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Friday, October 31, 2008

Mood Is Chemistry. No Really, It Is.

What goes on in the brains of people who are depressed? For a lot of us, the answer is remarkably straightforward - they don't have enough serotonin, innit? The belief that serotonin is somehow the brain's "happy chemical" is almost folk wisdom nowadays - I just searched for serotonin on the Guardian website and clicked on the top article, this gem which describes serotonin as "the feelgood hormone".

Now, some more informed people don't like this pop psychopharmacology. The esteemed Dr. Ben Goldacre, for example, wrote that
That’s the serotonin hypothesis. It was always shaky, and the evidence now is hugely contradictory. I’m not giving that lecture here, but as a brief illustration, there is a drug called tianeptine – a selective serotonin reuptake enhancer, not an inhibitor – and yet research shows this drug is a pretty effective treatment for depression too.

Meanwhile in popular culture the depression/serotonin theory is proven and absolute, because it was never about research, or theory, it was about marketing, and journalists who pride themselves on never pushing pills or the hegemony will still blindly push the model until the cows come home....

The serotonin hypothesis will always be a winner in popular culture, even when it has flailed in academia, because it speaks to us of a simple, abrogating explanation, and plays into our notions of a crudely dualistic world where there can only be weak people, or uncontrollable, external, molecular pressures.

It's an excellent article and you should read the whole thing. Goldacre is far from alone in his skepticism towards to the serotonin hypothesis. Indeed in certain circles, the idea that the serotonin hypothesis is basically just drug company propaganda is almost folk wisdom nowadays (stop me if you've heard this one before).

Now, I'm not going to defend the idea that all depression is caused by "low serotonin".That's almost certainly wrong, and the very best you can say about it is that there's no strong evidence for it. In fact, it's not even clear, from a neurobiological perspective, what "low serotonin" means - low in which parts of the brain? Are we talking about low firing rates of serotonin neurons, or low amounts of serotonin released each time they fire, or low levels of serotonin just hanging around the synapses all the time? (And the next time someone tries to sell you a supplement or a herb or other short-cut to higher serotonin levels, just remember that there is such a thing as too much happy hormone.)

But - it's possible to be too skeptical. Serotonin does, unquestionably, play an important role in mood. Rumors of the death of the serotonin hypothesis have been greatly exaggerated. Ironically, the best evidence for the mood-relevance of serotonin doesn't come from antidepressants. Most common antidepressants, e.g. the famous Prozac, are said to work by "boosting serotonin levels", but actually it's far from clear that they do. Although these drugs inhibit the transporter protein which gets rid of serotonin after it's been released, which should in theory increase serotonin levels, in fact the picture is more complex, because serotonin inhibits the firing of the very cells that release it. Ironically, Prozac might even decrease serotonin levels in the places where they matter, at least in the short term. (For pharmacology geeks, see here).

The best evidence that mood is chemical, and that serotonin is one of the chemicals involved, comes from a foul-tasting, frothy, nausea-inducing milkshake known as the acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) mixture. The ATD mixture contains 100g of amino acids, which are what the body uses to synthesize proteins. You put the amino acids (white powders) into 200 ml of water. Some of them dissolve, some don't, so it's pretty lumpy. When (if) you manage to drink it all, interesting things happen. The influx of extra amino acids stimulates protein synthesis in your body. Some of the amino acids also get transported into the brain via certain proteins.

The key ingredient of the ATD mixture is the absence of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid, and like all amino acids it's used to make proteins, but it's also necessary for the production of serotonin in the brain. When you drink the ATD mixture - containing no tryptophan, remember - all of the tryptophan already in your blood gets used up in the burst of protein synthesis. Any that survives can't get transported into the brain, because other amino acids are already using the transporter proteins. The result is that tryptophan levels in the blood, and the brain, drop dramatically over the course of several hours.

ATD has been used in research for over a decade. The ATD procedure is unpleasant - volunteers have to consume the drink, which is truly horrible, on an empty stomach, and then not eat anything for the next 7 hours. Sometimes people vomit while trying to drink the stuff, or shortly afterwards, or two hours later. It's not much fun. But ATD has proven, to my mind, beyond any doubt, that the link between serotonin and mood is more than just a myth. The reason is that if you give ATD to people who have previously suffered clinical depression, a large proportion of them become depressed again, just for a few hours. This has been replicated several times. The effects can be dramatic (although not always, and sometimes there is no discernible effect) -
A feature of particular interest was that the participants who had full relapses of symptoms described a reappearance of some of the depressive thoughts they had experienced when previously depressed. One of these participants whose previous episodes of clinical depression were associated with the loss of important friendships had, while depressed, been preoccupied with fears that she would never be able to sustain a relationship. She had not had such fears since then. She had been fully recovered and had not taken any medication for over a year. About 2 h after drinking the tryptophan-free mixture she experienced a sudden onset of sadness, despair, and uncontrollable crying. She feared that a current important relationship would end. She recognised that she was depressed but still considered that her fears were appropriate. The evening of the test day she started to feel better and the next day was fully recovered. She said that her fears about her current relationship had been unfounded and she now saw them as unrealistic.
From Smith, Cowen & Fairburn Lancet (1997)
Good skeptics will immediately notice that everything I've just described could be a reverse placebo effect - people are warned to expect to get depressed, and then they have to drink a god-awful mixture that makes them feel sick, so it's no surprise they feel down. This is a real concern, so for comparison there is a placebo drink - exactly the same, but with plenty of tryptophan - and everything is done double blind. The placebo drink does not produce the same effects (although occasionally there are placebo responses - sometimes very striking ones.)

