Confessions of a researchaholic

April 25, 2020

Virtual meetings

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:38 am
Tags: ,

I usually share my screen instead of my face during virtual meetings.
I believe people mostly care about my content than what I look like.

The reason Zoom calls drain your energy

May 30, 2018

Burger trays

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:18 am

I was helping a new guy order lunch burger.
I have never ordered from that particular place before, so I am in no position to offer any process suggestions.
I saw a tray with order sheets inside and told the guy to place his inside. The order was eventually cleared from the tray, but no burger came out after 30 minutes. After inquiring, the chef told us that that tray was for discarding wrong orders, and we were supposed to put our order in another tray.

Download (SVG, 1KB)

April 20, 2016

User interface

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 8:45 pm
Tags: ,

When I was in grad school I thought UI is about tuning widgets and doing user studies (a lot of research did exactly that). I preferred working on algorithms because they seem more interesting and more fundamental.

Later on, I realized how wrong I was. User interface is crucial as long as humans remain biological and machines remain mechanical.
A good UI can save a not so good algorithm, but not vice versa.
And UI research can also be fun and fundamental.

March 27, 2016

WYSIWYG editor

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:02 am

Some people told me that they prefer Word over Latex for paper writing due to a more direct WYSIWYG interface.

It is true that using Latex is more like coding than writing. But is Word really more WYSIWYG?

One of my PhD students, J, is interning with a top HCI lab that prefers Word. J already has first-authored multiple SIGGRAPH papers via Latex, but had difficulty figuring out how to use Word, such as citations and cross references, even after the internship mentor provided a previous paper Word file for example.

The main problem of a binary file like Word is that it shows what is there but not how it got there.
Take citations as an example. Even starting with a complete paper, there is no way to tell how to add a new citation just by looking at the file alone. One has to search online or via the in app help.

In contrast, a source file like Latex shows how everything is done, even though we have to take an extra compilation step to see what it looks like. But that can be a single command with a makefile, which also clearly shows how to build everything.

The ideal tool should allow authoring in both directions: on the source (like Latex) with outcome immediately visible (like Word), or on the outcome (like Word) with the source automatically modified.
But for now, Latex is more WYSIWYG than Word for me.

February 2, 2015

Pause the future

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:45 am
Tags: ,

I was watching Super Bowl XLIX on my tablet using NBC’s live sports app, but had to attend a meeting during the middle of the third quarter.
So I paused the game, hoping to resume it later without spoiler.
Fortunately, nobody in Hong Kong mentioned anything about the game to me, and the app is robust enough to replay everything, including commercials.
After the meeting I went straight to solitary confinement and finished the rest of the game around midnight Arizona time.

Tom Brady threw his second interception when I paused the game; the world knew the rest before I resumed it.

I wonder if this can be an interesting HCI research topic.

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.

July 10, 2013

Picking up HCI

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:37 pm
Tags: ,

I am picking up HCI as it is becoming more relevant to my teaching and research. Here is a log of what I have found useful. As work in progress things are going to be in a flux. If you have suggestions I would love to hear.

PS: Back in grad school my PhD adviser once commented that UI design is my Achilles heel. 🙂


The design of everyday things by Donald Norman is an old text but has aged quite well. The thing I like most about the book is that it provides many highly intuitive examples and counter examples to illustrate many of the practical design issues.

I learned about user studies from measuring the user experience by Tullis and Albert. It is pretty comprehensive, but for detailed math/theory you will need to look up elsewhere.


The coursera course by Scott Klemmer covers several main aspects of HCI and is fun to participate. I quickly went through it off season within a few days so I just watched the videos and did the quizzes. I plan to join the next offering and do the homework assignments (for real).

December 31, 2012

How to design demos

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:51 pm
Tags: , , , ,

In a nutshell, a demo should properly demonstrate technical aspects with sufficient artistic appeals.

The technical part is usually more important, and can suffice alone for many science and engineering disciplines. However, the artistic part is also very important for graphics and HCI, or any fields which involve direct human perception and consumption.

Demos usually take a lot of time and efforts, on top of the usual workload in ideation, writing, algorithm, implementation, and experimentation. And whether you like it or not, a solid and novel algorithm cannot be adequately assessed or appreciated by the readers if it is not demonstrated through proper demos.

Thus, designing demos is kind of an art. Below are recent suggestions from Sylvain Lefebvre which I have found to be excellent.

A guideline that worked fine for me is to consider whether 1) the result demonstrates the technique properly and 2) the result looks just good enough that it appears useful; in particular we want to avoid people think that the example is contrived to only show the advantage of our approach.

The problem is that 1) and 2) sometimes compete with each other (e.g. a fantastic rendering possibly making it hard to properly see the motion, etc.). Also we do not want to spend too much time on 2), only enough that people will think that it is convincing.

November 21, 2012

Flesh UI

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:52 am
Tags: , ,

I have a primary bank in Asia and a primary bank in the US.

The online banking of that US bank is very easy to use; the UI design is likely good enough for a textbook example.

In contrast, online banking for that Asia bank is extremely difficult to use (even for a computer scientist); the UI design is so bad that it can also serve as a textbook example.

I have been wondering how that Asia bank could have survived its customer complains about UI. Today, I found out the answer.

I needed to conduct a transaction that (to the extent I can figure out through that UI jungle) cannot be done online. So I went to a local branch. The (human) bank clerks were so efficient that the entire process probably took less time than doing it online by myself.

So I guess most people in Asia simply do banking with real humans. It is not only because human labors are more abundant in Asia, but also that Asians have more inherent distrusts for online banking.

Lesson learned: a bad UI needs fix only if used.

February 22, 2012

Artificial intelligence

When I was younger I preferred to stay away from people as much as possible, as most of them are not very interesting and it is much more rewarding for me to be alone thinking and reading.

