Confessions of a researchaholic

November 3, 2018

The devil is in the detail

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:31 am

$ git push
Counting objects: 6, done.
Delta compression using up to 4 threads.
Compressing objects: 100% (6/6), done.
Writing objects: 100% (6/6), 666 bytes | 0 bytes/s, done.

March 13, 2018

Window glimpse

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:43 pm
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The moment I saw you eating alone facing away from the restaurant window, I understood that I need to live long enough for you.

April 4, 2017


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:13 am
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I heard this from my parents recently.

An uncle of mine took trains to work every day for many years. On the morning trains he performed the daily biological unloads.

After he retired, he found out he could no longer unload at home, so he kept on taking the trains for round trips.

May 9, 2016

Recursive interviews

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:20 pm
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When you were interviewing the candidates I was also interviewing you.

You opened yourself like a book.

March 11, 2016

Why it is fun to review journal papers

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:15 pm
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After kindly agreeing to review a journal revision for the N-th time, the guy commented that “it’s the gift that keeps on giving!” 🙂

Conversation with collaborator X prior to a SIGGRAPH rebuttal

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:11 pm
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X: I’m really eager to see what the SIGGRAPH reviewers have in store for us this time… The suspense is killing me. =o

Li-Yi: I just assume they will screw me, and I am never disappointed. 🙂

X: Yes, that’s what I do as well, but I’m always amazed about how they always find ways to complain about the stuff you don’t expect. 😮

Li-Yi: If I can expect what others will think, I will be like some sort of x-men or superman. 🙂

February 1, 2016

The cat experiment

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:07 am
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Once, when I was around 9 or 10, I was visiting my aunt’s place.

One of the cousins, X, and I were standing near the swimming pool. The family cat walked by. Cousin X and I got into the discussion about whether cats can swim. I have seen a few dogs and at least one horse swam, so I was pretty sure the answer is yes (cats seem more agile). Cousin X disagreed (he is older but not necessarily smarter), so we decided to have a bet.

Clearly, the only way to settle the bet is to experiment, so I grabbed the cat and threw it into the pool.
(That was before the age of YouTube and Google, BTW.)

What followed was amazing, and happened like within a few milliseconds. The cat sprang on the water surface like a trampoline, and immediate landed back near my feet. It was dripping, so it clearly fell into the water, but I had no idea how it managed to jump back. Meanwhile, our debate remained unsettled.

I am trying to come up with a very concrete way to tell a new PhD student how to decide whether someone is suitable for (scientific) research. So here is my try. Let me know if you have better ideas.

Do you like to ask questions that seem interesting at least to you (e.g. whether cats can swim)?

Do you enjoy finding the answers yourself through investigations and experiments (e.g. grab the cat and throw it into the pool, and observe what happens)?

Are you very comfortable with the consequences, regardless of the outcomes of the experiments (e.g. the cat neither swam nor sank and my aunt beat me up)?

Can you do this continuously as a career? Imagine it is Friday lunch time, and all the works you have done this week have turned out to be failures (e.g. no other ways you have tried can tell you whether cats can swim).
You have no idea what is going to happen this afternoon when you try your 101th experiment with that cat.

If you hesitate for any of these questions or you think I am crazy, you are probably not suitable for research. At least, you will not be happy or successful.

Talent and personality are important; you have to be sufficiently smart and tough for research. But passion is even more important; the only way to be truly happy and productive is to do what you really like.

April 1, 2014

Thunder swim

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:52 pm
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I find it extremely romantic and serene to swim under a thunderstorm.
So getting kicked out of the pool is like being interrupted while being in a zone.

Come on, I get wet one way or another, and I am much more likely to be killed by car commute than lightning.

February 22, 2014

Be different

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:37 am
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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

January 1, 2014


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:12 pm

One of my computers has been extremely slow. After some investigations I found the culprit lied on the security software.

It was so slow as though the security software is checking every program execution and every network connection. So I just disabled it and the machine ran like a breeze.

