Splitting Branches

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I was looking at a tree along the canal, admiring its thick branching ribbons. How calligraphic they are, these branches, splitting from one to two, then two to more, then more to many more.

They’re ambitious, aren’t they? These branches are always reaching out, seeking for light.

Wait, doesn’t that mean they’re always bashing one another? Trying to keep other branches down so that they can have more sunlight?

Isn’t that why other twigs, weaker branches wither, fall off then die?

What a cruel battle playing out within an organism.

You know, I used to believe in the benign – even benevolent – nature of life. I used to believe that life tends towards order and that cells sing in harmonic hymns, lubricating the wheels of living.

But recent events forced an understanding that life simply is.

It’s about the survival of the fittest. It’s always about power – how to gain more of it and retain it longer. The most powerful branch gets to live while the others fade away.

It's all about natural selection.

It’s never about those fairy tales where we all live together under one roof, parts of a greater whole, happy and hearty. It’s never about the thoughts and emotions of a single belching, farting and snoring homo economicus. It’s never about a human being, or even a lot of human beings.

Life simply is the competition and contestation between species and even within species.

The world is a lot more threatening that many imagined it to be.

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Can Money Buy Us Happiness?

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What's the correlation between possessing money and being happy? Must we have money before we can be happy? If so, how much is sufficient?

Here's a wonderful YouTube clip that explores the dicey relationships we have with money and happiness. Do watch it!

Source credit: AsapScience

Once our basic physical needs - for food, water and shelter - are comfortably met, having more money doesn't correlate with happiness. These expenses vary accordingly to the living standards of different societies. In North America, it is estimated that the threshold for this amount of money is 75,000 USD per annum. This works out to be a monthly salary of 6,250 USD (which is still a rather hefty amount).

Beyond this threshold, however, more money doesn't bring more joy.

This reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In Maslow's pyramid, the largest, most fundamental levels of needs are at the bottom with the need for self-actualisation at the apex.

Source credit: Yahoo! Images
As Maslow explained, we are more than the sum of our physical needs. We need more than just financial resources to feel fulfilled. We need people to cherish us and people whom we can cherish. We need to find our raison d'etre, our purposes for existence, callings that can empower us.

It struck me that, whatever the case, we need to have a certain pool of financial resources that'd free us from worries about the availability of food, shelter and water.

Hence, the conclusion of this question is yes, money can buy us happiness but only to a certain extent.

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Brassavola Nodosa


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The Evolution of Communication

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Mom: Sigh, I'll feed you if you beg the loudest.
Source credit: Britannia
Nestling birds often beg loudly and their parents tend to give them more food. Why do they do this? If chicks that beg the loudest are also the hungriest, then it makes sense for the parents to feed them more. A piece of food given to a hungry chick will increase its survival more than the same piece of food given to a well-fed chick. By doing this, parents have more surviving offspring.

This brings in another important question: if parents give more food to chicks that beg more, why don't well-fed chicks beg as often as they could? After all, consuming more food is always good for a growing baby. There shouldn't be any physiological reason why wed-fed nestlings couldn't make as much noise as hungry ones. This puzzle can be resolved when we realise that begging also has a cost.

Begging not only costs energy but may also attracts predators. The same amount of noise made by two chicks, one hungry and one well-fed, would presumably be equally harmful in attracting predators. But the benefits of the begging would be greater to the hungry chick resulting in its louder and more insistent calls. In contrast, a more well-fed chick doesn't need more food and doesn't wish to make noises that would attract predators (which would eat them up); so, they keep quiet.

Paradoxically, it is the costs of making the signal that can keep begging an honest signal of need. Here's one question to consider: if begging had no cost, would chicks beg continuously? How would parents respond then?

Separate studies have shown that step-siblings tend to beg for food louder and more frequently. Most birds - 90% of them - have extra-pair copulation; they play around with other birds that aren't their social partners; they're promiscuous individuals who sleep around.

As such, their children are genetically less related. They care less about the survival of their step-siblings. They make louder noises when hungry even though such noises may attract crows that'd have them for lunch.

