October 2004 Archives

my life as a suburban mom

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Yesterday I wore a lot of hats--grateful Al-Anon member at a morning meeting, best friend and workout partner at the gym, politicking faculty member in a chance encounter with an administrator, appreciative daughter sipping her mom's chicken soup, chauffeur to kids for swimming, Japanese, and cello lessons. I would have been happy to collapse into bed quietly last night, but that wasn't an option, because last night was also Alex's birthday party.

We started out at a local arcade establishment, where the kids got tokens to spend on machines, as well as pizza and cake. Because Gerald is friends with the owner, the kids also got to ride for free on the go-karts there--and I went as well. What fun! I had never tried that as a kid, but enjoyed the pedal-to-the-metal hairpin turns enormously this time. We then brought home with us not only our two kids, but five more boys ages 8-10, who spent the night camped out in our living room.

This morning we did tag-team parenting--Gerald got up early to cook pancakes, while I slept in until 9 (around here, that's very late indeed). Then he went off to run errands and hit the gym while I supervised the seven boisterous boys. Between 9:30 and 11:30 all but one were picked up by parents. And a few minutes ago, my two left with the final guest--they're off to his nearby house to play video games.

So here I am, in the eye of the parenting storm. It's still and quiet now, and I can hear myself think for a few minutes. But tonight is Halloween, and the energy level will be building again between now and then.

For over seven years now, I've lived in a neighborhood that is much like the one I grew up in back in Buffalo. The kids are close-knit, the parents are friendly. We know each other, we have a sense of community. Halloween is a practiced ritual--our kids will don costumes (my boys are ninjas this year) and band together around 6 (aided by the earlier darkness that arrived with last night's time change), with a number of parental delegates tagging along behind. They'll careen from house to house, squealing with delight over the rare house that gives out full-size candy bars, and grousing about those who toss them a scant handful of boring hard candies. Meanwhile, we parents will lurk on the sidewalks, occasionally shouting a reminder to say thank you, or not to trample flower beds.

By 8 or so they'll be worn out from running, and tired of carrying their bags. They'll make one last stop at the neighbors who are famous for giving out self-contained drinks rather than candy (heavy, but welcome after a long night of walking), and will retreat to their houses to dump their bags of treats on the floor and sort them out. There's the "eat it now" pile, of course. Along with the "save for later" and "maybe I can trade it" piles. There's the "who on earth would eat this?" pile, and--if I'm lucky--a "give it to mom" collection. (They know my favorites, and they also know there are long-term benefits to keeping mom happy.)

After we've looked over the piles and given our blessing (we've never had safety problems with candy around here, but we still always check), they'll devour as much as they can, inevitably getting to the point where they feel ill. And then, as the sugar wears off, they'll crash--hard--and hopefully sleep late tomorrow.

I've not been online much this weekend, because being a mom on a weekend like this is more than a full-time job. But it's worth the time and energy it takes. I'm very, very grateful for the sense of community we have here, the fact that I know my kids' friends, and their parents...that I know my neighbors, and the school principal, and the owner of the local arcade. It's a good life that we have here.

fabulous lunar eclipse photos

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Taken by Amy Desiree Goldstein, a biomedical photography student at RIT (we have a world-class photo program here).

Lunar Eclipse

rit-it election night party

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Yes, we're having a party!

On Tuesday night, Elouise Oyzon and I are hosting a party in the IT conference room (70-2400). We'll have two projectors going--one with an IRC chat so that people can participate from the comfort of their own homes, and one with either streaming video from the web or broadcast TV (we're waiting to find out if there's a live coax jack in there).

We'd love to have you there--while you're welcome to yell and scream at the screens, however, we do ask that you refrain from abusing attendees who might not share your political leanings.

So don't sit home alone, watching the results trickle in all by yourself. Come join us--preferably in real-time, but at the very least in irc.

(Planned channel is irc://irc.freenode.net/#ritparty ; you can use a dedicated IRC client to connect, or you can use Mozilla--just type the URL into Mozilla and it will launch the appropriate software and connect you.)

As for refreshments, we'll collect $ for pizza and drinks, or you can bring your own food if you're broke. But given the glass walls of the room, it might be best not to bring any alcoholic beverages. :)

please vote

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What if you show up to vote next Tuesday and election workers say you are not registered?

