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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!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ponzi Scheme Maths

By now the US$50 billion Bernie Madoff scandal is pretty much old news, but like many other people I have been wondering how he was able to sustain his giant Ponzi scheme for over 20 years.

In stark contrast, good old Charles Ponzi himself could not even make his scheme last a year. He started taking in money from investors in early 1920 through his "Securities Exchange Company".

By July 1920 he had become a millionaire.

By November he was in jail.

Of course, no Ponzi scheme can last - there is no influx of funds from outsiders and the money just gets redistributed from new investors to existing investors. Since money is constantly drawn out of the system (especially the scam artist himself) the entire operation will collapse once recruitment starts slowing down.

However I wanted to get a feel for just how aggressive the recruitment will have to be in order to keep the scheme running, and I'm also curious about the difference in scale between Ponzi's operation and Madoff's.

So I hunted the Intertubes for a mathematical model of the Ponzi scheme, ideally an applet that allows you to plug in key variables such as the rate of return.

Unfortunately the models available on the Net either totally ignore the recruitment aspect (Bernie Madoff Calculator) or rely on difficult mathematics such as matrices and calculus.

Thus I have no choice but to work it out myself. I wish I could turn it into an automated applet, but my maths and programming skills are not good enough. If you are able to make that, please drop us a link.

Here's a simple, arithmetic model of the Ponzi Scheme:

1. Let's start with Charles Ponzi's version. He promised a 50% rate of return after an investment period of 45 days.

For the purposes of simplicity, let's restrict investment to one $1000 lot per person, synchronize their investment periods, and allow the investors to withdraw interest payments only at the end of each 45-day cycle.

My model is sort of a worst case scenario for Ponzi, in that he must have the capital to pay off the maximum potential interests due at the end of each cycle. (Note that if all the investors also demand their principal back, then the scheme would immediately end).

In reality he need not have so much cash at hand, since he can simply issue bogus profit statements to his investors and encourage them not to make withdrawals.

I also assume that Ponzi himself expects to make the same rate of return as his investors, which clearly isn't the case in real life.

Day 0

Ponzi starts the ball rolling with a capital of $1000.

He has to potentially pay himself $500 (0.5x1000) interest on Day 45.

If he doesn't withdraw his interest payments, it will accumulate to $1250[ (1.5x1.5x1000)-(1000)]on Day 90, which will make his cash flow negative $250 (1000-1250) and end his scheme.

So he must find another investor on Day 45.

Day 45

Ponzi plus one investor. Total capital = $2000

By Day 90 he has to potentially pay out (1250+500) = $1750
By Day 135 he has to potentially pay out (1.5x1.5x1.5x1000)-1000+1250) = $3635 (cash flow = negative $1635)

So he must find additional investors on Day 90.

Day 90

Four more investors. Total investors = 6. Total capital = $6000

By Day 135 he has to potentially pay out [2375+1250+(4x500)] = $5625
By Day 170 he has to potentially pay out [4062.5+2375+(4x1250)] = $11437.5 (cash flow = negative $5437.5)

Needs more investors again.

Day 135

11 more investors. Total investors = 17. Total capital = $17000

Day 180

Total investors = 52.

Day 225

Total investors = 155.

And so on...

As you can see, the number of investors required to sustain the scheme goes up exponentially.

This is due to the compound effect of the rate of return, which causes the capital to appreciate exponentially, as shown in the chart below.

50% return over 45 days actually represents a monstrous annual rate of return of 2563%!

This means that an initial investment of $1000 will grow to exceed a million dollars in only 2 years, an insane rate that is clearly impossible to sustain for long.

2. Now let's look at the figures for Madoff's version. Madoff promised a steady 12% return annually.

Year 0

Madoff also starts off with $1000.

By Year 1 he has to potentially pay himself $120
By Year 2 he needs $254.40
By Year 3 he needs $404.93
By Year 4 he needs $573.52
By Year 5 he needs $762.34
By Year 6 he needs $973.82
By Year 7 he needs $1210.68 (negative cash flow - scheme ends)

Needs to find an investor in Year 6.

