Confessions of a researchaholic

October 14, 2013

Brainstorming

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:48 pm
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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.

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.

May 22, 2013

Autonomy

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.

April 14, 2013

Creative collaboration

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:36 pm
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I found the TEDxBow talk by Lloyd Davis on “5 Open Secrets of Creative Collaboration” very interesting, in that it emphasized the importance of physical human connections (and trust) in fostering creative collaboration, which is entirely opposite to my methodology of minimizing physical human contacts.

The natural way to produce good ideas is to have a bunch of smart and creative people work together. This is the main (if not the only) reason for the success of top research institutions, as I have personally witnessed in Stanford and MSR.

The conventional method for collaboration is through physical proximity, implying that to work with top people you have to join them in a top institution.
I am not sure if this is the only or even the best way though. Personally I have not found physical proximity any better than remote collaboration; almost all my ideas were produced either entirely on my own or via collaborations with or inspirations from remote people. The current technology is already good enough for me to be (intellectually) connected to almost anyone I want. (People who shun technology are not likely to be very good anyway, at least in computer science.) Even serendipity, the main advantage of physical proximity, can be managed by remote collaboration; I actually found it more efficient to write down my ideas than rushing to tell people.

Another benefit for remote collaboration is that it provides more flexibility to fit people with different levels of intelligence and experience. Not everyone is smart enough to have productive face-to-face brainstorming, and when that happens, I usually find it a great waste of time. I would rather give them more time (and grace) to think through stuff remotely and communicate with me asynchronously.

But I do wonder if I can be more effective by mixing a bit physical collaboration with suitable folks. Will experiment and report.

March 25, 2013

Inertia

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:18 pm
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People tend to work on things which they have prior experiences with.

This is good for coherence; few have the talents to jump between completely unrelated things. But it can also be bad for creativity; we tend to lose the prospective after sticking around something for too long. Achieving the right balance is not easy, at least for me.

But it can become a bit easier with the presence of stern warning signs. It is time for me to move on, before it kills me.

Self: time to code the next new thing. Do not slack off. People are watching.

August 15, 2012

How to be more creative

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 4:55 pm
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[Work in progress; this is a darn hard one to write, but I finally decided to start as triggered by a conversation with my MSR colleagues last dinner.]

This is the holy grail among all questions related to research, or any other intellectual pursuits. I used to (and still) think creativity is more of an innate talent and personality trait than something that can be taught. But I have finally gathered some anecdote to start something concrete. Some of these came from my own experiences and some from people I know. So it is a very personal perspective, and I cannot guarantee anything.

I summarize these into two main aspects, divergence and convergence. The goal is to have both in a right balance. My take is that either is hard, and the right combination is even harder.

Divergence

Many good ideas were generated by exposure to diversity, such as learning from different fields, interacting different people, and experiencing different cultures.
Examples:
(1) computer graphics is known to borrow ideas from other fields, such as physics, art, psychology, perception, architecture, interaction, etc.,
(2) a disproportional number of project ideas in Microsoft Research came from smart people talking to each other; I have heard plenty interesting stories on how an idea originated and transformed, often through multiple years and multiple folks, into a final project idea (that often bears little resemblance to the original idea, such as my SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on “non-linear revision control for images” which originated from “deformable BTF texture synthesis”),
(3) people who are multilingual and/or have been living in different countries/cultures tend to be more successful [dig out that economist(?) article].

Try to be playful and willing to take risks. Happier people tend to be more creative [dig out the source]. Those not willing to take risks usually end up with ordinary performance; this is evident in not only entrepreneurship but more mundane stuff like paper submissions: aiming for a more prestigious venue often encourages (or forces) people to be bolder.

Convergence

God/devil is in the details. Many good ideas came by carefully studying a subject. My SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on “differential domain analysis” was originated from the trigonometric transform equation which I discovered by trying to solve a puzzle of my previous SIGGRAPH 2010 paper on “multi-class blue noise sampling” (the equation first appeared on the technical report published the previous year in 2009).

Sometimes one has to be a perfectionist, pushing things beyond the very top level, to discover the golden nugget of ideas. This was the case for my SIGGRAPH 2011 paper on “discrete element textures “, which went through multiple submissions to the point that the authors started to feel desperate and only be saved by the discovery of a very important key idea (sample based representation that requires only positional but not rotational information).

July 30, 2012

Be different

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:02 am
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Today for the first time I clicked on a Gmail ad. It was from a CS MS student looking for internship. The ad clearly works better than directly emails, most of which I ended up ignoring because I get too many of these which all look the same to me.

Even though I am not looking for interns, I still contacted the student for potential PhD application in the future.

A necessary condition for a successful research career is creativity. And creative people know how to be different from everybody else.

[TODO: figure out how that ad was bid.]

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.

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.)

September 13, 2010

Talent is overrated

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:00 pm
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by Geoff Colvin

This book is really about “practice is underrated”, but I guess the editors need a more catching title for sales. The main point of the book is that effective practice is more important than other factors including specialty talent and general intelligence, and can overcome obstacles such as aging. The book even argues that creativity, commonly considered as a serendipitous process, is actually the result of significantly cumulative knowledge.

