Confessions of a researchaholic

October 31, 2020

Epistemic dependence

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:16 am
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I found this article a nice read, which highlights the much faster growth of our collective knowledge (accelerated by computers and algorithms) than our individual brain capacities (constrained by biology and evolution). Each one of us knows a shrinking slice of the world, and this has profound implications on our society and civilization.

One, as mentioned in the article, is the increasing need of collaboration among researchers, especially for experimental science. (At this moment of writing, it is still feasible to single author a computer science paper.)
Even though the numbers of co-authors of my papers have not increased too much, I do find it increasingly harder to know exactly what is going on in every aspect of a project, notably detailed implementations and user studies.

Another timely topic is about politics.
The policies can become so complex that nobody really understands what is going on.
Thus, each voter knows only a tiny aspect of each political topic or candidate, and thus can form drastically different opinions from one another. This can be a scientific factor driving political polarization, even without other factors like social media. Fortunately, Monte Carlo sampling indicates that with enough (sufficiently independent) samples, the aggregate estimation can still be robust (low bias/variance).
For example, the US essentially has 100+ million votes for the presidency, which should give us confidence on the outcome, no matter how ridiculous it may look.

April 13, 2020

Church-state separation

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:48 am

Why the US is celebrating Easter, a Christian holiday, but not holidays of other regions or cultures, such as Holi, Ramadan, or Passover?

What does it mean for a non-Christian to put her hand on a holy Bible in a state ritual like court oath or citizenship ceremony?

National holidays should be centered on nations (e.g., Independence Day), not religions.

April 6, 2020

Pay for individual articles instead of whole publications

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:35 am

Recently I noticed a few interesting articles that I would like to read but are behind paywalls that asked me to subscribe to the encompassing publications.
Since not all articles of a given publication are of sufficient quality or interests to me, and different readers can have different preferences anyway, I wonder if it would make more sense to pay for individual articles instead of entire publications.
The publishers may be able to charge more per article and yet readers can choose to pay what they need.
The readers, writers and even advertisers can be better aligned, rewarding good individual writers and articles over bad ones.

Unbundling is already happening for music and academic papers, and could be more prevalent for news.

April 3, 2020

The pandemic world war

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:21 am
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When this is all over,
The disease will dissipate,
The economy will recover,
But the world order will be very different.

April 1, 2020

Peak Asian American

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:14 am
Tags: ,

This is the best time to be an Asian American.
Half a century before, it was better to be an American.
Half a century after, it would better to be an Asian.

December 28, 2019

Analogy of blog versus social network

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:01 am

Social networks are like loud parties, blogs are like quiet libraries.

June 8, 2018


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.

September 17, 2017

Devil in the house

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 2:39 pm
Tags: ,

You brought a devil into the house
It wants to leave
And takes your flesh

So just let it go

Teach yourself and your offspring well
So that none would not be fooled by the devil

Exercise your discipline
To await the devil to destroy itself

If you want to lure it back
Better yourself is the only way

July 21, 2017

Khan’s grave

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:19 am

He is neither nice nor stupid.

Why would he want to put himself in a situation where he has no control and subject to humiliation from his enemies?

You cannot find something that does not exist.
What you can find are probably some decoys or (worse) booby traps.

April 17, 2016

Hiring mistakes

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:43 pm
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Hiring PhD students is even harder than hiring employees because younger folks have more potential to grow.
And unlike an industry researcher who can let interns come and go, a university professor sticks with the students.

Two prior PhD applicants to HKU whom I passed on have turned out with outstanding performance.

One of them is still collaborating with me, so I did not regret as much. Actually, if he had not gone to another school we would not have access to some crucial hardware environment for our project, and his adviser might not have warmed back to SIGGRAPH. So I probably still made the right call.

I clearly have a lot to learn, and will have hundreds of cases to practice every year.

March 27, 2016

Equality versus fairness

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:05 am
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A CEO gets paid 100 times the average employee salary. It is definitely not equal. But is it fair? The answer depends on whether the CEO has contributed 100 times than the average employees.

It is not always easy to tell fairness from equality, but it is important not to confuse the two.

Fairness should be maintained, but it is unfair and counter-productive to enforce equality.

Algorithmic species

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:04 am
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Algorithms can already devise algorithms and write programs.

It is just a matter of time before they can do that in a scale massive enough to displace many, if not most, programming jobs, just like what robots have already done to the manufacturing jobs.