So does this mean that low serotonin = depression after all? No, for the very simple reason that if you do the exact same experiments on people who have never suffered from depression, they feel fine and dandy (well, except that they feel sick.) A few people say they feel a bit down, but the reactions are nowhere near as strong as those seen in many people with a history of clinical depression. Yet the biochemical effect - reduced brain tryptophan and hence (presumably) reduced serotonin synthesis, is the same.

If we knew what made some people vulnerable to the effects of tryptophan depletion, we would be a long way towards understanding depression. We still don't. But it's something to do with serotonin. In some people, in some circumstances, serotonin is the only thing between happiness and despair. No, really.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Investors got the Blues - PhotoHunt

PhotoHunt theme : Blue

A lowly-educated cousin was misled into putting her life-savings into a high-risk financial product. She is in her fifties, a blue-collar worker, does not understand English. She holds 2 jobs, scrimped and saved for 30 years to accumulate S$100,000.

Her money was initially placed in a Fixed Deposit but a Relationship Manager sold her the high-risk financial product, promising her higher returns but did not mention about the risks involved.

My cousin was asked to put her signature on blank forms and the Relationship Manager filled in her particulars and answered the questions on the Fact Finding/Analysis Sheet on her behalf. Yes, she is too naive stupid.

But this is Singapore. The ordinary citizens trust that the authorities have stringent controls and regulations in place. Who would expect such things to happen?

The redemption value of that product has been calculated to be zero. The news came as a bolt from the blue.

I was with my cousin for the closed door DBS Dialogue Session on the failed financial product, High Notes 5. All the investors were angry and many elderly ladies were in tears.

Aggrieved investors remain dissatisfied with DBS despite being informed that those who have invested up to S$100,000 (as opposed to the current limit of S$50,000) can take their case to the Financial Industry Disputes Resolution Centre (FIDReC).

Rajan Raju, Managing Director and Head of Consumer Banking at DBS Bank and the bank's independent external adviser, Gerald Ee, met the investors.

My cousin was given an investor complaint form, which establishes among other things if there was mis-selling, to fill. DBS will review it on a case-by-case basis.

DBS Bank has said it will review every High Notes 5 case, and its investor will know the outcome of the resolution process by the end of the year.

Legal advice was against pursuing a class action suit. It’s an uphill task to prove mis-selling in a court of law. It’s our word against the Relationship Manager’s.

Who are responsible?

After the dialogue session, I met several investors from Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Korea. These days, I have been helping my cousin's elderly, uneducated colleagues and neighbours who have invested in such high-risk financial products to write complaints.

I get the blues seeing the elderly not being able to eat and sleep over the loss of their life-savings. Some have fallen ill. I hope there would not be suicides.

I hope more educated people could come out to help these vulnerable investors. Just help them to fill in their investor complaint forms in English or Chinese. There will be a meeting for investors at :

Saturday 1 November 2008
Time: 5 - 7 pm
Nearest MRT station: Clarke Quay (NE Line)

fMRI Reveals True Nature of Hatred

Given that I've taken to calling myself Neuroskeptic, I feel it's time to take a skeptical line on some neuroscience. Fortunately, an ideal example has just popped up. The paper, ominously titled "Neural Correlates Of Hate", was published in the open-access journal PLoS One. It's been picked up by the major science news sites and various newspapers, with headlines generally some variation of
Brain's 'hate circuit' identified

Those of us who keep up with the news won't be surprised. It seems like every week, reports come in that scientists have discovered the brain circuit for something.

By and large, these reports are nonsense. I will now explain why, and then tell you my theory of why everyone is so fascinated by neuroscience (and especially neuroimaging), before finishing by explaining why people aren't actually interested in neuroscience at all. Nice twist, eh? First, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not out to criticize the paper itself or the authors, Dr. Zeki and Dr. Romaya. No doubt the methodology of the experiment could be critiqued, but this is true of all such research, and I think the data from this study are valuable and interesting - to a specialist. What concerns me is the way in which this study and others like it are reported, and indeed the fact that they are repored as news at all.

So what did the authors do? They posted some adverts and recruited seventeen healthy volunteers. They showed them photos, which the volunteers had previously sent them. Some of the photos were of someone who the volunteer really hated - generally either ex-lovers or work rivals, predictably enough. Others were of people that the volunteer knew, but had "neutral feelings" towards. This was an fMRI study, so the whole process took place inside an MRI scanner configured to measure changes in blood oxygenation levels across the brain (which is considered a proxy for metabolic activity, itself a proxy for neural firing.) They then calculated which areas of the brain showed greater oxygenation changes when people were looking at their own personal hate figures than at the other faces. They found several areas in which the difference was statistically significant, which is what the yellow areas on this picture represent:

(Taken from Zeki & Romaya PLoS One 2008, without explicit permission)

This is all very well and good. Some people take a skeptical line on the whole business of fMRI, and they would probably consider these blobs-on-the-brain to be pretty much meaningless. I'm not one of them - I think these data tell us something about the human brain, although only in the context of other research, and only when the limitations of fMRI are borne in mind. (I hope to expand on my views of fMRI soon.) This is one piece of a big puzzle.