  1. Make sure you are at the correct voting precinct. You can check at My Polling Place or call 1-866-OUR-VOTE for assistance.
  2. If you are at the correct polling place and officials claim you are not registered, request a provisional ballot. It's your right under the law.

Please pass this on to as many people as you can.

(via Political Wire)

snap, crackle, glow


Last night I had a wonderful workout at the gym with my best friend Weez, followed by a nice soak in RIT's new hot tub. When I got home and stepped out of my car, I could smell wood smoke from a neighbor's house, and could see the brightly colored leaves up and down the street illuminated by porch lamps. I took a few minutes to soak that up, feeling about as lucky as I ever have.

As I drove to work this morning, the sun was coming up over the multi-colored trees, and mist was hanging over the river and ponds that I passed. There's a hint of frost on the ground in the shady areas, and I could see my breath in front of my face when I got out of my car. (No photos, alas; I didn't bring the camera with me.)

Fall has always been my favorite season--I love the crisp air, the take-your-breath-away blue skies, the luminous oranges, yellows, and reds of hardwood leaves. I know that the shortening days and intermittently gray skies make fall a depressing time for some, but for me fall has always felt alive with possibilities. As a "faculty brat," my household always buzzed in the fall; that buzz followed me through college, grad school, and now life as an academic. Fall is a time of new classes, new ideas, new students, new projects. It's excitement and discovery and renewal. And for those of us lucky enough to be in the northeast, it's accompanied by this perfect weather--perfect for sleeping, for thinking, for walking, for playing. Cool days, crisp nights. Bliss.

andrew sullivan: why i'm voting for kerry

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If you're a conservative planning to vote for Bush (and I know there are some of you out there), I'm asking you--as a personal favor to me, in exchange for any value or pleasure you may have received from this blog--to read this column by Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan is far from a liberal standard-bearer, or member of the "vast left-wing liberal media conspiracy." He's an honest-to-goodness conservative, one who supported Bush in 2000 and then supported the decision to go to war in Iraq. But he's decided that Bush is the wrong choice this year, and he's got specifics to back up his decision.

Here's an excerpt. Read the whole thing. Please.

I should reiterate: I do not hate this president. I admire him in many ways--his tenacity, his vision of democracy, his humor, his faith. I have supported him more than strongly in the last four years--and, perhaps, when the dangers seemed so grave, I went overboard and willfully overlooked his faults because he was the president and the country was in danger. I was also guilty of minimizing the dangers of invading Iraq and placed too much faith, perhaps, in the powers of the American military machine and competence of the Bush administration. Writers bear some responsibility too for making mistakes; and I take mine. But they bear a greater responsibility if they do not acknowledge them and learn. And it is simply foolish to ignore what we have found out this past year about Bush's obvious limits, his glaring failures, his fundamental weakness as a leader. I fear he is out of his depth and exhausted. I simply do not have confidence in him to navigate the waters ahead skillfully enough to avoid or survive the darkening clouds on the horizon.

(via KF)

a suburbanite responds

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<vent>Having just returned from a several-day stay in smog-shrouded, traffic-clogged LA, I have to admit to a bit of irritation reading about Molly's upcoming presentation at Design Engaged: "All Hail the Vast, Conforming Suburb of the Soul."

I happen to be one of the "commuting parents in minivans" she's referring to, and I find her somewhat condescending tone quite troubling. It's not just Molly--I see the same thinly-veiled contempt in the comments of many urbanites. (I was equally put off by danah's post on the "wal-mart nation" some time ago.)

I live in a suburb, own a minivan, and don't fit many of the stereotypes that city-dwellers want to ascribe to me. I love cities, but I have two small kids and a single income. In the suburbs of a small city, I get the following advantges:

  • Beautiful 1800sf four-bedroom colonial house with large yard, two-car garage, swimming pool, full basement, sidewalks for bicycles and excellent public school district--for a whopping $114,000 (8 years ago; it hasn't appreciated by more than about $20K, I'd guess)
  • Streets and sidewalks with limited traffic and alert neighbors, so my kids can ride bikes and explore nearby creeks
  • Friendly neighbors who help each other out in crises, wave to each other while mowing lawns, and keep an eye on each other's homes
  • A six mile, ten-minute 'commute' to work, which means I spend more time with family
  • A neighborhood school with a mix of socio-economic levels where the principal knows us all by name, and where most of the parents are actively involved

It's also the case that interesting culture isn't limited to major urban areas. Rochester has a wealth of good music and art--from an excellent philharmonic orchestra to the Eastman House.