July 6, 2015


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:36 am
Tags: ,

I chose engineering over medicine as my college major, mainly because the engineers understand their systems much better than the biologists.

(Ever since as a kid I can sense that the doctors do not know what is really going on inside my body, so I try to fix myself as much as possible before my parents can drag me to a hospital. The most complex software system pales in comparison to the human bodies.)

But that is before I touched economics, which turned out to be even hackier. As Soros said, social systems are reflexive.

June 20, 2015

Apprenticeship in a Star Wars universe

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 11:46 am

The Jedi recruit those who are good enough.
They learn how to collaborate early on.
They graduate after passing tests, and let go otherwise.
They keep the universe in order most of the time.

The Sith recruits one (and only) who is the best.
He learns how to survive alone.
He graduates by defeating the master, or getting killed otherwise.
He remains low most of the time but eventually eliminates the entire Jedi order and conquers the whole universe.

April 16, 2015

Exponential ignorance

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:35 am

The ratio of collective over my knowledge is growing at an exponential rate. It feels like drowning.

Human evolution is too slow for and has yet to benefit from our recent technology advance. Some cybernetic or genetic intervention may save us.

April 10, 2015

Stop killing trees

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:41 pm

It is the 21st century. Please, send me electronic instead of paper documents.

Meanwhile, I wonder if there is a way to automatically bounce all incoming physical mails back to the original senders.

March 25, 2015


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.

March 7, 2015

Why living forever is probably a bad idea

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 11:51 am
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Even if under optimal physical, mental, and social status:

. It will eventually become very boring.

. One cannot participate in evolution and thus becomes inferior (barring technology like dynamic genetic splicing).

. If the universe eventually ends it will drag you down to some unknown horrible state.

Reincarnation, or some form of jumping between different intelligent species, seems much more fun.

July 17, 2014

Constructive criticism

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:29 pm
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Criticisms can help us improve, but only if they contain constructive information.

Some examples:

Useless criticism: this result is unacceptable.
Constructive criticism: this result is unacceptable because it contains this specific form of artifacts.

Useless criticism: this presentation is uninteresting.
Constructive criticism: this presentation is uninteresting because I do not care topic X and would rather hear more about topic Y.

As a recipient, I feel excited about constructive criticisms, even if they are harsh or contain personal attacks. In contrast, I usually ignore non-constructive comments because they provide nothing I can act upon.

Non-constructive criticisms are a waste of time at best, and look like whining at worst.

July 11, 2014

The best can succeed with those who are not

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 2:45 pm

I thought about James Simons every time Stony Brook was mentioned, so I always assume it is a perennially decent institution. Thus, I was surprised to find out its math department was “lousy” when Simons started there (and he wanted the job and it sounded like fun).

What we can do counts more than whom we are affiliated with.
Those who can succeed only with top people probably are not all that top.

[I would like to know how Simons built the department, aside from the fact that he is brilliant all by himself. Thanks in advance for potential sources.]

March 31, 2014


Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 6:28 pm
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Street noise
Is like a lullaby
For city boys

March 7, 2014

Double-edged sword

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:32 pm
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I found Bobby Fischer against the World a fascinating documentary about a particular kind of talent (chess) of a unique individual (Bobby Fischer, widely considered as the greatest chess player of all time who later self-destructed into an outcast) at a particular era (cold war, with chess being one of the competitions to showcase US/Soviet supremacy).

One interesting point pursued in the movie is about the specific type of brain that enables superior chess play may also cause certain psychological issues.
One can make a more general point in that unusual brains, as double-edged swords, can produce special talents as well as abnormal behaviors, as have been seen in geniuses across different disciplines such as musicians, artists, scientists, and mathematicians.

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

December 9, 2013

President Obama calls on every American to learn code

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 4:34 pm
Tags: ,

On one hand, like math, coding provides some fundamental training that should definitely be learned by everyone.

On the other hand, it is a design problem if everyone has to learn coding just to build or use software tools.

In the current state of computer science, it remains unclear (at least to me) which parts are fundamental materials and which parts are design artifacts. The former can be distilled into general teaching curriculum while the latter should be fixed.

Ideally, an entrepreneur with core knowledge in math and programming should be able to create his or her own applications without having to write a single line of code.
This is already happening in certain domains such as mobile app development.

