30 May 2012

Thought of the day: The best intellectual training

At the risk of sounding self-serving and elitist, I think the best intellectual training is mathematics and physics. These subjects are the most challenging to learn due to their abstract nature and extremely difficult to pick up as an adult (maybe as difficult as learning a musical instrument or foreign language as an adult). There are many claims that mathematicians and theoretical physicists make their biggest discoveries before the age of 40. Mathematicians and physicists have a reputation for being "smart" and after a long period of reluctance and doubt, I have to agree that this reputation is well-deserved.

If you know math and physics, it's easy to pick up almost everything else. I'm not saying you'll achieve a deep understanding of literature, history, or business, but you'll be able to learn it pretty fast and be decent at it. My friend remarked that the coolest people are the scientists who are the top in their field and interested in everything. Unfortunately, these people are a minority. The rest are rather one-dimensional and dull company. (Her opinion, not mine.)

I think that the other difficult fields to pick up are visual art and music. They are also quite abstract. Artists are trained to "see" in a special way; they can translate what they see into an artistic representation (often translating 3D into 2D). By visual art, I'm talking about drawing and painting, not photography (which is kind of a technological cheat). Musicians innately understand rhythm and scales.

I've heard that philosophy is the best intellectual training if you restrict yourself to humanities fields. I'm not really sure about social science. Those are interesting subjects, but I think if you just want to be a great thinker, you're better off starting with math and physics.

So I guess if I had a child, I would have him/her learn art, music, math, and physics, plus a couple foreign languages.

29 May 2012

Thought of the day: Detail vs ideas

I find it easy to get overwhelmed by details, particularly in science where most research reveals around investigating one specific detail. There are so many facts and things to remember that I end up feeling hopeless and depressed.

So now I want to do something different. Instead start from the big idea and then go looking for the details that support and illuminate the idea. Reading scientific papers (which are usually not well-written) is like wading through a sea of details and hoping to re-construct the big idea that encompasses them. Very difficult and painful.

28 May 2012

Encounter with a theater junkie

Last night, I went to a cabaret concert and I sat next to a woman who is basically a theater junkie. She told me that she goes to off-off-off Broadway shows. She doesn't like Broadway shows. I'm guessing probably because it's too commercial and expensive. She's a member of a discount club which has great deals (usually 50% off) on shows, ranging from musicals to plays to circus acts to radio theater. I had no idea people still did radio theater in the US! She gave me some great recommendations on things to see. Some shows she really liked: a radio theater thing, a circus act performed by people with "beautiful bodies", a transsexual artist doing a tribute to another famous artist. And we bonded over our love of opera. These kinds of encounters are unique and special -- I'm extremely grateful. I don't know any theater junkies so it's really hard to get into it.

27 May 2012

Link of the day: "How to Live Unhappily Ever After"

A few weeks ago, I read this essay by Augusten Burroughs in the Wall Street Journal about how happiness is overrated.

In particular, I like this passage:
The truth about healing is that heal is a television word. Someone close to you dies? You will never heal. What will happen is, for the first few days, the people around you will touch your shoulder and this will startle you and remind you to breathe. You will feel as though you will soon be dead from natural causes; the weight of the grief will be physical and very nearly unbearable.

Eventually, you will shower and leave the house. Maybe in a year you will see a movie. And one day somebody will say something and it will cause you to laugh. And you will clamp your hand over your mouth because you laughed and that laugh will break your heart, it will feel like a betrayal. How can you laugh?

In time, to your friends, you will appear to have recovered from your loss. All that really happened, you'll think, is that the hole in the center of your life has narrowed just enough to be concealed by a laugh. And yet, you might feel a pressure for it to be true. You might feel that "enough" time has passed now, that the hole at the center of you should not be there at all.
I imagine that there are some depressed people out there who simply get better and better at lying, at covering up their darkness, for the sake of maintaining their social life and relationships. Even the closest, most understanding of friends will eventually tire of negativity.

Augusten Burroughs is the famed author of Running with Scissors -- which I have not read.

23 May 2012

Thought of the day: Direct Studies for scientists?

I have heard a lot of good things about the Directed Studies program at Yale. It's an elective program for freshmen undergraduates. For their first two semester, the students take three classes covering "literature, philosophy, and historical and political thought."

