Confessions of a researchaholic

June 28, 2012

How to attend conferences

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:32 am
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A more comprehensive post can be found here.

Main point

Spend most (if not all) the time networking. Reason: meeting with people is the main feature of a conference, and the only thing that is hard to manage otherwise.

Every other conference activity should facilitate networking.
For example, I listen in technical paper sessions not because I have to (it is more efficient for me to read the papers at home); rather, I just want to compliment and chat with the speakers after their presentations.
I also like to see stuff far away from what I usually do, like animations and artistic sessions. I have met some very interesting people there, and got some useful inspirations for my work.

Below are more detailed points.

What (and what not) to say

A simple rule of thumb is to say only positive things. It can hardly go wrong. Humans like to be complimented, and I have never failed to hook up conversations with authors by saying how much I like their work. If you want to engage the conversation further, ask open-end high-level questions, like potential future works. Questions about details tend to make authors retreating inwards for answers rather than outwards towards you.


It is part of human nature for older people to like to talk to younger people, males to like to talk to females, and mortals to like to talk to nice-looking or charismatic folks. So, if you are a minority relative to the aggregate conference demography, e.g. nice-looking young female attending a computer science conference (which tends to be attended by people who are not very nice-looking, not very young, and not exactly female), you will naturally get more attention. Use this to your advantage. See that 70 year old Turing award winner standing in the buffet line who seems quite intimidating? Walk to him and ask about advices, and you will be surprised by how nice and talkative he turns out to be.

Conference size

If the conference is small, like no more than a few hundred people, try to talk to everyone. Most conferences belong to this category. Personally, I like these small venues because they feel kind of cozy.

If the conference is large, like SIGGRAPH, then it depends on your demography (see above). I usually try catching up with everyone I know first, and if time permits, knowing new folks that I find interesting.
Below is a rough sketch of my algorithm:

function UponBumpingInto(Guy guy)

if(I am already done talking to guy)
  do everything to avoid another long talk without being impolite;
else if(I already know guy or guy is important)
  chat with him/her;
else if(guy seems funky and I am not in a rush)
  chat with him/her;
  appear to be rushing to a session or occupied by an important phone message;

June 23, 2012

Alan Turing centennial

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:11 am
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He would be glad to know that his intellectual offsprings have become so powerful that a smart brain operating from a single room can have the potential to conquer the entire world.

June 17, 2012

The Host

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 3:03 pm

A while ago I stumbled upon this trailer video of an upcoming movie, The Host, which turned out to be the film adaptation of the same titled novel by the very same author responsible for the hugely popular (in terms of box office, not critic) Twilight series.

Yes, I know a lot of people think Twilight is stupid and suitable for teenage girls only. I agree with that, after making a fatal mistake of actually buying a ticket to watch the first one in a movie theatre in Seattle during a raining evening. The weather and location turned out to be the main motivator, because the story backdrop happens in Seattle, in the thesis that lack of sunlight provides natural camouflage for the vampires. (I really want to advocate Beijing as a far better locale due to its heavy pollution, but let me not derail.)

The thing is, I really wanted to know why stories written by the author, Stephenie Meyer, tend to be so popular. There is no way I am even going to get near the Twilight books, but fortunately, The Host contains two major themes that I tend to enjoy, sci-fi, and conquering humans. So I read the book during a long distance flight.

I like the book tremendously, not just for the sci-fi and (conquering) human components. A theme that is really special behind many of these Stephenie Meyer stories is the study of relationships among entities that have quasi-human souls embedded in quasi-human forms. Like vampires + werewolves + humans (Twilight), or brain snatchers from outer space (The Host). So, essentially, these are romances embedded in an expanded sci-fi universe with extra dimensions for all the love, hate, and intrigue.

This being said, I still plan to allocate more my novel quota for Neal Stephenson. Brain snatchers are intriguing, but less so than brain computers who can alter the past and the future.