But one thing is clear, the brain's "hate circuit" is nowhere to be found in this study. This phrasing doesn't appear in the paper: it seems to have originated in the university press release (as this kind of stuff generally does.) What this data shows is that certain parts of the brain become more active when people are looking at pictures of people that they hate, and presumably therefore experiencing the emotion of hatred. These areas are not only activated by hatred; the putamen, for example, is known to be involved in the control of all movements. Every area which lit up in this study has lit up in a hundred other experiments which have nothing to do with hate. It's not as if scientists have just found a new bit of the brain tucked away somewhere, which turns out to be the root cause of all human evil. (Which is a pity, because that would look great on a grant application.)

Now, given that, I really can't see why anyone but a professional neuroscientist would want to know which parts of the brain activate when you look at pictures of a hated rival, not least because most laymen wouldn't know their putamen from their parietal lobe. (That's like saying "arse from their elbow," for non-neuroscience geeks.) And there's no reason they should. Neuroanatomy is very difficult, as any undergraduate neuroscientist knows. The brain is just an organ. It has various parts. Some people, like me, spend our lives trying to figure out how it all works, and we would say that it's very interesting. Of course, we would say that, because the brain pays our bills. To anyone else, it's just a grey lump.

Except, of course, that it's not. People are fascinated by the brain. We can't get enough cognitive neuroscience and fMRI images. They're a staple of the newspaper science pages. Does this mean people are interested in neuroscience? No. People don't understand neuroscience, because it's bloody hard. What interests people is not specific findings about the brain but the fact that science is "discovering things" about the brain and by implication, human life. At the back of all of our minds is the exciting feeling that whenever scientists find "the circuit" associated with some emotion or some behavior, an important truth about human nature has been revealed. (Neuroscientists get this feeling too, but we know it's more complicated than that. Some of us anyway.)

Sometimes this feeling surfaces and is expressed in words. Terence Kealey is a biochemist and head of the UK's only private University, The University of Buckingham. He's known for his libertarian politics. About a year ago he penned a profoundly revealing article for the Times. I would encourage you to read it, but you might need a dangerously large spoon of salt. Essentially, Kealey reads an fMRI study in which social science students were able to donate money to charity, and thinks it proves that
...people like being taxed for charity, but they like giving money to good causes even more... [which] challenges so many political assumptions. First, it disproves the Left’s belief that only the state will succour the poor: actually, philanthropy is hardwired into our brains and, in the absence of state aid, private giving is biologically determined...
Nothing in this paragraph is implied by the brain images which Kealey is talking about. Not a word. It's really quite impressively divorced from reality. In particular, there is absolutely no good reason to think that because a certain part of the brain is activated when we do something, that thing is "hardwired" or "biologically determined". This is because the brain is the organ of learning, and if we learn to do something, some part of the brain will be involved in that learning. Neuroimaging has very little to do with the nature / nurture debate. But my goal is here is not to bash Terence Kealey. Well to be honest it is a bit, but the main point is that the mistake that Kealey makes - seeing fMRI as a way of investigating the roots of human behavior - is very common.

The idea of a "hate circuit" is beguiling, I think, because it seems to show that hatred is a deep-seated human emotion with a biological basis. Personally, I think that's probably true. But I don't think that because of brain scans. I think that because I read the news and I read history. People across the world have been hating other people, in depressingly stereotypical ways, for as long as we can determine. That's human nature, but brain scans don't tell us anything about that. They tell us about the brain, which is a grey lump. Some of us have a professional interest in grey lumps, but everyone else would learn much more about hatred by going to see some Shakespeare or reading a history of the Balkans or something.

To sum up, neuroimaging and neuroscience in general are fascinating in their own right, but highly technical. As such there's no good reason why lay people should be any more interested in them than they are in chemistry. Given that they are in fact very interested, logically there must be bad reasons for this, such as the mistaken belief that brain scans can tell us about human behaviour, human nature, or everyday life. They don't and they probably can't. Vulgarized neuroscience now takes the place that Freudianism did 30 years ago, in that it offers simplistic, mechanistic explanations for complex behaviours, whose only claim to credibility is that they are "scientific". This kind of thing does real neuroscience, including fMRI, no favours.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Women Learn to Pee Standing Up - WW

Lady urinal - L'urinette

How many women do you know who actually SIT on public toilet seats? Most ladies I know tell me that they squat over it.

From Singapore to China to Australia, I'm used to seeing shoe marks on toilet seats. *sigh* Squatting means you won't have to touch any part of the germ-infested toilet seat, which is a major plus in public loos. Squatters and pants are an acrobatic yoga act. :)

Ladies, have you ever wonder how it is like to pee while standing?

Available now, there is a lady urinal called L'urinette. Would you try that? hehe....

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cheer Up, Citizens

Does anyone else find this here video (via BBC) very odd? It's what can only be described as a government propaganda clip, but rather than trying to persuade or inform it's basically telling you to cheer up. Or as they put it "Increase your wellbeing today!" - they must have a jargon quota to meet. Maybe this is what happens when media-obsessed politicians listen to people to Lord Layard who say that they should be trying to make the population happier?

Also - a lot of psychologists and philosophers would say that everything we do is motivated by the desire to increase our own well-being, which would make the advice a bit redundent. Is this video proof that this theory of human nature is wrong? I wonder what Jeremy Bentham would say.

Galileo Strikes Again!

