Confessions of a researchaholic

February 12, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:12 am
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A few evenings ago while tunneling through one of the numerous secret passageways of Hogwarts I overheard a heated argument between a pair of young student couples.

They clearly thought it was a sufficiently secluded place for letting go all of their inner emotions.

It was quite enjoyable to feel so much energy in the kind of anger signature of young couples. After they are older, they will cool off, and silently resent and despise each other.

February 11, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:13 pm
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I avoid airline check-in counters because it is a huge waste of time and I seldom bother with luggage anyway, but a few flights ago I had to do it due to malfunctioning self-check-in kiosks. While laboring with an agent, I overheard the conversation in an adjacent counter.
I did not watch the customer because my visual cortex was occupied with mental seat-map upload, but from his voice and intonation I pictured a high level corporate manager in his 50s with bristle white hair in a business suit.

The guy was hissing out sentences like “this is totally unacceptable; I am a XXXX elite status member”, in a tone of shock, indignation, and disappointment.

Gosh. If I had known the company he worked for I would have shorted it.

Self-note: dealing with check-in counters might not be such a bad thing because it provides opportunities for observing humanity under emotional stress.

January 25, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:23 pm
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My attitude towards teaching could be reflected by how I would really like to write my teaching statement (for faculty job applications).
There will be only one sentence: “smart enough students can pick up everything themselves”.
(Note1: I know this is entirely doable because I pulled this off since I was 10 years old, and I did not consider myself to be very smart.)
(Note2: Of course this is not how I really wrote my teaching statement.)

With this backdrop, it should not be a surprise that I have never blogged a single entry about teaching, at least not mine. I do not even have teaching as a tag word.

I have considered teaching as a chore rather than enjoyment (unlike research), and my basic stance has not changed too much. (One main reason why I think it is better to start a research career as an industry lab scientist rather than a university professor.) But not until I really taught full-semester classes, especially large ones, did I start to appreciate teaching can be a fun thing to do, for two main reasons.

First, it can actually inspire my research ideas.

Second, and probably more important, teaching provides a great chance for massive mind reading and human studying, with moral justification for effective teaching. It is even more fun and challenging than reading individuals, one of my most favorite pastimes.

More posts to follow.

August 15, 2012

How to be more creative

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 4:55 pm
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[Work in progress; this is a darn hard one to write, but I finally decided to start as triggered by a conversation with my MSR colleagues last dinner.]

This is the holy grail among all questions related to research, or any other intellectual pursuits. I used to (and still) think creativity is more of an innate talent and personality trait than something that can be taught. But I have finally gathered some anecdote to start something concrete. Some of these came from my own experiences and some from people I know. So it is a very personal perspective, and I cannot guarantee anything.

I summarize these into two main aspects, divergence and convergence. The goal is to have both in a right balance. My take is that either is hard, and the right combination is even harder.


Many good ideas were generated by exposure to diversity, such as learning from different fields, interacting different people, and experiencing different cultures.
(1) computer graphics is known to borrow ideas from other fields, such as physics, art, psychology, perception, architecture, interaction, etc.,
(2) a disproportional number of project ideas in Microsoft Research came from smart people talking to each other; I have heard plenty interesting stories on how an idea originated and transformed, often through multiple years and multiple folks, into a final project idea (that often bears little resemblance to the original idea, such as my SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on “non-linear revision control for images” which originated from “deformable BTF texture synthesis”),
(3) people who are multilingual and/or have been living in different countries/cultures tend to be more successful [dig out that economist(?) article].

Try to be playful and willing to take risks. Happier people tend to be more creative [dig out the source]. Those not willing to take risks usually end up with ordinary performance; this is evident in not only entrepreneurship but more mundane stuff like paper submissions: aiming for a more prestigious venue often encourages (or forces) people to be bolder.


God/devil is in the details. Many good ideas came by carefully studying a subject. My SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on “differential domain analysis” was originated from the trigonometric transform equation which I discovered by trying to solve a puzzle of my previous SIGGRAPH 2010 paper on “multi-class blue noise sampling” (the equation first appeared on the technical report published the previous year in 2009).

Sometimes one has to be a perfectionist, pushing things beyond the very top level, to discover the golden nugget of ideas. This was the case for my SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on “discrete element textures “, which went through multiple submissions to the point that the authors started to feel desperate and only be saved by the discovery of a very important key idea (sample based representation that requires only positional but not rotational information).

March 24, 2012

Fooled by randomness

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:41 pm
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Feeling down from some recent rejections? I hope this post will make you more positive. The gist: never, ever, quit.

Assume you are throwing N loaded dices, each with a probability p for coming up head.

Now, if p is greater than 0 and smaller than 1, there is always a chance that the N dices will come up with all heads or all tails. And the smaller the N value, the more likely for such extreme cases to happen.

This is all pure chance. But unfortunately, human brains have difficulty accepting randomness, and always want to impose determinism, e.g. patterns or rules or causalities.
For example, if you are a scholar submitting N papers to a conference, you will likely consider yourself to be very good/bad (or the paper committee has treated you very well/badly) if all N submissions are accepted/rejected.

This human fallacy is brilliantly illustrated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “Fooled by Randomness”.

However, even without reading that book, I can recommend a very simple remedy: law of large numbers. This is a well-known mathematical theorem, which says that the expected value of a random variable can be more accurately predicted by averaging a larger number of samples.