"I'll beg louder since you ain't my brother!"
Source credit: Indiana State University
Studying animals can grant us insights into our human behavior.

The more genetically related we are, the more we tend to care for one another. Perhaps this may account for why we can't ignore the cries of our blood relatives for help.

In life, there're trade-offs. We often measure what is costly or beneficial to us relative to the people around us. Perhaps that's why we're always comparing, always so competitive?

If everything comes without a price, without a cost, if everything comes without checks and balances, then our society may just devolve into a morass of vices.

In these big-mouthed, wide-eyed, somewhat ugly nestlings, we see humanity; we see ourselves.


Reference: APS209 Animal Behavior, notes on Evolution of Communication, University of Sheffield

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22 Quotes That Reveal The Nature of Art

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What is art? How do we define it? What qualities should an artist have?

Many established artists and writers have struggled to answer these questions. Through their reflections, we may find some answers and perhaps, more questions.

On the Lyricism of Art

“To be an artist is to believe in life.” Henry Moore

“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.” Auguste Rodin

“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Andy Warhol

“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.” Toni Morrison

On the Aesthetics of Art

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for.” Georgia O'Keeffe

“The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” Lucian Freud

“The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it.” Banksy

“Painting is easy when you don't know how, but very difficult when you do.” Edgar Degas

“There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Pablo Picasso

Being Proactive

“I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.” Vincent van Gogh

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Andy Warhol

“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Chuck Close

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Being Smug 

“When I was a child my mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier, you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll be the pope.' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.” Pablo Picasso

"There comes a moment in everyone's life when they realise they adore me." Salvador Dali

"Each morning, when I wake up, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali. What is this fantastic creature going to do today, I ask myself. What prodigious works of beauty will he create?" Salvador Dali

"There are some days when I think I'm going to die from an overdose of satisfaction." Salvador Dali

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” Robert Hughes

Being Practical

“The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” Piet Mondrian

“Life obliges me to do something, so I paint.” Rene Magritte

“I paint for myself. I don't know how to do anything else, anyway. Also I have to earn my living, and occupy myself.” Francis Bacon

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all.” Michelangelo


There're artists who believe in themselves and artists who doubt themselves. There're artists who believe in the redemptive beauty of art and artists who feel that creating art is just another activity they do.

It seems that the world of art and artists is as diverse as any other world.

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See you again, Mr Luggage Bag (I hope) + Thanks to the many helpful strangers

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Today, I arrived in Croatia, tired, sticky and famished. The good news was the flight went without a hitch. The bad news was my luggage remained safely in France.

What a strange feeling, that moment of realisation. To be the only one standing around, waiting for my luggage. To have this sneaking suspicion that someone took my bag. To tear through the departure hoping that someone took this check-in case by mistake, that no one stole it. To realise that the 6 months worth of clothes, books, stationery, toiletries and trinkets were separated from me, maybe forever. What a strange feeling.

There was a sense of wretchedness, naturally. How suay can a person be? How unlucky can he be?

Then, I paused for a while, counted my blessings, and realised that I've been fortunate thus far. It has been eye-opening, this trip, and many people - familiar faces as well as unfamiliar faces - have coloured it vibrantly. 

In the morning, while I struggled to pull my luggage to the Marseille airport, I was perfectly drained, the way spaghetti would be drained after being thoroughly cooked. Dragging that heavy suitcase over the hilly terrain of this French city wasn't easy. The entire city seemed to be covered with dog poo - easy enough to avoid for a streetwalker not lugging a 20.3 kg weight. One could always tap dance through the poo-covered street. 

Since I was carrying a fair bit of luggage, I couldn't tap dance. I moved more like a water buffalo.

Perhaps, the loss of my check-in luggage at the Marseille airport is a sign from the cosmic powers. A sign to forsake the heaviness shrouding me, to move through life lightly, to not be shackled down by a bag of too-practical clothing, too-challenging reading materials and too-decorative gifts. 

