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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!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

No Really, I CAN See Through You

Sometimes I wonder if deep sea fish aren't really Aliens from another planet...

Well, at least Macropinna microstoma doesn't have zombie eyes and Giger-esque teeth like the deep sea fish in my profile.

In fact it's rather cute, in a revulsive-ectoplasmic-anime-character-from-hell sorta way.

Would you like to know more?
Weird-eyed fish (Pharyngula)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

FAMILIAR Part 4: Aligned Resources

One important reason why the Star Wars series of films has such a wide appeal is due to its story structure. George Lucas was inspired by Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and deliberately applied Campbell's ideas into his storyline.

Campbell was studying comparative mythology and wanted to find out if there are common elements between major myths around the world that have lasted for thousands of years. He elucidated a fundamental structure which he called the "monomyth" or "the hero's journey" and summarized it like this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The monomyth is divided into three sections - "Departure", "Initiation" and "Return". Each of these sections has a set of characteristic stages, for example "Supernatural Aid" in Departure where the hero encounters an old wizard (Obi-Wan!) who provides him with special tools (Lightsabre!) and advice (Use the Force!) for the adventure ahead.

Only a few world myths contain all these stages, some of them only have a few stages and others have them in a different order. Campbell's monomyth is thus criticized for focusing on the similarities and glossing over the differences between the myths, and scholars have also questioned its usefulness and general validity.

Nonetheless the monomyth has been an influential tool for plot development; aside from Star Wars, popular movies like The Lion King and the Matrix series (possibly the Harry Potter series as well) have story structures that are modelled on the monomyth.

I won't go into further details of the monomyth here, but suffice to say that by using a comparative strategy, Campbell was able to create a common resource out of the dozens of diverse mythologies in the world. He recognized that it is impossible to do this based on any single myth.

Indeed, I would argue that in general single cases only represent data and not knowledge. Outside the context of mythology, even single cases that are firmly rooted in physical evidence cannot really enlighten us about the nature of our Universe; we can only learn about them, not from them.

In other words, they have descriptive but not prescriptive value.


The power of comparative analysis was driven home in my mind very early in my graduate student career by my advisor.

During a genomics lecture he illustrated this by showing a single sequence from one species of animal. For example, here's part of the amino acid sequence of a human gene:


Well, it's a string of letters. You can't learn much just by staring at it.

But when you do an alignment with homologous genes from many other species...

... important features immediately jump out at you.

The yellow blocks represent regions that are completely identical over hundreds of millions of years of evolution - it's a good bet that those regions are functionally crucial. Blue and green blocks are identical only among some species, while white areas exhibit high variability.

Therefore, you can see regions of similarities as well as regions of differences. Regions that are common to mammals, or just to rodents, or unique to one species which may reflect functions that are only relevant to those group of animals.

This is knowledge.

Whether it is science or history, information derived from a single case is only descriptive of the case itself - in order to understand fundamental principles, produce testable predictions or to "give advice" to other people, you must have data from more than one case. With an increasing number of aligned cases comes a more accurate and more refined knowledge of the subject matter.

Hence the "analogy" aspect of FAMILIAR - knowledge obtained by comparing the features of complex systems and aligning them into a structured resource, not only at the same organizational level, but also across organizational levels.

I am aware that argument from analogy is a logical fallacy, but that does not preclude the use of an "analogy machine" like FAMILIAR to start the investigation by generating hypotheses and enabling cross-discipline visualization.

Having a systematic way to align single cases into a common resource allows people to see both the similarities and differences between the cases. Where the cases are too different in key areas to be effectively compared, proposed models can be rejected as uninformative. Where cases have striking similarities over numerous key characteristics, there is compelling support for a fundamental structure among them.

However, human knowledge is wildly varible in format. How is it possible to align diverse forms of knowledge into one common resource?

Stay tuned for the next post on the FAMILIAR Core.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Solar Eclipse From The Moon

This is really cool - a video of the Earth coming between the Sun and the Moon taken by the Kaguya lunar orbiter on 10 Feb 2009.

