July 2005 Archives

microsoft research talk: robin hunicke


This afternoon I'm at another MSR talk, this one by Robin Hunicke, who's a really interesting woman. Her talk is on increasing diversity and creativity in CS. Here's the formal description:

ABSTRACT: Decreased enrollment in Computer Science has led many universities, businesses and government institutions to take a closer look at the field and how it is perceived. As computers become increasingly essential for education and commerce, how can we shape their image within the popular culture? Is it possible to re-invent CS, and to attract new students with diverse backgrounds, goals and talents?

In this talk I will present a post-mortem of my (non-standard, but incredibly fulfilling) education in CS, AI and video games. I will describe my experiences with art and computer science education, standardized and self-guided curriculums (undergraduate and graduate alike). I will discuss my dissertation research and explain how working closely with the game development community has inspired my research and informed my practice as a student and educator.

Finally, I will explore my work with the IGDA's Education Committee, and show how games are transforming CS programs across the globe. By describing this work in the context of my own experiences, I hope to shed some light on the issues raised above. In particular, how games and CS can work together today, to attract the designers, programmers and leaders of tomorrow.

Robin Hunicke is finishing her PhD in Computer Science at Northwestern University; her dissertation work is on AI for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in video games. In addition to her studies, Robin works with the International Game Developer Association (focusing on Education and Diversity efforts), participates annually in the Indie Game Jam, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and the Game Design Workshop at the annual Game Developers Conference. Through these efforts, she strives to build bridges between academics and developers, to promote independent, student and women developers, and to evangelize concrete, directed analysis of games and game design. For more information, see her web site.

trip cancelled


I won't be traveling to the UK this week after all.

Apologies to all whom I'd planned to get together with. Another time, I hope.

oxford/london plans


My UK trip is fast approaching, and I'm having to start to think about logistics.

I get into Heathrow late Saturday morning (a direct flight from Seattle, in fact!), and will be going to the rental apartment in London that I'm sharing with my colleague--Scala House.

Sunday we'll take the train into Oxford for the symposium we're presenting at (leaving my colleague's partner to play in London during our absence) and will stay in Oxford through Wednesday midday. Then we'll take the train back to London, and will stay in the apartment through Sunday, when we all head back home. (I leave early on Sunday morning. Blech.)

So, what night is good for a London blogger/geek get-together? Should we use this post as a gathering point?

Updated 2:11pm

I'm going to be meeting Tom Coates on Thursday night, at a time and location as yet to be determined. Will provide more details here as I have them.

I may be going to visit MSR Cambridge Labs on Friday--still working that out.

Looks as though I'll be meeting Foe for coffee on Saturday.

microsoft research talk: ben shneiderman


Ben Shneiderman, who was also at the faculty summit, is giving an open (to Microsoft employees) talk today on Creativity Support Tools. I've seen Ben talk before, and he's a lot of fun. He's put up a web page to support this talk, but I missed the URL. Will try to get it later, once the presentation has migrated onto the internal server.

He starts by saying he'll be focusing on the topic of chapter 10 of Leonardo's Laptop. (Which reminds me; I need to get one of my grad students to box up and mail me some of the key research books from my office, including that one.)

microsoft research talk: jim witte


Jim Witte from Clemson University is here for the faculty summit, and is doing a talk for the community technologies group in MSR today. He's talking about the lack of focus on sociological aspects of computer-based communication in the literature. Notes that there have been articles in the American Sociological Review in the past two years on everything from cricket to tulips, but not one on social impact or significance of new communication and information technologies.

I asked whether some of the problem is with traditional disciplinary boundaries--does it matter if it's sociology or anthropology or communication or education? (Similarly, Lilia points out that these researchers are clustering in places like AoIR, rather than more discipline-focused areas.) Another attendee makes a comment about this being the difference between "what can sociology do for us" vs "what can we do for sociology"?

Jim suggests that we shouldn't be isolating this research, we should be integrating it into the top journals in the fields. In part because of the hiring/tenure pressures, and in part (I think; this wasn't said explicitly) because the field as a whole needs to understand and appreciate these increasingly important topics.