I know I am supposed to get my computer protected, but what is the point if the protection will significantly cripple performance?

This bears analogy to how some nations (including two of the biggest and most important ones) trade off their liberty and security.

“They who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

I installed another security software a while later. It seems to work fine so far, but I would not hesitate to uninstall if it cripples performance.

October 1, 2013

False presumptions – sequel

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:31 pm

Last night I saw this Facebook post from a friend who is a CS professor in a top university:

Gag ugh gun ml K LnmNqnN ‘m

I spent some time deciphering the profound meaning and encoding of that post, to no avail.

Later on, the friend commented that this is the first Facebook post of his 2 years old daughter.

September 25, 2013

How to deal with flight delays when you are already onboard

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:55 pm
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Flight delays suck. But what sucks the most is when you are already on board, so that you are trapped on that narrow seat and you cannot even walk around in a terminal.

If you are on a plane with in-flight entertainment system (stay away from those airlines/airplanes that do not even offer this basic service to all cabins) and the captain is smart enough to turn it on, start watching your favorite movies. This directly converts painful delays into extra entertainment time. At least it beats sitting there whining and worrying.

I realized this while getting delayed on board by a super typhoon a few days ago. It was a short haul flight, so the normal fly time is not even enough for an average movie. But it turns out to be enough after adding the delay. I got to watch a movie not available on Netflix.

May 22, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:51 am
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I bumped into this interesting and concise article a few days ago. I encourage you to read it in whole and watch the embedded video.

Basically, it echoes my personal experiences quite well, across product groups, industry labs, and academia. For jobs that require any dose of innovation, the success predominantly depends on individual creativity, perseverance, and autonomy, rather than knowledge, smartness, or even intelligence.

I have a very simple rule of thumb to know, at an early stage, whether a student is suitable for research, or any form of innovative work. It is a bit like push and pull. If I push you a bit (e.g. suggesting you to try an experiment) and you can react back with at least something I did not know a priori (e.g. a surprising result or a better way to do that experiment), you are probably good. Otherwise, you are just a robot that needs to be told exactly what to do. It is a bit better, but not fundamentally different from, say, strawberry pickers or assembly line workers.

Autonomy is the main distinction between jobs in the past 2 millenniums (e.g. agriculture, manufacturing) and this new millennium (the so called knowledge economy). It is also the main reason behind the bifurcation of economic power, social class, and a lot of other things.

On a related note, a recent story deeply touched my heart. A previous unknown, 50+ years old mathematician, with stints in fast food restaurants, recently proved an elusive property of prime numbers that has been one of the longest standing math challenges.
I did not know this guy, but I bet he must have a tremendous amount of passion and perseverance to spend all the time and efforts to pull this off.

May 21, 2013

Lvdi Wang visiting HK

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:41 pm
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[People usually send out email announcements for visitors. But I find it very boring. So I am going to take a different approach that is more interesting and fits my style better.]

Lvdi Wang, a MSR Asia researcher in computer graphics, is visiting Hong Kong from June 8 to June 12, 2013. If you are a faculty or student who would like to meet with him, let me know.

Here are some reasons why it is to your benefit to meet him, especially if you are a student, and more so if you are a student working with me now.

Lvdi is a very smart guy. In fact, he is one of the smartest students I have ever worked with. You can benefit a lot from discussing with him about your research.

He is also a very nice guy, nicer than the usual kind of smart guys who could make you a bit uncomfortable.

[Look at his publications and photos under his website for the two points above.]

He is not my longest collaborator, but likely knows my style well enough to give some *happiness* guide, especially to my internal students. (I am not saying anyone should have any grievance given my liberal style; how many professors out there allow their students to work anytime anywhere? But just in case.)

You might want to ask him about “nothing is impossible”. I am going to quote from his case if you ever tell me “it is not possible to accomplish that”.

