Posted in Life & Happiness

Mistake

Generally speaking, we live our lives trying to avoid making a mistake. Perhaps it is because we were brought up to do everything as perfectly as possible. Perhaps it is because we fear the consequences. Perhaps it is because we refuse to accept that we are imperfect beings.

Regardless of the reason, we have a constant nagging voice in the back of our minds asking us: “Are you sure you want to do this? What if it’s all a big mistake?”.

This mentality affects our work, our financial decisions, our sense of adventure and even our relationships. Sometimes, we even go as far as not taking any action in fear of screwing it up. The fear of mistakes makes us take less risks and leaps of faith, hindering our ability to live a full life.

But to quote a great captain, Jean-Luc Picard:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

Life is full of mistakes. No matter how hard we try to minimise risk, life will always find a way to trip you up. Because we are not a time-travelling supercomputer that can see and predict every variable, it is impossible to make no mistakes. Ergo, it is okay to make mistakes, because to err is to human.

In fact, mistakes are not always bad.

A “mistake” such as the singer’s voice cracking on a live performance may make it a more special performance, because it is a sign the singer poured all of their emotion and energy into the song, rather than playing it safe to avoid a mistake.

Columbus discovered the Caribbean because he mistakenly thought that he could reach Asia by sailing due west of Spain.

Everyone has a story of getting lost while travelling and stumbling onto an unforgettable experience that they could not have possibly planned for.

Sometimes, we will look back on our life and realise that what we thought was a mistake back then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because each and every mistake we made led us to where we are now.

Lastly, we are all the products of billions of years of mistakes. Evolution is fundamentally based on the concept that genetic mistakes during cell division (mutations) allow for diversity of traits. Without mistakes, we wouldn’t even be here.

Of course, some mistakes carry irreversible, dire consequences, such as drinking and driving, or falling asleep while a nuclear reactor fails (Three Mile Island accident). But outside of these, most mistakes in life are something that you can learn something and move on from.

So don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake.

It’s okay to make mistakes.

We are only human.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Death Pose

When a dinosaur fossil is excavated, it is not uncommon to find the dinosaur in what is known as the death pose. The long neck is bent dramatically backwards and the mouth is gaping open, as if the dinosaur is letting out one final bellow.

For a long time, palaeontologists believed that dinosaurs found in this pose had remarkable neck flexibility. For example, the Elasmosaurus was originally thought to have a snake-like neck that could bend and curl around, even being able to lift its head above the water, as seen with the image of the Loch Ness Monster. However, in reality, the neck would have been too stiff and heavy to move around like that, meaning that Elasmosaurus would have swam around with a straight neck, barely lifting its head above water.

It is still unclear exactly why dinosaurs are often found in the death pose.
Traditionally, it was believed that the strong ligaments holding the neck bones (vertebrae) contracted as they dried out, bending the neck backwards where there are more ligaments.
Others refute this theory, instead suggesting that the dinosaur remains would be rearranged by water currents, or that the carcass would naturally bend backwards when floating in water.
Finally, another group of scientists believe that the pose happens in the final moments of the dinosaur’s death throes, suggesting that they experience opisthotonus (arching of the back muscles, as seen in tetanus) either due to lack of oxygen in the brain, or poisoning.

It is fascinating to think that although these dinosaurs have been dead for 66 million years, we still have so much to learn from them.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Spirals

You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.

This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.

Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.

The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?

Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.

Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.

Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:

“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”

When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.

These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

How To Draw A Line

If you need to draw a straight line without the help of a ruler, try the following method. Instead of looking at the tip of your pen, look at the point you are trying to draw a line to and move the pen in one swift motion towards it. You will find that the line is much straighter than when you are consciously focussing on where your pen is.

This is similar to how when you are walking down a staircase, the more you think about the steps you are taking, the more likely you are that you will trip and fall. Your brain is very proficient at automating physical activities, so that you can use “muscle memory” instead of wasting precious mental energy.

This also means that ironically, thinking and worrying about doing something right can result in more failures. Sometimes, it is better to just be aware of the direction you want to head in and go with the flow, rather than overthink, micromanage and ruin things.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Sudoku

Sudoku is a mathematic puzzle that has gained considerable popularity in the 21st century, rivalling the classic puzzle that is the crossword. You are given a 9×9 table divided into 9 equal squares, filled with a certain number of digits. Your goal is to fill in the table so that each row, column and subsquare (of 9 small squares) contains every digit from 1 to 9. You are not allowed to have the same number appear on the same row, column or subsquare, as there are not enough spaces for spare digits.

The more digits (“clues”) that you are given at the start of the puzzle, the easier it is to solve it. This begs the question: what is the minimum number of clues that you need to solve a sudoku puzzle?

Sudoku puzzles with 17 clues have been completed traditionally. We know that 7 clues is not enough as the last 2 digits can be interchanged, creating puzzles with more than one solution. Using mathematics, we know that if we can solve a puzzle with n clues, then a puzzle with n+1 clues can be solved as well. Ergo, the answer lies somewhere between 8 and 16.

