mamamusings: microsoft

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

circle of trust

At last year’s social computing symposium, one of the participants (alas, I can’t remember who…but I think it was Elan Lee) suggested that we try an interesting exercise. It’s not exactly a “circle” of trust…more like a square. But it was great fun, nonetheless.

I didn’t realize that Ponzi Pirillo had captured it on video and put it on YouTube, until my older son’s best friend found it and showed it to him.

I highly recommend trying this yourself. It seems impossible that it would work, but it does!

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categories: conferences | microsoft

Monday, 4 June 2007

home sweet home away from home

It was a lovely weekend in Seattle, which Gerald and I spent getting me settled into the new apartment, and celebrating our fourteenth wedding anniversary with a dinner cruise on board the Royal Argosy. It was hard to walk out the door this morning and say goodbye, but I know he’ll be back in just three weeks.

The apartment is quite nice. Not luxurious, but very well located. We’re two blocks from the Redmond Library (where I went tonight to get my card), and across the street from a plaza with a grocery store, game store, Hollywood Video, and chinese takeout. And we’re adjacent to the Sammamish River Trail, which is making me seriously consider learning to rollerblade. There’s a pool just outside our balcony, which will be great for the kids, but means that we get an awful lot of noise throughout the day from people frolicking. Still, if you have to have noise, joyful noise is the best kind.

Today was new employee orientation. While they claim it has been significantly revamped since I went through it just 23 months ago, it didn’t seem that way to me. And again, as a visiting researcher I fall through all the cracks—they ended up once again putting me in the intern group, where I feel completely out of place.

I go back again tomorrow for just a half day, and then (finally) get to head to MSR. I’m so looking forward to getting to work with Lili, and seeing so many of the people I got to know when I was here before.

This week will be spent working primarily on the planning for the ‘07 social computing symposium, which is going to be in September. After that, I’ve got a couple of ideas for what I can work on that I need to bounce off of Lili before I start talking about them here. But never fear, more blogging is near. With the boys away, I’ll have more time than usual for both reading and writing in blogs.

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categories: Seattle | microsoft

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping...

Holy moly, how did it get to be mid-May already??

My older son turned thirteen yesterday, which means I’m now the parent of a teenager. Wow.

Only 2.5 weeks ‘til I head back to Seattle for the summer.

The day after I arrive in Seattle, Gerald and I celebrate our fourteenth anniversary. We rock!

But between now and then there’s grading, grading, and more grading. And packing. And time with the kids, who’ll be in Rochester for most of June to finish school. (Then they’ll each split the summer between Rochester and Seattle—first Lane for four weeks in Seattle, then Alex.)

I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment. But in a mostly good way.

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categories: family | kids | microsoft | travel

Monday, 2 October 2006

nick carr on "algorithmic integrity"

Nick Carr has a stunningly good post up today about search engine rankings, which can easily be manipulated by determined parties (a process known as “Google bombing”).

He quotes spokespeople from both Google and Microsoft defending the fact that the number one result for a search on Martin Luther King is a white supremacist site. Google’s spokesperson said that they “can’t tweak the results because of that automation and the need to maintain the integrity of the results,” while Microsoft’s representative said that they “always work to maintain the integrity of [their] results to ensure that they are not editorialized.”

Here’s how Carr responds to those positions:

By “editorialized,” [the Microsoft spokesperson] seems to mean “subjected to the exercise of human judgment.” And human judgment, it seems, is an unfit substitute for the mindless, automated calculations of an algorithm. We are not worthy to question the machine we have made. It is so pure that even its corruption is a sign of its integrity.
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categories: microsoft | search | technology

Tuesday, 27 June 2006

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 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, 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.

Friday, 12 May 2006

t.l. taylor at msr

I had invited T. L. Taylor to participate in the social computing symposium, but she had a prior E3 commitment. Much to my delight, Tamara Pesik snagged her to speak in the MSR speaker series this week, so I get a chance to hear a presentation from her today about her research! Yay!

There’s a good turnout, which is nice to see.

She starts by painting a basic picture of MMOG environments, including the software and service model associated with them, noting “breakthrough” titles such as Ultima Online (1997), EverQuest (1999), and World of Warcraft (2004).

Shows an excellent chart from showing subscription data (how does he get this?). The WoW curve is pretty astounding (and it’s six months out of date, showing 5 million rather than 6.5 millions WoW subscribers).

She’s interested generally in the relationship between social and technological artifacts, and sees games as an excellent context in which to “unpack” that relationship.

Becoming a player involves a great deal of socialization—norms, practices, social regulation. There’s a lot of ‘indeterminacy’ — things that aren’t specified in the manual, that users have to make sense of and create through social practice. She uses “trains” in EverQuest as an example of how practice and lore develop around technical phenomenon. (She mentions use of trains for grief play, and this spurs an interesting side discussion, one that I refrain from responding to because this is a particularly sore spot for me in WoW right now.) Excellent point here — “you can’t look at a train and figure out what it means; you need to look at the context to understand it.”

Next she talks about guilds, and points out how different they are. Family guilds, professional guilds, raiding guilds, casual guilds, age-based guilds, and many others. Most involve trust, responsibility, accountability, and reputation. At the highest levels of most games, it’s almost impossible to play without having been socialized into a guild structure.

Shows a social network graph showing relationships among members of a family guild, differentiating between RL and RP (role playing) relationships. (Nice line: “Friends are the ultimate exploit.”) Notes the extent to which people share characters, which is technically a bannable offense—but an example of how users co-opt aspects of a system in ways devs may not expect or want.

Some discussion of the external databases of player-created information about the game. The examples she shows require explicit input by users, but many of the WoW sites now use add-ons to automatically update (like, or auctioneer).

Interesting question from the audience—how much of the reward for playing comes from system-based rewards (levels, xp, honor) and how much comes from social interaction (reputation, etc).

Shows a raid-leader’s screen, with mods everywhere. Wow. I’ve not seen this before. It does change the experience. She notes the social impact, as well, since these mods often show explicitly the micro-level contributions of each player.

Talks about some “persistent critical issues.” She mentions a variety of RMT issues—selling accounts, buying gold, etc. Public vs private sources of control. She shows the warrior protest in IronForge, and the “bullhorn-like” response by Blizzard. (Found the story and the screenshots; scroll down to bottom for system message.) Talks about the GLBT-friendly guild issue, as well, and the whole “should real life come into gaming environments” issue.

Discussion (as is typical at MSR talks) is intelligent and wide-ranging, so I’m not going to try to distill it. The most interesting surrounds the issue of “addiction.” This is clearly a divisive issue, and TL handles it quite well. She reminds people of the moral panic over the introduction of childrens’ literature, and talks about the increasing number of people playing with their kids.

Interesting question—“is there a takeaway from your book for designers of social spaces?” Makes me think there’s a hunger for this right now, for lessons we can bring from these increasingly important and influential spaces of play into other contexts.

Posted at 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)
categories: games | microsoft

Monday, 8 May 2006

symposium online access

The folks at MSR don’t seem to have put the necessary information on the event web page (that will hopefully be fixed soon), but we do in fact have the live video feed running at (with about a 27-second delay due to routing and restreaming issues), and the IRC channel will be irc://

Join us!

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categories: conferences | microsoft

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

symposium countdown

This year’s social computing symposium is the first event I’ve ever had primary responsiblity for running, and it’s been quite a learning experience. I have to say, doing something like this at Microsoft, where the quality of administrative and technical support is so high, makes it a whole lot easier. Even so, it’s more work than I initially anticipated, and I’ll be very glad when all the prep work is done. (I don’t want to say “when it’s over” because I’m so looking forward to the event!)

