29 Dec 2011


Angelina had her first examination before the Christmas holidays. One section in the Chinese paper was sentence composition. In the last few tests, Angelina had already learned that the marks did not depend on how interesting the sentences were but on whether she made any mistakes. Therefore, the simpler the sentence, the more likely she would get full marks.

So she wrote this:

Crawl: I crawl.

Probably because many girls did the same thing, the teacher added one more instruction during the examination – The sentence must include at least one comma. The next version became like this:

Crawl: Today, I crawled.

Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. But does counting breed evil at such a young age?

22 Dec 2011


Recently, we had to elect representatives for the medical profession. They would in turn elect the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong. This time, a surprisingly large number of candidates joined the election.

Some candidates were kind enough to visit our hospital and shake hands with us. “Who will you vote for as the Chief Executive?” I asked one candidate on my way to the wards.

The wealthy dermatologist gave a diplomatic answer, “I haven’t decided yet. I will meet each candidate and learn their view on medical care before making the decision.”

I was just making fun of him. Actually, none of the candidates from our sector declared their choice openly. What intrigues me, however, is why they did that. If they clearly indicate their choice, voters with similar inclination can pick them without guessing. It is difficult to imagine they can attract more votes by hiding their choice.

But no, they were not hiding their choice from us. They were hiding it from the future winner.

I should say no more, so let’s get back to science.

In most elections, minority groups would try to push their agenda. These groups often more actively promote their views and persuade others to vote in favor of them. At the same time, many voters know little about the candidates and can be easily persuaded. In a research paper this month, Couzin and colleagues asked an interesting question: What is the role of these ignorant voters during an election? (Science 2011;334:1578)

Contrary to the prediction, the ignorant voters do not fall prey to the manipulation of minority groups. In contrast, according to three different models, the presence of these voters is essential in upholding the preference of the majority. They are more likely to follow the choice of their neighbors, resulting in amplification of the majority vote.

After reading this article, however, I do not know how the findings can be applied to our own election, when nearly all voters were ignorant.

P.S. “X lost,” W announced at lunch. V felt a chill over his spine. He quickly googled the election results on W’s iPhone and gave a sigh of relief. “Good Lord, he lost by more than one vote.”

15 Dec 2011


During a local scientific meeting, a friend from a pharmaceutical company grabbed me aside. “Hi, Vincent! We sent you an invitation earlier regarding our upcoming advisory board meeting. Are you coming?”

“I am thinking about it,” I was being polite.

Sensing my hesitation, he continued, “I don’t know how to put it, but listen. I know you are good, but my bosses don’t. If you do not join our activities and meet them, I cannot arrange you to speak for our company in future symposia.”

I know people who would not pause a second but eagerly accept such invitations. Universities nowadays only count the countables, and overseas talks of whatever nature happens to be one. While I do not mind giving such talks, having fewer invitations is not a problem either. After all, I have jobs to do and cannot spend all the time flying around.

Whenever I face issues of academic integrity, I cannot help thinking what Professor AL would do.

Once, AL was invited by a company to give a talk in a regional meeting. Despite some disagreements, the company insisted that she used every slide prepared by them. She finally agreed.

On the day of the talk, AL pointed at the slide and began, “Let me explain why the message of this slide is misleading.” Her comments on each and every slide went on and on for the next twenty minutes.

8 Dec 2011


On my way to work, I met F. He was my roommate during my final year of medical studies. When I told him my present title, he exclaimed, “You hold such a high position now!”

I was so embarrassed. Then I decided to tell him something else. “In some restaurants, waiters are waiters; captains are captains. In other restaurants, all waiters are called captains, if not managers.”

The most impressive remark on my title, however, came from my younger colleague.

After the morning round one day, our house officer asked me to write a reference letter for her. “My pleasure,” I said, “but why don’t you ask someone higher up? My recommendation is unlikely to be of much help.”

“You may be short, but your position is high,” she did not even hesitate.

1 Dec 2011


Szeto told the story of his age recently. (See http://ccszeto.blogspot.com/2011/11/age.html) Let me share mine.

At the dinner after an advisory board meeting, the organizers could not resist the temptation to ask my age. I was so sorry. Evidently, they had expected to invite a more senior person. But then I decided to give a more evasive answer.

I referred to a professor from Beijing and said, “Professor J has known me for years. I can’t be that young.”

The professor of infectious diseases gave an even quicker answer, “I can prove that he is at least twenty.”