Friday, December 19, 2014

Of Terrorism, Delusion and Faith

This week, the killing of two innocent Australians by a Muslim gunman in the Sydney hostage crisis has shoved reluctant Australians right into the spotlight of global terrorism. Prior to this, Australians have always felt like a safe spectator due to the country's seclusion from the rest of the world. Terrorism is something you associate with USA, Afghanistan and the Middle East; not with the laid-back, easy-going country where an excellent welfare system keeps most people at peace. Despite the relatively low mortality count in the context of the macabre history of terrorism, this Sydney chapter is turning into a watershed incident. It heralds the era of Australia finally facing Islamic terrorism in its own soil.

Now, religion extremism is nothing new; in fact, wars waged in the name of religion are as old as religion itself. There is a popular sentiment that our generation is living through the brunt of religion extremism in recent years, however I argue that this merely reflects the globalised and decentralised nature of the modern warfare, and perhaps the freshness of our memory.

Australia has done as well as any country could have done in the face of the crisis. While there are the unavoidable Islamophobes who lambast the entire religion, most people have aligned themselves with the #illridewithyou sentiment, a grass-root movement which started with a woman offering to walk with a Muslim woman who removed her religious headdress to avoid becoming a target of Islamophobic sentiment in the wake of the hostage situation. Islamic leaders in Australia unanimously voiced their renouncement of the terrorist act, while a few mosques around the country organised interfaith vigils attended by people of all faiths.

All these are truly positive development towards the resolution of religious conflicts. Even though we might not see it directly, someone somewhere who might grow up to become a terrorist, is being touched by the gesture of human kindness, and would now be a moderate human being with appreciation of unfettered empathy.

This, however, does not address the core question: Why does religion make people kill, and what can we do to stop it? Many answers have been offered, ranging from the defensive "religion does not kill, people kill using religion as the pretext", to the outright accusation of Islam being based on violent tenets, while blissfully ignoring the similarly violent verses in other major religious scriptures. Some militant atheists go as far as claiming that religion is inherently bad for our civilisation.

Throughout the years, I have had my fair share of dabbling with religion-talks, mostly through online forums. I grew through different phases. From the uninitiated pseudo-Buddhist, I morphed variously into the undecided, the almost-militant atheist, and finally becoming the comfortable agnostic. Through the exchanges I had with people of various faiths and non-faiths, I became fascinated by the concept of "faith".

Faith is at the core of almost every religion. It means complete trust. It means a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. In some cases, it even means a persistent belief despite evidence to the contrary. The latter also happens to be the definition of the word "delusion".

Within the context of religions, faith is seen as a virtue. In many settings, the unshakable belief is indeed the most valuable thing about religion. In the face of uncertainty, knowing that the heavenly Father is up there hearing your prayer and guiding you into the light would give anyone unbelievable power and hope. In a similar scenario, a militant materialist atheist could only count on the emotionless statistics and probability, in a universe governed only by the ruthless laws of physics. We are just a bag of molecules with some neural synapses forming this thing we call "consciousness", evolving through generations just to propagate our genes, apparently. How boring and how meaningless.

All of us would have heard some versions of sermons where we are encouraged to hold strong to our faith even when it is shaken, to believe when the belief is challenged. Time and again, we are drilled into our minds that only the faithful is a good believer. Apart from some rare exceptions such as Buddhism, few religions in this world encourage its believers to question the veracity of its teaching.

Unfortunately, faith can sometimes transform into delusion, and delusion is the father of much human depravity. One could argue that even if one's faith turns out to be ultimately untrue, there's no harm in believing in something good. And this is right most of the time. Even if Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion turn out to be a huge fairy tale and there's no God or afterlife, many good things would have come out from the good followers of major religions during their times on Earth, as they live their lives based on faith.