My impression is that it's a survey of the foundations of Western culture. It helps people understand where many Western ideas came from, for example, democracy -- an idea we take for granted. The professors encourage a lot of discussion and deep thinking. Directed Studies teaches young people how to think. In the Boston Globe, one of the Directed Studies professors argues why the program and those like it are important:
The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.
Would it be possible to make an equivalent for science? How would you cover the history of science? What would be the book list? I'm guessing that constructing a science version of Directed Studies would be pretty difficult. Scientific ideas, especially from physics and math, are very abstract and difficult to grasp. If you don't have a good base of math, physics, chemistry, and biology, it'd be hard to have discussions. Moreover, the way that these subjects are taught in K-12 doesn't help. Students are taught to memorize and apply recipes. I don't think freshmen would have enough background. The only book I can think of that would work is Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

22 May 2012

What a scientist should be able to do

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
I was thinking about what are the skills a scientist should have. What do you think a grad student should know at the end, after they finish their PhD?
  1. Technical skills - mathematics, programming/numerics, lab techniques, etc
  2. Writing - ability to write good scientific papers that are clear, concise, and well-motivated
  3. Presentations - ability to write good presentations and deliver them well, this is closely related to writing
  4. Comprehension - ability to distill the important ideas from a paper or presentation, ability to tell the difference between crappy research and good research
  5. Process - (advanced) ability to come up with concrete ways/experiments to answer questions, ability to overcome deadends in research, ability to stay organized, keep good records, and manage other people
  6. Community - talking to people including those outside your field, attending seminars/conferences, convincing people your research is important, building a network of trusted friends who you can turn to for feedback and support
  7. Creativity - ability to understand the difference between good and bad ideas/questions, (advanced) ability to come up with interesting questions that are soluble
  8. Resilience - ability to stay positive and motivated even when the research isn't going very well
I am by no means an expert on this subject.

21 May 2012

Link of the day: Three styles for writing a (scientific) paper

My sister alerted me to a nice explanation of how a scientific paper should be written. The author, Prof. Stuart Shieber, describes three styles of writing a paper and which one you should use.

The first is the "continental" style in which you simply state the idea and show the data/proof. I think the name "continental" refers to those continental breakfasts where you choose whatever you want to eat from a buffet. This kind of paper has no motivation and to readers who are not experienced, makes it seem like you are really smart. It's also unreadable.

The second style is the "historical" style. It's kind of like writing a diary where you describe all the mistakes you made, how you changed your research direction, etc. A lot of students fall into writing in this way because they're doing their first big research project, it's all new to them, and they think their work is really important or want to explain how much they suffered during the process. The problem with this approach is that there is a lot of stuff the reader doesn't need to know and also, it might make you look like an idiot.

The third style is the "rational reconstruction" style. It's kind of a middle-of-the-road style between "continental" and "historical." You present an ideal history which only shows the steps that motivate your final result. It's kind of like if you made a movie of your life -- you would want to show the important events and tie them together in a consistent, meaningful manner. Sometimes you might need to embellish or downplay something a little to make the story more coherent or engaging.

The concise version:

"Continental" style - you state the idea without any motivation -> makes you look like a genius, at least to those whom you can fool into thinking that unreadable papers are brilliant

"Historical" style - you provide a diary of your research containing all the mistakes and changes in direction you made -> makes you look like an idiot

"Rational reconstruction" style - you give an ideal history, only present the relevant steps and motivate everything properly -> the one you should use

20 May 2012

Thought of the day: The self-aware learner

A lot of life seems to be learning self-awareness. Some major examples are being self-aware of your mental/emotional state and being self-aware of your learning process. No one teaches us these things, and few people talk about them.

Actually, that's not completely correct. You go to therapy and talk to a psychologist/psychiatrist/etc. There are different schools of psychology. One of the main branches is psychoanalysis, whose goal is to help the patient understand themselves.

As to learning processes, we spend so much of our lives in school yet we never spend any time thinking about how we learn. Meta-learning is an important topic. As the old cliched saying goes, it's so much more useful to teach someone how to fish than to fish for them. What type of learner are you? Visual? Kinesthetic? When you're confronted with a subject you know a little about it but not very much, how do you approach learning it? How can we teach people how to learn?

One way is project-based learning. Often, a class ends with a one-month long project. This tends to be very short-term and driven by trying to do an adequate enough job for an A. Maybe it would be better to have a class that is entirely focused on a project. Still, that is only a few months in a college course.

