Confessions of a researchaholic

October 26, 2020

Research goal post

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:09 am
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In my personal experience, there are two ways to guide a research project: solving a specific problem with whatever solutions that work the best (based on a variety of criteria such as quality, speed, cost, etc.), and devising a novel idea that can span different problems, domains, and applications.

The problem-oriented approach happens more in engineering (which aims to solve practical problems) while the idea-oriented approach happens more in science (especially more theoretical fields like math which aim to formulate fundamental ideas behind a plethora of phenomena).
Solving a specific problem provides a clear goal and reduces the tendency to derail, while aiming for ideas is more likely to work after one has already worked on related problems so as to condense the experiences into the core forms.

October 12, 2020

Vertical versus horizontal colleague

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:14 pm
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During the last 1-1 with a direct report who will transfer to another team, I found I prefer talking to him as a friend than as a manager.
I wonder if this reflects my style of influencing.

August 8, 2020

Sharing paper source with publisher

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:00 am
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Some publishers like ACM might ask for the source files to compile the camera ready papers. My understanding is that they need the source to tune the paper format, instead of publishing the source. Thus, it should be OK to share the source directly with the publisher.
If you have concerns about internal annotations such as author discussions not meant for the final paper, just clean up the source via arXiv Latex cleaner or something similar.

August 5, 2020

Popularity contest

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:23 am
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A group of interns posted their projects on an internal expo and solicited popular votes with ferocity last seen in the 2016 Republican party presidential primaries.

Meanwhile, one intern submitted a paper to a top venue even before the start of the internship, and is now spending time revising the conditionally accepted paper, filing a patent, and collaborating with a product team, instead of campaigning for popularity among other interns.

Our time is very limited. As a research mentor, it is my responsibility to guide you towards what is important and steer you away from what is less so.

July 17, 2020

How to choose faculty jobs for research universities

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:55 pm
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The first rule, which you will also hear from others, is to choose a place that can attract top graduate students whom you can work with, because that is the main attraction for being a professor in a research university.

After that, consider other factors, like funding and geography (and thus why I went to HKU as a professor).

June 10, 2020

How to pick up drawing

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:34 am
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I skipped most of my art classes in school because I considered it a soft skill less useful than math and science.
Decades later I realized that art can be a good complement to my research and help me relax and create.
Fortunately, unlike languages, I have found drawing quite learnable as an adult, if one is willing to spend enough time practice and experiment.

For beginners, I recommend Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards as a starting guide book.
Practice the exercises as much as you can, and treat the cognitive aspect (e.g., left versus right brain) more from the art than the science side.

I am still learning, and will update this post along the way.
You can see my progress under my blog (which links to Instagram), Pinterest (which links to Behance), and Facebook.

June 5, 2020

Sharing materials under review for job applications

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:03 am
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Question from someone about to graduate with a PhD:
Do you think I can reach out with our paper draft and videos to profs for postdocs? It’s still under review, but I kinda need to send the paper to make my case, and can’t wait any longer.

This is always a yes and no question and we have to make our own judgement. On one hand, we don’t want to let potential reviewers and recruiters feel that we are compromising review anonymity, which can hurt our paper submissions and job applications. On the other hand, we do want to present ourselves in the best possible way.

I never have this problem personally, as during my job hunts so far I have shared only public domain information.
However, if I have to add confidential materials (e.g., under peer reviews or patent applications), I will share vague information, such as an alternative paper titles with high level descriptions and a disclaimer that the work is under evaluation, and let the recruiters decide whether they want to ask for more.

April 28, 2020

External visibility and internal reputation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:12 am
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External visibility is public domain information for everyone to see, such as publications and patents.
Internal reputation is often proprietary and known only inside our institution, such as design or implementation for a product.

Our internal reputation is more important for the particular jobs (e.g., performance reviews and rewards), but that often contains confidential information which only a few colleagues can vouch for.

Both are important for our careers. For example, when we want to switch jobs, most people can only evaluate our external visibility and will require references to vet our internal reputation.
Thus, it is important to maintain a good balance of both.
I am lucky enough to enjoy doing both (e.g., publications and products).

April 27, 2020

Research continuity

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:34 pm
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Without continual practice, some skills, once mastered, will mostly remain with us, such as driving a car or riding a bicycle, while others tend to atrophy, especially during the early learning stages.

In my observations for computer science, research requires constant engagement to keep top performance.
I stopped research publications around 2001 to 2003 while focusing on GPU architecture, which reduced my research output and took me significant efforts later to get back to form (e.g., single-author a paper during weekends and evenings).
Research (at least in CS) can easily become rusty probably because it involves many delicate skills, such as literature, ideation, algorithm, code, demo, writing, and presentation.
Even if we can more easily get back to some of these (e.g., coding, which feels like riding a bicycle to me), missing any others could still throw us off balance (in particular ideation and familiarity with state of art, which are related).

Thus, if you are a graduating CS student and you want to keep research opportunity open for your future career, it is important to find a first job that you can continue your research in some way.
(Not necessarily academia, as I think I can have more time doing research in a top industry lab than as an assistance professor.)
Otherwise, you might never be able to come back.

April 22, 2020

Remote internship

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:24 pm
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I have experiences in remote collaboration and mentoring.
I did not need research meetings and I did not meet the first authors of some of my papers until before the conference presentations.
(I have yet to meet the first-author of my latest CHI 2020 paper for which the physical conference is canceled.)

However, there are important aspects that are difficult to emulate remotely beyond research and technical works in research internships, such as serendipitous encounters with different people and immersions in different environments.

Thus, I have been thinking about what would be good alternatives or replacements for remote internships (or research collaborations in general) that can best emulate on-site experiences?
If you have ideas, feel free to share with me.

One (Adobe-specific) possibility I have been thinking about is artistic creation via various tools, suitable for remote and asynchronous communications and yet different from and complementary to technical research.

February 20, 2020

How to bring up a research student

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:34 pm
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My approach can be titled as “multi-resolution mentoring”, depending on the skill set and development stage of the student.

For students who can already single-author SIGGRAPH papers, there is not much need for a mentor.

For students who can already develop and implement ideas, guide them on high level direction and building a project from proper components.
A good project often has more potential that can be done for a single paper, and thus it is important to scope it properly so that it contains the right amount of contributions and materials, neither too much nor too little.
We likely need to write the paper (and script the video) to guide this process.
If the direction is big enough, plan several projects/publications.

For students who can develop and implement detailed algorithms but lacks ideas, brainstorm with them as much as possible, to best fit their interests and leverage their strengths.

For students who can implement but not develop ideas and algorithms, give them specific instructions, such as algorithms in the level of pseudo-code via paper drafts.

For students who have difficulty with basic implementation, they are not ready for research and should go back to practice coding, e.g. reproducing algorithms from their favorite papers.
Never write code for them as that would consume our time and hamper their growth.

For students who get stuck in the development ladder, at some point we might have to suggest alternative career options which might be more suitable than research.

