Sunday 01 July 2012

In Search Of The Higgs Boson

Days from now, scientists at l’Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) are expected to make the long-awaited announcement confirming the discovery of the Higgs boson. Named after Peter Higgs (though credit must also be given to Satyendra Nath Bose), the Higgs boson is an elementary subatomic particle theorized to exist by the current Standard Model of particle physics. According to this theory, the associated Higgs field is assumed to govern the mechanism by which mass in elementary particles is derived. In 1998, CERN began construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), with a goal (among others) to detect the remnants of the Higgs boson (which itself would decay too rapidly to be detected) that would have been created by high-energy particle collisions inside the particle accelerator. Previously, limited experiments were able to exclude ranges of energy and mass that could be carried by the Higgs boson. However, the exact characteristics of the particle remain undefined to date. In popular culture, the Higgs boson has also been dubbed the “God particle”, lending it both a metaphysical and a religious significance that it neither deserves nor warrants. Failure to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson may imply that the current fundamental theories of physics are not correct. Indeed, the discovery (or not) of the Higgs boson will mark a watershed moment for science, when we strive to question the most basic assumptions that we make about our physical world. Yet, regardless of the subsequent findings, this research will also represent a triumphal moment for science, for we are destined to gain a deeper understanding of how our universe works.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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Sunday 01 January 2012

With Age Comes Wisdom?

The proverb “with age comes wisdom” lends the supposition that old age is a symbol of sagacity. Yet, I question the wisdom (pardon the pun) of this advice. I believe, rather, that age is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for wisdom, even though their coexistence is viewed as a truism in most cultures. For example, in many ancient tribes, elders are regarded as wise teachers who possess great virtues or values. Today, many religious figures, philosophical thinkers, and world leaders are revered for their wisdom in their spiritual, moral, or political beliefs. However, it is a mistake to equate wisdom with intellect, for wisdom encompasses more than the mere acquisition of knowledge but reflects a deep understanding of human nature. Indeed, contemporary interpretation of wisdom, relying on a scientific framework based on psychoanalytic and cognitive theories, asserts that wisdom can only be achieved when there is a mastery of the cognitive, reflective, and affective domains that together represent the human condition. In Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, for instance, wisdom is only attained in the final (eight) stage of life when ego integrity is won over despair as we are forced to look back at our lives in retrospection. Most recently, the Berlin Wisdom Project have found little evidence that wisdom necessarily increases with age. Worse yet, there may be a critical age beyond which wisdom begins to diminish, perhaps due to declines in mental functions associated with aging. Regardless of how wisdom is defined and measured, it is likely that individuals who believe they have attained wisdom are ones who fail to truly grasp this virtue—as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi once said, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.”

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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Thursday 01 September 2011

The Wisdom Of Crowdsourcing

In social media, crowdsourcing has become a common and accepted practice to elicit ideas and feedbacks from the public-at-large online. The anonymity and accessibility of the internet have removed many barriers that would otherwise prevent this mass collaboration. In crowdsourcing, an inquiry is broadcast to an open community of participants (known as the crowd) who are tasked to respond back with information. Although the term crowdsourcing was first coined in only 2006, the first practice of crowdsourcing likely occurred centuries earlier. In the 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary leveraged the public’s help to index all words in the English language by accepting submissions from volunteering contributors. In 2009, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) sponsored a competition in which teams were encouraged to leverage crowdsourcing in order to be the first one to locate a set of geomarkers that were previously hidden across the United States. Regardless of the medium wherein such practice is being used, the success of crowdsourcing depends entirely on the good will of the community and the motivation of its participants to contribute to the greater good of the crowd. Without this collective wisdom, crowdsourcing yields merely an incoherent collection of noise that is neither informative nor illuminating.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Sunday 01 May 2011

Disaster Readiness: 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake And Tsunami In Japan

In March 2011, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Japan east of the Oshika Peninsula in Tōhoku. Within minutes, the quake triggered an unstoppable tsunami that swept through Japan’s northern islands. Both the earthquake and the tsunami caused catastrophic damages to many parts of the regions hit by the disasters. The resultant death toll, which currently exceeded 14,000, was the largest casualty from a single event to hit Japan since World War II. Over 300,000 people had been displaced or evacuated so far from the affected areas. Furthermore, the Fukushima nuclear accident that occurred after the quake had escalated to become the second largest nuclear accident in history. The Japanese government estimated the total cost of the damage from the disasters to be approximately ¥16-25 trillions.