On the other hand, living our lives based on absolute faith could also make us do horrible things. It is no secret that both the Bible and the holy Quran contain verses which condone and encourage the alienation and killing of non-believers. In response to these violent verses, the peaceful believers often quote other verses which encourage acceptance and co-existence; but this does not prevent some other "faithful" believers to interpret the violent verses literally and act accordingly. Suicidal terrorists' willingness to kill themselves in the act is unthinkable for many of us, but to them it is all natural as they KNOW that they will be rewarded with martyrdom and bountiful awards in the eternal life. Through a lifetime of indoctrination, these people have lost the innate ability to think "what if I am wrong".

I argue that absolute faith is bad and should be discouraged. Even though we do not outright promote it or admit it, rational believers already renounce absolute faith. When you do not attack your neighbour of different faith, you are no longer blindly faithful - you allow the secular ethics of "thou shalt not harm others" to trump the many verses which ask you to kill the non-believers. Even the moderate religious leaders openly admit that they sometimes question the existence of God. Questioning is not a bad thing, it is what make us human, and it is what makes us good.

In the face of religious extremism, we are so used to religious moderates from both sides claiming that "these terrorists do not represent my religion". I think that saying so is not truly honest - yes, the terrorists do not represent the moderate brand of your religion, but it still is an expression and interpretation of the religion. We only call them "extremists" because we the moderates have decided to gloss over the violent aspects of our religions with our peaceful intentions.

At the end of the day, I am not arrogant enough to tell people how and what to believe. However, I do hope that we start teaching our children to question, and to always accept the possibility that "I could be wrong". Bertrand Russells hit the nail on the head when he said, "Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality." If he is alive today, I imagine he could have also said that "Not to be absolutely certain is the key to curbing religious fanaticism, and to reduce blood shed in the name of Gods".


Monday, August 04, 2014

Is This Photoshopped?

Ever since photoshop was invented, it has become commonplace for people to ask "Is this photoshopped" whenever they see a photo which is "too good to be true". It is sometimes annoying for photography enthusiasts to come across this question. While it may not be the actual intention, such question could be taken as an insinuation that the photographer is not as skillful as initially thought.

Just imagine a chef who's asked "Did you put MSG in?" for every nice dish he has prepared.

The fact is, I photoshop [see note] the vast majority of my photos that I publish online these days, and it is not something I need to hide.

Recently I posted a photo on social media which I was quite happy with. It was taken in Tasmanian winter from Hobart Waterfront, which is conveniently just a few minutes' walk from my residence here in this seaside town. This is my result: (yes, the "photoshopped" version)

A good friend of mine immediately asked "Is this photoshopped?". While I did not take much offence from this usual line of questioning, I was glad to use opportunity to explore the fact that photoshopping a photo is not always the same as "cheating".

This is the original, straight-out-of-camera version of the photo above:


It is already a pretty decent shot, and one that I would have been happy enough to publish in my social media. To produce this shot I had the following combination
  • Weather: It's Tasmanian winter where the Mount Wellington is snow-capped (it could have been more densely capped but I might just have to try another time). The cloud has also been kind enough to not obscure the summit. 
  • Time: Sunset (or sunrise) is the best time to bring out the best colours of a landscape. 
  • Equipment: Any semi-decent camera on a tripod would have been able to produce this photo, although having a good body and a good lens probably helped produce the best quality possible for a given scene. I use Canon 5D mark II paired with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, mounted on a sturdy tripod. It is also shot in RAW to enable the most editing flexibility. 
  • Composition / Location: Rule of third (with more emphasis on the sky). This is taken from a strategic spot at the Waterfront where a clear layering of the boats, town and then the mountain is formed. 
  • Exposure Setting: I used manual exposure (with the help of live view to get an accurate exposure). To get a smooth water I used a long-ish exposure of 0.8s (hence the absolute need for a tripod). A longer exposure would have made it even smoother; but the boat would become blurry because of the constant movements. Low ISO (for best colour and minimum noise) and medium aperture (for maximum sharpness and depth of field) are standard as per most landscape photos. 
  • White Balance: An important setting I went for is "shade" white balance which helps bring out the glorious warmth of a sunset. The default setting on the camera (the "auto white balance") would have gone for the cold, blue tone which is why most sunset photos taken on auto mode look drab and cold. 
So where does photoshop comes into play for the final photo? Putting them next to each other...

