Confessions of a researchaholic

April 28, 2013

Data analysis applied to professional team sports

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:50 pm

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL). Oakland As (MLB). Golden State Warriors (NBA). And more.

I wonder if one day algorithms are going to instruct every player move.

April 17, 2013

We are what we think we are

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:41 pm
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I heard some recent conversations among faculties about why they should not take the very top students because they might go somewhere else in the end.


If even you do not think you are the best, how could you make others believe in you?

I think I am as good as anyone out there, so my strategy is very simple: take (as my internal students) only those who are so good that I will regret for not taking. If they deflect to other places in the end, fine, because I will likely at least keep some of them. And even in the worst case I get no students, I can just single author SIGGRAPH papers. (I seriously miss the fun.) Or spend some time away living in Nepal. All these beat wasting time on not-so-good people, or worse, thinking I am one of them.

Why you should not do incremental research

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:04 pm
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Because (borrowing a metaphor from finance) doing incremental research is like picking up nickels in front of a running steamroller.

The steamroller is driven by folks who have been publishing on a specific topic recently.

You see (incremental) opportunities to improve on their direction, like nickels on the floor.

And you feel like picking up those nickels. Why not? They are right over there.

However, the steamroller is also on its way to get to the nickels. (An obvious point, but people are surprisingly ignorant to it, especially when they are focusing on the nickels.)

So the questions you should ask are: are you fast enough to beat the steamroller to the nickels? (This depends on your competitive advantage.) And in case you just barely make it, are you tough enough to keep running in front of that steamroller at least for a while? (You have to do some tough comparisons with competing methods.)

Meanwhile, there are golden nuggets elsewhere. They are hidden and harder to find, but they are far from the steamroller and a whole bunch of other people trying to pick up nickels.

I will let you decide where you want to go. If you want to pick up nickels, fine, but I will just sit there watching you running in front of that steamroller. I prefer to be the first guy finding the golden nuggets, and when others notice me, I am already moving on to other places.

April 14, 2013

Creative collaboration

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:36 pm
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I found the TEDxBow talk by Lloyd Davis on “5 Open Secrets of Creative Collaboration” very interesting, in that it emphasized the importance of physical human connections (and trust) in fostering creative collaboration, which is entirely opposite to my methodology of minimizing physical human contacts.

The natural way to produce good ideas is to have a bunch of smart and creative people work together. This is the main (if not the only) reason for the success of top research institutions, as I have personally witnessed in Stanford and MSR.

The conventional method for collaboration is through physical proximity, implying that to work with top people you have to join them in a top institution.
I am not sure if this is the only or even the best way though. Personally I have not found physical proximity any better than remote collaboration; almost all my ideas were produced either entirely on my own or via collaborations with or inspirations from remote people. The current technology is already good enough for me to be (intellectually) connected to almost anyone I want. (People who shun technology are not likely to be very good anyway, at least in computer science.) Even serendipity, the main advantage of physical proximity, can be managed by remote collaboration; I actually found it more efficient to write down my ideas than rushing to tell people.

Another benefit for remote collaboration is that it provides more flexibility to fit people with different levels of intelligence and experience. Not everyone is smart enough to have productive face-to-face brainstorming, and when that happens, I usually find it a great waste of time. I would rather give them more time (and grace) to think through stuff remotely and communicate with me asynchronously.

But I do wonder if I can be more effective by mixing a bit physical collaboration with suitable folks. Will experiment and report.

April 10, 2013

Taking courses versus doing research

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:25 pm
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Students take courses in college, and do research in graduate school.

Taking courses and doing research share some common intellectual underpinnings. On the other hand, they are also very different. Different enough to make some college superstars completely fail in graduate schools.

When you take a course, everything is pre-designed and deterministic. You follow the instructions. And if you are smart and hardworking enough, you get good grades.

When you conduct a research project, very little is known a priori. The process is ambiguous and stochastic; your assumption may be wrong, your experiments may fail, sometimes you might not know what you are doing, and in the end your papers may get rejected. Being smart and hardworking can help. But if you have to follow clear instructions and you expect deterministic outcomes, you probably will not enjoy or be very good at research.

This is probably why, in my personal experience, the best research students might not have the best GPA, but they are usually creative, motivated, tough, and (most importantly) can get things done no matter what happens.
(Perfect GPA can be a reflection of conforming personality, which is not suitable for research. On the other hand, bad GPA is usually a reflection of intellectual or personality problems.)

The transition from undergrad to grad school is not always easy for everyone. My suggestion is to adopt the research mentality as early as possible. In particular, do not waste your time on courses; all you need is to pass the minimal requirements. If you have to, take courses that are research or project oriented. And start your research as early as possible, so that you will have more time to learn and adjust, and to accommodate all the potential failures and setbacks.

April 2, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:25 pm
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According to my family history I am of northern Chinese descent. DNA analysis indicated that it might have to go a bit further north, across the Great Wall. Specifically, since my paternal haplogroup is C3*, it is closer to the Mongols than the Manchus (whose emperors carried C3c, a related but different thread). There is also a non-trivial chance that my Y-chromosome came from Genghis Khan, who has left a wide genetic footprint across the former Mongol empire.

To clarify, the paternal haplogroup only traces the Y-chromosome, not the entire ethnic composition. I am pretty sure it is not uncommon for northern Chinese to have some Mongolic blend.
Furthermore, my maternal haplogroup is D4e3 (likely coastal Chinese). So I am probably some combination of Mongolian and Han Chinese.

My grandfather once told me that our last name came from one of the seven warring states. Clearly, he thought we were (pure) Han Chinese. I am having fun imaging his reaction upon hearing his true ancestry.

I plan to use this to explain away my past and future behaviors.

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