We are planning on webcasting the event outside of Microsoft, so you’re welcome to sit in on the talks remotely, and to participate on the backchannel (which I’m tentatively planning to have at irc://

I do want to make a point of thanking MSR for its willingness to support this event. It’s not cheap to put on a conference, particularly when you offer travel support to all the speakers and students attending, and don’t skimp on food and drink. When you’re the person in charge of the budget, it becomes much clearer just how much it costs to put on an event of this sort. Could it be done less expensively? Sure. But MSR was committed to attractomg and bringing in a wide range of participants, and providing an environment conducive to discussion and interaction, and provided the funds to make that work as smoothy as possible. That includes the funding to webcast the event, which is a non-trivial exercise, and allows it to be open to far more participants than we could squeeze into one room.

It’s not just MSR that’s been supportive. Several product groups stepped up to help support this event, including Windows Live (aka MSN), which is sponsoring the dinner on Monday night, and Channel 9 (and 10), which is sponsoring the reception on Tuesday evening. Many thanks to both of those groups for their recognition of the value of this event and the conversations it enables.

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categories: conferences | microsoft

Sunday, 2 April 2006

2006 msr social computing symposium

Two years ago, I was thrilled when I received an invitation to Microsoft Research’s first social computing symposium. I had a wonderful time at the event, and found a lot of kindred spirits in the world of social computing research and development. I also made my first contacts with Lili Cheng and Linda Stone, who’ve gone on to be the best mentors anyone could ask for. Lili, who managed the social computing group at MSR (until she left to direct the user experience team for Windows Vista), was responsible for my sabbatical invitation.

Last year, with my plans to join the group over the summer well underway, I combined attendance at the second symposium with a househunting trip, and once again connected with people who amazed and inspired me.

This year, I find myself not just attending the symposium, but running it. Upon Lili’s departure from MSR, followed quickly by the departure of Shelly Farnham (who’d masterfully managed the event for the past two years), Marc Smith inherited the event and asked me to run it. The event takes place May 7-9 this year, and we’ve narrowed the focus a bit from past years. The two areas of emphasis for this year’s symposium are online “third places” and/or mobile social software. As in past years, we’ve split the group approximately into thirds—Microsoft & MSR, industry experts, and academics. We’ve also made a significant effort to bring in new names and faces; the repeat rate from past symposia is quite low (38/90 who have been to at least one of the events, only 19 who’ve attended both; those numbers are 23 and 9 if you look only at non-Microsoft attendees).

First, the bad news—the symposium is totally full. We keep the event small, both to foster community and to keep the cost manageable. Microsoft covers the entire cost of the event—facilities, meals, and transportation/housing costs for those presenting (and for doctoral students). Now the good news—if you weren’t invited, you’ll still have a chance to participate. We’ll be webcasting the event live (the panels and the closing keynotes, though not the “open space” discussions.) We’ll also have a live backchannel, probably IRC. (I was thinking about trying Campfire, but they’ve got a limit of 60 concurrent users, and with 90 participants onsite and an unknown number of external visitors, that’s probably too low a cap.)

I’m working on getting a public web page up with information about the event, including the schedule and participant list—with any luck, that will be available by the end of this week, at which point I’ll update this post to point to it.

This year’s event wouldn’t be happening if Microsoft Research wasn’t maintaining its commitment to social computing and open dialogs, and if MSN/Windows Live hadn’t stepped in to help support the cost of the event. Also providing some support were Channel 9 (and its new sister, on10), and MSCOM. (So you understand why the number of invitations had to be constrained, the cost of the event will end up being over $60K. Seattle’s not a cheap place to throw a party.)

It’s easy to hate Microsoft—there have been many reasons over the years (from business practices to blue screens of death) to do so. But it’s worth giving them credit for activities like this one, which benefit the community as a whole through fostering community and collaboration. Anyone who’s attended the past events will tell you this is not a marketing ploy, and that they got something of value of out of the experience.

Currently playing in iTunes: Nobody Else from the album “Los Lonely Boys” by Los Lonely Boys

Monday, 6 March 2006

from catalysis to creation

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…)

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categories: microsoft | research | sabbatical

Friday, 27 January 2006

edge cases and early adopters

This week was the fourth version of Microsoft’ “search champ” program, and the first one where I’ve been heavily involved in the planning (rather than simply being an attendee). It was a great meeting, with some amazing people providing input into new product development in MSN/WindowsLive. I got see to old friends (like Cindy and Walt), and be a fangirl (hi, Merlin!).

During the wrap-up session, when Robert Scoble was talking about designing tools that would optimize everyone’s syndication experience so that they, too, could read 840 feeds, I called him an “edge case.” He didn’t like that. Not one bit. But his defense was, to me, unconvincing.

Robert’s an “edge case” to me in this context because very few people will ever have the time or the inclination—regardless of how good the tools are—to read that many sources. Robert does not because he’s some freak of nature, but because he’s got a job that requires him to monitor activity in the technology community. When I worked at the Library of Congress, I had a job that required me to read dozens of newspapers and magazines every single day, looking for articles related to governmental initiatives. That made me an edge case. Most people don’t read dozens of news publications every day, and it’s not that they want to but simply haven’t found the tools to do it. It’s that they don’t have a need for that much diffuse information.

He felt I used the term derisively, which I didn’t. He’s right that edge cases often push us in new directions, and I’ve got a long-standing interest in liminal spaces (the fancy academic term for those in-between spaces where contexts overlap and new ways of thinking and acting often emerge). But in his reaction, he confused what I see as two very different things—edge cases and early adopters. In this case he’s both. But his response focused much more on how his early adoption of new technologies—from macs to blogs—foreshadowed broader adoption. That’s about being an early adopter, which is not synonymous with being an edge case.

So what’s the difference? To me, an early adopter is someone who recognizes the value of a new technology or tool before it becomes widely used or accepted, and often evangelizes it to others. They recognize trends before they’re trends, and are the ones who are always acquiring the latest-and-greatest technical toys. An edge case is someone who’s on the extreme edge of an activity, regardless of whether they’re an early adopter. Someone who reads 840 blogs is an edge case. But so is someone who reads dozens of daily newspapers, or runs 10 miles every morning. Their choices may influence our behavior—those edge cases are great at recommending things to others—but most people will be far more moderate in their behavior.

There’s a story I cite a lot when I’m talking to people about diffusion of technological innovation. Back in my early days as a librarian in the 1980s, online searching didn’t mean launching a web browser and going to Google. Instead, it meant connecting via dial-up to an online database and doing a searches with complex boolean operators. Librarians loved this, and decided that the whole world needed to learn the “joy of searching.” It was that whole “teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” mentality. One day at a library conference, I heard a wonderful speech by Herb White in which he scolded librarians for this mentality. “I have no joy of searching,” he told the audience. “I have joy of finding!”

In that context of online searching, librarians were both edge cases and early adopters—much like Robert is with blogs and syndicated feeds. They’re edge cases because they do in fact love to search as much as love to find. They find it hard to believe that not everyone would want to learn arcane search syntax in order to improve their online search experience. But they’re also early adopters—they were finding things online before the web was born, and they continue to push the limits on how you can use online search tools (one of my most popular posts ever was a transcription of Mary Ellen Bates’ fabulous “30 Search Tips in 40 Minutes” talk from the 2003 Internet Librarian conference).

Anyone who’s looked at aggregated query logs from a search engine knows that most of the people doing online searching these days aren’t masters of the boolean query. They didn’t become like the edge cases. But they did follow the early adopters—just in a more limited way.

So, Robert, my point wasn’t that because you’re an edge case nothing you do is relevant to other users. Nor do I think being an edge case is bad (I consider myself to be one, too). But the people who follow your lead as an early adopter won’t do it the way you do. They’re simply not going to want or need to read 840 syndicated feeds. And to try to optimize the user experience based on the needs of edge cases isn’t, I think, in anyone’s best interest.