Check out the spectacular "diamond ring" effect as the Sun is gradually uncovered (by the movement of the spacecraft?).

I struggled for a while on how to title this post correctly, since from the Earth's perspective it was a lunar eclipse, but from the spacecraft's perspective it was a solar eclipse.

Silly me, diamond ring = solar eclipse, why of course.

Pipette tip to Pink Tentacle.

Would you like to know more?
Solar Eclipse In Singapore

That Will Be 90 Dollars, Please

By now practically everyone in the Singapore blogosphere must have heard of this "unique" incident:

You're a hero

Donor hands over the money to SGH to say thanks to man who saved drowning woman

By Judith Tan

SEVERAL readers of The Straits Times came forward yesterday and offered to pick up the treatment tab for a good Samaritan injured while saving a drowning woman.

More than 10 people offered to reimburse Mr Filip Lou's $90 bill after reading in The Straits Times yesterday that the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) would not waive the charges.

They were beaten to it by an unidentified man, who turned up at the hospital early yesterday morning and handed over cash to cover Mr Lou's bill.

Mr Lou, 34, a Dutch IT executive here for a conference, had jumped into the Singapore River on Monday night to rescue a woman who had fallen into the water.

While pulling her out, he cut his hands and feet on the sharp stone steps along the water's edge. He was brought to the hospital, along with the woman, by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), where his wounds were cleaned and he was given a tetanus shot - and then presented with the bill.

Yesterday, Mr Lou received a call from the hospital, asking him to return to collect his money.

Initially, he thought SGH had gone back on its earlier insistence that he pay the bill.

But when his wife, Ms Theresa Lee, arrived at the hospital to get the cash in the afternoon, she was told what had happened.

Contacted yesterday evening, Mr Lou said he was rendered speechless by the generosity of Singaporeans.

He said he understood SGH's policy, saying that there was a service performed, after all.

But, he added: 'What there should be is a policy looking into treating someone who got hurt trying to save another.

'Mine was a small injury. What if it had been a broken leg or dislocated joint?' he asked.

When contacted yesterday, SGH stood by its decision.

'We maintain our stand that we will not waive fees for medical services rendered,' a spokesman said.

Its stand drew comments from more than 70 people who called or wrote to this newspaper yesterday.

Most were critical, and said Mr Lou's act should be recognised.

Said a former MP for Sembawang GRC, Dr Warren Lee, a paediatrician, 47: 'We as Singaporeans should not hear about such a brave and selfless act without expressing our thanks by at least paying for his medical bill.'

Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner Yeow Boon Kwee, 67, who was among those who wanted to pay the bill, said: 'It's my way of saying sorry, and that we are really not that bad.'

Mr Lou's deed did not go unappreciated, however.

Apart from having his bill picked up, he was also given a Public Spiritedness Award by the SCDF.

He is also the toast of the town, as far as some people are concerned.

The story and photo in The Straits Times yesterday, he said, brought him a lot of attention - 'both wanted and unwanted'.

'After it made the papers, I received a lot of hits on my Facebook account - mostly propositions from women.

'I am indeed flattered. But sorry girls, I am happily married.'


What an elegant case to demonstrate my point about the weakness of a rigid system!

Based on the frenzied commenting rate at the ST forum, I'm pretty sure that the blogosphere must be ablaze with criticisms and insults for the hospital admin.

How come they cannot come up with $90? So kiam siap (stingy) meh? How come no common sense? How come so heartless? How come no GRACIOUS SOCIETY?

Actually, there's no need to generalize so much.

The simple answer is that the rigid organization of an administration also precludes individual initiative.

Rigid systems have stable and predictable behaviour, similar to reliable machines. If all the constituent members are free to exercise their "common sense", then the hierarchical structure would be weakened and its efficiency compromised. Expect to wait long long at the queue while the staff put their duties aside and pass envelope around to collect money to reimburse Mr. Lou.

You can't have it both ways.

The solution can only be supplied from outside the system - in this case an anonymous donor who must have felt very lau kwee (lose face) for Singapore that a life-saving hero ends up getting "fined" for his efforts.

