Sunday, November 01, 2009


Unknowingly we are all in pursuit of Turandot, the cold, vengeful princess of Peking who confronts her suitors with her three riddles. Answer the riddles correctly, you will enjoy the conquest of the heavenly beauty of Turandot, and become the king of the vast land in the East; fail them, you will forfeit your life and have your head chopped off.

Is it worth it, to have that singular obsession, the pursuit of which makes us oblivious to all other matters in life? Is it wise to risk it all, to climb the steep and snowy mountain, in search of the legendary snow lotus, when there are so many beautiful flowers just by your feet?

Greatness is invariably born out of foolishness, a blissful state of ignorance in statistics. How much less we would have achieved if we could see into the future! Foolishness abounds; greatness, by definition, is rare. Many a prince had lost his head, literally, to the seductive beauty of Turandot, before Calaf, in a streak of good fortune, solved all three riddles, and eventually won the princess's heart. Deaf to the good advice of his father Timur, deaf to the imploring of the slave girl Liu, who was secretly in love with him, deaf to the wise words of Ping, Pang and Pong, who told him that there were a thousand faces and a thousand legs awaiting him if only he would forget Turandot and leave Peking, and deaf to the chorused dissuasion of the crowd, Calaf insisted on taking the test. A madman indeed. For him, death is preferable to the torment of a life consumed by unrequited passion.

All failures sum up to a number in statistics; success stands out as a singular event. While the severed heads of the princes before him rotted on the pikes on the streets of Peking, Calaf embraced a Turandot transformed by love. She declared to the king that she had learnt the name of Calaf, and "It is love!".

Love may there be, but surely there is a lot of luck.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Destiny on the table

My friend's son turned one today. There was a big party. After the cakes were cut and served to the guests, a few objects were placed on a low coffee table: a pen, symbolizing scholarship; a drumstick, foretelling the life of a musician; two crayons, pointing to artistic creativity; a pink plastic ribbon, embodying longevity; a $20 bill, foreshadowing a career in finance; and a calculator, auguring a career in science and engineering. The one-year old was going to pick one of these objects on his own, which would reveal his future.

The son's name is Haydn, and my friend named his dog Mozart, so there was a clear expectation from the parents. Lo and behold, Haydn, donning traditional Korean costumes, reached for the drumstick. But then something funny happened. He stopped 3 inches short, hand suspended in mid air. He was thinking, and he started inspecting other objects. Then he noticed the pen - a Mont Blanc, and without further hesitation he grasped it. Scholar he would be! Everyone in the room broke into applause. Then Haydn also took the crayons. A scholar with artistic creativity, it could not have been better.

With an analytical turn of mind, I could not help thinking about the one-year-old's choice. First, he went for the drumstick; but instead, he chose the pen and the crayons. All these objects are long cylinders, with the Mont Blanc pen being the most well-crafted (and also by far the most expensive). Perhaps all toddlers have a innate affinity for cylindrincally shaped objects, but prefer the ones that they can easily hold in their tiny hands.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reenact a novel on Facebook

Here is a silly but potentially fun game to play on Facebook. Take your favorite novel, say, War and Peace, and for each character, Pierre Bezukhov, Natasia Rostova, etc., register a Facebook page. Next, connect the characters in friendship as they do so in the novel. As you read the novel, each day you will update each character's page with things that happen to the character. Write statements in first-person, and write them in the protagonists' own tones. Record not only the events in the protagonists' lives, but also the thoughts that may go through their minds, and the emotions that they experience - use your own imagination here to express your personal impressions. By the time you finish reading the novel, you will have reenacted the novel in the cyberspace. Won't this be fun! Better yet, it will make you pay more attention to the details in the novel, thus appreciating it better.

