Confessions of a researchaholic

February 1, 2016

The cat experiment

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:07 am
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Once, when I was around 9 or 10, I was visiting my aunt’s place.

One of the cousins, X, and I were standing near the swimming pool. The family cat walked by. Cousin X and I got into the discussion about whether cats can swim. I have seen a few dogs and at least one horse swam, so I was pretty sure the answer is yes (cats seem more agile). Cousin X disagreed (he is older but not necessarily smarter), so we decided to have a bet.

Clearly, the only way to settle the bet is to experiment, so I grabbed the cat and threw it into the pool.
(That was before the age of YouTube and Google, BTW.)

What followed was amazing, and happened like within a few milliseconds. The cat sprang on the water surface like a trampoline, and immediate landed back near my feet. It was dripping, so it clearly fell into the water, but I had no idea how it managed to jump back. Meanwhile, our debate remained unsettled.

I am trying to come up with a very concrete way to tell a new PhD student how to decide whether someone is suitable for (scientific) research. So here is my try. Let me know if you have better ideas.

Do you like to ask questions that seem interesting at least to you (e.g. whether cats can swim)?

Do you enjoy finding the answers yourself through investigations and experiments (e.g. grab the cat and throw it into the pool, and observe what happens)?

Are you very comfortable with the consequences, regardless of the outcomes of the experiments (e.g. the cat neither swam nor sank and my aunt beat me up)?

Can you do this continuously as a career? Imagine it is Friday lunch time, and all the works you have done this week have turned out to be failures (e.g. no other ways you have tried can tell you whether cats can swim).
You have no idea what is going to happen this afternoon when you try your 101th experiment with that cat.

If you hesitate for any of these questions or you think I am crazy, you are probably not suitable for research. At least, you will not be happy or successful.

Talent and personality are important; you have to be sufficiently smart and tough for research. But passion is even more important; the only way to be truly happy and productive is to do what you really like.

January 29, 2016

School versus job performance

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:29 pm
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How predictive is the school performance for the eventual job (and life) performance of an individual?

This is a very important question. The schools are supposed to educate what is actually useful. (But clearly that is not the case in practice.)

This is also a very broad question under perennial discussion.

In my personal experiences on the creative side of computer science (e.g. research and development for the cutting edge of graphics and HCI), there is a weak positive correlation between school and job performance (around 0.2 to 0.3 if I have to be numeric).
Good school performance reflects positive traits such as talent and work ethics, but also negative traits such as conformity, lack of creativity, and risk aversion.

This is why standard statistics, like grades, schools, and rankings, are not enough and sometimes even misleading. We have to look at more practical evidence, such as publications, projects, and recommendations.

This is also why recruiting top students and employees is very challenging. Top schools and companies do have advantages in attracting top talents, but we only get what we look for. Many of the best people I have worked so far had been bypassed by the traditional screening standards. Conversely, I have also seen many weak people in top institutions.

Maybe one day data analysis and machine learning will solve this problem.
Before that, I rely on the good old way of people reading.

January 26, 2016

How to write grant proposals

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:24 pm
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Having written only 5 grant proposals so far, I am still relatively new to the game. But the following summarizes the gist quite well.

Basically, it is not just about writing what you plan to do. You are essentially authoring a top paper, but not yet published.

I used to think that writing grants is a necessary evil, but now I realized it is a great way to plan research at a high level, beyond individual papers or projects.

January 24, 2016

How to deal with scoops

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:16 am
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Ideas that can be easily scooped are probably incremental.

Just move on to a better idea, and use that to beat those who steal your idea.

And be careful with whom you share ideas in the future.

December 9, 2015

The PhD grind

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:10 pm
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I bumped into this PhD student memoir by Philip Guo, and liked it so much that I read the entire book within a few hours.

I highly recommend it to anyone doing research, especially junior PhD students.

There are many advices out there about research and PhD, but this memoir format provides concrete events that are easier to relate on a personal level.
It also helped that the fields covered are HCI and software engineering, which every CS major can understand to some degree.

In retrospect, I hope to have written something similar around the time of my PhD study. Back then I simply had too much fun for this, and I probably have too much selective bias now to write a genuine one.
But if you can write one, I would love to read.

December 3, 2015

How to judge potential conflict with multiple projects

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:29 pm
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Working on concurrent projects with sufficient similarity may cause potential conflict of interests.

The way I will judge it is asking the following question: how likely is it for me to come up with an idea that can help both projects in a non-trivial way? If the answer is yes, then I might be in conflict, as I will have to choose which project to use that idea.

November 30, 2015

How to write papers

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:55 pm
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Just like many other skills, the more you do, the better you get.

Writing anything is better than writing nothing. It is an iterative process. The readers do not care (and cannot tell) how many iterations you have made, or how crappy the earlier versions were.

Read good papers, and learn their styles.
Look at suggestions (books, articles, online tutorials, etc.) on how to improve writing.

Aside from telepathy and telekinesis, any other form of external communication has inherently narrower bandwidth than your internal brain circuitry.
The challenge is to figure out what you know that others don’t, and effectively communicate these.
(I used to think that teaching is orthogonal to research. Now I realized that both rely on the above, after being a prof.)

What you want to write might not match what you really have written. To detect this discrepancy, flush your brain cache as follows. After having a draft, leave it there until you have forgotten most of it. Then look at it again.

When you have only minor updates between revisions, show your draft to other people for comments. Ask them to be honest and brutal, like reviewers.

November 20, 2015

How to have a bad research career by David Patterson

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:24 pm
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The filename suggested the seventh version, but I still learned new things from it just like the previous ones.

David Patterson did warn about his system bias, though.
In particular, I have different experiences with “big teams” and “technology transfer”.

The number of collaborators should be naturally proportional to the scale of the projects, which in turn depends on the fields.
System architecture naturally involves various experts from PL/compiler, OS, architecture, VLSI, and networks, but in my fields (graphics, vision, and HCI) the most influential papers are usually authored by one or two people, and seldom more than four.

It is difficult for companies to adopt new system architecture, but much easier for them to “steal” algorithm ideas. It cannot hurt to protect your IP before going out selling your ideas; you can quickly file provisional patent applications at low cost without involving any lawyers.

November 19, 2015

Research seminars

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:51 am
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To my bright students:

I notice that you do not seem to come to seminars often, if at all.

If you are around, I highly recommend you attend these seminars, at least those by renowned researchers.

You will have fun, learn a lot, and most importantly, have a chance to interact with and talk to different people.

I know you have a lot of works to do, but these can wait, unlike the seminars and the speakers.

October 17, 2015

How to quit jobs

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:50 pm
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[Note: most of my blog posts are answers to common questions, including this one. They do not reflect my personal situations.]

Do not use resignation as leverage for negotiation. If you have any grievance for you job, talk to your managers first. You might be surprised how much you can achieve by simply talking straight.

Quit only if you really mean it, and carry it through. Do not change your mind if people entice you to stay. If you do, they may think you are soft, and you may suffer as a consequence in the long run.

Always attribute your resignation to personal reasons. Do not say anything remotely negative about your employer, managers, colleagues, or underlings. (The only exception is when someone you know gets a job offer from one of your former employers and needs your opinion.) If they insist on getting your honest feedback for future improvements, ask them to contact you after a cool down period. I recommend at least 6 months, and one year if you go to a competitor.

Instead, always try to say something positive about your former employers. If you do this before you quit, you might actually change your mind.
The grass always seems greener on the other side.

Do not come back to the same employer within the next 3 to 5 years. If you do, they might think you are weak, and you might suffer as a consequence.

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