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.

Research opening

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:53 pm
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I have several opening research positions. Please contact me if interested, and help spread the information.

What:
You pick whatever topic you like to do as long as (1) it can be published in a top graphics or HCI venue (e.g. SIGGRAPH, SIGGRAPH Asia, ToG, UIST, CHI), and (2) I have enough interests and expertise to help you.

How:
Send me a brief description of your research plans along with the usual information, like your resume. Tell me why you want to work with me and how I can help you.

When:
The first period will begin anytime from now and end on April 14 2016.
I can extend your contract if your performance is good enough.

Where:
These will be HKU positions, but other than school requirements you can work anywhere you like.

Who:
If you like to continue involve your current advisers or collaborators, just let me know. I usually like to know and collaborate with different people.

Why:
I have an expiring research grant that needs to be consumed prior to April 14 2016, and the remaining can be used only for hiring staff.

December 12, 2015

Implementation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:28 pm
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During my PhD study, I observed how my adviser continued to code and experiment for his own projects, even after being very well established – tenured Stanford professor, computer graphics achievement award, etc.

After graduation I spent a decade in the industry as an engineer and researcher. For companies I worked for (NVIDIA and Microsoft), not coding feels worse than not talking (unless you are a manager).
Even when I consult (e.g. Lytro), I still opt to implement, even if the code cannot be shared due to IP reasons.

Thus, implementation has become an integral part of my workflow.
I found it the best way to (really) learn new topics, and more importantly a highly enjoyable process; I lose some mental balance without coding for more than a few days.

Maybe I am not smart enough, but I never understand why some CS people can get by without implementation.

For my past projects I either code with experienced collaborators, or leave it to the students for topics that I am already familiar with.
I have never code with a junior student in the same project, but I am starting that for a black-magic-like project.
I think this could be fun and mutually beneficial, and will report the experience later.

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.

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 23, 2015

Latex versus Word

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:17 am
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https://www.facebook.com/liyiwei/posts/10207898861689892

October 26, 2015

Autocomplete hand-drawn animations

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:00 pm
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[This post is for answering press inquiries about our SIGGRAPH Asia 2015 paper titled “autocomplete hand-drawn animations”.]

On August 2014, Koji Yatani (at the University of Tokyo) asked me (on Facebook!) to recommend students for a MSR Asia internship under Takaaki Shiratori with topics in animation and sketch UI. I recommended my HKU PhD student Jun Xing, who just got a paper in SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 titled “autocomplete painting repetitions”.
(Both Koji and I were with MSR. That is how we got to know each other even though we have no overlap.)

Our initial goal was to help users create animated emoji in instant messaging. I wanted to make sure the project is significant enough (e.g. for SIGGRAPH) while leveraging our collective expertise as much as possible. Thus, I proposed to extend the aforementioned SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 paper, which can autocomplete only single-frame drawings, for multi-frame animations. The main goal for both projects is to help ordinary users draw as easily and effectively as possible.
(My dad is an artist, but I have yet to learn how to draw. So as any decent computer scientist would do, I ask algorithms for help.)

Jun designed most of the user interface and algorithms, and implemented the entire system. He is definitely one of the best students I have worked with.

We plan to ship prototypes of the system to gather user opinions for further research and improvements, starting with mobile apps followed by desktop versions.

PS:
Contrary to what some press reported, this is NOT a Microsoft technology or product (at least not at this moment of writing). None of the authors were with Microsoft during the key stages of the project development. In particular, the core ideas were conceived before the start of the internship, and Jun had to come back to HKU to finish the project after Takaaki left Microsoft about 1 month before the paper deadline.

August 5, 2015

Good collaborator

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:42 am
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People who are the most important in my life are those who make me better.

I would like to thank Chia-Kai Liang, my collaborator in a light field camera design project.

  • The best kind of research projects has both academic and industry values. He brought me into this very interesting problem, for which our solution turns into a SIGGRAPH paper and part of a next generation Lytro camera.

  • Initially I thought the project is too engineering-oriented for a good research paper. He corrected my blind spot and kept us moving on.
    (I am still learning to walk the very thin line between optimism and pessimism for research.)

  • The project involved heavy workloads in data capture and prototype engineering. He participated and coordinated all these with the product teams and paper co-authors.

  • He wrote the code and paper with me, more closely and more effectively than my previous (excellent) collaborators.

  • I learned several technicalities thanks to him, such as designing light field cameras, using cmake without blowing off our legs, putting python (programming language) to good use, automating speech synthesis for video dubbing, etc.

  • He made sure I started preparing our SIGGRAPH talk before inside the convention center.

I look forward to further collaboration with Chia-Kai in innovating computational photography.

May 31, 2015

Should we submit?

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:33 pm
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The deadline is approaching and we have this paper that might or might not be ready. Should we submit?

A lot can be learned only by going through actually paper review cycles. So it pays off to do our best to meet the deadline.

On the other hand, a bad submission might get its potentially good ideas scooped by the reviewers without receiving much useful feedback.

Thus, I recommend submitting only those with a reasonable chance of getting accepted but let the first author make the final call as the tie breaker.

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