If you have a reading group, each member in the group can play a different character. Such a game surely will enhance the reading experience, and give you something extra to discuss over cheese and wine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Friendship, one bite at a time

In the movie Fightclub, Norton's nameless character coined the phrase single-serving friends - strangers who share a few hours of flight time, chat, and then part their ways. On Facebook, friends are like bite-sized snacks - their frequent posts and comments alleviate the sense of separation but never satiate the craving for real connection. Just like too much snack can ruin the appetite for a real meal, the deluge of Facebook friendships, I fear, might get in the way of developing more full-fledged friendship. We take a glimpse into our friends' lives through their Facebook posts, confuse them with real conversations, and be content with an illusion of company. 

In this new era of Facebook, friendship needs a re-definition. According to Facebook, my friend Coco has 1278 friends and counting, and George recently announced that his friend count just entered 4 digit realm as well. When one's got that many friends, each friendship cannot but be diluted down. As an old Chinese saying goes: a virtuous friendship is thin but pure like water. Are all Facebook friendships not only virtual but also virtuous?

One psyche that draws us to Facebook, I suspect, is curiosity, a social voyeurism out of boredom. We are born to peek into others' lives, and now Facebook seemingly offers a way to peek into others' minds (the form on Facebook asks "What is on your mind?"). A thought, once posted, is no longer exclusively owned but is shared among all who read it. Does this allow us to vicariously live our friends' lives? When a friend posts sad feelings, does it inflict sadness among all who view the post? To what extent will the great connectivity synchronize our emotions?

On Facebook, one promotes to friends who in real life are but acquaintances. It is convenient and it costs nothing. Friendship can be deleted - a click on a button and the connection is removed; no awkward social situation is involved. One can also delete one's posts; is it equivalent to saying "Oh, sorry, I take it back!" in a real conversation?

Friday, October 09, 2009

A Nobel SurPrize

In debating whether President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize after only 9 months as the president of United States, it behooves a re-reading of Alfred Nobel's original will:

one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

There is an apparent difference between the intended recipients of the Peace Prize and those of the other disciplines. In chemistry, physics, medicine, and literature, the prize should go to researchers or writers who have produced the most significant result - discoveries, inventions, or a body of literature that have transformed the scientific, technological, or cultural landscape. Notably, these prizes award impact, not effort or intention. Even though success, as Edison put it, is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration, sometimes chance happens to all. Kary Mullis won 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry not for any heroic effort, but for his stroke-of-genius invention of polymerase chain reaction. With few exceptions, Nobel Prizes in these disciplines have rarely been given to anyone for simply tireless work - too many scientists and writers toil for a lifetime without any recognition. In short, award for quality, not quantity.

The Peace Prize is singled out because it can be bestowed upon a person who has "done the most or the best work". Now the door is open for effort, regardless of result. In the past, the Nobel Peace Prize has been repeatedly awarded for intentions and labor, even when such intentions and labor have not paid quantifiable dividend of a more peaceful or sustainable world.

Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are established to encourage individuals in the pursuit of science and literature, thus more immune to any mutable agenda of the committee itself, the Nobel Peace Prize takes it upon itself to promote peace in the world. The Prize committee therefore has its own political agenda. The main purpose of the award is not to recognize any individual's effort or accomplishment, but to recognize and support a cause, a policy or an action that the committee deems to be in the correct direction. It is not an award for the past, but for the present and the future. The award to Obama is not a nod to what he has achieved, but to what he is doing. In other words, the committee is making a statement that had they been elected the president of the United States, they would be instituting the same international order as Obama; they are also telling the world, be vigilant of this new course of the United States, and make sure that the Obama administration never strays from it. The award is a means for the Prize Committee to insert its own agenda into world politics.

Unfortunately, good intentions do not equal good outcomes. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. (This is probably best illustrated by the predecessor of Obama.) A world without nuclear weapons may not be a more peaceful world, just one less likely to face total annihilation. The impact of policies can only be tested by time. But again, the committee of the Nobel Peace Prize is not there to assess the impact using scientific measurements, it is there to ensure that the United States, and the rest of the world, commit to the policies that the committee approves of out of their own noble intentions and gut's feelings. After all, in the long run, we are all dead; but in the next 3 years, we want to live the way that feels right.

