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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Can Delusions Be True?

YouTube skeptic Nykytyne2 discusses the definition of the word "delusion", and some nuances of its meaning.

I like the clarity of his thought process and I find two aspects of his analysis especially interesting.

1. The Importance of Social/Cultural Context on Mental Disorders

Mental illness is often considered to be a problem within an individual himself or herself, but here it is clear from the DSM-IV that social/cultural norms is a major component of the definition of delusion.

Actually, if you think about it further, social norms and expectations are a big part in the definition of any disease!

Imagine a group of people who spend most of their lives in dark caves, searching for food and communicating via sound and touch. Loss of sight due to eye injury would be a minor inconvenience, not a serious pathology.

Conversely, imagine another group of people who for some historical or religious reasons find freckles to be absolutely vile and diabolical. They would shield children from sunlight to avoid the formation of freckles and advocate aggressive treatment once the freckles develop. Scarring caused by freckle removal is more culturally acceptable than the freckles themselves. In such a case, the term "freckles" would be defined as a serious skin condition, a type of disease.

2. The Importance of End Result in Social Perception

I find it fascinating that delusions can be about things that might eventually be shown to be true, like the micro-organism example mentioned in the video. So to Nykytyne2, the thought process is more important than the result when trying to determine if a belief is a delusion.

Still, an army friend once told me, "Money talks. Bullshit walks." For many people, the end result is of paramount importance, whereas the means is not so important or relevant.

But how can you get a "result" without a process?

This differing appraisal of a goal-directed process is very personality-dependent thing; there are people who are impressed by wealth and power and instantly confer respect based on these results, while there are others who cannot confer respect no matter the wealth and power, unless the process used to achieve the results are impressive.

For example -

a. Someone might say: "Hats off to Larry. He caught my heart. He has 12 billion Dollars and is the Head of a big company."

And the other might say: "Hellooo... he is an investment BANKER! He'll tell you lies, and then it's your turn to CRY CRY CRY-Y."

Alternatively -

b. Someone: "She's not an actor, she's not a star. She doesn't even have her own car. Therefore she is a loser, QED."

Other: "Not only that, she also tried unsuccessfully to be a pole dancer. That's why I'm hoping so much she'll stay. And that she'll love me anyway."


Wait, that doesn't sound right.

I wanted to write some sort of MacGyver story for Example b, but I heard singing in my head and wrote that down instead.

Was that an auditory illusion?

*gobbles a handful of pills*

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shutters Shutters Everywhere

The financial markets, energy prices and real estate prices are soaring.

Is the actual economy recovering?

Someone once said that you can't tell that Singapore is going through a recession because the central shopping districts are always packed with people.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we know that downtown malls are frequented by the rich and thus are not representative of the state of the economy in general.

Moreover, we have long realized that window shopping is free and thus you can't assume that everything is normal-normal simply because there are lots of people (penniless? heavily in debt?) walking around.

To know what is going on, you have to open your eyes and actually look at how the retailers are doing...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Business Vs Science: A Dash Of Gold

Lab results are usually boring documents of jargon and numbers that only experts can appreciate.

So when would business people and investors be "excited" about scientists and their lab results?

When the scientist is a geologist, and the lab results are about the amount of gold deposits at a site.


In 1993, geologist Michael de Guzman, project manager of Bre-X Minerals Ltd, discovered some gold near Busang River in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Estimates of the gold deposits gradually rose from 2 million ounces to a massive 70 million ounces (~1984 tonnes), and consequentially Bre-X expanded from a penny stock into a 6-billion-Canadian-dollar company with a peak stock price of CAD $286.50 (over 10,000% increase in two years!)

Then, in 1997, the company collapsed. Bre-X filed for bankruptcy and billions of dollars of investor funds went up in smoke.

And the term "Bre-X" became synonymous with one of the biggest mining frauds in history.

Check out this documentary for a quick (and slightly over-dramatized) overview of the entire affair:

Masterminds - Fool's Gold Part 2 of 3

Masterminds - Fool's Gold Part 3 of 3

To me, two segments from the documentary are especially interesting -

1. Andrew Willis: "There was always some science backing up this fraud."

2. Narrator :"For years, de Guzman struggles for recognition in an industry dominated by large American mining companies."

Andrew Willis: "Mike de Guzman knew he was smart, he had fabulous marks, he had an engineering degree, but he never got a great job, he never got a crack at a great job. It's very difficult for the Filipinos, even with extremely good engineering training, to get senior jobs with the big mining companies."