June 10, 2012

How to choose research topic

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:05 pm
Tags: ,

There are two-by-two main factors to consider here: what [you, your competitors] x [want to do (interest and passion), can do (knowledge and capability)]. The goal is to find a combination that can best satisfy your happiness and productivity. There is no right answer, as it is highly individual dependent, e.g. how smart you are and how fast you can learn.

Personally, I just stick to the interests of my collaborators and myself, and let our knowledge serve as natural constraints.

If possible, try to work on subjects that you are really interested in. You will be happier and more productive, and I will be motivated to learn new things. I would prefer you to tell me what you are interested in, and I will try to come up with projects that can fit our interests and backgrounds. I can pull this off (as demonstrated in my publications), and I know it is very uncommon as most other mentors would prefer you to work on their stuff.

There are other factors to consider, like importance or fashion. But importance is often obvious only in hindsight and many ground breaking discoveries are incidental. While fashion can change, and often very fast, especially in a science/technology field. If you simply pick a hot topic that you are not really interested in, you will lose everything if it becomes not so hot later. By sticking to your passion, you will at least have fun at the end of the day.

How to choose graduate school and adviser

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:48 pm
Tags: ,

To best answer this question, it helps to understand the goal.

The main goal for obtaining a research degree is to help you land the best possible next position, either a job or degree, as well as your long term career development.
Both depend primarily upon your research ability as reflected on your publication record, and, to a lesser degree, the connection of your adviser.

Thus, you need to find an adviser who can best help you publish top papers and connect to top people in your fields.
For the former, look at your potential adviser’s publications. Are they of high quality and high impact? Never follow an adviser who does not have a very strong publication record, even in a top school. You will be much better off with a prestigious publication record from a less prestigious school than the other way around.
For the latter, look at your potential adviser’s collaborators, e.g. paper co-authors. Are they reputable researchers with diverse backgrounds (e.g. some working in academia while others in industry, and located in different geographies)?

For multiple advisers with similar qualifications, look at how strong their overall groups are. For example, if you want to do graphics, look at the graphics group of the potential adviser. Pick one that is stronger overall, e.g. with more and stronger faculties or publications.

Talk to the former and current students of the professors to understand their styles and personalities. If you cannot get along with your adviser, you are unlikely to be happy or productive. Judge the validity of the feedback though; for example, a weak student might unfairly complain that the adviser is too demanding.

Then, look at the geographic location of the school. You want to be close to the industry (job/internship opportunities) and have a good life while grinding away at your study.

The ranking or reputation of the department or school should be the last criterion, or when you do not have any idea what you want to do. In this case, go to Stanford if you can.

Work anytime anywhere you like

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:34 pm
Tags: ,

I operate in a continuous and asynchronous fashion through mechanisms such as svn paper drafts and Google sites, due to how my brain works and the fact that I travel all the time and my collaborators are all over the world.

I do not like discrete and synchronous meetings as practiced by almost everyone else. My brain works on all projects all the time, so discrete sync points actually reduce my productivity. (It is analogous to have the entire Royal Navy fleet converge onto the tiny island of Gibraltar.) I also do not find face-to-face meetings very effective, as people tend to think with their mouths rather than their brains.

(My personal experience is that relying on face-to-face meetings is a clear sign of the brain not being able to cope with the tasks, either due to an inferior former or an overwhelming latter.)

Consequently, you can work anytime anywhere you like.
What matters is your output productivity, not your input efforts.
I am an expert on remote collaboration (and some even think I can read minds). Most of my co-authors are located in different continents and time-zones from me. In at least one case, I did not even meet the first author until after the paper was accepted. This also eliminates the facility and environment issues; if you do not like the office, you can work elsewhere.
You should never need to complain to me about work environment issues.

Work for yourself

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:33 pm
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Unlike most mentors, I do not need anyone to work for me. I can single author SIGGRAPH papers already, I highly enjoy being hands-on, and I can code faster than many of you can speak.
I mentor students primarily due to my interests in humanity, in particular the process of helping them achieve whatever they want in life (e.g. good jobs after graduation, good publications, intellectual training, etc.).