The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami attracted immediate worldwide media attention. Much of the news had rightly been focused on the humanitarian crisis that followed. Some media, however, were quick to criticize Japan on its disaster readiness, citing that the country was ill prepared to defend itself against such disasters. Yet, these critics ignored the fact that Japan was actually one of the few nations in the world most prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis. In fact, if it were not for Japan’s substantive infrastructure which was built to withstand these disasters, the devastation that would have otherwise occurred would likely be substantially worse. Moreover, the relative lack of large-scaled rioting and looting across the country was a testament of the restraint, dignity, and perseverance practiced by the Japanese people, even when they were facing extreme adversities.

Undoubtedly, lessons would be identified someday from this tragic event that could serve to improve a nation’s readiness to deal with catastrophic natural disasters. Notwithstanding this criticism, cynical outsiders who dwelt on unfairly criticizing Japan should first examine their own country’s readiness to deal with similar disasters before blindly asserting that their country would fare better.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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Saturday 01 January 2011

The Illusion Of Control

We seek, wherever possible, to be the masters of our domain. We are comforted by the knowledge that we are in control of the world around us. We feel secured with the realization that our action or inaction can exert a measurable influence on our surroundings. It matters even little how small such change may be, for we still feel satisfied simply knowing that we have some power to reshape our own reality. Yet, our emotional needs to be in control frequently blind us from the truth that we are sometimes at the beckons of others who truly have the power to control our world. Thus, any control which we perceive to have of our own lives is at best only an illusion—however comforting this illusion may be.

For example, it is known that the thermostats in many offices and hotel rooms are fakes, placed there solely for the false benefits of their occupants to manipulate so they may believe that they can adjust the heating and cooling of the building space. Likewise, the close buttons in many elevators are mere dummies, such that pressing them will not shorten the time until the doors will close. Perhaps the most pervasive implementation of these placebo switches is the pedestrian signal buttons installed in many busy city street intersections. With the emergence of centralized traffic control, most of these semi-actuated signals no longer function. Pushing the buttons (even repeatedly) will not change the speed by which the pedestrian traffic lights have been programmed to change. Even so, many unwitting pedestrians continue to push these buttons, deriving some satisfaction that somehow their small action may make a subtle difference.

Everyday, we crave for control of our small lives. When this control is not possible for real, we are quick to accept as substitute any illusion which may be proof that we are the masters of our domain.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Friday 01 October 2010

Cynicism Versus Skepticism

I am appalled by the indifference shown by some individuals between cynicism and skepticism. They habitually question with a jaded negativity the integrity and professed motives of others, and they reject without due justification others’ values and opinions that are necessarily different from those of their own. Often, they mistakenly believe that they are the best judges of society’s ethical or moral standards and that their nonconformity to the established institutions serves only to reflect their superior intellect and character.

Further, these individuals are quick to defend their practice of cynicism as healthy skepticism, incorrectly believing that they are one and the same. While both may be used to question current thinking or beliefs, blanket cynicism is all but a cowardly shield that is used to try to hide the cynics’ own insecurity of the world around them of which they understand very little. For them, it is an easy escape to adopt to remain morally superior by senselessly denouncing all societal conventions. Moreover, cynicism requires no recognition of the boundary between truth and lie, fact and fiction, reasoning and ignorance. It demands little from its practitioners, who are seemingly comforted by the empty knowledge which their indifference brings.

Skeptics investigate to search out the real answers. Cynics believe in their own answers without even looking.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Thursday 01 July 2010

Friending In The Digital Age

We are social creatures. With few exceptions, we prefer to be in the company of others with whom we can share our interests, our likes, and our dislikes. Over time, we make “friends” with those whom we consider to be trustworthy, sincere, and like-minded. We share personal information with our friends, through which we develop an emotional bond with them beyond that of mere acquaintances. However, the advent of online social media has redefined how we make “friends” in the digital age. In particular, the rising popularity of social networks has allowed those who choose to participate to expand their social reach and make quick connections with other individuals who have also chosen to participate. Yet, the ease by which such a relationship can develop undermines the standard by which we uphold to define a friendship. Making a “friend” on a social network often means merely sending an unsolicited request to an individual and waiting for the individual to approve the request to be included on a “friend” list. The act inherently bypasses all established etiquettes that otherwise screen out individuals whose motive for wanting to be a “friend” is neither sincere nor honorable. More importantly, defining our social reach by the number of “friends” we make on these social networks ignores the quality of the friendships by which we should instead judge the success of our social net worth. In other words, we must not be blinded by the lure of collecting “friends” in the virtual world and ignore the value of making “friends” in the real one.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Friends • Under Tech • Under World
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Thursday 01 April 2010