(L: Original; R: Photoshopped)

What I did in photoshop were:
  • Cropped the photo to make it tighter
  • Brought out the details of the darker area (the buildings are brightened, for example)
  • Brought out the details of the brighter area (the bright area of the sky now have more texture rather than just awash with bright patch)
  • Minor tweaking of the colour
  • Tiny amount of vignetting (darkening of the fringe of the photo to bring attention to the middle, a common technique)
  • Contrast adjustment.
So in the end it is a photoshopped photo, but there is a lot more to photoshopping in its production. As illustrated above, more than half of the work came from getting the shot right in the camera. Photoshopping helps bring out the best in a photo, and just because something is photoshopped does not mean the original is a lot worse. Also worth knowing is that for as long as photography has been around, photographers have been post-processing the photos in the dark room - all we do in photoshop are exactly the same things that photographers have been doing with their negatives for the last century. It is arguable that post processing photos is part of photography itself. 

*Note: I actually use Photoshop Lightroom as my main post-processing tool. It is produced by Adobe, the same company which makes Photoshop, but it has different designs and is made specifically for photo-editing, unlike the Photoshop proper which is an all-purpose behemoth with far more capability and uses. 


Saturday, July 19, 2014

On MH17 and Air Travel

Melbourne at Night

Air travel is close to our heart. It is a means to our dreams, and a means to reach our loved ones. It brings us to a vantage point we would otherwise never reach, and a soaring height only few before our generation could imagine.

This is Melbourne at night. It is the scenery I enjoy every fortnight as I travel between work and family. It is also the scenery that many on #MH17 would have enjoyed have they made the connection flight to Melbourne, and where the 100 AIDS researchers and activists would have convened to further their noble effort in curbing the AIDS epidemic.

Even though I fly quite often, every time the jet engines revs up on the runway, I still get the jitters. This is the juncture where the devout offers a prayer to the Gods. This is also the juncture where I take comfort in the air safety statistics, the rigour of aeronautical engineering, the excellent training of the air pilots, and the relentless work of the ground staff checking on the aircraft's structure every time it lands.

Much has been written about the fragility of life in light of recent events. Every time I fly my mother would say "be careful" - and I know by that she actually means "please don't be unlucky". It is pointless pointing out that air travel is the safest mode of travel, because we as passengers have zero control over its safety, and when things go wrong, they go horribly wrong. "You only live once", as the partygoers say.

Let us grieve with our fellow friends and families. Let us offer our condolences. Let this be a seed for us to seek peace, for us to engage in world events and do our parts. Let this be a trigger for us to be a better person to strangers around us. Our individual lives are ephemeral, but our love and our values outlive us, and on the larger scale, this is what really matters.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Pretty Lucky Sports Spectator

I seem to have a knack for picking the right matches to stay up for.

Sporting history I stayed up to witness past midnight in recent years:

  • Zidane's headbutt in World Cup Final 2006
  • Federer vs Nadal "best match ever" Wimbledon Final 2008
  • Federer vs Djokovic "most epic final since 2008" Wimbledon Final 2014
  • Kyrgios vs Nadal "giant slaying" Wimbledon Quarter Final 2014
  • Brazil vs Germany "the worst slaughter in World Cup history" 2014
I think I am pretty lucky. 


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Doctors' Right to Dispense Medicine

I refer to the Dr Sng Kim Hock's letter to The Star on 27 June 2014 titled "Docs' right to dispense medicine". In the letter, Dr Sng (and Association of Specialists in Private Medical Practice, which he represents) is of the view that dispensing of medication is the sacred right of the physician.

The family practitioner must be appreciated and valued for their contribution to society, as they have for decades been providing primary care to the patients, screening the patients and hence ensuring that the general health of the community remains good.

