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

The Importance Of Television

Fire is considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of our species. Since the dawn of time, it has provided us with warmth, light, cooked food and the power to invent even more things.

We can see how important fire was to our ancestors from how integral it was within a house.
In prehistoric times, there would always be a fire at the centre of a cave or hut, where the family could gather around for warmth and light. Here, they would warm themselves on a cold winter’s day and cook meat that they hunted during the day to tenderise it.

Unlike the old days, we no longer have open fires in the house. Instead, fire has been split into three different forms.

  • Instead of huddling around an open fire for warmth, we have boilers and hot water cylinders to warm our houses.
  • Instead of cooking our food over a campfire, we have gas or electric stoves and ovens.
  • Instead of the flickering flames providing us with light and distraction, we have television and computers.

Of course, we still have fireplaces, barbeques and candles, but the modern person tends to rely more on modernised versions of fire.

An interesting takeaway from this theory is how television is the modern form of the psychological comfort that fire provided us. In prehistoric times, people would struggle to stay alive, running from predators and hunting to feed the family. Looking at the fire mindlessly at the end of a hard day’s work would have been a way to destress and unwind.

Nowadays, most of us are lucky enough to not have to fear death on a day-to-day basis, but we still suffer constant stress from the busy modern life. Perhaps sitting in front of a television or computer to procrastinate for half an hour is not the worst thing in the world.

That said, everything should be done in moderation. It is good to relax for a set amount of time, but if you spent every evening after work staring at a screen without an original thought, your mind will dull and atrophy.

So, it is good to balance out the mindless entertainment such as comedy or reality shows with films that provoke thoughts and emotions, documentaries that provide you with knowledge, and shows that stimulate your creativity.

Most importantly, what you think and feel and learn after watching these should act as fodder for conversations that help deepen your connection with other people.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Godwin’s Law

In 1990 when the internet was still in its infancy, Mike Godwin observed something while browsing through internet forums. From his observations, he humorously coined the following adage: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. This essentially means that no matter what the topic of the online discussion may be, given enough time, someone will eventually make a comparison to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

For example, during a discussion about animal rights, someone may decide to post: “You know who else loved animals? Hitler.” No matter how unrelated the topic may be, someone will inevitably make a hyperbolic comparison to Hitler. It is also widely accepted that the moment this happens to a discussion, it is considered dead and the one who made the comparison loses the discussion. It should be noted that this law only applies to discussions not originally related to Hitler, the Nazis or totalitarian regimes and ideologies where the comparison to Hitler may be appropriate.

This law is closely related to a logical fallacy known as reductio ad Hitlerum, where someone tries to refute an opponent’s argument by comparing it to something Hitler would think or say. It is a crude, classless form of the ad hominem fallacy, where someone attacks the opponent personally rather than the argument itself. The reductio ad Hitlerum is extremely ineffective as in an intelligent discussion, such an effort would simply be considered childish and moronic.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Pleasure Centre

During the 1950’s when the field of neuroscience was making many research breakthroughs, a fascinating fact was discovered. Scientists had located the specific part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. In 1954, two Canadian neuroscientists named James Olds and Peter Milner were undertaking research to find the association between electrical stimulation of the brain and sensation in rodents. During their research, they found that if they stimulated a certain part of the brain, the rats would interpret the signal as pleasure. Based on this, they inserted electrodes into the rats’ limbic system (the part responsible for emotions) and connected it to a lever in the cage. Thus, they had devised a device that allowed the rat to feel pleasure by stimulating its own brain with the press of a lever. The results were astounding. The rat furiously pumped at the lever, forgetting to eat or sleep, until it ultimately died of exhaustion (over 26 hours, the rat pressed the lever 50,000 times).

Pleasure is not the same as happiness. Happiness awards us with satisfaction and contentment, but pleasure only brings greed, obsession and addiction. Pleasure was originally a mechanism devised to reward behaviour that aided survival (such as mating and eating), but addictive things like alcohol, smoking and drugs ruin your life and any chance at happiness instead of helping you survive.

The foolish run around to seek temporary pleasure while the wise seek permanent happiness.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Transactive Memory

It is common to find couples, families or teams where someone always asks another member about a certain memory, while the opposite happens for a different memory. For example, a mother might always consult his son about computers and technical difficulties, while the father might always consult the mother about his plans for the month. This kind of “shared memory” is named transactive memory, where a group becomes organised in a way to share memory around in an efficient manner. This is usually done by the group reorganising itself so that each member specialises in a certain field, with the other members only remembering that that person is the expert. This means that instead of memorising every field, you can simply remember who is the expert in that field. It is much like learning where the reference text is rather than learning the contents.

Although it may look like dependence, transactive memory is an extremely useful tool in tight groups such as a couple or a small team. By having members specialise in certain domains of knowledge, the group is able to expand their capacity to acquire knowledge and create innovation. Transactive memory allows for a group to become efficient and effective in learning and retrieving knowledge. Overall, it improves decision making processes and the efficiency of the group, allowing for better outcomes. This is achieved by the division of responsibilities from specialising, shortening the time needed for finding the appropriate knowledge (as everyone knows the “guy” or “gal” to go to) and the shared understanding of the teammates regarding the interpersonal relations in the team. This means that everyone knows exactly who to go to for a certain domain of knowledge, while understanding their strengths and weaknesses, allowing for well coordinated interactions. Because of this, transactive memory only works in groups with limited numbers, with the maximum number being similar to the Monkeysphere (150).