I can assure you that there are people within the hospital admin who also feel very lau kwee, but they also boh bian (no choice).

To use an old Army phrase: This problem is not at "their level".

System says no policy for reimbursing good Samaritan, so no money for you. Any comment please fill up the feedback form. Have a nice day, goodbye.

FAMILIAR Part 3: General System Theory

Ludwig von Bertalanffy was an Austrian-born biologist who was a major figure in the development of the systems theory.

Around the mid-20th century he was concerned about the overemphasis on the reductionistic approach and the resulting fragmentation of science. In 1968 he published his book General System Theory where he wrote:

A consequence of the existence of general system properties is the appearance of structural similarities or isomorphisms in different fields. There are correspondences in the principles that govern the behaviour of entities that are, intrinsically, widely different. To take a simple example, an exponential law of growth applies to certain bacterial cells, to populations of bacteria, of animals or humans, and to the progress of scientific research measured by the number of publications in genetics or science in general.

System isomorphisms also appear in problems which are recalcitrant to quantitative analysis but are nevertheless of great intrinsic interest. There are, for example, isomorphies between biological systems and 'epiorganisms' like animal communities and human societies.

It seems therefore that a general system theory of systems would be a useful tool providing, on the one hand, models that can be used in, and transferred to, different fields, and safeguarding, on the other hand, from vague analogies which often have marred the progress in these fields.

Bertalanffy, together with some of his contemporaries, noted that regulation via feedback loops allow a system to maintain stability (today this field of study is called cybernetics).

He was also interested in the apparent contradiction between the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the increase in organizational complexity of living systems during embryo development and evolution. He proposed an idea that resolves this:

According to the second principle of thermodynamics, the general trend of events in physical nature is towards states of maximum disorder and levelling down of differences, with the so-called heat death of the universe as the final outlook, when all energy is degraded into evenly distributed heat of low temperature, and the world process comes to a stop.

In contrast, the living world shows, in embryonic development and in evolution, a transition towards higher order, heterogeneity, and organization.

But on the basis of the theory of open systems, the apparent contradiction between entropy and evolution disappears. In all irreversible processes, entropy must increase. Therefore, the change of entropy in closed systems is always positive; order is continually destroyed.

In open systems, however, we have not only production of entropy due to irreversible processes, but also import of entropy which may well be negative. This is the case in the living organism which imports complex molecules high in free energy. Thus, living systems, maintaining themselves in a steady state, can avoid the increase of entropy, and may even develop towards states of increased order and organization.

Bertalanffy's concept of an open system is usually illustrated like this:

Input refers to the stimuli and imported materials from the external environment, throughput refers to the processes within the system, and output refers to the resulting response or exported materials.

To emphasize the importance of feedback control, this version is also used:

Bertalanffy's open system model inspired biologist James Grier Miller to examine the applicability of systems theory to living systems.

Miller published Living Systems Theory in 1978, expounding his general theory about the existence of all living systems, their structure, interaction, behavior and development. He proposed that living systems must contain 20 critical subsystems which he later arranged into 8 nested hierarchical levels:

Miller noted that:

All nature is a continuum. The endless complexity of life is organized into patterns which repeat themselves—theme and variations—at each level of system. These similarities and differences are proper concerns for science. From the ceaseless streaming of protoplasm to the many-vectored activities of supranational systems, there are continuous flows through living systems as they maintain their highly organized steady states.

His observation of recursive patterns is likely to be inspired by the work of BenoƮt Mandebrot, the mathematician who founded the field of fractal geometry. Mandebrot observed that many objects in nature exhibited self-similarity and scale invariance - parts that are made up of smaller scale versions of the overall shape.

Interestingly, neither Bertalanffy nor Miller made any big impact on the field of biology itself, which in the wake of monumental discoveries of DNA and the central dogma, has remained firmly rooted in the reductionist paradigm.

General System Theory has become influential mainly in information science and cybernetics, whereas Living Systems Theory is more commonly read in sociology.