2010 In English, Please?

I am amused by the whimsical debate among language enthusiasts on how to properly pronounce the name of the year 2010 in English. Amid the many variants currently in use, two pronunciations seem to be most favored: two-thousand-ten and twenty-ten. Although this dilemma in pronunciation may merely boil down to a matter of style choice, it nonetheless attests to the flexibility of a living language that adapts to the needs and tastes of its users. On one hand, according to the Gregorian calendar system, given that each year is represented in succession by a sequence of increasing integer numbers in an arithmetic progression, the pronunciation for a year’s name ought to follow the same convention of that for a numeric figure. On the other hand, since a calendar year stands for more than just a number but as a symbol of human history, its pronunciation ought to befit the cultural context (such as Y2K for the year 2000) and give preference to brevity over sesquipedalianism. Linguists also argue that the phonetics of the English language favor speaking of the year with a name that conforms to an iambic rhythm. By contrast, in Chinese (my native language), each digit of the year is pronounced separately, so that no concatenation is used to give rise to this pronunciation corundum. Most ironically, it is likely that the calendar year in question would have long ended before the accompanying debate would ever be settled.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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Friday 01 January 2010

Y2K Crisis: A Decade Later

It was exactly 10 years ago from today that the so-called Y2K bug threatened to cause catastrophic computer system failure worldwide. The bug was attributed to an oversight in computer programming in which dates were stored as data in an ambiguous format such that many software were unable to differentiate between years in different millennia that shared the same last two digits. As the countdown loomed closer to 1 January 2000 (when the rollover would occur), both public and private sectors began to escalate their efforts with unprecedented assiduity in a desperate attempt to fix affected software for which a malfunction would threaten our global security or economy. At the same time, the prospect that critical city services and infrastructures might collapse at the turn of the millennium because of a peculiar software glitch fueled growing fear among the public, many of whom had scarce understanding of the true nature of the underlying problem.

Fortunately, with few exceptions, the Y2K crisis turned out to be a non-event. No globally significant major computer system failure occurred. Proponents argued that the absence of a catastrophe was prima facie proof of the success of the preemptive measures taken to address the problem. Opponents argued that the crisis was largely overblown and the panic expressed by the public was mostly unnecessary. Skeptics also claimed that countries which had invested much less intensive remediation effort apparently experienced no more Y2K-related problems than countries which had invested much more.

It is unlikely that we will ever know the full potential impact of the Y2K crisis. The truth, however, likely lies somewhere in between the opposing speculations. Regardless, the Y2K crisis has served to warn us of the danger in our dependence on technology and, more importantly, teach us that indeed an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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Sunday 01 November 2009

Publicity Stunt And Crying Wolf

The infamous claim by celebrity artist Andy Warhol that everyone will be “famous for fifteen minutes” underscores our incessant obsession and allure with fame. In an age when mass media are too easily lured by the drama of sensational news, a few unscrupulous individuals will indubitably conspire to take advantage of the public’s goodwill to draw attention to themselves for personal gains. Publicity stunts are not a new affair, though: advertisers, celebrities, and politicians have long engaged in carefully staged campaigns to attract media attention to their superfluous causes. Most of these stunts are tongue-in-cheek by nature and are no more than harmless media pranks. Yet, when immoral perpetrators deliberately waste public resources as means to further their hoaxes, they do more than just defrauding the community but take away scarce resources that may be needed by others elsewhere. Undoubtedly, the press must share a part of this blame, for it frequently fails to investigate critically on the legitimacy of such stories before giving them the due attention that they may not deserve. Above all, these unwanted distractions destroy what little is left of our empathy toward each other, turning all of us into uncaring cynics against anyone who seeks our help. Indeed, when the boy cries wolf one too many times, not only will his cries for help be ignored by others when he is finally confronted by the fierce beast, so will the cries of all other poor boys who are truly in dire danger but are now left to fend for their own in an unsympathetic world.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under World
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