At some stage of your career, you might find developing talents even more satisfying than publishing papers or building products.
Guiding a student grow is a magical process (probably like parenting, which I have no hands-on experience yet) and can form a long-term collaboration relationship.

December 5, 2019

Networking/recruiting events

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:23 pm
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Personally, I never found networking/recruiting events very useful, especially those requiring registration fees.
It is OK to go to parties to have fun and increase the chance of random encounters, but networking by itself is a quite shallow goal.
All my best and deepest connections and recruits are established via other means, mostly shared interests.

It is much better to spend time and efforts to motivate others to find us, which in turn can help networking and recruiting.

I am not the only one saying these; see also here and here.

November 1, 2019

Deadline ruining your holiday?

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:24 pm
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I never understand why people want to complain about how deadlines ruin (their specific) holidays.
Everyone is free to finish the job before the holiday even if the official deadline is afterwards.

I remember Hugues Hoppe told me that he usually had a complete draft of his submissions before late December, and in one instance he didn’t even touch the paper between X’mas and the January deadline.

Nowadays, one can submit to ToG anytime and still present in SIGGRAPH; I am not sure what is the real difference. And there are other related venues like CHI or CVPR.

Personally, SIGGRAPH crunch is kinda fun for me, so I won’t mind one way or another.

October 12, 2019

Taking comments

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:38 am
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I guess the key challenge for taking comments/suggestions from others is being rationally open and yet emotionally close, to make positive improvements without negative feelings.

September 26, 2019

I only propose SIGGRAPH-level ideas for collaboration

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:01 am
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This is a corollary of be the best; replace SIGGRAPH with CHI/UIST for HCI projects, ICCV/CVPR for vision projects, etc.

I usually propose safer/clearer ideas for collaboration, especially with more junior folks, and reserve riskier ideas for myself.
Sometimes it is faster for me to directly code than to indirectly describe what to do, especially for vague thoughts. (Some of my single-authored SIGGRAPH papers are results of not finding any collaborators.)

Given these, if a project cannot be published in a top venue, it is usually due to (lack of) execution, e.g., a first-author student needed to graduate and thus ran out of time, or chose to follow his/her own opinion instead of my advice.
I am completely OK with all these; I do the best I can without worrying about factors beyond my control.

September 20, 2019

Provisional patent application

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:09 pm
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A provisional patent is worth considering, if your institution does not want to file a real (non-provisional) patent for your project.
It has much lower cost and much faster process than a formal patent filing, while offers similar protection in terms of public disclosure date.
There is a one-year period for a provisional patent, during which you can evaluate whether it is worthwhile to file a real patent.

For example, I filed a provisional patent (out of my own pocket) for the autocomplete hand-drawn animation project, which has gathered a lot of interests and yet it is tricky to file a patent due to the institutions involved (University of Hong Kong, University of Tokyo, Microsoft Research).
However, after one year, Jun, the first author and builder of the system, did not manage to produce a sharable prototype, so I just let the provisional patent expire. If he had a prototype with enough product interests, I would proceed filing an official patent.

August 19, 2019

What I told an intern today based on recent experience

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:50 pm
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If we do not figure out what we want to do, someone else will, and they might not have our best interest in mind.

March 21, 2019

How to draw human subjects on trains

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:40 pm
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Pick a schedule that the train is neither too crowded nor too under attended. It is very difficult to draw in an overcrowded or a completely empty train.

Pick a train (or a specific car) with open views so that you can easily see other passengers, preferably frontal faces.

The above two require some experiences but would not be hard to figure out after a few weeks.

Walk through all cars once the train departs to identify the best subject and your location.

Like research, the most important stage for art is picking the right subject. The rest is just execution.
The subject should have enough visual interest (at least to you) and yet in a stable enough state to draw (e.g. sleeping or focusing on a book or device).
Sit at a right angle and distance from your subject. You need to be able to see his or her face with sufficient clarify, while avoiding being noticed. (People might not behave naturally if they sense being watched.)

Time your drawing with the train stops.
Ideally you want to have enough time and physical stability to draw, so place the most important strokes (e.g. the outline and key features) during the longest segment (so that the subject is most likely to remain there).
Also consider how shaky the train can be; place the coarser strokes (e.g. initial base layer) during bumpier movements, and the finer strokes (e.g. detailed eye structures) during slower movements.

I usually have about 20 to 30 minutes for a trip during which I try to complete the drawing as much as possible. Sometimes I perform fine touches afterwards, but only if my visual memory is still fresh.

View this post on Instagram

Quick sketch of an evening train passenger

A post shared by Kublai (@kub1ai) on

View this post on Instagram

Quick sketch of an evening train passenger

A post shared by Kublai (@kub1ai) on

February 7, 2019

Imposter syndrome

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:55 am
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A colleague recently told me that he felt like being an imposter in our lab. I was surprised because in my view he has been very successful all around.

Many members of our research community feel likewise and need to shore up their facades. I guess we can all relax a bit once we realize everyone else is just like us.

Or you can be like me, too insensitive or self-absorbing to really care what others think about us. (I still pretend I do, mostly to fit in.)
πŸ™‚

January 23, 2019

Doing projects versus developing people

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:06 pm
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I like the technical part of Mengqi’s SIGGRAPH 2018 presentation, but even more so at the end when she talked about never giving up.

During the early stage of my research career I focused more on doing projects, but have gradually shifted more towards developing people, which I found to be an even more interesting and rewarding experience.

December 3, 2018

Integrity, intelligence, and energy

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:48 am
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Warren Buffett once said to look for three qualities for people to work with: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And without the first one, the other two will kill you.

However, history is full of people who committed grave atrocities due to lack of intelligence, even with good intention and integrity. And I have witnessed people causing less damages who are not as dangerous but still annoying.

Thus, lacking intelligence is no less dangerous than lacking integrity. Avoid such people as much as possible.

September 27, 2018

How filter recruiters

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:01 am
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It is usually much more effective to talk directly with the hiring managers for job opportunities. Recruiters, either internally to the companies or externally in agencies, are usually less effective, even though I have encountered a few very good ones and enjoyed the processes.

If you are receiving more recruiter contacts than your bandwidth can handle, one strategy is as follows. Tell the recruiter that you are very happy with your current job (true for me, but pretend to be so even if you are not) and are not thinking about switching now. However, you are interested to know more about the opportunity, and might be able to recommend other suitable candidates.

A run-of-the-mill recruiter, looking for a quick score, will usually pass by after reading this message.
A smart recruiter, on the other hand, knows the importance of building relationships and expanding networks, and top candidates usually have good jobs; they will be more likely to get back to you.

September 16, 2018

MSR Asia single-author challenge

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:32 pm
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It has been 10 years since I posted up the single-author SIGGRAPH paper challenge to MSR Asia, and nobody has managed to claim the prize as far as I know.

Looking back at my writing, I was wondering who this blunt prick is.
πŸ™‚
If I could, I would tell my past self to be more graceful without compromising the strength.
Otherwise, I still stick with, and have faithfully followed by own edicts, after switching into these other roles.

