Confessions of a researchaholic

August 25, 2010

The man who loved China

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:13 pm
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I am not interested in biography, but I approached this book due to the Needham question: why China was taken over by the west in science and technology around 1500 AD after the amazing advances in earlier times? I was hoping that this book will provide answers, even though I never realistically expected that since this is a question about history, and thus can never be verified scientifically.

Well, I was right about that, as obviously nobody has ever managed to answer the Needham question. But that does not really bother me for several reasons.

First, I, like many others who have been through both Chinese and American style educations, know the main reasons more or less, even though none of us can rigorously prove anything. But answering a historical question is not really the point. The point is to find remedies and solutions. That, fortunately, I, just like many others, already know how to do practically, as evident from our achievements in modern scientific and technological activities.

Second, as pointed out in the book, the Needham question might be moot anyway, as China seems to have regained its rigor and creativity. But I cannot fully agree with this point; I agree that China has been improving, but it still has work to do to catch up with the American level creativity. Even from the young Chinese students I am collaborating today I can still see a lot of old problems that probably have been accumulated through hundreds if not thousands years of bad cultural impacts. But this is obviously fixable at least in an individual level; the million dollar question is whether it is also possible in a large national or even ethnic wise scale.

The funny thing is that the Needham question was not formally addressed until at the epilogue of the book. So the book is really testing my patience. Fortunately, the main part of the book, essentially the biography of Joseph Needham, turns out to be a fascinating read.

I recommend this book to anyone, especially (ethnic) Chinese working in the field of science and technology.

July 10, 2009

Dream tapping

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:31 am
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Waking up early in the wee hours is usually not a good thing, as it could cause fatigue and all other problems.

However, one good side effect for waking up early in that it allows us to tap into our dreams. It is known that brains do not stop activities during our sleeps, but we usually do not remember what have happened.

I have found that sleep interruptions, especially these happen in the early mornings, help me recall my dreams. I do not know about other people, but my brain tends to produce a lot of strange and interesting stuff (e.g. color movies) during my sleep. And judging by the frequency I came up with ideas after waking up, I know in addition to playing weird my brain also did some serious work.

The most interesting thing I have observed is that most my dream thoughts are less rational than my day thoughts, and many ideas that appear to be plausible during my dreams become apparently ridiculous after I wake up. But sometimes I got really useful ideas. For example, some of my SIGGRAPH paper ideas, as well as the previous two posts (I woke up at 3 am this morning), are produced during my sleep.

Maybe I should intentionally disrupt my sleep when I am short on research ideas.

May 19, 2009

Living abroad gives you a creative edge

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:33 pm
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According to this article from the Economist, living aboard gives you a creative edge.

Even without the formal study as reported in that article, this is a pretty obvious fact, at least from my personal experience. I believe the relationship between creativity and living aboard is both a cause and an effect: creative people are more likely to live aboard, and the experience of living in different places further stimulates their creativity.

Many people consider my constant moving around as being crazy, and downright counter-productive for a researcher that traditional wisdom deems to benefit from a more sedated life style. But somehow the constant traveling not only stimulates my creativity but even improves my focus. (I do not get distracted easily, but tend to lose focus when bored.)

(This post was jotted down on a flight from SEA to SFO.)

May 14, 2009

Creating versus Spotting

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:21 pm
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Out of pure coincidence, I read two different articles at roughly the same time yesterday, both related to the issue of creating versus spotting (or discovering):

In Mark Cuban’s blog entry on Success & Motivation, he said the key to recognizing a profitable business opportunity is knowing the industry. Everyone has ideas, but the hard part is doing homework knowing which idea would work in a business (or risk getting your butt kicked).

In the book Made to Stick by the Heath brothers, they argued that creativity is not necessary for sticky ideas. There are always more ideas out there than that can be created by the most creative single individual, and the hard part is about spotting the right ones.

So essentially what they are all saying is that creativity is either less important than most people think, or downright unnecessary. The positive interpretation of this point is that since spotting is about effort, whereas creating is about serendipity or some innate ability, hard working would pay off for not only everything else but also for finding good ideas. The negative interpretation, though, is that creativity might be an illusion, and human brains are just machines that could discover ideas and connecting dots.

This also reminds me of a related point that I read about a long time ago (I have forgotten the source) arguing that there is really no such thing as creativity in the human intelligence, as what we think as creations are essentially discoveries. This applies to science, art, religion, and everything else. So quantum physics, relativity, cubism, capitalism, and credit default swaps are all discovered rather than created.

Is there any single idea that can be formally proven to be a real creation rather than a mere discovery?

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