March 2006 Archives

spring has sprung with gilded greens

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I don't have many blogging rituals, but marking the first appearance of golden-green spring leaves is one of them. I did it in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and it's time to do it again.

It's remarkable how much earlier spring comes here in the pacific northwest. I noticed the telltale golden glow on the not-quite-bare branches the day we returned from Rochester, nearly a month before the same signs are likely to appear back east.

Here's my annual tribute to this beautiful and fragile time of year.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

--Robert Frost

home/not home

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It feels very strange to be back in Rochester, but not in our house--particularly when I drive past "our house" to drop the kids off and see our tenants' cars in the driveway, and unfamiliar faces through the windows. It's quite unsettling.

Other than that, being back in Rochester has been great. This morning I took the kids to the RIT campus to hear Larry Lessig give a talk on free culture. The talk was spectacular. I think Lane understood and appreciated most of it, but Alex found it less engaging. (They both quite enjoyed this video that was included in the presentation--as did I!) Still, I'm glad they both went--even if only a little of it got through, it was worth it. (I also had the pleasure of joining Larry and some RIT colleagues for dinner last night, which was lovely.)

[If you've never had the privilege of seeing Professor Lessig speak on free culture, I was able to find a link to this similar talk that he gave in Helsinki last year. I encourage you to watch it.]

Tonight the boys are sleeping at friends' houses, soaking up all the time with their buddies that they possibly can. So I get to relax at my mother's house, where it's blissfully quiet. Got some work done, got some gaming done, and now I'm off to bed.

sxsw serendipity

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The best part of SXSW isn't the panels (though there are often excellent presentations). It's the serendipity. The hallway/restaurant/party connections and conversations. The friend-of-a-friend introductions. The silliness and the creativity and the laughter.

I slept late this morning, and made it to the conference in time to bump into Justin Hall, who led me to where Joi was speaking--so I got a chance (after what I think has been nearly 1.5 years) to give him an in-person hug and hello. After that I was hungry, and couldn't find anyone who wanted to eat (even using Dodgeball didn't yield its usual excellent results), so I wandered off to Iron Works BBQ for one last hit of regional food. As I sat down, Lili called out my name--she, Jenny, and Scoble were there, along with Craig Newmark (yes, that Craig), and Cathy Brooks. It was a lovely lunch, with lots of laughter. One lunch like that, and the camaraderie it fosters, is worth the price of the trip to Austin.

This afternoon I'm sitting in the overflow room for the Burnie Burns keynote, getting caught up on email and blog posts and text messages. At 3:30 I've got to decide between games and stories, and then I'll grab my suitcase and try to catch 20 minutes of Bruce Sterling before I head for the airport, and back to my family and bed and kitchen and other comforts of home. As always, I'm glad I was here, but I'm also more than ready to head back home.

sxsw 2006 update

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Yes, I made it safely to Austin. Blogging silence was due to massive overcommitment on Saturday (I ended up speaking on three panels), and then massive decompression on Sunday (I didn't even attend one panel, though I did make an appearance at a couple of receptions before turning in early again).

The panel I was most worried about, the book digitization panel, went (I thought) extremely well. Daniel Clancy from Google, Bob Stein from the Center for the Future of the Book, and Danielle Tiedt from Microsoft's book search program were my fellow panelists, and we tried to involve the audience heavily in the conversation. We capped it off with a delicious bbq lunch at Ironworks. The panel I didn't expect to speak on was danah boyd's "Designing for Local and Global Social Play," which went really well. The highlight was a game that we played called "the secret game" which I'll describe in a separate post.

Today I'm trying to shift back into conference mode, starting with Peter Morville's talk on "ambient findability" (the subject of his new book, which I really need to get and read). Peter and I went to the same library school, a few years apart, so while we don't know each other except peripherally, I'm always happy to see how well-respected his work and ideas are in the tech community.

As usual, Peter's doing a good job of using PPT as a way to show useful graphical examples, rather than bombarding us with bullet points. Yay.

He's talking about search right now, and about search as a system. He notes that companies spend more time on tweaking the search interface, and not nearly enough on the results interface. This includes not just ranking and clustering algorithms, but also the interface design that lets you pick out key information from the results screen.