August 26, 2018

Git research source

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:53 pm
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Below is a summary of my suggestions of using git to manage research source, based on numerous discussions I have had with my collaborators across multiple projects at multiple institutions.

Always revision control your code. There are multiple options, but at this moment of writing, git beats alternatives such as svn and perforce.

Use github for public repos and bitbucket for private repos.

Start with existing code if feasible. If the code is already under git, use submodule as a component or fork/branch as an extension. Otherwise, convert the code into git, and preserve revision history whenever possible (e.g. github/bitbucket can help you convert svn repos into git repos).

Use multiple branches for different versions of the code, such as stable branch for release or a personal branch for experiments.
Use multiple remotes across organizations and time-frames.
For example, during your internship with a company, use an internal corporate github repo, and sync it with an external bitbucket (private) repo at the end of your internship so that you can continue the project at your school. When you are ready to publish your code, mirror it to a public github repo.
Keep multiple remotes under the same repo for easy management.

For paper drafts, you can create an overleaf git branch for more WYSIWYG-style editing while retaining all the benefits of branching and revision control.

Keep one (or at most a few) sentence(s) at one line, to avoid false alarms from spell checkers (broken sentences) and excessive (line-based) diff by git.
Note that Latex treats line breaks as spaces.

Chongyang Ma (@ Snap Research) has recommendations for industry research code practice.

June 27, 2018

Project pivot versus switch

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:03 pm
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When we get stuck in a project, the issues could lay on the project or us.
For the former, switching to a different project might help.
For the latter, we should fix our own issues as otherwise no project will work out.

It is not always clear where the issues are.
But if someone keeps on switching projects, it could be a sign of individual instead of project issues.

Even if a project does not work out, it is usually better to pivot by continuous transforming the ideas during progress, instead of discontinuous switch to a separate project without coherence.

Download (SVG, 2KB)

June 8, 2018

Satoshi-Nakamotoism

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:54 am
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Aside from rare exceptions like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein, people usually do not care who is behind an invention or discovery.
(As a quick experiment, can you name the Nobel Prize winners in the most recent year, especially if you are not working in the related fields?)

Thus, I would prioritize our outcomes over our egos for publicity.

May 28, 2018

How to screen PhD/intern applicants

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:00 pm
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April 15, 2018

More about choosing graduate programs

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:19 pm
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Recently several people asked me about choosing graduate programs. I answered about this before, but some specific cases might still help.

Q: Choose a program that offers financial support over one that does not.

This is certainly a sensible decision, especially if you are cash strapped, even though that is not what I did (see below).

Q: Choose a MS program that is more likely to lead to the PhD program of the same school/department.

In general yes, if you can find a good adviser whom you can convince to take you as a PhD student by doing good research with him or her.

Q: Choose between a school/adviser good at a direction or a methodology

These are different. For example, you might be interested in computer graphics (direction) and want to apply machine learning (methodology) in some way. Should you choose a professor in computer graphics who knows a bit (but not much) about machine learning, or a machine learning expert who is not really doing computer graphics?

Always pick the one who is better at identifying the problems (directions) than the one who is better at suggesting solutions (methods). Solving a wrong problem (unimportant, too easy, too difficult, too crowded, etc.) can completely derail your research career. In contrast, you can find domain experts to collaborate after identifying a good direction.

[I will add more when I receive more questions.]

When I made my decision more than 20 years ago, it was pretty easy: I wanted to go to a top school in the Bay Area, so I basically had only two choices. And I heard from one around Christmas but not another one until the next April or May. What was more difficult is that I only got scholarships from schools in the east coast, and my family preferred me to go there.

February 18, 2018

The most useful faculty advice I have ever received

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:53 pm
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From Peter Shirley if I remember correctly:

Do not perform too well on tasks that I do not enjoy so that they would not get assigned to me in the future.
πŸ™‚

January 1, 2018

Bean-counting

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:39 pm
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This has been a widely discussed topic, but when it comes to academic publishing, focus on quality over quantity.

Take my PhD adviser as an example. At this moment, he has “only” 27 journal papers and 40 conference papers according to dblp, but nearly 40000 citations, including 10+ papers with 1000+ citations, according to Google scholar.
In comparison, there are people around his seniority and in our fields (for calibration) with roughly 10-times publications but only one-tenth of citations.
(Citation is one of the mostly commonly used measure for quality/impact, but others are possible, such as products.)

He once told me that the best timing to publish papers is when people beg us to do so (using Brain Curless’ first SIGGRAPH paper as an example). That is probably too extreme, but publishing low quality papers not only wastes our time (it is better to go out and play) but also dilutes our reputation.

November 1, 2017

Simplification

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:51 am
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“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Einstein

When facing a seemly daunting, difficult, or complex problem, a good strategy is to simplify (in the sense of mesh simplification) the scenario as much as possible, during which the thought process can bring great clarify and insight.

July 18, 2017

Picking research problems

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:12 am
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This is the most important stage of conducting research. I do not claim to know the answer, and my experience is limited to specific fields in CS, but (as before) I write this down to get feedbacks and to save the trouble of repeating myself.

Listen to people facing real problems instead of trusting the future work sections in research papers. If there are good (to elaborate) users or product people around you, ask what they need.

Identify concrete problems first, before thinking about other parts like idea novelty, algorithm framework, etc. (Look for hammers after nails.)
If we can find a trivial solution for an important problem, great, solve it, and quickly move on to something else.
This beats the alternative of coming up with a fancy method that does not solve anything.

The problem should fit our interest and expertise well enough, so that we have sufficient willingness and capability to address it.

If the problem is not sufficiently clear or convincing, the research project is probably a waste of time.
If the solution to the problem is not clear or convincing at the beginning, it is not only quite normal but also a potential sign that the problem is sufficiently non-trivial.

March 8, 2017

I almost dropped out of my PhD study

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:10 pm
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I joined the Stanford computer graphics lab in 1996 summer after passing the entrance test of porting the light field viewer from SGI to PC. When Pat Hanrahan gave his (last ?) SIGGRAPH talk, I was hiding on stage behind him, doing some live demos while trying not to screw up.

After that, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I attempted at least 20 different projects. At some point I almost dropped out to join a certain startup (well if I did I probably could retire by now, but who knows). Fortunately, my advisor, Marc Levoy, was very supportive. Eventually I took courses taught by Robert Gray and David Heeger, whose TSVQ and texture synthesis works inspired me to do a course project. I wrote it up and submitted my first single-authored paper to SIGGRAPH 1999, with scathing reviews, mostly because I did not know how to write yet. I took a writing class, and with the help of my adviser, submitted it again next year which eventually became my first SIGGRAPH paper, in 2000, 4 years after I started my PhD program.

For PhD candidates concerned about not publishing enough in their first, second, or even third year, I hope my experience can help you chill out.
I doubt how many of you could have done worse than I did during the initial period.
Granted, your situation might be different from mine (e.g. some degree program is only 4 years and your adviser might not be as cool as mine), but I want to let you know that your PhD study is likely the only period in your life that you can literally try anything you like without the real consequences of failure. So have fun, and you can learn something from everything you have tried, as I did from these 20+ projects.

