Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chuanqi Shen: A Discussion

During our conversation with Tina Seelig about creativity, she made a statement that I thought was highly interesting:

"Rules are created for the rule makers."

 Now, Tina said this with a specific idea in mind. She was trying to say that rules are generally created not for the benefit of the people, but for the convenience of those who make them. For example, a typical classroom setting, with the systematic rows of tables and chairs, may not be the most conducive learning environment, but it allows the teacher to easily keep an eye on everyone. However, I think that this statement is also a profound comment about the way we construct knowledge.

It has often been remarked that the hallmark of human intelligence is our ability to recognize patterns. We pride ourselves in our ability to connect ideas, even if they are totally disparate. In fact, Tina Seelig thinks that the defining characteristic of creativity is the linking of different concepts. That is, of course, a compelling argument. Yet, in some sense, the patterns we find are pretty similar to the rules the rule makers create. For patterns are simplifying in nature, and are thus generalizations. We find some form of order out of the chaotic mess, and then we impose this form of order as an idea for us to focus on. Like rules then, these patterns are found to help us, the pattern makers, understand what is going on. Like rules too, these patterns may not be the best way to describe things, for they do not represent the entire truth, just a small part of it. But patterns are tempting and comforting, for like rules, they make things simple. However, if we are to blindly follow the patterns we find, we will not be able to capture reality in its entirety, because it will be as if we have placed a blanket over the little mounds and crevice on the face of reality to create the facade of a homogenous surface. For example, the Newtonian Laws of physics seem to work perfectly in our everyday life. A ball rolling on a moving train will seem to move faster than one rolling on the ground. Yet, light does not obey these rules; it moves at the same speed in all inertial frame. We would not have discovered Special Relativity had we stuck to our old concepts of relative motion, a pattern that is fulfilled by almost all other daily objects we see.

Yet, this does not mean that pattern recognition is unimportant, or even bad. It is our ability to simplify our world, to focus on the common thread that runs through things and discard the inessentials that allowed us to progress to where we are today. For example, Galileo made the key insight that he did not need to consider the shape, texture, or orientation of objects to determine how things move; he could treat them as point particles. This huge simplification allowed Galileo to create the kinematics laws, equations that we still use today. It would be bad, however, if we stick to the patterns we find. What I suggest, therefore, is that finding exceptions is as much a creative process as finding patterns. It prevents us from getting stifled by the patterns we have found so far, and it allows us to find better, more nuanced patterns that will further our understanding. The creation of human knowledge is therefore an incremental process, of creating a cage of patterns around ourselves so that we can get our bearings, and then destroying it to create a larger cage. And acts of creativity occur during the events of creation and destruction.

In some way, this seems paradoxical, for creativity seems to be destroying itself. In other ways, this makes perfect sense, for in the eyes of evolution, creation and destruction are synonymous.

Chuanqi Shen: A Facade

In my mind, conservation always has had a positive connotation. Whenever I hear the word, I get this warm fuzzy feeling, as it seems that something good is being done. However, it turns out that things are not as simple as they appear.

We know the Stanford Dish as a natural preserve. Some of us might have seem cows atop the foothills when we were visiting. I always found the cows intriguing, and I made it a point to spot at least one cow whenever I went on a Dish hike. It never occurred to me until recently that seeing cows grazing on the fields is strange. But if you think about it, why the heck do you allow cows to graze in a place that is protected? Isn't grazing detrimental to the environment? Well, it turns out that the cows consume non-native grass such as hay, and this allows the non-native plants to grow. The Bay Checkerspot butterfly, an endangered species, feeds on these native plants. Therefore, allowing the cows to graze on the fields is actually a way to preserve the Bay Checkerspots. Mindblowing, isn't it?

Of course, one can argue that by doing so, we are destroying the hay, and that brings me to the new perspective I learnt about conservation. Conversation is never about protecting everything. Sometimes, it means destroying some things to retain what you want to protect. In this case, Stanford University wants restore the Stanford Dish foothills to its original form before the Spanish settlers arrived and brought in a lot of invasive, non-native plants.

Meanwhile, at the Hanna House, we learnt about the design principles of Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the most distinctive features of the Hanna House is that it feels very organic and seems to be an seamless part of the environment. It is never clear where the house starts and where the outside world ends. The nearby trees are not jarring bystanders. Instead, they seem to be incorporated into the design of the house. Holes were created into the roofs, and supports were created, to allow the tree to grow and extend its branches gracefully. Looking at the Hanna House, one gets this lovely impression of a man-made home that is peacefully co-existing with the natural world.

Well, except for the fact that the roots of the Cyprus tree are straining to burst through the wooden floors.

