Confessions of a researchaholic

August 27, 2012

Lab culture

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:06 pm
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Culture is the hardest thing to reproduce, adapt, or change for an institution. Thus, it is best to get it right in the very beginning.

As I am building my very first internal research group, the culture I want to instill is “have fun and be awesome“. I realized, through interviewing hundreds of students (within just one year) and working with my first batch of internal students so far, that it is the human nature to get attracted to the “fun” part much more easily than the “awesome” part.

Thus, I have to be rigorous in enforcing the culture, especially on “awesomeness”.
If I can affect my initial batch of students, they can in turn propagate the culture both spatially and temporally, such as other labs/schools and future students.
If I cannot, none of these will happen, and I might as well find something else worthier my time.

Expectation for my internal HKU PhD students

How I handle failed internal PhD students

August 24, 2012

Protected: Self portrait collage

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 1:21 pm

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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).

August 13, 2012


Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 10:52 am

“Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind” – Douglas MacArthur

Add-on #1: just don’t get caught. 🙂

Add-on #2: if you do, pretend you don’t know the rules. 🙂

It takes courage to break rules, intelligence to know which rules to break and how, and imagination to get away with it.
This is why I consider breaking rules as both a good training and testing.

August 12, 2012

Don’t be a sucker

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:07 am

“Obstacles are challenges for winners and excuses for losers” – M.E Kerr

This post was inspired by some recent events.

Scenario 1 – the original school admins are about to start summer break and cannot get paper work done for the new school

Losers: complain about the situation but otherwise just sit there suffer. 🙁
Winners: bug the admins on both sides every single day until they ensure the paper works will be done on time for the new semester; increase your bug frequency otherwise. 🙂

Scenario 2 – upon having internet connection issues within a police state

Losers: 🙁
Winners: find a way to obtain smooth internet access, even if it incurs breaking through firewalls and hacking into military satellites. 🙂

Scenario 3 – upon discovering the dorm is not available until a month into the semester

Losers: 🙁
Winners: find someone, preferably an attractive opposite sex, to share the room and rent? 🙂

What really matters

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:39 am
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(This post, as many others in this blog, was inspired by recent events and student questions.)

One of the most important principles for a happy life is to know what really matters. This can help you minimize efforts and maximize rewards.

If you are a PhD student, the most important thing is your research. So focus on getting good publications. There are other things that matter to some degree but are much less important, such as teaching experience for those who want to become professors, as well as those that are not important at all but made appear to be so by others for their own peculiar reasons, such as taking courses. None of these should take precedence over your research.

If you are a professor in a research university, what really matters is (again) your research. There are other things like teaching, services, funding, etc. that better not suck but should never take precedence over your research.

(June 2 2016 add on)
If you are a computer scientist, the most important thing is to build useful products. The ultimate measure of a research is its practical impact, not academic publications.
Publishing top papers is not easy, but we just need to convince a few reviewers.
Building top products is much harder, as we need to convince millions if not billions of users.
For my projects that have turned into both products and papers I am always much more excited about the former, and I care less about the latter as time moves on.

In summary, know what really matters, focus on these, and spend minimally possible effort for everything else (and have the gut to drop balls on these when necessary).

August 11, 2012

About taking courses

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:50 pm
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For undergrad/MS students

[Disclaimer: I skipped most of my classes since high school, because I found learning by myself much more fun and efficient.]

Focus on courses that can improve your math and coding, the foundation which can help you learn everything else.
Other than that, just choose courses you find interesting, subject to the school requirements.

For PhD students

As a PhD student, people care only about your publications, not the courses you have taken, including your GPA.
Thus, I would suggest taking courses in the following prioritized order to maximize fun and minimize pain:

. Necessity that is mandatory to fulfill your course requirements. Just spend the minimally possible efforts to pass the grades.

. Utility that you think can help your research. I recommend spending more time on these, as you will have to learn them one way or another.

. Fun – those topics that you find interesting and may provide inspirations for your longer term research.

In any case, focus on learning, not earning grades.

For those of you who need my approval for course selection: please come up with a list and we can start discussion from there. I believe it is better for your education if these decisions are made by yourself.

August 1, 2012


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:57 am
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I highly recommend this documentary, about a world renowned sushi chef achieving perfectionism. I agree with a lot of what he said, many of which are applicable for any profession.

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