Link: I write further on this topic in a subsequent post.

Some interesting comments over at Respectful Insolence got me thinking about the "Galileo Gambit". This is when people with unpopular ideas compare themselves to Galileo with the implication that, like him, they're being persecuted for their unorthodox views but that they will eventually be proved right. Everyone wants to be the underdog, and the Gambit has become such a cliché that several writers are famous for denouncing it. Michael Shermer gave us the snappy aphorism -
Heresy does not equal correctness.
While Carl Sagan went for the comedy angle -
The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
And so on. In fact, pointing out that not everyone with weird ideas is Galileo, seems to be almost as popular as claiming to be his spiritual heir. Hmm.

Some people don't like this, such as this HIV/AIDS denier who takes issue with those who accuse others of using the Gambit. He's right (about this, not about AIDS) - Shermer and Sagan are attacking straw men, if you take their words literally, because no-one ever claims that just because their ideas are unorthodox, this makes them right. People generally invoke Galileo either as a rhetorical device - to give themselves a cool sense of rebelliousness - or as a defence against the "Argument from Consensus", which says that we should believe something just because most scientists do.

I'm now going to argue that if most scientists believe something you probably should believe it, just because scientists say so. I'm aware that this is an unorthodox view (oh, the irony.) After all, the motto of the Royal Society is Nullius in Verba - "Take nobody's word for it". The oldest scientific society in the world doesn't want you to take their word for anything! I think they're wrong, but the idea that we should "think for ourselves" is fundamental to the way that we in the West argue and think. Once, "heretic" was a serious accusation, now, "not a heretic" is almost as bad. If there's one thing everyone agrees on, it's that everyone should be an indepedent thinker.

But if you take this even vaguely literally, it's obviously bollocks. You take someone's word for it whenever you read a newspaper. Scientists do so whenever they read a journal article - they trust that the results presented weren't made up. "Heretical" science is no exception - if you believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism, it's because you take Dr. Andrew Wakefield's word for it that he did some experiments and got certain results. This is fairly trivial, and you might object that even if we decide to trust the published evidence, we should still insist on evaluating it and interpreting it for ourselves. The idea that anyone can look at the evidence and reach their own conclusion seems only fair and democratic. Just because, say, almost all climate scientists think that the evidence implicates human activities in global warming, this doesn't make it so!

Yet again, it's balls. Unless you are a professional climate scientist (or whatever), or an amateur with an unhealthy amount of spare time, the chances are that you just don't know enough to come to an informed conclusion. Galileo could prove his points by getting people to look down a telescope, but modern science has grown so large and complex that you now need to read and digest dozens of papers to even understand most controversies. Even with life-or-death stuff like the question of whether antidepressants cause suicides, I'd bet that there are only a few dozen people in the world who know all of the relevant evidence. (I say this as someone who knows people whom you would expect to know it, and they don't.)

Ultimately, most of us just can't have an informed opinion about complex issues like evolution, climate change, vaccine safety, or the roots of the economic crisis. Life's too short, and 21st century knowledge is just too much for our brains to handle. It's easy to pick up a few statistics and a couple of stock phrases and think you're informed, but the chances are, you're unskilled and unaware of it. The most rational thing to do, therefore, would be to be agnostic about such matters. This is hard though, so as a second best, we should accept the experts' consensus. Academics are generally pretty intelligent, and if thousands of intelligent people freely discuss something and reach a certain conclusion, that in itself is evidence (although not proof) that what they conclude is true.

So: In theory, we should take no-one's word for it. Ideally, we should gather all the evidence about everything ourselves, and then draw our own conclusions. No-one would deny that this is the ideal, but equally, no-one can deny that this is not actually going to happen. Unless you're an expert on a topic, you have to take someone's word for it if you want to know anything about it. You are taking people's words for it right now. You might as well take the word of the majority of experts.


Deepavali in Little India (Singapore) - RT

Happy Deepavali!!

I brought my kids to Little India on Sunday to buy gifts for an Indian friend who was inviting me to her Deepavali party.

Besides the Indian community who were shopping for food, clothes, decorations... etc, there were other races and tourists.

Getting ready for Deepavali - Henna hand painting

I wanted to have the henna hand painting but there were long queues at every stall. I have to try it another day. :)

Colourful lamp shades

There were so much to see and buy. Besides gifts for my friend, I bought quite a lot of decorative items for my home. Time to do up my bedroom. hehe.....

A wide variety of Indian sweets to choose from

I simply can't resist buying these colourful Indian sweets. For people who don't have a sweet tooth, these are VERY sweet. hehe.....

: The new LG60PG70FR model that was won by lucky Singaporean, Nicholas Yap will be available in Singapore in 2 - 3 months' time and costs a whopping S$17,999!! arggghhhh.....

Readers can view an older model of the LG 60" Plasma TV at Harvey Norman Millenia Walk, going for S$15,999.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Winner of an LG 60" HD Plasma TV in Singapore is ..... - WS #47


entries received for EastCoastLife/LG Contest!!

EastCoastLife n Jaymes checking the entry forms

I almost couldn't conduct the draw due to a family crisis. Several elders in my family clan have bought Lehman Minibonds and I am busy helping these depressed, suicidal souls. Frantic calls were made and advice of VIPs sought.

My family of three were still checking contest forms until 4am....