Despite the impression we may get, the Hanna House is in fact causing a huge burden on the trees growing around it. The concrete floor plan restrict the amount of space the roots of the trees can extend to, and cement also reduces the porous nature of the soil underneath. The caretakers of the Hanna House took great pains to ensure that the trees are growing healthily, and that the structure of the house is doing fine, but they are not sure how long this can be sustained. In some ways they have in their hands a ticking time bomb.

Now let's move over to Jasper Ridge. Jasper Ridge, especially Searsville Lake, seemed serene and idyllic, and nothing much seemed to be happening. However, this entire scene is in danger of disappearing soon. Searsville Lake is very close to the St Andreas Fault, and over the years the lake is being filled up with the sediments from the fault. 10 years ago, Searsville Lake had a depth of 60 feet. Now, the deepest regions are only about 10 feet. If nothing is being done, Searsville Lake would disappear, an entire ecosystem would be destroyed, and Jasper Ridge would just be another huge overgrowth of trees. Something needs to be done, and that would mean clearing the lake of the excess sediments. Here, we have a unique case where nature is set to destroy a habitat, and we, as humans, want to protect it. It shows that conservation does not necessarily mean keeping a place free from human influence. Sometimes it could mean preventing a place from getting destroyed by natural causes.

In all of the events mentioned above, the first impressions we get are different from (sometimes even totally opposite to) the stories we uncover once we dig further. It's almost as if a facade has been created to deceive us. It's fascinating how different things can be from how they appear. I guess that means that I should stop taking things at face value, and dive deep down to unearth all these amazing stories underneath.  

Chuanqi Shen: A President

Fred Terman is the former President of Stanford University and widely credited to be the Father of Silicon Valley. Many of the Terman's contributions to Stanford is tied to his contributions to Silicon Valley. In this blog post, I would like to talk about how Silicon Valley was developed, and how that allowed Stanford to become a top engineering school.

When people talk about the origins of Silicon Valley, they will probably think it has something to do with silicon chips, as the name Silicon Valley implies. But the origin of Silicon Valley actually stretches all the way back to the World War II era. Before the war, military research was mainly done in the military labs. During the war, the federal government started giving schools like as MIT, Harvard, Columbia and Caltech huge amounts of money to perform military research, and that helped tremendously in developing the engineering schools in these institutions. Stanford, however, was not considered an engineering powerhouse at that time. Therefore, the school received almost no money from the federal government. Terman, however, wanted to change the situation. He started a lab that did research on microwaves, and was able to get the first grant from the Office of Naval Research in 1946. By 1950, Stanford Engineering had progressed to be able to rival MIT.

The 1950s was the start of the Cold War, and the Cold War was actually the main impetus that push Silicon Valley forward. During this period, Terman focused Stanford's resources on electronics intelligence and signal intelligence, as the military dearly sought after technology in this field. In the 1960s, the military, wanting to track the Soviet radars, also commissioned the construction of the Stanford Dish to eavesdrop on the Soviet Tall King radars using radio waves reflected from the moon.  

But Terman did not want Stanford to merely create military products; he wanted Stanford to perform advanced engineering research as well. To do so, he encouraged students to create start-ups and professors to consult for companies. He also allowed Stanford's intellectual properties to be licensed. Such ideas were unprecedented at the time, and it allowed a "Microwave Valley" (remember that at that time microwaves and signals were the focus of Stanford) to flourish, and introduce a culture and atmosphere that we recognize in Silicon Valley today.

The actual Silicon Valley as we know it today probably started when William Shockley built the first chip company in the area. However, it is important to realize that before that before this event, Stanford and the "Microwave Valley" was heavily focused on military research, and was funded by the military. It was only much later that the funding shifted to the venture capitalists. However, it is important to realize how Terman in these early years helped to congregate a community of engineers together to conduct high-end research, and how he instilled the entrepreneurial  spirit into the area through his pioneering efforts.  

For more information, check out this link (start from page 24): 

Chuanqi Shen: A "Corporation"

When touring the Stanford Stadium with Ray Purpur, we heard great statistics about the Stadium, how every match was always sold out, how the different marketing initiatives (such as the sky box) were always well-received by the people. However, I kept getting the feeling that Stanford Stadium was being run like a corporation. Of course, there seemed to be nothing wrong with it, since it would only mean more profits for the university, more resources and thus a better education for me! But on some level it felt wrong for a institution that is technically a non-profit organization to be focused on generating as much revenue as possible.

However, it is commendable that Stanford tries its best to keep the Stadium as free from marketing influence as possible. For example, the Stanford Stadium is one of the few stadiums without any advertisements. This was done so that there will not be nearby distractions that may reduce people's enjoyment of the game. Also, Stanford students could always get free tickets to the games, and we always get the best seats at the Red Zone. So that's great!

