Posted in Science & Nature

Brace Position

A word you never want to hear during a flight is “brace, brace”. It is used as an instruction from the flight crew to the passengers that there is an impending crash landing and everyone should assume the brace position. It is covered in the safety instructions at the start of every flight.

The brace position varies for each country and airline, but the general principle is to bend forward, putting your head either on your lap or against the headrest of the seat in front of you, having your feet flat on the ground and covering your head with both of your hands.

The purpose of the brace position is to maximise your chance of survival in the event of a crash landing. A typical passenger jet travels at around 900km/h. When a plane crashes, extreme amounts of force are exerted on the plane chassis and its contents. The following is a non-exhaustive list of potential sources of injury for a passenger:

  • Inertia and two-point seat belt (only across the waist) results in “jack-knifing”, where the body folds over at high speeds. This can cause catastrophic injury to abdominal organs and the spine.
  • Head and neck injury against the seat in front, resulting in anywhere between a concussion to bleeding in or around the brain. Even if the head injury is survivable, being knocked out or confused after a concussion reduces your chances of escaping the crashed plane before collapse, fires or explosions.
  • Whiplash injury of the neck.
  • Limb injury from flailing.
  • Injury from falling debris.

The brace position has been optimised over the last 20-30 years to reduce the risk of all of the above types of injuries, with multiple studies confirming that it is effective in reducing crash mortality.

Another positive news is that the risk of dying from a plane crash is extremely low. Your risk of dying on a flight is 1 in 60 million – far, far lower than the risk of dying from a car accident, being hit by a bus, a brain aneurysm or even being hit by lightning. Thanks to rigorous research, improved design and numerous safety features such as brace position, you have a 95% survival chance in an airplane crash, and even in serious crashes, the survival chance is 76%. 

Of course, the minute percentage of plane crashes that result in fatalities tend to be non-survivable in the first place, but we cannot postpone death forever.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Perspective is everything. By changing your perspective, you may discover an innovative solution to a problem, or understand the actions of someone else. But more importantly, your perspectives have direct implications in your life and health.

For example, let us consider pain. Pain is a sensation – an electrical signal in response to a noxious stimuli that is causing damage to your body. It is a warning system that screams to the brain that something is wrong. To boil down the complex physiology of neurotransmission, essentially imagine the system as an electrical circuit. If something damages tissue, like a knife slicing through flesh or a clot blocking off oxygen supply to the heart, the pain “switch” is activated, a signal is sent to the brain, and it is interpreted and “felt” by the brain as pain. Because your brain needs to interpret the signal, pain is essentially subjective. If you are distracted or in a good mood, you will feel less pain compared to when you are distressed and focussing on it. The same stimuli can be handled completely different by every person, making pain extremely complicated and difficult to assess in a medical setting. Pain scales may be used to try objectify the level of pain, but this is still very crude.

UCEM Pain Scale

One way or another, pain is technically all in your head. That is not to say that pain is not real – that would be an insult to sufferers of chronic pain. But your perspective, way of thinking and frame of mind can make a significant difference to the amount of suffering the pain causes. This is not just an overly-optimistic view of the world that everything can be fixed with optimism. There are real physiological systems in place to alleviate pain when you are happy. These chemicals are called endorphins – so named because they are so potent that they match the effect of morphine (endo(inside) + morphine). This natural painkiller is released in response to pain, but can also be stimulated by having fun and being happy. Laughter is literally medicine.

Not only that, but by being in a good mood, you become more resilient and “distracted from the pain”, allowing you to bear the pain more easily. A woman going through childbirth suffers quite possibly the most extreme level of pain a human being can experience, but the prospect of seeing their newborn child (and probably finally ending their pregnancy) and the loving support of their spouse, family and friends keep them pushing onwards. Even though the noxious stimuli of stretching is real, the brain can choose to downplay how much pain it thinks it should feel with these positive factors.

Although it may not be able to make your pain magically disappear, never underestimate the power of positivity, laughter and happiness. Perhaps that is why the emotion of happiness was evolved – to alleviate the misery and pains of living in this world. To survive.


Posted in Science & Nature

Natural Design

We look around the world we live in and marvel in all its complexity and grandeur. But Mother Nature focusses on one thing when it comes to designefficiency. That is to say, that nature strives to design things that will do the job best. For example, stars and planets are always round because a sphere is the most effective way to get all the mass as close to the planet’s centre of gravity as possible (a process known as isostatic adjustment). The wings of a bird have evolved to maximise the thrust generated at the least energy cost, while the sleek, teardrop body shape of fish allow for them to slip through water with minimal resistance. One of the best examples of nature coming up with the best design solution is beehives.

