Confessions of a researchaholic

December 27, 2020

The 99% invisible city

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:54 pm
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This is a fascinating collection of short articles about how people build and interact with our environments. Initially I wondered why the book used illustrations instead of photographs, but as I read on I realized that this choice better fits with the design of the book, set in beautiful yellow-black color scheme and typography.

December 25, 2020

Need to finish what I started

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:30 pm
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May 21, 2020

Book challenge

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:55 am
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A Facebook friend nominated me to a 7-day book challenge.
I took it but without nominating the next person so that I would not offend or spam anyone.

I am glad that I could include a diverse set of topics (computer science, finance, sci-fi, physics, history, math, art) without any serious technical/textbooks.

April 12, 2020

Scaffolding knowledge

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:10 am
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Every information is a piece of an entire knowledge, so instead of treating what we learn as separate fragments, it is more effective to memorize and understand them as a whole.
This is possible because knowledge often repeats in different forms, such as through history or books.


In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.
To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.
– Funes the Memorious

June 11, 2018

Principles by Ray Dalio

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:14 am
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Highly recommend; whether you like his methodology can reflect what kind of person you are. I suspect his people are either very rational or have tools to help control emotions.



July 16, 2016

The art of war

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:45 am
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In the standard of Chinese classics, the art of war is crisp, even with repeating the core ideas.

During my first reading as a kid, I focused mainly on the languages.
After my second reading, the core ideas become very clear, even with my now rusty Chinese.

I can probably summarize the book in just a few sentences. But it is still better to read the original Chinese; no translation can do justice to the beautiful writing, and the repetition helps hammer the messages home.

I examined several English versions, all contain very obvious mistakes.
The best version I have seen so far is 孫子兵法論正, 朔雪寒.

July 4, 2014

Flash boys

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:01 pm
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The finance and tech industries have been the whipping boys for American inequality. Lie in their junction are the algorithm traders.

A specific form of algorithm trading, with high frequency as depicted in this book, is to arbitrage the time differentials between signals traveling through different electronic routes.
For example, say you want to buy or sell a block of stocks too large for any single exchange to fulfill. Your order is then broken down into smaller blocks, each routed to a different exchange. A high frequency trader, by placing small orders for all stocks in all exchanges all the time, like a fisherman placing baits, can detect your order arriving in the first exchange, and quickly insert itself as the counter party of all your other orders arriving later in other exchanges. This allows the trader to make a small amount profit multiplied by a very large number of trades.
In order to pull this off, a high frequency trader has to be on the frontier of high performance computing.

This is a highly entertaining read like many of Michael Lewis’ previous books. But the distinction is not all that clear between the narrated protagonists and antagonists, who are all wealthy financiers.
Instead, the most intriguing character I found in the book is Sergey Aleynikov, a former Goldman coder whose prosecution triggered the start of the book, in which he was quoted:

If the incarceration experience doesn’t break your spirit, it changes you in a way that you lose many fears.
You begin to realize that your life is not ruled by your ego and ambition and that it can end any day at any time. So why worry?

October 23, 2012

Iron curtain

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:40 pm
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Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. By Anne Applebaum.

This book should be a required reading for dictators all over the world.
Quote from the Economist review:

Human beings, as Ms Applebaum rousingly concludes, do not acquire “totalitarian personalities” with ease. Even when they seem bewitched by the cult of the leader or of the party, appearances can deceive, she writes. When it seems as if they buy into the most absurd propaganda—marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right—the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken.

June 17, 2012

The Host

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 3:03 pm
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A while ago I stumbled upon this trailer video of an upcoming movie, The Host, which turned out to be the film adaptation of the same titled novel by the very same author responsible for the hugely popular (in terms of box office, not critic) Twilight series.

Yes, I know a lot of people think Twilight is stupid and suitable for teenage girls only. I agree with that, after making a fatal mistake of actually buying a ticket to watch the first one in a movie theatre in Seattle during a raining evening. The weather and location turned out to be the main motivator, because the story backdrop happens in Seattle, in the thesis that lack of sunlight provides natural camouflage for the vampires. (I really want to advocate Beijing as a far better locale due to its heavy pollution, but let me not derail.)

The thing is, I really wanted to know why stories written by the author, Stephenie Meyer, tend to be so popular. There is no way I am even going to get near the Twilight books, but fortunately, The Host contains two major themes that I tend to enjoy, sci-fi, and conquering humans. So I read the book during a long distance flight.

I like the book tremendously, not just for the sci-fi and (conquering) human components. A theme that is really special behind many of these Stephenie Meyer stories is the study of relationships among entities that have quasi-human souls embedded in quasi-human forms. Like vampires + werewolves + humans (Twilight), or brain snatchers from outer space (The Host). So, essentially, these are romances embedded in an expanded sci-fi universe with extra dimensions for all the love, hate, and intrigue.

This being said, I still plan to allocate more my novel quota for Neal Stephenson. Brain snatchers are intriguing, but less so than brain computers who can alter the past and the future.

February 16, 2012

Sleep

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:54 pm
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Numerous studies have concluded the importance of sleep for the wellness of brain functioning. A good night’s sleep not only refreshes the mind but also, in my personal case, often yields good ideas, and solutions to difficult problems. The best description I have seen so far is this:

We cannot do anything else when we are sleeping because it is when we work the hardest.
– Neal Stephenson, in Anathem

September 11, 2011

A year of no significance

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 6:13 pm
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1587, a Year of No Significance (Chinese: 萬曆十五年) is a book by historian Ray Huang (Chinese: 黃仁宇) which described how a sequence of seemingly insignificant events precipitated the eventual downfall of the Ming dynasty, as well as China itself. I remember getting totally fascinated by this book as a high school kid. The book is not flawless, but it is fascinating in highlighting how significant long term trends, which usually happen slowly, are often preceded by very small signs.