In 2012, Gary McGuire, Bastian Tugemann and Gilles Civario tackled this problem using one of the oldest tricks in mathematical analysis: brute force. The total number of possible sudoku puzzles that can be generated is 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960, or 6.67 x 10²¹. After accounting for symmetry arguments (meaning that two puzzles may be essentially identical, but just rotated or flipped), we are left with 5,472,730,538 possible unique solutions.

The team used supercomputers to analyse all of these possibilities to see if any puzzle can be solved with just 16 clues, as the conventional thought was that 17 was the minimum number of clues possible from traditional methods. After a year of calculations, the computer found no sudoku puzzle could be solved with only 16 clues. This was confirmed by another team from Taiwan a year later, proving that the minimum number of clues required for sudoku is indeed 17.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Happy Holidays

Every culture has holidays – a day that celebrates an aspect of the people’s history, faith, traditions or just a certain time of the year. Holidays are days set aside for having fun and sharing a good time with your friends, family and community.

The degree of festivity ranges from low-key days such as a city’s anniversary day, to important annual celebrations that have an entire month of build-up such as Christmas, or even absurd ones such as International Talk Like A Pirate Day. But the bottom line is, holidays bring joy and happiness for many people around the world.

Throughout history, holidays have been a great way to boost morale in people. Even though it is just another day of the Earth circling the Sun, specific days excite us and make us giddy, letting us forget the dreariness and pains of life. Take for example the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers called a truce on Christmas Day despite World War I raging on, so that they could all celebrate the day by sharing food and gifts, while playing some spirited games of soccer.

The holidays offer a great excuse for us to be happy. There are plenty of reasons in life why we aren’t happy. Work can be stressful and boring. Relationships are full of dramas and misunderstandings. There are days where it just feels like the universe is hating on you. Sometimes, life just sucks.

But holidays bring a perfect remedy for misery: connection. Whatever the holiday may be, there are many other people celebrating the same holiday as you. This means that on that specific day, everyone feels more connected to each other as they celebrate together. From singing carols together, to looking forward to the New Year and sharing our reflections and resolutions, we are bonded as we live in the moment. Through these connections and feeling present, we feel happier.

Perhaps that is the true reason we have holidays. In a world so full of sadness and madness, isn’t it nice to have any excuse to be happy? Even if it’s just for a day, we are reminded that happiness exists, in the form of our memories and nostalgia of the past, our excitement for the future, and in the present moment that we share with each other.

Happy holidays.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Shared Silence

When we are with someone, our instinct is to engage in conversation. We feel an urge to interact as we feel that is the social norm. For some reason, it feels wrong or rude to do something individual in the company of others, such as reading a book, indulging a personal hobby, or even being alone with your thoughts.

That is not to say that social interactions are bad. Some of the happiest moments in life come from a sense of connection through deep conversation and sharing a passion. However, we feel obligated to always do something together. To avoid awkward silences, we fill the gap with meaningless small talk, or force a shared activity such as watching TV. This can be quite burdening for both parties, especially for introverted people who expend energy when socialising, needing some time alone intermittently to “recharge”.

This is why a marker of a healthy relationship (romantic or platonic) is whether you can comfortably share a silence with someone. Whether it be walking side-by-side without talking, or reading in the same room, there is an ineffable feeling of comfort and safety in sharing a space with someone without being forced to interact.

It is a sign that you trust and know each other to the point that silence does not represent awkwardness or dislike. You have a mutual understanding that even though there is no verbal communication, the other person still cares about you while respecting your need to be an individual.

Ironically, silence and the lack of interaction can allow for a deeper connection. Sharing a silence speaks louder than words to say that you like each other enough that you are okay to let your guard down and be yourself. It means that both of you are content just to feel each other’s presence in the same space.

Most of all, it is a mutual agreement that it is okay not to follow social norms as long as it makes you happy and it doesn’t harm anyone. In an ever-increasingly interconnected world, it is okay to be an individual, even in the presence of company.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)

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Posted in Science & Nature

Constellation

To our ancestors, the night sky was not only useful for navigation and telling the seasons, but also for entertainment. Using the mind’s eye, they connected the dots to form a skeleton of a picture – a constellation.

Constellations became the basis of numerous tales and legends. The ancient Greeks told stories of mighty hunters fleeing from scorpions, of fair maidens chased by satyrs, and of noble animals who helped a hero in their quest. In the Far East, they tell a story of lovers who are punished by being placed on separate stars, only being allowed to meet once a year. Similar stories based on constellations can be found in almost every culture around the world.

Constellations are fascinating as they just look like a collection of bright dots to us, but in reality, they represent a spread of stars throughout the cosmos, unimaginably far from us and each other. Even though the stars may appear to be right next to each other, one star may be thousands or millions of light-years further from us than the other.

This is because a constellation is a two-dimensional picture representing three-dimensional space, meaning that depth is ignored. Because of the great distance, entire worlds appear to be simple points, while the vast emptiness of space flatten out to short gaps.

Mythologies and stories based on constellations teach us many pearls of wisdom, but perhaps this is the most valuable lesson the constellations have to teach us. When we look at something from a distance, we lose the fine details. Even the awe-inspiring beauty and size of the cosmos can be reduced down to a simple line drawing in the sky.