Chuanqi Shen: A Comment

During the conversation with Peter Bing, we asked him whether he had any suggestions on ways to increase the number of humanities students at Stanford. Quite surprisingly, Peter Bing said that he would not give any suggestions. Explaining, he talked about the "Holy Triad of universities", three areas that the university should have full autonomy over: who is admitted, what they are taught, and who teaches. Peter Bing explains that he believes people like him should stop commenting on such issues, and that he should allow the faculty to make their own decisions and judgments.

I found that to be a pretty interesting thought. I felt that it was human nature for people to want to speak their mind and let their opinions be heard. Well, even Jerry Yang, member of the Board of Trustees, joked that he "likes to tell Coach Shaw what to do next week". Furthermore, a comment would only be a comment; it did not mean that the suggestions have to be implemented, so that would not directly violate the Holy Triads. I thought that it showed remarkable restraint on Peter Bing's part, and it also showed his absolute belief of the necessity in giving the university complete autonomy in deciding certain matters. 

Chuanqi Shen: An Opportunism

When having conversations with the people of Stanford, the presidents (present and former), the deans , the trustees etc, it seems that all of them kept repeating the same things. All of them told us not to plan too far ahead, and when asked how they got to where they are today, all of them replied that it was due to a series of serendipitous events. In fact, the word "serendipitous" was repeated so often that I had a feeling they had it scripted. But thinking back about it, it does appear that boldly taking the future by its horns and taking chances as one goes along seems to be the Stanford way of doing things.

According to Isaac Stein, what is special about Stanford is that "we have no traditions, all our signposts point forward". And this seems be reflected in the risk-taking attitude that Stanford displays in many of its ventures. During the 2008 financial crisis, Stanford lost 27% of its endowment. Some schools that were similarly hit badly decided to spread their losses by cut their spending for the next 8 or even 10 years. President Hennessy, however, didn't want the school in remain in the "recession phase" for such a long period of time. He told the faculty that he only wanted to revert back to full spending after 2 years. It was a bold decision, and it meant that in during the period of 2008-2010, Stanford had to make big sacrifices. But the faculty accepted the decision, and Stanford was able to bounce back quickly afterwards. While many schools were still facing budget cuts, Stanford has been busily renovating buildings and creating the new Engineering Quad. Because of the quick recovery to full spending, Stanford was also able to invest efficiently and bring the endowment funds back to its pre-financial crisis level.

Peter Bing told a similar story. When the school decided to continue the construction of the Bing Concert Hall during the financial crisis, they faced a lot of difficulties, for they initially did not have enough funds. However, there was a silver lining in the cloud, for construction stopped everywhere, and Bing was able to find a contractor who was willing to take up the project at a price that just allowed them to break even. By constructing the Concert Hall when no one else was doing it, Stanford obtained a great deal.

A similar sentiment was echoed when Jim Plummer, dean of engineering, talked about the process of hiring new faculty. Jim Plummer said that he did not care about the past work a candidate has done. He would also not hire a candidate to fill in a gap (for example, if a professor working on biocomputation retired, he would not specifically look for a candidate in that field) Instead, he wants to look for the smartest person, no matter what he does. This is because when he hires faculty, he is assuming that the faculty will stay for at least 10 to 15 years. In such a long period of time, it is hard to predict which field is going to be the next big thing, and thus hiring faculty based on area is undesirable. However, he believes that as long as the faculty are great people, great work will be done.

And the above examples, I believe, exemplifies why Stanford was propelled by serendipitous events. Everyone is adventurous and risking-taking, willing to be flexible and try new ideas. And we always seem to succeed, because we get the smartest people. 

Chuanqi Shen: A Dish

In my presentation on the Stanford Dish, I mentioned that the Dish was originally created to monitor the Tall King Soviet radars. I decided to read through the declassified paper (found here) to understand better how it works, and here is what I have gotten from the paper.

The military wanted to know the position of the Tall King Soviet radars and the parameters they were operating under. Such information can be extracted from the signals transmitted by the radars. However, such signals were seldom detected because the wavelengths of the signals were too short for them to be deflected by the ionosphere. Therefore, most of the signals would be lost to outer space. Also, flying a plane into Soviet territory to gather information was feasible, firstly because that was prohibited, and secondly because a airplane would be unable all the sophisticated machinery required, and they were pretty heavy.
The scientists were unsure what could be done, when they suddenly detected in 1946 man-made signals coming from the moon. After many experiments, known as the Moon Bounce tests, they were able to prove that these signals were reflected signals, and they could extract reliable information out of them. This provided some hope.

However, there were still some challenges that needed to be overcome. For example, whether signals from the Tall King Radars would be reflected by the moon and detected by the receivers in the US is highly dependent of the time, the location of moon and the location of the receiver. After some consideration, it was decided that California was one of the better locations to build a Dish, and that was how the Stanford Dish was created.

For more information, check out the paper!