Reading posts like these from women I generally respect and enjoy makes it easier for me to understand why those awful "Back to Vermont" ads from the Republican Coalition for Change were so appealing to people in the "red states." It played right into the backlash that urban contempt for suburbia creates.

I'll tell you what...you stop labeling me and my lifestyle as boring and homogenous, and I'll refrain from labeling you as effete and out-of-touch, mmkay?</vent>

textual gratification

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I met both my husbands online. The first on a DC-area BBS called TMMABBS (Terry Monks' Macintosh Apple BBS), and the second on a FidoNet echo. In both cases, I fell in love with the prose before I met the person. And also in both cases, their ability to speak as well as they wrote and to engage in verbal banter sealed the deal.

I don't know how typical that is, but after a conversation with a friend this weekend who mentioned how instrumental IM had been in the start of one of his relationships, I realized that I'm certainly not unique in having this particular weakness. There's something about well-crafted text that just does more for me than six-pack abs (not that the latter is necessarily a bad thing, mind you...).

I don't read FidoNet echos anymore, but I do read blogs--and am still as delighted by good writing there as I was when I encountered it on bbs's and mailing lists. And now I add to that tools like IM and IRC, which give me real-time textual gratification. While I'm completely uninterested in tools like Skype (I avoid most voice communication, other than face-to-face, like the plague), I love IM. I love the way it lends itself to banter, to creative exchange, to plays on words. (I'm happily married now, and so my interests and needs have shifted a bit...but just as I don't mind watching handsome actors on TV, I also enjoy watching skilled writers show off their talents.)

In my IM and IRC use I've resisted the move to increasing brevity, to the SMS-speak that's gaining such popularity among my students. There doesn't seem to be a lot of nuance in phrases like r u ok, or s^ (which my son had to teach me is shorthand for "what's up"). Yes, I let an occasional "LOL" slip into my communication, but not much more than that.

Written language has a long history in flirtation and courtship...I worry a bit that mobile culture and its focus on speed and efficiency will lead to the death of seductive prose. Although I suppose I'm simply part of a continuing stream of elders who express that kind of worry about every new technology, from typewriters to SMS. Damn. Now I feel old. <sigh>

waiting for my midnight plane to georgia

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Yes, I'm taking the redeye home tonight--my flight leaves for Atlanta at 11:56pm.

Happily, I'm not stuck in LAX right now, perched on an uncomfortable chair near an impossible-to-find-outlet, paying by the hour for wifi. Instead, I'm in a soft, comfy chair at the Westin near LAX, taking advantage of Simon Phipps' hospitality--we're sharing the network connection over his Airport Express, and I'm streaming Genius Loves Company over it to his portable speakers.

We had a lovely day today. First we went to the Apple Store at the Grove, and then had a nice brunch at a nearby restaurant and did some retail therapy at the Nordstroms next door.

From there, we drove south until we got to Long Beach (Allan, so sad you're not around this weekend!), which was more polluted and less picturesque than I'd hoped. It didn't satisfy my ocean craving very well, so we headed north to Santa Monica instead.

Arlington WestWhen we got to the beach near the pier, the first thing we saw was a memorial to soldiers killed in the Iraq War. It's a temporary memorial, put up every Sunday by volunteers.
Memorial Signs There's one cross (and some stars and crescents) for each soldier killed. There's also a posted list of all the names of those killed, and photos of each.

They provide pieces of paper and pens, as well as rubber bands and fresh flowers, and ask people to write the name of a soldier on the paper, and then use the rubberbands to attach the name and the flower to the crosses.

Boy at Memorial DCP_2881.JPGI wrote the name of one young man, and attached it to a white cross, along with a red flower. Then I watched as many other people did the same thing. It was clearly an emotional moment for many of them. It certainly was for me.

