June 2006 Archives

endings are hard

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It was a hard day for our family today. Moving is always stressful, and saying goodbye to a house that you've come to think of as home is particularly hard for kids. Add to that the fact that we took our hedgehog, Cecil, back to the pet store today, and that I can't get the internet connection sharing to work properly yet (the pc sees the network and can join it, but doesn't get an IP), and that the lighting on the boat is really poor, and that the boys didn't get nearly enough sleep last night. So tonight has been rough.

The boat is lovely during the day...lots of deck space to hang out on, and room to wander outside. But as it grew darker tonight, it became clear that the lighting on the boat leaves much to be desired. We can't find any light at all in the bathrooms, and the few lights we have found are dim and depressing. It's rather like camping out...which is not so good for me or Lane, since both of us dislike camping :)

Tomorrow, when the sun's out again, we'll see what we can do about improving the internal lighting. We need to locate the few outlets, perhaps procure some extension cords, and head into Port Townsend or Port Angeles to see if we can find an inexpensive lamp or two to brighten up our evenings a bit. We'll pick up some DVDs for the boys to watch on their computers, too. As I told Lane, everything will seem easier and less depressing in the morning. I hope I was right...

boat blogging!



I'm sitting at the kitchen table on the 43' yacht we're renting for the next two weeks. The new Verizon broadband access card is plugged into my new Sony SZ240 notebook, and I'm online on the water. Amazing.

I was expecting this to be spectacularly unsuccessful, because today has not been a good technology day--from the Garmin GPS unit in our car inexplicably going dead to the home printer refusing to print Google maps to the Pharos GPS unit that I got with MIcrosoft Streets & Trips once again refusing to talk to my computer.

But Gerald, who has been incredibly, outrageously wonderful all week--handling every detail of packing, cleaning, and prepping to leave--sent us on our way at midday, and once we cleared the city (not so much fun waiting for a ferry on the Friday before the 4th of July...) things started looking up.

The boat is lovely, with enough space to comfortable house us for the next two weeks, and a lovely breeze even though it's a pretty warm day. Gerald's bringing fans when he arrives tonight, so I think we'll be comfortable even without A/C.

We'll be setting up a wifi network on the boat by plugging the Verizon card into my Powerbook and then sharing the signal over the Airport card--which means no fighting between the kids (or the mom) as to who gets to be online when we get tired of sunning, swimming, boating, and soaking (in the hot tub on the top deck).

That sound you hear? It's all the stress rushing out of me as I slowly come to the realization that I am on vacation. Ahhhhhhhhh.

what i've been working on


I've been somewhat vague about the work I've been doing at Microsoft this year, for a couple of reasons. First, much of the work was vague...I spent a lot of time talking to people, acting as consultant and catalyst, rather than creating things. Second, some of the projects I worked on were (and mostly still are) still not public knowledge.

There's one project, though, that's really my baby. I conceived it, spec'ed it, and am in the process of seeing it get built. And I've reached an agreement with MIcrosoft about the IP for this project that means I can now blog about it unfettered. So, for those wondering what I've really been working on, here it is.

It's called PULP...for "personal ubiquitous library project." (It was originally just "personal library project," but I added the "ubiquitous" so it would have an easy to remember name.) And it's the result of mashing up features from social bookmarking tools like del.icio.us and CiteULike and LibraryThing, personal library tools like Delicious Library and MediaMan, and mobile scanning and annotation tools like Aura.

So, why does the world need another social bookmarking/library tool? I'm not sure it does. But this one is intended to address some problems I've had with the tools listed above.

First, it's going to be an enterprise-based tool, that will be installed and managed on your own server. That's because centrally-owned and managed social bookmarking tools present a problem for people working on non-public projects. I was made aware of how much of a public trail I can leave in my bookmarks when one of my students knew about my plans to come to Seattle before my department chair did--all because he'd noticed what I was bookmarking and how I was tagging it. When I started working here at Microsoft on competitive projects, I cut way back on my use of del.icio.us, because I was concerned that I might give away too much of what I was working on to competitors.