If the Nobel Peace Prize were to be awarded for impact instead of intention, if it were to be given to people whose work have fundamentally improved fraternity among nations and different people, I would like to nominate Timothy Berners-Lee, for the invention of the internet, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. Nothing has done more to spread democracy, to combat poverty, to defeat dictators, to foster fraternity across national borders, and to carry prosperity from corner to corner in this world, than the freedom of information and instant communication brought about by the internet. If there were to be a number assigned to the impact of the internet on world peace, it would have to be googol.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Making of a Great Scientist

When I first got into science, I thought that it was about coming up with brilliant and evolutionary ideas and the rest would come together by itself. After ten years in research, however, while being by no means a great scientist, I did learn a few things about the making of one, which I would like to share with you. It's an immodest thing to do. But anonymous modesty never serves anyone. So here I go.

First of all, if you have not read Richard Hamming's lecture, "You and Your Research", read it now. If you haven't reevaluate your research after reading it, read it again. Hamming's lecture should really be writings on the wall for all aspiring scientists, for it shows us the most important step to great research: how to pick the great problems to work on. Avoid mediocrity.

But picking the right problem is just the first step. The really great scientists are also great problem solvers. Rome is not built in one day. Great science does not happen by itself even if you have a great idea. There is only subtle difference between a genius and a mad person. That difference is the methodical implementation of one's ideas.

Once you have an idea to solve a great problem, you set out to see if it is right. You carry out an experiment. If you are really onto something big, often you will need to design a new experiment that nobody has done before, you will build some new apparatuses, write some new computer programs, collect some hard-to-collect data. (Incidentally, having to do something difficult and unusual also hints that you may be onto something significant.) These new elements bring in extra uncertainty. The experiments may at first disagree with your hypothesis. You have to determine whether your hypothesis is wrong or your experiment has flaws.

The ability to verify the integrity of your experiment is the paramount skill you need to have as a great scientist. You have to be able to design experiments where you know the outcome to test your new apparatus, devise simple models with analytical results to test your computer program.

Once your experiment agrees with your hypothesis, the real test of greatness begins. You must overcome the initial excitement, and with a cool head, consider if there is an alternative hypothesis that also agrees with your experiment. How can you design additional experiment to distinguish between different hypotheses? Don't draw conclusions too quickly.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Facebook prize

Netflix just awarded a cool million to a 7-member team who managed to devise algorithms that improved the prediction of user's ratings of movies by 10% compared to Netflix's own Cinematch algorithm, the endgame of a 4-year long contest (see NYTimes).

Isn't it time that Facebook sets up a contest of its own? With its database of human connections, Facebook can challenge the machine learning community to predict friendship: reveal 90% of each user's friends, and have the algorithm predict the rest 10%. Another challenge is to reveal each user's friends up to a certain date, and have the algorithm predict new friendships that the user forms afterwards. May the most accurate algorithm prevail.

Online dating services can certainly use such an algorithm. Who else? Insurance companies? Banks? Salespeople? How much can you learn about a person from the friends he or she keeps?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mobile human computing

I am a big fan of Luis von Ahn's work on human computing. The idea of human computing is to harness the idle human brain power to perform computational tasks that so far have eluded the computers, such as image labeling (see google's image labeler) and recognition of old text (check out reCaptcha). The clever part of von Ahn's approach is to engage the human brain through an entertaining game or as a by-product of other necessary tasks.

I believe that this approach can be extended to the mobile phone platform. With smart phones like the iPhone, the location and time of the carrier are known, and these information should be valuable for designing location- and time-specific computational tasks. Another advantage of using smart phones as a platform for human computing is that these phones are almost always accessible at idle times - my colleagues invariably play on their iPhones when the meetings get boring. 