Year 6

Madoff plus one investor. Total capital = $2000

By Year 7 he needs (1210.68+120) = $1330.68
By Year 8 he needs (1475.96+254.40) = $1730.36
By Year 9 he needs (1773.08+404.93) = $2178.01 (negative cash flow - scheme ends)

Needs another bloke.

Year 8

Total investors = 3. Total capital = $3000

By Year 9 he needs (1773.08+404.93+120) = $2298.01
By Year 10 he needs (2105.85+573.52+254.40) = $2933.77
By Year 11 he needs (2478.55+762.34+404.93) = $3645.82 (negative cash flow - scheme ends)

Add another bloke.

Year 10

Total investors = 4. Total capital = $4000

By Year 11 he needs (2478.55+762.34+404.93+120) = $3765.82
By Year 12 he needs (2895.98+973.82+573.52+254.40) = $4697.72 (negative cash flow - scheme ends)

Year 11

Total investors = 5.

Year 12

Total investors = 6.

And so on...

You can immediately see that there is much less pressure to recruit, especially during the early days of the scheme.

After five rounds of recruitment, Ponzi needed 154 more investors to keep going, whereas Madoff only needed five more.

In both cases, the money required to maintain the scheme is going up exponentially, but in the Madoff's version it is going up so slowly that the recruitment rate looks almost linear.

It would take many years before this increase is significant enough to be noticeable, which could be part of the reason why he remained undetected for so long.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fluent In Memetics

Ah, the difficult labour of teh Intarwoobs:

Electronik brokeback chris crocker rick rolling bus uncle supersonik.

Would you like to know more?
Lawrence Roberts (Wikipedia)
List of Internet phenomena (Wikipedia)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chick Tracts In Singapore

An interesting news in the Straits Times today:

Offensive booklet reported

By Elena Chong

A MUSLIM administrative manager said she felt offended and angry after reading a small anti-Islamic booklet sent to her by post.

Madam Farhati Ahmad, 36, said she received the comic book called The Little Bride through the mail at her Woodlands home on March 6, 2007.

After reading the contents of the booklet, published by Chick Publications, an American Protestant publisher, she made a police report the same day.

She did not know who sent it but suspected that a Christian organisation had done it. She said she felt very insulted by the booklet whose objective was to insult and confuse Muslims.

'I also feel that its intention was to instigate feelings of anger or hatred for Islam as a religion,' she said.

She was testifying at the third day of the trial of technical officer Ong Kian Cheong, 50, and his wife, Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 45, an associate director with a bank, on charges under the Sedition Act and Undesirable Publications Act.

The Christian couple are alleged to have distributed a seditious publication each to two men, and the objectionable publication to Madam Farhati between March and December 2007.

The charges say the publications had the tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between Christians and Muslims in Singapore.

When Deputy Public Prosecutor Anandan Bala asked why she made a report instead of throwing the booklet away, Madam Farhati said if the publication which she described as dangerous were to fall into wrong hands, it might disrupt racial harmony in Singapore. She also said people could use it to cause harm and chaos.

The other two Muslims who made police reports after receiving The Little Bride and Who Is Allah? are Mr Irwan Ariffin, 32, and Mr Isa Raffee, 35.

The hearing continues.

Click this link (Booklets available in store) for more details about this trial, where the defence lawyer argued that distributing Chick tracts is not an offence because they are freely available in places such as the Tecman bookshop.


Chick tracts are nothing new in Singapore. I'm sure that many of my readers would have encountered them in one form or another, especially classic ones such as "This Was Your Life".

I recall that I was given one as a teenager - I was flying model gliders near the void deck of my flat when a military officer came up to me and offered the tract to me. I suppose he felt that I was good material for "salvation" and gave it to me on good faith, but when I read the contents of the tract, I found it to have a very simplistic, biased and threatening tone.

Chick tracts are a straightforward conversion tool - every one of them ends with a statement compelling the reader to convert. Thus there is no discussion of nuance or alternative interpretations and explanations within.

