Saturday, 2 October 2010

Why a strong grasp of history is important for scientists

The purpose of the study of history is to learn from the past so we can make better decisions in the future. In a geeky machine learning analogy, it is kind of like processing more "training data" so that we can minimize our prediction error.  A scientist should have a pretty strong concept of the history of science including
1. The history of development in this sub-discipline.  In machine learning, that translates to early inception of the field in A.I., the problems with the A.I. (search space) technique, entrance of statistics (VC, generalization errors), parallel development in neural science, up till the present day.  With this, the researcher can better plan his strategy to maximize success in the long run.
2. Also the broader context of the development of scientific thoughts.  Scientific revolution, paradigm shifts in scientific progress.

Similarity between orchestra and basketball team

Last Tuesday I was playing basketball and then went quickly to my weekly university orchestra rehearsal.  As much as the two different crowds can be, there are some striking similarity between these two activities.

On an individual level, each player on a basketball team or in an orchestra must maintain individual technical proficiency.  The musician practices his/her instrument by spending hours on scales, etudes, and concert pieces to build better facility and musicianship.  The athlete spends hours on drills, to improve shooting,dribbling, defending, endurance.  Both require tremendous discipline and dedication.  On a side note, both also suffer from performance anxiety (like performing at Carnegie Hall or taking that fateful foul shot when you have 5 seconds left in the game)

There is also similarity in the team dynamics.  In an orchestra, each musician subjugates his/her individual interpretation of the piece and tries to blend with the whole group.  Each musician is also given different parts thus different roles.  It can be the solo melody, simmering background accompaniment, or a grand tutti.  The violinist must pass off the beautiful theme to the woodwinds and play pianissimo trills so that the entire orchestra can make music together.  The basketball player need to pass the ball selflessly and sacrifice your own personal glory for team victory.

On a last note, there is the coach/conductor.  Their job is to make sure mend personalities (musicians can have sometimes bigger egos than basketball players) and dictate the team strategy / musical interpretation.

How can PhD in engineering help in music performance?

In the fourth year of my PhD now and just writing a blog piece about some of my changing habits in violin playing/practicing after grueling through some serious academic research.
PhD students are trained to research. To find interesting solvable problems in existing knowledge, explore and make some advances. The whole process is very amorphous and self-directed. First, a large amount of time is spent finding a good problem. This is very fortuitous and often happens at a "Eureka" moment. Over time, the PhD student develops the ability to seek out interesting problems that are solvable. This is similar to a musician picking a piece that interests him/her and is within the reach of his/her technical ability.
After finding a problem, you are required to analyze it into smaller projects that can be tackled.  It also involves a certain about "diagnostics" in the implementation phase, to figure out what stage of your solution has broken down.  A violinist must also analyze his/her target piece.  Usually there would be two phases, a technical analysis and a musical analysis.  In the technical analysis, one must discover trouble spots and usually design efficient and clever "mini-etudes(studies)" to overcome such difficulty.  These difficulties can include

  1. Left-hand: lack of finger pressure, side of fingers touching nearby strings, lack of finger dexterity (especially on the fourth finger), dreaded intonation (especially on double stops), getting a nice wide vibrato (difficult on double stops)
  2. Right-hand: awkward string crossing, spiccato, upbow staccato, fast whole bow strokes.  Overly noticeable bow changes.
After technical analysis, the musician has to think about phrasing, composition background, balance, dynamics etc.

On the whole, my playing is more rigorous and I have gotten better at figuring out how to practice for a difficult piece.  (Waxmen Carmen fantasy and Devil's Trill right now)

Monday, 27 September 2010

沁园春 和 黄河钢琴协奏曲

昨天路上在我新买的iPad 读《沁园春》。  太久没读汉语的词了, 所以用iPad 得"Pleco reader"边查字典边读。
虽然沁园春开头是描述“北国风光”和“山舞银蛇“而《黄河》歌颂“黄河船夫” 和“黄河愤” , 但是他们的爱故主义气氛是非常生气勃勃的。  (甚至“保卫黄河”还满杀气勃勃的)  我觉的这两部艺术作品可以互相搭配,妮布。    当然, 《沁园春》二阕离开了自然而走向了政治。

其实用大河或者其它地里世贸作为爱国主义歌曲主题还很长见。  比如斯美塔那的“伏尔塔瓦河”(从他著《我的祖国》),  科普兰的《阿巴拉契亚之春》。    所以我们不要忘记了, 每个国家都有狂热的爱国分子。  但是永远不能让自己国家的利益战胜正义。

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Piano and Violin learning curve

I can't believe it's almost nine months since I started playing the piano (casually).  I must make some quick comments comparing the difficulty curve of the violin vs. the piano.

  In terms of tone production and intonation, the violin is magnitudes harder.  You need precise motor control for your left hand fingers, refined muscle control of the right arm for proper bow pressure, and also a trained ear for detecting minor deviations in pitch.  On the piano, all the notes are laid out and varying finger pressures do not affect the tone that much.  This is very good for beginners because a piano student can start playing nice melodies immediately as opposed to waiting for years before producing a nice tone.

  The piano, on the other hand (no pun intended), requires some tricky coordination between the left and right hands.  At the advanced level, this can become excruciatingly difficult (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2).  But advanced level violin playing have a slew of dizzying techniques on both hands (left hand pizzacato, quick double stops, spiccato, up-bow staccato).  They have comparable difficulty on the upper hand.

Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that violin has a steeper learning curve.


Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Process of innovation from theory to application

More often than not, science/engineering academic researchers are disinterested in developments and applications in the industry.  This definitely has benefits as it allows researchers the freedom to explore new frontiers without the hindrance of a demand for immediate application.  However, experiences and trends in the industry should influence academics whose research are more applied in nature.
I see the process of human technological innovation in four stages.

1.  Very basic research that yields important paradigm shift in the way that humans think (Switch from Aristotlean to Copernican view of the universe, switch from the occult world to reason and rationalism, acceptance of evolution, Godel's incompleteness theorem).  I would put breakthrough advances in disciplines like philosophy and mathematics in this category.
2. The paradigm shift lead to the creation of new fundamental knowledge that are not directly applicable.  (Physics, chemistry, astronomy, physiology)
3. These discipline in the arts & science lead to more "applied" vocational fields.  These vocational fields create basic technologies (for example, electrical engineering created digital circuits and computers, chemistry created biochemistry & pharmacology)
4. Businesses then generate ideas on how these technologies can be used in clever ways.  (For example, using the internet to sell books, using new flat-panel display technologies to read books, using new biometrics for homeland security).

In another word, at the one end of scale is a philosophy/method of thinking that explains theories which explain specific phenomenons that can solve our specific problems.  The other end are immediately useful things which are only useful immediately.  (Credit this sentence to Olivier Bosquet's blog)

I think it is important for a researcher to know some of all four stages albeit with different weights.  They all feedback on each other and would benefit innovators at each of those four stages.  I would place myself at the third stage leaning towards the fourth stage.  However, I have to do innovation at stage 2 sometime in order to solve a problem that I'm trying to tackle at stage three.  Other times, the problem I'm working on in stage 3 is inspired by an application idea coming from stage 4.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Future of the publishing industry

As I was forced to clean my room today I inevitably thought about the waste & hassle printed books caused.  Then I asked the question of what will be the future of printing?
Here is a very good article on the topci

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Why the courses that we forgot might still be useful?

This article is merely speculation. Recently, the popular book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell explains that much of the human thought process is subconscious. Although I can only remember few details from that class, perhaps it is still helping me shape my subconscious decisions.