MP Lim went door to door to meet residents of Jalan Batu

At 10am, we went to witness accompany MP Lim Biow Chuan on his regular Walkabout, meeting residents and business owners of Block 8, Jalan Batu. :)

MP Lim Biow Chuan (Marine Parade GRC) picking the winner

After the Walkabout, MP Lim helped to draw and witness the winner of EastCoastLife/LG Contest!!

Winner of an LG 60" Full HD Plasma TV is ........

Nicholas Yap


When I called Nicholas, he couldn't believe he won the humongous TV. I was expecting 'ultra high' reaction but there was none. *disappointed*

Nicholas explained that he has never won anything in hs life, even at his company's Annual Dinner & Dance, so he doesn't know how to react. hahaha......

3 other consolation prizes will be given to the following contestants for their correct answers to the NHB posts. Each wins a one-year Individual Pass (worth S$60) sponsored by National Heritage Board.


A very big thank you to all participants. Watch out for more contests on EastCoastLife. ;)

Note : MP Lim Biow Chuan is not endorsing LG products nor EastCoastLife's blog. He is very kind to do ECL a favour despite his busy schedule. The winner of EastCoastLife/LG Contest was picked by an MP, in front of grassroot leaders of Mountbatten. ECL is grateful for their presence.

All entry forms have been shredded and only the winners will hear from me.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

New Age Experiment Goes Wrong, Hundreds Dead

What with all the fuss over the Large Hadron Collider being about to suck us all into a black hole or blow up the world or something, it's easy to forget that it's not just cutting-edge, incredibly cool physics research that can be dangerous. Even seemingly benign New Age woo can go awry and end up killing hundreds - at least judging by the results of the fascinatingly flaky Peace Intention Experiment, an update of the famous Transcendental Mediation crime reduction studies.

The Peace Intention Experiment, or as I call it the PIE (in the sky?), is the latest project from Lynn McTaggart, New Age author and alternative health guru. McTaggart's previous research has investigated whether human intention can make plants grow better and whether it can "change the structure of water". This time around, she set her sights higher - the goal was nothing less than saving lives by stopping violent conflict. But the method was very similar to that used previously: McTaggart invited her fans to think really hard about something for ten minutes or so, all at the same time (coordinated via the internet). McTaggart claims that her previous studies have already proved that the collective mind of thousands of internet users can influence events thousands of miles away, sometimes even backwards in time. Then again, it's not hard to get positive results if you perform enough statistical tests.

Anyway, this might sound harmless, but the preliminary results of the PIE have just been released and they make disturbing reading. The PIE was intended to reduce violence, but tragically, it made matters much worse. I mean obviously it did bugger all in reality, but if you go along with McTaggart's usual reasoning processes and persistently confuse correlation with causation, you'd have to conclude that it had killed hundreds. Except that Lynn McTaggart doesn't think that - we'll see why later.

Here's what happened: For ten minutes each day for eight days, 11,468 intentioneers looked at pictures of Sri Lankan people while intending - hard - that peace should come to war-torn Wanni, Sri Lanka. Specifically they intended thus -
My intention is for peace and cooperation to be restored in the Wanni region of Sri Lanka and for all war-related deaths and violence to be reduced by at least 10 per cent
It's a modest ambition - if I thought that I had the power to magically alter reality, I'd probably wish for deaths in Sri Lanka to be reduced by more than 10%. But I'm not an expert in these things. Anyway, since you've probably never heard of it, Wanni is a town in Sri Lanka which has suffered badly in the ongoing civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels. Why Wanni, you ask? Well, McTaggart tells us that one of her main reasons for choosing it over, say, Baghdad, was that
In order to get robust experimental results, I was interested in choosing an area that the West was NOT focused on. Many areas of violence around the world are already the subject of prayer groups and intention; if we were to focus on one of them, it would be more difficult to demonstrate scientifically that the Peace Intention Experiment had a significant effect in lowering violence.
This shows some basic knowledge of the problem of confounding factors in intervention studies. Interestingly, she also seems to believe that only Western people have the power to change the world through their intentions. I bet that there are a lot of people in Sri Lanka who very much wish that their country would stop being a war zone, and they probably pray for peace - and indeed their lives - quite a lot. If I lived there I certainly would, and I'm an atheist. However, Lynn doesn't think that this is a problem. Clearly non-white people don't have the Power of Intention.

Anyway, that was the plan. What happened? Well, according to the statistician involved, before the experiment started, people were getting killed in Wanni at an average rate of 102 per week. So there was plenty of room for improvement. However, sadly, during the 8 days of the experiment, 461 people died! That's an extra 45 deaths each day. Pretty impressive - if you were trying to remotely kill civilians with some kind of psychic super-weapon. Fortunately, McTaggart et. al. have an explanation for this unexpected result:
there was a last surge of attacks by the Sri Lankan government, who wanted to quash the Tamil Tiger rebels once and for all.
So that explains the extra deaths - government forces launched a surge of attacks. People tend to die in attacks. Whether the government's decision to launch these attacks was caused by the Peace Intention Experiment is not clear, but if the human mind can magically make a plant grow to twice its normal size, surely it could make a Sri Lankan general decide to attack a town. But there's more:
In the 24 days following the experiment, violence levels immediately plunged down and stayed low ever since. The weekly average death rate in the Wanni region dropped by 49 per cent!