So, for example, to measure your intrinsic paper acceptance rate towards a specific conference, you can take the total number of acceptances divided by the total number of submissions. This will be a much more meaningful measure than your acceptance rate for a single year, especially if you have a sufficient number of submissions across multiple years.

For example, the plot below shows my cumulative acceptance rate for SIGGRAPH, the top venue for computer graphics and interactive techniques. As you can see, the rate seems to be gradually converging to a certain value, around 0.34. This is much more stable measure than my yearly rate, which can be anywhere between 0 and 1.

Now, if you are new to a field, your rate will have a higher variance, just like the initial portions of mine. I was lucky that I had a good start which boosted my confidence. (Initial condition is actually very important and has been found to greatly influence the performance of many careers, e.g. hockey players. Note to myself: dig out that book/article. I guess it should be Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated” or Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”.) However, if you happen have an unlucky start, do not give up too early; hang on for a while, so that you can have a chance to see your *intrinsic performance*.
As you can see, my intrinsic performance did not really show up until about a decade doing SIGGRAPH.

(With all these rational arguments, I have to confess that it still hurts to get rejected!)

Some notes about the graph: (1) I plot SIGGRAPH at integer years and SIGGRAPH Asia at integer + 0.5 years, (2) missing data points are for years which I did not submit anything (2004 and 2005 while in NVIDIA and 2011.5 when I have nothing to submit for SIGGRAPH Asia 2011), (3) a more accurate measure would be “moving average” (with exponential decay of past values) but I probably need another 10 years to warrant this, (4) I really want to improve my intrinsic rate to at least 50 percent!, (5) I guess the ultimate test is to have multiple disjoint committees + reviewers, all with similar qualities, to evaluate the same batch of submissions, and see if they will accept similar sets of papers.

February 13, 2012

Jeremy Lin

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:33 am
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I am not trying to jump into the bandwagon, but there appears to be a civil-right scale movement happening in the Asian-American community now.

I found a few articles worth reading:

A forbes article about lessons learned from Jeremy Lin.

What I see in Jeremy Lin, an article I found through ESPN. And another good one by J.A. Adande, one of my most favorite ESPN writers. (Yes, you can actually learn something in a sports page.)

Paper tigers, a provocative article about Asian-Americans. I agreed with some of the points, disagreed with others, but found most of them very interesting.

February 1, 2012


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:59 pm
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A few days ago I ran out of shampoo. So I went to a nearby convenience store and bought a bottle. When I came home later that day, I found out that what I bought is hair conditioner instead.

So yesterday, I went to the same store again, determined to buy the right stuff this time. I did not recall exactly what happened, but this morning when I tried to wash my hair, I discovered that I have two bottles of conditioners, and still no shampoo.

I tried to recall what happened, and realized that I have been occupied by a bug and on some kind of auto-pilot the whole time last night.

I am going to give it a third try tonight. I fixed the bug earlier today, so hopefully I can finally get enough focus to buy shampoo.

Meanwhile, I need to figure out what to do with all these conditioners. My hairs grow so fast that I have to cut them like every 3 weeks, so I seriously doubt if they will last long enough to benefit from any conditioners. Nevertheless, I am going to give them a try, and see if they will get shiny.

November 26, 2011


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:23 pm
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It is pointless to rationalize with people who are trapped in emotions, which, unfortunately, happen all too frequently. Emotion is an evolutionary artifact that would take long for (natural) evolution to fix. Meanwhile, we can only hope for better self-control.

September 23, 2011


Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 10:27 am
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Imagine a world where all resources are unlimited. Everything has infinite supplies and free to access like air. Everyone can live forever without aging, disease, injuries, fears, or any forms of constraints.

What would it be like? Do you think it is heaven, or hell?

Life is worth living precisely because it is finite and every resource is limited.

July 20, 2011


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:56 am
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“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – William Shakespeare

But this is true only if the name is not already loaded with other meanings and the name cannot reflexively influence the entity being named. For the name “rose”, it does not carry any meaning other than a specific breed of flowers that smell sweet. For the entity “rose”, it still smells sweet even if it is named otherwise (such as “dung”).

When it comes to naming, people would be an exact opposite case to roses. People’s names are usually already overloaded with meanings, and names can reflexively influence people’s behaviors and self perceptions. I have an uncle whose first name was “至愚” which roughly translates to *extremely stupid*, and my grandparents told me that it became an excuse (in a funny and joking way though) for my uncle to not perform well in school as a child. (He later changed his name to something better.)

In case you wonder, it is not uncommon for Chinese parents to name their heirs negatively, as the tradition believes that doing so can help avoid devil’s attention. But whatever discretion my grandfather has for that uncle disappeared when he named me “立一”, which roughly translates to *number one*, *the first*, or *the best*. Not a typical name in a culture that observes humility and conformity (and devil’s attention). Probably because of the name or probably because of the expectations, I have been trying to live up to my name since childhood, although unfortunately more on the non-humble/non-conforming side rather than on the being number-one side. And probably because of the devil’s attention, I always have difficulty accomplishing anything other than the best, even if I tried.

Every year during my birthday, I tried to find someone or something to be thankful. In the last few years I thanked my mom for the pain she has to endure to bear and raise me. But this year, I would like to thank the name that was given to me, and the family elders who came up with it. It has guided me well throughout my entire life. Every time I have doubts about myself or need to make hard decisions, my name already reminds me who I am and what I am supposed to do.

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