October 1, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:12 pm
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are often caused by a lack of imagination

September 28, 2013

The Klingons

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 6:47 pm
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Imagine you are a Klingon warship commander. After going through some hyper-warp to arrive at an alternative space time, you find that all Klingons are in gentle servitude to humans.

This is what I felt about the HK technology industry as a SF bay area computer scientist.

If you are a Klingon in that alternative space time, work with that commander so that you will not turn into a pussy.

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.

Bureaucratic engineering

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 6:12 pm
Tags: ,

Doug Burger, my last MSR manager and a former UT professor, shared with me some very valuable personal experiences when I was heading the opposite way.

One of these, as quoted from him, is: there are pockets of inefficiencies in a school that are rarely seen in a company.

After witnessing some of such pockets myself (you are absolutely right, Doug), I realized that the right approach, as any good engineer would do, is to accommodate these inefficiencies into the design of my products and processes, so that I would not be negatively impacted under any circumstances. It is basically the same as, say, designing hardware processors which can tolerate a range of temperatures, and software interfaces which can deal with different user inputs.

Self: Good engineers never assume optimal conditions. Rather, they build things that can function under a wide range of possible scenarios.

I guess this could be a fundamentally different mentality from people with pure academic background.

September 23, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:33 pm
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I agree that there is enough inefficiency in the world that can allow really smart people to make a lot of money while having a lot of fun by moving things around.

But we all know the field is already quite crowded. Why do you want to just move things if you can create things? There is only a finite amount/variety of things to move, but infinite amount/variety to create.

To me, creating things is just more fun, even without the money factor. And you can make even more money if you can create the right things.

[Background: Most of the headhunter inquiries I have received since 2001 are about moving things instead of creating things, even though I have been spending my entire career in the latter. They said “my profile might fit”, but I never see why.]

August 3, 2013

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.

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.

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

June 16, 2013


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:54 am
Tags: , ,

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.

April 17, 2013

We are what we think we are

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:41 pm
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I heard some recent conversations among faculties about why they should not take the very top students because they might go somewhere else in the end.


If even you do not think you are the best, how could you make others believe in you?

I think I am as good as anyone out there, so my strategy is very simple: take (as my internal students) only those who are so good that I will regret for not taking. If they deflect to other places in the end, fine, because I will likely at least keep some of them. And even in the worst case I get no students, I can just single author SIGGRAPH papers. (I seriously miss the fun.) Or spend some time away living in Nepal. All these beat wasting time on not-so-good people, or worse, thinking I am one of them.

March 3, 2013


Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 6:46 pm
Tags: ,

A really beautiful woman can shine without makeup or enhancement12.
A truly capable man can function without job title or institution13.

1Replace man and woman above with unisex nouns if you like. I do not mean to be a sexist; the sentences just flow better.

2To sense whether that someone is for you, see her true self; wake up early on a Sunday morning, sneak beside her bed, and watch her sleep.

3I spent my early childhood listening to my grandparents’ stories on how they survived WW2 and how untrustworthy governments can be. I became one of the few in my (and younger) generation with this innate distrust of institutions. (Self psycho-analysis indicated this is a main source of my inclination towards individualism + self-reliance and my philosophical difficulty working in a company.) If you have no idea what I am talking about, try “Wealth, War and Wisdom” by Barton Biggs. (The book succeeded in conveying the sense of institutional distrust, even though I do not agree with all the points.)

December 27, 2012

Massive open online courses

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:40 am
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Finally, technology is turning its head towards one of the most important and yet archaic aspects of our civilization: education. I have been trying out these MOOC (e.g. Udacity and Coursera), and found them fascinating. I can understand why Sebastian Thrun decided to quit his tenured Stanford faculty job to startup Udacity.

This is going to totally shake the entire education sector. Schools not on the efficient frontier, especially those primarily focusing on teaching rather than research, are in the real danger of extinction.
Pretty soon, students will start to ponder between getting course certificates from Stanford versus getting real degrees from lesser schools.

The technology is no longer the issue. Stanford, if it wants, can already dish out an infinite number CS master degrees annually. The real question is prestige; Stanford is valued precisely because it is a scarce resource. How MOOC and prestige will play out remains an interesting event to watch for.

My efficient frontier theory

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:35 am
Tags: ,

(Look up the term “efficient frontier” if you need, even though I am going to abuse it because I could not figure out a better alternative; “local-maximum” comes close, but it does not catch the multi-dimensional aspect.)

The world is becoming increasingly fair and competitive; fair in the sense that people now have more equal opportunities than ever to succeed due to technological shifts; competitive in the sense that it is also more likely than ever for the winners to take all.