How about craft learning? What if you want to be a world-class hockey player or musician or mathematician? This isn't something that can be encapsulated in a class. You need to do a hobby on a semi-serious level for a year or so to get a taste of this. For example, I spent a year learning photography. After a year, I mastered all the basic technical stuff and had gotten a taste of the different fields (e.g. event, portrait, landscape photography). I could recognize what were the big ideas in photography. The use of light and shadow. Colors - warm vs cool colors. Right now, I could probably make a list of what general ideas every photographer should master. Then if you told me what type of photography you wanted to become (say macro), I could write a list of what technical skills you should work on.

Some of the greatest musicians/athletes/actors/etc had a parent who guided them from day one, telling them what to focus on, what skill to learn. A really neat story is László Polgár training his daughters into chess grandmasters. Or they grew up in an area teeming with the best in their field -- like actors and musicians who grew up in New York. These kids could go to the theatre and see world class productions, or find teachers affiliated with Julliard.

14 May 2012

What I learned at the defense industry career panel

This afternoon, I went to a panel about doing science in government, mostly defense work. It was the best career event I've ever been to. The three panelists were diverse, interesting, charismatic, down-to-earth, and genuinely helpful. All three had PhDs in science/engineering. I'm relating what I learned from memory, so the account below is not entirely accurate.

The first panelist was a man who works in a technology office. He said that nowadays he mostly signs checks. But back in the day, he did all sorts of cool defense research. He even slept on an aircraft carrier. He recommended that we cyberstalk as much as possible to get a job. He told us that he gets to work at 6 am and has an hour before everyone else shows up. That's the perfect time for an informational interview over the phone. He also cyberstalks, from the hiring end. When he Googles people, he likes to see that they have varied experiences, for example, doing charity work in a poor area. He believed that the PhD is a degree in perseverance. He got his PhD while working full-time, though towards the end when he was writing his thesis, he got a few days off a week. Also, it was interesting when he asked how many people in the room (mostly science grad students and postdocs) wanted to be rich. Almost no one raised their hand. He claimed that MIT, almost everyone raised their hand. He told us that the young should not go into policy, that was something for later in one's career if you still wanted to do it. I don't recall the exact reason. Overall, he was very matter-of-fact and blunt, with strong opinions.

The second panelist was a Eastern European woman who worked in the bioweapons office. She emphasized that her PhD had nothing to do with bioweapons. The most interesting thing was that she was also in the Army reserve and had officer rank. But because of her Eastern European background and accent, people didn't believe that she was in the Army. They asked "which army?" She remarked that she felt just as loyal to the US as anyone else, because she had to swear allegiance twice -- first to become a US citizen, then to join the Army. She also made a comment about Eastern Europe being very different than America. For example, the joke is that if an officer tells a US soldier to jump, the soldier say "how high?" An Eastern European soldier would ask "why?"

The last panelist was a guy who works with scientists from many fields. He gave the example of having a discussion about weapons with a biologist, chemist, and physicist. His job was to bring everyone together and synthesize the different ideas and perspectives. He had a very unusual background. He was half-Hispanic and half-German and grew up on the West Coast. His father was a rocket engineer so he grew up learning about rockets. But he never actually studied engineering in college. He stressed the importance of learning different subjects. He himself felt that his study of jazz in college really helped him become a good thinker, even though the subject seems to have nothing in common with science. (I emailed him a few days after the panel and he said it's important to have hobbies not just because they make you smarter, but also for the sake of your sanity.) He also said that a while back, he was on a job panel and when the panelists compared notes, they realized that they had never planned their job path. Stuff just happened. They had no idea what they were doing at the time; only looking back retroactively, could they construct a "logical" path. He recommended just doing whatever you find interesting instead of scheming some plan to work your way to the top.

To summarize, here are some of the most interesting (and subjective) things I learned:
  • Cyberstalk as much as possible to get a job.
  • For many people, phone calls are easiest very early in the morning.
  • Don't do policy when you're young.
  • If you enjoy studying peripheral seemingly useless subjects, don't worry. They'll be surprisingly useful in subtle ways.
  • There is no coherent job path. So just do whatever you find interesting. Life is too short.

12 May 2012

Thought of the day: Inspired connections

I realized that talking to really smart people inspires me to say smart things that I didn't think I knew. Well, that's not completely accurate, more like the underlying thoughts were already there, but talking to someone smarter than you provides the spark that allows you to connect those thoughts. My advisor said that it feels like the words just come out of your mouth. For me, the words feel so new and fresh that it's hard to believe it's me saying them. As if someone else were talking and I'm just an observer.

