Reason; as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct

Month: November, 2012

“We [rationalists] are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Elliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.” – Christopher Hitchens from ‘God Is Not Great’

Death and Life – Gustav Klimt



Today there are considered to be around 6900 living languages. Although the different word structures of languages like Cantonese (as well as the varying definitions of what constitutes a word) make comparisons of the number of words in a language difficult, English is considered to be the largest. Various major dictionaries place the number over half a million; however, a study by Harvard and Google that analysed over five million books found that the language had over a million words (1,022,000 at the time of the study). They also found that this number grows by around 8,500 words per year. Mind you, if Shakespeare was still writing today it might be increasing faster still. He was attributed, in his published work, as either inventing or first recording around 1700 words.


“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil doer; nothing more difficult than understanding him” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Einstein’s Brain

In their recent study ‘The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs’, Dean Falk, Frederick Lepore and Adrianne Noe examine 14 recently discovered photographs of Einstein’s removed brain, taken from unusual angles. They compare this new data to that of 85 other human brains and cautiously explore the implications of the differences present – and differences were indeed present. It has been predicted in the past that differences in Einstein’s parietal lobes may have contributed to his mathematical ability, which is supported by the observations here. Einstein’s brain size was unexceptional, but, to the excitement of neuroscientists beginning to understand the various roles of the many compartments of the human brain, there is a healthy list of unusual anatomy to be explained. Most strikingly individual was his prefrontal cortex which exhibits many interesting differences to that of the average human brain. The prefrontal cortex is today implicated in contemplating complex cognitive behaviour and decision making among other processes.


“We need to burst a giant bubble – the notion that we perceive the world as it really is” – Tali Sharot

Cognitive biases 001 – The illusion of control

Introduction (

Following the ground-breaking work of Ellen Langer in 1975, we have come to understand the illusion of control as a cognitive bias that manifests as the perception that we have more control over some events than we actually do. One of my favourite examples of this bias looked at gamblers trying to throw the combined dice value they needed in a game of pure chance. When a person needed a high number they threw the dice harder; and softer when they needed a lower value. Other studies have shown individuals to believe they could improve their ability to predict a coin toss with practice (44% of participants believed this).

Like all cognitive biases this phenomenon must have served a functional advantage and one could speculate for hours as to the benefit here – of which many suggestions may be correct. Perhaps the still-evolving human, living in an unforgiving, survival-of-the-fittest world, who believed that they could control events that were beyond their influence; would persevere longer. Maybe these organisms chanced their way through danger they couldn’t control but would assert themselves at the very first instant they could because they had never believed that they couldn’t make a difference. Conversely, however, in situations where we have a lot of control we have been shown to underestimate it; perhaps suggesting that theories attributing responsibility to heuristics in the mechanisms by which we link goals to outcomes are correct. The bias has been shown to strengthen in stressful and competitive situations, which should be taken into account in its interpretation (the implications to financial markets I’m sure speak out on their own).



“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt” – Socrates


TED talk: Adam Savage: How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries

TED talk: Adam Savage: How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries

One of the most pleasing aspects of science, and of human contemplation in general, is how creative and innovative solutions to apparently unsurpassable obstacles seem to reliably surface as time passes. The genius that is there to be seen in any field you happen to turn your eyes to is always astounding. From the proposed use of salts as coolants in atmospheric pressure nuclear reactors to the sky crane that lowered Curiosity onto Mars; for the open minded thinkers there may always come along a solution that fits Einstein’s premise: that “Any idea that does not at first seem insane, is doomed to fail.”

In this seminal TED talk Adam Savage captures the essence of such innovative brilliance as he relays some of the most creative and exceptional work of some of the greatest minds to have been recognized for their genius.


In the interest of fairness…

After Singapore and Hong Kong, Japan has the lowest homicide rate in the world, including attempted homicides. Honduras has the highest.