Second, it's going the leverage the extreme coolness of Marc Smith's AURA project to enable SmartPhone and PocketPC-based data entry. I love that Delicious Library and MediaMan let me use a webcam to scan barcodes. But that's not useful when I'm walking through a bookstore, or visiting a friend's house. I want to be able to scan in the barcode of a book with my mobile device and add it to my collection.

Third, it will distinguish between items that I have (or have access to), and items that I'd like to have but don't. I love the idea of being able to browse a colleague's virtual bookshelf...but it's much more helpful to me if I know that these are items that s/he actually has and that I can therefore look at or borrow. That's even more helpful when I'm in a bookstore, since I'll be able to find out immediately if the book I'm considering purchasing is one that someone I work with already has a copy of.

That's all planned for the first version of the system, which I'm hoping we'll be able to deploy at RIT and MSR this fall so that we can do some research into how people use the system.

In the second version, I have a more ambitious plan. I want to develop a rich desktop client for the data that will incorporate p2p sharing, much like iTunes does for music. That way, even if my server is at RIT, and yours is at, say Yahoo, we can meet up at a conference and share items with each other. I can browse the stuff that people near me have marked as public, and I can share out items tagged for a talk I've given or a topic I'm studying. (I was delighted today when I came across this post describing how someone essentially turned iTunes into a paper-sharing tool.)

The way this is going to work from an IP and development resources standpoint is that MSR is developing the backend database for the service, and the mobile client will be based directly on the AURA client that will be made widely available in the foreseeable future. Everything that my students and I create--the UI, the web pages, the code to make the interface talk to the database--will be in the public domain. MSR is quite generously funding my students for this work, with sufficient funds for me to be able to get some great RIT students working hard on it all next year. So really, everybody wins. And I'm very grateful to Marc Smith and Turner Whitted at MSR for supporting this project, and making it possible for me and my students to continue working on it even after I return to RIT.

As we get further along in development, I'll be posting more information about the project.

Why, I actually watch a videoblog for the first time, that's what. I even downloaded a new video player (VLC) in order to watch it.

Here's Mark's introduction to the video: "Welcome to the first annual “dive into mark” show! It’s just like reading my blog, except it takes forever to download, requires an unwieldy array of third-party software, and it’s not accessible to blind people, deaf people, or search engines."

Also, his response in the comments to his post: "Zefrank was obviously my inspiration to try out video blogging. Of course, Dave Winer was my inspiration to try out text blogging, and we all know how well that turned out. Here’s hoping."

It was worth watching this one, because I've never actually_met_ Mark--we seem not to frequent the same conferences--and I'm a total fangirl of his writing. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get a sense of what he looks and sounds like.

Will I keep watching if he keeps uploading videos? Probably not. For all the reasons he alludes to above. The text of his video is in his blog entry, and it doesn't require speakers or headphones or adjusting video settings. Plus it's a lot harder to quote video.

goodbye, meg

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mandarin megIf you're a long-time reader of my blog, you've probably seen a number of comments over the years from meg, aka Michelle Goodrich, of Mandarin Design.

Back in 2003, only six months after I'd started blogging, she made an icon to represent me in her "House of Mandarin" (also known by many as her "blogger's quilt")--and I was so touched and honored by that gesture.

Yesterday I saw in AKMA's blog that meg had passed away over the weekend. I don't know what happened, but I'm deeply saddened by the loss of meg's voice--not just on her own blog, but on the many, many blogs that she visited and commented on. She was so a part of the tapestry of blogs and bloggers that I know and love, and she will be missed by many.

simple (but not easy) advice


Over the past few months, I've had a number of people ask me basically how I managed to get to where I am now--doing work that's professionally and personally interesting and challenging. Since I never really had a master plan for professional advancement, it's been a challenge to try to reconstruct my process in a way that could be translated into advice for others.

Today I had coffee with a friend-of-a-friend, and I realized that all this thinking had resulted in a few specific pieces of advice. Seems worth sharing those via the blog.