March 7, 2017

Testing and debugging code

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:55 pm
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This post is meant for newbies.

Basically, your code should be highly modular, consisting of well-designed classes and functions. Then, unit test each module. This is much easier than trying to debug a large system, or a monolithic piece of code.

I debug almost entirely based on intuition, and never relied on any low level tools like tracers, even when I was a beginner.

For the ray tracing exercise, if you start with the Shirley series, the code should already be modular and incremental. After you finish that, you should have better foundation to design modular code for the ray tracing book by Glassner et al.

Feel free to ask specific questions (e.g. via the comments field of this post), and I will answer by updating and improving this post.

January 18, 2017

Paper length

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:08 am
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The obsession with paper length is a legacy of printed proceedings.

What matters most is readability.
I would rather spend 1 hour reading a 20-page paper than 2 hours reading a 10-page paper.

Then follows file size: the smaller the better for storage and transmission.

December 15, 2016

Altruism is the ultimate form of selfishness

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:30 am
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Recently, a student told me that he is not all that motivated for his own first-authored project. And yet he asked to help other projects because he could get extra papers without doing much work.

If I am not sufficiently motivated in a project, I am unlikely to contribute enough to help my team succeed. Even if it does, other team members will remember me as a free rider. I might as well do something else.

October 31, 2016

References for MS/PhD applications

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:15 pm
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Overall, I like to help you as much as possible.

If you are applying for a MS/course program, the reference letters probably are not very important, as the top US schools (to my knowledge) mainly look at your statistics, like GPA, ranking, GRE, etc.
To put it more bluntly, MS program is a source of revenue for them.
For this, all you need is to have obtained top grades in the courses I have taught.
However, I can only comment your specific course performance but not extrapolate, e.g. from basic programming (a class you took with me) to machine learning (a class you did not take with me).

If you are applying for a PhD/research program, you need to have at least some good publications. Any decent professors/researchers know that good grades do not imply good research potential. (I am not aware of any rigorous study, but I think the two are weakly positively correlated at best). Thus, I will write letters only for those who have published top research papers or built good industry products with me, as otherwise the recommendation is likely moot.

September 22, 2016

Qualification filter

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:01 pm
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When they just arrived they thought it tough to publish at least one first-authored SIGGRAPH paper before graduation.
Now they are hitting the job market and found out that some topic research lab (not to be named but this is no secret) requires at least 5 first-authored SIGGRAPH papers.

Birds of a feather flock together.
Your opinions of others often reflect more of who you are than who they are.

I would like to thank those who (unintentionally) help me filtering away unqualified candidates; you might be even more effective than what the good folks could do.

August 9, 2016

Performance inflation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:36 pm
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When I was a PhD student, having 1 SIGGRAPH paper meant graduation, and 2+ for a top research job.

Now, having 1 SIGGRAPH paper meant admission into a top PhD program, 2+ for graduation, and 3+ for a top research job.
(20+ for a tenured professor or partner researcher, but few of you need to worry about this yet.)

Anyone who (still) thinks my standard is too high: feel free talk to Jun Xing, my first HKU advisee, about his current experiences in internship and job hunting.
πŸ™‚

May 11, 2016

Asking for a favor

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:47 am
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Hi Jun, Qi, and mamba:

You know what kinds of students I am looking for.

Some of the applicants might contact you about my advising style.
Please help me screen away those who are not suitable (e.g. sharing your painful SIGGRAPH experiences should be a good start).
They trust your words more than mine.

It is to your advantage to be surrounded by top players.
And the fewer students I have, the more time I can spend on each of you.
πŸ™‚

Thanks!

April 20, 2016

Hypes

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:47 pm
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Nowadays a quick way to filter a job/school application is to see whether and how it says the candidate wants to do machine learning.
(Some neural network probably already existed precisely for this.)

Machine learning by itself is not the problem (quite on the contrary).
The problem is whether you can even form your own independent opinions.

When something (investment, technology, or research field) becomes hot it is already too late to bandwagon.
Those pioneers you see today started (and stuck to) their stuff when it is not yet hot.

Stick with your passion, belief, and opinion might not lead to success, but at least you can have fun, face less competition, and success/fail in your own style.

And if you are smart and creative enough you can have the cake and eat it.

Say your expertise and/or interests are about user interface design. But you also want to do some machine learning like everyone else.

You can switch field, and compete with a lot of smart people who have more passion and knowledge.

Or you can stick with user interfaces, and use machine learning to make them better. You can pick up something new without ditching what you already have.

April 12, 2016

Research coherence

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:31 pm
Tags: ,

One common advice on research is to have a coherent theme among our papers. I heard this from a bigwig around 2003 after getting my PhD.

This is one of these advices that I agree in principle but have violated in practice.
=D

Yes, coherence can help recognition from the community, especially when one enters a new field.

However, I am not sure if this should be intentionally aimed for. Unless you are extremely smart and versatile, you are likely end up doing related stuff without even trying.

There is this implicit force that drags us towards similar, and thus incremental, ideas. We should fight against this force, not follow it.
So, just do whatever you like. You will have more fun and more likely to produce novel stuff which, even if lacks coherence, beats being incremental.

April 9, 2016

How to design talk slides

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:57 pm
Tags: ,

Using slides is a popular way to give presentations. I am not sure if it is the best way, but things can go very badly if done in the wrong way.

Take a look at Jim Blinn’s post about giving presentations.
Below are some quick high level suggestions. (I plan to refine this post later.)

Aim for simplicity and minimalism.

The slides are for conveying information to your audience, not serving as memo for the speaker.

Use intuitive pictures, illustrations, and animations, instead of texts and (worse) equations.

If you find yourself worrying about typography, it is a sign of too much texts.
No sentence should run over one line.

Rid of visual clutters like bullet points.

Gratuitous colors and unnecessary font variations tend to confuse people.

March 24, 2016

Recording and sharing presentation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:43 am
Tags: ,

Talks are usually easier to understand than the corresponding papers. To get accepted, papers need to be written in a way that look formal and rigorous, but not necessarily easy to understand. However, when authors present their (accepted) papers, they tend to cut the chase and talk straight.

In the past, people have to attend conferences for the talks.
Nowadays, everyone can easily share their talk slides online.
Better yet, record and share your presentations as videos (e.g. via PowerPoint). This can be done during practices or official presentation.
You do practice your talks, right? So why not record during your rehearsals, so that you can review now and share later.
Recording in official presentation might be trickier, e.g. the conference may prefer presenters using a shared machine and the recording might disrupt your presentation, but can be worth a try.

I have not done this for my own talks, but realized it can be a good idea after watching a few recorded talks online. I really appreciate the efforts from the authors, and plan to do so for my future talks.

March 6, 2016

About time management

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:27 pm
Tags:

A collaborator asked me about time management, in particular how to toggle between multiple projects.

I am not sure if I am any good at time management or more general if I am a normal person, but here is what I do.

Rule 1: do not block your collaborators.

Rule 2: do whatever you like otherwise.