Santa Monica sunsetThe rest of the afternoon was more cheerful, however. We wandered the pier for a while, then had a nice dinner at a restaurant there, and watched the sun set over the beach--which wasn't spectacular, but was still quite pretty. Then we headed over the Westin, and I'll catch a shuttle to the airport soon.

Simon in Santa MonicaI'm so glad Simon and I ended up with a free day in the same place at the same time--it was a lovely way to spend a sunny Sunday, and I'm feeling relaxed, refreshed, and ready to head home (even if it is on the redeye).

ichat synchronicity

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I had a lovely dinner last night in LA's Chinatown with Annenberg grad student Richard Hodkinson, which reminded me of how much fun it is to spend informal social time with people who share some of my intellectual passions.

When I got back to my room, I started thinking about how I was going to get to the ocean on Sunday--it would be criminal to fly to LA and see nothing but sidewalks and conference rooms. I was feeling sad that so few of my LA-based friends were in town this weekend, and that I wouldn't have someone to chat and banter with as I wandered.

Before I turned the computer off, though, I took a quick look at my buddy list, and discovered that my good friend Simon Phipps, with whom I almost never cross paths in the real world, had an iChat status line that read "Ventura, CA".

For those of you who don't know California, Ventura is just north of LA--about an hour away in light traffic. I immediately pinged Simon, and discovered that not only was he there, but that he also had all day Sunday free before flying to a business meeting on Monday. Woohoo!

So later this morning he's going to drive down to LA, pick me up at the hotel, and we're off to play at the Apple Store (I've never been to one, can you believe it?) and the shore.

To me, that's the best part of social software. Not the use of the tools themselves, but the way they facilitate opportunities in the "real world." Without IRC and AIM at the symposium, I probably wouldn't have ended up having dinner with Richard. And without the tagline on Simon's iChat account, I'd never have known that we were close enough on this trip to actually spend time together. But because of those social software tools, my trip to LA has been immeasurably enriched.

i love the internets

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Via defective yeti:

Person 1: Knock knock.

Person 2: Who's there?

Person 1: Control freak.

Person 1: Now you say "control freak who?"

happy 2nd blogiversary to me!

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It seems appropriate that on the 2nd anniversary of my starting my blog I'm moderating a workshop on social software in academic contexts.

I'm in the middle of dinner at a wonderful workshop at USC, but I wanted to take a moment to wish myself a happy 2nd blogiversary, and to reflect back on two years that have brought astonishing changes in both my personal and my professional lives.

Thank you so much for being a part of this change in my life.

nifty powerpoint feature


On the rare occasions that I use Powerpoint in the classroom, I generally have my computer set to mirror the display on the projection unit--so I see the same thing on my laptop as the students do on the wall screens.

Today, however, I was previewing some slides while my computer was hooked up to an external monitor, and I discovered an awesome feature of the current version of Powerpoint for the Mac. On my external monitor, I got the expected slide display. But on my laptop monitor, I got this nifty screen:


Very, very cool. I get a timer in the top left corner, the surrounding slides on the left so I can see where I am in the presentation, any notes associated with the slide at the bottom, an "up next" version of the slide so I'll know what happens if/when I click, and clearly visible arrows to click to move forward or backwards through the presentation. Color me impressed.

If you haven't read the NYT Magazine's lengthy profile of President Bush, I highly recommend it. One portion that's been widely quoted, and has become somewhat of a rallying point for Democratic bloggers, is this:

The [senior Bush] aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you." When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, "Look, I'm not going to debate it with you."

I'm sure that there are people who could read this profile of Bush and see in it much to admire--his faith, his decisiveness, his leadership, etc. But what I see frightens me, deeply. The messianic rhetoric, the impatience with facts (and the "reality based community" that cares about them), the inability to tolerate debate or challenge--these are not qualities that I want in my leader.

When I hear people talk about their support for Bush, I seldom hear them talk about his policies--his impact on the environment, on civil rights, on health, on social issues, on foreign policy (not just the war), on massive job losses and shrinking salaries, on the ballooning federal deficit. Instead, they talk about his personal characteristics--his leadership, his personable demeanor, his commitment to his faith.

But as John Perry Barlow points out, "Whatever it has been traditionally, this Presidential race should not be a personality contest. I say this as much to myself to myself as I do to you. I have to snap out of it and remember we are not electing our new best friend here." Do I like Kerry? I don't know. I've never met him. And at the end of the day, I don't really care if I like him as a person. What I care about is the direction in which he leads this country.