Someone suggests that much sociological research revolves around inequities, and that we need to identify the inequities in technological contexts in order to catalyze sociological research. When Lilia and I point out that there are lots of forms of inequality and exclusion in online contexts, he agrees, and clarifies that what he means is that we need to be focusing journal articles on those aspects if we want to be noticed in the sociological canon.

Jim moves on to talking about some of his web-based survey research. He's been doing survey design work for National Geographic (here's the 2005 survey).

How do their tools differ from others out there? Selective invitation of respondents can be supported, as well as open convenince sampling. Allows monitoring of sample development aparticipant response, including source of respondent. They can support complex skip patterns (branching) to tailor survey to respondent. Incroporates non-text material into questions and prompts (images, documents, audio/video). Allows tracking of respone behavior, including time spent on individual quesitns and use of the "back button" to review or change earlier responses.

(Hmmm...I need to talk to Jim and Roy about using their system for our NSF survey this fall.)

A statement that "this is how you think about X" sparks a great debate between the psychologists and sociologists about whether we "know" what's going on in somebody's head. One person says "if I don't know what's going on in my head, how could you?" Another says that's absolutely not the case. Then we argue about the extent to which people, say, play a snippet of music in their heads to represent a genre. Several of us feel that this is not necessarily how "most" people do this--it's something that's based on learning styles (auditory vs visual, for example), or perhaps other factors (age? gender? education?).

At the end of his talk, Jim mentions some other interesting projects at Clemson, including "animated work environments" (AWE), which allows your work environment to physically change based on needs. (So, for example, your kids are using their computer to work on homework, and then want to eat dinner at their desk--can the surface change to protect the computer while eating?)

All in all, a really interesting talk with some great discussion surrounding it--this is exactly the kind of event and interaction that makes working here so much fun.

blogging the faculty summit

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Despite my somewhat snarky comments of yesterday, I've enjoyed being at the faculty summit over the past two days. The attendees here are smart and savvy and a pleasure to talk to. The research being discussed is cutting-edge and intriguing. The MSR projects being demoed are amazingly cool. The design expo, which showcased student projects in interaction design from six different universities, was fabulous. And in true Microsoft style, everything has worked like clockwork--transportation, food, entertainment, etc. (I'll be posting photos to Flickr later tonight with images from last night's dinner cruise.)

It's easy to blog about problems--when there's friction or blockage the impulse to vent provides a powerful incentive to write. But now that I'm "inside," I wondered what kind of response I'd get to my somewhat negative posts yesterday, particularly from my new colleagues here at MSR. This is, after all, one of their flagship events, and I was taking shots at their featured speakers. (I have asked for access to the video of Wulf's talk yesterday, so that I can watch it again and see if I somehow misunderstood or misheard him. I'm pretty sure I wasn't, but I'll feel better if I check.)

I'm delighted to report that I've received no negative backlash, and a good bit of positive reinforcement. The message that I've been hearing here, over and over, is that employee weblogs are powerful and valuable, and that they should be honest. On the internal mailing lists about blogs, I've seen employees castigated by their colleagues for being overly defensive in response to criticism, but not for levying criticism of their own.

Overall, I've found the corporate culture here much less oppressive than I'd anticipated, which has been a pleasant surprise.

microsoft research faculty summit: william wulf talk


This afternoon's keynote is by William Wulf, of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineering. Says he's going to talk about societal issues rather than technical issues.

[While this was geared towards a CS audience, I'd encourage a broader audience to read my notes, below the fold...it gives a distressing (to me, at least) view of how distorted an engineering world view can become. I'm off to the conference dinner cruise, so I'm going to post this as-is; I'll clean it up a bit tomorrow.]

microsoft research faculty summit: monday morning


I'm spending the morning at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, an annual conference sponsored by MSR. It's an invitation-only conference attended by about 400 CS researchers from around the world.

I'm not going to blog the whole thing (I'm not even going to attend the whole thing, since I have some meetings that conflict), but I will blog the ones that are particularly notable, starting with the kick-off event--a dialog between Bill Gates and Maria Klawe, the dean of engineering at Princeton.

upcoming uk trip


I'll be going to the UK in a few weeks--I leave Seattle on Friday 7/29, and return on Sunday 8/7. Flying into London, then hopping a train to Oxford, where I'll be presenting my NSF grant research at Crossing Cultures, Changing Lives: Integrating Research on Girls' Choices of IT Careers. That lasts through August 3rd, after which I'll head back to London for several days.

