Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Related Work Considered Harmful?

"I can come up with an innovative way to do X because I don't know how X has been done in the past."

I hear this comment from time to time. The idea behind the comment is that somehow, not understanding the related work in an area, not having been "brain-washed" by existing ideas, is a key ingredient to innovation. The fallacy of this idea bothers me so much that I've come out my 3-year blog dormancy to write about it.
Let's first establish that this idea is at best anecdotally true. In fact, I'm being generous when I say it's anecdotally true, since I am not aware of any such anecdotes. I am, however, aware that Einstein did not develop the theory of relativity because he did not understand physics; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did not build the personal computer because they didn't understand how mainframe computers worked; and Jim Lahey did not develop the no-knead bread because he didn't know how bread can be made with lots of kneading.

In fact, all of these above people understood the related work in their respective areas extremely well. So well that they could pinpoint exactly what is inefficient or incorrect about the state-of-the-art, and thus develop new theories and techniques to address those inefficiencies or incorrectness. That is the difference between an expert, and an amateur. An expert can tell you exactly why he made the decisions he made, how it compares to all the other alternatives. An amateur, on the other hand, says something to the effect of, "it felt right".

The true test of an expert as well as an innovator is to be able to understand his related work so well, yet still be able to remain critical. He is able to see through the smoke and covers surrounding the related works, understand the essential ideas, yet still critically examine these ideas and how they relate to what he's trying to accomplish. Only then does true innovation arise.

Has innovation ever been done by someone who didn't know his related work well? Perhaps. But such occurrences are probably exceptions rather than the rule.

Let's conclude with the following anecdotes: Tim Berners-Lee did come up with the URL/HTTP/HTML specification with passing knowledge of parsing theory; and Will Rogers did come up with the "trickle down economics" because he's not an economist.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chef's Kitchen

Last night, I felt like I had died and gone to culinary heaven.

I have eaten at fine restaurants. Critically acclaimed ones. And certainly I've enjoyed the dishes at these restaurants. But I have never eaten anything that completely left me speechless. Literally, I forgot the English language.

I heard about Bruno's Chef's Kitchen from my hairdresser, Annie. Martin and I have been on a hunt for a good place to have our wedding rehearsal dinner. So we decided to give Chef's Kitchen a try.

The place is hidden in a decidedly untrendy part of town -- in a small strip mall which also hosts a laundry mat, of all things. But you could tell that the place is very well taken care of -- not because it's full of shiny new things, but because it's decorated with so many little details that only somebody who loves the place would spend the time to do. There are little statues of owls, and buddha faces, large garden pots with animal tracks painted on them, walls with bright but rustic colors. We sat in a corner on the covered porch, where, above our heads, some birds have made a nice nest where a pipe met the ceiling.

I lost my speech when our appetizer, gnocchi, came. These little dumplings are clearly freshly made, and there is just the right about of bounciness in their texture to make them interesting to chew, and it takes just long enough to chew each one that you get a chance to fully examine the flavor. Many a gnocchi have died flat in my mouth. Not these ones. And these came garnished with fresh summer berries. Who does that?!?! It's so unexpected but so tasty! I'm afraid that this is the gnocchi that has ruined all gnocchi for me. After dinner, we went grocery shopping. I didn't even want to *look* at the packaged "fresh" gnocchi at the store -- and I look at the gnocchi *everytime* I go grocery shopping!

Martin got the one and only vegetarian dish, Asparagus and Porcini Pasta, garnished with happy little pink ribbons of turnips. It came in some cream/cheese sauce, though not at all overdone. Martin's usually not a fan of cream/cheese based sauce, but he ate the dish so fast that I only had a chance to taste the porcini. Of the little porcini I did eat, it was excellent. A bit on the crispy side, but very fresh.

I decided to get the Pear Sake Duck for my entree -- I figured, I owe our wedding guests to test out how the meat dishes taste. It's hard to imagine that an Italian chef could do an Asian-inspired, sake-soy duck so well. The duck is thinly sliced, cooked medium-rare. The tangy sauce breaks up the fattiness of the duck just enough that you don't feel greasy eating it at all. It's just all about the tender meat of the duck. The skin is very slightly crispy, but not burnt. I'm not a food writer and I probably shouldn't pretend to be one. But let me say this, it was *gooooood*.

The most fun part about this place is that the menu changes every week! So you never get bored! Everything is fresh and local. And, for a place that serves quite fancy and high quality food, it's shocking to see a drive-through take-out window. Apparently, you can call in orders. And, if you're a regular and Bruno and Bessie (co-owner and Bruno's wife) love you, they'll fax the current week's menu to you! Although, in this digital age, that's hardly necessary.

Bruno and Bessie has the cutest love story, too! Apparently, Bruno saw Bessie across the bar, and, never having believed at love at first sight, Bruno said to his friend that he was going to marry Bessie. Obviously, I like the story because of it's slight resemblance to Martin and my story -- if you replace "bar" with "OOPSLA '04".

You might be wondering why I haven't talked about the dessert. Well, Martin got the tiramisu and really loved it. I got creme brulee. I am very traditional in how I want my creme brulee -- I like the burnt sugar on top, and I like tapping it lightly with my spoon until I hear the crack in that layer of burnt sugar. Bruno's creme brulee, like his other dishes, is of his own creation and a bit less "traditional". There's no burnt sugar. Instead, you get a piece of almond toffee. Now, the creme part is very good -- it's sweet and creamy and not too eggy. But I can't quite get over the fact that there's no burnt sugar. Martin insisted that I declare this as a matter of personal taste -- this person clearly really enjoyed the creme brulee.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Martin and I went on a bike ride today, to take advantage of the only sunny day we've had in a while. For real, the weather God, if you're reading, please, it's almost May!!!!! Can we have some good weather yet?!?!?!