That is why as a neuroscience undergrad I had never heard of these guys and was completely unaware of systems theory, even though I regularly lamented with one of my fellow students about the lack of a systems interpretation of neuronal behaviour.

I first read Bertalanffy in 2005 when I picked up his General System Theory from the NUS library during the height of the popularity of the buzzword "Systems Biology". I wanted to know all this "systems" talk really meant, apart from expensive, shiny new high-throughput liquid handling robots.

I found his book to be quite repetitive but I was impressed by his open systems model, which I now call the "Bertalanffy Box". Excitedly, I wrote an article about it which was published in a student's magazine (GSS Journal 2005).

Here is an exerpt:

Actually, Systems Biology is not strictly a new idea. Some aspects of this perspective can be traced as far back as Plato! The modern synthesis of its fundamental concepts, however, first appeared in the General System Theory (GST) proposed by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the late 1940s. At that time, Bertalanffy was disturbed by what he saw as the overspecialization and fragmentation of science. He felt that the standard reductionistic approach to science was driving scientists to obsess over tiny details that may not advance the understanding of the big picture. His solution was to find some common patterns of organization in nature which could help unify the sciences and even the humanities together.

In a nutshell, the GST is a holistic theory that describes a complex system by examining the interactions between its components, rather than by analyzing the detailed structure of each component. Gesalt psychologists say that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” an illustration which is also valid for the GST. In the context of biology, Bertalanffy described living organisms as “open systems” that interacts comprehensively with their environment. Next, he recognized that complex systems have emergent properties that cannot be predicted by knowing the properties of its components. In addition, he observed that such a system can also exert control over its components, such as in homeostasis, by using feedback loops.

Although I liked the simplicity of the Bertalanffy box, I found it to be incomplete and aesthetically displeasing. It is only focused on one particular system and has no scaleable aspects, thus it cannot take into account the inputs that might have arrived from another organization level, and ignores the outputs that will affect another organization level.

While recuperating from an illness in a hospital, I decided to improve the Bertalanffy box by integrating Bertalanffy's idea with Mandebrot's (I hadn't read Miller yet), and this is the result:

The "extended" Bertalanffy box (which I called a "leaky" open system at that time) features a system that is affected by both internal and external inputs and contributes outputs to both internal and external states. Thus, it is embedded in an organization level with constant interactions with lower, adjacent and higher levels.

Now I had a repeatable unit that is scaleable and conceptually self-similar.

To illustrate the self-similar aspect in a more visually striking manner, I designed this diagram about a year ago:

Here you can see a complex system opened to reveal the interactions in its intrinsic environment. It is made up of complex systems which are in turn made of smaller complex systems. With this simple repeating unit, you can model a system of any amount of complexity.

I hope I have clearly explained the "Fractal" aspect of FAMILIAR.

But what about the "Analog" part?

Stay tuned for my next post on heroes' journeys and multispecies alignments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

FAMILIAR Part 2: Why No Runaway Complexity?

Long time Fresh Brainz readers probably know that my undergrad training was not in molecular biology, but in neuroscience.

My interest in systems science started about 10 years ago when I learnt a bizarre fact about neurons - that the transmission of neural impulses was a probabilistic process.

The firing of a neuronal action potential is not perfectly reliable because it depends on a complex interplay of input signals such as EPSPs, IPSPs and internal states such as the refractory period.

Due to the inherent unpredictability of any single neuron, vertebrates have to rely on a large number of neurons in each nerve in order to convey a reliable signal to other parts of the body.

This struck me as something that is particularly odd.

If you can't even trust one neuron to do its job, how can you trust a thousand of them?!??

Why won't they simply misfire all over the place and garble the signal?

The nervous system has often been compared with human technology such as computers, but you'd be barking mad to try design a computer using millions of components that are not 100% reliable.

These questions perplexed me during my undergrad years and also in my first job as a research assistant in neuroscience. What was even more puzzling then was the realization that other researchers around me simply took this fact for granted - nobody would explain to me why a bunch of unreliable parts could suddenly make a reliable system.