To make his case in a small pamphlet with only a few pages, Jack Chick employs a sledgehammer approach and simply attacks everyone with beliefs other than his own, hoping to win converts via doubt, shock and fear. I'm not surprised that someone will eventually be offended by these tracts, I just wonder why it took so long.

The government will most likely resolve this issue using censorship, but I suspect that this might increase the secret appeal of the tracts instead.

In some other countries, Chick tracts are simply deconstructed, refuted and spoofed into irrelevance. I don't know if that would work in Singapore, but personally I would prefer to see an open discussion of such issues rather than the short-term solutions of legal action and censorship.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Redundancy Redundancy

I think that creationists who support the concept of irreducible complexity don't really understand what their idea entails.

They seem to think that a biological system (or subsystem) is made up of absolutely interdependent and indispensible components - if any of these parts was suddenly removed, then the whole system would fall apart.

Even a cursory glance at reality tells us that this is not true.

People don't disintegrate if their fingers, hands or arms are chopped off - indeed they can stay alive for a while even if a critical organ like the liver is removed, otherwise organ transplants would be impossible.

But assuming that some irreducibly complex system can be found, it still doesn't follow that the system could not have developed via stepwise evolution.

To illustrate this: imagine that you have been appointed as the CEO of a large corporation today, and you decide to sack the entire sales department immediately.

This would inflict a severe wound on the company which can cause the whole company to collapse if competent replacements are not quickly found. That's because the critical functions of a corporation have been delegated to departments which have become highly specialized and optimized over time.

Clearly, finding such an irreducibly complex corporation today doesn't mean that it MUST have poofed into existence by supernatural means!

It just means that roles of its members have gradually changed over time.

When the company was in its infancy, it had only a few staff members.

Everyone helped out to do sales, so there was no sales department.

That wasn't particularly efficient but it didn't need to be, because a small company simply didn't require (and couldn't afford) a proper sales department.

Likewise, hundreds of millions of years ago our simple animal ancestors didn't have any hearts or brains - they just didn't need them. Of course, we won't last long without these critical organs today.

In any case, complex biological systems can tolerate a certain amount of damage or loss of their subsystems because they exhibit modularity (to reduce spill-over effects) and redundancy (to backup some functions).

However, if there exists a system which has absolute component interdependency, no modularity and no redundancy, then the creationists would be right and any small change would bring down the whole shebang.

Such a system cannot be "constructed" by any stepwise process; indeed it cannot be physically constructed at all and must magically come into existence completely intact.

The fact that creationists prefer to assume that biological systems must be organized in such a manner, reflects strongly on their ideology.


In my previous full article about social systems, I talked about some of the problems of an absolute authority, but I forgot to elaborate on the importance of redundancy, which I will highlight in this article.

Absolute authorities are problematic due to the lack of checks and balances, but singular absolute authorities have an additional problem - the lack of redundancy.

If a system contains redundant components, then it will continue running even if some of its components are flawed or missing.

On the other hand, if a system contains no redundancy at all, then the imperfection of one component will lead to the collapse of the whole system.

Thus, people who believe in singular supernatural authorities tend to have a worldview that contains no redundancy and brooks no dissent.

They can only be absolutely right or absolutely wrong, because any "wrongness" of any one part would render the whole belief wrong (although in practice they take on faith that no part of their belief can possibly be wrong).

Seeing the world through such tinted glasses, they expect other social systems to exhibit this same characteristic.

Of course, this is false - even within the area of supernatural belief, people who believe in multiple deities for example, do not share this problem.

Also, systems that do not depend on central authority don't have this problem.

Science, for example, is made up of multiple specializations. In addition, scientific theories and facts are discovered using independent lines of evidence, often employing diverse approaches or technologies.

So if any particular fact, theory or even an entire field is shown to be wrong, it won't bring down the entire scientific endeavour.

Thus, redundancy is a strong defensive move.

This is clearly illustrated in the previous post about investor psychology - diversification helps to preserve capital and guard against the big loss.

Unfortunately, diversification also diminishes the gains from any particular stock, which suggests that singularity is a strong offensive move.

And that is definitely true from the historical point of view - monotheistic belief systems have grown faster and to far greater numbers than any other supernatural or naturalistic system.