The first, and most critical thing--at least for me--was to always look for and take jobs that were a little (or even a lot) beyond what I thought I could do. It often felt like I was bullshitting my way in the door, but once I got there I worked my ass off to do what I'd been hired to do. I learned RS-232 cable pinouts on the fly when I took a computer support job back in '87 and said "of course I can design and help install a computer network." I leveraged that networking experience into my job interview at RIT, where I told them confidently that of course I could teach introductory networking classes...and then spent most of my first year barely an hour ahead of my students. (Turns out teaching is less about knowing it all, and more about knowing how to connect other people up with what they need...although it's a helluva lot easier once you know the material well!) There are plenty of other examples. Really, every job I've ever had was something that I went into without all the knowledge I needed, and then had to push myself to grow into, quickly.

Doing that has a number of rewards associated with it. First, you learn a lot, quickly--because if you don't, you'll be out of a job even more quickly. Second, you get a great confidence boost when you pull it off despite your own doubts and fears. Third, that confidence boost shows in your interactions with others, and you get a reputation for being both fearless and dependable. Saying "yes" to the hard (and occasionally unpleasant) tasks makes people see you as the "go to girl" (or guy), which is a good reputation to have...and when interesting and enjoyable opportunities open up, you'll then be the first one they think of.

This really isn't unlike the advice I've seen given for any kind of sports or physical fitness activity--to push a little beyond what you think you can do, which will get you further than you expected every time.

The other important pice of advice is to take interpersonal networking very seriously. One of the biggest stress points in my relationship with my family is the amount of time I spend traveling to conferences. And the reason I keep doing it, despite that stress, is that so many of the best opportunities that have come my way in recent years have been a direct result of meeting and talking with someone at a conference. My job at MSR? A result of attending the first social computing symposium? My invitation to the symposium? A result of meeting Clay Shirky at Supernova (I think...or a similar conference). It's all connected. Carving out the time and money to attend conferences, and then taking full advantage of that attendance to meet and talk with people I respect, pays off handsomely over time.

So that's it. Simple--but not easy--advice. It's the best distillation I can come up with of how I got to this point in my career.

I'm at an MSR talk by David Farkas from UW entitled "Need: How PowerPoint Adversely Mediates Thought and Possible Remedies." Since anyone who's been reading my blog for a while knows how much I dislike most uses of PowerPoint, I'm particularly keen to hear why Farkas thinks Tufte is wrong, and also what he suggests as remediation.

He cites a Microsoft estimate of 30 million powerpoint presentations being given per day. Ouch. I wonder if that's a verifiable statistic.

(In an aside, Farkas notes that PPT is more constraining than Word, since Word provides more of a blank canvas. Farkas says that Tufte believes Word has no cognitive style, while Farkas says that's obviously not true--our tools inevitably shape our message. I'd have to agree with that.)

Discusses a critique by Ian Parker called Absolute Powerpoint, as well as Tufte's The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint.

Where Tufte claims that PPT encourages deep hierarchies (many levels of nested bullets), Farkas argues that the reverse is actually true--there's an upward vector on content, resulting in a flattening of hierarchies.

Farkas asks us to take a step back and look at the larger picture of presentation contexts--audiences, presentation genres (product rollout vs technical briefing vs slide show). Tufte focuses on technical genres of presentations, whereas many PPT presentations are focused on "light" genres.

He says you can't assess a PPT deck outside of the context of the presenter's performance/style. The amount of time spent on each slide, whether or not there's a handout provided, and other factors can influence the effectiveness of the deck. The audience has to be considered, as well...their information needs, their cognitive styles, all impact the effectiveness of the presentation.

He describes PPT as inherently "topo-centric"--the presentation of each slide is static and fixed, rather than scrolling. This is good because it provides persistent context during the presenter's discussio of the slide, but bad because it flattens hierarchies.

Print (and HTML), Farkas argues, have a "downward vector and a nesting problem." Print hierarchies naturally run deeper. (Missed the rest of this because I was briefly distracted...)