It is like the famous Chinese proverb, 一葉知秋: from a falling tree leaf one can know that the autumn is coming.

If future historians are going to write a similar book about the eventual downfall of the America (dynasty) as well as the entire West, the analogous year will be 2001, or probably even a specific day, September 11. Contrast to 1587, this is a year of *major* significance. But THE event is no less precipitating than those in 1587.

I am looking forward to read this book, and I hope it will be as enthralling as the one by Ray Huang.

September 13, 2010

Talent is overrated

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:00 pm
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by Geoff Colvin

This book is really about “practice is underrated”, but I guess the editors need a more catching title for sales. The main point of the book is that effective practice is more important than other factors including specialty talent and general intelligence, and can overcome obstacles such as aging. The book even argues that creativity, commonly considered as a serendipitous process, is actually the result of significantly cumulative knowledge.

And it is not just about any practice, and aimless hard-working and experience will not help. Effective practice must be deliberate and satisfies the following properties: (1) it must be designed to improve specific performance, (2) it must be highly repeatable, (3) there should be continuous feedback, (4) it must be mentally demanding, and (5) it is usually not fun. I actually disagree with the last one, and fortunately the book also pointed out for certain high achievers, practice can be fun. So the last part of the book is about the most important question: why some people are motivated to go through all these hard practice to achieve excellence while others cannot. The most convincing explanation is that some initial small differences get amplified through a positive feedback look of practice and performance: when a kid, who gains a little bit edge on certain activity (either due to innate advantage or benign environment), can be motivated to practice a little bit harder and longer, which translates to even better performance, which motivates more practice, and the loop goes on.

I like this book as it fits my personal experience well. It has long puzzled me why some people have this innate drive to strive for the best while others do not, and this can happen among people with very similar genes and environments (e.g. siblings in the same family). The book also carries a positive message: anyone can achieve excellence if they are willing to go through the right kind of practice.

September 5, 2010

The monk and the riddle

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 12:16 pm
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by Randy Komisar

This is such a good book that I wish I had read it earlier (but fortunately found it is not too late). The gist of the book is about the right mind set for starting up companies (it was published right before the dotcom bubble burst) but I believe the main points are equally applicable to other professions: (1) do what you want to do for the rest of your life and (2) be ambitious, aim for the very best, and do not settle for mediocrity.

Read the book to figure out what the riddle is about.

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 20, 2010

Eucalyptus, a novel

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 10:13 am
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By Murray Bail

This is an unorthodox love story weaved from sub-stories around individual gum trees. The writing can be as rough and patchy as the (author’s) Australian landscapes, but the book is short, sweet, and unique enough to worth reading.

May 29, 2010

The girl with the dragon tattoo

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 3:08 pm
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The length of my to-read list for books and papers usually discourages my indulgence for long novels, but I picked up “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for the following reasons: there is already a copy at my home (an impulse purchase by a family member who has not and maybe will never read it), I like detective novels in general, and most importantly, according to this Economist article, the main reasons why the Nordic detective novels are so popular include (1) a plain, simple, precise, and direct writing style and (2) realistic and yet distinctive portrayal of the main characters. I told myself: gee, these seem to be the kinds of desired writing styles for good research papers (after replacing *characters* by *algorithms*) so I went on to give the book a try.

This turns out to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I ever have. I highly recommend to anyone who wants to read a compelling story with engaging characters in a clean writing style. I also plan to read the two subsequent books of the same trilogy, “The Girl who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”.

July 22, 2009

The randomness in life

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:43 am
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The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
by Leonard Mlodinow


Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Thanks to the advances of probability theory and quantum physics, most people today would have no problem accepting the fact that the physical world we inhabit is subject to randomness and the future cannot be predicted deterministically. However, we tend to associate this randomness with the microscopic atomic world and under-estimate the role randomness plays in our macroscopic daily lives. In a nutshell, due to evolutionary reasons, human minds tend to rationalize events that are random, often trying to find patterns, rules, or causalities that really do not exist.

Two books render this point excellently; one by Taleb that I read a while ago, and another by Mlodinow that I just finished yesterday.

Mlodinow is a scientist turned writer, and thus his book is written in a popular science fashion, with plain English descriptions (no single equation is shown in the book) of the basic probability and statistical theories, their historical progressions, and anecdotes of peoples involved in their discoveries. Based on these scientific expositions, Mlodinow ventured into a few more philosophical suggestions, such as that life is more random than we intuit and thus we should not interpret too much rules or causalities, as well as the suggestion that the best strategy to overcome this randomness is the law of large numbers, i.e. keep trying and never give up easily.

Overall, this is a highly entertaining book, and I particularly enjoy the anecdotes of these scientists and mathematicians involved in the evolution of the probability and statistical theories. (It appears that their lives and discoveries are also subject to randomness.) I also concur with the moral lessons that Mlodinow suggested (anyone with enough experience in scientific publications, or more precisely, rejections, ought to be able to appreciate the meaning of the law of large numbers).

Taleb, on the other hand, is a philosopher turned trader (or the other way around; I cannot really tell). Thus, even though sharing a similar central theme with the book by Mlodinow, the one by Taleb is filled with stories and observations he made from his trading desk (or pit) interspersed with either philosophical statements or scientific statements made by a philosopher. The book is also highly entertaining but in a way different from Mlodinow’s; it is more sarcastic (in a good way) and the anecdotes are about the financial rather than the scientific world.

I highly recommend both books, and suggest reading them in succession for extra fun. (I read Taleb’s book so long ago that my memory for it already fades when writing this article.)

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