Posted in Science & Nature

Hexapod

Dragons are fantastic creatures of our imaginations, so they do not follow many of the rigid laws of natural science. They breathe unlimited amounts of fire, can endure extreme heat and they can fly despite their massive size. But perhaps the most unrealistic feature of dragons is the fact that they have an unnatural number of limbs.

All vertebrate animals on Earth follow a simple rule: they are four-legged creatures, also called tetrapods. The limbs may have devolved away such as in whales and snakes, but they remain as vestigial structures or still encoded for in the genes. Birds and bats have adapted their upper limbs into wings to fly, but the total number of limbs is still four.

How many limbs does a dragon have? They have four legs that they stand on, but also two large membranous wings like a bat. This means that they have a total of six limbs. The only other animals that share this trait are insects and other mythical creatures such as the centaur and pegasus.

To be a vertebrate with six limbs, a dragon must have evolved from an ancestor separate to Tetrapodomorpha, an ancient fish-like creature with four limbs that is the common ancestor to all four-legged beasts. Alternatively, the wings may not be true “limbs” and be similar to flying lizards that evolved to have a rib jut out with a membrane attached to act as a glider.

Unlike the scientifically inaccurate dragon, a wyvern obeys nature’s four-leg rule. Furthermore, unlike the traditional Western dragon that we have been describing, dragons of the Far East have no wings and four limbs, also obeying the law.

As ridiculous as it may sound, applying scientific principles to our imagination allows us to learn more about how our world works.

Posted in History & Literature

Permanent Record

The recording of language was a key development in history that allowed civilisations to flourish. Through recording, we could pass on knowledge and wisdom much more efficiently and securely from generation to generation, unlike oral history which can change over time or be lost when a mass casualty event occurs.

The oldest piece of written history comes from Sumeria over 5,000 years ago, but one could argue that cave paintings such as those found in Lascaux Cave extend that history to more than 17,000 years. Archaeologists have used written records from ancient times to help determine what life was like during those times, and what important events occurred throughout history.

Fast forwarding to now, we live in an information era where there has been a massive explosion of the amount of information produced and recorded, thanks to the development of science and technology. One such development is digital media, which allow us to store a staggering amount of data in small hard disk drives. For example, the entirety of Wikipedia (February 2013 estimate) could just fit into a 10 terabyte HDD. If an archaeologist from the future was to access an archive of the internet from now, they could gain so much insight into our history, knowledge and what day to day life.

Nowadays, most of us store our data digitally, including important documents, precious photos and our entertainment such as music and videos. But unfortunately, as efficient digital storage may be, it is far from permanent.

Digital data comes with the downside that it needs continuous backing up, as data can corrupt and the storage medium can fail. A typical hard disk has a life expectancy of around 5 years, after which the drive will start failing. Servers that manage the cloud need constant maintenance.

If humanity were to suddenly disappear, our troves of digital data would be wiped out within less than a 100 years, like dust in the wind. Even if we took great care to maintain our library of data, a single solar storm could create enough electromagnetic interference to wipe every drive clean.

Contrast this to a book, which can stand the test of time up to many millennia as long as it is preserved well. As novelist Umberto Eco put it:

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

It is a perfect invention.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a Jewish psychologist who tried to answer a question that plagues every person at some stage: what is the meaning of life? To answer this question, he published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, where he introduced the now well-known Hierarchy of Needs. The basic premise to Maslow’s theory is as follows.

We have different needs in life. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorises these needs, then places them in a pyramid-shaped model in order of priority. Maslow believed that some needs are more fundamental than others. For example, you can’t worry about being single if you are starving to death. Therefore, to be motivated to work on one category, you must first satiate your need for the category below that. Maslow organised the categories in the following order.

Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we have physiological needs. This is self-explanatory, as you need to be biologically alive to even worry about the other needs. This includes food, water, warmth and rest.

The next level addresses safety. If you do not feel safe, then you would be too preoccupied by the sense of danger to consider higher needs. Therefore, you need physical shelter, resources and a general sense of security, whether it be personal safety, financial, health or emotional security.