What can be accomplished using smart phones and idle human time? I have not come up with a specific application. But here are some general, and obvious, thoughts. Each human should be presented a simple task, which should not require expert knowledge or special skill, and should be fun to perform. The task should be easy for normal humans but difficult for even the most advanced computers, such as to observe and describe one's surroundings, or to identify a person. The outcome of all these tasks should then be combined in a way to solve a complicated problem. In order to take full advantage of the mobility of smart phones, the problem that we try to solve should ideally involve the locations and times at which the carriers perform their tasks.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

First time pheasantry

The first bird got away. It flew away so fast that before either Yang or I opened the safety on our guns, it had crossed the grassfield and safely alighted in the woods far beyond the reach of any 12-gauge shotgun. We followed its flight path with our eyes. It was a beautiful male bird with a long tail and a dash of red on its head. We were relieved that we did not have to kill so early in the hunt. But the two dogs were disappointed.

The pointing dog was responsible for the escape of the first bird. Upon smelling the scent of the bird, the pointer should have frozen and have pointed its nose at the bird's hiding place. Instead, it came too close to the bird and flushed it out before we could ready our guns. More experienced hunters could have responded in time. But we could not raise our guns that fast yet.

Don, our guide, with a Jack Nicholson semblance and a loose lip for curse words, told us to be more ready the next time. We walked on, in wet, knee-high grass which I feared might harbor venomous snakes or ankle-breaking pits. The pointer ran around excitedly, the bell on its neck ringing. When it got too far away from us, Don would blow a whistle to call it back.

Then the pointer froze. Its bell stopped ringing, and a moment of silence fell upon the field. Don stepped forward in the direction of the pointer's nose. As he kicked in the bushes, a bird took flight. "Shoot it!" Don shouted. This time I was ready. I mounted my gun, waited for the bird to clear a distance for 20 yards - shoot it any closer and there will be very little meat left, and took aim and pulled the trigger. Feathers scattered in the air, and the bird fell straight down into the grass.

Don released the retriever, who dashed to the spot where the bird fell. In half a minute it returned with the lifeless bird in its mouth. Don wrestled the bird away and put it in the pocket of his enormous vest. A good shot, Don congratulated me.

We would return home with at least one bird, I thought. We'd driven 3 hours from New York City to this upland preserve in the Catskill, slept the night before in a fly-infested cabin, and paid $360 for the hunt. Our jeans had got all wet from the knee down, and our boots were covered in mud. It would be disappointing to return home empty-handed, and embarrassing to face the friends that we had promised to share our game. Although Yang and I had been shooting clay targets for a couple of years, we had never hunted before. The clay target only flies out when we are ready and call for it; the pheasants are less obedient to our wills.

It turned out, however, that hunting pheasants is not too different from shooting clays, as far as the shooting technique goes. Pheasants are big birds, and they fly rather slowly and in almost straight lines. Although they didn't come out at our bidding, the well-trained pointer gave us plenty of time to prepare for the shots, and Don invariably flushed them out when we were ready. The hunt lasted just short of two hours. The pointer found all ten birds that Don released in the field. I shot two of them, Yang got another two. We also shot one bird together - we fired simultaneously and heard only one shot! The other five birds got away; may they live prosperously until old age.

The irony of hunting with a guide in a preserve is that we never really got to touch the birds. Each time we dropped a bird, the retriever got it back and Don pocketed it for us. After the hunt, the management staff plucked and skinned the birds, and packaged them in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. In the end, we were handed nicely packaged pheasant breasts at check-out. Aside from a few residual down left on the wings, they were indistinguishable from a supermarket purchase.

A few days later I baked honey-glazed pheasant breasts. Our guests and we all agreed that they tasted just like chicken.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the phone with Verizon

I do not own any land-based phone line, but my parents-in-law still use Verizon. Recently their phone stopped working, and Verizon sent a technician to fix the problem. Having revived the phone service from outside the house, the technician suggested that he could also change a wall jack in the bathroom. Why not, my father-in-law thought. So he got a new water-proof jack in the bathroom.