If you look closely at a beehive, you will find that it is made up of tiny hexagons. Each hexagon is a room that a bee can fit in and the walls are made from wax. The interesting thing about hexagons is that it has many properties that make it the ideal shape in construction.

Firstly, hexagons can fit together perfectly to tile a plane, meaning that bees can tile thousands of columns without wasting any space. The little columns even end in a unique pyramidal shape that allows them to tile up nicely with each other at the centre.

Secondly, a hexagon has 6 rotational symmetries and 6 reflection symmetries, making it very easy to tile as every bee will know what orientation to build their cell in using the side of any cell as a reference.

Lastly, in a hexagonal grid each line is as short as it can possibly be when tiling an area with the smallest number of hexagons. Therefore, bees can use much less wax when constructing hives, while achieving remarkable strength as hexagons gain lots of strength under compression. This design also allows for the maximum amount of honey stored in each cell.

Bees have mastered this architectural feat not through physics and mathematics, but through evolution – the driving force of nature. Over millions and millions of years, various types of bees will have experimented with square-celled hives or triangular-celled hives, but they could not survive as long as the hexagonal-celled bees because their hives were less efficient. This is exactly why nature is so good at coming up with the best solution to a problem. Because in nature, the best solution to the problem an environment offers is rewarded with survival.

Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Malevolence

Human beings are fundamentally evil. This was a theory concerning human nature put forward by Xunzi – a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, along with Confucius and Mencius. Xunzi stated that human beings naturally seek out only their own interests and greed, envying and hating each other so much that they are bound to fight if left alone. He suggested that people needed to learn etiquette and culture themselves to correct this.

Xunzi’s philosophies are on a background of the chaotic setting of the Warring States Period. The Warring States Period was a period when China was split into many different countries, all warring with each other to gain dominance over each other’s lands. During these wars, Xunzi saw countless cases of people looting and killing each other, which led him to the conclusion that people are naturally selfish beings. He believed that human beings focus on their greed and self-preservation from the moment of birth. He also believed that leaving people without order would indubitably lead to social chaos. Thus, to effectively rule over the people, a leader must place limits such as laws, ethics, etiquette and culture.

From an evolutionary point of view, the theory of fundamental malevolence (성악설, sung ak sul) makes sense. Would a starving lion mourn the death of a baby zebra? Protecting one’s own interests is a great way to increase your chance of survival and propagating your genes.

The more you carefully observe people’s behaviour, the more credibility the theory seems to gain. Human beings are selfish beings who become jealous of others for having more than themselves, kill someone because they tried to take away their love and engage in fratricidal war because others do not share their beliefs. You as the reader may state that you cannot imagine hurting anyone, let alone taking a life. In that case, let us examine the following thought experiment.

One day, you are kidnapped. When you come about, you find that you are trapped in a pitch-black room, tied to a pole. The room appears to be completely empty and you cannot see or hear anything. Suddenly, you hear a voice coming from the other side of the room. The voice talks about how it will murder you in a violent, excruciating way, over and over. The voice continues to threaten you in a macabre way for three days. Just when you are near your breaking point from the overwhelming fear of imminent death, another voice appears. The voice says: “If you nominate someone you are close to that I can kill in your stead, I will let you go and not harm you in any way”. Would you have the courage to not give a name?

Posted in Science & Nature

Slavemaker Ant

Slavery is considered one of the most inhumane acts in humanity’s history, where a group of people enslave another group of people to do their bidding in harsh conditions. Slavery is an interesting concept as at the cost of other members of your species, you can greatly increase the productivity of your own society. Some may argue that only humans are evil enough to enslave their own kind, but there is one other species that enslaves other animals: ants.

Certain species of ants, known as slavemaker ants, are known to enslave entire ant colonies to do the bidding of their own colony. The way slavemaker ants enslave colonies is as follows. First, a pregnant queen ant lies in front of an enemy nest after mating and feigns death. Scouts from the nest carry the “body” back to their queen so that she may devour the fallen enemy. When the two queens are left in the same room, the queen slavemaker ant springs back to life and proceeds to eviscerate the other queen ant. She then rolls around in her remains to coat herself in pheromones – the substance through which ants identify each other. The ants of the colony now believe the queen to be their own queen and serve her and her eggs. When the brood fully matures (only soldier ants), they swiftly overrun the nest and completely enslave the colony, forcing them to fill the role of the worker ants, which the slavemaker ants lack.

