Confessions of a researchaholic

May 25, 2013

Ideas are not like cakes

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:21 pm
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I used to dish out ideas like cakes to those who are good all-around but just cannot figure out what they want to do. Recently, I realized this is a mistake.

Ideas are not like cakes that can just be given out. Rather, they are more like dresses that better be tailored individually.

This applies to all kinds of people.

Those who can already create ideas do not need to be told what to do anyway. They just need guidance. This is the best case scenario.

Some have potential to create ideas but cannot do right now due to lack of proper training or motivation. The goal is to kindle their autonomy. Giving cakes is not going to achieve this, and these might not be what they like to eat anyway. The right thing to do is forcing them to think. The process could be frustrating sometimes, but worth the end result.

Those who lack fundamental abilities to create ideas are not suitable for research anyway. Giving them ideas just wastes everyone’s time (and the ideas). They should switch to alternative career paths as early as possible.

A proper timing to share ideas is after someone already figures out a related direction.

May 24, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:20 pm

Inspired by recent articles about dangerous advices for startups and survivorship bias, I, belatedly, put up a disclaimer.

Every post here is from my personal experiences, real and honest. But what works for me might or might not work for everyone. I am clearly not normal by many measures.

In general, do not blindly buy-in every piece of advice; including this one.

May 22, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:51 am
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I bumped into this interesting and concise article a few days ago. I encourage you to read it in whole and watch the embedded video.

Basically, it echoes my personal experiences quite well, across product groups, industry labs, and academia. For jobs that require any dose of innovation, the success predominantly depends on individual creativity, perseverance, and autonomy, rather than knowledge, smartness, or even intelligence.

I have a very simple rule of thumb to know, at an early stage, whether a student is suitable for research, or any form of innovative work. It is a bit like push and pull. If I push you a bit (e.g. suggesting you to try an experiment) and you can react back with at least something I did not know a priori (e.g. a surprising result or a better way to do that experiment), you are probably good. Otherwise, you are just a robot that needs to be told exactly what to do. It is a bit better, but not fundamentally different from, say, strawberry pickers or assembly line workers.

Autonomy is the main distinction between jobs in the past 2 millenniums (e.g. agriculture, manufacturing) and this new millennium (the so called knowledge economy). It is also the main reason behind the bifurcation of economic power, social class, and a lot of other things.

On a related note, a recent story deeply touched my heart. A previous unknown, 50+ years old mathematician, with stints in fast food restaurants, recently proved an elusive property of prime numbers that has been one of the longest standing math challenges.
I did not know this guy, but I bet he must have a tremendous amount of passion and perseverance to spend all the time and efforts to pull this off.

May 21, 2013

Lvdi Wang visiting HK

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:41 pm
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[People usually send out email announcements for visitors. But I find it very boring. So I am going to take a different approach that is more interesting and fits my style better.]

Lvdi Wang, a MSR Asia researcher in computer graphics, is visiting Hong Kong from June 8 to June 12, 2013. If you are a faculty or student who would like to meet with him, let me know.

Here are some reasons why it is to your benefit to meet him, especially if you are a student, and more so if you are a student working with me now.

Lvdi is a very smart guy. In fact, he is one of the smartest students I have ever worked with. You can benefit a lot from discussing with him about your research.

He is also a very nice guy, nicer than the usual kind of smart guys who could make you a bit uncomfortable.

[Look at his publications and photos under his website for the two points above.]

He is not my longest collaborator, but likely knows my style well enough to give some *happiness* guide, especially to my internal students. (I am not saying anyone should have any grievance given my liberal style; how many professors out there allow their students to work anytime anywhere? But just in case.)

You might want to ask him about “nothing is impossible”. I am going to quote from his case if you ever tell me “it is not possible to accomplish that”.

May 18, 2013

Manage research code

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:55 pm
Tags: ,

Svn is my choice for revision control. I usually use c++ to write the core components, and perl/php/csh scripts to run them. More information can be found under, which contains public domain code of some of my projects.

Those are all relative toy cases.
Real deals can be found in good tech companies.

The best research software practice I have personally experienced is in the NVIDIA GPU architecture group. Strictly speaking, it is development, but there is plenty research involved due to its cutting edge nature. And it worked. Tens or even hundreds of engineers can collaborate on the c-models for multiple versions and generations of GPUs, each with staggering complexity. The products shipped and nobody lost their mind as far as I know.

PS I always believe the tremendous benefits of having at least a few years industry experience before joining the academia.

May 15, 2013

Manage research projects via paper drafts

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:04 pm
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I use paper drafts to manage my research projects including everything: writing, experiments, results, and communications. Other than external storage (e.g. Dropbox or Google site) for data that does not need fine-grained revision control, I never need anything else, like meetings or emails. So far, this mechanism has worked superbly well, for my team projects as well as single authored papers.

This is one of those things that are better experienced than told, but here is a brief description of what it is like.

First of all, you need to have some idea what a research paper is like. All you see are finished and polished products. However, few, if any, research paper is written in one pass. They all went through some iterative evolution process. And here is mine.

I usually start drafting up the abstract the moment I have the idea. Do not worry if it is immature. It should be, as otherwise the idea cannot be new. Just write it down. Do not worry about grammar or anything cosmetic. Just make sure you can understand yourself later.

Gradually add more materials to that paper draft, including everything you see in published papers like introduction, literature survey, algorithm descriptions, math equations, experimental results, as well as those you might not see, such as thoughts, discussions, failed experiments, and ideas for future works. I usually keep a main part that eventually becomes published papers, as well as a blog part keeping daily progress and discussions.

I use svn/git for revision control, and Latex for document source. I structure the files so that I can simultaneously compile multiple versions from the same set of source (with different flags), such as final.pdf for final submission and draft.pdf that contains everything, including discussions among co-authors.

Because I put everything in writing, I never need to be reminded what has been done, what is yet to be done, and who is doing what. I can concurrently manage a double digit number of projects without losing my marbles. I also can collaborate with anyone anywhere without any other forms of meetings, because all discussions can be conducted through the paper draft. For example, if I see a mistake in an equation, I correct it, and put a note nearby explaining what I have done and why. The other guy, who wakes up in another time zone 8 hours later, can see exactly what has happened. Even for my UI papers, one guy can record a short video (or better, the editing history) for another guy to replay.

I have provided a didactic case, for file structure, research methodology, and the revision history.
One day I might be able to share a real project repository. Everything will naturally make sense when you start working with me (or one of my academic descendants) on real projects.

May 3, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

Dear student:

I am totally cool with skipping all the classes as this is also what I did in school. But at least I never walk up to a professor in the final session and ask: “are you the TA of this class?”

(True event occurred in my mobile computing class today. All students have to show up for their final project demos.)

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