Safety and physiological needs are considered “basic needs“. The next two are considered “psychological or spiritual needs“.

Social belonging refers to the human need for connection. Loneliness and disconnect can be crippling to the point that you cannot enjoy the other aspects of your life, even if you have your basic needs met. This includes romantic and intimate relationships, family and friends, and communities.

Once we fulfil our need for external connections, we can start looking within ourselves, addressing our need for self-esteem and self-respect. We cannot lead fulfilling lives if we doubt and are unkind to ourselves.

Lastly, we have the apex of the pyramid that Maslow thought all people should ultimately aspire to: self-actualisation. Essentially, this means being the best version of yourself that you can be, unlocking your full potential and making the most out of your life.

The interesting part to this last step is that you define what the best version of yourself is. Perhaps you wish to be a great parent or a teacher. Perhaps you want to be a high-achieving professional or to create something others can enjoy. Perhaps you wish to be content and happy.

The Hierarchy of Needs suggests that to even think about achieving self-actualisation, we must fulfil the more basic needs first. This means that in some cases, what gets in the way of our self-actualisation may not be us, but our environment. For example, child abuse and domestic violence greatly affect a person’s sense of safety and causes significant trauma. Being socially isolated or having low self-esteem are all barriers to letting you be you. So how do we escape this trap?

First, evaluate whether you truly don’t have the basic needs. We often misjudge what we actually need in life, choosing to focus on things that won’t bring us joy, such as gaining more material wealth than needed, or social attention. On retrospect, we may find that we already have everything we need to ascend to the next level.

Second, if something is in your control, take action to remove the obstacle. This might involve changing your perspective, modifying how you do things or communicating with another person why things are not working. If you are in a toxic relationship or a job that you loathe, you may have to leave them to let yourself progress. We have much greater power over our lives than we think, but our fears, doubts and social pressures convince us otherwise.

Third, remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the one-truth. There have been countless studies showing that Maslow’s suggested order of priorities do not apply in the real world, with many people opting to prioritise higher needs above basic needs, such as willingly staying hungry in order to pursue creative outlets, or giving up a secure, stable life in the pursuit of love. It may be difficult, but we can sometimes transcend the challenges of our environment through determination.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been controversial in the field of psychology ever since its publication, but it is a good reminder that to achieve a happy, fulfilling life, we need to take stock of what we truly need in life and balance them with each other.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Holistic Medicine

At face value, medicine appears to work on a relatively simple model. You gather information through history taking, clinical examination and investigations such as lab tests and imaging. Then, you narrow down the differential diagnosis to the single most likely diagnosis. Lastly, you treat the diagnosis as per the recommended treatment guidelines.

But if you ask anyone who works in healthcare, they will all know that is not the whole truth. There are so many other factors and variables that play in to the management of a patient that the model above does not address.

For example, you may diagnose a skin infection and prescribe antibiotics, but the person may not have enough disposable income to pay for the medications. You may come up with a plan for the patient to come in to clinic in a week’s time for a review, but they may not have transport or someone to look after their children so that they can come in. You may diagnose that there is nothing medically wrong with the patient, but they may still be worried that they have a serious condition that killed their father.

In medicine, you do not treat the disease; you treat the patient. It is easy to get so focussed on the clinical picture that the overall context is lost. This leads to incomplete care, which causes a variety of issues ranging from patient dissatisfaction to recurrent presentations.

Although it may seem difficult and time-consuming to pay attention to these extra details, it almost always pays off in one way or another. Addressing a patient’s troubled social situation may reduce the number of times they present to hospital, saving significant costs. The doctor taking the time to reassure the patient that their symptom is not concerning for a significant illness may let the patient sleep comfortably at night. Talking through the patient or their family’s concerns and questions might make the worst day of their lives slightly more tolerable.