I felt a sense of relief. Hopefully, the Ryanair airline would send my luggage back to Singapore for me. 

Along the street in Croatia, I found 20 lipa, the equivalent of 2 Singapore cents. Maybe I wasn't that wretched after all. Luck could be on my side. 
*
I'm awake now, since 2.45 am, wearing cheap clothes from a charity store. They're musty but dry, scratchy actually. All in all, quite uncomfortable. 

Poems can't visit at such unearthly hours - maybe the muse is sleeping - so I'm writing this post, along with the following note to thank people who've helped me yesterday:

A French man, walked passed me, overshot by almost 10 meters before turning back to offer advice to get to the train station.

A Croatian lady told me that the main station I needed to get off at was the first stop, not the last stop. She overheard my conversation with a Sarawakian man and kindly interjected.

A Sarawakian man, Arlzev, whom I could converse in Singaporean-Malaysian English with - what a comfort! - and we managed to drop basic Malay words in our chat. Orang Perancis, Anjing, Kotoran.  

Another Croatian lady who pointed me in the right direction and taught me how to say thank-you in the Croatian language, 'hvala'. 

So many 'hvala's to you for reading this :]

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Les Calanques de Marseille

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The Calanques in Marseilles, France, are steep-walled bays formed by carbonate strata along the Mediterranean coast. 

As a solitary traveller who set out to explore this natural wonder, I was determined, desirous and lost. An old man approached me when I wandered about the bus stop, a large map of the city clutched in my hands, feeling like a weed that didn't belong in a royal garden. 

He spoke rapidly in French. I shrugged and made some weird noises before stabbing my finger at the map. "Here, I want to go here." He turned around to ask two other aunties for directions before grabbing my left arm to drag me towards the correct bus stop. Woah, very friendly!

Because I had to be prudent, I actually patted all my pockets, to ensure that my phone and wallet were still with me, to assure myself that this friendly old man wasn't a pickpocket. Guilt gnawed at me when I realised that all my valuables were safe.

The bus to Luminy - bus 21 - was packed with people like madeleines in a tin container. Two Argentinian ladies helped me on this treacherous journey into the great unknown. Bellfina (which means 'dolphin' in Spanish) and Lucia (which is just a Spanish name) were really bubbly people. Between us, we knew English, French and Spanish. 

It was shocking when the bus driver asked everyone to get down and take the next bus because he wasn't on schedule. We had to rely on the poor-English the driver spoke and the poor-French that Bellfina spoke before coming to the dismal conclusion that the transport system in France was truly unique. Buses, at least those in Argentina and Singapore, don't usually chase busloads of people off.



On the way inwards, the winds blew insistently as we strolled along the pebbled walkway. There was a serene power to every breathe that enveloped us. 

There was this wild energy and vibrancy to every molecule that bounced against my skin. It was as though I could feel every minute particle. 

Where the sky ended and the sea began, we couldn't be sure. The views were simply so amazing that we couldn't care to be sure. The waters were shifting palettes of turquoise and emerald. 


At the beach, I bid farewell to the two ladies because I wanted to try plein air painting while they hoped to sun tan.

Lucia and Bellfina, they made the treacherous
1.5 hr walk inwards bearable.
It didn't cease to amaze me that these people really enjoyed tanning themselves. Didn't they know that overexposure to ultraviolet radiation would cause skin cancers and glaucoma?!


It was a sublime experience, to feel the power of Nature coursing in with every breathe I took.


On the way out, I took a break in a sheltered nook. The sun was blazing and I was still dressed for a mild winter. Another university student from Nice sneaked in when she saw me sitting on a boulder.

She spoke about a 'book that is published daily' and how she read that some Japanese schoolchildren committed suicide when they didn't win a competition.

Book that is published daily? I made a face. What could that book be?

She paused for a while before screaming excitedly, "newspapers!"

"French people are lazy. They don't want to study, they take drugs. Not like Asians, who feel it's strange not to work." She was one talkative Law student.