Eventually, the original slaves die out and the colony becomes short on worker ants (as the queen only produces soldier ants). To overcome this issue, the colony sends out massive raiding parties to attack other colonies, after which the ants steal the eggs and larvae of the captured colony to breed them into new slaves. Interestingly, it has been observed that slavemaker ants tend to attack the most defended nests, knowing that they contain the most eggs and larvae. There are variations on how the army attacks and raids a colony depending on the species. Some choose to launch a full-on assault, decimating the colony and leaving only the eggs and larvae. Some secrete chemical gases that force the colony to evacuate, leaving their young behind in the rush. In some cases, a fertilised queen ant will sneak into a raid and kill the queen ant in the midst of the battle, commandeering whatever is left of the colony following the raid.

One difference between human and ant slavery is that slave ants are not aware they are slaves. Since they have been brought up since birth to work for the colony, they simply believe that they are worker ants birthed by the queen. Thus, they have no objections to serving the colony as to them they are merely fulfiling their objectives. 

This type of interaction between species is known as social parasitism, where one group benefits and survives at the cost of another group. Interestingly, “parasitism” also suggests that slavemaker ants cannot survive without their host. The reason being, slavemaker ants are so specialised in infiltrating and raiding other colonies that they cannot feed themselves or construct a colony by themselves. Even their mandibles are evolved into perfect killing machines, so much that they cannot use it to feed (slave ants have to feed them). In some cases, it has even been observed that slave ants had to carry their masters from one colony to another.

Slavemaker ants enslave not because they are tough or superior, but because they are desperate and have adapted to this unique form of surviving. Thus, if there was an Abraham Lincoln ant, he would certainly kill his colony within one generation.

Posted in Science & Nature

Red Queen’s Hypothesis

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, there is a scene where the Red Queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. Essentially, it means to spend all the effort you can just to keep the status quo. In life, there are so many times when it seems like you’re frantically running just to realise that no progress has been made. Interestingly, the same rule is seen in biology and evolution.

The simple rule of natural selection is that the best adapted species wins. Unfortunately, this means that no matter how well you are doing in the environment, as soon as another species becomes better adapted to a new change, you become the lesser species and eventually destroyed. To prevent this, a species must continuously evolve and adapt just to stay in the same position. Nature despises stagnancy and loves progress. For example, a predator always strives to evolve to better catch the prey while the prey evolves to avoid the predator. This cat-and-mouse arms race allows for continuous evolution and ever-improving fitness. This is the Red Queen’s Hypothesis.

A fascinating extension of the hypothesis is that it may be a cause for having sex. Sex is one of the most intuitive inventions of Mother Nature that allows for massive genetic variation. The Red Queen Hypothesis has been used to suggest that this may have evolved to speed up the process of evolution so that hosts could beat parasites in the ongoing arms race. The greatest act of love may simply be a mechanism for us to stay competent in this ever-changing world.

Posted in History & Literature

Thirty-Six Stratagems: Chapter 5 – Proximate Stratagems

(For all 36 stratagems, click here:

Proximate Stratagems are tactics that utilise something even more fearful than the enemy outside: the enemy inside.

Stratagem 25: Replace the beams with rotten timbers
If you slowly remove the pillars of foundation beneath the enemy one by one, they will naturally fall. More specifically, if you buy off the enemy’s officials and subjects, you can make the country into a useless shell even before starting a war.

Stratagem 26: Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree
This is a method where you publicly criticise someone’s actions while intending for someone else to indirectly get the message. If you criticise an ally or a subordinate, you run the risk of being betrayed. Thus, it is far more effective to indirectly criticise someone else in a way that the other person understands what you think.

Stratagem 27: Feign madness but keep your balance
It is far better to act like a fool and refrain from misconducting than talking out loudly and committing a rash act. A true leader hides his ingenuity, meaning he may appear as a fool to others. This is the ideal look of a leader. Furthermore, if you keep up an act of foolishness while meticulously planning on the inside, the enemy will drop his guard.

Stratagem 28: Lure the enemy to the roof then remove the ladderMake your army look weak and defenceless to lure the enemy into a trap, then surround and destroy them. On the other hand, this can also mean to intentionally trap your forces to boost their ferocity.

Stratagem 29: Deck the tree with false blossoms
Bluff to suppress the enemy psychologically. For example, if you make it look like your forces are far greater in number than they actually are, the enemy will be hesitant in attacking and you will have the lead. This is very effective when you are outnumbered.