What I want in a president is someone who doesn't hire people like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and other dirty tricksters and corporate apologists. I want someone who cares about civil rights, who understands that the US doesn't have (literally) a god-given right to dictate what's right and what's wrong worldwide, who won't allow corporations to destroy our environment, who won't fill the supreme court with justices who oppose a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body, who won't try to pass a "Defense of Marriage" amendment to the constitution that forbids marriage between two people who love each other and who happen to be of the same physical sex, who won't criticize "tax and spend" liberals while at the same time racking up record job losses and budget deficits.

If you've already made your decision about who you're voting for next month, I doubt that anything I write here will change your mind. But if you're an undecided voter, PLEASE take the time to learn about the candidate's stands on issues that you care about. Public Agenda's web site has issue guides on a wide range of topics that might matter to you. The Washington Post, NPR, CNN, and Issues 2000 all have sites that compare Bush and Kerry's stances on key issues. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the candidate's stances on the issues. Then make your decision based on policies, not personalities.


as seen in today's doonesbury

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Was the pre-emptive military strike to remove Saddam in America's best interest? That is a question that receives a sharply divided response in our country with the trend being against the pre-emptive military action we launched. I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition. The cost in casualties is already large and growing, and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible. Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened. From the beginning of the conflict it was doubtful that we for long would be seen as liberators, but instead increasingly as an occupying force. Now we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess and there is no easy and quick way to end our responsibilities in Iraq without creating bigger future problems in the region and, in general, in the Muslim world.

   - Nebraska Congressman Doug Bereuter in the Lincoln Journal Star

(Bereuter, a Republican, will step down from his 1st Congressional District seat effective Sept. 1 after 26 years in the in the House of Representatives.)

voter registration fraud in nevada


According to a news station in Las Vegas, a private voter registration group funded by the RNC recruited new voters outside malls and grocery stores in Nevada, then tore up and threw away the Democratic registration forms.

Two former workers say they personally witnessed company supervisors rip up and trash registration forms signed by Democrats.

"We caught her taking Democrats out of my pile, handed them to her assistant and he ripped them up right in front of us. I grabbed some of them out of the garbage and she tells her assisatnt to get those from me," said Eric Russell, former Voters Outreach employee.

Eric Russell managed to retrieve a pile of shredded paperwork including signed voter registration forms, all from Democrats. We took them to the Clark County Election Department and confirmed that they had not, in fact, been filed with the county as required by law.

Amazing. Outrageous. Infuriating.

Is this the party that you want in charge of our country? If not, make sure your voter registration is properly recorded, and be sure to vote on November 2nd.

today's political propaganda

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I am truly appalled by Sinclair Broadcasting's plan to use their television stations nationwide to broadcast Bush campaign propaganda--under the guise of it being "news." You should be, too. This kind of abuse of corporate power is a hallmark of the current adminstration, and it disgusts me.

Like many others, I plan to boycott advertisers on my local Sinclair station, Fox Rochester. And I'll be calling the station, and its major advertisers, to tell them that.

On a lighter note, when I lived in Alabama I developed an unexpected taste for country music, and I particularly like this new song, Takin' My Country Back. Worth a listen.

irresponsible parenting has its rewards

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We took the kids and a friend to Letchworth State Park (south of Rochester) yesterday, and I took a lot of photos. It's hard to resist, especially at this time of year.

At the south end of the park, above the Upper Falls, there's a railroad bridge called the Portage Bridge. It's a working bridge, and as such is of course off-limits. It's up pretty high, too, as you can see.

Portage Bridge

When the boys questioned me about the "No Trespassing" sign, I assured them that it referred only to cars, and we made our way up onto the trestle. There were plenty of other people up there, as well...we weren't the only trespassers, by a long shot. And before you get too worried, there's plenty of space on either side of the tracks--if a train had happened to come by, it would have been very scary but not deadly.

Boys on Bridge

The reason the boys look so excited and happy is because of the view that we had from the bridge (not to mention the pockets full of pebbles they tossed down into the river gorge).