Interestingly enough, the Eastern part of Sri Lanka, experienced the same evolution. The death rate heightened during the experiment period, and then fell by 68.4 per cent.
Of course it's hardly surprising that deaths fell in the period following a major offensive - maybe the government was in control of the area, or maybe everyone had run away. Still, maybe McTaggart could claim credit even so - human intention works in mysterious ways after all. The death rate did fall by 49%, meaning 50 fewer deaths per week, so 171 lives were saved over the course of the 24 days after the end of the experiment. PIE worked! Unless you consider the extra 360 dead during the 8 days that the PIE was actually in progress, meaning that on balance 189 extra Sri Lankans died. Oops!

The sensible thing to do at this point would be to declare the experiment a failure and blame it on, oh I don't know, the sheep/goats effect or something. But McTaggart seems instead to be claiming that the experiment was a success, on account of the reduced violence which followed the initial terrible explosion of violence. This is known as "cherry picking". She is not perturbed by the fact that the Eastern Sri Lanka region which was not targeted by the PIE experienced an even greater reduction in violence over the same period. To me this suggests that, if anything, PIE increased violence, but McTaggart believes that it shows that PIE is so powerful that it affects whole countries even if it's only aimed at one region, like a nuclear bomb of peace. This is known as "coming up with a story to explain the data".

Naturally, McTaggart wants you to give her money to keep doing this kind of thing. After all, the PIE was only a pilot study.

So Lynn McTaggart continues to wage, and win, her ongoing battle against those who would parody her, by doing it better than they ever could. (For previous episodes see Hawk/Handsaw). But this sorry spectacle is more than just a source of cheap laughs for bored bloggers. Honestly, it is. It's actually a fascinating case study in the psychology and sociology of science. McTaggart's efforts to extract a positive result are far from unique - they are only marginally more strenuous than those of some respectable researchers.

PIE shows that if you look hard enough you can literally find any conclusion in any data set. All it takes is enough post hoc statistics and a willingness to overlook those parts of the data which don't turn out the way you'd want. The problem is that in academic science, and especially in neuroscience and psychology, there is a strong pressure to do just that. If you report that gene X is not associated with disease Y, or that brain region A does bugger all when people are thinking about B, you're going to have a harder job getting it published than if you "find something". Perhaps even more importantly, scientists can be surprisingly attached to their pet genes / brain regions / treatments and really, genuinely want to find something interesting about them. Luckily, with enough clever mathematics and creative writing up, it's possible to find something almost anywhere (details in a future post.) There's a little Lynn McTaggart inside all of us.

Is this a problem for science? Hell, yes. Can we do anything about it? Sure. I'll elaborate in a future post, but basically we need to introduce pre-registration of studies - like the current systems for the Registration of Randomized Controlled Trials, but covering pre-clinical research as well. Why hasn't this happened? Because no-one's got around to it - we're all too busy dredging our data for positive results and publishing them. Hmpf.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Scary Food - PhotoHunt

PhotoHunt theme : Scary

Fancy a tarantula or an insect as a snack?

Imagine the gooey stuff squishing in your mouth when you bite into it..... and having bits of its legs stuck in between your teeth.

On Wang Fu Jin Road in Beijing, you can find stalls selling these insects as snack food.

I was scared when I first saw these creepy crawlies and bugs. My Chinese friends persuaded me to try some of them. I tried a scorpion, a crispy fried worm and a beetle. Honestly, they didn't taste good.

I was told they are nutritious and have very high medicinal values. Some of them have become delicacies and are highly sought after. I'm glad I don't have to eat them, to the poor in some parts of China, insects are their alternative source of protein.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Eastcoastlife n LG 60" HD Plasma TV contest

Eastcoastlife n LG Contest

2 days left!

Who will be the owner of this LG 60" Full HD Plasma TV?

This prize is unique, worth about S$10,000.

LG gave me full reign of this contest. They didn't even look at my proposal, they trust me to do the job. They were very supportive, giving me all the help I needed.

This is an expensive and unique prize. I hope bloggers who are blogging about it would give your best. I'm also giving you a chance to be selected for my future projects.

I must commend blogger and contestant Wilfrid for his kind gesture to list all the questions on his blog. btw, he has gotten himself 4 chances by blogging about it. I'm reproducing the questions here. It does make looking for the answers easier. :)
  1. Which knife is a must-have in a kitchen?
  2. What is the main cause of cervical cancer?
  3. How long is the underground tunnel of KPE?
  4. On which date was all Chinese males gathered, screened and later faced the machine-gun firing squad?
  5. Who is the winner of 2008 Formula One SingTel Singapore Grand Prix?
  6. Which organization launched Hi2P?
  7. Where is Underwater World Singapore located?
  8. Besides the 60″ HD Plasma TV, which other product did LG sent me?
  9. LG’s Home Theater Systems was tuned by which world renowned high end audio expert?
  10. What does LG stand for?
Any one can be a winner! Just find the answers to the above 10 questions.

Going through the entry forms yesterday, I found a couple of local famous personalities. :) I'll be at the practice to receive your entry forms on Saturday.

Our practice closes at 6.30 pm, you can slide your entry forms under the door or put them in our mail box.