My previous articles have already covered the reasons why a centralized and rigid power structure is so effective against a fragmented power-sharing structure.

Since science is driven by evidence, not by central authority and social consensus - thus it mean that, as a social movement, scientific thinking will never be able to compete with supernatural beliefs?

Not quite.

Although science appears fragmented because it cannot in principle have unity through centralized supernatural authority, it can have unity through emergent authority.

A unity of knowledge.


Regular Fresh Brainz readers might have been wondering why I embarked on this odd detour into foreign territory such as sociology and economics in my recent articles.

Well, the gig is up - all these articles constitute the prologue to an original idea that I have been developing for the past ten years.

I had originally planned to hone it in secret and publish it in a book to make a tonne of money, but many events have since transpired that made me change my mind.

Facing a depressing job market and a difficult career ahead, I don't feel confident about the relevance and usefulness of my idea, and so I have decided to post what I've currently worked out to all my readers.

Stay tuned for the first post about FAMILIAR: Fractal-Analog Method of Integrating Limitless Information into Aligned Resources.

Would you like to know more?

Prologue to FAMILIAR:
Part 1 -
The Meanings Of Life
Part 2 -
Elitism: Human Warmth or Weakness?
Part 3 -
Not Right, But Necessary
Part 4 -
In Fiat We Trust
Part 5 -
When The Sane Go Marching In
Part 6 -
Downfall Of Gods

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mass Psychology In The Markets

Here's an interesting series of video presentations that seeks to explain investor behaviour in the markets.

Click on the links below for the next few parts:

Part 2 - Investor decision-making process

Part 3 - Common investor mistakes

Part 4 - Reducing portfolio risk


You are thinking: "Dude, what's with all this money-talk on a science blog? Did you just sell out?"

Well, first of all I'm obviously not an expert on investment matters, and so I can't verify the accuracy of these presentations, let alone endorse them.

However, I do like the clear, matter-of-fact and level-headed presentation style of these videos.

And the fact that they are abysmally underviewed (even less than Fresh Brainz vlogs???) makes me suspect that their core message has not been overhyped to achieve popular appeal and thus might bear a fair resemblance to reality.

There are two additional reasons why I highlight this set of videos:

1. The economic mess that we're stuck in right now is a social phenomenon.

Pouring billions of dollars into stimulus packages is only part of the solution. Without the recovery of confidence, all that money will simply get stashed away, prolonging the recession and also becoming a future inflation hazard.

Knowledge is essential to confidence and a better understanding of investor behaviour will help to boost the recovery of confidence. These videos, at the very least, illuminate some features of investor behaviour.

In addition, the mainstream media has so far focused on reporting horror stories about the economy from the financial perspective, with practically no regard to the psychological aspects.

Markets are not made of indices; they are made of people. To ignore the human element is to ignore the chief driving force behind both the causation and the cessation of this recession.

2. Listen to the investment trade-offs discussed by the presenter.

For example: established companies give you steady gains, while new companies have potential for greater gains. But an increased potential for gains also comes with increased risk of loss.

So to protect your principal you should diversify your portfolio. But diversify too much and you will lose the potential for significant gains.

Does it sound like... molecular evolution?

Eg. deeply conserved genes tend to persist, while new genes come and go. But new genes have a greater potential for functional innovation as well as a greater risk of deleterious effects...

Here at Fresh Brainz, we believe that it's not totally coincidental that some fields of human knowledge can have an uncanny resemblance to other fields - because there may be a similar (but not exactly the same) underlying structure beneath them.

We will explore this idea in greater detail in the coming posts.

Would you like to know more?
Behavioral Economics (Wikipedia)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Solar Eclipse In Singapore

It's the first day of the Ox Year today, and after a hectic day of visiting relatives, I managed to catch the partial solar eclipse that occurred this evening.

I don't have any sophisticated equipment for taking eclipse photos directly, so I used my old solar projection rig (which I built in 2004 to observe the Transit of Venus) to project an image of the Sun onto a piece of card instead.