"The PowerPoint distortion hypothesis" - It is highly plausible that PPT causes deck authors to distort the visual representation of their logical hierarchies. What, then, are the implications for audiences and presenters?

He uses an example deck to show some of the distortions that can occur, but I'm unable to see anything but the ugliness of this deck. White and yellow Times text, in seemingly random sizes, on a bright purple background. Why does discussion of content always seem to ignore the impact of aesthetics?

Oneof my MSR colleagues questions the underlying assumption that all content is hierarchical. Farkas argues that this is necessarily true, that it's a function of how we think. I'm not convinced--many of the best powerpoint-supported presentations I've seen used no bullet points, and no explicit hierarchies.

When I raise my concerns, he responds by saying he wants to limit his discussion to the genre of presentations that need to present hierarchical content--main ideas, sub ideas, supporting material, etc. I'm still not convinced. One of my frustrations with PowerPoint is that it does in fact push that idea on us--that presentations are and should be made up of hierarchical point/subpoint content. In fact, the people doing the best work with PPT tend to go "beyond bullet points," and use it as a narrative medium. But that doesn't prevent them from presenting very detailed and even technical information--it's just that they're presenting it in a way that doesn't fit into this hierachical structure. (For example...Dick Hardt's identity presentation, or Lawrence Lessig's inimitable talks.)

Another commenter argues that the slide should be the secondary channel, and the presenter should be the primary channel. I wish more people here thought this way...that's a big part of what I was critiquing when I wrote about the "culture of the deck" here.

He makes a number of suggestions about how to make it possible to show complex hierarchies more easily in Powerpoint...something that, quite honestly, makes me cringe. I do like his suggestion, however, that you provide breadcrumb-like information at the top of each slide to show where it fits in a hierarchy (if you choose to make your hierarchy explicit).

Suggests some good directions for future research. How do audiences process information in presentations? Can we better udnerstand deck authoring processes? And the last, which I find last compelling, "develop a meaningful taxonomy /vocabulary of deck content and glossing behavior." I'm not sure we need special language to describe ideas/content in decks as opposed to other text or graphical materials.

An audience member I don't know points out the extent to which the slides were forcing him as a presenter to stick to a script, and not engage the audience. He notes that Farkas engaged the audience in his presentation exactly 3 times, and never more than for ten seconds at a time.) Is this an effect of the hierarchical structuring of the content?

Another questioner asks about ways that we can support more creative presentation styles and more creative presenters. The research question here is "are there ways to identify, incorporate and disseminate best practices in presentation methods?"

There's some discussion about the prevalence (seen as both inevitable and necessary) of PPT decks as standalone documents as opposed to presentation aids. Also some discussion about the ways that the "Notes" section can be used in that context.

(It's amazing to be in a room full of not just smart researchers, but also the people who actually build these tools...several PowerPoint team members are here, responding directly on the intended use of specific features. I will so miss this about MSR talks.)

Farkas slams Atkinson's "Beyond Bullet Points," describing it as destructive rather than helpful. It's a terrible direction, he says, to throw out bullet points entirely. It's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

There's some discussion then about Atkinson's argument, which Farkas says is based on Richard Mayer's work, but is a distortion of it. (Just looked at Mayer's web site, and his work looks fascinating. Note to self: bookmark that for summer reading.) Is it a problem if you've got material on the screen that's unrelated to what you're talking about?

All in all, I'm left with more questions than answers (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and a sense that there needs to be a great deal more research into the underlying assumptions on presentation methods and materials.


Bonus links to PPTs I've seen and loved:

stupid error messages

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Right after posting about the "sorry, no Firefox allowed here" message from our courseware system, I went to the main RIT portal site. On the first page, right where I usually see the balance on my RIT ID card (spendable at campus restaurants and the bookstore), was this oh-so-helpful message:

If this portlet continues to fail please contact the ITS Helkdesk with the following message: There is a problem receiving FSG balances. Please check if squid is functional.