He cites Marcia Bates' work on information seeking behavior, and points out that it's much more complex than search engine designers typically recognize. Search is an iterative process--searches don't exist independently of that iterative, linear process.

Talks about the problem with the term "usability"--what does that mean? What are the components of a good user experience? (Lists useful, usable, findable, valuable, desirable, accessible, credible as a few criteria.)

(I'm not providing a lot of the details, because I'm assuming that much of this is in his book...)

He shows some examples that he provided to NIH regarding searches for cancer-related information, and notes how many searches on cancer are done in public search engines as opposed to on their site, which doesn't come up high in the rankings. (Where did he get these search term frequency figures from August 2005? Isn't this the kind of data that the government requested and that everyone was so concerned about being provided?)

Finally gets into the ambient findability piece (halfway through the talk). "The ability to find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time." Hmmm. That doesn't sound so great to me, actually. The panopticon has a very dark side. (He does acknowledge that, to some extent, though without as much reservation as I feel at the prospect.)

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." (Herb Simon) [searching on that phrase pulls up some interesting sites on attention...]

Shows a device intended to be locked onto a kids' arm to track their location and give you access via a web interface. Discusses the strong emotional response people have to this. Interestingly, he says, reviews on Amazon complain primarily about it not working well enough, not about potential privacy issues.

Cites David Brin's book The Transparent Society, with a long quote on "reciprocal transparency" that I don't have time to write down. (I didn't know about this book; will need to track it down)

What's going to solve information retrieval challenges, help us make the needle in the haystack bigger? He doesn't think it's going to be artificial intelligence (ms bob isn't going to save us), nor is it going to be information visualization (which is beautiful but not always useful; shows treemaps as an example). Even with maps--the applications are beautiful, but often not nearly as usable as we need. Most people jsut want to get from point a to point b--and they use the text directions more than the map itself. Collective intelligence and user participation need to be in the solution. (Hmmm. I can think of refutation to this...)

So, who's going to help us? the librarians, of course. (Puts up a slide with "Revenge of the Librarians"--where have I heard that before?) Has the web turned us all into librarians? ("Metadata is sexy now!" he proclaims.)

We should be careful not throw the old ways of organizing information out as we adopt the new ways. Quotes David Weinberger: "The old way creates a tree, the new way rakes the leaves together." What happens to piles of leaves, he asks? They rot, and become food for new trees.

(There's more to this presentation, but I tuned out for a bit while i dealt with incoming IM and email and text messages... My guess is this is one of the things that will end up with the podcast up on the sxsw podcast page, so you can watch it yourself if you're interested...)

pre-dawn packing

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It's so quiet in our house at 4:30am. And cold, this morning--it's actually colder here in Seattle than it is back in Rochester, which is unusual. Feels odd to be packing sleeveless tops and sandals, but it's going to be 90 in Austin, so sweaters don't make a lot of sense. (Though I do recall the convention center being quite frigid, so I'm bringing a fleece pullover.)

I've downloaded a few TV shows for my iPod, checked my mail, told American to ping me if my flights change. I've printed my boarding passes, packed my camera, and remembered my brand-new Bose noise-cancelling headphones (a gift from Gerald that I've been looking forward to trying out on an airplane). I've packed socks and bras and underwear, pants and shirts and sandals, hairbrush and toothbrush. Still have the nagging feeling I'm forgetting something, but chances are I won't remember what it is until after my plane's in the air. With luck it will be something easy and inexpensive to replace in Austin.

Now it's time for breakfast, sleepy hugs and kisses from Gerald and the boys, and a (hopefully traffic-free) trip down 405 to SeaTac. Austin, here I come...

spring travel plans

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Every year I seem to have two "crunch" times for back-to-back travel commitments--early spring, and late fall. This year is shaping up to be no exception. On the books for the next two months:

  • SXSW/Interactive in Austin, March 10-14. I love Austin, and I love SXSW, so this should be fun. Speaking on one panel on Saturday morning, moderating another...and then I get to just relax and enjoy the rest of the event
  • Back to Rochester for a week, March 22-28, along with the kids. Visiting family and friends, meeting with colleagues, and participating in a friend's dissertation defense (I'm her outside committee member). Oh--and celebrating Weez's wonderful news!
  • NSF ITWF PI conference (transation: National Science Foundation's "Information Technology WorkForce" program meeting for Principal Investigators) in Durham April 2-4
  • NSF site visit of the National Center for Women & Information Technology in Boulder, CO, April 5

I was also supposed to attend an event in Santa Barbara, but it conflicts with the PI meeting. :( And I'm cancelling a commitment to speak at a KM conference in DC in April, because the travel is just too hard on all of us here in the Lawley household. And because I'm hosting this year's Social Computing symposium here at MSR, and the planning will probably be taking up a good bit of time at that point.

