Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache

German is a more complex language than English. I have been trying to learn enough German in a hope to write this post in German, or a post in German, but alas, that day may come in still distant future.

The image above shows the variation of articles and adjectives endings (and some noun endings) in German, which is one of the main chief culprits for the complexity in German. All the nouns are classified into the masculine, feminine, or neutral category. They all have different definite (der, die, das, die) and indefinite articles (ein, eine, ein, keine). Moreover, depending on the case of a noun in a sentence (nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive), the forms of definite and indefinite articles change. Finally, the adjectives and some nouns following the adjectives will change their endings too.

This is just to give you a taste of the complexity of German grammar, as compared with English. After a while, one gets used to these grammar rules. Native German speakers, like native English speakers, don’t think about the rules while they speak. If it doesn’t sound right, then something is wrong. Just like English, or for that matter, any language.

Learning German is an interesting experiences for me; it reminds me of the days and the drills of learning English. For all of its complexity, going from English to German is a small step, as compared with going from Chinese to English. The backbone of its grammar is still similar to English, just with an added layer of variations and many exceptions to rules. There are multiple occasions when I just have to remind myself that just stop questioning and just start trying to memerize.

Every once in a while, I question myself, what’s the point of learning German? Especially given the fact that the most spoken sentence for me is “Koennen Sie Englisch sprechen? ” (Do you speak English?)

One Saturday, as I was preparing to leave my apartment for shopping, two Germans knocked on my door, and when the door was opened, they started immediately speaking mandarin to me. As we chatted more, I learned that they are missionaries from a local church, and they work mostly with the Chinese people in the church. I was stunned about the level of fluency in which they spoke. There was an immediate  good will towards them, something that would not happen if they spoke to me in English. Even though I didn’t end up going to the church, the good will has remained.

Reflecting this particular experience, I think trying to speak in a foreign language to its native speakers indicates an interest for the culture it represents and the people in it. It shows an effort to understand the culture and the people, and it is a genuine sign of respect.

Book Summary: The Element By Ken Robinson

I read this book because of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks. In a sense, the book is a big compilation of his presentations on the subjects of human intelligence and creativity.  He defines the Element as “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion”. To find one’s Element, he suggests, one also needs to have the right attitude and actively seek the opportunities.

One of the key messages is that we should think of human intelligence as something much more than academic abilities. The list includes mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intra-personal (knowledge and understand of oneself). The three features of human intelligence are that they are diverse, dynamic, and distinct, which indicates that each person should seek to find his or her own unique Element.

Creativity, he defines, is applied imagination. It is “the process of having original ideas that have value”. It takes considerable amount of time to develop an idea, so in this sense, it is a process. It also requires a medium, in the sense that creativity can manifests itself in all kinds of human activities such as literature, maths, sciences, music, and dance. The last and perhaps the most important feature is that one has to develop skills associated with using that particular medium, being writing, calculating, experimenting, singing, or dancing. The corollary is that the teaching of creativity should go hand-in-hand with the development of skills in that medium.

Just like his presentations, the book is filled with the characteristic British self-deprecating humor. My favorite one is the comparison of earth size with other planets and stellar objects in the universe. One version of this joke can be seen here.

There is one thing, however, that I think I have some disagreement. It is about his assessment of the MBTI (Myer-Briggs type indicator). He disapproves it on the ground that it tends to put people into boxes and thus limiting the possibilities. I have read the original book Gifts Differing by Briggs and Myers, and I think the idea behind MBTI is never to put people into boxes and to limit people’s potential. It is more about understanding how people’s talents may differ (thus the title Gifts Giffering), which is precisely what Sir Ken teaches too. However, I do agree that the subsequent wide-spread use of MBTI, particularly by human resource department to automatically sorting people into different categories, ignores the dynamic nature of types and tend to have a deterministic view of types.


The technology perspective

It has been a while since the last time I published, but finally here it is. It is open access, so everyone can download it.

The article is written from the perspective of science, the development of ideas and realization of them. However, there is an equally important perspective, the one from technology. It is about what the techniques are that made the study possible, and more importantly, at the design phase of the experiments, what available technology to use to realize the scientific ideas. The first question is a technical one and is a boring one if you are not part of the research community. The second one is more generic, and the answers are video and 3D technology.

The first thread of technology development is video. Images are great, but videos are even better. Youtube is only 12 years old, and vimeo 13 years old, even though they seem to have been there since the beginning of time. Their popularity means a large pool of professional tools to acquire, store, analyze, and compose videos. It sounded trivial, but recording and analyzing videos are the enabling methods to study spatiotemporal patterns. To put it differently, we chose to study spatiotemporal patterns because the technology for studying them is ready.

The second thread is 3D. 3D modelling software used to be the tools of only professional architects, animation designers, and product engineers, and requires significant training to use them. Now with 3D printer becoming more and more readily available, modelling software becomes cheaper and easier to use, so people start to make their own things. For researchers like me, it means to use parametric design capability of these software to create models with precise specification.

In a book on Bell labs, the author said something like this: in technology, being early is not necessarily different from being wrong.  I think it is true. There are certain study that can only be done once the technologies for it are ready.