When I get older, I realized that humans are intensively intriguing subjects for study. I started to spend a lot of time observing human behaviors and try guessing what they are thinking and predicting their actions.

This caused certain dilemma for me: on one hand I still want to be as far away as possible from people, but on the other hand, I want to be close enough with them for the purpose of studies and observations.
(The penalty and reward seem to go in tandem; crowd behavior is the most interesting, but also the most annoying to be part of.)

Fortunately, computer science comes into rescue. Far from the common stereotypes (of nerds locking in toilets), computer science, especially the most current and active subjects, are very human centric. One example is user interface, including design for better user experiences, as well as analysis and synthesis for deeper understanding and more advanced interactions.

A more recent example is social networking. Previously, most human daily activities simply dissipated into entropy. Now, with people spending more of their interactions through various social networking sites, we can record their activities in better quality and quantity.
Such data not only enables better computer technologies but more profoundly, more insights into human nature. (Facebook probably knows more about certain individuals than their mothers do.)

Two sci-fi series could provide inspirations for both directions.

Caprica is about how humans create Cylons, a cyber-genetic life form that eventually pushes humans near extinction in the main Battlestar Galactica series (which I found to be much less interesting).

Dollhouse is about how technologies can allow memories and personalities to be extracted from one individual and installed into another, essentially programming human brains.

Both offer insights into computer science and humanity, as well as highly enjoyable entertainments. Unfortunately, both got canceled prematurely due to low ratings, a confirmation of my childhood observation about how ordinary humans would react to deeper materials.

November 6, 2010

Looking for intern: somatic computing in MSR SF

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

Jaron Lanier and I recently started a new project termed “somatic computing” in Microsoft Research San Francisco. We are looking for an intern who would be interested in working with us. For more information, please take a look at our project page.

February 21, 2010

Systemizing (SQ) and Empathizing (EQ) Quotient Test

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:55 pm
Tags: ,

While reading this paper in CHI 2009, I noticed the following interesting paragraph:

“In the EMB (Extreme Male Brain) model, highly gifted scientists and engineers with AS are found to have strong systemizing behavior but at considerable expense to empathizing. They are recognized as having abnormal social and communicative development as well as a very narrow set of interests, among other traits.”

This got me interested because the “symptoms” kinda fit me, but on the other hand I know I am pretty good at reading people (i.e. knowing on an intuitive/subconscious level on what people are really thinking or feeling) even though I seldom feel compassionate about them.

To figure out what’s really about, I tried the following test:

Your Systemizing (SQ) and Empathizing (EQ) Quotient Test Results

February 21, 2010

Click here to share your EQ SQ scores on your blog.

Respondent Average EQ Average SQ Brain Type
Males 39.0 61.2 Systemizing
Females 48.0 51.7 Empathizing
Your Score 40 79 Extreme Systemizing

What does your score mean?

Generally, the higher the score the greater your natural ability for that trait. However, the EQ test has 40 questions compared to 75 in the SQ test. As a result, although the unprocessed quotients may be used for comparing each trait ability between individuals, the absolute scores do not tell an individual if he or she has a greater tendency to empathize or systemize. A calculation taking into account the quantity of questions in each test is used to determine a person’s brain type along the following continuum:

  • Extreme Empathizing (Extreme E)
  • Empathizing (E)
  • Balanced (B)
  • Systemizing (S)
  • Extreme Systemizing (Extreme S)
Brain Types of Experimental Control Groups
Respondent Extreme E E Balanced S Extreme S
Males 0% 17% 31% 46% 6%
Females 7% 47% 32% 14% 0%

The important factor to consider is not your absolute score, but the difference between the two. This indicates whether you have more natural ability as an Empathizer or a Systemizer. If your scores are about the same for your EQ and SQ, then you have well balanced empathizing-systemizing capabilities.

July 10, 2009

Proving human

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:54 am
Tags: , ,

In the Terminator movies, proving whether one is human or machine is crucial for the survival of the entire humanity. But it also has humbler applications, e.g. anti-spam.

Spam is bad; it causes great inconvenience in our daily life, and it even contributes to globally warming.

Let me classify the anti-spam techniques into two main categories: content-based or behavior based. The former looks into the content (of an email or a blog comment) and judges whether it talks more like a human or a machine (spam). The latter is concerns about the behavior of the entity (behind an email or blog comment) and judges whether it more likely a human or a machine (spam). The content-based approach is more prescriptive and takes place *after* the event has happened (an email sent or a blog comment made), whereas the behavior-based approach is more preventive and takes place *before* the event has happened.

The content-based approach, e.g. spam filters, has been constantly improving but is not yet (and likely never will be) 100% accurate. We have all received spam emails that slipped through the filter (false negative), as well as lost non-spam emails that got wrongly caught (false positive). In general, this battle is tougher for the good guys, as they are tackling the (more difficult) analysis problem whereas the evil guys are dealing with the (simpler) synthesis problem.

The behavior-based approach, e.g. word verification, takes a different route. Instead of judging whether an act is performed by a human or a machine, it simply structures the environment so that only humans can accomplish the task. This would put more burden on humans (e.g. for word verification one has to identify texts from a picture and enter that) but usually not a big hassle relative to the original task (e.g. composing email or comments). However, this is a battle easier for the good guys, as they are tackling the (simpler) synthesis problem whereas the evil guys are dealing with the (more difficult) analysis problem. (To my knowledge, no computer vision or pattern recognition techniques could break picture or sound based word verification so far.)

I wonder if anti-spam research should be focused more on the behavior side (computer-human interaction) rather than the content side (algorithm).

P.S. This post was inspired by Ken Perlin’s blog entry on actual humans.

Theme: Rubric. Get a free blog at