Not as bad as some spring travel stints I've had, but busy enough that I'll be glad when it's over.

from catalysis to creation

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Last week, MSR put on its annual TechFest, which is basically a giant science fair that lets researchers show off their cool projects to the rest of the company. (Most of it is Microsoft-confidential, but a few projects get shown to the press--including two that my colleague here in the Community Technologies Group, AJ Brush, worked on.)

Though a stomach bug knocked me out on Thursday, I got a chance to check out some of the exhibits on Wednesday, and was overwhelmed by the brilliance and creativity of my colleagues here. Which was followed quickly by overwhelming self-doubt. "What the f*ck am I doing here?!" Seven months down (hard to believe), and not a paper to show for it.

That resulted in some deep consideration of what exactly I've been doing here, and I found myself thinking about all the connections I've sparked--between people in research and those in product groups, between people in different product groups, between people outside of Microsoft and those within. About the events I've worked to help make successful, about the meetings I've sat in and provided feedback and suggestions. I told Gerald a month or two ago--probably about when search champs happened--that I was finding myself to be most useful as a catalyst, rather than an creator.

Of course, that's not what researchers are typically rewarded for. Being a catalyst is great fun, and it's something I'm really good at. But quite frankly, it's not enough.

[Ha! As I was writing this, I got a visit from another MSR researcher who's working on a very cool imaging project and wanted to show it to me and get feedback. After seeing it, I realized there was a great possible connection with a not-yet-announced product over in MSN/Windows Live, and gave him the contacts for that group. That's the kind of thing that I know adds value, but that you just can't put on your CV! It's also an example of yet another thing I can't really blog, because the details of both the research project and the new product are still considered confidential. :P ]

The good news is, I'm about to embark on a project here at MSR that involves creation rather than catalysis. I'm going to be building (well, specifying and helping to build) something that I'm deeply interested in, and will then (if all goes as I hope) turn into an interesting ongoing research project as I study the use of the system in multiple environments. I hate, hate, hate that I can't be any more specific than that, but I've promised the lawyers that I'll keep my mouth shut about it until we at least file some predisclosure forms. (Please don't go ballistic on me about the evils of software patents. The reality is that the patent system is broken, and all companies are doing what they need to do to survive in this climate. If I don't file on this idea, it's all too likely that someone else will, and will then prevent me from working on it. I agree that it all sucks, but it's the reality of the current world of software development. Plus from a selfish CV standpoint, it sure doesn't hurt to have a patent or two listed...)

research blogging ftw!

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Lately it seems hard for me to find the time to blog, or the topics that seem bloggable. But I'm re-inspired by Jill's announcement of her award for research dissemination via blogging--how exciting! And it reminded me of how valuable this blog has been for me as an academic.

In her post, Jill notes that she wouldn't have won that award if she'd been blogging pseudonymously, like so many of the women writing great academic blogs. Like Jill, if I couldn't write about the specifics of my life--the conferences I participate in, the research areas I'm exploring, the people around me--it wouldn't really feel like my blog. While I recognize the risks inherent in blogging, my experience has been that the rewards greatly outweigh those risks. I wouldn't be sitting in this office in Redmond if it weren't for my blog. I wouldn't be speaking at SXSW, or have travelled to Dubai. I wouldn't have the worldwide network of friends and colleagues that I've acquired over the past 3.5 years. So yeah, it was worth any risks. And I need to remember that, and not neglect this fertile space that--when properly tended--has yielded such a bountiful harvest.

(The "ftw" is short for "for the win," an expression I've acquired since starting to play World of Warcraft.)

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