And it is not just about any practice, and aimless hard-working and experience will not help. Effective practice must be deliberate and satisfies the following properties: (1) it must be designed to improve specific performance, (2) it must be highly repeatable, (3) there should be continuous feedback, (4) it must be mentally demanding, and (5) it is usually not fun. I actually disagree with the last one, and fortunately the book also pointed out for certain high achievers, practice can be fun. So the last part of the book is about the most important question: why some people are motivated to go through all these hard practice to achieve excellence while others cannot. The most convincing explanation is that some initial small differences get amplified through a positive feedback look of practice and performance: when a kid, who gains a little bit edge on certain activity (either due to innate advantage or benign environment), can be motivated to practice a little bit harder and longer, which translates to even better performance, which motivates more practice, and the loop goes on.

I like this book as it fits my personal experience well. It has long puzzled me why some people have this innate drive to strive for the best while others do not, and this can happen among people with very similar genes and environments (e.g. siblings in the same family). The book also carries a positive message: anyone can achieve excellence if they are willing to go through the right kind of practice.

August 25, 2010

The man who loved China

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:13 pm
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I am not interested in biography, but I approached this book due to the Needham question: why China was taken over by the west in science and technology around 1500 AD after the amazing advances in earlier times? I was hoping that this book will provide answers, even though I never realistically expected that since this is a question about history, and thus can never be verified scientifically.

Well, I was right about that, as obviously nobody has ever managed to answer the Needham question. But that does not really bother me for several reasons.

First, I, like many others who have been through both Chinese and American style educations, know the main reasons more or less, even though none of us can rigorously prove anything. But answering a historical question is not really the point. The point is to find remedies and solutions. That, fortunately, I, just like many others, already know how to do practically, as evident from our achievements in modern scientific and technological activities.

Second, as pointed out in the book, the Needham question might be moot anyway, as China seems to have regained its rigor and creativity. But I cannot fully agree with this point; I agree that China has been improving, but it still has work to do to catch up with the American level creativity. Even from the young Chinese students I am collaborating today I can still see a lot of old problems that probably have been accumulated through hundreds if not thousands years of bad cultural impacts. But this is obviously fixable at least in an individual level; the million dollar question is whether it is also possible in a large national or even ethnic wise scale.

The funny thing is that the Needham question was not formally addressed until at the epilogue of the book. So the book is really testing my patience. Fortunately, the main part of the book, essentially the biography of Joseph Needham, turns out to be a fascinating read.

I recommend this book to anyone, especially (ethnic) Chinese working in the field of science and technology.

July 10, 2009

Dream tapping

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:31 am
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Waking up early in the wee hours is usually not a good thing, as it could cause fatigue and all other problems.

However, one good side effect for waking up early in that it allows us to tap into our dreams. It is known that brains do not stop activities during our sleeps, but we usually do not remember what have happened.

I have found that sleep interruptions, especially these happen in the early mornings, help me recall my dreams. I do not know about other people, but my brain tends to produce a lot of strange and interesting stuff (e.g. color movies) during my sleep. And judging by the frequency I came up with ideas after waking up, I know in addition to playing weird my brain also did some serious work.

The most interesting thing I have observed is that most my dream thoughts are less rational than my day thoughts, and many ideas that appear to be plausible during my dreams become apparently ridiculous after I wake up. But sometimes I got really useful ideas. For example, some of my SIGGRAPH paper ideas, as well as the previous two posts (I woke up at 3 am this morning), are produced during my sleep.

Maybe I should intentionally disrupt my sleep when I am short on research ideas.

May 19, 2009

Living abroad gives you a creative edge

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:33 pm
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According to this article from the Economist, living aboard gives you a creative edge.

Even without the formal study as reported in that article, this is a pretty obvious fact, at least from my personal experience. I believe the relationship between creativity and living aboard is both a cause and an effect: creative people are more likely to live aboard, and the experience of living in different places further stimulates their creativity.

Many people consider my constant moving around as being crazy, and downright counter-productive for a researcher that traditional wisdom deems to benefit from a more sedated life style. But somehow the constant traveling not only stimulates my creativity but even improves my focus. (I do not get distracted easily, but tend to lose focus when bored.)

(This post was jotted down on a flight from SEA to SFO.)

May 14, 2009

Creating versus Spotting

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:21 pm
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Out of pure coincidence, I read two different articles at roughly the same time yesterday, both related to the issue of creating versus spotting (or discovering):

In Mark Cuban’s blog entry on Success & Motivation, he said the key to recognizing a profitable business opportunity is knowing the industry. Everyone has ideas, but the hard part is doing homework knowing which idea would work in a business (or risk getting your butt kicked).

In the book Made to Stick by the Heath brothers, they argued that creativity is not necessary for sticky ideas. There are always more ideas out there than that can be created by the most creative single individual, and the hard part is about spotting the right ones.

So essentially what they are all saying is that creativity is either less important than most people think, or downright unnecessary. The positive interpretation of this point is that since spotting is about effort, whereas creating is about serendipity or some innate ability, hard working would pay off for not only everything else but also for finding good ideas. The negative interpretation, though, is that creativity might be an illusion, and human brains are just machines that could discover ideas and connecting dots.

This also reminds me of a related point that I read about a long time ago (I have forgotten the source) arguing that there is really no such thing as creativity in the human intelligence, as what we think as creations are essentially discoveries. This applies to science, art, religion, and everything else. So quantum physics, relativity, cubism, capitalism, and credit default swaps are all discovered rather than created.

Is there any single idea that can be formally proven to be a real creation rather than a mere discovery?

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