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categories: microsoft | research | search | social software

Saturday, 19 November 2005

the culture of "the deck"

There are many things I’ve been delighted and impressed by during the nearly five months I’ve now spent at Microsoft. However, there have also been a few things that i’ve found extraordinarily disheartening. One of the latter has been the organizatational dependence on “the deck” (that is, Powerpoint files) as the standard mechanism for conveying nearly all information.

Tonight I was reading through one of the blogs I’ve recently added to my aggregator, the most-excellent Presentation Zen (by Garr Reynolds), and I came across a post entitled “The sound of one room napping.” It included this wonderful passage, which sums up beautifully what I’ve been trying to say to the people around me at Microsoft:

Attempting to have slides serve both as projected visuals and as stand-alone handouts makes for bad visuals and bad documentation. Yet, this is a typical, acceptable approach. PowerPoint (or Keynote) is a tool for displaying visual information, information that helps you tell your story, make your case, or prove your point. PowerPoint is a terrible tool for making written documents, that’s what word processors are for.

Why don’t conference organizers request that speakers instead send a written document that covers the main points of their presentation with appropriate detail and depth? A Word or PDF document that is written in a concise and readable fashion with a bibliography and links to even more detail, for those who are interested, would be far more effective. When I get back home from the conference, do organizers really think I’m going to “read” pages full of PowerPoint slides? One does not read a printout of someone’s two-month old PowerPoint slides, one guesses, decodes, and attempts to glean meaning from the series of low-resolution titles, bullets, charts, and clipart. At least they do that for a while…until they give up. With a written document, however, there is no reason for shallowness or ambiguity (assuming one writes well).

To be different and effective, use a well-written, detailed document for your handout and well-designed, simple, intelligent graphics for your visuals. Now that would be atypical.

I wish there was some way to make this (and Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, and Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points) required reading for every Microsoft employee.

[Note to self and colleagues: Use your powers for good. Make the above resources required reading in introductory IT classes.]

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categories: microsoft

i'm just sayin'...

If Microsoft had chosen to name its book digitization and search product “Microsoft Print,” it seems likely there would have been widespread accusations of copycat tactics.

But when Google renames their product “Google Book Search,” nary an eyebrow is raised.

(Obligatory fair-and-balanced link: Niall Kennedy posts a Flickr photo of one of the godawful Powerpoint slides from the recent Window Live announcement, and the comments on the photo are both hilarious and damning. It is indeed true that the “culture of the deck” at MSFT is deadly.)

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categories: microsoft

Sunday, 13 November 2005

miles to go before microsoft sleeps

Shelley Powers wrote a thoughtful post yesterday in response to Kathy Sierra’s comparison of Microsoft and Apple and the differing expecations each company’s users have.

Here’s the passage that really got me thinking:

All in all, Apple promises what it can deliver. Apple promises to be easy, and it is; Apple promises to be sexy, and it is. What Apple doesn’t promise is what it can’t deliver: to be a cheap, reliable work horse.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is a company that makes claims based on its weaknesses, rather than its strengths. It makes grand promises about security, and thus virtually guarantees being a target; releasing, on average, one new security bulletin a week. It brags about reliability, when the operating system has to work on devices that range from the powerhouse to the puny. It seeks to win over business based on the stability of its products, and just when developers had created a wealth of applications in one environment (COM, DCOM, and COM+), it abandons it and the developers in favor of something completely new (.NET).

To be blunt: Microsoft has a corporate death wish, but will never be allowed to die and will, instead, thrive. This rather astonishing contradiction is based on the fact that the Windows operating system is about as ubiquitous as the common cold; the kicker is the reason it’s so ubiquitous is that Microsoft makes promises it can’t keep. Soooo, Microsoft gets slapped, true; but it gets slapped all the way to the bank.

Saying there’s a double-standard, then, when people complain about having to re-boot a Windows laptop, as compared to having to re-boot an Apple powerbook implies that both systems are focused on the same audience, and based on the same promises. It ain’t no such thing.

She’s absolutely right.

Definite food for thought as Microsoft goes through its latest attempt to reinvent itself.

Plenty of promises left to keep…

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categories: microsoft

Saturday, 29 October 2005

on being a corporate research blogger

I got an email this morning from a friend who was critical of my recent posts related to Microsoft and Google. The friend said that since starting my sabbatical I’ve seemed to be unfailingly critical of Google and positive about Microsoft in my posts, and that I needed to be more aware of my online voice. There was more, particularly on the issue of whether I was somehow damaging my objectivity as an academic by allowing myself to become so publicly supportive of a company.

Lovely way to start a weekend. But after I got over the hurt feelings, I started thinking about the larger issues underlying my new role as a corporate pawn. (Should my blog have a big caveat at the top that says “I’ve been pwnz0rzed!”?…) While I don’t agree completely with this friend, I can’t dismiss these criticisms out of hand, nor can I assume that view of me isn’t shared by others.

I started out by combing through my blog to find and point out the times when I’ve criticized Microsoft’s products and practices, and acknowledged the ability of companies like Google and Apple to delight consumers in a way that Microsoft consistently fails to do. (In fact, during my keynote speech at Internet Librarian I explicitly told the audience that I thought many—if not most—of Microsoft’s products sucked—and did so while proudly sporting my 17” powerbook.) But that’s not really the point, is it? It’s perception that’s at issue here, and perhaps I need to more be aware of that perception.

There are a lot of great researchers who work for research labs—Microsoft Research and Google Labs and Yahoo Research are full of them, as are the labs at HP and PARC and IBM. Very few of those researchers have blogs, though. Perhaps it’s because it’s so very hard to strike a balance between bias and objectivity when you’re in this in-between world, and talking too much about your day to day life in the belly of the beast exposes more of that tension?

Where I may be erring on the side of transparency, it’s been primarily an attempt to avoid erring on the side of opacity. Once you take a job working for a company—rather than doing grant-funded collaborative research—you change your relationship to that company. Perhaps I was wrong in thinking that I should be up front about my experiences and reactions to working here…but I’d like to think that there’s more good than bad to be gained from my transparency.

My critic felt that my blog posts here undermined my validity as an “objective” academic, but I’m not sure that I agree. If I were presenting my blog as unbiased research, that would be one thing. But research has to stand on its own in terms of methodology and conclusions—and besides that, is there really such thing as an “unbiased” researcher? For me, knowing the biases of the researchers makes the research more credible rather than less, because I don’t feel as though I need to look for hidden motives. Also, my identity as an academic has always been tied up far more in my teaching than in my research (a function of being a professor at a teaching-focused institution)—and I suspect that my students are far more influenced by the Powerbook I carry, my intense dislike for Microsoft products Powerpoint and Windows, and my use of GMail than they are by any blog posts describing how much I like the people I’m working with at Microsoft.

One of my goals for this sabbatical was to give people a sense of what it’s like to be inside a corporation that’s often thought of as “faceless,” and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. The alternative is to be more opaque, to only write about “big ideas,” but that’s never been the way I approached my personal blog.

In terms of my recent negativity about Google—there’s definitely a mix of things going on there. My basic concern about Google’s domination of the search market (particularly in the hearts and minds of kids) predates my employment with Microsoft, and is a concern shared by a number of people in the library profession (as I pointed out in my Internet Librarian notes). In many ways, Google is the new Microsoft—when you get to be the 10,000-pound-gorilla, people start to mistrust your motives. They’re not a scrappy startup anymore, and they shouldn’t continue to be thought of as such. (But even saying that is to acknowledge how negatively Microsoft is perceived, and for good reason—from its market practices to its often-awful products, MS has gotten its bad reputation the old-fashioned way—they’ve earned it.) Google’s not making the same mistakes as Microsoft, but it’s making plenty of its own. Their secrecy surrounding all of their work is to me antithetical to both academic and library approaches. And in the case of book digitization, I though Roy Tennant’s criticisms were spot-on. Microsoft may have made—and be making still—a lot of bad, ham-handed, bad-for-the-consumer moves…but joining the OCA was not one of those, and I would have praised that even if I hadn’t been an employee.

