Giving Every Month.


I live a self-centred life.

Although, yes, I do work in a profession where the focus is on the patient and family, and as doctors we profess to “help others,” I spent the majority of my time fixated upon the self. What would I have most fun doing this weekend? What are my ambitions? What do I want to buy?

Even this insignificant blog, this bypassed back-end of the World Wide Web, is a little shrine to self-progression. It is dedicated to furthering my knowledge and pleasure, and sharing my nerdacious exploits with my readers. Most of my sentences start with I.

I grew up in a Christian family, and attended an evangelical church ever since I can remember. I was an eager participant in Sunday School, which they rebranded to the much cooler “Kid’s Church” (they never placed the apostrophe correctly, and that irked weeny primary school me). Throughout my teenage years, I joined the weekly youth group, lurking on the outer fringes of the cliques until I managed to bring my school friends to church and felt like I finally belonged. I relished the wonderful, deep discussions we had in our small group sessions.

Giving was a huge part of being a church member. It became a matter of habit to drop a few coins out of my allowance into the offering bag every week. When I started earning a small amount of money from cashier work and tuition, I learnt to give more consciously, reflecting on wherefore and where-to I gave my tithe. Towards the end of high school and throughout university, my friends and I banded together to sponsor a child through World Vision on our unimpressive wages.

But I haven’t gone to church regularly for some years now. And with the disappearance of one habit, another has faded: the act of giving.

So for the last couple of months, I have committed to a change of lifestyle. I will donate a portion of my earnings, every month, to a charity or several charities that I believe in, both local and international. This will be a rule rather than an option. The fun part is, of course, picking what or who I want to support.

I hope you don’t get me wrong. I’m not sharing this on my blog to toot my own horn. There are many others who are much more generous, sacrificial and committed than I am. I have friends who run charitable organisations alongside full-time work, or travel overseas on missions. I have done none of those things.

But I know that, with our busy schedules and the stresses of work, it’s easy to feel like you can’t make a difference–that your small gift won’t really change anything. So I hope that by sharing my personal pledge of charity, this post can be a reminder to myself and to you that, whatever our day profession may be, we can make a difference through simple, regular generosity. Our societies need doctors, dentists, mechanics, engineers, consultants, administration workers, policy makers, hospitality staff, mathematicians, researchers, writers, designers and artists just as much as they need people who run charitable organisations. Charities need funding just as much as they need workers. We can be good at the jobs that we do, and develop our skills to earn an income, and give a portion of that income to make society as a whole—the world as a whole—better for every member.

So this month I’m giving to:

I’m also making a conscientious decision to shop less wastefully. This article outlines three really simple questions to ask yourself before you make a purchase, and I think the first one especially is so useful.

1. Will I wear this a minimum of 30 times?

2. Do I really need this item, or am I just attracted to it because it’s similar to something I already own?

3. Is this a timeless item or an unsustainable trend item?

These rules allow you to channel your money into quality items that you need and will use regularly. If I had used these questions earlier, I would have avoided blowing my money on quite a few items that are currently hogging space in my wardrobe. I have a drapey dress in there with a giant alien landscape on it because I thought it looked edge-y and sci-fi. I’ve never worn it :(

So maybe instead of passing along the #ALSicebucketchallenge, consider passing along the idea of Giving Every Month. It’s less catchy, but, I think, more meaningful.

space dress


My ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – please watch to the end!

Week 3 of Hermit Life + Game Review: To the Moon

Reading: Before Watchmen – Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair
Listening: Owsey & Resotone – Broke My Promise & Stared to the Sea; Klingande – Jubel
Watching: Elementary, Parks & Recreation, Korra, eagerly awaiting the Twelfth Doctor…

I’m in my third week of writing life!

I’ve written about 15,000 words of a first draft—some of it I’m happy with, some of it I know I’ll need to rewrite later. I’m also revelling in my newfound freedom with all the joy and abandon of a pig in a bog. I’ve been watching stuff, reading stuff, studying stuff and, when my introverted side is entirely sated, crawling out of my hole to achieve social connection.

hot star chicken

Over the weekend, I tried fancy pizza and gelato in Fitzroy. I explored the fowl wonders of Melbourne (my friend organised a city-roaming, chicken-eating adventure) and devoured chicken cooked in Taiwanese, Chinese and Korean fashions. I also played too much soccer, after chugging Nurofen last week and luring myself into a false sense of recovery. After unusual amounts of physical activity on Sunday, and a game on Monday, my ankle is killing me, but not as much as the fact that I have so much time to play, but my body isn’t physically allowing me to do so :(

So today I am resigned to being a couch potato. Whilst I am sedentary, I thought I’d do a quick review of the indie adventure point-and-click game, To the Moon. This game came highly commended to me several months ago by my dear friend Frank. I’m not at all a gamer, so bear in mind that I have zero qualification or authority to write this review. That being said, it’s a lovely, short introduction to the gaming world for a non-gamer, or for anyone who likes a good story.