Narrator: "While exploring the jungles of Borneo, de Guzman devises a plan to make himself rich. Unable to get the support he needs to find a gold mine, he decides to invent one."

Here's another interesting exerpt from an article entitled "The mystery of Michael de Guzman" -

3. By 1993, de Guzman was heading up the site for Walsh's Bre-X Minerals as the company's exploration manager in Indonesia.

At one point, it appeared as though the Canadians were preparing to pull the plug on the expensive -- and fruitless -- exploration.

De Guzman pleaded with Felderhof for more time and soon, Busang's drilling results turned up stunning levels of gold.

"We almost closed the property," de Guzman told Fortune Magazine in 1997, before the scandal erupted.

"In December 1993, John said, 'Close the property,' and then we made the hit."


When business collides with science, when one person's ambition is repeatedly met with denied opportunities and rejection, when desperation coincides with brilliance and creativity...

Who can predict what happens next?

Would you like to know more?

About the Bre-X scandal:
The mystery of Michael de Guzman (
Stranger than Fiction: The Bre-X Gold Scandal (CBC Digital Archives)

About other cases of fraud:
- Scientists Who Cheat

Friday, September 04, 2009

War Between Business And Science

Have you ever wondered why billionaire talkshow diva Oprah Winfrey is so well respected by business professionals but almost universally disliked by scientific professionals?

Check out what a Harvard Business School Professor has to say about her:

""Still, when Professor Nancy Koehn introduced her guest on the last day of class this past spring, "everyone did a double take," Koehn recalls. Oprah Winfrey was in the house.

How the icon of daytime television and chief executive of a major media empire came to HBS after three years of effort is a story in itself. And what she told students brought them a unique perspective about leaders and leadership in the twenty-first century. "I think she's a great bellwether for the future of business," Koehn says. "Maybe she and her organization are on a path that a lot of leaders and organizations are going to be on.""

Compare and contrast that appraisal with this view from medical doctor David Gorski:

"Personally, I have no problem with Oprah’s level of success. Clearly, she is a very talented and savvy TV host and businesswoman.

Unfortunately, in marked contrast, Oprah has about as close to no critical thinking skills when it comes to science and medicine as I’ve ever seen, and she uses the vast power and influence her TV show and media empire give her in order to subject the world to her special brand of mystical New Age thinking and belief in various forms of what can only be characterized as dubious medical therapies at best and quackery at worst. Arguably there is no single person in the world with more influence pushing woo than Oprah."

Do you know why Oprah seems to be so intent on supporting dubious medical therapies?

Here at Fresh Brainz, I've had the misfortune of being trained in BOTH science and business, so let me give you my own analysis of what is going on...


When you hear the word "science" or "evidence-based medicine" what does it mean to YOU?

Maybe you associate those words with a method of discovering facts and building theories by making observations, doing experiments/testing treatments, interpreting results and checking for biological significance/inherent biases/alternative explanations etc.

In other words, a careful method of learning about reality.

Or maybe you associate these words with large bureaucratic organizations/corporations, expensive machines, committees of powerful old men, obsession over meaningless details, close-mindedness and arrogance.

In other words, "wasting" tonnes of money to investigate the details of Nature that nobody else cares about, or a giant corporate machine that creates an incredibly high entry barrier so that only it alone can rake in the big bucks.

The reality is that modern scientific research is very expensive.

The days of the lone microscopist making a significant finding are numbered (though probably not true for the lone amateur astronomer). You can recycle fashion trends every two decades, but you can only make a scientific discovery once.

The "cheap" science, the "small" science; they have already been done by people in the past.

To do big science today, you need more than fancy degrees from a brand name school.

You also need big money.

That represents a very high entry barrier. You want to map the human transcriptome? Perform a large-scale clinical trial? Only governments and multinational corporations have that kind of money.

Moreover, from a purely business perspective, scientific research represents a weak return on investment.

Practically all curiosity-driven basic research has no chance of making money directly, while only a small proportion of biomed/biotech research will ever reach profitability. Even if you can come up with a technology or treatment with promising biological effectiveness, it will still have to face years of regulatory hurdles, as well as market pressures, before it can start raking in the dollars.

Clinical research is obviously nearer to practical applications, but only big companies have the resources to conduct large-scale trials. If you intend to invest money in a big, well-established pharma company, you can't expect to make much more than an incremental gain of around 10% yearly.

That is because most of the company's growth is already over, during its infancy - but that was also the riskiest stage of its development.

So what do you do if you are an ambitious young person who wants to build a successful business, preferably within your own lifetime?