All the times indicated are in local Singapore time:

4:38 pm

Here you can see the solar disk projected onto a piece of white card, with the top part looking a little flat as the Moon slowly drifts in "downwards".

The image is inverted, which means the Moon is actually at the lower left (southwest) moving upwards (towards northeast).

My solar projection rig was constructed using a cheap 8x21 monocular mounted on pieces of cardboard - don't use expensive optics for this application because there is a good chance that the intense solar heat will gradually destroy the rear lens elements.

And it's unnecessary to use large aperture binoculars for this purpose (eg. 7x50 or 8x40) because the Sun is already insanely bright and the greater light gathering power of such equipment will only ruin your optics faster. Reserve your good binos for night use.

Of course, you don't need any complex optics to observe a solar eclipse. Eclipse glasses or a simple pinhole camera will suffice (however pinhole cameras are totally rubbish for planetary transits, which is why I had to build my rig to project a big enough image).

4.46 pm

The Moon has moved in further and you can clearly see the curvature of its shadow.

Some people are surprised by the fact that the Moon actually travels from the west towards the east while orbiting the Earth.

The Moon appears to rise in the east and set in the west because of the Earth's rotation on its axis. Since the Moon's orbital motion is much slower, it is more easily perceived from night to night.

If you observe the night sky at the same time on successive nights, you will notice that the Moon gradually drifts towards the east, relative to the Sun and the background stars.

5:06 pm

The Moon takes a bigger bite out of the solar disk.


One of the problems with amateur astronomy as a hobby is that it is highly weather-dependent - there will be many occasions when spectacular astronomical phenomena will simply be blocked from view by clouds, haze or good old light pollution.

It can be deeply frustrating, especially for people who have travelled all the way to the Science Centre or some remote dark sky location only to be confronted with useless seeing conditions.

Unfortunately, there is no way around it. You just have to get used to facing disappointment.

Just like real life!

This solar eclipse was no exception; the sky was filled with thick clouds near the western horizon, and half the time the Sun was behind clouds looking all blurry and shapeless.

When that sort of thing happens all you can do is to sit and wait.

(Now you understand why far more people are into photography - it's an all-weather hobby!)

5:38 pm

Fortunately the sky cleared up temporarily so I managed to catch this shot where over 70% of the solar disk was covered by the Moon.

A nice, sharp crescent!

Maximal coverage was supposed to be at 6:02 pm, but unfortunately from my vantage point the Sun had descended into increasingly thicker clouds and so I couldn't follow the eclipse any further.

If you have missed this solar eclipse, the next one will occur in India on 22th July 2009. That one will be a total eclipse - the sort where you can see the solar corona, stars in the daytime, hear birds singing and all that.

If you intend to wait it out in Singapore, then the next substantial one will be in January 2010, although less than a third of the solar disk will be covered.

A more exciting one will be the annular (ring-shaped) eclipse of December 2019 where over 90% of the solar disk will be covered.

Would you like to know more?
Eclipses visible in Singapore (Science Centre)
- Photos of the 26 Jan 2009 Partial Solar Eclipse (ClubSNAP Forums)

Ray Comfort Disproves Darwin!

Ray Comfort has discovered Darwin's lost writings about the incredible mechanism behind human evolution!

Heh, not quite.

More like he totally made up a new mechanism of human evolution to bash, which if it was true would actually support special creation because no other mammal reproduces in such a bizarre manner.

I don't really know what to make of Ray Comfort.

Putting religious tracts on the back of million-dollar novelty bills is such an extreme expression of cynicism and misanthropy that I wonder if we should call Poe's Law on his entire career.

Would you like to know more?
- Ray Comfort gets it half right (Pharyngula)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Photo Gallery Eleven

Renowned photojournalist Robert Capa once said "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough".

While that pertains more specifically to war photography, I often feel that many of my photographs are just not close enough to be striking.

And so the theme for this round of photos is "Close Enough". Hope you like 'em!

(2008) Fuji J10

Pink Dragonfly
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Sparkles of Gold
(2009) Nikon L5

Spiral Orchid
(2008) Fuji s6500fd

Tiny Beads
(2008) Nikon L5

Watch Closely
(2009) Nikon L5

Fresh Brainz wishes all our Chinese readers a Happy 牛 Year - may we find our "Sparkles of Gold" this year!