The obvious response, of course, is simply to welcome my new squid overlords.

As I prepare to return to RIT this fall, I'm having to take a look at the new university courseware that they implemented while I was away. We used to use a system called Prometheus, which I wrote about in 2003 in an entry that was one of my most linked-to and commented on. We now use a system called Desire2Learn, and when I went to the main page of the site today, I saw this:

Screen shot of system requirements, which explicitly exclude Firefox

WTF? I can't use Safari. I can't use Firefox. They want me to download a third browser onto my system so that I can use this ridiculous piece of bloatware?

I don't think so.

This is exactly why I created my Movable Type courseware way back when, and I guess I'll be spending part of my summer getting it updated to run more smoothly with the current version of MT...or possibly porting it over to WordPress.


july plans


It's hard to believe it's been nearly a year, but June 30 is my last day at Microsoft. At work I'm wrapping up some projects, and working on ways to continue others from 2800 miles away. At home, I'm pricing shipping options for household goods, weeding out the kids' clothes, and trying not to panic about the packing to be done. (No last-minute second thoughts, at least not yet. It feels good to be going back.)

The wrinkle in our relocation plans is that while our lease here ends on June 30, our tenants in Rochester will be in our house until July 31. So for the month of July, we're technically homeless. And because I'm scheduled to speak at MSR's faculty summit in mid-July, we need to stay in the NW area until then.

So here's our plan:

  • June 30-July 13 we'll be aboard Sabbatical, with a few trips into the Seattle area for parties
  • July 13-July 16 is still undetermined. We might stay with friends in the Seattle area, we might spend a few nights at the condos on Crystal Mountain that the boys liked, we might head to Ocean Shores for a few days. Still working that out.
  • July 16-18 we'll be at the Bellevue Hyatt for the faculty summit
  • July 18-31 will be a slooooow trip down I-90, stopping at national parks and roadside attractions along the way. Definitely a few days in Montana--Scoble's photos made me think that we really need to soak up some of that scenery. Yellowstone, Badlands, Mount Rushmore. Possibly a few days in Ann Arbor, staying with my cousin and her family and showing the kids the places I lived when I was a student (if they haven't been condemned and torn down...) What else? Are there must-see spots along 90 that you think we should visit?

Not a bad way to spend a month, I think.

The boys (and I) were a little worried about Internet access during our month of transience, but they don't need to worry any longer--I just received my new Verizon EVDO card, which gives me high-speed internet almost anywhere! (In fact, I'm posting this entry from the bus on my way to work...how cool is that?) I figured I'd take advantage of my 20% MSFT employee discount while I could, and order it this month. I did the one year contract (can't do it for one month, alas), but given that I'll probably be traveling a bit next year, it will be nice to have broadband access without paying airport and Starbucks surcharges. I won't be able to use it with the MacBook Pro, alas, since it's a PC Card and the MBP uses a different card format. I could buy another card in the right format, I suppose. But I have another plan.

I'm also ordering a new Vaio SZ240 laptop--which weights in at under 4 pounds!--as our primary traveling machine, since we won't be able to set up Gerald's desktop in most of the places we're headed. I'll still be getting a 17" MacBook Pro, but I cancelled the order that they kept delaying, and my department will order me one for my return in August. I love my 17" powerbook, but it's a bear to carry around, and I'm looking forward to having a lightweight, fully-featured laptop that I can use when traveling.

So that's how plans are shaping up.

how to ruin a perfectly good saturday afternoon


I'm sitting in the living room this afternoon, contemplating the boxes that need to be filled with stuff to be shipped back home, when the phone rings. It's my aunt, up in Marysville. I ask how she is, and she hesitates. "Oh, Liz....oh, dear...can I talk to Gerald?" That's very odd. They like my husband, sure, but why would they ask to talk to him first? I ask what's wrong, and she says again "Is Gerald there? Let me talk to him." Now I'm worried.

[And if you are, too, let me break out of the narrative for a second to tell you that everything ends up fine.]