During my NVIDIA days I belonged to a tight-knit group of around 40 to 50 GPU architects. GPU design was (and likely still is) tremendously complex, so anyone could potentially block everyone. When that happened, ATI got a chance to kill NVIDIA, and my colleagues got a chance to kill me. That is how and where I learned rule 1.
In general, prioritize your collaborators over yourself. It may sound counter-intuitive, but making others happier and more productive will make the entire team, including yourself, happier and more productive as well.

Rule 2 reflects my personal style: after making my collaborators happy, I make myself happy. I cannot be productive otherwise, and life is too short anyway. I believe most people over-plan, especially for creative and non-deterministic tasks like research. This is one main reason why I never schedule regular meetings or daily routines. If you have a hard time deciding what to do first, they are probably equally important, so just pick one and do it. Trust your instincts, and you will gradually learn how best to schedule your time (this could help, which I also learned from NVIDIA).

I am not familiar with other time management techniques like Pomodoro. I just took a quick look at that and found myself violating it badly. For example, if a distraction pops into my head, I follow it, to allow serendipitous encounters (unless I am right in front of a major deadline). My distraction stack is probably around 4 layers deep, i.e. I could recurse around 4 layers of inception without getting lost.

February 10, 2016

It might not be good to be a good student

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:12 pm
Tags: , ,

It is usually not too hard for smart kids to perform well in schools; just excel in what you are told to do, such as taking courses.

This is a deterministic process with well-defined goals and tasks that reward smartness and hard working.

However, real world is chaotic and ambiguous. You have to figure out what to do, with shifting targets and ever-changing environments.

This is why school performance does not directly translate to real-life performance: the required mentality and skills are not the same.

This is also why being a good student might not be a good thing for you. You are so used to this deterministic input-output process that you might be very frustrated by the non-deterministic nature of the real world, when starting your first job or research project.

In contrast, not-so good students might adapt better to the real world, because they already have enough failure experiences and are not yet cast into conformity.

PS
I was lucky to be a student who was considered good in performance and bad in behavior.
πŸ™‚

February 1, 2016

The cat experiment

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:07 am
Tags: , , ,

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
Tags: , ,

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 24, 2016

How to deal with scoops

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:16 am
Tags:

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
Tags: ,

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
Tags:

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
Tags: , ,

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
Tags:

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
Tags:

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
Tags:

[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.

October 8, 2015

Back to the future

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:23 am
Tags:

For those of you who think there is (or will be) nothing new under the sun in your fields:

At some point during the 19th century people thought Newtonian physics is basically done and only incremental works remain.

Then came stuff like relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.
πŸ™‚

October 6, 2015

Whether and how to contact professors for school applications

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:07 am
Tags:

Professors, at least those at top schools, tend to receive many applications, probably hundreds if not thousands every year.

The best way to get their attention is to find people with good reputation and existing relationships as your references.

The best way to get them ignore you is to send out blanket spam-like inquiries to everyone.

Look at the professors’ websites, which may already spell out whether and how to contact them, and other useful information like their research and style.
It is to your benefit to read these, as you want to find someone with matching style and interests, and the professors want to know why they should pick you.

Disclaimer: this is based on my (limited) experiences as a prof so far, not how I contacted my PhD adviser almost 20 years ago.

September 23, 2015

Understanding

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:17 pm
Tags:

If you have to describe your understanding to me to see if you really understand it, then you probably don’t.

The only way to know for sure is to produce concrete results.
This is why I like science and engineering, where things can be measured objectively.

July 27, 2015

Aaron Swartz on how to hire

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:51 am
Tags:

This guy knows how to hire, at his early twenties, better than most people I have seen.

The best way to evaluate whether someone can do a certain job is to make them do it, in a smaller scale that is feasible to deploy and yet realistic to the real job.

Hiring students adds another layer of difficulty due to their potential to grow and change. We are evaluating whether they can eventually do top research, which cannot be predicted based on what they have done in the past such as grades.

July 18, 2015

Write paper introduction to vet research ideas

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:04 am
Tags:

The introduction part of top research papers shares the following common structure, which I use to vet and hone potential ideas while drafting the paper/project:

What problem we are trying to solve.
Why it is important, and why people should care.
[Picking the right problem is the most important stage of a research project. Proceed only if this part is very convincing.]

What prior works have done, and why they are not adequate.
Say only high level big ideas. Details should go to a previous work section.
[If you can find only details but not big ideas, it is a sign that the problem domain is saturated.]

What our method can offer: sales pitch for concrete benefits, not technical details.
[Imagine we are doing a Super-Bowl commercial here; every second costs millions of dollars. Lacking of significant benefits is a sign that the idea is incremental.]

Our main idea, giving people a take home message and (if possible) see how clever we are.
[“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein]

Our algorithms and methods to show technical contributions and that our solutions are not trivial.
[This part is less important for truly brilliant ideas, but still necessary for the rest majority.]

What are the (anticipated) results, applications, and benefits; stuff ordinary people would care in the real-world.
[Let’s do something really useful.]

July 12, 2015

Fail fast

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:30 pm
Tags:

If you are mentoring someone who is clearly not suitable for the profession, and you think you are being nice by keeping him/her as long as possible, you are actually doing a big disservice to everyone because:

. The time and efforts you sink on that individual can be more effectively spent on other tasks, including mentoring other more qualified people.

. That someone can be happier and more successful at doing something else. You are delaying or (worse) depriving his/her opportunity.

. You are degrading the performance and reputation of yourself and your institution.

. That someone can set up a bad example and cast off negative influence to nearby people.

. You are wasting money and resources sponsored by taxpayers or shareholders.

June 25, 2015

How to find and attract top recruits

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 9:31 am
Tags:

Major KΓΆnig: I’ll fix it so that he’s the one who finds me.

June 10, 2015

“Who you are” matters much more than “whom you are affiliated with”

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:29 am
Tags: ,

Birds of a feather flock together.
Our affiliation does reflect our own quality to some degree.

On the other hand, the prestige of institutions is becoming less important due to the internet and social media.
And really top people can transform a not-so-top institution into a top one.

June 8, 2015

Email address etiquette

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:42 am
Tags:

It is fine to have creative or personalized email addresses, but use your judgement, e.g. sexybaby@hotmail.com is probably not suitable for professional communications.

If you have multiple email accounts which you cannot check with sufficient frequency, just set automatic forwarding to a single (default) account. You can also setup (e.g. via SMTP) that single default account to reply on behalf of the other aliases.
If you do not intend to use a particular email account, disable or delete it so that people would not expect reply from there.

May 31, 2015

Should we submit?

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:33 pm
Tags: ,

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.

A related post: why strong labs sometimes submit weak papers

April 8, 2015

Debug your own code

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:24 pm
Tags: ,

Never, ever, send your code to others and ask them to debug whatever functional or performance issues you have.

That is the most effective way to signal you being a liability rather than an asset. It is like asking others to wipe your ass for you.

Spend time figuring out what is going on inside your own code, and ask specific questions if you need help. Take a look at stackoverflow.com, a good forum for coding questions.