I don’t really want to work someplace that I can’t be passionate about. And I don’t want to pretend that I’m not engaged in and excited about an environment if I’m not. As a researcher, to what extent should the “rules” (oh, geez, i really hate blogging rules) be different for me than they are for a non-research corporate blogger? At the end of the day, however, I do have to wonder if perhaps I’ve been sucked a little too far into the “us against them” mentality that’s so common inside of corporations (universities, of course, suffer from none of that competitiveness [cough, cough]).

The problem for me right now is that I have only two perspectives on this—mine, and the friend who was brave enough to share a critical view with me. That’s not enough to really triangulate with. So…where do you think the balance lies? (I’m going to work really hard to keep from being defensive in the comments, so if you post something and I don’t respond, I assure you it doesn’t mean I didn’t read it; I just want to absorb right now rather than reacting.)

Thursday, 27 October 2005

microsoft research talk: why business people speak like idiots

This afternoon’s talk is by Chelsea Hardaway and Brian Fugere, authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots : A Bullfighter’s Guide. How could I resist a talk with that title?

This series of talks by authors, which included Neil Gaiman’s earlier this month, is truly one of the things I love most about being at MSR—Tamara Pesik, a former libarian (actually, is there such thing? once a librarian, always a librarian, I think) does a great job of bringing in interesting authors for these talks.

Chelsea starts out by showing the Business Week cover story on Microsoft, and says they wanted to have a conversation with us as to how Microsoft can start to woo back some of the customers and media that they’ve alienated.

We’re going to play a game, she says. Puts up a slide with images of the $10,000 pyramid. She’s going to toss out words and see if we get the right answer. Focus on what Microsoft has and doesn’t, but she ends with the fact that Microsoft, unlike some of its competitors, is missing personality. She seems to think that the perceived corporate personality is reflective of the people here, which hasn’t been my experience.

Mentions Whole Foods humanity, Virgin Airlines humor and edginess. Hands the microphone over to Brian., who says we have to worry more about “this thing called personality” than we ever have before.

(His approach strikes me as somewhat condescending, and targeted at the wrong audience. Most of these people are “individual contributors,” and are far from lacking in passion and personality.)

Why? He says there’s something profound and significant happening right now that hasn’t quite caught up to us yet, and cites Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind (I seem to be one of the few people here who’s read the book). Pink does do a great job of talking about things like why Starbucks can charge so much for a cup of coffee, and why we buy designer toilet brushes.

Says Msft has functioned for too long on the left side of the brain — analysis, data,, logic. We need to have more persuasion, narrative, empathy.

Shows Google’s halloween logo as an example of how companies can use personality to build brand connection. Says he’s a power searcher, he should care about algorithms. But he doesn’t. To him, all search engines are basically the same product. He cares about the aesthetics. He wants a “Michael Graves” search engine. Does Microsoft “get that”? He’s right about this—I mentioned in one of my Internet Librarian posts the speaker who said that Microsoft’s products fail to delight, but that Google’s almost always do.

Also shows Apple’s inclusion of Rosa Parks on their home page this week. At the company worked (works?) at, Deloitte, it would have taken six weeks of committee meetings to get this on the main web site, but Apple did it in 24 hours. Very powerful stuff. Could Microsoft have done this?

Shows a “napkin drawing” that GMail sent out to announce their service (I hadn’t seen this before). “It’s so authentic!” he exclaims. (“Huh?!?” I respond to myself. That’s not authenticity. That’s a carefully crafted marketing message that has manipulated his responses exactly as they planned.)

Then shows Ballmer’s infamous “developers, developers, developers” speech. He loves the passion. If they could change one thing about it, it would be to substitute the word designer for developer in that chant. This (Microsoft) is a company that reveres technology…perhaps it needs to make room for people who, in Apple’s terms “think different.” I’d agree with him on this point, too.

Talks about the “dinosaur” ad campaign. It’s funny, yes. But it’s insulting, too. Why can’t we turn our $ into better advertising campaigns. If he were us, he’d fire our advertising agency. Someone in the audience talks about how that campaign was carefully tested, and Brian says “THAT’S THE PROBLEM!” He’s been in marketing, he knows how testing can kill a product. Someone in the audience points out that on the individual level, we do have that passion and creativity, but that there’s a “blanding” process.

Someone asks about Microsoft bloggers—is that good or not? He responds “yes and no.” Reaching out to customers is good. But, he says: “I’m shocked that you guys tolerate Scoble. You pay this guy to criticize your company? Not in my company, man.” (Um, is Deloitte really doing that great a job of building its brand?) I think he’s way off base on this. Scoble has done an enormous amount to change the stodgy, defensive stereotype of this company. And while he does occasionally (and appropriately) criticize, he does a lot of singing the company’s praises, too. Because he does the former, people are willing to listen to the latter.)

Shows Dennis Hwang, who does Google’s artwork. Labels the image “Your new headache.” Who are our Dennis Hwangs? How do we identify and celebrate them?

Next shows Infosys Consulting’s web site, and compares it to ours, which he says is covered with SGPs—“stupid generic photos.” (The classic is a black hand and a white hand shaking.) What do we do when we see these? Ignore them. And that’s not what we want people to do.

Talks about the excellent iPod packaging, quotes the I.D. Magazine award praising it. This delightful, joyful user experience isn’t about the features and functions—it’s about the feeling that it creates, and the bond that’s created, when I experience this company’s products.

There’s some interesting question and answers, but it’s not clear to me what the goal here is. I was really hoping for more of a discussion of their book itself, and less of a this “we know what’s wrong with you,” somewhat condescending talk.

Puts up on the screen the text from Microsoft’s announcement of the recent re-org. “Is this how you talk to your family?” they ask. They’re right on target with that. Brian points out that it’s unlikely the executives from whom that came actually wrote it.

He then, however, appears to makes the assumption that we all talk like this within the organization, that we’re all corporatized drones. That’s a flawed assumption—which I just challenged him on.

They skip past a bunch of slides that look genuinely interesting…I wish they’d done more of their standard approach than trying to make this “Microsoft specific.” (Funny thing is that Kathy Sierra did some very similar things when she spoke to us in MSN, but I found it much less grating. I think it’s because she focused not on “here’s what’s wrong with you,” but instead on “here’s the good stuff I see here and here’s how to unleash it.”)

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categories: books | microsoft

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

internet librarian 05: parting thoughts

This is the first conference I’ve attended in a long time that’s made me want to blog non-stop. And it’s not insignificant that it’s a library-focused conference that inspired me.

When I took a job teaching information technology, instead of a job teaching in a library school, I assumed I was leaving my library roots behind. I wasn’t able to justify travel to library conferences, and I felt my ties to the professions starting to dissolve. But over the past several years, with the rise in social computing as a theme in technology, I’m delighted to find the threads weaving back together. Suddenly, libarians are talking about the same things that technologists are talking about—managing information, collaborative filtering, metadata and classification schemes. And I’m in the wonderful position of having a legitimate foot in both camps.

At the speakers’ reception last night, Michael Stephens told me he was preparing to do a survey of librarian bloggers, and asked me if I’d participate. It was lovely to be thought of as a librarian in the present tense.