Would you like to know more?
- Photo Gallery Ten

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pretending To Believe

Here's a question for you:

If the United States of America is predominantly a nation of believers, how can they suffer from a "crisis of confidence"?

Indeed this enormous economic bucket of shit that we are going through right now is purely a social phenomenon, with no exogenous causative factors like poor harvest, infectious disease or a one-million-tonne meteor dropping in from outer space.

Everybody knows that this recession will eventually end.

Everybody knows that this recession provides a rare opportunity for huge gains.

Yet nobody seems to believe that she/he will be the one to emerge unscathed, thereby worsening the recession.

Sounds like a subsystem conflict of interest to me.

It's a positive feedback loop - the market index falls, which spooks some investors into pulling out causing the index to fall further, which then spooks more investors to pull out...

Some banks fall and other banks start to distrust each other and even their own customers. They make it harder for businesses to obtain credit, which causes businesses to close and the unemployment rate to rise, creating a climate of uncertainty which discourages consumer spending, causing even more businesses to close.

And thus the USA drags everybody screaming and kicking onto a slow train to hell.

It shouldn't have happened.

The USA is supposed to be a nation of patriots and believers. If they really believed that everything is going to work out fine because they have divine support, then it is impossible for the crisis to spiral into such depths.

That immediately brings to mind our old friend Pascal's Wager.

Pascal failed to take into account the possible negative consequences of pretending to "believe".

Unfortunately, the Gods have spoken and totally kicked his ass.

This economic disaster has made it abundantly clear that pretending to believe is NOT the same as really believing.

There are no two ways about this.

A true believer could not have made a run on the market. How can someone profess true faith but yet put in a stop loss, "just in case"?

Putting in a stop loss immediately indicates that the person has no faith in his decision at all.

Anyone can say that they believe in anything. Under normal conditions, this can be very beneficial to the person to help build social consensus and gain social rank.

But when the push comes to the shove, many of these people will simply abandon what they have pretended to believe and act upon what they really believe.

They will sell off all their shares, they will engage the services of a gay hooker, they will inject insulin into their bloodstream and they will use stem cell derived therapies to save their lives.

Hypocrisy? An integral aspect of human society.

This current crisis of confidence is a social problem, and social problems require social solutions.

As you can see, I'm a fan of double-edged swords (there are plenty of these in biological systems eg. sugar, glutamate, blood clotting pathway, tumour suppressor proteins...).

If greed was the problem that led us into this mess, then greed (of a different group of people) will be the solution to lead us out of it.

People who pretended to believe in growth while preparing for a decline were the source of this disaster; people who pretend to believe in decline while preparing for growth will be the source of economic recovery.

It's difficult for greed to go out of fashion - the consequences of lacking this driving force in a cruel, competitive society are severe. The benefits, on the other hand, are immense if not a little transient.

But life is transient and people have short memories.

In this way - greed, faith and hypocrisy will persist for many generations to come.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bulletproof Bracelets!

This morning a zombie ate my brainz and replaced it with pure stupid.

Tell me tell me... ta ta ta ta ta tell me...

Catchy song!

No More Bush!

This is not a brazilian wax advertisement...


We live in a very odd world.

In this world:

1. If you rob 15 dollars from somebody, you will get three-and-a-half years jail.

If you rob billions of dollars from thousands of people, you will get million-dollar annual bonus.

2. If your small business fails, you will go bankrupt.

If your big bank fails, you will get a government bailout worth billions, and everyone except you will have to pay for it.

3. If you kill one person, you will be hanged.

If you kill hundreds of thousands, you will get generous retirement benefits, official fanfare and a helicopter to fly you home when it's all over.


Book me a ticket on the next space shuttle!*

*This is not a shampoo advertisement either...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Science Buskers Festival

This morning, the finals of the first ever Science Buskers Festival was held at the Science Centre, so Fresh Brainz popped in to see some enthusiastic young people perform some interesting demonstrations and have lots of fun.