March 25, 2015

Kowtow

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:04 am
Tags: , , ,

If you are a university professor and you boast on social networks about sending your students to other schools for higher degrees, you are essentially acknowledging that you (and your school) are not as good.

December 20, 2014

Minimal quality bar to become my internal student

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:08 pm
Tags: ,

You should be able to understand and implement an existing research paper (e.g. SIGGRAPH) or software system (e.g. a renderer/simulator) as well as reproduce the corresponding results.

Otherwise, you are not ready for a research or even a development position.

As a reference point, my first HKU PhD student, Jun Xing, once managed to reproduce 3 SIGGRAPH papers in a span of about 5 days (for sports).
πŸ™‚

November 25, 2014

How to really understand an algorithm

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:12 am
Tags: ,

Implement it.

November 9, 2014

Manage presentation via slides

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:36 am
Tags: ,

Here is my current workflow to produce a video or prepare a talk for a research project.

Write down the story/script in plain text and rough drawings. Do not use any specific media at this early stage as it can prematurely limit our creativity.

Commit the script into a storyboard via slides (e.g. PowerPoint).
I then gradually flesh out the storyboard into a video and talk using the same set of slide files. This might sound unusual, so let me explain.

Start with video. When I was in grad school I learned time-line based tools (e.g. Adobe Premiere) to author and edit videos. But recently I found it more natural to use slides instead of time-lines for research videos. The main reason is that a research video usually contains short video segments glued together by narration, which involves more storyboarding than time-line manipulation.

I first produce the individual video segments using specific tools (e.g. dumping individual frames from my renderer and convert them into a video via MovieMaker), and embed them into PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint provides a rich set of tools for annotation, animation, and transition, which I find handy (and harder to do via Adobe Premiere). I automate all object animations and slide transitions, and dump the entire project into a video file.
I submit the video along with the paper, and go screw around.

PowerPoint allows flexible manual control, but it can be tedious due to lack of automation/scripting tools. Thus, it is important to properly decompose the above process into (1) automatic creation of (video) components and (2) manual insertion/combination of these components into the slides. It is a trade-off among quality, control, and manual labor.

When the time comes to prepare the talk, I can simply start with my slide file, which already contains the script, the video segments, and associated effects. I just need to turn off those automatic animations and transitions that I wish to manual control, and add additional information for a talk, usually verbal stuff such as previous works, algorithm details, and future directions.

I find this much more efficient than starting new slides from scratch.
I also find that for those projects that I were too lazy/busy to make videos, the talk slides I ended up doing are often not too far from being videos.
It is almost always a good idea to have a video to present the gist of our project in a few minutes, more appealing and efficient than absorbing the same amount of information from reading the paper.

Presenting algorithms is a good exercise to think and talk in an intuitive and straightforward manner. Hard to do when facing a deadline, but I like to prepare the presentation while writing the paper.

As an example, here is an early version of the video-slide file for my siga14 paper autocomplete painting repetitions.

October 13, 2014

How to make a SIGGRAPH paper

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:08 pm
Tags: , ,

There is a course in the upcoming SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 conference on how to make a SIGGRAPH paper.

The content has not been completed decided. If there is anything particular you like to hear about, feel free to leave a comment below within the next 13 days. You can do so with anonymous or real identity.

Please also help spread and share this.

September 29, 2014

Occupation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:22 pm
Tags:

Dear students:

I am totally cool if you want to occupy Central, but that should not be an excuse for under performance.

Focus on your math and coding, which one day could let you occupy anywhere anytime without being seen by anyone.
πŸ™‚

July 29, 2014

Teaching assistant

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:40 am
Tags: , ,

TA is a great training for presentation, communication, management, and personal skills. You have to be able to describe course materials in a way that the students can understand, and you have to balance their learning and happiness. Naturally, students want to minimize workloads while maximizing grades. Dealing with a large class (hundreds of undergrad students) is not unlike managing a mob.

It is great if one can focus exclusively on research. That is what I prefer then as a grad student and now as a prof. But without sufficient communication and personal skills, one cannot succeed even with great research skills.
To start with, a great idea is of no value if it cannot be understood and appreciated by people.

Thus, I do not consider TA a waste of time. Quite on the contrary, it is an indispensable part of research training.

July 25, 2014

Stephen King on how to write

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:00 am
Tags: ,

It is striking how much the advice on fiction writing applies to technical writing and conducting research in general, despite some important differences, e.g. scientific writings should be precise instead of leaving rooms for imagination.

June 22, 2014

Should you go to grad school?

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:29 am
Tags:

February 22, 2014

Be different

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:37 am
Tags: , , , ,

This is likely a unique local phenomenon, but I often see these student representatives wearing suits and sitting in meetings for various organizations.

It is extremely difficult for me to understand why anyone wants to do this. Young people should dream of being different instead of rushing into conformity.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

– Steve Jobs

December 23, 2013

Dear Asian students

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:10 pm
Tags: , ,

Not having to observe Western holidays is your competitive advantage. Don’t squander it.

December 1, 2013

Next time you think you are finished, watch this

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:40 am
Tags: ,

See here for more information.

November 24, 2013

Civil disobedience

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:44 pm
Tags: ,

November 8, 2013

How to do CHI rebuttal

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:23 pm
Tags: , ,

I think the basic points are the same as with any rebuttal. The main difference between CHI/UIST and most other venues (e.g. SIGGRAPH) is the addition of meta reviews which might provide helpful summaries for rebuttal.

More tips can be found via twitter, such as this and that.

November 4, 2013

Plan what you do

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:46 pm
Tags: ,

While focusing on rushing a project it can be difficult to stop and think about the overall picture, but without that you could end up wasting a lot of time in the wrong stuff.

Spend a few minutes writing down the plan, rationale, and whatever thoughts you have at the beginning of each day before the crunch begins. This little initial investment can greatly enhance the eventual efficiency and happiness.

If you are my collaborator I can vet your sanity through your write ups. I am not looking for a PhD thesis; just a few sentences will be enough.

October 17, 2013

Automation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:23 pm
Tags: , ,

A capital crime for computer science is manual repetition of uninteresting tasks. You will be happier and more productive by proper automation, which, coincidentally, is a main job for computer scientists.

For example, instead of sitting up all night tuning parameters of an experiment, you can write a script to try over a million settings over night while you go home sleep or have a fun time in Lan Kwai Fong.

October 14, 2013

Brainstorming

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:48 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I stumbled upon this article about group brainstorming today.

It echoed well with my own personal experiences and my general take that meetings are almost always completely useless for research/creative works.
I do meetings only when absolutely necessary, such as resolving major confusions or conflicts among multiple team members, evaluating live demonstrations of a UI design, and interviewing (i.e. reading) people.

Some managers and administrators like meetings. Fight them with all your power. Do not let less intelligent people waste your time or reduce your effectiveness.