Bloggers posting about this contest (I'll make copies of your entry) :

WilfridWong.com - Wilfrid (4 chances)
sweetots - Eileen (4 chances)
Dua Pai Lang - (5 chances)
The Young Businessman - Cris (3 chances)
Xtralicious - Rachel (3 chances)
fleetingexistence - Guan Hong (4 chances)
jointowin - Eddie(3 chances)
Singapore Kids Places - Milly (2 chances)
My Life with IT - wishbone (2 chances)
Saint 2.0 - Stanley (2 chances)
vynny (2 chances)
DK (2 chances)
oceanskies - (2 chances)
Days of our life - pika (2 chances)
shelled & deshelled - Shelly (3 chances)
Cornflict - Dallas (3 chances)
peekintomyblog - Jess (2 chances)
jfang.sg - James (2 chances)
living4blogging - juzblogging (2 chances)
lobang (2 chances)
Jimmy (2 chances)

Bloggers who blogged about this contest, please comment and leave a link for me. I'm too busy to go searching for your post, so you may lose your extra chance.

Update : Check your answers and entry! I receive many incorrect entries..... no contact number or particulars. You have the right to not do so for your own reason, I have the right to disqualify your entry. Not fair to those who adhere to the rules.

What is the Best Tattoo Design Site Located Online?

If you are like me, you are wanting a cool, unique design when you are looking for your first or next tattoo. I searched high and low looking for the best online resources where I could find a decent selection that you don't see everywhere else. Originality means something when it comes to tattoo's as you don't want your tattoo on everyone else in the world. Luckily, I was able to find a great site that offered some awesome designs for a really low price.

Here's what I found...

Chopper Tattoo - The Number One Tattoo Gallery

I found Chopper Tattoo after looking at a few other sites, and let me tell you.. I wish I would have stumbled across it sooner. This website's design gallery is CONSTANTLY updating... i've been a member there for over 4 months now and I still haven't seen all the designs they have to offer. They are literally endless and have the most original designs I have ever come across.

The best part of the site is how easy it is to find your design. You simply search for whatever your looking for with their excellent search function, or you can just browse for hours on end until you find what you want. If you are looking for a certain design, rest assured it IS in there.

One thing this site has over the others is the quality of the website and the overall design. You can really tell they use top notch tattoo artists and don't post any mediocre designs. Sometimes I have to limit my visiting of the site because of the constant urge to get another Tat from them, haha. In the past 2 months I've had 3 done and I have no plans of slowing down.

I won't even recommend any other Tattoo sites because none really compare to what I have received for my money at Chopper Tattoo. Don't waste your time or money on anything else if you want original, desirable Tattoo's on the worlds best Tattoo resource site.

to check out Chopper Tattoo for yourself!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

EastCoastLife giving away LG 60" Full HD Plasma TV on 26th Oct!! - WW

The One and Only 60" Plasma TV in Singapore...
probably South-east Asia.

Right, LG?

Sleek Luxury that Fits Your Life

60" Full HD 1080P Plasma TV

Can you imagine this beauty sitting in your home?

Can imagine anot!?

My heart is aching as I write this post, you know.
Can anyone believe it, I'm actually giving this away!

My son has been begging me to keep it.
With this huge screen, playing his games has been an awesome experience.
My hubby will miss seeing his favourite sports stars, enlarged sizes.

TV appears to be an elegant seamless sheet of glass

Invisible Speakers
tuned by world renown audio expert Mark Levinson

Vivid Experience
Super Bright Panel, a mini movie theatre in your home

The most expensive prize ever offered by a blogger
(she gotta be good!) :D

LG is a strong supporter of new media. LG sponsors my mobile phones.
I love my LG Shine even though I was given the LG Secret.

LG can consider sponsoring all my household electrical appliances......
Make it a LG house.

Any other sponsors are welcomed. hehehe.....

Life's Good!


How to win this 60" LG HD Plasma TV!!

15th Sept - 25th Oct 2008

赢取60寸LG HD等离子电视!

Closing on 25th October 2008!

Going...... going......

3 days left

Only 24 25 35 entries!? That's easy to win!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Villian Bashing - Ruby Tuesday

White Tiger Temple

With the economic crisis and impending recession, many temples in Singapore are crowded with worshippers. I had some foreign friends visiting last week and they specifically requested to visit the temple to whack villians, ensuring a year of good health, good luck and peace.

The 'villians' here refers to those who tell tales, gossip, spread rumours, ........ do stuff in order to hurt others.

A piece of streaky pork belly in the tiger's mouth

I prepared the offerings and brought them to the temple in the wee hours of the morning when there were lesser people.

They took out a piece of lard to smear on the white tiger's mouth and offered a duck egg, while chanting "Good people to approach me, 'small' people to leave me alone." (好人近身,小人远离。) It is believed the food would keep the tiger's mouth busy and not bite them. hehe.....

whack the villians!

I bought cut outs of paper dolls and my friends whacked them hard with their filthy shoes. As they whacked, they called out the names of the persons intended, cursing and swearing at them and even their family members. When they're done, they threw the paper doll into the fire. Sending then to Hell. It's a great way to release pent-up emotions!

To the believers, it's therapeutic and helps in healing their hurt egos. It's cheaper than seeing a shrink though. And lesser assaults or murder cases....

Hundreds of red lanterns illuminating the temple

EastCoastLife n LG Contest

Win a 60" LG HD Plasma TV!!

15th Sept - 25th Oct 2008

赢取60寸LG HD等离子电视!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Golf Clinic - WS #46

MP Lim Biow Chuan demonstrating his swing

Fancy learning golf? Golf is not a game for the elderly. I gatecrashed a golf clinic for Katong Grassroot members at Marina Bay Golf Course. heehee...