Many studies prove the effectiveness of transactive memory. It has been found that couples have much better memory recollection compared to when they are paired with a stranger. In the modern technological era, transactive memory has expanded to the internet, with studies showing that people are more likely to know the source of information (such as Wikipedia) rather than the actual information. Given the ease of access to the internet and large databases containing all the information we need, sometimes it is far more efficient learning how to find these sources rather than rote learning all the information.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Six Degrees Of Separation

It is said that through a chain of five people, we can be acquainted to anyone in the world. In other words, an Eskimo man can be no less than six steps away from a Parisian lady. This is the concept of the six degrees of separation.

The concept can be explained mathematically. We all know hundreds of different people each. If we assume that we each have 100 friends, then in the first stage we only know the 100 friends. However, at the second stage we know the 100 friends of each of our friends, meaning we know 10000 people. At the third stage we know 1 million people, fourth stage 100 million and fifth stage 10 billion people. As the world population is 7 billion, by the fifth stage we should theoretically know every person on the world. This means that crossing four metaphorical bridges lets us shake the hands of anyone we want. The concept of the degrees of separation came from the idea of the small world phenomenon.

The first person to properly study the small world phenomenon was Harvard social psychologist Stanley Milgram. In 1967, Milgram asked 296 people in the Midwest (USA) to help him send a package to someone in Boston. To complete the experiment, the participants had to send the package to one of their friends they thought would know this stranger in Boston. Milgram found that in half of the cases, the package was delivered to the target in Boston through five people (5.5 exactly), thus giving birth to the concept that we are at six degrees of separation from another human being. 

Of course since 1967 our societies have undergone many changes. One of the most noticeable changes has been the development of technology – specifically the development of the internet and social networking. Nowadays, the younger generations use the internet to communicate with friends and make connections. Knowing this, what degrees of separation exists in modern societies? According to a recently finished study (2011) using data from the social networking site, Facebook, the average number of “bridges” for the world is 4.7. In countries such as the US where there is a bigger proportion of Facebook users, this number fell to 4.4. Ergo, in the past 40 years we have developed more connections to other people, making our world even smaller.

The theory of six degrees of separation reminds us how small a world we live in and how interconnected we are to each other.


Posted in History & Literature


The Faroe Islands are a group of islands between Scotland and Iceland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Although a small nation, they are known to the outside world for their tradition of whaling – specifically pilot whales that are native to the North Atlantic Ocean. The media often show photos of bloody shorelines with a line of whale carcasses, decrying the so-called “inhumane hunting” of the whales. The dramatic scene and cuteness of the whales seems to appeal to the masses and has caused quite a controversy regarding the Faroese tradition, known as grindadráp. However, the media often tells a misinformed story regarding the whaling. One thing to know is that Faroese whaling is fundamentally different to whaling seen in other parts of the world, such as Japanese whaling. 

The Faroese have been killing pilot whales for food for the past millennium and have done so in the most humane and sustainable way possible. Despite popular belief, the pilot whales are not endangered and in fact overpopulated in the North Atlantic Ocean. As they are carnivorous, an overpopulation of the whales causes a shortage in fish. Fishing is the major industry in the Faroe Islands and constitutes their livelihood; so ironically, the pilot whales can endanger the Faroese people by consuming all the fish in the surrounding sea. Thus, the Faroese kill a small portion of the whale population (roughly 0.1%, a completely sustainable rate) to balance the ecosystem while protecting their most important industry and their livelihood.

Faroese whaling is not commercial and only enough whales are killed to provide enough food for the people (equally distributed to the participating families). The killing is not for fun or money, but simply to support the lives of the people. As such, the Faroese have also come up with the most humane way to kill the animals.

When whaling season starts and the pilot whales come near the shore, “drives” are initiated where a semi-circle of boats herd nearby whales towards the shoreline (only whales near the shoreline are killed). When the whales approach the shore, the people use blunt blowhole hooks that catch the whales without causing wounds (unlike harpoons and spears) and draw them closer to shore. Only adult males are drawn in (no females or babies) and only enough that can be killed swiftly are drawn in.

Once drawn in, the men quickly use their knives to cut the spinal cord and artery supplying the brain, killing the whale within 15 seconds of being beached. It is the quickest and most painless way to kill the whales and only those who have been trained to do it properly are allowed to kill. As a major artery is cut and whales are big mammals, a large volume of blood is released, dying the sea a bloody red colour.
The whales are then divvied up equally, with no part of the whale going to waste. As only nearby whales are killed, sometimes no whales are killed for years.

Unfortunately, due to pollution in the ocean, there have been increasing levels of heavy metals such as mercury found in the whale meat. This is endangering the health of the island population and the deeply engrained tradition of grindadráp. The saddest part is that the pollution is from industrialised countries such as USA and European countries, not the Faroe Islands. Yet the Faroese have to put up with bigotry from those who do not understand the culture, process or the reasoning behind the tradition. If anything, it is by far more humane and sustainable than killing animals after a lifetime of captivity then sending them to a slaughterhouse.

It is extremely important to see the truth behind controversial issues such as this, as more often than not the truth is shrouded by bigotry and subjective comments by people who have only seen the issue through some photographs on the internet.


(Notice the single, deep horizontal slash through the dorsal aspect of the spinal cord, just before the brainstem. Such a cut would immediately sever any pain signals and cause almost instant unconsciousness due to ischaemia of the brain.)