October 2, 2013

Sharing experience

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:17 pm
Tags:

I received the following question:

I just had an interesting email conversation with a PhD I don’t know in XXX University as below. I was suggested to share my experience via blogs to new graphics researchers. On one hand I think sharing my experiences may increase my impact in the research community. On the other hand I seriously doubt whether I’m qualified or senior enough to do so. Another reason I tend not to publish my experience is that I know many stronger and smarter researchers who work very hard and yet remain silent. Would you please let me know your comments?

My answer:

If someone asks your advice, it is already evidence for your qualification.

In particular, if you are my advisee and you can survive me, you should tell others how you did it.

The same (or similar) question is likely to be asked by others, so it is better to post up your answer once for all. This reduces your workload and benefits more people.
(I started blogging mainly to avoid repeating answering the same questions over and over.)

I am not sure how many advices out there are actually qualified. So do not hesitate if you think yours are even remotely so.

There is no such thing as seniority in terms of sharing. Some of the best research blogs I have seen are written by grad students, as they are in the more relevant career stage compared to more senior professors or researchers.
(My memory for my grad school days is already fuzzy, except that I spent a lot of time playing video games and my office mate was Ravi and some undergrads mistook me as his TA.)

I always want to know the secrets of those stronger and smarter researchers who remain silent.

Last but not least: I also want to read and learn from your blog!

September 25, 2013

Job season

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:38 pm
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I am in a constant process of helping students and postdocs landing jobs.

One thing I find very common and extremely interesting is the discrepancy between self-perception and reality. That is, candidates tend to have a higher estimation about their own qualifications (and thus higher expectation about the job offers they will get) than what reality would warrant.

This is just human nature. There is very little I can do; few took my advice, and many learned the hard way. But I guess this is how life works.

Humility is a virtue that we all learn eventually, one way or another.

September 22, 2013

Cycles

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:47 pm
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It is actually very easy to maintain a good work-life balance: just have stable cycles, working steadily and consistently every day.

It always puzzles me why some people cannot heed to this very simple strategy. They slack off while away from the deadlines and work inhumane hours near the crunch time. And they get burned out, causing the next round of slack off. And the unstable cycle continues.

I work almost exactly the same amount of hours every day, except during travels (when I work a bit less) and bailing out my collaborators who lack enough discipline (when I work a bit more).

September 10, 2013

Parents

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:31 pm
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Dear students:

Since we are not in the kindergarten anymore, I do NOT meet with your parents.

Your study is between you and me, and your future depends on your performance. I only look at that, nothing more, nothing less.

Under special situations in which your parents are in the kind of power or position to help you, they can deal directly with your future schools and employers. There is no need to involve me anyway.

September 7, 2013

For undergrads

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:00 am
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If you have good foundation in math and coding, you can pick up (almost) everything and compete with (almost) everybody and their brothers. So, take as many math and programming courses as possible, in particular those that will make you (actively) do things (e.g. projects) instead of just (passively) reading books and passing exams.

That is basically what I did as an undergrad (plus taking the swimming class so that I can access the school pool). I did not plan or think much beyond that. Life is simply too random to over-plan.

August 5, 2013

Thesis and oral defense

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:44 pm
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Schedule

My PhD adviser once told me that the most difficult part for graduation is scheduling the oral defense.

I thought he was joking, but realized he really meant it after doing it myself. It is basically a NP-hard, if not non-computable, problem.

I consider this as part of the ritual for graduation, so I will let the candidate schedule his/her own oral defense. People who cannot even get this done do not deserve to graduate.

Format

I never understand the rationale for hundreds-page thesis or hours-long oral defenses (PhD or other research degrees); it is probably residue from some ancient practices. But I think it is a big waste of time to write or read (or print, for heaven’s sake).

Here is my proposed thesis format:
Part 1: a concise summary of what the thesis is about, and why people should care about it.
Part 2: simply staple (via Latex, not physical papers) the relevant publications together to explain how it is done.

And here is the corresponding format for oral defense:
Part 1: a (sub) 5 minute elevator pitch telling people what the thesis is about and why they should care about it. There is a short break after this stage. The candidate fails if (s)he cannot convince the audience why they should continue to listen.
Part 2: a (sub) 25 minute presentation of more details, which can simply be a re-compilation of past conference talks. What follows is a usual break for committee discussion.

If the candidate does not have solid publications, (s)he should not be able to graduate.
If (s)he does, it should probably take at most a day to prepare the thesis and oral defense, on top of the existing materials.
The committee members can just spend as much time reading the published conference/journal papers instead of bloated mumbo jumbo in hundreds of pages.

If the candidate knows what (s)he has been doing, (s)he should be able to articulate a clear elevator pitch.
Otherwise, (s)he does not, and probably should come back to think and work more.
The committee members can quick see the quality of the research work instead of having to sit through hours-long slug about some technical details.

I plan to implement these for my internal students. And please, just send me the pdf file of your thesis. Spare the trees.

August 3, 2013

Anti-productivity

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:36 am
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Through my open mentoring program I got to experience many students with diverse backgrounds and characteristics. Some of them can be quite strange. Here is a recent case study.

I asked this guy to implement a standard software system in computer graphics. Instead of doing that, he kept on reciting on a daily basis what he read in graphics textbooks, none of which is remotely related to the target task. I tried to clarify the assignment repeatedly but he could not seem to comprehend. Finally, he told me that he wanted to appear being “productive” to get my attention.

[He did get my attention, but only the negative kind. The result is a prompt termination of our external mentorship.]

By definition, productivity means things other people want and care about, such as research papers or industry products. Reciting what you have learned is not productivity – no one else cares about that, and it cannot be measured. It is actually more like anti-productivity – a waste of time for everyone either to write or to read.

On some level this is probably related to the fundamental distinction between study and work. Learning is necessary for eventual productivity, but it is not producing anything by itself. Instead, it is anti-productivity, sucking away time and resources that can be used for productive work.

This is a key reason why I only teach undergrad courses, because courses (especially non-seminar, non-project-oriented ones) may trap the grad students in the undergrad mentality. The right way to learn is by an active on-demand basis – seeking what is found to be necessary during the research work, instead of a passive batch process – reading entire books or taking entire courses without really knowing the relevance.

Doing the good thing versus doing the right thing

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:57 am
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My grandfather, during his school professor days, once spent a lot of efforts bringing up a not very talented student into success beyond anyone’s expectation. My father liked to tell this story as how much passion and skill my grandfather has in people development. I agree on that part. However, I also think my father’s argument – and my grandfather’s action – is irrational: with the same amount of time and efforts, my grandfather could have helped several more talented students succeed, who collectively would have made the world an even better place. (Read: opportunity cost.)

There is a difference between doing the good thing and doing the right thing. And there is a choice between becoming a good person or a great person.

PS: I never had a chance to settle this debate with my grandfather; I started mentoring students just around the time he passed away.

July 18, 2013

Managing paper committee meeting

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:38 pm
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Most paper committees I have served have purely electronic review processes. These are relatively easy. Those with in-person meetings (e.g. SIGGRAPH) are more challenging as they involve live human interactions in real-time.
Below are some of my personal experiences to make the process more fun and effective.

Emotion

The most important and yet difficult task is to remain neutral, no matter what happens. It could be quite some experience to see your paper getting rejected and immediately you have to discuss a paper you reviewed.