Consequently, you should never ask me when and where you should work. You are doing these for yourself, not me, or anybody else.

My favorite advising model is “one mentor, one apprentice”. My design is to have each student working for him/her-self; you reap what you sow and how much you achieve is proportional to how hard you work.

This will give people the right incentives, so that I never have to worry about “motivate” them. (A notion I always find strange; if someone is not motivated, he/she is probably on the wrong task.)
This is also good for training (you could not lean on other students), psychology (you do not have to worry about another student’s progress), and visibility (the fewer authors on a paper, the more likely you will get noticed; most of my papers have relatively few authors compared to the norm in my fields).

This does not mean you will be isolated. You can discuss with anyone, such as students and professors around you or in other institutions. (You do not have to work on the same project with someone to talk to him or her.) In addition, after you are sufficiently mature with a proven publication record, we can consider putting you in larger teams.

Do what you love

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:11 am
Tags: ,

I always believe this world will be a much better place if everyone can work on a job that he or she truly enjoys. This is particularly true for research, or any job that heavily relies on creativity.

Research, by nature, involves a lot of risks and failures. This can be very frustrating and wearing if that is not something you really enjoy.
(Simple mental test: if everything you do end up being failure, will you still do it?)

This is a profession that attracts a lot of very smart and very hard working folks. There is no way you can compete with them if you do not put in enough efforts. And that can only happen if you truly enjoy the process.
(Simple mental test: can you do it 24×7?)

Creativity is central for research. I believe good ideas can be created only if (1) one is truly interested in the subject and (2) thus one can spend all the time working on it, including during sleep. (I know this because quite a few of my ideas were obtained from interrupted sleeps during the wee hours.)

I found an interesting post from Mark Cuban that is related.
His main point is to follow your effort instead of passion.
On face of it, this seems to contradict what I said above. But further thinking reveals it is actually not: love and effort form a positive feedback loop; one usually loves what she can excel, which requires efforts, which are more likely to be spent if there is enough love.
I guess the main point of that post is that people often do not know what they really love; passion can be misleading, so look at effort as a more reliable indicator.

June 9, 2012

Be the best

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:16 pm
Tags: ,

This is the most important suggestion I have for research students.

I am only interested in doing the best kinds of work. If I want to publish a research paper, I go for the top venue (e.g. SIGGRAPH for graphics or CHI/UIST for human computer interaction). There is nothing inherently wrong about not aiming for the best; it is just not what I want to spend my time on. Life is too short.

I do not care where you came from or what kinds of performance you had before; if I take you as my student I am going to help and push you to be the best. I will not allow any excuses. Do not join me if you are not fully committed to this.

Some frequently asked questions below.

Q: why?

I am actually not sure how to answer this question, because it is an integral part of who I am. (My first name literally means “the best” in Chinese.)

But if you insist, here are some reasons that I can pull out of my head.

I just see no fun and no point otherwise. Imagine asking an ugly girl/guy out and getting rejected. Go for the prom queen/king.

This is the best kind of training, both mentally and intellectually. If you can pull off the best kinds of research work, you will gain the confidence to tackle whatever other challenges you will face in your life.

This is a transformative kind of experience. There are many very smart and hardworking folks out there. To compete with them, I have to be at my best. And this requires me to eat well, sleep well, exercise a lot, maintain good personal relationship, etc.

I want my students to land the best kinds of jobs after graduation. And the quality of jobs is positively correlated to the quality of publications.

Q: how about people who do not have enough talents?

Talent is overrated, especially for endurance sports like research. What matters most is passion and toughness. I have seen more people who lack hearts than who lack brains.

None of my (current and past) students attend Stanford, but many of them can perform in Stanford level. I just need to bring out the best of each one of them.

Q: what if I fail?

Failure is a natural part of research; if you do not like the former, you should not undertake the latter. However, even in the very worst cast that you have all your papers rejected, if you can develop solid programming skills, you should have no problem finding a good programmer/engineer job.

Q: how do I know what it takes?

Talk to my current and past students, and if possible, try to work with me for a little while before full commitment.

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