Stratagem 30: Make the guest act as if he was the host
This is the survival strategy cuckoos use where they push the original babies out of a nest and hog the food that the mother brings. It is a strategy where you patiently wait for the right moment when you can sneak in and seize the authority, taking someone else’s resources for your own. An example of this stratagem would be when the reinforcement that is supposed to protect the allied country turn into an invading an army to take over the country.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine, Special Long Essays


How many friends can a person have? Believe it or not, science has solved this question. An anthropologist called Robin Dunbar studied various societies, tribes and primate groups to determine how many members a group can have to maintain stability. He discovered that the ideal size for a group of humans was about 150.

What happens if there are more than 150 people in a group? This is easily explained by the following thought experiment. Imagine that you have a friend called Mr. White. Add a personality to him – flesh him out as a person. Next, you make another friend called Mr. Red. Then Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Maroon… At a certain point, you will no longer remember the name or personality of your “friend” and not even care about that person. This is the limit set by our brains – known as Dunbar’s number, or more colloquially the Monkeysphere.

Any person outside of this Monkeysphere is not of your concern. Once you saturate your brain with 150 relationships, the brain ceases to care about other people. Interestingly, the Monkeysphere is directly related to the size of the neocortex (the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking). For example, most monkeys can only operate in troupes of 50 or so.

The Monkeysphere can be defined as the group of people that you conceptualise as “people”. Because of this limitation, we are physiologically incapable of caring about everyone in the world. For example, we are highly unlikely to be concerned about the welfare of the janitor at work compared to a loved one. As politically incorrect it may be, the brain sees the janitor as “the object that cleans the building” rather than a human being. You may “care” about the janitor in the sense that you greet him in the corridor, but there is a limit to this. This effect actually explains quite well why society is dysfunctional in general.

Because we do not see people outside the Monkeysphere as “people”, they mean less to us. Stalin once said that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Similarly, the death of a family member is devastating but 10,000 people dying in a foreign country from war does not have the same emotional effect. Furthermore, if a stranger was to die in front of your eyes, you would still not be nearly as devastated as the death of someone you are close to.

Also, as we do not feel connected to these “outsiders”, we are much more prone to act rude or aggressively. For example, one may insult other drivers with the most colourful words on the road, but would (hopefully) never say those words to a friend.


This expands to a greater scale in the context of survival. We are wired to put the need of the members of our Monkeysphere ahead of those outside of it. Thus, we would not steal from our friends but openly evade taxes as we see the government and others as a cold, faceless body. It does not occur to us that through our actions, we are harming other human beings. The same applies to our view of corporations; despite being made up of real people, we only see them as heartless machines actively conspiring against us.

What if the scale was then expanded to countries? If we do not see a person on the other side of the road as a human being, it is extremely unlikely we would register a foreigner as one. This explains why racism and stereotyping is so common in human societies. Although liberal-minded people would like to believe that we should treat every human being like we treat our mothers, our brain is incapable of it. In fact, it is much more likely we would see those people as acting against our interests by “stealing jobs” and so forth. Thus, racism is a hard-wired behaviour to protect the best interest of our Monkeysphere.

We have established that it is impossible to worry about the seven billion strangers in this world. This brings us to an important point: it is just as impossible to make “them” interested in “you”. It is a cold, hard fact that if you are outside of their Monkeysphere, people will not care about you. Ergo, they treat you badly, put you down, steal from you and downright ignore you. In fact, cognitive dissonance means you are even less likely to care for people outside the Monkeysphere as your brain actively rejects people from getting closer to your Monkeysphere, exceeding the preset limit of 150 people. This is why propaganda always focusses on dehumanising the enemy and why people seeking votes and attention pull at sympathy strings – to try get as close to your Monkeysphere as possible.


Many people will lament how we are not monkeys and the Monkeysphere does not apply to us. We have laws, ethics and “humanity”. However, we cannot escape our primitive psychological behaviours and this is reflected in societies filled with crime, unhappiness and a general disinterest in people not related to yourself. This is why city-dwellers tend to be less friendly than villagers, as there are too many people to fit in one, happy Monkeysphere. In fact, monkeys may have more functional societies than us because they hardly ever exceed their own Monkeyspheres (which may also explain why they rarely have wars). The same can be said of tribes and villages of the past.

Ironically, the development of society has been based around working around the limitations of the Monkeysphere – a theoretically ideal society. By living in larger groups, humans can achieve greater feats such as industries and large-scale economies. Although we suffer the consequences of racism and crime, we have become very effective in survival.