While I'm there, I'm really hoping for a blogger meetup of some kind. There are a lot of people "across the pond" whom I'd love to meet (or see again)--Suw Charman, Tom Coates, Gary Turner, Cory Doctorow, Hugh Macleod, and others.

Another stop will (probably) be the Microsoft Research office in Cambridge.

I'm excited about the trip (and happy that I was able to find a direct flight from Seattle to London!).

settling into msr


When I accepted the position here, I spent a lot of time trying to find information on what day-to-day life at Microsoft was like--and didn't find much. So I'm going to chronicle a bit of it here for other people curious about the mundane details.

Yesterday I was issued my magical keycard, which gets waved in front of doors to allow me access into buildings (far superior to the "swipe and then enter a complicated code" version at RIT). I also picked up my parking tag and a FlexPass from the receptionist--the FlexPass gives me free travel on city and county buses, which is a great perk.

Today I spent the morning configuring my computer and my office so that I can work comfortably. I need to figure out an efficient way to move my enormous (legal!) music collection from my Powerbook to my PC, so I can listen to music in the office. An external hard drive might be the solution, but the ones I have are all formatted for Macs, and I hate to reformat them and risk my backups. Perhaps an Ethernet cable between the two machines? Would that work?

At lunchtime I headed over to Bank of America to set up a checking account, so that I can set up my direct deposit here this afternoon. Then I came down here to the Building 112 cafeteria (next door to my building, 113) to have my first cafeteria meal.

The selection is pretty good--various stations, much like RIT. Pizza, pasta, grill, salads, stir-fry, sandwiches. The big difference is quality. The grill, for example, features a glass case with fresh meats arrayed--garlic rosemary chicken, cajun salmon, and even buffalo burgers (buffalo meat, that is, not buffalo chicken wing seasoning), which is what I opted for. Drinks are free (makes sense, since why would they give them to you free upstairs, but charge in the cafeteria?) The prices just went up, apparently, so my burger was a little over $4, my fries were a little over $1, and I tossed in a 90-cent cookie. Total cost for lunch: $6.35, which was covered by the lunch voucher I received at yesterday's orientation.

In a week or so I'll be able to start doing direct deposit of money onto my keycard, which can be used for payment in the cafeteria--a convenience I've grown accustomed to at RIT and am glad to have here.

The cafeteria itself is pleasant, though not particularly fancy. Tables and chairs, booths along the windows, a few areas with comfy chairs.

Up on our floor, there are a number of little seating areas and lounges, which look as though they'd be conducive to ad-hoc meetings--though I've not seen any taking place just yet.

This afternoon I'm headed over to the MSN search offices, where they're having a goodbye party for someone on the team I really like, and will be sad to see leave. Sounds like between the pizza and ice cream cake, I won't be needing any dinner when I get home.

So, that's the Thursday update from the belly of beast. Stay tuned for more riveting episodes as my sabbatical progresses.

first impressions of microsoft


I survived my first two days, much of which was taken up with the new employee orientation (aka "NEO"). I can't say I enjoyed the orientation very much. It was run by a guy who was very nice, but too polished. Too much of it felt forced. ("Now find someone in the room you don't know, and tell each other your 'Microsoft story'.") There was also a long talk from the legal department, much of which I felt was somewhat disingenuous.

All in all, though, it's been a good two days. Many aspects of the bureaucracy actually work the way they should, and many things are set up for online self-service, which expedites the process. I've already gotten my parking permit, received a bus pass, been issued my magical cardkey, signed up for a health club (Microsoft-paid), consumed more than my share of free Diet Cokes, moved into a very nice (though somewhat bare) office, configured my desktop PC, gotten my tablet added to the network, had a lovely lunch with other MSR researchers at a teriyaki spot next to my office building, and gotten a chance to bond a bit with Lilia, who did indeed go through orientation with me (and helped keep me sane).