The same principle applies to people.
When we judge a person, we reduce a complex life full of stories, experiences, thoughts, feelings and circumstances down to a single stereotype, letting us objectify, criticise, belittle and dismiss people easily.
When we comment on a historical event, we focus only on big events and try to simplify the narrative to a few cause-and-effect stories, while conveniently forgetting the individual lives affected or the broader context that led up to that point.
When something bad happens in the world, we try to find meaning or something to blame, instead of trying to understand the numerous variables that factor into the situation.

Constellations are beautiful, but they don’t tell the full picture. If we want to truly understand the world we live in and the people we share that world with, we have to learn to consider the details and look at things from different points of view.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

The Right Moment

One trait that has allowed our species to survive for so long is our ability to plan ahead. Whether it be hunting an animal, preparing for a winter, interviewing for a job or making a move on a romantic interest, we think of all the ways the situation might play out. Our brain has an extraordinary capability to imagine and simulate possible outcomes. Based on this, we can optimise a plan of action.

Let’s look at an example. When we plan a trip, we choose a location and research sights to see, foods to eat, places to stay in, what the weather will be like… Then, we come up with an itinerary by thinking of how to group everything into different days, what transport to take and setting aside enough time for rest and to buffer against unexpected changes. Planning allows us to travel efficiently so that we can pack as much fun and experiences, while preparing us for when things go wrong.

But of course, life is full of surprises and it never play out perfectly. Our instinctive ability to simulate and plan for the future is probably evolution’s way of tackling this. We are trained to think of all the different ways our plans can fail, to maximise our chance of survival.
Therefore, as powerful as this ability may be, it comes at a great cost. It makes us obsess about “the right moment”.

When we face a crossroads in life, we have to make choices and take action. Should you take this opportunity to move to a different city? Should you ask out that girl or guy on a date? Should you make that leap of faith and change careers? Because these important decisions carry greater consequences, our brain goes into overdrive thinking of how things may fail and ruin our lives. We worry that we are not ready for the change or that a better opportunity may arise. So many times in life, we see opportunities slip by while we are hesitant, leaving us with regrets.

No matter how much you plan and prepare, the universe can easily find a way to surprise you (see Murphy’s Law). There is no such thing as the perfect moment, or a perfect person, or a perfect life. So waiting for the right moment is as futile as waiting for a train that is never coming. A ship waiting in a harbour for perfect conditions before setting sail is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

What we can do is to just live life. It is certainly good to have a rough sketch of a plan, to know what general direction you are heading in. But when it comes to the finer details, it is best to just make a decision and act on it, whether it be based on rational thinking or gut feeling.

If things work out, that’s great. If it doesn’t, you still gave life a chance instead of letting it pass by you. You can learn from the experience and try different decisions the next time.

Instead of waiting for the right moment for everything to be perfect to take action, we should be taking actions and making the moments right.

(Image sourcehttps://www.xkcd.com/1952/)

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Cobra Effect

While colonising India, the British government became concerned about venomous cobra snakes causing a public safety issue in Delhi. To remedy this situation, they decided to use the people as cheap labour by offering a bounty if anyone brought in a dead cobra. They thought this would be a cost effective method of reducing the cobra population.

The strategy was initially a success, with a huge number of cobra snakes being killed for the reward. But then, something unexpected happened. People soon caught on that it did not matter where the cobra snakes came from, as long as it was dead. Therefore, they abused this loophole by breeding cobra snakes and then killing them for even more reward. The British government found out about this enterprise eventually and decided to scrap the program.

With no reason to have so many cobra snakes, the breeders decided to release the cobras. Ultimately, Delhi’s cobra population was now larger than when the program was initiated.

This is the cobra effect. Sometimes, an idea may seem novel and efficient, but human psychology can easily turn it on its head and make a problem worse than before.

A similar, but much more macabre, phenomenon happened in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828. At the time, anatomy was a hot new field of research, so human cadavers were in great demand by the universities, doctors and scholars. Due to a Scottish law stating that cadavers could only come from deceased prisoners, orphans and suicide victims, there was very limited supply. Following the economic laws of supply and demand, the price of a human cadaver rose more and more. “Body snatching” became a popular crime, where people exhumed corpses from graveyards and sold them for a profit.

Two men by the names of William Burke and William Hare took things one step further. The two ran a lodging house, where a tenant passed away suddenly, while owing rent. To cover the owed amount, they stole the body before the burial and went to Edinburgh University, where they sold the body to an anatomist named Robert Knox. On hearing that bodies were in great demand and that they would be paid handsomely for any more cadavers, they hatched a sinister plan.

They realised that since their “clients” did not care about where the body came from, they could easily source them through murder. Over the course of a year, they murdered at least 16 people at their lodge and sold their corpses to Robert Knox for dissection. Their choice method of murder was to wrestle down and sit on the victim’s chest to asphyxiate them (now called “burking”), as strangling, choking or using a sharp instrument would reduce the corpse’s value due to the damage.

The pair were eventually caught and sentenced to death. Hare was eventually released, but Burke was hanged and ironically, his skeleton was preserved and exhibited at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

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