I have a very simple strategy that works superbly well for me so far: I just assume all my papers are (or will be) rejected, even if they have very high ratings. (Anything could happen, and has happened before.) By assuming the worst case scenario, I can never be disappointed. I also do my best NOT to track my papers; I did not even look at the status on the spreadsheet when I am outside the room. Then it is easier for me to remain cool.

It also helps if you naturally care less.
One possibility is to not have any submission, but this is not common for people who are still productive.
Another possibility is to have enough prior papers so that you care less.
The paper chairs like to recruit more senior people not only for experiences but also for this “care less” factor.

Other things being equal, it is usually better to be positive than negative. My rule of thumb is to accept if unsure. This is better for humanity; a good paper wrongly rejected will not be read by anyone, while a bad paper wrongly accepted will likely be ignored by future research anyway. This is also better for myself; I do not want to leave a reputation for being a paper killer.

Workload

It is a lot of work to review 20-something papers. You will look bad if you do not seem to know what each paper is about, especially during the plenary sessions or breakout discussions. So make sure you put in enough efforts.

I also keep enough dark chocolate around to maintain my brain function at the end of the (long) day. (OK this is probably some lame excuses; I overdose cocoa no matter what.)

I am probably lucky (or maybe I am good at requesting papers; dunno yet) in that I usually get good assignments (high quality submission fitting my interests and expertise well), so I usually know each paper well. For those few that are outside my expertise, I just admit it to other committee members and reviewers. Nobody knows everything, so honesty is often the best policy.
Plus, I guess many of you have seen reviewers who clearly have no idea what the f*** they are talking about, so try not to be such jerks.

Participation

For those of you who think the committee members have some edges in getting their papers in, you might be disappointed; as far as I can tell, no such advantages exist, and the system has been well designed so that it is very difficult to game.

However, the committee members do have advantages in organizing the paper sessions, which is also the most fun part of the committee service in my opinion. You can influence where and when papers (including yours) go and which sessions you chair. People who do not show up might find papers (they authored or reviewed) going to a strangely titled session with a motley collection of seemingly unrelated papers, or find themselves chairing sessions that are too early for many people to wake up or too late in the last day for many people to remain behind.

July 17, 2013

Advices on advising

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:51 pm
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I stumbled upon these advices on advising by David Patterson (here) and Jeff Ullman (here) today. I found both insanely useful, especially after having a few years of advising experiences. The advices differ in the way that Patterson is mainly on systems and Ullman mainly on theory. But they also share similarities such as the importance of identifying problems and collaborative work.
(I would really love to hear from someone in graphics and HCI, fields with more emphasis on human side applications. I am thinking about asking my former school advisers/professors to write such articles.)

I reflected upon my (unusual) style of individual work and asynchronous communication. This has been quite effective so far, but I never stop thinking it could go wrong, at least for some students. So what I did is to make sure there is always at least one co-adviser who can help with the normal human side of needs, like in person meetings and emotional support.
Exposure to industry labs or even startups, fortunately, should be the benefit of working with me, given where I came from and whom I know.

I encourage all my past, current, and future students to read these articles, and let me know if you have any comments.

June 30, 2013

How to keep motivated

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:05 pm
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[My attempt to answer the question “I can’t keep myself always motivated in research, and I wonder what’s your method to do so?”]

I am actually not sure how to answer this, because I take it for granted. It is like someone asking you how to keep motivated in eating or sleeping.
But let me try.

Interest

Lack of motivation is usually a sign for lack of (genuine) interest.
If research is not what you really want to do for yourself, you are wasting your life; do something else instead, before it is too late.

Competition

The world is becoming increasingly competitive. People in your fields are getting better faster than, say, how Shanghai has changed in just 20 years.

Would your future prospect (in job, family, etc.) be enough to keep you always on the edge? If not, I cannot save you from being doomed into eternal mediocrity.

June 26, 2013

Time transfer

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:47 pm
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Summer tends to be boring and slow. I wish I could transfer June to August into the end of December. Winter is much more exciting but tends to run faster than I can catch.

PS
If you are my collaborator and you try to take a summer break, you will regret in the winter. Just mark my word.

June 13, 2013

How to fail your graduate study like an undergrad

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:36 pm
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You think GPA is important and spend time boosting your grades.

You think research is as deterministic and well-defined as courses.

You wait to be told what to do rather than figure out your own way.

You think you are working for your adviser rather than yourself.

Instead of work continuously, you let external factors (e.g. holiday and semester breaks) disrupt your flow.

You do not read every paper in the top venues of your fields especially during your first few years.

You try to read and understand every paper completely like textbooks.

You feel that deadline 3 months later is still far away.

You believe you are smart enough so that you do not have to work as hard as others.

June 9, 2013

About asian exam culture

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:24 am
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Good article, even though many things in life simply cannot be “taught” and have to be experienced.

June 2, 2013

How to do a paper fast-forward

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:39 am
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Giving a good paper presentation is already hard, but at least you have 20 minutes’ worth of wiggle room. Giving a good paper fast-forward is even harder, because you have only 40 seconds. Even one tiny mistake can ruin you.

Goal

The most common mistake is trying to explain too much (I like to call it “geek’s asymmetry”). Trust me; almost nobody will care, and certainly nobody will understand, within 40 seconds and among 100+ presentations.

The fast-forward is pure advertisement with one main goal: get people read your paper and attend your talk.
On top of that, if you are really good, show what a cool and interesting guy you are. But do not even try unless you are absolute sure. (A good rule of thumb is this: are you already cool and interesting?)

Design

Write down the script first, so that you know what you want to talk about and you can comfortably utter the sentences within the limited time frame. Practice and rehearse a sufficient number of times, especially if you lack verbal proficiency. Only design your slides after the script is in a stable condition. This is extremely important. If you do it the other way around, and I know this is what most people would do, you are making a grave mistake, because (just like what movie critics would say) you are letting the effects get in the way of the substance.

Do not force people read your slides. Use pictures and animations instead of texts to explain your points.

Practice

After having both the script and the slides, practice, until you can do it perfectly during sleep.

May 25, 2013

Ideas are not like cakes

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:21 pm
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I used to dish out ideas like cakes to those who are good all-around but just cannot figure out what they want to do. Recently, I realized this is a mistake.

Ideas are not like cakes that can just be given out. Rather, they are more like dresses that better be tailored individually.

This applies to all kinds of people.

Those who can already create ideas do not need to be told what to do anyway. They just need guidance. This is the best case scenario.

Some have potential to create ideas but cannot do right now due to lack of proper training or motivation. The goal is to kindle their autonomy. Giving cakes is not going to achieve this, and these might not be what they like to eat anyway. The right thing to do is forcing them to think. The process could be frustrating sometimes, but worth the end result.

Those who lack fundamental abilities to create ideas are not suitable for research anyway. Giving them ideas just wastes everyone’s time (and the ideas). They should switch to alternative career paths as early as possible.

A proper timing to share ideas is after someone already figures out a related direction.

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