The foundation of their practice includes the dispensing of medication, thus ensuring prompt symptomatic and curative care.

The presence of pharmacies nearby or next door should complement their service, but should by no means displace their role in early and urgent therapeutic intervention of illnesses as provided by the family doctor.

We cannot copy the practice of the developed western world, where there is a clear distinction and division between the roles of a doctor and a pharmacist.

No pharmacy in the West would continue to provide repeat medications or even offer consultation to the patient, to “save” costs, as is sometimes seen in this country.

For the above reasons, the role of the physician and doctor to provide consultation, care and treatment to the patient as a one-stop centre must be protected and continued for the present.
I am flabbergasted that Dr Sng actually believed that a doctor should dispense drugs because it's the sacred right, rather than because of the logistical limitation of our country. As a couple of academics have pointed out in a well-written response, there are a variety of reasons why the separation of role between doctors and pharmacists are beneficial and is something we should strive towards.

The elephant in the room, in my opinion, is the conflict of interest. When doctor prescribes a medication and derives financial benefits from the dispensing of the said medication, it is vulnerable to monetary incentives. Why would I dispense the generic rosuvastatin which is shown to be equally effective in ischaemic heart disease, when I know the rich patient in front of me can afford the Rolls Royce atorvastatin, which would keep my wallet and my pretty pharmaceutical rep happy?

One could argue that similar financially swayed practice may also be seen if dispensing is to be left to pharmacists. However, when the division of role is implemented, there is an additional chain on which government can regulate. For example, in Australia there is a government sponsored campaign for pharmacist to dispense pharmaceutically equivalent generic version of a drug when a patient is prescribed a branded medication.

I am similarly baffled by the fallacious statement in the penultimate paragraph. Is the author implying that doctors in Malaysia will repeat medication because they know the patient, while in Western countries patients have no access to repeat medications? Has he not heard of a "repeat prescription" which allows patients to a certain number of repeat medication? Besides, what is the reasoning about consultation being offered to save cost? Do Malaysian doctors do repeat consults and give discount simply because the patients are also obtaining their drugs in the same practice?

The logic is beyond me. I hope more pharmacy colleagues would stand up and stand for the division of role between two inter-connected but distinct healthcare specialties. In essence, this is only the fairest and safest option for our patients' welfare.


Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Fault in Our Sobs

Today I watched The Fault in Our Stars which is an outstanding movie about two teenage people in love, who happen to have cancer. It is adapted from an eponymous book written by John Green who is one of my idols - a nerd with a passion for sharing knowledge and wisdom, who creates some of the most inspirational youtube educational videos out there.

After reading some glowing reviews online, I went to the cinema expecting a fully enjoyable experience with my wife. Unfortunately, my expectation fell way short - the movie itself is excellent, but the experience was not. It was probably a bit dumb of me to not have foreseen the general population of the movie audience of this movie.

High school girls.

For almost the entire movie, quite a number of these young souls were sobbing so loudly that I am constantly distracted from the movie itself. Obviously this being a tragic romance, most people would shed a tear or two in the cinema; but these few girls brought it to an entirely different level by crying louder than the characters in the movie itself. I was not even just unfortunate to be sitting close to them; they were sitting some three to four rows away from me.

In fact, they were still sobbing in the shopping centre after the movie.

I think there should be movie etiquette somewhere that says "thou shalt not impair fellow moviegoers' experience". In fact I am sure there already is, and the same principle is what underlies the banning of mobile phone, crunchy chips, and spoiling the plot. I would kindly argue that sobbing at 90 decibels should probably be one of them too.


Spoiled experience aside, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the relative accuracy of portrayal of illness, medicine and disease in general in this movie. As a hopeless fussy nerd, it really helps with keeping my annoyance at bay when I see an accurate portrayal of a tight fitting non-invasive ventilation mask for a girl in respiratory failure from worsening pulmonary effusion. Or a chest drain inserted to drain a pulmonary effusion (albeit being on the opposite side of what is shown on her X-Ray). And the delayed shortness of breath as she struggles to make up for the oxygen debt after climbing the stairs.