As I started grad school in 2004, I noticed that a similar situation occurs in cell biology. In an unfinished article entitled "Brief thoughts on the Inception of Systems" I wrote:

A cell is an amazing mixed bag of biochemical processes, some of them quite straightforward, others so convoluted that Occam’s razor would not find its mark there.

Unlike the oft used analogy of a factory, each cell is made up of components that do not fit together clearly like a clock. For example, many proteins have multiple roles across several different pathways. From cell to cell, proteins can have different functions depending on where and when it is expressed.

The compounded variability from the probabilistic performance of each intracellular player should become so large so as to make an integrated system impossible.

What I am saying is, if one wanted to make a reliable machine to fulfill a very specific function, one would not deliberately use components with variable and probabilistic characteristics. But yet cells do exists, and are quite stable and reliable. How can this be?

How indeed?

Let me illustrate this problem with a graph.

When the number of components in a system is small, the total number of interactions is limited and predictability of component behaviour is high.

This is why we can play games like pool and snooker - we can tell where the target balls will end up.

As the number of components increase, the total number of interactions increase exponentially to such an extent that it quickly becomes impossible to know exactly what will happen.

Imagine a pool table with thousands of balls.

In addition, the probabilistic behaviour of each component makes this problem far, far worse.

Imagine a pool table with thousands of unbalanced balls!

By this additive concept, it should be impossible for any limited sentient being to comprehend much of the Universe, since it consists of trillions upon trillions of probabilistic subatomic particles in constant interaction.

But here lies the trick...

In some cases, the increasing number of components start to exhibit emergent properties, forming a complex system. The whole system itself becomes reliable enough to be a "component" (or module) of another larger system.

Each successive complex system then occupies a higher organization level in a hierarchical structure, so that the total number of "component" interactions at the higher organization level never gets out of hand.

This why we can predict the trajectory of a cannonball with such accuracy, even though we can never predict the exact locations of all the component electrons in a cannonball.

There is no runaway complexity because complexity appears "fold in" on itself with each successive organization level.

But how exactly does a complex system make itself reliable and predictable?

Stay tuned for my next article about Ludwig von Bertalanffy and his General System Theory.

FAMILIAR: Unity of Knowledge

It is with great reluctance that I reveal my new model of organizing and creating new knowledge, called FAMILIAR (Fractal-Analog Method of Integrating Limitless Information into Aligned Resources), partly because I had planned to refine this idea further so that I can publish it properly in a book, and partly because I'm not best friends with humanity right now and I don't want my ideas to fall into the hands of the people I hate.

As it currently stands, the model has some holes and is fairly useless, but when decked with sufficient relevant data it has some potentially powerful implications.

This is an exclusive privilege for Fresh Brainz readers only - please do not pass this knowledge to scumbag bankers, dickhead politicians and fuckfaced lawyers because they can turn this idea into a weapon for controlling everyone.

Many thanks.


"The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible." - Albert Einstein

Indeed, considering its complexity and vastness, the most mysterious thing about the Universe is the fact we can even begin to understand it.

Strangely enough, the reality is that the vast majority of living systems are routinely capable of coping with the staggering complexity of the Universe. People and microbes alike experience perfectly happy lives without needing to know the existence of quarks or quasars.

The key to this is the ability to prioritize and react only to a few immediately relevant aspects of the total complexity - to differentiate between knowledge and data.

Scientifically, "knowledge" comprises a collection of data (or fact) and an explanatory structure (or theory) that organizes the data into a meaningful whole. While data constitutes an important aspect of knowledge, by itself it is not knowledge. In fact, data that cannot yet be aligned into any coherent explanatory structure will usually be regarded as noise.

It doesn't take a genius to perceive the difference between knowledge and noise; the tiniest single-celled organism instinctively ignores most of the stimuli it receives from its environment and responds to only some of them that pose an immediate threat or benefit.

Likewise, scientific knowledge doesn't directly mimick the full complexity of a given system, but brutally simplifies it into some basic principles that are comprehensible and useful to the human mind, thus allowing testable predictions and technologies to be produced.

