Confessions of a researchaholic

September 22, 2013


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).

July 10, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:58 am
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This morning I got a phone message from an alleged debt collector. It smelled full of scam so I looked up online and confirmed my suspicion.

Basically, what seems to be happening is that if you call them, they will ask you for your personal information. In other words, it is identity theft taking advantage of human weakness. Many people, upon hearing that they owe debt, would feel guilty. Thus, they are more likely to put their guard down and divulge their personal information.

But this is probably less effective for people with different kinds or degrees of conscience.

I wonder why debtors should fear creditors. Do you think you are more afraid of your bank (where you deposit/lend your money) or the other way around?

June 16, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:54 am
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Public speaking is the number one fear reported by people in the US.
Many people, at least in the US, like to go to parties.

For me, it is the exact opposite.
The bigger the audience, the easier I feel.
Giving a large conference talk is the most comfortable; I totally control the script and there are so many people that they become anonymous, blank, and non-human.
Teaching a class is slightly trickier; I am still in control but have to interact with students sometimes, potentially disrupting the flow and raising my awareness of their human presence.
Small talking in a social gathering is the most energy consuming; it is entirely ad hoc and I have to read people and react in real-time.

Is this extrovert or introvert? I guess it is something orthogonal. Maybe it is “sociability” before I can find a better term.

Around 38:00 mark on Hannibal season 1 Aperitif (at the end of Will Graham’s class on criminal psychology):

Jack Crawford: I also understand it is difficult for you to be social.

Will Graham: I am just talking. I am not listening to them. It is not social.

June 14, 2013

Aromatic association of cities I have lived in more than 1 year

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 8:01 am
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They say olfactory memory is the most visceral as it is within our primitive brains.

Taipei: soil within sidewalk pavement cracks

Kaohsiung: (strong) industrial waste water

Stanford: dry grass

Palo Alto: coffee

Mountain View: swimming pool chlorine

Emerald Hills: trees

Beijing: gun powder (sulfur)

Seattle: sea-weed/salt

Hong Kong: (humid) bean curd

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 25, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:23 pm
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My attitude towards teaching could be reflected by how I would really like to write my teaching statement (for faculty job applications).
There will be only one sentence: “smart enough students can pick up everything themselves”.
(Note1: I know this is entirely doable because I pulled this off since I was 10 years old, and I did not consider myself to be very smart.)
(Note2: Of course this is not how I really wrote my teaching statement.)

With this backdrop, it should not be a surprise that I have never blogged a single entry about teaching, at least not mine. I do not even have teaching as a tag word.

I have considered teaching as a chore rather than enjoyment (unlike research), and my basic stance has not changed too much. (One main reason why I think it is better to start a research career as an industry lab scientist rather than a university professor.) But not until I really taught full-semester classes, especially large ones, did I start to appreciate teaching can be a fun thing to do, for two main reasons.

First, it can actually inspire my research ideas.

Second, and probably more important, teaching provides a great chance for massive mind reading and human studying, with moral justification for effective teaching. It is even more fun and challenging than reading individuals, one of my most favorite pastimes.

More posts to follow.

August 15, 2012

How to be more creative

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

March 24, 2012

Fooled by randomness

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:41 pm
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Feeling down from some recent rejections? I hope this post will make you more positive. The gist: never, ever, quit.

Assume you are throwing N loaded dices, each with a probability p for coming up head.

Now, if p is greater than 0 and smaller than 1, there is always a chance that the N dices will come up with all heads or all tails. And the smaller the N value, the more likely for such extreme cases to happen.

This is all pure chance. But unfortunately, human brains have difficulty accepting randomness, and always want to impose determinism, e.g. patterns or rules or causalities.
For example, if you are a scholar submitting N papers to a conference, you will likely consider yourself to be very good/bad (or the paper committee has treated you very well/badly) if all N submissions are accepted/rejected.

This human fallacy is brilliantly illustrated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “Fooled by Randomness”.

However, even without reading that book, I can recommend a very simple remedy: law of large numbers. This is a well-known mathematical theorem, which says that the expected value of a random variable can be more accurately predicted by averaging a larger number of samples.

So, for example, to measure your intrinsic paper acceptance rate towards a specific conference, you can take the total number of acceptances divided by the total number of submissions. This will be a much more meaningful measure than your acceptance rate for a single year, especially if you have a sufficient number of submissions across multiple years.

For example, the plot below shows my cumulative acceptance rate for SIGGRAPH, the top venue for computer graphics and interactive techniques. As you can see, the rate seems to be gradually converging to a certain value, around 0.34. This is much more stable measure than my yearly rate, which can be anywhere between 0 and 1.

Now, if you are new to a field, your rate will have a higher variance, just like the initial portions of mine. I was lucky that I had a good start which boosted my confidence. (Initial condition is actually very important and has been found to greatly influence the performance of many careers, e.g. hockey players. Note to myself: dig out that book/article. I guess it should be Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated” or Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”.) However, if you happen have an unlucky start, do not give up too early; hang on for a while, so that you can have a chance to see your *intrinsic performance*.
As you can see, my intrinsic performance did not really show up until about a decade doing SIGGRAPH.

(With all these rational arguments, I have to confess that it still hurts to get rejected!)

Some notes about the graph: (1) I plot SIGGRAPH at integer years and SIGGRAPH Asia at integer + 0.5 years, (2) missing data points are for years which I did not submit anything (2004 and 2005 while in NVIDIA and 2011.5 when I have nothing to submit for SIGGRAPH Asia 2011), (3) a more accurate measure would be “moving average” (with exponential decay of past values) but I probably need another 10 years to warrant this, (4) I really want to improve my intrinsic rate to at least 50 percent!, (5) I guess the ultimate test is to have multiple disjoint committees + reviewers, all with similar qualities, to evaluate the same batch of submissions, and see if they will accept similar sets of papers.

February 13, 2012

Jeremy Lin

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:33 am
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I am not trying to jump into the bandwagon, but there appears to be a civil-right scale movement happening in the Asian-American community now.

I found a few articles worth reading:

A forbes article about lessons learned from Jeremy Lin.

What I see in Jeremy Lin, an article I found through ESPN. And another good one by J.A. Adande, one of my most favorite ESPN writers. (Yes, you can actually learn something in a sports page.)

Paper tigers, a provocative article about Asian-Americans. I agreed with some of the points, disagreed with others, but found most of them very interesting.

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