Pasteur’s Quadrant

Earlier this year, at a Gordon conference, I listened to a talk by Prof. George Whitesides on soft robotics. In his introduction, he talked about Pasteur’s quadrant. The idea is that one can categorize research works into four quadrants: one axis is the scale of immediate usefulness, and the other axis is the scale of fundamental understanding. On this chart, Thomas Edison’s work is high on immediate usefulness but low on fundamental understanding, whereas Niels Bohr’s work is high on fundamental understanding but low on immediate usefulness. Pasteur’s work is considered high on both scales. Many of R1 university research, Prof. Whitesides pointed out, lie in the empty 3rd quadrant. He urged the young people in the audience to do research in Pasteur’s quadrant.

In a slightly more relaxed setting, he has said similar things. He advised scientists who just began their career consider selecting topics that other people care about, “like death” (overheard, no exaggeration).  The question of “who cares” needs justification other than the researcher’s own curiosity.

I jotted down a list of research topics that interest me: morphogensis and pattern formation, 3D printing, origin of life, artificial intelligence, water, and energy. Each will be examined in due course.


Vincent van Gogh 2

“In his letters Van Gogh often gave extensive reports on his working methods, and so we are well informed about the practical side of his craftsmanship: from the way he experimented with colour and chose his materials to his use of all sorts of tools. From his letters and technical investigation it also emerges that Van Gogh worked in a highly systematic and well-considered manner: every drawing and every painting was a conscious attempt to make headway. This is contrary to the prevalent image of Van Gogh as an impulsive and purely emotional artist” – Description from Van Gogh Museum

Among many other things, Van Gogh is famous for his energetic brush strokes, with thick paint and short strokes, a technique called impasto. He was seeking a new technique to express emotions, not by facial expressions or anything else traditionally used in academic painting, but by brush strokes. This search for a new technique started in Paris in 1886-1887, and the progression manifests in the sketches he made in his letters over the years (the collage, all taken from

In his own words (Letter to Theo van Gogh, 23 or 24 Aug 1888.): “And I must tell you that these days I’m making a great effort to find a way of using the brush without stippling or anything else, nothing but a varied brushstroke. But you’ll see, one day.”

His innovative use of brushstroke was described as “fiery, very powerful and full of tension”, and his style as “vigorous, exalted, brutal, intense”, in an article by Albert Aurier in 1890. “In his article Aurier praises Van Gogh’s ‘strange, intense and feverish work’ (oeuvres étranges, intensives et fiévreuses) and calls him a worthy successor to the seventeenth-century Dutch masters.”

To this praise, van Gogh wrote:

“But when I read the article it made me almost sad as I thought: should be like this and I feel so inferior. And pride intoxicates like drink, when one is praised and has drunk one becomes sad, or anyway I don’t know how to say how I feel it, but it seems to me that the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise. And then among artists, people’s friendly dispositions aren’t always enough. Either someone’s qualities are exaggerated or he’s over-neglected. However, I very much want to believe that basically Justice is in better health than it appears to be. ” – Letter to his sister Willemiem van Gogh, 19 Feb 1890

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” – Oscar Wilde

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

So, I have been watching the film over and over again. It is one of those films that I found fascinating but couldn’t really figure out why they are so fascinating. It is dark, and not as grotesque as some of other Tim Burton’s movies. As a critic said, “the director is holding back, though, perhaps concerned that audiences might baulk at an overdose of odd”.

There are plot inconsistencies. But after watching it for the fourth time, I came to realize that most people who watch this film in the cinema wouldn’t really care why a box of animal hearts preserved in glass bottles of reddish embalming fluids could survive the bombing of an air raid. After all, if one can tolerate the fact that a few millimeter of aluminum can withhold the gravitational squeeze of a black hole in Interstellar, who would mind a little mismatch of mechanical strength here and there?

The same goes for time travel, I think. To quote another movie review, “Some of the film’s rules are definitely of the ‘I’m not going to put too much mental energy to make sure this all checks out…'”

Plot inconsistencies aside, the movie is so interesting perhaps because of the world it reveals. And it is only a small part of the world, on an island, in Wales. There are so many potentials to fill in individual stories that one almost demands a sequel immediately.

What’s more, there is – what other say is Tim Burton at his best – the epic battle of skeleton army vs. invisible monsters, in a children’s amusement park, with spectators, and fought with oars, buckets, fishing lines, and kitchen knives. Sanity is overrated anyway. It is good entertainment.

The feature image is from here.

Vintage Man United

Being a Man United fan for the past three years hasn’t been easy. So many things have been missing. Champions league games, premier league titles, last-minute goals, and last-minute goals. Now with six league wins in a row, Mourinho’s team starts to show some resemblance of the old Man United team in the late 1990s, even though they are currently still 10 points behind the leader Chelsea.

What’s more encouraging is the manner in which they achieve the wins. One goal down, six minutes to go, and then two goals in two minutes to come back and win against Middlesbrough on new year’s eve was perhaps the latest example of a true resurgence.

Now it is about managing expectations. It is unlikely that they will win the league title this year, but a champions league spot should be within reach, well within reach.

Then again, stranger things have happened (a.k.a, Leicester city). So who knows.