Position yourself on the efficient frontier for whatever you care, such as school, job, skill set, etc. Otherwise, someone else who can dominate you nearer the frontier will have you for lunch.

It is not going to be easy. Everybody wants to rule the world. But do what you love + strike for the best is probably your best bet. In contrast, trend following will only put you into a crowded competition.

October 17, 2012

Party like a panda

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:21 am
Tags: ,

(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).

July 31, 2012

The blindness of post

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 5:02 pm

Today I realized an analogy between academic peer review and social post.

The usual academic peer review processes are either single- or double-blind, depending on whether the reviewers know the author identities.
(The reviewer identities are almost always blind to the authors.)

Social posts can also be classified as being either none- or single-blind, depending on whether the authors know the (potential) identities of the readers. For example, blogs are single-blind because they are usually public and readers do not have to reveal their identities, whereas twitter and Facebook are none-blind because authors explicit know (and can even control through privacy policy) the readership.

The blindness policy has great influence on both peer review and social post.

For example, studies on peer review have shown that knowing the author identities can increase potential biases (e.g. favoring well known authors) but also increase courtesy (e.g. being more polite in the reviews).

Given the multiple venues of social posting, I am pretty sure authors also behave differently for different venues, and conversely, choose the proper venue for the intended behavior.
In my personal case, I usually use twitter and Facebook for quick and fun thoughts that I really want to share, and blog for materials that are longer, more controversial, with narrower appeal, or those that I just feel like writing down without really caring who and if anyone will actually read (like this post).

March 29, 2012


Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 7:33 pm
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God is in the details
Devil is in the details
So which one will be there
When we look into the details

March 23, 2012


Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 7:03 pm
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Dear Chinese government:

According to the following statistics, 50% of Chinese men smoke, consuming one-third of the world’s cigarettes.

As you can imagine, this is a significant drag-down of the Chinese national power, given the well known facts about health hazards caused by smoking.

Please put your authoritarian power in good use and ban smoking outright. No, not just in public places, but illegalize cigarettes all together.
Unlike the dysfunctional democracies like America who have to listen to tobacco lobbyists, you have no such baggage. And I am pretty sure no Chinese tobacco kingpin is more powerful than Bo Xilai, whom you sacked with such ease and grace just last week.

You can easily bankrupt the world’s tobacco industry by eliminating one-third of their revenues. This will go down as one of the major achievements in human history.

The last dynasty, Qing, in a much weaker state, had the gut to ban opium. I am pretty sure China is strong enough now to win a second opium war even if some foreign imperial power is stupid enough to start one.

Sincerely yours.

March 20, 2012


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

Humans seem to have so much trouble accepting the nature of death that they need to come up with all kinds of alternatives like after-life and reincarnation.

“Hell is a place where nothing connects to nothing” – T.S. Elliot

March 3, 2012


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:31 am
Tags: ,

Recently I read two good articles about ageism in innovation and entrepreneurship.

The first one, from San Francisco magazine titled “Dark side of the boom”, is really about the dark side of the youth entrepreneurship myth in the valley.

The second one, from The Economist, is about the fact that statistically older people are no less innovative or enterprising than the young.

It is actually not just about the valley or the entrepreneurship. Our cultures, especially the American one, seem to have this mysterious but unfortunate tendency to encourage early success. It is as though success at a young age is a certificate of life long achievement. Child prodigy can be a sign of true genius, but can also be a simple consequence of precocity, a premature biological cycle. Perhaps the most harmful situation is when unnatural forces are applied to fake a genius out of an ordinary individual.

Take your time; it is true that life is short and should not be wasted, but a lot of things simply need time to mature and cannot be rushed, no matter how smart you are.

February 24, 2012


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 11:15 pm

The Knicks, even during their best times (within my living memory), are one of these teams earning privileges to be knocked out by Michael Jordan in the playoffs.

Now, thanks to Jeremy Lin, their games are watched and followed by fans all over the world, many of who with little prior basketball experiences.
It is just amazing to see how an individual can galvanize a great city still recovering from two major blows (9/11 and the financial crisis), as well as a major ethnic group that has previous been stereotyped as not fit for sports that require grace and coordination.

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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.)

November 20, 2011


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 7:36 pm
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Let me begin by outlining a few basic laws of nature.

Resources are scarce, with scarcity proportional to relative supply and demand.