The MC came onstage and gave a brief intro about the competition. Each team was given five minutes for their presentation. He later explained that the teams would be assessed by three groups of people: audience voting (25%), the judges (50%) and online voting (25%).

The audience sitting in the central section gets to vote using one of these handheld devices.

But not everyone gets to vote, and Fresh Brainz as usual is unable to vote, as has been the case for the past ten years...

Just like real life!

The judges are VIPs from various institutions and they're there to give candid feedback to the teams after their presentation, American Idol-style.

Aside from giving the contestants points to ponder, they also award them actual points.

Unfortunately, Simon Cowell is not among them. As you may have heard, Cowell is now more famous than God.

So if you think that getting the Lord Almighty to make an appearance is difficult, just imagine how hard it is to get Cowell to grace this occasion.

As for the audience, they're there to push buttons on those voting remotes, and to cheer!

That's right, screechy screamy schoolgirl CHEER!

What's cool is that supporters not only cheer for their own team, but for other teams as well.

And audience voting results are instantly available after each team performance.

Now don't let that make you think that science is some sort of popularity contest...

Just like real life!

Here are some highlights of the presentations:


Bigger explosions!

... and an ethereal plume of nitrocellulose flame!

In addition to explosions, here comes another science demo mainstay...

Dry ice!

More dry ice!

Let's not forget bubbles induced by dry ice!

Larger bubbles!

... and a dancing robot?!??

A breakdancing robot, no less.

Overall, an interesting and ingenious assortment of demonstrations, but some of the teams can do better with a more coordinated and polished delivery. After all, science busking is more about busking than science, and busking is more about entertainment than education.

Forget the detailed explanatory charts - send in the LOX donuts!*

Nom nom nom nom... BOOM!

Would you like to know more?
- Videos of all the Science Busker team presentations

*Legal disclaimer: LOX donuts are dangerous. LOX donuts are not meant to be eaten. LOX donuts are not magically delicious and do not produce a strange tingling sensation on your tongue. Tongues which are injured by LOX donuts have to be removed quickly, efficiently and painfully at the Slack Tongue Clinic.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Downfall Of Gods

As a true blue Star Wars fan, it's unavoidable that I would sometimes ponder about the implications of its story arc.

Not sure if movie reviewers have noticed this, but I've discovered a recurring theme that runs through the entire story -

The hunger for absolute power gradually corrupts and ruins everything.

Just consider this:

1. In the beginning of the story, the Jedi Order was supposed to represent the light side of the Force - all that is wise and good.

They defeated the evil Sith Lords and have enjoyed great social power and prestige in the Old Republic for a thousand generations.

So why is it that when they felt an imbalance in the Force, they automatically assumed that it's the Sith who needed downsizing?

Indeed, their obsession with the absolute eradication of the Sith completely blinded them to the Darkness that lies within themselves. As the separatist war progressed, the Jedi Order would make more and more compromises to its core principles until it eventually turned on itself - a Jedi Knight would become a Sith!

From that point onwards, the Jedi Order was doomed.

2. The Jedi turncoat was Anakin Skywalker-slash-Darth Vader, the chief protagonist of the whole series.

Anakin's personal story is a microcosm of the main theme - a kind, brilliant boy who slowly develops a thirst for power after a personal tragedy and numerous setbacks.

He realizes that he always wants more power and comes to believe that he can do the absolute good, if only he can acquire the absolute power.

Eventually this quest for power will cost him everything that he treasures - ironically the very people he wants to protect with that power.

3. Interestingly, the same motif is repeated once again during the Empire; except that this time the "hapless" victim was none other than Emperor Palpatine himself!

He was obsessed with the elimination of his enemy, perhaps the only thing he had in common with the Jedi.

A wicked, scheming political wizard, Palpatine had manipulated many evil people in order to rise to great power.

With practically all of the Old Republic's military might under his command, he could have simply rendered the Jedi harmless, but he wanted to kill them all.

He wanted this so much that he was willing to take a huge risk by converting a Superstar Goody-Two-Shoes Jedi Knight to become his own apprentice, gambling that Anakin's desire for power would wipe out any trace of good left inside.