This approach is useful outside of the hospital too. When you face a problem, regardless of the type, instead of trying to come up with a quick fix to patch it up, try to consider the context of the problem. You may discover that there is a deeper, more fundamental cause of the problem that needs fixing.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Frisson

Have you ever listened to a song or watched a scene in a movie where you suddenly feel a chill run through your body, giving you goosebumps? This is a well-recognised phenomenon called frisson (“shiver” in French). Frisson is colloquially known as “the chills”, thrills, goosebumps, or “skin orgasm”.

Frisson is described as a rapid, intense wave of pleasure, accompanied by tingling and chills spreading through your skin. It is typically triggered by an unexpected, sudden change in the dynamic of a musical piece. This may include a change in loudness, pitch, melody, unexpected harmonies or an appoggiatura in the melody, where there is an accentuated note that does not fit in the chord, creating a clash. If a person is emotionally connected to the piece, such as having a fond memory associated with it, the intensity of frisson is heightened.

Scientifically speaking, frisson is the combination of the reward centre in your brain releasing dopamine, plus the activation of your autonomic nervous system. This results in pupil dilation, piloerection (goosebumps) and increased electrical conductance of your skin, similar to when you have an adrenaline rush.

It is likely the result of your brain being confused by an unexpected change from the predicted progression of the music, causing a strange blend between the pleasure of surprise and fear of the uncertain.

Not everyone experiences frisson. Studies show that around 55-85% of the population have felt frisson before. One study showed that those with the personality trait “openness to experience” have a higher chance of feeling frisson. These people tend to have more intense emotions, active imaginations and are intellectually curious. One possible explanation for why these characteristics allow for frisson is that you need to be in tune with your emotions and the present to appreciate the subtle but sudden dynamic changes that result in frisson.

The potential joy of feeling frisson is yet another benefit of being mindful of your emotions and the present.

(Here’s a video of something that gives me frisson every time I watch it.)

Posted in Life & Happiness

Bespoke

When you buy clothes, do you buy clothes that fit you, or do you make your body fit the clothes? Of course, you find clothing that fits you well, or better yet, get it fitted to your size.
This seems like such a basic principle when it comes to clothing, yet we seem to do the opposite when it comes to life.

How often do we try to fit ourselves into a life of the wrong size? We are constantly under pressure from our friends, family and society that we should be living life a certain way. We feel like we need to buy a house, get married, have children, find a stable, well-paying, respectable job…

We keep comparing ourselves to the lives of others and feel anxious that we are a step behind. Instead of searching for the kind of life that we want to live and things that make us happy, we have a tendency to force ourselves to fit an image of what other see as the ideal life.

But you’d never purposely buy clothes that are too tight or loose on you, or have a completely clashing colour scheme with your skin tone. So why would you try to do the same for something as important as your life? Instead of trying to force yourself into wearing a life that is the wrong fit for you, think deeply about what you want and tailor your dreams and future to fit you.

Don’t let reality, society and the people around you dictate your style. As long as you won’t have regrets on your deathbed about the choices you made, or hurt others or yourself, live life the way you want. Because you’re the only person that knows what you really want out of life.

Posted in Science & Nature

Arithmetic

Although we all learn mathematics to a high level during our schooling years, most of us find that as working adults, we lose much of our maths skills due to lack of practice. This may be fine for advanced concepts such as calculus and matrices, but we tend to forget even the most basic arithmetic skills, instead choosing to rely on calculators on our phones and computers.

But maths is all around us in day-to-day life. From figuring out how much you save on a sale, to splitting a bill, to calculating tips when you travel in the USA, arithmetic is a handy life skill that many of us have forgotten. As easy as it is to pull out your phone and use the calculator app, here are a few tips to improve your arithmetic skills for quick mental calculations.

If you need to multiply a 2-digit number (e.g. 12 x 17), divide one of the number into its 10’s and 1’s, multiply the other number to each of these numbers then add them.

(e.g. (12 x 10) + (12 x 7) = 120 + 84 = 204)

You can further subdivide the numbers to break it down into easy bite-sized calculations.

e.g. 34 x 26 = (34 x 20) + (34 x 6) = (34 x 2 x 10) + ((30 x 6) + (4 x 6)) = 680 + (180 + 24) = 884

When adding or subtracting large numbers, use 10’s and 100’s for easier calculations. Essentially, you can “fill in the gap” up or down to the nearest 10’s or 100’s, then add/subtract the remainder.

e.g. 64 + 13 -> take 6 away from 13 and add to 64 -> 70 + 7 = 77

You can do this in multiple steps to break a complicated addition or subtraction into simple maths.