This simplification process is often accused by opponents of rational inquiry to be fatally flawed because it is unavoidably tentative and incomplete.

How can anyone claim to understand the whole Universe if one has only examined an infinitesimal fraction of it?

Here at Fresh Brainz, we think that such a feat is possible once you appreciate the crucial distinction between knowledge and data, and understand the core structure of systems that reiterate themselves over and over again, from the subatomic world, through the intricacies of cells, organisms and societies to the interactions of galactic clusters.

I should emphasize again that as limited beings we can never hope to collect every last bit of data about the Universe, but we can achieve an increasingly complete knowledge about the Universe.

FAMILIAR is a simple, scaleable model that seeks to organize and unite all aspects of human knowledge so that we can learn about the core structure of systems and in doing so, gradually approach a complete understanding of our Universe.

Stay tuned for the next post about runaway complexity.

Would you like to know more?
- Prologue to FAMILIAR: Redundancy Redundancy

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Charles Hays: Another Ponzi

Yet another Ponzi scheme has been uncovered: Charles E. Hays of Rosemount, Minneapolis USA is under investigation for the loss of at least US$25 million from 75 investors.

Hays portrayed himself as a level-headed master trader and was featured on the 2007 book Millionaire Traders: How everyday people are beating Wall Street at its own game in a chapter entitled "The Coolest Guy in the Room".

Together with his big house and $3 million 64-foot Viking cabin cruiser, his profile in the book helped to strengthen his reputation among other day traders.

He claimed to have gained $69,000 in a single trade but in reality he lost money 20 out of 24 months in the futures market. Hays worked as a product manager for car test products before he started to trade stocks in 1999.

Like Madoff and previous Ponzi scammers before him, Hays maintained a good personal relationship with his investors and sent them bogus statements regularly.

So far, investigators with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) have uncovered six Ponzi schemes in the US this year.

Would you like to know more?
- Ponzi Scheme Maths

Sunday, February 15, 2009

History Of Money

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Singapore Mint to visit its coin gallery.

I was expecting to see a few glass cabinets with lots of shiny coins inside, but it turns out that the gallery contains much more than that. In fact, it is an exhibition on the history and evolution of money.

To many people living in Singapore today, foreigners and locals alike, Singapore often seems to be a bizarre place, more akin to a trading post than a nation state. The idiosyncrasies of a country can be better understood if you are familiar with its history, and no history of Singapore can be complete without the history of its money, the lifeblood that has nourished and shaped Singapore into its current form.

Enough of the talk; let's go check out 'em coppers and silvers!


The Singapore Mint is located at Teban Gardens Crescent, in an industrial area together with factories of prominent brands such as Carrier and Leica.

If you are going there by bus, note that it is at least a 5-10 minute walking distance away from the nearest bus stop. Click here for a map, bus guide and driving directions.

Here's the entrance of the coin gallery, shaped like a coin die with the words "Striking A Legacy" adorning it.


The gallery is open from Mondays to Fridays, 8.30am to 4.30pm, and closed on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. I've checked with the counter staff that photography is permitted inside the gallery.

Admission is free.

The first thing that greeted me at the entrance is this huge round stone, used by the natives of Yap Island in the Pacific as a form of money and a symbol of wealth.

As you can see from the old photo on display, these islanders have really big rocks.

Own it, flaunt it baby!

To start at the beginning, early human societies did not need money.

Instead, they relied on bartering for trade.

Here is a photo of a barter contract (carved in stone) used in ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago to exchange a bull for variety of goods including grain, oil, honey, cloth and wood.

Over time, as the variety of farm produce and manufactured goods increased in number, it became more and more unwieldy to use the barter system.

The problem is that each pair of goods will need a standard exchange rate, and when you have thousands of goods, the staggering number of possible permutations will turn trade into an inconsistent and inefficient mess, kinda like Forex gone mad.

I didn't notice it when I took this picture, but while I was editing the shot at home I saw the modern numerals "5649" on the upper left part of the stone contract. I presume that it is the catalogue number for this historical artifact.

Thinking of buying 5649 for 4D?