She also expressed her shame in her poor English. When she visited Germany last year, she realised that the people there spoke French as fluently as her even though they have only been learning French for 2 years.  She sighed, "I've been learning English for four years and can only string broken sentences together."

It was interesting, this conversation with a French student majoring in Law. So many opportunities to explore the interface between different cultures and the stereotypes that one culture might have of another.

Besides, if I didn't meet her, I might still be lost in the wilderness now.

All in all, this visit to Marseille has affirmed a belief in the wondrous, untamed beauty of Nature and the milk of human kindness that is within us all.

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Why Our Government Is Losing It

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Our Singapore Government is never blatant, but always obvious. It doesn't state or list what it wants. But, if we look carefully enough, its intentions are obvious, even startlingly clear.

In January this year, filmmaker Lynn Lee interviewed two SMRT bus drivers who were said to be key instigators of Singapore’s first strike in 26 years. The bus drivers alleged that they had been beaten and threatened by police officers. After Ms Lee released snippets of the interviews on her website, she was invited to have coffee at the Internal Affairs Office, an independent body within the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In February, Dr Cherian George, a well-respected academic, was denied tenure by the Nanyang Techological University (NTU). Dr George, incidentally, discusses socio-political issues related to Singapore with illuminating wit and brevity. The lack of transparency on this denial of tenure has prompted four senior faculty members from NTU itself to pen a letter of support for Dr George.

More recently, Nizam Ismail withdrew from the Boards of Directors of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) and Centre of Research on Malay and Islamic Affairs (RIMA). He was informed that two Ministers “were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2) my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media.” He was also advised to “take it easy” and refrain from such politically-inclined activities lest the Government withdraw all funding from AMP. According to Mr Nizam, this was why he withdrew from both the AMP and RIMA Boards.

Equally recent was the arrest of Leslie Chew, an online comic artist who runs Demon-cratic Singapore, “a totally fictional comic with entirely fictional characters based on wholly fictional events in a fictional country”. Mr Chew has been warned twice over his comic strips, one that refers to the removal of a judge and the other that speaks about the Malay population.

These disparate incidents suggest a government desperate to control the online media, desperate to stifle any voice that might be remotely construed as dissenting. And why just pick on outspoken individuals? Why not simply ensure everyone 'read the right thing'? Say, have a ruling that online websites reporting on Singapore put up a 50,000 SGD bond. If these sites ever run afoul of any rule that the Media Development Authority arbitrarily decides, just confiscate their money lah.

Our government, naturally, has the rights to defend itself against allegations. In fact, as a citizen, I’d expect our government to. But is there a need to react with both guns blazing, is there a need to rely on legal threats, withdrawal of resources and discrediting?

Why not engage us? Why not reason with us? Why not understand our concerns?

Last December, I had interviewed Mr Chew for the Kent Ridge Common. When I found out that he was being investigated for allegedly seditious acts, I dropped him an email to express my hope that all this would resolve quickly and amicably.

After sending that single email, doubts began to surface. Isn’t Mr Chew’s computer, phone and hard drive confiscated? What if the government were scrolling through his emails right now, searching for his supporters? Would I be implicated?

For a moment, my humchee-ness scrambled my thoughts and I couldn’t think clearly. Then, I realized that this is exactly what the government wants. To make people uncomfortable about expressing divergent opinions online. Our Singapore Government is smart. It doesn't have to be explicit about what it wants. All it has to do is to propagate a climate of fear and expect Singaporeans to cower. It is never blatant, but always obvious.

Such incidents contribute to an atmosphere of uncertainty, turning the political momentum against the current, governing political party. But there’s no reason for such incidents to become public fiascoes, no need for one fiasco after another! The governing political party can use these incidents to their advantage. Instead of going after their critics with the standard methods of legal threats, withdrawal of resources and discrediting, they can, instead, recognise their efforts.

Come up with an "Outstanding Singaporean with Visible Online Presence" (OSVOP) award or another phrase with nicer-sounding acronyms. Thank the critics for spotting something they might have overlooked. Through this, they would have demonstrated that they are humble, they have changed, they are listening and addressing our concerns.