People tend to consider themselves better than they really are (and thus deserve better than what they currently have).

The universe is stochastic, and unfortunately people like to imagine life is more deterministic than it really is. (Heck, even Einstein refused to believe God will throw dice.)

As a consequence, when people cannot get what they want, they complain about injustice, and question the fairness of the process that allocates the scarce resources.

Unfortunately, none of these will not help or change anything. People will just think you are a whiner. And do not even attempt to ask why you did not get what you want; you are forcing people to either tell you a white lie (e.g. you are really good; it is just that we cannot figure out a good task for you to do right now) or be impolite (e.g. dude, you really have no idea how lousy your performance was?) or to confess they really have no clue (e.g. huh, we cannot really decide between you and another candidate, so we picked the taller one).

Specifically, under a lot of situations, the decision depends on a lot of factors. For example, there is this famous thing called *affirmative action* in the US that discourages discrimination in job and school opportunities. The intention is all good, until people start to enforce hard quotas, like reserving a certain percentage of openings to a certain group of (alleged) minority. Then, if the real application pool does not contain that percentage of qualified minorities, the process will deem to hire a minority with inferior ability than certain more qualified majority. You can say it is not fair, but that is how things work.
Sometimes it can just be random; with hundreds or even thousands of applications for a certain opening, it is just information overload to for anyone to decide who is really good.

My personal suggestion is to stop worrying all of these, and use the rejection or denial as a source of motivation. Prove to the world that they are wrong, and you are the best.
Getting dumped by your ex? Shine yourself to make him/her regret next time you meet.
Getting rejected by a job application? Outperform whoever got hired instead of you.
Did not get permission to your dream school or professor? Publish better research papers than his/her group.

These being said, I really want to tell whoever applied to be my student: thank you all very much, but since I have received hundreds of applications and I can take probably only 2 (or maybe one more if I can muscle with the department), mathematically it is impossible for me to take everyone I like. Evaluating the quality of a student is more art than science, so I rely mostly on my intuition. If you really want to force an answer out of me, the only thing I can say is that my intuition told me that there are better and more suitable candidates than you. But can I prove it? Heck no, and I doubt if anyone can.

September 23, 2011


Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 10:27 am
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Imagine a world where all resources are unlimited. Everything has infinite supplies and free to access like air. Everyone can live forever without aging, disease, injuries, fears, or any forms of constraints.

What would it be like? Do you think it is heaven, or hell?

Life is worth living precisely because it is finite and every resource is limited.

August 20, 2011

Chinks on the armor

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:23 pm
Tags: ,

Two landmark stores in my neighborhood Borders (Palo Alto) and Andronico (Stanford), closed shops recently.

I used to think that the Bay Area is so different from the rest of the America (and the rest of the world). It is the cream of the crop. It seems invulnerable. It felt almost nothing has changed, even after the dot com bubble, which it triggered. When America and the rest of the world set into recession after 2008, it managed to come up with a bubble on social networks. Companies are still hiring, and well paid jobs are plenty. It even landed several friends of mine who recently graduated from top Asian schools.

But I am not so sure now. The closure of these 2 shops, which I thought will be there forever, just felt different. Something has changed.
Are those the natural parts of relentless creative destructions, or signs of more ominent things to come?

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.

November 23, 2010


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 1:27 pm
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A few nights ago I went to a local Polish restaurant for dinner.

I booked it online only half an hour before the reservation time. (It was a cold raining night and I was looking for something warm and potentially exotic, and it is not uncommon for me to make snap decisions.) Upon arrival, the hostess, after flipping through a stack of fax papers, told me that she could not find my reservation. So they sit me in the high stool bar area. Obviously it is a newly opened restaurant; they do not have a computer reservation system (and thus receiving online bookings through a fax machine which obviously can drop your reservations especially those made on short notice) or even a cash register (they used pocket calculators and locked their cash in a small iron treasure box). They are obviously under-staffed; the host and hostess are the only people serving tables, and they are so obviously overwhelmed that I can see the later’s frustration through the white eyes she gave to the former. And not surprisingly, it took about eons to get my orders taken.