View of River

So yes, I broke the law. But it was worth it. And the whole day was a great reminder of how beautiful an area we live in.

(If you want to see all the photos from the day, I've put them in a Flickr Photoset.)

all about al-anon

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Now that I've been in Al-Anon for a little while, I'm starting to find a lot of comfort not only in the steps of the program but also in the rhythm of the meetings themselves. I find that if I go more than a week without attending one (I usually go 2-3x/week) that I can feel the difference in my mood and attitude. I was explaining to my kids this week why I go, and what we talk about, and I realized that most people don't know...so here's a beginner's guide to Al-Anon meetings. I've not found much about meetings and what they're like anywhere online, and I wonder sometimes if more people might be willing to go if they had a better sense of what it would be like. (The official Al-Anon site does have information for newcomers, but the information is embedded in graphics that require javascript to display, which makes them pretty inaccessible. :/ )

i'm going to greece!


So, the mystery birthday gift from my mom to my son yesterday was tickets for a trip to Athens over Thanksgiving--and I'm going, too!

We leave November 18th, return on the 25th. And I am so excited! I've never been to Greece (although I did spend a year in Malta as a teenager, while my dad was on sabbatical).

Suggestions, ideas, etc are more than welcome. I'd love to go see the monasteries in Metéora, but I'm not sure it we can manage to fit it in. (Anybody know how long the bus ride from Athens is? Or how scary/dangerous/difficult the driving would be if we rented a car?)

happy birthday, alex!

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Today is my younger son's birthday--he's eight years old! I'll be rushing home after teaching today for a special family dinner, where he'll get a super-secret-special present from his grandma that I can write about later tonight.


If you want to send him birthday greetings, he's alex at his-last-name dot net. (make the obvious substitutions...)



David already listed the remarkable amount of swag that the Microsoft Search team provided to the "Search Champs"--but he left before the final bonus, which was a $120 gift certificate at the Microsoft company store. w00t!

I bought a new Bluetooth mouse, which I wasn't sure would work with my Mac...but it does, perfectly. I've mapped some of the thumb buttons to Exposé, which is amazingly convenient. My trackpad has been causing some thumb pain for me recently, so this will be a really useful acquisition.

I also picked up a pile of gifts for the kids, for colleagues, and even for myself. Lots of books and branded merchandise, rather than software, since RIT has an academic alliance license and a site licensing agreement that get me all the MS software I need.

Tonight I'm off to the blogger/geek dinner in Bellevue, and tomorrow I'll head back home. All in all, it's been a very interesting and enjoyable trip.

msr presentations to search champs

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Susan Dumais from MSR is our first presenter today, and explicitly released what she's showing from the NDA. Yay!

She's showing some really nifty stuff, including a personalized search tool that lets you do a web search, then drag a slider to make the results more customized based on what your local computer knows about you. It's a split screen result, so you see the original results on the left, and the increasingly personalized results on the right. Very, very cool.

I spoke with her last night about some of my feeling that what I want from search is to be able to find things that are important, which for me means being alerted if things that are typically similar suddenly diverge, or if things that are typically very different suddenly overlap. (I wrote about this on M2M some time ago, in a piece called The Power of Overlap.)

Susan is followed by Eric Brill. He's talking about how it's often difficult for users to extract the relevant information/answer from a larger document in search results. Information-centric search" rather than "document-centric search." He shows some "AnswerBot" technologies that let you ask a question, and be provided with a range of suggested answers, complete with probabilities. He shows an example of the question "Who did Britney Spears run off and marry in Las Vegas?" and the suggested answers of Jason Alexander and Kevin Federline ranked first and second. Clicking on a suggested answer provides the supporting documents.

He then talks about how this works on the back end, in terms of the AI of parsing both the user's question and the possible answers. Turns out that the size of the web, and the repetition of content, makes it much easier to locate patterns that are likely to answer the question. Great line: Moving from: 'Does the page contain the query terms' to 'Does the page satisfy the information need'

Lili Cheng from the social computing group is the last up, and she shows some of their "personal map" work, where your activities (email, calendar, etc) affect the way your contacts are arranged and grouped. But, she points out, we already know who we interact with. How can we put this in a larger context. For example, who do you know that knows someone else--basically the LinkedIn facilitated introduction idea. But again, what's interestingn to me is how this shows overlap. It lets you map how you're connected to another person, and through what paths. I'm less interested in the endpoints than the nature of the paths that lead there.