And now, as I fly over Utah’s extraordinarily beautiful Great Salt Lake (I’ve never seen it before, and am grateful for the clear skies that are allowing me this bird’s-eye view…photos will be on Flickr soon), I’m thinking about how to keep these bonds a little tighter in the future. I really should touch base with some of the faculty I know at UW’s I-School, and see about maybe giving an occasional guest lecture over there. And I’ll be working hard on the folks at MSN, whose absence was notable this week. Google’s not making the mistake of ignoring libraries in their quest to win the hearts and minds of searchers, and MSN shouldn’t be making it either. If that’s the only tangible legacy I leave behind, it will have been a year well spent.

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categories: conferences | librarianship | microsoft

Tuesday, 25 October 2005

joel spolsky and kathy sierra on microsoft and mediocrity

(Geez, I’m spending too much time with Scoble these days. Can’t remember the last time I posted this many posts in this short a time…)

Ouch. Spot-on criticisms of Microsoft from Joel Spolsky’s excellent blog:

The fact that it’s 2005 and I can’t buy a relational database from Microsoft that has full text search integrated natively and completely, and that works just as well as “LIKE” clauses, is really kind of depressing.

A very senior Microsoft developer who moved to Google told me that Google works and thinks at a higher level of abstraction than Microsoft. “Google uses Bayesian filtering the way Microsoft uses the if statement,” he said. That’s true. Google also uses full-text-search-of-the-entire-Internet the way Microsoft uses little tables that list what error IDs correspond to which help text. Look at how Google does spell checking: it’s not based on dictionaries; it’s based on word usage statistics of the entire Internet, which is why Google knows how to correct my name, misspelled, and Microsoft Word doesn’t.

If Microsoft doesn’t shed this habit of “thinking in if statements” they’re only going to fall further behind.

I can’t argue with a lot of that. However, I will say that there’s far more of that high-level and creative thinking at Microsoft than most people realize. The problem is something that Kathy Sierra describes beautifully in her recent post on “The Concept Carification effect” (and yes, that’s spelled properly in this context). She quotes Steve Jobs from a recent Time article on Apple:

“Here’s what you see at a lot of companies; you know how you see a show car and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory! “What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible,’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

And with that, I’m off to bed. Really.

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categories: microsoft

internet librarian: the googlebrary

Tonight’s panel is moderated by Stephen Abrams, with a number of library pundits and Adam Smith from Google Print. Before the presentation even begins, a young man circulates around the room handing out a glossy sheet with the Google logo at the top entitled “The Facts About Google Print.” Gotta love their ability to spin things. It’s not an “FAQ,” it’s not “information”—it’s Facts.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days talking with librarians who are openly enthusiastic about Google’s digitization project—not because they love Google, but because they desperately want this information in searchable form. This evening at the speaker’s reception, someone said to me “the only question is when this will happen.” I looked at him in surprise, and responded that I thought that an equally important question was “who.”

So, the panel’s about to start…and the first thing I notice is that I seem to have been transported into a web 2.0 panel: all white men, all the time. The only difference is that all of these men are over 40. <sigh> I don’t mean to denigrate any of the panel members—they’re all smart, accomplished guys. Rich Wiggins from MSU, Steve Arnold from Arnold Info Systems, Roy Tennant from Cal Dig Lib, Mark Sandler of Univ Mich, and Adam Smith from Google Print.

Oh…wait! Barbara Quint, editor of Searcher Magazine, is here, virtually (via speaker phone). A truly invisible woman in this case.

Stephen Abrams is a great moderator—energetic, funny, engaging. Notes that Google’s under fire from publishers and authors, and now the threat of congressional hearings. “I’m sorry, I’m from Canada. We think your congressional hearings are great entertainment.”

Starts with Adam. “I’m Adam, I’m from Google, and I’m here to give you the TRUTH about Google, and dispel the misinformation that’s out there about Google.” (Heh…”I’m from the government Google and I’m here to help you.”)

“We’re doing this out of necessity, not desire.” (They’re hitting this line hard in a lot of contexts these days; I rather liked Nicholas Carr’s comment on this approach last week.)

Shows the three “user experiences” they intend: the publisher program, public domain books, and copyrighted books. The last is the one that’s most contentious. Smith says: “This is allowed under fair use.” Huh. Judge and jury, case closed? If it were that clear cut, would there be this much controversy surrounding it? While they may well be right, to present opinion as fact is troubling.

Abrams takes over again, and says that we’re going to move fifteen years into the future. We’ve built the megalibrary, and we’re looking back: what did we do right? Or…what did we do wrong? How did we get here?

Rich Wiggins starts out. He appears to have fallen under the Google spell… “Looking back, the leading search engine company, worth billions, has digitized the world’s culture.” A truly utopian vision. (I like Rich, and he’ll probably read this, so I’ll apologize in advance—Rich, I’m criticizing the ideas and tone, not the person. :)

Roy Tennant totally takes the other end: Google is bankrupt due to mismanagement, and the rest of the world has figured out how to do digitization well. (Adam, he says, has cleverly cashed out in 2009.) The MARC format is dead, libraries have discovered that systems don’t integrate well, and have come to grips with how to change them. I like this Utopian vision a lot better than the last one! (He and Rich are debating tomorrow morning; I’ll definitely have to attend that keynote!)

Mark Sandler: In 2020, Internet Librarian has become the Librarian conference; ALA in turn has become the American Print Library Assn. (Much laughter…) Google may or may not be there—he doesn’t know what the life span of a 7-year-old multi-billion dollar company is. But in Billings MT and Berea KY there are now libraries with 50 million, 100 million volumes available to their readers (from the speakerphone, Barbara’s voice cries “Yes! Yes!”).

Barbara looks back from 2020 to 2006, when Google launched “Google Press” (I can’t make sense of what she’s saying—the voice cuts in and out…) Five years later, it is renamed the “Google Full Court Press.” (wish I could hear all of this)

Steve talks about his book, “The Google Legacy.” Says he’s the only person in the room whom Sergey Brin has said is stupid. (Anybody have the cite to that? I couldn’t find it in a quick search…) He says he’s not interested in Google Print or Google Scholar, he’s more interested in GoogleBase, which allows Google to become world’s largest publisher of scientific information. Abrams asks him to explain GoogleBase, and he responds: “I’m not explaining Google Base. It’s not my job. Sergey thinks I’m stupid, and we have someone here from Google that Sergey thinks is smart. Let him explain it.” Heh.

He makes a critical point here, though. Microsoft’s products don’t delight. Google’s products do delight. (Quick round of Microsoft bashing ensues, during which I’m glad I’m not on stage. :)

Adam gets to have his futuring moment. Says 2006 was a turning point year, where “we all worked together to do the right thing.” We freed ourselves from the worries of digitization and formats. In 2020 everyone is an author, everyone is a publisher, everyone is an archivist, everyone is involved in the creative process. (He should read danah’s post from nearly two years ago… “Consumption and production are fundamentally different and there are different forms of pressure when engaging with either. There is no way that one can possibly say that the threshold for consumption is equivalent to the threshold for production.”)

(Roy suggests a round of Kumbaya at this point. I nearly fall off my chair. You go, Roy!)

Stephen asks “what will happen to the librarians in 2020?”

Mark says that some of them will be gone. Why would we need “local providers” when they have the WalMart of libraries? (He says this with a straight face…at least Roy seems to raise his eyebrows.) Local libraries are going to have to change their mission. It has to be about access, about pampering users and adding real value to their lives. They’re going to be like “cosmetic counters”. WTF?!? Apparently he’s serious here—he keeps going on this tack, as I become increasingly astonished.