To the Moon was designed by Kan “Reives” Gao and released in November 2011. It’ s a simple, 2D point-and-click role playing game that tells the story of an old man named Johnny who, on his deathbed, contacts Sigmund Corp, an agency that has the technology to implant artificial memories in a person’s mind. Johnny has an inexplicable wish to go to the moon, and two doctors arrive at his house to delve back into his memories and fulfil Johnny’s wish. As they explore Johnny’s past, an intriguing story emerges surround his late wife, River, and Johnny’s childhood.

Playing To the Moon is really more like reading an animated novel or watching an interactive movie than playing a game. I didn’t really feel like I had become a gamer through this four-hour experience! The story is sweet, clever, poignant and had a good amount of unpredictability. I appreciated how every character had a personality, especially the Drs Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, who had some hilariously entertaining dialogue between them.

Although the graphics are pretty basic, they are cute and also pleasantly eerie at different points in the story. The gameplay, I have to say, was frustrating and slow at some points. Wandering around multiple scenes to collect various hidden ‘mementos’ became repetitive and frustrating, particularly as I just wanted to find out what happened next in the story.

I guess that goes to show that although the story is a little soppy, it definitely did fascinate me, perplex me and leave me wanting to play more every time we took a break. The thing that really completes this game is the beautiful, evocative soundtrack. The threads of For River that float through the game really highlight, to me, the tenderness of the tale and the attention to detail.

A clever, emotional story with an interesting science-fiction premise that can be played through in about four hours.

Kickstarter Project – Fly the Colour Fantastica: A Comic Anthology

Check out this amazing project from twelve talented artists and show them your support!


Music is my drug

In recent times I’ve been listening to a lot of new music.

I’ve always loved music, though my tastes have changed a great deal over the years. Embarrassingly, I’ve been through an emo phase, an indie rock phase, and, yes, even a good few months where I couldn’t get enough of the oldies. (I’m not proud to admit it, but you may at one point have found me belting out Queen in my bedroom…)

Since last year, though, I’ve been more or less obsessed with electronic music. It started off with a couple of harmless dance and melodic dubstep tracks. Then I discovered the thrills of drum & bass. And then the eargasmic highs and lows of progressive house. And by the time I stumbled upon the sultry bass notes of deep house, I was well and truly lost to the world. My headphones were fused to my ears; I couldn’t have removed them if I wanted to.

OK, I’m over-dramatising as usual. But there is some truth to it. My love for music has now got to a point that it seems to fulfil some criteria for an addiction. I miss listening to music during the day, when I’m at work. I crave getting in the car or going home to my computer to put music on. A tune in my head will drive me crazy until I hear it again…and then there’s the biggest rush of relief and bliss. And I haven’t even mentioned the phenomenon of “music chills”.

This has got me wondering. Can music really be an addiction? It’s not a drug. It has no tangible chemical interaction with our bodies. It serves no obvious evolutionary purpose. So why is music so universal? Why do we derive such joy from it? Why do people declare that “music is life”?

Curious to find answers, I decided to look up what effects music can have on our bodies and our brains. And I found that people have done some pretty fascinating research.

Study #1

music and emotional arousal

Here’s one (link to article) where they got 26 people and hooked them up to a heart rate monitor, breathing monitor, temperature sensor, skin conductance sensor and a monitor of blood volume pulse. Then they got them to listen to 3-minute self-selected excerpts of music that they found intensely pleasurable, and measured their change in emotional arousal from baseline.

(To control the study, they mixed up the music excerpts and got participants to listen to excerpts that they did not find pleasurable as a neutral control.)

While they listened, the participants had to push one of four buttons to indicate how much awesomeness they were feeling, in real-time, from the music: neutral, low pleasure, high pleasure or chills.

The results are intuitive. When people were getting happy chills from music, they had an obvious physiological response. Heart rate and breathing rate went up. Skin conductance went up. Temperature dropped. And blood volume pulse, which is a measure of how much your blood vessels are constricting or tightening, went down. These measures are involuntary, controlled by our autonomic (self-governed) nervous system, and are indicators of emotional arousal.

These points could actually be spotted on a graph:

music and time course of chills

Figure 4. Time-Course of the Chills Response. Real-time physiological recordings plotted against the time-course of the chills response reveal that chills are experienced during the peak of sympathetic nervous system activity. Individuals who experienced no pleasure to the same excerpts did not show significant changes in psychophysiological responses during the epochs that chills were experienced in individuals who found the music highly pleasurable.

The authors concluded that

…the results of our study provide clear evidence for a relationship between pleasure and emotional arousal.

