23 Feb 2012


“To survive in the academic world, you need to improve your networking,” my mentor told me.

This is of course very true. Nowadays, good research demands a whole range of expertise that a single team is unlikely to master. Clinical studies also require bigger and bigger sample sizes that can only be achieved by many centers working together. It is therefore important to know people.

But I have a problem – I cannot recognize faces. Recently, I looked at Whitney Houston’s photo and thought that was Jennifer Lopez, you see what I mean.

When I greet friends in overseas conferences, I try my best to hide the fact that I cannot recall where he is from and what his name is. Invariably, disaster soon strikes. Another friend comes and expects me to introduce them to each other. After a few polite remarks, both friends know I cannot recall a thing about either of them.

So, imagine how I felt when I learned that paper wasps (wasps!) were good at recognizing faces.

In a recent paper by Sheehan and Tibbetts, paper wasps were trained to recognize faces (Science 2011;334:1272). The investigators took pictures of the faces of different paper wasps and put them in a maze. When a wasp went in front of the picture of an incorrect wasp, it got an electric shock. It did not take much training before the wasps could choose the correct pictures. On average, they got it right 8 times out of 10.

I learned three important lessons from this study.

First, animal activists can accept insect studies.

Second, it takes only a few hundred neurons to form a neural network for recognizing faces. I am sure I have that.

Third, what I really need is just a few electric shocks.

14 Feb 2012


Years ago, I read this lovely piece by a writer from Taiwan.

Is there a mother who was not an angel? Every girl has lived by the stars. They paint the sky with rainbow and play hide-and-seek among the clouds. Did they ever have to worry? They are the youngest daughters of God. They look at their reflection in the river, amazed at their youth and beautiful wings.

One day, her wings were gone. She put on ordinary clothes and decided to become a mother. Someone says her wings were locked in a chest. She can no longer fly. Others even say her husband locked her wings and hid the key in a secret place. However, every mother understands that the angel actually knows where the key is. When nobody is around, she would even open the chest and touch the wings sadly. She knows once she puts the wings on, she can fly up to the sky again. But she touches and touches, and still closes the chest and hides the key. Yes, it was herself who locked the wings. She can no longer fly, because she no longer wants to.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my lovely angel!

9 Feb 2012


Last week, I received a call from BM. “Thank you for doing endoscopy for my patient. She is VIP’s friend.”

I was taken aback. That was a complicated procedure. Although it went smoothly, it could easily have gone wrong. “But you didn’t mention anything before,” I complained.

She chuckled, “That is a good way to prevent VIP syndrome.”

I thought for a second. She was right. I really did not want to know. So I thanked her and said we would keep an eye on the patient.

Coincidentally, my mentor talked about VIP syndrome recently. He retold a story from Andre Agassi’s autobiography.

During his brilliant career, Agassi had a funny observation. When he played against an obviously weaker opponent, the match often turned out to be tough. Big win seldom occurred as he had hoped.

After he made that observation, he started to investigate what went wrong. It dawned on him that whenever he had a weak opponent, he did unusual things. He would hit the ball harder, trying to finish the other player quickly. But since this was not what he usually did, it often became unforced error instead.

Then he devised a plan. The next time he faced a weak opponent, he had to answer a question first – Why did he think he was weak? If he could not find a reason, he concluded that the opponent might not be weak after all. If the weakness was truly apparent, he should calmly attack the weak point.

“VIP syndrome is the same,” my mentor concluded. “Disasters happen because people make unusual decisions in face of a VIP. The only solution is to have a clear mind and suppress the urge.”

2 Feb 2012

Production Cluster

Recently, somebody dropped some old letters at my desk. I could read every word but could not understand a single sentence. I would be much obliged if readers may enlighten me on what they are talking about.

Dear comrades,

We have extensive discussion among various involved parties concerning the situation in the factories and would like to propose the following action plan:

1. Trial run ‘production cluster’ instead of limiting to individual ‘factory’. Karl has listed out the potential benefits as follows:
- Workers can continue to work in their own factory first, instead of being re-allocated to other factories
- Balance production lines and finishing time among different factories
- Manpower management

2. Workers
- We are actively recruiting part-time workers to work in factories with large workload.

We understand this will create anxiety among workers, and will definitely continue to monitor the situation. On the other hand, we really need the help and contribution of everyone to have a trial on this.

Best wishes,

Dear comrades,

1. We all agree that the tin factory needs more staff. But we have difficulty in finding more workers from our pool. Siberia has stopped allocating workers to the tin factory in the previous months.

2. I am a bit disappointed at stopping the trial run of the ‘production cluster’ concept. While I fully agree that we should not always ask workers from one factory to help in another factory on a regular basis (but should try other ways), the main reason behind the concept is to act as a buffer to meet unexpected shortage of workers or surge in tin demand.


Dear Karl and Mikhail,

The major drawback of the proposed ‘production cluster’ system is that it is hard to implement the quota system at the same time. Quota system is the main incentive for efficient work and punctuality.

I am a believer of a fair system with incentive and punishment rather than a Utopia system that everybody is working hard for the benefit of the system and willingly offer their helping hands when others are in need (the whole reason why communism failed).