Who knows, you might win a bag of flour, three ducks, a couple of chickens, half a bucket of milk and a string of pearls!

And so money was invented.

In many parts of the world, money was initially made up of stuff that was convenient to trade with and good for the munchies too - the "commodity currencies" of its day.

Take rice, for example.

Nom nom nom nom...


Puff puff puff *tarik* puff...


Nom nom nom nom...


Nom nom *KINK!*

Ow ow...

With the advent of cowrie money in ancient China, the concept of money slowly drifted away from commodities and towards representative currency.

Amazingly, cowries were still used as money in some parts of the world until the 1940s.

Money gradually evolved into the forms recognizable to us today.

In China, spade and knife-shaped copper tokens were invented around 2600 years ago. The familiar round coin with a central square hole appeared some 400 years later.

In Europe, coins were made from a natural alloy of silver and gold, called electrum. They were made by striking the lump of metal with a die. The first electrum coins were invented by the Lydians of ancient Greece, also around 2600 years ago.

Later on, coins were made from less precious metals. Ancient coins tend to look fat and irregular in shape compared to modern coins - those were the days before mechanization and mass production.

Let's move on to the story of money in Singapore!

But first, here's a bunch of trivia for all you touristy-types.

I'm a sucker for trivia.

With so many coins and notes in circulation, there must be literally thousands of dollars that are lost somewhere - dropped inside a drain, tucked in the corner of a bus or stashed in an abandoned warehouse.

Sometimes I fantasize about inventing a giant machine that can find all this lost money, collect it and deliver it to a certain needy student.

Oh and did you know that we used to have an aluminium 5-cent coin? I saw an uncle selling these coins in a Chinatown kiosk before, but I wasn't sure if it was real.

Aluminium coins feel so light and plasticky - a strange choice of metal for circulation coins. Yet it is quite common to find small denomination coins minted in aluminium - for example in China and Japan.

Now for some historical facts and artifacts!

Everybody knows that modern Singapore was founded in 1819, but betcha didn't know that our first money did not come from the British.

It was the Spanish Dollar, declared as the first legal currency of the settlement in 1823.

In those early days, the Spanish dollar was joined by the Mexican dollar (shown above), Dutch guilders, Indian rupees, Javanese rupees and Penang pice in a mixed bag of circulation coins.

Here are some Indian coins that were used in Singapore. A first attempt was made in 1824 to mint a set of standardized local coins but it was not successful.

After the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony, the government introduced a new set of coins ranging from 1/4 cent to one dollar in 1871.

It's so weird to see coins minted in fractional cents. Today, the one-cent denomination is practically defunct in Singapore, but obviously it was worth much more at that time.

You can tell that just by the size of the coins; these 1/2 cent coins are as large as modern 20 cent coins...

...and this one cent coin is larger than a modern 50 cent coin!

In fact I don't think I've ever seen such a big copper coin before.

Actually I've always wondered why the British government had to wait until 1968 to decimalize their own coin system when they have already done so in the colonies for around a hundred years.


By the 1930s, circulation coins have shrunken in size and the one cent coin has taken on the familiar square shape.

I call them "Ah Kong Ah Mah coins" because my grandparents left me a small bag of these.

Here's a classic square cent on display, still sporting a bit of copper sheen. In contrast all of my coins have lost their shine and are dark brown in colour.

Fractional cents becoming an endangered species...

Notice the black discolouration on this 5 cent coin?

Yes my friends, it is made of silver! I suppose 5 cents at that time was deemed valuable enough to be minted from precious metals.

It's too bad that silver coins were demonetized in 1949 - today most coins are made from cupro-nickel instead.

This is a collector's set of the first series of Singapore's national coins. You can see the big "Lion" one dollar coin featured prominently at the centre.

According to an old uncle that I spoke with before, the Lion coins apparently didn't see much circulation. People were hoarding them as collectables and spending paper dollar bills instead. Nowadays, large numbers of these coins have emerged from hiding and retailers are selling them for $3 a piece, which is a fucking rip-off.