Unfortunately for the Emperor, Anakin was far more conflicted than that.

Blissfully unaware of this inner conflict, Palpatine even had the audacity to order Anakin to bring his powerful son to Palpatine's personal lair, so that he can witness their mutual destruction.

Talk about a recipe for disaster.

Of course, the Emperor never achieved absolute power and was killed - ironically by his greatest ally...


In this sixth article about social systems, I am going to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of Centralized rule vs Power Sharing.

From the leadership's point of view, centralized rule is certainly more convenient.

Without dissent from other powerful groups, the leadership class (or a single leader) can quickly and decisively impose new policies that has the potential for a lot of good.

Conversely, an evil leadership class can also quickly and decisively impose new policies that can cause a lot of damage to society.

Without external checks and balances, nobody can stop them. Using internal "self-regulation" as a means of checks and balances will only be effective if members of the leadership class are not acting in unison, which isn't likely to happen if there is an effective centralized rule.

Unfortunately, power sharing via "rule-by-committee" isn't perfect either. When there are many powerful political groups fighting it out in parliament, policies will take much longer to pass, if they ever do. All this politicking can render unitary action very difficult, making the government weak and indecisive.

Thus, it's not surprising that most audacious conquerors in history, such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler all utilized direct, centralized command.

In particular, Alexander quickly conquered and united all the city states of Ancient Greece - previously ruled by committees.

Nonetheless, even a dictator needs to have some form of checks and balances in order to avoid making mistakes that can ruin everything.

After all, he wants to gain absolute power, not to lose his entire kingdom.

But in order to get accurate feedback from other people, he must give them enough power to counteract some of the decisions he might make in the future.

Giving away power in order to gain more power?

The quest for absolute power is an unsustainable, impossible quest.

At the end, the dictator either gives away too much power and become sidelined, or seizes too much power and becomes a victim of his own mistakes.

That is the reason why even till today, the only sustainable method for leaders to hold on to power is a broadly centralized rule with much of the power shared by groups acting as checks and balances on each other.

OK, now let's imagine for the moment that a single, absolute power does exist and is somehow sustainable.

Is this the face of ultimate good or ultimate evil?

Wouldn't you be at least a little bit disturbed by an absolute authority who is checked by no one and is answerable to no one?

He is advised by no one and constrained by nothing.

Under normal circumstances, a personal relationship with a powerful authority can confer special benefits to you. A leader may be willing to listen to you because your idea may benefit him - for example, to help him gain more power or avoid making stupid mistakes that will cost him his crown.

But what can you offer the absolute authority of the Universe? A friendly hug???

He doesn't lack power and never makes mistakes - not from his point of view anyway.

As I have written in the previous article, human social groups are stable precisely because they do not have absolute power; they only have emergent authority derived from their component individuals. Critical mass and organization help to keep the group behaviour locked into rigidity.

But how would an absolute authority maintain behavioural stability?

You would expect him to do whatever he wants, wouldn't you?

To make up rules, to break rules, to constantly change his mind, to redefine love as hate and hate as love, to redefine good as evil and evil as good, to redefine true as false and false as true - all on a whim.

There is no one to stop him.

It's worse if this ultimate power is supernatural - not only can you do nothing about it, you can't even see it coming!

So how can anyone really feel comforted by a belief in a supernatural absolute authority?

Any ordinary person should only feel constant fear.

But yet many people say they feel comfort and peace when they think of a supernatural authority.

Perhaps they are unaware of the full implications of such an authority. Maybe they are misattributing their confidence in emergent authority to a faith in supernatural authority. It is also possible that they are actually feeling fear, but calling it "comfort" so as to avoid offending the supernatural authority.

In any case, it's not the existence of a supernatural authority that really matters; it's whether such a supernatural authority has any relevance to human life.

Is he listening?

Does he even know you?

If an absolute power decides to passively watch as millions of people starve and thousands of believers who are all faithful to him kill each other in horrific ways (even as relatively powerless humans struggle to find solutions) ...

Do you think you can change his mind?

And do you think you can believe in the promises that he makes?