Tiny things like these show that these are done by people who have seen actual patients instead of just making it up, like most Hong Kong dramas do. They help make things real enough and allows you to start feeling empathy for the characters, instead of being constantly reminded of the artificiality of the movie. The fact that John Green drew his inspiration from his day as a student Chaplain in a children's hospital also helped. He's just such an awesome guy.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Frank Two Cents - Now Public

Just a quick note to announce that seven years after its conception, I have now made public my previously "private" blog. It's accessible here.

It has not been updated for a pretty long time but I believe most of the content remains relevant today.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

This 15-Year Old Did Not Transform Medicine

I recently came across this news article about Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old boy from Maryland who invented a test to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages. Naturally this is HUGE. For those who are not familiar, pancreatic cancer is one of the worst cancers one could get. Due to its lack of symptoms (as it's seated deep inside the abdomen), it's usually diagnosed at a very late stage, and the majority of people do not survive for longer than one year.

This simple, fast and cheap blood test Jack Andraka invented promises to change all that altogether, creating an unprecedented revolution in medicine by causing the greatest improvement in cancer medicine we have ever seen. This test costs just 3 cents, nearly 100% accurate, and won him the grand prize in the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The test uses nanotechnology to detect mesothelin, a type of protein which is found in the blood when one has pancreatic cancer. His wish is that this test will become widely available on the shelves of the supermarket, and everyone could just pick it up and do this test during their free time, and no one will die from late stage pancreatic cancer any more.

It's very nice, except that it does not work.

First of all, I would like to congratulate this bright young man for achieving so much at such a young age, and has dipped his feet into the world of scientific research and made a name for himself. To have your name on a "cancer sensor inventor" as a 15-year-old boy is simply amazing.

However, unfortunately that's where the achievement ends.

As a medical doctor I feel compelled to debunk the hype: This invention will unfortunately NOT save lives, and in fact I suspect if it were to be introduced as a 5-cent dipstick available in your local supermarket (which WILL NOT happen as you will see below), it may actually end up doing more harm than good to people's health.

It may be a difficult concept to explain but I hope you bear with me as I go through the reasoning.

I would begin by how making diagnosis works. It is often mistakenly thought that diagnosing a disease in the modern era is as easy as finding the correct protein in the blood, and BAM you have this disease. It's almost like if you find a fingerprint then BAM there has to be matching, unique person behind that fingerprint. However, the majority of medical diagnoses are simply not made this way.

I would use the pregnancy test as an example. We all know that urine or blood pregnancy tests are pretty accurate these days - it detects a hormone called βHCG which is secreted during pregnancy. So, if you find βHCG in urine or blood, then you are pregnant, right? WRONG. While the vast majority of high βHCG is due to pregnancy, sometimes it could also be due to sinister causes called gestational trophoblastic diseases which are a type of tumour in the genital organs. But in practice, if you missed your period and you are tested positive, then you would be told "you are pregnant" unless the doctor has deep suspicion that something amiss is going on.

This is because
  1. There are FAR MORE pregnant people than people with this tumour 
  2. The fact that you missed your period makes pregnancy even more likely.
βHCG is useful because:
  1. When it's level is very close to zero, then you can't be pregnant (It has good negative predictive value
  2. In pregnant people the level is ALWAYS elevated. (It is sensitive)
  3. When it's elevated, 99% of the time it's gonna be due to pregnancy (the other 1% being the gestational trophoblastic disease) (It is highly specific)
  4. When it's used, it enables good outcome (you know you are pregnant hence you commence antenatal care etc)
While these 4 conditions, especially the last, may seem trivial, they are THE criteria that any diagnostic test have to meet prior to being practical. If someone comes along and develop a 5-cent new pregnancy test, they will either have to meet these criteria, or being dumped despite being only 5 cents.