Economics is based on the Monkeysphere too. As we only care about our Monkeysphere, there is no reason for us to be concerned about the needs of others. So when a system such as communism forces us to share our bananas, we become infuriated that we have to give up our bananas to people we do not know. But in capitalism, every individual can pick bananas for just ourselves and those we care about. The system thrives as each Monkeysphere acts dynamically and everyone is happy. This is the concept of the invisible hand that is the foundation of modern economics.

But still, the concept of countries means that we have to share the burden of millions of people we do not care about in the form of taxes and civil duties. This makes us unhappy. So what can we do?


Firstly, realise that you are to others what others are to you. If you find a certain person on television as annoying and irrational, chances are that someone else sees you in that light. You are limited to your Monkeysphere of 150 people and people outside of it are in their own Monkeyspheres.

Secondly, understand that no one is special. There are no heroes or perfect beings. Everyone is a human being and prone to making mistakes and acting “human”. Therefore, we cannot idolise people and be disappointed by their actions. This also means that you cannot judge another person and consider their words and actions as insignificant, as they are just as human as you.

Lastly, never simplify things. The world is not simple. It cannot be generalised as one happy village with everyone living happily in harmony. It is a composite of a massive number of different Monkeyspheres, all concerned with their own well-being and not caring about anything else.

Remember the words that Charles Darwin spoke to his assistant, Jeje Santiago: “Jeje, we are the monkeys”. As much as we would like to think that we are higher-order beings, we are simple creatures of habit and behaviour limited by our Monkeysphere.

Posted in Science & Nature


When you think of lemmings, you are bound to think of two things: a small, round rodent and mass suicide. The reason being, we have been taught as children that lemmings often commit mass suicide. This theory originates from the late 19th century when scientists could not figure out why lemming populations seemed to spike rapidly and then fall just as fast. In 1908, a man named Arthur Mee proposed that they kill themselves, writing so in the Children’s Encyclopaedia. He posited that as an overpopulation of lemmings could devastate the European ecosystem, the lemmings were naturally controlling their own population count. His theory was backed by a documentary made in 1958 called White Wilderness that showed a footage of a herd of lemmings leaping off a cliff to their death.

However, this “fact” has a severe flaw. Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. If you think about it for even a second, the thought of an animal that commits mass suicide (other than human beings) is preposterous as the species would die out. The reason why the lemming population spikes is the same as for mice and rabbits: they pride themselves in extreme reproductive abilities. A female lemming can have up to 80 babies in one year. If the population grows at such an alarming rate, then as explained above, the environment would not be able to support it. This causes the lemming population to plateau, not rising or falling, as there is not enough food to feed all the lemmings. However, due to the shortage of food, the lemmings become desperate and hungry. To find more food, the lemmings begin a migration, but the combination of hunger and being in heat causes them to act irrationally and wild. The result is a massive herd of hungry, stupid lemmings frantically running around all over the place. This leads to some lemmings accidentally slipping off cliffs and drowning in the river while swimming. This is not suicide.

Then what was the strange phenomenon of mass suicide depicted in White Wilderness? The answer is simple: it was staged. The producers tried to replicate Mee’s theory by importing a dozen lemmings and filming them running around the place. Then why did these lemmings commit suicide? Because the producers launched them off a cliff from a turntable.

Posted in Science & Nature


Three gunslingers called Good, Bad and Ugly duel to the death. They each stand an equal distance from each other and shoot at the same time. Good’s accuracy is 30%, Ugly’s accuracy is 70% and Bad’s accuracy is 100%. Who has the highest chance of survival?

Common sense dictates that Bad, with the highest accuracy, will have the highest survival rate. However, when the duel begins, the following scenario will occur.

Good’s most rational decision is to shoot Bad rather than Ugly. Reason being, shooting the person with the higher accuracy improves your survival rate in the next round. Ugly also chooses to shoot Bad instead of Good as it is the best choice. Lastly, Bad shoots Ugly instead of Good. This scenario can be explained by the following diagram:

Thus, the probability of Bad being alive after the first round is (1-0.3)(1-0.7)=0.21, or 21%. This is because Ugly is killed by Bad on the first shot. On the second round, the probability of Good dying is the same as Bad’s survival rate of the first round, which is 21%. Therefore, Good’s survival rate is 79%. On the other hand, Bad’s survival rate becomes 0.21(1-0.3)=0.147, or 14.7%

Ultimately, the survival rate of each shooter is: Ugly 0%, Bad 14.7%, Good 21%, making Good the most likely winner. This illustrates the fundamental principles of game theory – an extremely useful theory that helps predict the many choices we make in life.