May 3, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:00 am
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Dear student:

I am totally cool with skipping all the classes as this is also what I did in school. But at least I never walk up to a professor in the final session and ask: “are you the TA of this class?”

(True event occurred in my mobile computing class today. All students have to show up for their final project demos.)

February 12, 2013


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

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

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

February 11, 2013


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

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

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

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

January 26, 2013

Why my site is not worth hacking

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:49 pm
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A friend of mine, who is currently a grad student in a prestigious CS department, told me that his PhD adviser is pretty keen on the cyber security thing. Like, he will fuss about unencrypted project servers.

I do not encrypt my server. It is not nearly as popular a target as my friend’s department, and I simply do not think it is worth hacking. Allow me to do a quick breakdown of the content of my site:

90% are project ideas killed by myself.

9% are not killed, but papers rejected by reviewers.

1% are neither killed nor rejected, but so poorly written that reviewers, who are experts in my field, asked for 3 revisions to be able to understand.

I hope I have saved your time. Have a good day.

October 17, 2012

Party like a panda

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:21 am
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(Realization after a lunch part today at the University Lodge, aka the president’s office)

I am one who attends parties like a panda: eats (all the good food while available), shoots (some really bad and cold jokes), and leaves (before people realize I am a jerk).

March 3, 2012

Reading week

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:09 pm

So the university has this *reading week* in the middle of the semester that has all classes suspended. The official documentation says this is for students to catch up on their course readings.

I was wondering why the students need an entire frigging week for this; aren’t they supposed to be doing the reading and course works all the time?

Eventually, a senior professor told me, in a whispering tone: “the reading week is just an excuse for professors to take a spring break”.

Hush, hush

February 1, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

December 30, 2011

James Landay on “China Will Overtake the US in Computing…Maybe, Someday…”

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:47 pm
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This is a mandatory reading for all my (current and future) students with an initial Asian training:

James Landay on China Will Overtake the US in Computing…Maybe, Someday…

First of all, let me share one of the biggest secrets of China (and to some degree other Asian countries like Japan and Korea as well as ethnic Chinese states like Taiwan and Singapore). Do you ever wonder why China developed this authoritarian culture in the first place? It is very simple: a conforming population is much easier to rule than one that can think freely. The Chinese emperors were very calculating on this; they did not even allow alternative sources of authorities to challenge them (like the bishops who can thorn up to European emperors’ arses). On the other hand, they also want the population to be reasonably fluent so that the country can be productive. Thus the duality of the Chinese/Asian education system: on one hand it enforces conformity, and on the other encourages intellect and hard working.
Unfortunately, even though this system worked for the past agriculture and manufacture dominant economic systems, a knowledge-based economy will require citizens who can think. So China will have to change its culture and education systems, or face competitive disadvantages.

Part of the fun for my past MSR and current HKU posts is being close enough to help while far enough to not get dragged down into the sinkhole. I am curious how much I can do as an individual, or there is really some grander scale environmental stuff that I simply cannot reproduce. Results so far are very encouraging; Asian students who worked with me for sufficiently long periods of time (at least one SIGGRAPH cycle) have shown significant progress of thinking skills and at least one of them managed to create SIGGRAPH ideas.

For the sake of more fun, I now extend my grand challenge to MSR Asia to all my (past, current, and future) students: the first one to publish a single-authored SIGGRAPH paper will receive my full financial support, out of my own pocket instead of any grant, to make the trip. (Really, it is not that hard; I am not very smart, and I did that twice already. I make this challenge because only with a single-authored SIGGRAPH paper can you prove your full independence, including creativity.)

December 27, 2011


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:50 pm
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Yesterday, my family donated to National Central Library of Taiwan the majority of the manuscripts of my late grandfather, a prominent scholar and writer in Chinese literature.

As far as I know, we did not have a chance to talk to my grandfather about how to handle his manuscripts during his life time.
To avoid the same mistake, I plan to discuss with my father, an artist with volumes of work in oil painting, water-coloring, and ceramics, about how to deal with his stuff when the day comes.