Barbara weighs in over her spotty audio feed. (I have to ask…why are they using a telephone line run through the sound system rather than a high-quality IP solution with a direct audio line out of the computer? Skype gives far better quality than what we’re hearing.) She says readers are more tightly connected to their readers, authors are building books out of Google’s content. Book prices are dropping, open access keeps increasing. Librarians are helping to discriminate between good, bad, lousy and lousier materials. “when everything is digital, you’re paying people to help you not read bad stuff.” Librarians become censors. (Why the choice of that extraordinarily loaded word rather than the less judgmental and polarizing term “filters”?)

Roy says he wants to jump into this “digital lovefest.” Digital won’t make print go away—it never will. Putting digital materials online increases book circulation. Libraries have never been just about “stuff.” They’re about service. That doesn’t change when collections are digital. (Yay!)

Rich says the cloudy part of the crystal ball is about how we’ll be accessing this information. Display technology will change a lot about how we access things. If we have “e-paper” widely available by 2020, it changes this discussion.

Steve says everyone in this room needs to wake up the associations and get them more engaged in the role of the library as an institution. Unless that happens, we’ll have a repeat of what happened in Salinas, where the library was shut down. This is a job for everyone here to carry back to the associations and be militant about it, so we don’t become marginalized. Also, the library is an institution about learning and information, not limited to a type of material. It is a manifestation of how to organize and access information, whether it works with digital or print artifacts. Having said that, he thinks there will be a “pushing down” of librarianship into some institutions (like schools), and a pushing up into businesses—but the pain will be in the middle. That’s where the impact of Google will be.

Abrams breaks in, and says Adam is an “immigrant” into the world of libraries. What does Adam think?

Adam responds by saying that just because everything is digital doesn’t mean everything is good. (Um, yeah. This isn’t news to anyone in this room.) Editorial control will still be relevant and important. How do we communicate what’s good, when everyone’s “good” is a little different. Hopefully the “truly good” will rise to the top.

Stephen points out that Google has two new patents for determining the “quality” of information. Asks Adam what the impact of that will be on libraries. Smith doesn’t seem to really answer the question directly.

Audience questioner takes the room to task about the fact that we’re taking this very lightly; also points out that many of the panel members have a vested interest in Google’s success in this space. Barbara responds (again nearly unintelligible, but seems to be focused on serials).

Librarian from a small library says that his life isn’t long enough to read what they already have, let alone adding so much more. How do we evaluate all that information? (I’d like to see more discussion of collaborative filtering here…) Mark responds that as a collection dev officer, they try to buy “all but the very worst books.” Says in research libraries they’ve always operated on the “long tail” model—you can’t anticipate what researchers might want, so you collect broadly to try to cover all the bases. Maintaining that physical collection is tremendously difficult, and makes it harder and harder to move forward.

An audience member asks about preservation…Adams quite appropriately points to the work being done by academic researchers in this area.

A couple of questions about digital rights management. One commenter says Michigan’s agreement with google is quite impressive in this regard. (I’m starting to feel a little bad for him; the audience wants him to answer all of their questions about what they think is wrong with Google, and of course that’s not fair for him.

I ask about the fear of a single source—Steve responds that there will be at least three companies that will do this, that the market will force this to happen. Google will be one, obviously. Yahoo is looking at this as well. MSFT will probably be in that space. There will not be a single source, no matter how hard anyone tries. That will be emergent—the market will accomplish that. (Barbara says we have three: open content alliance with Yahoo and whoever else joins, and Amazon, and Google.) Steve disagrees—he believes there will be three, and the only one we know for sure at this point is Google. Barbara responds that right now we do have three—digitization is coming from three players, not one. Roy points out that Yahoo is only one of many players in OCA.

And then, as if on cue…

Big Announcement The Open Content Alliance tonight had an official inaugural event in San Francisco—and at the reception it was announced that Microsoft is joining the alliance, and is funding the digitization of 150K books over the next year. Microsoft’s contribution will be known as MSN Book Search.

Smith’s response: Google absolutely welcomes Microsoft’s participation in OCA, because it’s all about making the world a better place.

Some discussion about what will happen to the physical artifacts? Who will take responsibility for ensuring that the books themselves continue to exist? Will they be lost in the digital shuffle?

Roy: Librarians still have a lot to learn about Google. And Google still has a lot to learn about libraries. (he gets some applause on this)

[Oy. I’m tired. There are other things being said, but I’m no longer able to listen and process and type. Sorry.]

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categories: conferences | librarianship | microsoft | search

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

neil gaiman at microsoft

One of the many perks of working at Microsoft is the top-name speakers they bring in. This week it’s author Neil Gaiman—whose work, I’m embarassed to admit, I’ve never read. I’ve purchased a paperback copy of Stardust for him to sign, and I think I’ll give it to my son as a birthday present this weekend (I’m pretty sure he won’t be reading the blog before then, so it’s safe to say so). We can read it together, something we haven’t been doing enough lately.

Gaiman is doing a public talk and signing at a Seattle bookstore tonight, but it’s lovely having a smaller, more intimate version (there are about 125 people attending) here in my building.

Starts by saying it’s appropriate that he’s talking here, since he rencently spoke at Google—their motto, he says, is “do no evil,” while ours seems to be “we don’t really have a problem with that.” (laughter in the room)

Says his new book, Anansi Boys, is funny and happy, in contrast to its predecessor, American Gods. Describes the new book a bit, and then does a brief reading from the book. (Great delivery. He’s fun to listen to.) It’s a screwball romantic comedy ghost thriller epic novel (with probably a few more genres thrown in).

He says here in the 21st century, there really aren’t meaningful genres anymore. They’re basically ways to avoid a part of the bookstore you’re not interested in. This book will go either in SciFi or Literature—he doesn’t care, since it went straight in on the bestseller list at #1.

How did that happen? What does that say about the wired/wireless world we’re living in?

Advertising in the publishing world doesn’t come anywhere near advertising in the brand product world. He feels he “solved” this problem for himself back in 2001.

He was an early adopter—CompuServe, GEnie, the WELL. Then when he finished American Gods, he discovered blogging. He told his editor he wanted to write about what happens between when you type “the end” and when the book hits the bestseller list. Nobody ever hears that story—what happens with getting rights to song lyrics, for example?

He had a great time writing the stories on the blog—and when the book came out, he had 20K readers of his blog! So he carried on. It was like the online community sites he’d used before in many ways.

Currently the blog has 1.2 million individual visitors (he doesn’t say in what time period—is that monthly? weekly?). That meant there were many people looking forward to the release of Anansi Boys, who went out and bought it as soon as it was released. (“And suddenly, Dan Brown was ground beneath my heel,” he says, to widespread laughter.)

But, he points out, it was a side effect of the blog, not the purpose of it. (This is really important…)

The downside of the blog is the impact on signing tours—instead of 150 people, he gets 750—and a very sore signing hand. As a result, alas, the paradigm of the book tour breaks. This is a quandary that he’s trying to resolve.

Backs up and speaks to those who are here because someone else told them to be here, and provides some background about what he’s written. He started with a (graphic novel?) called Sandman, going all the way through the movie he just wrote called Mirrormask, modeled somewhat on Labyrinth. Made it for less than $4 million.

Just started filming a new (and much higher budget) Beowulf movie in a “Polar Express” animation style; if PE was 1.0, this film will be 3.0. Made for adults—plenty of blood and killing and mead. (“Lots of mead.”) This is the biggest, best dragon battle ever made, he promises.

Goes to Q&A.

Someone asks if Miracle Man will ever be finished—and he says, yes, that could happen. (Apparently this is an old comic character he worked on years ago.) He says that it’s simply too long a story, complicated by a trip to bankruptcy court, which must be resolved before more can be done.

The next question is about his writing in Babylon 5, and since I don’t know any of the names being thrown about I can’t really capture the sense of the q or the a.

Talks about the difference between graphic and textual novels. Graphic novels allow the writer more control over pace and perception of appearance. Text allows you to be more nuanced, make the readers work harder (if they’re willing to play). Contrasts both to movies and their ability to twist what happens in real life.

