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.

Euro and CR7

I watched the semi-final of Euro between Portugal and Wales in a conference hotel bar in Berlin. A couple sitting in front of me joked before the game that they really don’t like the “superstar” Cristiano Ronaldo. They left bar before the game was finished, unsurprisingly, after CR scored from a header and assisted another.

In the final, when CR was carried off the field on a stretch, the Guardian minute-by-minute live update posted the following message:

“CR7 has the will of Keyser Soze, but he can’t lose the limp at the end,” says Matt Dony. “ I’m genuinely heartbroken for him. I really like Ronaldo, I have no problem with his on-field cockiness, because it’s backed up by supreme talent and a ridiculous amount of hard work. He’s a magnificent, too-often-maligned footballer, and deserves better than this in a game of this magnitude.” It’s fascinating how often sport is downright sadistic towards its greats. There are very few happy endings, unless you’re Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.

I guess for people who watch football just for excitement or for celebrity, CR is not likable. His lack of humility is probably the reason why Messi is more universally loved by the general public than he is.

But the vast majority of professional footballers – from the former Arsenal/Barcelona player/now BBC commentator Thiery Henry to CR’s Portugal teammate Nani to his former Real Madrid teammate Di Maria – will tell you that they respect him. Being liked or not is not an issue. Their respect comes from the admiration of his skills and his dedication. Just as the Guardian commentator said, “it’s backed up by supreme talent and a ridiculous amount of hard work”.

It is an attitude not just limited to football pitches. Obama said something similar about basketball players:

By the time I reached high school, I was playing on Punahou’s teams, and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn’t just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn’t back it up. That you didn’t let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions – like hurt or fear – you didn’t want them to see.

A part of sportsmanship, I think.

Image source here.

Smart Phones in China, Social Mirrors, and The Matrix

I was back in China last week and noticed that almost everyone around me has a smartphone. The only one person I know who doesn’t have one is my 92-year old grandpa, who physically cannot type with his fingers.

What’s more, everyone who has a smartphone is on WeChat. My dad showed me some old family history written by a distant relative from Beijing on WeChat; my aunt told me that another aunt living in California is sending her pictures of her son making cookies for his class project. They spent somewhere between half hour to one hour every evening just to read all the messages from various groups on WeChat, and they are over 60s. Just imagine how much time younger generations spend on it. The bank accountant in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, when being told that I don’t have a Chinese phone number and hence not on WeChat, appeared to be horrified. “How could you live without it?” said her expression.

It appears to me that Americans use Facebook, Europeans use WhatsApp, and Chinese use WeChat. All have their own social media. What’s the big deal?

They all remind me of The Matrix. Everyone is connected (or plugged in). Everything one says or writes gets shared or forwarded. Everyone is like a social mirror reflecting each other’s opinions and values, so the social media, although chaotic in its contents, can homogenize social values. In this sense, the majority exercise a subtle form of social persuasion to oblige people on the same platform to confirm their values. This persuasion can be more powerful than traditional mass media, because everyone has a voice, and because most normal people want to be liked.

There are beneficial consequences. More things are better regulated by social conventions than by law. And a more homogeneous society would have more orders and less troubles. In addition, for millions of lives who just moved out of poverty, the talk of anything other than survival can be “insulting irrelevance” (a phrase by Sir Alex Ferguson in describing his roots in working class families). Sharing common values and staying closely together maximize their chances at survival.

The disadvantage is that getting a second opinion can be difficult. As with reports in mass media, the opinion of the reporter about “facts” lies is in the things that are omitted. For example, in western media, Obama is quoted more often than Putin is, and the reverse is true in China. A corollary is that expressing opinions contrary to the common values would be difficult and that change in social norms would be hard.