She shows and talks about Wallop--of the 424 people invited in, about a quarter have been regularly active. What this lets them do is build maps of inferred social networks--"who's important to whom." People want to explicitly control, to be able to add/remove people. But they also don't want to have to spend a lot of time organizing. They're going to start to do a larger scale deployment of Wallop, seeding the network with controlled invites (please do not leaave comments here asking me how to get an invite. i cannot get you an invite. really.).

So, how can this be integrated into other activities, including search. Apply it to email, for example--put the people most important in your current network in an easy list, click on their name to get all the communication with them. This idea of integrating the social tools into other tools is great!

(What we're seeing supports my sense that MSR has some amazingly smart and interesting people working on these problems. Why does this keep surprising me? Why is there such a disjoint between what they produce and these smart people who are helping to produce it?)

hoist by their own petards

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Yesterday afternoon when I arrived at the hotel in Seattle, my connectivity (wireless in the lobby, wired in the room) worked beautifully. But last night and this morning, connectivity was awful. First I couldn't get IPs, then the response time was beyond sluggish. They assured us that by this evening it would be fixed, and right before we got on the bus I tried it again and it seemed fine, so I was reassured.

But when we returned this evening, it was awful again. I called the front desk and threw a fit, and they sent their tech support guy up to my room. He was baffled, because he'd been on the network with no problems the entire day while our group was away. (Figured it out yet?)

Well, he finally fired up a packet sniffer and took a look at the network. It was being flooded with junk, almost definitely the product of a worm like MyDoom. And it was coming from multiple machines on the hotel network.

What that means is that one (or more) of the people in the "Search Champs" group showed up with a worm already on their computer, and proceeded to both flood the network with DoS traffic and infect other computers on the network.

As the only Mac user one of the very few Mac users in the group, I must admit I'm feeling a bit smug at the moment. I'm 100% sure that I'm not the culprit, and that I'm not at risk.

The hotel's service provider is in the process of banning the offending machines from the network, and those folks will have to get their machines cleaned before they go back online. Good thing we're headed back to the Microsoft campus tomorrow...maybe they'll be able to find someone there to help them get their systems under control.

Ah, sweet irony.

search champs meeting thoughts

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So, I already mentioned my main problem with this meeting over on misbehaving. And David Weinberger's posted some good observations about the meeting today. But there are some other things that I'm noticing today.

One is that there are a couple of people here who are dominating this discussion, and being heard over them is a challenge. That's discouraging. Free-for-alls aren't necessarily the most effective way to get a variety of opinions, particularl when some of the voices are convinced that they have the only right answers in the room.

Another is that I hate sitting at a table watching people talk for hours and hours at a time. Why aren't they doing some breakout groups, so that they can isolate some of the voices, get people to talk about things that they care about and/or are knowledgable about? I'm not the right person to ask about things that are Windows-specific--but I know a lot about information-seeking behavior. Put me in a small group with the people developing the web interface aspects I'm interested in, and let the windows geeks talk about platform-specific issues.

It's also quite clear that a room full of blogger geeks is not a good cross-section of the web-using world. Things that power users care about--from tabbed browsing to ubiquitous RSS feeds--aren't necessarily important to the rest of the world. My kids need a good search engine...they don't care (yet) about RSS feeds, and probably won't for quite some time. My freshmen students (in IT and CS) don't use aggregators. Maybe it's true that the rest of the world will follow the geeks, but maybe it's not.


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Via Joi, this excellent remix of Republican scare tactics.

How do you run a convention on a record of failure? Play this movie to find out.


(Joi has a mirror if the link above doesn't work.)

powerpoint redux


I'm spending the entire day today sitting in bed, finishing up powerpoint-for-pay that should have been done months and months ago, but that I've put off because it's such an unpleasant task.

The slides are to accompany a new edition of a data communication textbook that I used during my first two years at RIT, when I actually taught data comm classes. The money is good, but the work is tedious and unrewarding. Blah.

In a nice example of synchronicity, however, David Byrne is speaking here in Rochester tonight, about his creative work with PowerPoint! I just ordered a ticket to reward myself.

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