08 May 2012

Thought of the day: Being a minority

The problem of women in science (or whatever you want to call it) is a fundamentally a problem of being a minority. Many areas of life were traditionally run by white, straight men, and even in the 21st century, it's very hard to break in. Being a minority is always hard. I've been on a sports team where I was surrounded by people were 20 years older, with families, and middle class jobs. The fact that we were all female didn't really matter much. Then I played with a sports club where there were a lot of guys (some women) but they were all around my age and studying science. Much better!

A woman developer gave a talk about making the developing community more female friendly and she has some good examples to illustrate what it's like to be a minority.
So what does it feel like to be a woman in open source? Jono Bacon, at the Community Leadership Summit on the weekend, said — addressing the guys in the room — that if you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in open source, go and get your nails done at a salon. He did this a week or so back, and when he walked into the salon he realised he was the only man there, and felt kind of out of place.

Another example someone suggested is walking into a sports bar on game night wearing the wrong team’s jersey. It can be the most friendly sports bar in the universe, but you’re still going to feel pretty awkward.

So as a woman in open source, it can be a bit like that. You walk into a space, and you feel like you stand out. And there’s enormous pressure to perform well, in case any mistake you make reflects on everyone of your gender.
So if you're lobbying to make life better for women in science, don't make yourself look like a man-hater. Your colleagues are probably white, straight, male, and speak English. They've never been a minority so they just don't know what it's like. Talk to them and educate them.

07 May 2012

Thought of the day: Becoming an autodidact

I've found that the most useful skill to develop is the ability to teach myself. Recently, I found out that the term for this is "autodidact." I wonder if teaching oneself has general principles itself. Here are some of the methods I use to teach myself:
  1. What is universal? What are the most important concepts?
    This is a typical physicist perspective. For example, for photography, I might say the important ideas are light and shadow, the quality of light (diffuse or harsh), warm vs cool colors.
  2. How is this field different from similar fields?
    In physics, we tend to be concerned with finding clean, beautiful, logically consistent mathematical rules for explaining nature. In biology, people are trying to model complicated, messy, real systems.
  3. What is the progression?
    You want to identify where to start, where to end, and how to progress in between. If you don't have a progression, you have no idea how far you have to go or what you've accomplished and it's easy to become frustrated. To learn hockey, you start with skating, then progress to stickhandling and shooting, and finally tactics and teamwork.
  4. Read interviews with important people in the field.
    They'll identify what's important. I learned a lot about narrative and character by reading interviews with distinguished actors.
  5. Listen to what people in the field say or read forums.
    This is a bit trickier because you have to find the right people -- hopefully intelligent, articulate types. This might not be easy. I read theater forums sometimes. I found one forum where people frequently trash shows (though there were some insightful comments if you sifted the wheat from the chaff). The Sondheim specific forum was better because people were more interested in analyzing the shows than shoving their opinions down people's throats.
  6. Find a partner.
    I've never done this, but if you can find someone at a similar level and you get along well, this could be dynamite. You can hang out together, support each other, inspire ideas, etc. I guess this is not being an autodidact, but who cares.
If you try to learn several unrelated fields, you'll start to see patterns and that will make it easier to pickup more subjects.

06 May 2012

Why not to be a workaholic: Finally a real reason

I've been a workaholic. Sometimes it was great and I got tons of stuff done. Other times, I burned out.

Lots of people say, "Don't be a workaholic! You must have balance in your life!" Sorry, but sounds like a mere opinion to me. Everyone has a different idea of what balance means.

If you could work day and night, why not do it? The practical reason is that it's just not sustainable. Burnout is inevitable. (Maybe there's someone superhuman out there. But I don't know anyone personally. Paul Erdos?)

Still, this is a practical reason. I've never come up with a good philosophical reason not be a workaholic. Now, I think I have one. If you're a workaholic, it means you value your work above all other human endeavors. You might think of a priority system where you determine your priorities by how many hours you assign to each aspect of your life. When you're a workaholic, you've assigned infinite hours to your work; no finite number is good enough. In other words, you consider your work to be infinitely more important than anything else. This is a terrible mindset to have. Because there are many other interesting and worthy activities going on in the world. There are other important/brilliant people out there.

We've all met zealots who seem to think they are the most important people in the world. Don't become like that.