Here's one way of doing it:

You take a fucking chance.

Governments and Big Pharma don't talk to nobodies. So you talk to much smaller players - obscure new outfits, individual inventors, alternative medicine practitioners, motivational gurus, unknown book authors...

It doesn't matter what they do, as long as you can identify the potential for a powerful social impact.

You have to understand the needs and desires of regular people, work closely with those who claim to have just the solution that the people need, and then promote their special solution confidently to the world.

The highest growth potential comes from untested small players, thus you should try to seek them out and grow with them. Remember that when blue chips rise by a few dollars it's only a percentage gain, but when a penny stock rises by a few dollars, it has increased its value by a FEW FOLD. The returns on investment can be tremendous.

However, penny stocks are very risky. Similarly, if you constantly align yourself with mystics and alternative healers, you might open the doors not only to harmless crackpots, but deliberate frauds and pranksters as well. This can have a negative effect, both on your bottomline and on your reputation.

Fortunately, if you were NOT trained in science, you don't have to dwell on it. Just disassociate yourself from any negative incidents, and move on. Your target audience won't know the difference anyway and won't expect you to be scientifically accurate. Academics may protest but you can always appeal to the anti-establishment sentiments of your supporters!

It's more important to get the timing right and seize an opportunity quickly, than to be factually correct or even conceptually consistent.

Remember that your goal is commerce, not science. More human than human should be your motto - it's about selling a hyperreality to the masses. Nobody will give you a single cent more for being too truthful or too careful.

In fact, in Oprah's case, she often seems to act first and check later!

This can be clearly seen from the site "Top 12 Oprah Mistakes, Lies and Embarrassments". The writer concluded that (emphasis mine) :

"In a long and extraordinarily successful career, Oprah Winfrey has often been wrong, but she rarely, if ever, conveys uncertainty. She’s admitted to having used cocaine in her 20s, under the influence of her then-boyfriend. She’s made questionable diet and health choices and presented each one to the world as a wonderful new discovery, only to change programs, beliefs and approaches. She’s invited at least two blatant frauds to share their stories with the world on her show, and has encouraged us to buy books full of lies and health products with no proven benefits. She is, in short, wrong quite a lot. And that’s okay. Most of us are. Most of us, though, don’t have millions of people accepting our every word as gospel. That should inspire a person to choose her words with a bit more care."

Note that uncertainty and persistence is the bread and butter of scientific research, whereas unshakeable confidence and flexibility is an indispensible aspect of business enterprise.

Also, Dr. Gorski may wonder why Oprah is successful despite her apparent lack of critical thinking, but in contrast, I find it hard to see how Oprah could have succeeded if she was saddled with critical thought!


"Science" means something different from an academic or business perspective. It is both a method and an industry; an endeavour of individual effort and organizational strategy.

To make money directly from science is a difficult challenge because there are many contradictory skillsets between business professionals and scientific professionals.

But ultimately, in any organization somebody has to be the one to make the big decisions.

What if you spent your entire life training to become a scientist, only to realize that somebody who is neither interested in your research nor even appreciates its significance actually has more power over your research direction, your lab and your whole career than you yourself?

Conversely, what if you were a business-trained manager who was told that science was just another area of business, only to realize that research routinely spends far more money than it can ever generate, and because of the increasing pressure to achieve a better return on investment, you now have to convince over 1,000 disgruntled PhDs that all big science decisions have to be made by you yourself?

Those are interesting, academic questions.

Perhaps not academic for long.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

We Can Simulate Your Marriage Wholesale

Just came across this nice romantic flick with an interesting sci-fi twist...

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Ok, now that you've wiped your tears dry and snorted your nose juice down your throat, it's my duty as the resident spoilsport to inform you that:

1. Memories can't be implanted directly into the brain like that because the brain doesn't really have a central, fixed location where all the memories get stored. Also, unless you intend to cut a big hole on the back of someone's skull, the only way for a person to "experience" a VR is to actually put on sensory devices such as goggles, headphones... and Sogo-7 data gloves.

2. Complex systems are not predictable to the same extent that simple systems (eg. traffic patterns) can be. Thus it is not possible to produce an accurate simulation of a relationship by only plugging in the subjects' DNA and personality profiles, while ignoring other important factors such as the environment (eg. economic downturn leading to loss of job). Even if that was possible, at best the simulation can only be probabilistic, because a confluence of small factors can result in some emergent, opposite effect.

I know you don't care.

Would you like to know more?

Another movie about people getting their minds fucked:
- Total Recall (YouTube)