wrong. It’s like “putting a good-looking girl in front of an automo­bile to sell an automobile ... That’s not in order to promote pulchritude. That’s in order to sell cars.” Good intentions, like good-looking girls, can sell goods. It’s true, Friedman acknowledges, that this purely strategic view of social responsibility reduces lofty ideals to “hypocritical window dressing.” But hypocrisy is virtuous when it serves the bottom line. Moral virtue is immoral when it does not.


Corporations are created by law and imbued with purpose by law. ... at least in the United States and other industrialized countries, the corporation, as created by law, most closely resembles Milton Friedman’s ideal model of the institution: it compels executives to prioritize the interests of their companies and shareholders above all others and forbids them from being socially responsible — at least genuinely so.


[Adam] Smith, in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, said he was troubled by the fact that corporations' owners, their shareholders, did not run their own businesses but delegated that task to professional managers. The latter could not be trusted to apply the same "anxious vigilance" to manage "other people's money" as they would their own, he wrote, and "negligence and profusion therefore must prevail, more or less, in the management of such a company."

The "best interests of the corporation" principle, now a fixture in the corporate laws of most countries, addresses Smith's concern by compelling corporate decision makers always to act in the best interests of the corporation, and hence its owners. The law forbids any other motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people's money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves - only as means to serve the corporation's own interests, which generally means to maximize the wealth of its shareholders.

Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal - at least when it is genuine.

Now isn't that sweet.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Idolatry and the Power of Ideas, Beliefs and Group Spirit

Paid my yearly visit to the neighbourhood temple with my dad an hour ago. My dad strictly adheres to some school of Buddhist tradition and, as such, has to usher in the lunar new year by praying.

I couldn't help but recall and contemplate Professor Margaret Chan's neat thesis on idol worship. Her argument asserts that idols are created so that people can harness the power of supernatural spirits to help people do earthly things. In order words, idols are gateways for the spiritual realm to enter ours, and do our bidding.

The legend of Nezha, as told by the Fengshen Yanyi, is significantly relevant to this idea. During the Shang Dynasty, Nezha was born in a military fortress at Chentang Pass. Nezha's mother, Lady Yin, gave birth to a ball of flesh after being pregnant with him for three years and six months. His father, Li Jing, a military commander, thought his wife had given birth to a demon and attacked the ball with his sword. The ball split open and Nezha jumped out as a fully developed boy who could speak and walk instead of an infant. He was later accepted by the immortal Taiyi Zhenren as a student.

One day, while playing near the sea, Nezha encountered Ao Bing, the third son of the East Sea Dragon King Ao Guang. Because of a dispute, Nezha killed Ao Bing. Ao Guang confronted Nezha and his family, threatening to flood Chentang Pass and report Nezha to the Jade Emperor. To save his family, Nezha flayed and disembowled himself to return his body to his parents. The Dragon Kings were moved by his filial piety and spared his family. Later, Taiyi Zhenren used lotus roots to construct a human body in Nezha's likeness, and Nezha managed to resurrect.

Knowing this, Lady Yin ordered for a statue of Nezha to be created. Through the statue and through the reverence of many people, Nezha was thus able to return to the earthly realm and help his people. The Fengshen Yanyi clearly portrays idol worship in this case.

What appears quite interesting is that, perhaps, it was already known back then that something magical happens when many people collectively believe in something. Sociologists call this "group effervescence". The spirit that is created because many people believe in something can be powerful enough to achieve great things that scattered individuals cannot, and it is possible that ancient scholars knew the power of this phenomenon and sought to express this in writing and mythology. They might even have thought that the spirit that grips and possesses a group of people through faith and belief was a supernatural being, and thus the personified portrayal of this spirit appears in ancient texts, such as the Fengshen Yanyi. Fables could have been a form of accessible knowledge to both leaders and ordinary folk.

Fast forward to centuries later, and we see how this plays out in our modern society. People pray to the God of Prosperity (Cai Shen) so that he will bring wealth to them. People give offerings to the Goddess of the Sea (Mazu) in hopes that their travels will be safe. People also idolize Confucius and often pray to him for better study performance. If the theory of idols as gateways is right, then indeed these are instances where we see statues as channels for spirits to come to us and provide divine assistance for our earthly pursuits, and we pray so as to unlock those gateways.

While this may seem specific to cultures with statue and idol worship, a common theme also finds its place among many other religions and, in fact, organizations, that have revered symbols as the 'idol' to worship and thus harness this spirit of the masses. In every following, there is a leaderly symbol or figure to be looked up to, and as long as people channel their faith and belief into this symbol or figure, their collective potential can and will be mobilized.

It could be because the natural psychology of humans makes us drawn in by abstract ideas. It is often the pursuit of abstract ideas that spurs us into action and motivates us go the extra mile. This is why working for the sake of a monthly wage can be a painful process, but when we believe, for example, that the work we put in for a company can save the lives of people in Sub-saharan Africa, we might be willing to work overtime for nothing. The moment we can connect our efforts to a relevant (and usually moral) cause, there will be sufficient justification we create for ourselves to reconcile any irrationalities in our behaviour. We would sacrifice our time, labour and well-being even against our own self-interest once the powerful connection between our existence and our purpose is made, and that purpose is often socially constructed. People are willing to give the most for ideas, which is why ideas can be both so powerful and so dangerous at the same time.

Leaders, or people who have the propensity to kickstart movements and have the capability to attract followers, have the fuel they need given this basic psychological set up of humans. As purpose can be socially constructed, a leader who has the charisma to convince people of the desirability of his or her purpose can have a following who are willing to forgo their self-interest for the collective. It has probably been this way ever since homo sapiens first discovered the advantages of banding together instead of remaining as disparate nomadic tribes, and in the process created agriculture, states, industry and other amazing large scale organizations and movements. Ideologies, religions, philosophies and causes have all managed to unlock massive human potential and will continue to do so, insofar as our human nature remains this way.

Art co-evolved alongside too, as huge cultural artefacts were constructed to symbolize, represent and motivate the movements of the day. By propelling these physically and objectively 'hollow' yet socially meaningful artefacts towards idol status, the hearts and minds of many were captured and channeled towards creating important moments in history.

Anyway while I was there I noticed a young Chinese man, probably the age of 18, praying alone by himself. Although I probably do not share his beliefs entirely, the intensity of his faith could be felt as he went from altar to altar in solemn prayer, eyes closed and on bended knee each time. It was somehow heartening to know that our faiths and traditions still carry on in their own personal and quiet little ways, without boasting fanfare and noisy proclamations. And somehow I would believe that this young man had heart and could not want anything more than goodness and well-being for the loved ones and friends around him, and perhaps for strength to overcome what is often left to uncaring luck.

Sometimes it's not so much the irrationality of the fear and insecurity that should drive how we think of religion, but the recognition that we are small pawns in the timeless cycle of life and the serenity of acknowledging something bigger than ourselves.