I should also mention that the problem with collector sets like these is that the coin compartments are not air-tight and so the coins will slowly oxidize over time if you don't keep them in a dry box. The one cent coin is especially prone to discolouration and dark spots.

Professional numismatists recommend that you should leave an aging coin alone and not try to clean it, since a botched cleaning attempt will destroy the value of a collector's coin.

Aside from coins, the gallery also features a small collection of paper money.

Here's an example of a "Post Bill" which first appeared in 1859 as an early form of banknotes.

You can see from the three additional languages in the margins of this bill (clockwise from left: Jawi script, Tamil script, Traditional Chinese characters) that Singapore has been multicultural from the get go.

A later series of banknotes issued by the Board of Commissioners Currency Malaya, featuring the portrait of King George VI.

A dark period in Singapore history - "Banana Notes" issued by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.

Notice that there are no serial numbers on any of these notes. The Japanese Army printed so many of them that they became worthless by the end of the war.

The old Orchid-series and Bird-series of national dollar bills.

Sometimes I miss the one dollar bill - it reminds me of my childhood when I opened my Ang Pows during the New Year to find a neatly folded stack of crispy, fresh-smelling Bird-series singles inside.


And finally, $10000 and $1000 specimen notes from the current Portrait-series, encased in glass.

What is notable about these bills - apart from the fact that they are clearly too large to fit properly in a wallet - is that they have gold-coloured holograms instead of the silver-coloured ones found on smaller notes.

Next, there is a small section in the gallery dedicated to minting technology.

This is a nice painting that illustrates two ancient methods of making coins - the Chinese method of casting coins by pouring molten metal into tree-shaped moulds, and the European method of striking coins from metallic blanks using dies and anvils.

The modern method of minting coins is shown here.

An approved design is engraved on two plaster moulds and converted through rubber and epoxy moulds before it is scaled down by a machine to create a master die. Working dies are then made from it.

Ah, the business end of the minting process!

The rest of the gallery showcases the various commemorative coins and special collector's coins made by the Mint. I won't go into the details of these displays, but I'll highlight two areas that are interesting to me.

One of them is this collection of electronic CashCards - the future of money!

Actually I've always thought that CashCards occupy an odd position between credit/debit cards and cash, sort of like how APS was stuck between digital photography and 35mm film.

While I'm sure that there will always be some niche use for CashCards, I doubt if it would ever be as widely used as either credit cards or paper money.

Another interesting item is this beautiful hologram coin depicting the renowned Angkor Wat.

Holographic technology is now commonplace in all sorts of financial instruments, from credit cards to gold ingots to paper currency. I wonder if we will ever see a hologram circulation coin one day?

And now for the most interesting part of the gallery - windows that let you take a behind-the-scenes look at how the Mint recirculates coins to keep the money flowing in Singapore.

Unlike the glitzy coin gallery, the production area looks just like any typical factory setting, with a bare concrete floor, big machines, conveyor belts and forklifts zipping back and forth.

Hardworking aunties and uncles sort through numerous bags of coins and prepare them for packing and recirculation.

The process begins when bags of coins are emptied into a big metal hopper.

Here's a hopper filled with one dollar coins - I'll bet that you've never seen that many "Kim Doon" (gold ingot: Hokkien slang for dollar coins) in one place before!

With the hopper loaded up, the auntie uses a continuous conveyor belt to sort through hundreds of coins, removing damaged or soiled coins from the pool.

Coins that pass inspection pour into another hopper of a giraffe-like machine.

The machine then measures out coins in fixed quantities in order to wrap them into rolls of coins.

The coin wrapping paper gets drawn into the machine...

... and it spits out roll after roll of one dollar coins, tightly packed and ready to be sent to the banks for redistribution.

As a closing note I should mention that the Singapore Mint doesn't only sell collector's coins - they also sell "Singapura" gold bullion coins based on the daily gold price. Singapura gold is available in one, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/10 troy ounce sizes. Please enquire at the counter for more details regarding their products.

Would you like to know more?

Other posts about Singapore history:
- History Herstory My-stery