Tomorrow will be my first full day at MSR, which will probably be spent learning my way around the software, configuring things to work the way I want, and trying to get over the fact that I won't be using my Powerbook at work. (Apparently it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to set Macs up so that they work on the wifi, though I may yet ask them to approve it for use on the wired net if I can't overcome my withdrawal.) I'm going to check out the cafeteria in the building next door tomorrow, as well. I'm not sure yet to what extent I can take pictures of things (the guidelines on what's okay and not okay to blog are still not clear to me...), but if I can I will.

I'll be spending a lot of time over the next few weeks talking to my new colleagues, getting a sense of the current projects, and figuring out how I can fit best into the mix. I can tell already that the informal interactions are going to be wonderful.

independence day


It's independence day in more ways than one. Tomorrow morning I report to Microsoft New Employee Orientation, and begin my journey into the belly of the beast.

It's been a long time since I was a corporate employee. Thirteen years, in fact, since I left Congressional Information Service to start my doctoral program in Alabama. Thirteen years since I had a "manager." Thirteen years since my last 9-to-5 job.

One of the things I'm most looking forward to is being around a critical mass of smart, interesting people. Say what you want about Microsoft's products and business practices (and I've said plenty...), they have a knack for hiring some of the most amazing people. (Including, much to my delight, Lilia Efimova, whom I hope I'll see tomorrow at orientation.)

This is particularly important for me, because I'm not someone who's good at solitary thought and contemplation. My best ideas come not from quiet concentration but from animated conversation. I've said before that I often don't know what I'm thinking until I hear myself say it. So being in an environment where I'm surrounded by people who want to talk about the things I'm interested in will be an amazing opportunity.

A lot of people have been asking me what exactly I'll be doing at Microsoft--and I've not answered it directly because I still don't know for sure. What I'm hoping to do, though, is play a bit of a bumblebee role, talking to people in both research and product groups and cross-pollinating ideas. I'm definitely planning to do some work with the MSN Search team, since I already have a connection with them through the Search Champs program. I'm also excited to see what's happening with projects in the MSR Social Computing Group, like Aura and Wallop. (The Aura server appears to be down right now, alas...)

I'm glad Scoble has blazed a path for independent Microsoft bloggers. There will, I'm sure, be things I can't talk about. But it's also clear that there's lots I can blog about, and I plan to do as much as I can.

no room of my own


I've always used a sense of place as my anchor.

We moved into our house in Buffalo when I was three.

When I was about 15 my parents divorced, and my father moved out, leaving me, my mother, and my sister in the house. I stayed in the room I'd grown up in.

When I was about 17, my mother remarried and moved to Rochester, taking my sister with her. I didn't want to leave--it was my senior year in high school. So my father moved back into the house after she'd left, and once again I stayed in the room I'd grown up in.

When I went to college, my father preserved my room. The bed never moved from the corner it was in, the bookshelves never came down. I could always go home again, and feel that sense of connection to a physical space.

I moved a lot during and after college. But the first thing I did when moving into a new space was to quickly unpack my belongings, and create a personal space, filled with recognizable artifacts of my life.

This time it's different. This time it feels like I'm in an uneasy holding pattern. Half a family, a fraction of my belongings, no sense of personal space at all. I have too few hangers, so most of my clothes are still in suitcases. I have a kitchen full of bland glasses and dishes, and walls that are mostly bare. I'm even driving a rental car, which heightens the sense of disconnection.

I could buy more hangers, of course. And try to make this apartment feel more like home. But I don't want to get too comfortable here--in six weeks we'll be packing again for another move. It doesn't make sense to unpack boxes now only to repack them next month.

That's probably why I'm still awake, hours after I first tried to sleep tonight. Even benadryl isn't working its magic on me this evening.

Gerald and Lane are sleeping in Spearfish, South Dakota tonight. They called me at dinner time, on the verge of panic because the 4th of July crowds had occupied most of the available hotel rooms. (Spearfish is quite close to Mt. Rushmore.) Through the magic of the Internet, I found the the last available room in town, and booked it. That means they're less than 1200 miles away now--they may even make it here for the 4th! That will help enormously, as will starting a regular work schedule.

I think the benadryl is finally kicking in. Time to give sleep another try.

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