Learn to manipulate the decimal point to make multiplication and division simpler. 20% of 68.90 sounds difficult, but if you understand how the decimal point works, you can simply multiply 2 then divide by 10 to get the answer.

e.g. 68.90 x 2 =137.80 / 10 = 13.78

An extension of this is learning basic fractions, such as knowing that 0.5 is half and 0.2 is one-fifth.

e.g. 32 x 15 = 32 x (1.5 x 10) -> so you can add half of 32 to itself (x1.5) then x10 -> 48 x 10 = 480

Lastly, a handy mathematic trick is knowing that X% of Y = Y% of X. This means that if one side of the equation is easier, you can convert it easily. For example, 4% of 25 sounds much more difficult than 25% of 4 (or quarter of 4), yet the answer is the same.

The common theme of these tips is using shortcuts and breaking down complicated equations into bite-sized steps so that your brain can solve simple arithmetic in sequence. This may be asking for too much in a time when all of us seem to have minimal attention spans, but you never know when basic maths will come in handy.

MRW My girlfriend says "You know why I'm mad."
Posted in History & Literature

Pineapple

A strange linguistic fact is that other than English, almost every other language calls the pineapple fruit ananas. This is true for French, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and even Icelandic. The scientific name for the genus that pineapples belong to is also Ananas. The few countries that use a different name include Spain (piña), China (boluo) and countries where the pineapple was introduced to by an English-speaking country (e.g. Korea and Japan).

So why do English-speakers use a completely different word for the fruit? Pineapples were first brought back to Europe from the Americas in the early 1600’s. They named it ananas after the native Old Tupi word nanas, meaning “excellent fruit“.

However, the Spanish and English thought the fruit was shaped more like a pinecone and named it separately. In fact, the word “pineapple” was used prior to the introduction of the fruit, first recorded in 1398 used to describe actual pinecones.

Posted in Life & Happiness

I Don’t Know

How a person responds to a question that they don’t know the answer to tells you quite a bit about what kind of person they are. Some people try desperately to hide their lack of knowledge by rambling or even making up facts. Sometimes, people will become very defensive and heatedly argue a point even if they are not sure it is the right answer or not, attacking the person asking the question (ad hominem argument).

The model answer would be to admit that you don’t know the answer. A marker of a well-adjusted person is their ability to admit that they are imperfect, as well as an openness to continue learning to keep filling their gaps of knowledge.

The world is an extremely vast place and our sphere of knowledge is rapidly expanding in the age of information. It is impossible to know everything in the world and it is arrogant to assume that you can.

Furthermore, knowledge changes with time. Facts and paradigms once deemed to be concrete have faltered with new evidence. New concepts such as the theory of evolution and the Big Bang were shunned initially, but are now basic knowledge that best explain what we observe. Without an openness to learn and change our minds, we would become stagnant and boring.

No one likes to be wrong or perceived as stupid. But if we let our pride get in the way, we could never improve and grow. It is okay not to know the answer, as long as you are open to learn.

Posted in History & Literature

Veblen Good

There is a simple rule that every student of Economics 101 knows:

The higher the price of an item, the lower the quantity demanded becomes.

This is because a rational person would feel that the item is not worth it above a given price point.

However, there are many goods that do not follow this law. Veblen goods describe a group of goods where paradoxically, higher prices result in greater demand. Examples of Veblen goods include luxury cars, designer jewellery and trending fashion items such as Air Jordans.

The simple explanation is that these goods are not demanded because of their functionality and usefulness, but because they are status symbols. Possession of a Veblen good suggests that you are financially successful and wealthy enough to disobey the law of demand and get away with it.

For the purchasers of Veblen goods, the fact that they are so expensive and exclusive make them appealing.