To their dismay, the phone bill for that month came to more than $100, out of which $91 was for "Labor Charges for Inside Wire Repair Visit", and $24 for the wall jack. Since it was unclear why there was a charge for "inside wire repair" as the actual repair took place outside the house, I called Verizon to have the charge explained.

Having punched in a long sequence of number options on my dial pad, I finally got a representative, to whom I had to repeat again the phone number that I was calling about, which I had keyed in before. The representative must have waken up on the wrong side of the bed as she sounded confrontational in the very beginning. She informed me that since the technician replaced a wall jack inside the house, there would automatically be the labor charge. When I patiently explained to her that the wall jack was not relevant to the repair, she insisted that once the technician did anything in the house, there would be a $91 charge. Seeing that she was beyond reason, I suggested that perhaps Verizon could send an invoice to me that explains exactly what was done to fix the original disruption of service. But that's not her problem, the representative argued, and had me transferred to the repair department.

The repair department apparently did not keep a record of what repair had been performed by its technicians. The new representative, a woman who seemed not to have waken up at all, told me that the only way I could find out the actual repair job was to speak with the technician who did the job. She said that she would have the technician call me the next day.

The next day, no technician called.

So I called Verizon again. This time a Theresa answered my call. I suspected that she was the same representative from last time, for she had the same confrontational tone in her voice. Or maybe that was inherent in the training of all Verizon employees. This time, I got a slightly different story - any time a technician comes to a house, regardless whether the repair is performed inside or outside the house, there will be a charge of $91. It was then insensible, at least to me, to call the charge "inside wire repair". Nonetheless, I said that all I wanted to know was what repair had been performed. When I visit the doctors, I always get a notice from my insurance that list exactly what procedures the doctors have performed and charged for. Should not the phone companies do the same, as a check against dishonest technicians who wantonly charge more than the necessary? Can Verizon just send an invoice explaining the problem and the repair? That seemed, however, too much to ask from Theresa, who repeatedly told me that the service was already explained in the bill. Perhaps to Theresa it was clear what "inside wire repair" actually entailed, but to a person not working for a phone company, that was opaque. So I asked to speak to the manager.

The manager was a man who sounded like he was jerked out of his siesta. Sorry, there was nothing that he could do, since he worked in the billing department, and I had to speak to someone in the repair department. Apparently, in the same company of Verizon, different departments do not share information. In this case, perhaps there was no information, except for the technician's words.

I gave up.

Monday, August 24, 2009

When God retires from heaven

Men used to believe that distinct laws governed the heavenly bodies and the earthly objects .The motion of the planets followed different rules than the motion of a catapulted stone. The genius of Issac Newton changed this view forever. Gravity, the first universal force discovered, follows the same inverse square law in heaven as on earth. Much of modern theoretical physics strive to unify all the interactions, and to reduce all matter to the composition of elementary particles. Modern science no longer separates the celestial realm from the terrestrial regime; the same laws apply to both.

This new affinity for unity between celestial and terrestrial affairs may be sound so far as the immutable laws of physics is concerned, but it can be dangerously misguiding when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life. Most of astrobiology searches not for life but for life as we know it on earth: carbon-based, water-dependent forms that amazingly share the same genetic material. Yet the life on earth is nothing more than a historical accident, in that it happened to have evolved in a water world and in the temperature range where proteins and nucleic acids dissolve in water. It could happen differently in a different environment. On a much colder planet, for example, liquid carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide can provide life's matrix that water is on earth.

Whenever a new paradigm sweeps away the old, it is often adopted beyond its proven applicability. The unification of the celestial and terrestrial phenomena, successful as it has been in the laws of motion, has yet to find any evidential support in the discipline of biology. Until then, it may be beneficial to keep an open mind, and regard life in the heaven as something different than that on this earth.