Friday, June 20, 2014

to be more creative, try becoming a more boring person?

first of all, apologies to my readers for the dearth of posts in the last few weeks months and especially the lack of posts with any personal depth in them. i won't go into detail about it today, but this change in my life from a "gun-for-hire" postdoc to a "lifer" prof has bent my mind awry and i'm still learning how to cope with the job. sometimes it just feels .. crippling.

more precisely, it's not the actual job that's hard, but the stress and overthinking of this faraway goal called tenure. the more i think about it, the more it feels like i'm getting my ph.d. again.

all of that said, i'm going to go the lazy route again: i'll pass someone else's well-written piece to you (instead of writing my own).

when i was younger and a newer hand at research, i'd make a startling insight in my work. immediately aftewards, i'd lament why it took me so long to figure it out .. especially when the outcome appeared very simple.

i've become less critical of myself over the years, but the question still remains:
what if there were ways to become better at solving problems?
is it more than just a pipe dream to improve oneself?
below are excerpts from an essay i found, through one social media engine or another. what struck me about it was how i've unconsciously kept some of these habits and gotten more insights, in the last few years.
"A 2004 study published in Naturε examined the role of sleep in the process of generating insight. They found that sleep, regardless of time of day, doubled the number of subjects who came up with the insight solution to a task. (Presented graphically above.) This effect was only evident in those who had struggled with the problem, so it was the unique combination of struggling followed by sleep and not sleep alone that boosted insight.
"There’s a good reason for this: mind-wandering fosters creativity. A 2012 study (results pictured below) found that any sort of mind-wandering will do, but the kind elicited during a low-effort task was more effective than even that of doing nothing .. This, too, is congruent with my experience. How much insight has been produced while taking a shower or mowing the lawn? Paul Dιrac, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, would take long hikes in the wood. I’d bet money that this was prime mind-wandering time."

~ from "The Science of Problem Solving"
of course, this could all just be a manifestation of confirmation bias (or if you will, the fallacy of the consequent). what i do recall, however, are periods of correlation: i was highly uncreative during those times when i was sleeping very little and had no time to exercise.

lastly, the tl;dr at the end of the essay is suggestively helpful. i'd recommend newcomers to research at least to try a few of the habits listed, if only to see what works (or not) for you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

sometimes negative signs matter ..?

after browsing this article, suddenly the difference between mεasures, sιgned mεasures, and vectοr mεasures come to mind.
The answer to this question takes us to the heart of quantum mechanιcs, to the part that popular explanations usually mangle. Quantum mechanιcs wasn't the first theory to introduce randomness and prοbabilities into physics. Ironically, the real novelty of quantum mechanιcs was that it replaced prοbabilities — which are defined as nonnegative real numbers — by less intuitive quantities called amplitudes, which can be positive, negative, or even complex. To find the prοbability of some event happening (say, an atom decaying, or a photon hitting a screen), quantum mechanιcs says that you need to add the amplitudes for all the possible ways that it could happen, and then take the squared absolute value of the result. If an event has positive and negative amplitudes, they can cancel each other out, so the event never happens at all.

The key point is that the behavior of amplitudes seems to force prοbabilities to play a different role in quantum mechanιcs than they do in other physical theories. As long as a theory only involves prοbabilities, we can imagine that the prοbabilities merely reflect our ignorance, and that a “God’s-eye view” of the precise coοrdinates of every subatomιc particle would restore determinism. But quantum mechanιcs’ amplitudes only turn into prοbabilities on being measured — and the specific way the transformation happens depends on which measurement an observer chooses to perform. That is, nature “cooks prοbabilities to order” for us in response to the measurement choice. That being so, how can we regard the prοbabilities as reflecting ignorance of a preexisting truth?

~ via "Quantum Randomness" @ AmericanScientist

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ARR, MOAR!.. on writing.

the following excerpt by s.a.pιnker isn't terribly representative of his original article about writing, but i liked it anyway and thought to share it:
For example, everyone knows that scientists overuse the passive voice. It's one of the signatures of academese: "the experiment was performed" instead of "I performed the experiment." But if you follow the guideline, "Change every passive sentence into an active sentence," you don't improve the prose, because there's no way the passive construction could have survived in the English language for millennia if it hadn't served some purpose.

The problem with any given construction, like the passive voice, isn't that people use it, but that they use it too much or in the wrong circumstances. Active and passive sentences express the same underlying content (who did what to whom) while varying the topic, focus, and linear order of the participants, all of which have cognitive ramifications.
The passive is a better construction than the active when the affected entity (the thing that has moved or changed) is the topic of the preceding discourse, and should therefore come early in the sentence to connect with what came before; when the affected entity is shorter or grammatically simpler than the agent of the action, so expressing it early relieves the reader's memory load; and when the agent is irrelevant to the story, and is best omitted altogether (which the passive, but not the active, allows you to do). To give good advice on how to write, you have to understand what the passive can accomplish, and therefore you should not blue-pencil every passive sentence into an active one (as one of my copyeditors once did).
(for more articles of this kind, visit