(As he’s been answering questions, I’ve been looking through the back of the book I bought, and it looks like I might want to acquire Coraline for my son, as well…)

Discusses computers vs paper for writing. He loves writing first drafts on paper, as well as the discontinuity of separate first and second drafts (he likes the distinct quality of separate paper drafts, but eventually moves the mss to the computer). Movie scripts, however, he does completely on the computer.

[After he finished, I bought a hardcover copy of Coraline as the birthday present, so that each child will have a signed book… They both look like great stories, and I’m looking forward to quality reading-aloud time with the boys this weeked.]

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categories: books | microsoft

Friday, 16 September 2005

lunch with dan ling

I had lunch today with Dan Ling, the corporate vp for Microsoft Research. We had a lovely discussion about social computing topics, as well as my impressions of Microsoft thus far.

I realized that the biggest problem I’ve encountered here is a growing sense of isolation—if I don’t make a proactive effort to schedule time with other people, I end up spending the day in my bare, windowless office. And since I tend to do my best thinking when I’m engaged in discussion with others, this hasn’t been a healthy thing.

Dan pointed out that the MSR office buildings’ design doesn’t facilitate informal meetings at all. Too many isolated corridors, high-traffic locations like kitchen and restrooms opening up onto narrow connecting corridors rather than open areas. I really miss the Golisano building at RIT—it really did a great job of facilitating informal interaction. :(

During the course of our discussion, I also mentioned to Dan my critique of the Virtual Earth Katrina maps. When he asked whom I’d sent it to, I told him I’d blogged it rather than sending it out. Perhaps I need to make a point of letting people internally know when I’ve blogged about Microsoft stuff, though, since it’s unreasonable to think that they’re all hanging on my every word here!

Clearly, I need to start being more proactive in a number of ways, which starts with my requesting some office space over in RedWest with the MSN search folks, so that I can interact with them more regularly as they start to roll out potentially cool new features. I also have to take the initiative in scheduling regular lunch and/or coffee dates with people whose work I’m interested in, so that I can find ways to contribute a little more around here.

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categories: microsoft

Thursday, 15 September 2005

the good, the bad, and the ugly: microsoft's new katrina photomaps

One of the things I’ve been using—and pointing people to—since Katrina is Google’s brilliant “Katrina” button, which they implemented a few days after the flooding. In addition to their map, satellite, and hybrid views, they added a bright red Katrina view, which showed satellite photos as of 8/31.

While the idea was excellent, the execution was somewhat limited. The photos weren’t very detailed, making it hard to assess damage in specific spots (an important task for people with homes or businesses in New Orleans). And worse, a number of areas of the city were completely missing—so when I searched for a friend’s house, I got a big blank spot on the map. (click image for larger version)


Today, I found that MSN’s Virtual Earth had launched something similar, but with flyover photos (not just satellite) taken last week. These photos, taken from low-flying airplanes rather than orbiting satellites, show a much higher level of detail. Better still, they include the area where my friends live (which, alas, appears to still be underwater. From the standpoint of someone who needs real information about their property in New Orleans, there’s no question that the MSN implementation is far more useful. It also offers a side-by-side before and after view that allows you to pan in tandem, which is also quite useful. (again, click the image for the larger version)


So why the title?

The good is obvious. This is a very helpful tool that addresses many of the shortcomings of Google Maps’ Katrina view.

The bad is that it was slow, and once again, looks too much like a me-too attempt after Google has innovated. It doesn’t matter if the ideas were born at the same time—what matters is that Google captured the mindshare by bringing something out fast when people were starved for information.

The ugly is that it only works in IE on a PC.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

People like Google because their tools just work—regardless of your platform or your browser. They don’t require you to change the way you work and the tools you use in order to get access to the features they’re offering.

Why can’t Microsoft do the same? Why, oh why, do they have to design all of their coolest technology only for those who agree to use their browser on their operating system? It’s not just an issue of market share. It’s an issue of mindshare, and goodwill, and getting your products to be adopted and championed by opinion leaders.

If Microsoft wants to compete in the brave new world of web 2.0, they’re going to have to start designing web sites that just work, rather than crippling them by using technologies that aren’t cross-platform and cross-browser.

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categories: microsoft

Wednesday, 10 August 2005

mindshare, market share, and monopolies

I talked on the phone today (why yes, I do still use analog communication media…) with danah boyd, who took me to task for my last post. Her concern wasn’t with my negativity about Google, but about the extent to which the post made it seem that I’d become an unapologetic supporter of the Microsoft culture (or cult). Her argument was that in fact, Google doesn’t dominate search, it only dominates among the technocrats—much like Powerboks are the toy of choice for social software geeks, but not for the world at large.

I was a little taken aback by this, because I’d been fully convinced that Google’s dominant mindshare (when was the last time you heard someone use MSN or Yahoo as a verb meaning “search”?) reflected an equally dominant market share. My interest in seeing MSN succeed was never (and still isn’t) about having a Microsoft monopoly replace a Google monopoly—it was, and still is, about there being legitimate competion in this space. I don’t want anybody having a chokehold on online information access. So I set out to do some fact-checking. (I assume that the MSN Search folks have very detailed numbers, but I didn’t want to ask for anything that I couldn’t blog about.)

I started at the Pew Internet & American Life site, since they’re generally my favorite source of solid stats on Internet use. In May & June of 2004, they conducted a survey on search engine usage. They reported on the results in both a memo from August 2004 and a more detailed report in January of 2005—the relevant piece of this survey found that when asked “Which search engine do you use MOST OFTEN,” 47% of respondents replied Google , followed by Yahoo at 26%. MSN trailed well behind both at 7%.

In an attempt to find something more recent, I did some broader searches on search engine statistics and market share, and found a Business Week article from last month entitled “Google’s Leap May Slow Rival’s Growth.” The article opens with this paragraph:

Nearly a year after Google’s (GOOG ) IPO marked the start of a new phase in Web search competition, the upstart is making industry giants Microsoft’s (MSFT ) MSN and Yahoo! (YHOO ) look like also-rans. Google’s share of U.S. searches hit 52% in June, up from 45% a year ago, according to Web analytics firm WebSideStory Inc. By contrast, Yahoo’s and MSN’s share slipped to 25% and 10% respectively. Says Mark S. Mahaney, an analyst at Smith Barney Citigroup (C ): “People haven’t been given a good reason to switch from Google.”

I also found an article from February 2005 on SearchEngineWatch by Danny Sullivan, in which he cites data received from comScore. The results he cites show Google with a 35% share, Yahoo with a 32% share, and MSN with a 16% share. Here’s how Danny describes that data:

The comScore Media Metrix qSearch service measures search-specific traffic on the internet. qSearch data is gathered by monitoring the web activities of 1.5 million English-speakers worldwide (1 million in the United States) via proxy metering.

Proxy metering allows comScore to see exactly how those within its panel have surfed the web. From this data, the company then extracts activity that’s considered to be specifically search-related.

[…] The qSearch figures are search-specific but not necessarily web-search specific. For example, a search performed at Yahoo Sports would count toward Yahoo’s overall total. That’s important to understand.

So, what am I missing? I can’t find any evidence that my perception of Google as the dominant player in this market is incorrect. If you know of research that contradicts this conclusion, I’d really love to know about it—please add a comment with a cite!

Right now, I don’t think that Microsoft’s search product is as good as Google’s. And I think that what Yahoo is doing with MyWeb is in fact the killer app of search. My working with MSN for a year isn’t going to suddenly catapult the company into a monopoly on web search (although it is giving me a fascinating view into how corporate culture influences the direction of products, not always in a good way). But I do think there’s value in evening the playing field. Microsoft is going after search market share—that’s a given. If I’m here, I can try to help them do it in a way that benefits the users of their service. If I’m not here, they only thing that changes is that my input into the product disappears. My presence has no impact on Microsoft’s business practices or goals. But it might well result in some influence on the direction of their product development, and I’m okay with that.