That's for diagnostic test. Moving on to screening test. Wouldn't it be nice if we find a test for early stages of various cancers, so that all we need to do is to wake up everyday and dip a few drops of blood, and we would know that we have (or not have) cancer? Yes it would be nice, but unfortunately medicine is hard and nothing like this exists, and no, Jack Andraka's dipstick is not the elusive magic test.

I would use PSA as an example. PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen), as the name suggests, is a protein quite specific to the prostate, and is elevated in prostatic cancer. We used to do PSA screening quite commonly to detect early prostate cancer (but it's no longer recommended but that's a long story on its own). The problem with PSA, as with many other types of cancer blood tests, are that they are not specific and often not sensitive enough. In PSA's case, there are many other conditions which also increase its level (namely large prostate, severe infection etc). And last but not least, because prostate cancer is such a slow growing tumour, it's been found that even after using PSA and detecting some earlier cases, the mortality rate (chance of dying) is THE SAME whether or not you test everyone for  PSA. Hence population-wide prostate cancer screening is no longer recommended.

Moving on to mesothelin and pancreatic cancer. 

For the scholarly minded, this is THE article that shows why mesothelin is useless as a pancreatic cancer screening marker: 

Jack Andraka is right in pointing out that mesothelin is almost always present in patients with pancreatic cancer. However, mesothelin is ALSO present in ovarian and pleural cancer, AND in normal healthy people. The range of mesothelin level amongst pancreatic cancer sufferers overlaps greatly with the level amongst normal population. Even though Jack claims this to be 100% sensitive, it only means that it will detect a particular level of mesothelin 100% of the time. It still does not meet these criteria:

1. Does mesothelin differentiate between different cancers? No as it's also present in ovarian and pleural cancer. 

2. Does mesothelin differentiate between disease and health? No, when you are "positive" for mesothelin you may very well be healthy. 

In other words, if you bought this test and is tested positive, you could either have pancreatic cancer, other pancreatic conditions, ovarian cancer, pleural cancer, or have nothing at all. Not that useful isn't it? 

At this juncture, some people might claim, even if some healthy people mistakenly test positive in this test, they could always just do more tests and find out that they don't have disease - isn't that better than the alternative, having pancreatic cancer and not knowing it? The answer is NO. As pancreatic cancer is such a rare disease, you will have far less disease detection rate (true positive) than false positives. The thousands and thousands of people who had false positive results will now have to go through more tests (CT scans, biopsies etc), and all these tests actually do harm if you are healthy (CT increases your risk of cancer, biopsies are invasive procedures and put you at risk of infection and bleeding). So in the end, having such a test, despite costing only 3 cents, will end up putting a lot more healthy people at risk of complications of over-investigation than saving a few lives from its actual detections. 

To sum it up: Yes this man has a bright future, but he's not a cancer saviour, and we still have a long road ahead in our battle with cancer. He is not the genius kid who managed to discover something that millions of scientists in thousands of universities have overlooked in decades of cancer research. Unfortunately there has been a huge media circus surrounding his invention, most of which were more focused on perpetuating the "prodigy cancer saviour" feel-good story without getting an established scientist to put things into context. The whole media circus has planted a distorted perception on cancer research, and could end up instilling distrust amongst public in proper scientists and researchers. In the comment section of the aforementioned news article, the top comment is about how such an invention (like the many dozens of "cancer cures" invented each month) will never see the light of the day because pharmaceutical companies need to keep making money from cancer treatment drugs rather than saving people's life with cheap, easy and effective inventions like this. It insults the efforts of millions of scientists in labs everywhere, who toil away in their often frustrating and mundane efforts day in day out, without the benefit of being glorified in the media as a cancer saviour.

When something sounds too good to be true, often it's because it is too good to be true.

Footnote: This article by Forbes Science is one of the rare media articles which summarised the hype surrounding Jack Andraka instead of joining the media circus of how we have found the young saviour which will save millions of lives, before he even published a single journal article on the invention.

Footnote 2: Another article with a LOT more details about doubts on Jack Andraka's invention and personal motives, though it is a lot more sensational and may sound more personal.