Confessions of a researchaholic

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

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

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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