…at the highest end of the spectrum are intensely rewarding experiences, such as those that induce chills as a physiological response. The latter is of particular significance since such intense pleasure states are rarely caused by stimuli that have no pragmatic, instrumental, or apparent survival value. The intensity of pleasure experienced from music listening has lead some researchers to suggest that it may act upon the dopamine reward system of the brain, which is implicated in processing highly rewarding stimuli such as cocaine and amphetamines, food, and playing videogames…


Study #2

music and activity in brain regions

And that leads us on to an even more fascinating study! This one was done in 2001 in Montreal. Again, they got participants (namely McGill University students) to listen to self-selected pleasurable music. And they stuck them inside MRI machines and used Positive Electron Tomography (PET) techniques to measure, again in real-time, the amount of blood flow to different regions of the brain.

(The study control included getting them to listen to pleasure-neutral music, amplitude-matched noise, and silence.)

Human studies of rewarding stimuli suggest that stuff we find super pleasurable changes blood flow to different parts of our brains. Things like food, chocolate, sex and drugs increase activity in neural systems underlying reward/motivation, emotion and arousal. These systems largely involve structures that lie deep on the under-surfaces of the brain (more primitive areas) but have heaps of connections to the frontal parts of the brain (our more developed, higher functioning bits).

The participants listened to good music and got chills; their heart rates and breathing rates went up; and they showed changes in brain reward circuitry. Blood flow increased to areas like the left ventral striatum and dorsomedial midbrain. Blood flow decreased to areas like the right amygdalaleft hippocampus/amygdala, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Blood flow also increased to areas associated with emotion (bilateral insula, right orbitofrontal cortex), arousal (thalamas, anterior cingulate), and motor function (supplementary motor area, cerebellum).

The authors say:

The pattern of activity observed here in correlation with music-induced chills is similar to that observed in other brain imaging studies of euphoria and/or pleasant emotion.

and go on to mention cocaine administration and animal studies of pleasure, reward and motivation.

Of course, PET scanning is limited in that you can only look at blood flow to a vague area of the brain. It’s not a direct measure of recruitment of specific neural circuits. But still, the technology is pretty cool, especially in that it gives a dynamic picture of brain activity, and the results enable researchers to draw some broad conclusions and target future studies.

We have shown here that music recruits neural systems of reward and emotion similar to those known to respond specifically to biologically relevant stimuli, such as food and sex, and those that are artificially activated by drugs of abuse. This is quite remarkable, because music is neither strictly necessary for biological survival or reproduction, nor is it a pharmacological substance. Activation of these brain systems in response to a stimulus as abstract as music may represent an emergent property of the complexity of human cognition.

So, I still don’t know why humans like music. But I’ve now learnt that listening to a mindblowing song not only makes my heart beat faster and my lungs work harder, it also makes different parts of my brain light up like I’m eating the best chocolate in the world. I guess it’s biological. I can’t fight it. I have no hope but to give in to this spiral of addiction…

Happy listening :)

6 Writing Tips From John Steinbeck

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

And yet, 12 years earlier…

“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

From The Atlantic (12 March 2012) @

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly — G.K. Chesterton

I know that one of my greatest fears is rejection.

If I’m not sure of attaining something, chances are I won’t work up the courage to try. I admire people who seem to be entirely thick-skinned — apparently without regard for what others think of them. I’m not aiming for such an extreme, but I know it would benefit me to learn to care less about the opinions of others.

(I believe I’ve made progress on the past few months: I now have the courage to say whatever’s on my mind…and then I spend the next couple of hours regretting my words ;-P)

A fear of rejection or failure keeps us from doing a lot of great things. Applying for that position or award. Telling your parents the truth. Confessing to someone how you feel.

A well-circulated piece of advice for writers is to write as often as you can, even if you don’t like what you’re putting down on the page. After all, you can edit bad writing. You can’t edit no writing.

Maybe a lesson for me to take on board is to give up the habit of writing only when the mood hits. Instead, it should be a daily routine; an automatism; a job, even.

On a different note…I heard something recently that made me feel a bit disenchanted. My mum told me about a missionary pastor who did something terrible against his family and his own morals. He was of course dismissed from the church at which he was employed, but he has left his wife and kids for good.

I felt shocked and angered by this dude. Mostly it was because of what he’d chosen to do, but it was also because, out of all people, he really should have known better. He was a missions pastor. He taught people how to live. Heck, I probably listened to his words of wisdom and nodded in accordance.

I think it’s the hypocrisy that really hit me. And the fact that no one, not even the seemingly best of us, gets much far away from the slippery slope.

I hope that, as I go through life, I’ll find that not everyone has a dark side. The world would be a sadder place if that were so.

At least I’m sure that what he did was definitely something not worth doing. Heh.