By relying on those tried-tested-doesn’t-work-that-well-anymore methods, critics would feel that their concerns aren’t addressed. It is conceivable that they’d just repeat their concerns in various ways no matter how many voices are suppressed. (Recognising the efforts of online commentators with such awards might in fact discredit them as independent voices, but that’s an altogether different issue.)

Instead of viewing online media as antagonistic, our government should recognize that we all share a common aspiration for Singapore, and in that common aspiration, find ways for different voices to come together and sing a symphony.

Look, I'm thankful for the education that the PAP-led government has accorded me. I'm thankful that I could converse with Chinese and English people and learn from them without a gaping language barrier in between. I'm thankful for an education that has allowed me to write this very post here. I'm thankful for so many things that the government has done. The provision of healthcare, the provision of potable water in our taps, ensuring that Singaporeans have jobs - very thankful for so many things.

But I'm finding it a challenge to love a government that provides for its people but doesn't love them.


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Memes for the Science Students

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We, the nerds who secretly appreciate Science and play Pokemon, shall find a common joy in the memes below.

So that's how our modern light bulb came about!
All images come from Trust Me, I'm a Biologist.
This tree would be quite a pleasure to have in the garden.
Note to self: include in the lecture notes
for students in the future.
If you ever did science research, this would be something that
you'd relate to.
The symbol for the elemental helium is He.

And my favourite:

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Dying is Meaningless (and so is Living)

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The Fault In Our Stars is even more resonant the second time I read it. The first reading quaked my perspectives on dying. The subsequent reading crumbled my beliefs about living.

This story is about two teenagers with cancer. The girl, whose cancer is in remission, is attempting to counsel her boyfriend whose cancer is spreading throughout his body.

Here's an excerpt that is particularly poignant:

"You get to battle cancer," I said. "That is your battle. And you'll keep fighting," I told him. I hated it when people tried to build me up to prepare for battle, but I did it to him, anyway. "You'll... you'll... live your best life today. This is your war now." I despised myself for the cheesy sentiment, but what else do I have?

"Some war," he said dismissively. "What am I at war with? My cancer. My cancer is me. The tumours are made of me. They're made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner."

"Gus," I said. I couldn't say anything else. He was too smart for the kinds of solace I could offer.

"Okay," he said. But it wasn't. After a moment, he said, "if you go to the Rijksmuseum, which I really wanted to - but who are we kidding, neither of us can walk through a museum. But anyway, I looked at the collection online before we left. If you were to go, and hopefully someday you will, you would see a lot of dead paintings. You'd see Jesus on the cross, and you'd see a dude getting stabbed in the neck, and you'd see people dying at sea and in battle and a parade of martyrs. But Not. One. Single. Cancer. Kid. Nobody biting it from the plague or smallpox or yellow fever or whatever, because there is no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. There is no honor in dying of."

- The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green, pages 216 and 217

The second reading resonated more in the wake of a friend's suicide. There is no honor in dying of, there is no honor in dying of nothing.

I had been trying so hard, trying not to turn his death into philosophical musings, trying not to be angry at him. Trying not to be angry at him for not approaching me, for not approaching any of his friends, any of the people who love him. Trying not to be angry at him for rattling my faith in a benevolent world. Who am I to turn his death into a philosophical exercise about living? Who am I to turn his death into a blogpost?

The Fault In Our Stars reminded me that we will all die. Death is inevitable the moment we opened our eyes and wailed as purple, squirming babies. Death is written into our horoscopes, our stars. My friend had merely chosen to leave earlier.

We're all molecules that had came together in one great serendipitous moment and are merely waiting to explode in another serendipitous moment. It's this finite period between these two moments that defines the beauty, energy and urgency of our existence.

In this finite period between our implosion into and explosion out of being, we ought to make the world a little brighter, a little happier, a little lighter. If we can't do that, at least we should try to leave without scarring Earth too much.

Source credit: NPR Books

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