Fortunately, such worries stop at my generation, because all my works are digital and thus can be easily accessed and archived. (Though my PhD adviser once wondered whether his digital models of Michelangelo’s sculptures will actually last longer than the physical objects themselves.)

October 12, 2011

Why I do not stay up late for work

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:07 am
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Once, while in grad school, I tried to wrap up a long SIGGRAPH crunching day by cleaning up my code.

So, I did the following in the Makefile:

rm -r -f *.c

Instead of

rm -r -f *.o

After that wonderful experience, I decided not to stay up late for work anymore. 🙂

September 11, 2011

A year of no significance

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 6:13 pm
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1587, a Year of No Significance (Chinese: 萬曆十五年) is a book by historian Ray Huang (Chinese: 黃仁宇) which described how a sequence of seemingly insignificant events precipitated the eventual downfall of the Ming dynasty, as well as China itself. I remember getting totally fascinated by this book as a high school kid. The book is not flawless, but it is fascinating in highlighting how significant long term trends, which usually happen slowly, are often preceded by very small signs.

It is like the famous Chinese proverb, 一葉知秋: from a falling tree leaf one can know that the autumn is coming.

If future historians are going to write a similar book about the eventual downfall of the America (dynasty) as well as the entire West, the analogous year will be 2001, or probably even a specific day, September 11. Contrast to 1587, this is a year of *major* significance. But THE event is no less precipitating than those in 1587.

I am looking forward to read this book, and I hope it will be as enthralling as the one by Ray Huang.

July 20, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

June 7, 2010

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:50 pm
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There is this guy who I regularly bumped into around my office building as well as the nearby bus stop.

From the way he talked and walked it appears that he has suffered from some kind of strokes and/or autism/Asperger syndromes. I regularly saw him during holidays and weekends in our office building. Often, he just sat in the corner of a conference room table without seeming to be doing anything else. I can also detect certain stale smells on him through my somehow sensitive olfactory system (a main reason that I do not eat meat). All in all, he appears to be a strange guy, even in my standard.

But my experience also told me that a seeming eccentric guy in MSR is probably famous or important or both, so the day before I chatted with him while waiting for the bus together, got his name, and looked it up online. Well, he is obviously famous enough to have a Wikipedia page, and according to that he has made fundamental theoretical contributions to cryptography. He also has an Erdos number of 1 and received several major awards.

I wonder if I will be (or already am) considered eccentric by other people around me. But honestly I do not think I care. I plan to chat with that guy more next time I bump into him.

July 15, 2009

First encounter with Ciao

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:40 pm
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A good friend of mine, Ciao, is relocating to another part of the world.

Ciao is a very nice dude, and we have had a lot of fun hanging out together. Perhaps the funniest ever experience is our first encounter, when Ciao went to interview with a company that I previously worked for.

I guess most companies have a certain interviewing style that reflects the company culture. And for that particular company, the custom seems to be grilling the interviewees with trick questions, mostly in low-level math and computer science. I could see the value of such a style in testing the interviewee’s character and intellect, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to do that to someone who has recently obtained his Ph.D. with a SIGGRAPH paper. So instead I talked with Ciao a bunch of high-level research questions. We had a great time.

The troubles came after I filled out the interview evaluation. The hiring manager informed me that my interview style is “not very proper” and sent me to a course teaching people how to do proper interviews. (I confess I never attended the course.) Furthermore, the interview with Ciao turned out to be not only the first but also the last one that I ever conducted for that company.

Fortunately, my “not very proper” interview with Ciao did not cost his job offer, and later he joined the company. Together we had some additional fun for a couple of more years. It soon became pretty apparent that we are both not very good fit for that company (my “not very proper” interview with him is probably a good early sign), so eventually we both left. But I would like to thank that company for enabling me to learn a few very important lessons that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and most importantly, the chance for getting to know Ciao.

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