Anyway. We climbed some pretty decent hills where I almost died of cardiac arrest, and then went down some really steep and curvy hills where I almost died from skidding off the road into the Lorane Valley. We came home to very empty stomach, and decided ordering delivery for dinner may be a good idea. The following conversation took place, verbatim:

Martin: How about that Indian place?
Shan Shan: I don't think they deliver.
Martin: But we had it delivered to our home last time!
Shan Shan: No. Last time I went and picked it up. It just *seemed* like delivery to *you*!
Martin: Oh... (smiles sheepishly)

Well, at least he's embarrassed about mistaking me for delivery service ;)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Funny foreigners

Martin has been getting accustomed to life in the United States. It's not until you've lived with a foreigner, do you realize some of the things we say and do really makes little sense when taken at face value.

Episode 1: Martin and the movie ticket machine.
Martin and I go to the movies, and he gets to buy tickets out of the ticket machine for the first time. Martin gets through without any problems, and paid with a credit card.

Machine: "Do you want cash back?"
Martin: "Yeah, sure."
Shan Shan: "You do?"
Martin: "Why not? It's asking me if I want money back!"
Shan Shan: "It's not *free* money back! You have to pay for the money back!"
Martin: "Oh... Well you've got to admit the phrasing is a bit ambiguous."

Episode 2: Massage
Martin and I go to get a massage. Things went well. It was Martin's first massage and he enjoyed it. The massage therapists at the wonderful Pearl Day Spa wrap warm wet towels around your feet at the end of the massage. I didn't think much of it, other than it was a nice touch.

Martin and I went to dinner afterwards, and we were discussing how wonderful the massages were. Martin comments that the massage lotion felt a bit sticky, and that he thought it was weird that the massage therapist only "washed" his feet.
Shan Shan: "What?"
Martin: "They washed my feet with hot towels."
Shan Shan: "I don't think that's what that was. They were just making you comfortable by putting your feet in something warm!"
Martin: "Oh... I was seriously expecting her to wash me, and I was surprised when she just did the feet!"

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Adventures in Dutch Cuisine

I am taking my training to be a wife very, very seriously. Very. Seriously. When Martin was in Eugene, he made this traditional Dutch dish. It's basically potatoes mashed together with really finely chopped kale. It's usually served with sausages, but I actually just like it quite a bit by iteslf. It sounds simple, but it's actually really really tasty. I liked it so much that I tried to make it myself today.

Step 1: boil potatoes.
Step 2: chop kale and add to potatoes to boil
Step 3: mush together with butter and salt.
Step 4: Looks like I'll be eating lots of potatoes and kale this week...
Consume with lots of water. Potatoes can make your mouth so dry!

Monday, September 24, 2007

I'm back, and I'm cooking!

It seems strange that I didn't blog at all while in New York City for the summer. You'd think there's so much going on that I'd have stuff to blog about all the time. But as it turns out, blogging is for people who are *just* busy enough to have stuff to blog about, but not so busy that they don't have time to actually blog. I fell into the latter category this summer. But now I'm firmly back into the first category.

I did manage to end my single life by getting engaged this summer. To a vegetarian. Something that's completely unimaginable to me about 8 years ago. But my taste has slowly evolved over the years from a near-complete carnivore to one that appreciates fresh vegetables and fruits. So being a vegetarian is no longer an immediate strike in my book. Martin showed up at just the right time.

Since he bought me a ring and everything, I figured I ought to learn how to cook some vegetarian dishes. Here's my attempt at turning a "green curry beef" recipe into a "green curry Thai eggplants and Shiitake mushrooms". It's possible that putting Shiitake mushrooms in such a strongly flavored dish is a sacrilege. But, whatever. I've never been an orthodox cook.

The ingredients are very simple: Thai eggplants and Shiitake mushrooms, green curry paste, Thai fish sauce, and coconut milk. And apparently, I also needed palm sugar. But oh well, brown sugar and syrup will have to do -- I figured they must taste similar... sweet.

Having been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, I've been carefully looking at the ingredients of processed foods to try and eat less corn! I was happy to see that the ingredients of the green curry paste, the most processed thing I used in my dish, contained ingredients with names I understand: e.g. green chili. And none of them is corn.

And voila! Final product, with white rice.
And it was yummy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Well well well...

Phew. This is the first chance I've had to blog in a couple of months. Actually, this is the first time I've had time to do anything other than IBM work and POPL paper for a while. I feel like I've aged 2 years in the past 2 months. But now that POPL submission is out, I feel like a whole new woman! Only one full-time job to do :P

I went down to East Village today to get my hair cut. Oh. My. God. What the hell took me so long to get myself down here???? I *love* it. This is what I think about when I think of New York. Gritty. Varied. Not everyone dresses in the same empire-waist cut shirt/dress that's so popular this season. Second-hand shops with vintage clothes. An entire street full of nothing but Indian restaurants. I'm going back down there this weekend. The village is so much more fun than the Upper West Side!!!! UWS is too freaking sterile.