And yet this turned out to be my best dining experience in recent memory. Their kitchen did not seem to be understaffed as they churned out food pretty efficiently. Nor are they under-skilled; in fact, the dishes are very delicious, and surprisingly similar to the Taiwanese food in a good way. But the best part is the overall ambiance. Many of the guests are Polish (or at least Eastern European); this is not only a testament to the authenticity of the food but also gives the restaurant a local cozy family style warm and yet a bit foreign and exotic feeling. Furthermore, since I sit in the bar area, I can clearly see the inner workings of the hosts: how they cut the bread, calculate bills (using pocket calculators), pack to-go boxes, unlock/lock their treasure chest, pour wines, and show exasperations.

I did not fully realize why I like that Polish restaurant so much until another dining experience in a French restaurant. It is also a good restaurant with excellent ambiance and Ok food, but somehow the staff, by speaking in fake French accent, turned me off. After some analysis, I realized the key reason is pretentiousness. I am not sure if it is just me, but there is something genuinely charming about seeing people behave in their simple, direct, and natural manners. If a restaurant is understaffed, I would love to see them overwhelmed and exchange white eyes. And if you are obviously not French, I would find it very unnatural to hear a fake French accent.

Upon further analysis, it dawned on me that it also has a lot to do with the fact that I like to read people. I have a pretty good intuition on what people are thinking and feeling, and what kinds of personalities they have. And years of experience taught me that how trust-worthy people are and how well I can get along with them is positively correlated to how well I can read them. In particular, if someone tries to resist my reading, it is usually a sign that he or she is trying to hide something. And that is usually not a good sign according to my empirical evidence.

P.S. Here is the info for that Polish restaurant. If you are around the Bay Area, I highly recommend giving it a try. Just do not make reservation on a short notice unless you happen to also like sitting in the high stool bar area.

Bona Polish Restaurant
651-H Maloney Street, Menlo Park, CA 94025

September 19, 2010

China’s one-child policy

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:43 pm
Tags: ,

Among all the major policy mistakes the Chinese government has made over the last century, I would say the one-child policy hurts the most, much more than the culture revolution, great leap forward, and various others. It is true that over-population can be a problem, but it can be better addressed by sounder policies. It could even be naturally resolved by market economy and Darwinian competition. As evident in other places such as Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, excessive population growth over economic capacity will eventually cause lower birth rate. Forcing every family to have at most one child takes away the natural force of competition, resulting in less fit offspring not only in the Darwinian sense but also other problems such as gender disparity and potential spoils a single child is likely to receive from his or her family.

An even more serious problem is that China’s population growth rate already falls below 2 children per family (see an excellent article here). Population is power, especially in this age of knowledge economy. Japan is a vivid example of how much damage a shrinking population can do to a country’s economy and overall strength. One of India’s main competitive advantages over China is actually its growing population (aside from democracy, English speaking, and friendlier relationships with the Europeans and American, all much more ephemeral factors in my opinion; see an excellent article here).

In some sense, population growth is like monetary growth; neither too much nor too little is good. But deflation is much worse than inflation.

If the Chinese economy follows the path of the Japanese, it will be a disaster not only for China but the entire world. It is time to abolish this communist-era thinking, and write off the one-child policy into the history book.

August 7, 2010

Life as loan

Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 10:56 am
Tags: , ,

Recently I read about an interesting point, in the context of usury and debt interest payments under the Catholic and Sharia laws, that life is a loan from God and thus (just like all loans) will have to be repaid one day.

I am not religious but I have found this an interesting mental exercise: if life is indeed a loan and one day we have to pay it back (to God) with principle plus interests, what the latter would be? In other words, what kinds of values do we have to add to our lives (for the sake of interest payments)? For simplicity, let us assume life is like a zero-coupon bond and everything is paid back in the end (of the life).

July 19, 2010


Filed under: Imaginary — liyiwei @ 4:09 pm

To me, Chinese is more of an art than a language, and most Chinese literature, especially these classical ones, cannot be translated to another language without losing their original beauty and meaning.

Below is a modern short poem (fragment?) that I have found to be more or less translatable without being sacrilegious.
(Let me know if you have a better translation; I cannot even make it rhyme.)

The day Mother suffered

A poem by Guan-Chun Yu

In this life
Twice I cried my heart out

Once at the beginning of my life
The other at the end of yours

The first one I cannot remember but you told me so
The second one you cannot know even if I tell you

But between these two cries
Are endless laughs

That has been going on and on
For 30 years

January 7, 2010

Rules and laws

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 9:47 pm
Tags: ,

Break all the rules, but not a single law.

November 17, 2009


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:07 pm
Tags: ,

China was ruled by one emperor; American is ruled by one million lawyers.

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