I bring the phone up to Gerald, who speaks briefly to her, says "Let me find out what's going on," and hangs up. He says to me "Before I say anything, you need to keep in mind the source of this information." I'm getting increasingly worried now. "Your grandmother called them to say that your mom and Don [my stepfather] were killed in a car crash."

I sit on the edge of the bed, trying to process this information.

My grandmother is in her 90s, and in an assisted living facility. When I saw her a few weeks ago, she was having a lot of trouble confusing past and present, dates and times. Gerald's right to be cautious. But...I'm still starting to freak out.

"How does she know this?" I ask. He doesn't know. He points out that nobody has confirmed this information from another source, and that it's coming through extremely unreliable channels.

I try calling my mom's house. No answer. I call her cell phone. No answer. Now I'm starting to worry. She often doesn't answer her cell phone, so it doesn't necessarily mean anything. But still...

I can't find Don's cell phone number, so next I try to figure out if there has indeed been a fatal car crash in the area. I call the Monroe County sheriff's department, and they are remarkably unhelpful. If I don't know where the supposed crash took place, they can't find anything out. "How many fatal car crashes are there in the county each day?" I ask. Doesn't matter. They're useless. I hang up.

Next I call the assisted living facility where my grandmother lives, and explain (while trying not to fall apart) the situation. Can they have a nurse or aide talk to my grandmother and find out how she got this information, I ask. I don't want to call her directly, because I assume she's overwrought. They'll do that, they say, but it may take a little while because they're changing nursing shifts. I leave them my phone number.

I check Google News for anything about a fatal crash in Rochester. Nothing.

I finally break down and call my grandmother directly. An aide answers the phone, and confirms that my grandmother is indeed very distraught. "How did she get this news?" I ask. The response is that my grandmother hasn't heard from them in 36 hours, when she believes they were leaving for Boston, and thus has determined that the only possible explanation for the lack of contact is that they were dead. I start to remember how bad my grandmother is at dates and times of travel. I had to tell her at least five times at dinner last month that I was leaving for Seattle the next day, and she still didn't seem to have remembered it properly when I left.

I'm starting to calm down a little now.

While I'm on the phone with my grandmother, Gerald locates Don's cell phone number and calls it. He gets Don on the phone, which I can hear while I'm talking to the aide. Don is apparently fine, as is my mother. I relay this information to the aide, and promise that I will have them call my grandmother right away to reassure her.

I call my aunt, and tell her we've spoken to Don, and that everyone is fine. She is (appropriately) apologetic for scaring the CRAP out of me.

Gerald's cell phone rings. It's my cousin in Ann Arbor, who's close to my mom, checking to see how I'm doing. Gerald, and then I, tell her the good news. We commiserate.

I pour a glass of wine. A big glass of wine. It's not very good wine, and has been in the fridge for several days, but I really don't care. I'm drinking it for its medicinal properties. It would be nice if my hands would stop shaking.

My mother calls, trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. I explain. She apologizes. Three times. It's not her fault, obviously. Going 36 hours without calling her mom is not in any way irresponsible. But I don't think I've ever been as relieved to hear her voice.

I hang up, and get hugs from my son (who's been listening to all of this) and Gerald. I drink some more wine.

And now I'm blogging it. Because only by writing this down, I think, will I see any humor in it. Or be able to let it go.

testing the office 12 blog posting tool


Not very long ago, I was invited by one of the MS Word product groups to join a discussion about blog posting functionality in the Office 12 version of Word. It was a lively and interesting meeting, and I came away cautiously optimistic about their plans.

Now that I'm running v2 of the Office 12 beta, I'm able to test the posting functionality. Setup was surprisingly smooth--it offers wizard-like options for the main hosting services (Blogger, TypePad, Spaces, etc), but also supports the MetaWeblog API, so I was able to quickly and easily input the information for my Movable Type blog.

All in all, I'm very favorably impressed with what they've done. Now I hope the Mac team implements something similar in their next release!

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