Instructor Nasarudin demonstrating a basic move

Participants learnt to pitch and do a full swing at the driving range.

On the green with instructor Lip Ooi

Fancy night golf with scenic views

MP Lim Biow Chuan, Katong Grassroot Members n coaches

Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.

Arnold Palmer

I can execute a deadly swing. :)

We have come to the end of Eastcoastlife/LG Contest.

I like LG's management principles, "Creating value for customers" and "Respecting human dignity."

I want to create value for my readers and sponsors too.

Eastcoastlife/LG Contest

Question No. 10

What does LG stand for?

Win a 60" LG HD Plasma TV!!

15th Sept - 25th Oct 2008

赢取60寸LG HD等离子电视!

Write down your 10 answers and personal particulars on an A4-sized white paper, send to me..... by Slow Mail or you can send your entry form personally to the address below :

EastCoastLife/LG Contest
1 Coleman Street
#02-35 The Adelphi
Singapore 179803

Please give your Full Name (as written in your NRIC and Passport), ID number, Address, Contact Number and email. If you are a blogger, please give your nick and blog url. The winner will be notified by phone.

Good Luck to all contestants!!

Winner will be announced on 26thOctober 2008!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mama-san EastCoastLife

I met up with my female wards at Orchard Road to bring them shopping. There were 8 of them. 5 from China and 3 from Japan. 8 young, pretty and sexy girls in mini skirts and hot pants. We first went to Paragon Shopping Centre and then to Ngee Ann City. Many people took more than a look at us.

In the boutiques, the girls would try some clothes and they would pose for me as I sat waiting for them.

"Mummy, Mummy, look! Is it nice?"

"Mama-san, I think this is too long? No?"

Yes, my wards call me Mummy or Mama-san. I didn't ask them to do that but they just do it. It's ok if they are boys or we are in our homes but when they keep calling me Mummy or Mama-san in the public, people start looking at us in a funny way.

You see, in Singapore the lady in charge of her group of girls in a nightclub or a Karaoke lounge is called Mummy or Mama-san, it is abused in such instances. To many people, it would just mean 'pimp'.

I was reading a magazine while waiting for the girls in a high-end boutique, when a middle-aged man sitting opposite me couldn't contain his curiosity and asked in Cantonese,"You are from which nightclub?"

I was quite annoyed but feeling quite cheeky, I couldn't help teasing him. Showing my most radiant smile, I replied ambiguously,"We are not from a nightclub. They are all university students." Which is true.

At this moment, the girls emerged from the fitting room to show off their choices. I whispered to the girls about the old man and they broke into laughter. Mei suggested 'working up his appetite'.

One by one they started posing in their attire, showing off their youthful assets. I smiled at them and made suggestions and stole glances at the humsup lo (dirty old man). He was loving it! Gleefully, he was enjoying this sideshow, I could almost see him drooling and sprouting a nose bleed. My girls are hot!

Then his mate came out of the fitting room to seek his opinion. She was in her early twenties and of course she could not be compared to my girls. The man wasn't paying much attention to her even as she twirled and turned in front of him. Sensing his loss of interest, she started pouting and glared at us. Silly girl! She should know men better.

My girls went to change and I resumed my reading. The odd couple started bickering. Chris walked in and sat beside me. I told him what happened. And he chided me.

When the girls returned, they saw Chris and addressed him Daddy. I purposely raised my voice, and said "Mr Tan, please pay the bills." Nana, ever the smart girl, immediately got the hint and said,"Thanks Daddy." And there was a chorus of "Thank you, Daddy." And they even hugged him. The old man was stunned and there was disbelief on his face.

Now, Chris was the one who gleefully went to settle the bills.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Canon Celebrates Women in Photography - WW

Participants at the Canon workshop

I'm VERY close to owning a DSLR camera. :P

Women are supposed to play with kitchen gadgets only!? Someone has finally realised (Thank God!) that more women are turning to the more sophisticated and professional DSLR cameras when it comes to photography. Point-and-shoot does not give us the high any more. Hey, it's not just guys who love to play with gadgets these days, you know.

Kelley Cheng, Photography and Creative Director

I pulled strings was invited to this Canon workshop this afternoon. Speaker Kelley Cheng's bio make my eyes popped out. Don't hear from me, I'll email her bio to you. Impressive.

Kelley showed us some of her works. She specialises in art, design and architecture photography but her photos of several international design celebrities are fascinating. Most of her work are like pieces of art. Hauntingly beautiful. I would love to have my portrait taken by her. I wonder how she would see me. hmm.....

Jino Lee

Next speaker, Jino (Canon Singapore's photographer and expert trainer) shared his in-depth product knowledge with us. We received useful tips on choosing our first DSLR, were introduced to the finer points of photography and learnt how to get the most out of a Canon DSLR.

We get to play with these cameras!

At this hands-on workshop, we took our photography skills to the next level. Too bad we could not even steal get its DSLR camera to the lift landing. *bang wall* hehe.....

This babe (Canon EOS1DM3 camera) costs more than S$15,000!

Excuse me while I get my creative juices flowing.... how to lie to my spouse when I bring a Canon home. :P

Singapore bloggers who wish to be invited to such future events and product launches, you can email me.

Don't forget my EastCoastLife/ LG contest. Singapore's one and only LG 60" HD Plasma TV is waiting to be won!! Winner will be announced Next Sunday!