At the end of the day, I still harbor a healthy distrust of most corporations and their cultures, regardless of how much I like the people that work there, or the products they produce.

Update, 2:51pm

SearchEngineWatch has a few other articles on market share. This one provides the May 2005 Nielsen NetRating figures, showing Google with 48%, Yahoo with 21.2%, and MSN with 12.4%.

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categories: microsoft | search | technology

Monday, 8 August 2005

why i want msn to succeed

No, it’s not because the evil empire is paying me enough to shift my priorities. It’s the same reason that I agreed to be a part of MSN’s Search Champs program when they invited me last year—having Google as the gatekeeper to all online information is something that scares the crap out of me.

I don’t think Google is evil. But I know that they’re capable of making mistakes. And when they’re thought of by much of the world as the authoritative online source, their mistakes take on more magnitude than they might in a more balanced and competitive context.

I’ve had a great reminder of this over the past week, as I’ve struggled to find out from Google why the pagerank for my blog URL ( has suddenly dropped to zero. For over a year it’s been solidly at 6 every time I’ve checked (which wasn’t often, since the Google toolbar didn’t work on my mac, so I had to go to an external site to check it). But last week I installed the Google toolbar for Firefox, and loaded up my blog. I was shocked to see that it didn’t register at all.

I checked a couple of things before I contacted Google. First, I checked an external pagerank monitoring site to confirm the result. Then I searched for my first name in Google…as before, came up as the third result in the set, which seems to indicate that the site still retains some importance in the index—that didn’t seem to match the zero pagerank number. Then I did a link: search on on Google, and found that the number of results had dropped dramatically. Note the following:

link: (Google) : 897 (MSN): 25,811
link: (Yahoo): 103,000


So I emailed Google’s customer support, explaining the details of the situation, particularly the precipitous drop combined with the continuing high results for a first name search. I received a response from the “Google Team” (no names, of course) with a very simplistic response:

Hi Liz,

Thank you for your note. Please be assured that your site is not currently penalized by Google.

A page may be assigned a rank of zero if Google crawls very few sites that link to it. Additionally, pages recently added to the Google index may also show a PageRank score of zero because they haven’t been crawled by Googlebot yet and haven’t been ranked. A page’s PageRank score may increase naturally with subsequent crawls, so this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. To learn more about PageRank, please see

The Google Team

Well, that was helpful. (Not.)

So I replied to “The Google Team,” explaining that I was fully aware of how pagerank worked, and that I continued to feel that the precipitous drop indicated a “cause for concern.”

I got another reply from “The Google Team,” this time telling me that they’d discovered a mirror site ( that had a higher pagerank (I automatically mirror the .net site on .com because so many people tend to assume the .com domain, but the number of actual links to that page is quite low), and that if I was to redirect from the .com to the .net with a 301 message that the problem would probably be resolved.

Well, maybe that would increase pagerank a bit. But it still doesn’t explain why my site went from a rank of 6 to one of 0.

In response to my providing them with the same URLs referenced above, they said only that:

Also, we’d like to reiterate that our link search does not return a comprehensive set of results. We recommend selecting the “Find web pages that contain the term” link for a more comprehensive list of the links that point to your page.

Lastly, please note that we can’t comment on other search engines’ results.

So at the end of the day, they (a) won’t explain why or how my pagerank could have dropped so quickly and completely, and (b) won’t explain why so many links to my site have apparently disappeared from their index.

It’s a damn good thing that I’m not running a commercial site where pagerank is more of an issue. As it is, for me this is just an annoyance. But for many others, it would be far more problematic.

What this underscores to me is how dangerous Google’s current dominance in search engine mindshare is, particularly when combined with their lack of incentive to be accountable to siteowners. Monopolies of any kind make me nervous. Monopolies on information make me particuarly nervous. I’m very glad that Yahoo and MSN are making credible efforts to make search a more competitive space, and I’m also quite glad to be involved with Microsoft’s efforts to do so.

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categories: microsoft | technology

Friday, 29 July 2005

microsoft research talk: robin hunicke

(Stupid Ecto for Windows is ignoring my request that this be a draft entry ‘til I’m done, so expect frequent updates over the next hour or so…)

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.

She wants to “make another me”—she thinks it’s mostly because people don’t realize that there are opportunities in this space. So, what has to happen to “make another me”?

So, how do we reposition CS? CS is more than a discipline, it’s a way of thinking about things in a procedural way.

Starting with “The Wonder Years”—what were her first experiences with technology? Her father was a nuclear engineer, her mother was a historian and artisan. As a child, she wanted to be a tinkerer and an explorer. There aren’t a lot of female role models for those activities, but she could do a lot of those activities through games (Atari, NES/SNES, M.U.L.E.). BUT…these were not her machines. These were her brother’s machines. She was branded as “gifted” and given a lot of opportunities. But the opportunities wiere in a creative and expressive context, not in the context of procedural learning. Never tied to programming or math or problem-solving.

She felt a tension between science (in school, owned by others), and art (outside of school, personal ownership).

So, 7-12 grade she had a positive focus on humanies and extracurriculars, but her aptitude for math and science wasn’t encouraged. Her overall enthusiasm for school waned.

When she got the U of C, she was able to take a class on programming as a liberal art (Bill Sterner & Don Crabb). Aristote and Turing, Turkle and Tversky. Discussions of history and architecture and oral history, but in the context of computing. She began spending hours in the ocmputer lab making things. Again, an internal split—but she was now starting to try to merge these components.

She built her own interdisciplinary program: film, fine art, oral/historical narrative, women’s studies, and computer programming. Her focus was on storytelling and memory. Because there was no CS major, she could take classes in an ad hoc way, seek mentors as needed, and experiment. Only later did she realize that this was not typical.

In considering grad school, she got the strong impression from successful women she talked with that she had to love math to be a computer scientist. But she did it anyways. :)

At Northwestern, she’s really had an opportunity to do interdisciplinary work, to include things like narrative intelligence, game studies, and game AI in the context of CS graduate study. She discovered a new community, people who could explore with her, learn form each other, share ideas and enthusiasm.

Out of this, came events like the Indie Game Jam, Experimmental Gameplay Workshop, the Game Design Workshop, etc.

There are familiar challenges. There are no famous female game developers, for example. Her experience in CS has bled out into the industry, which has caused her to want to find ways in academia to correct the problems that can in turn bleed out to industry.

There’s a “night and day” problem is how we approach all of this, similar to the split she felt as a teenager. How can we correct this?

Suddenly schools are approaching her to develop games-centered curricula.

Why CS? Why should anyone major in it? Is it accessible? Expressive? Useful? Enjoyable? Profitable?

We need to change the identity of CS—it needs to become a core competency and a tool. We need to evangelize ourselves as programmers as well as our other skills.

CS is a tool, not just a discipline or profession! Kids need to learn how to do procedural thinking. We need to expand how kids think about machines, about procedural thinking.

How can we make CS projects more about expression and about choice?? This is the critical, fundamental problem. Your work says something about you. If you choose work over family (I’m not sure why she frames it this way), you really want it to be a positive expression of you.

If you can program, you can help people in a variety of fields to accomplish tasks. CS doesn’t just mean being a professional programmer sitting in a room writing code, It’s increasingly a component of all kinds of professions and jobs. You’re a better finance analyst if you know how to program database queries and spreadsheet macros, or write your own analysis tools.

How can we use interest in other areas as levers into CS. Her cousin is an environmental scientist who would benefit from being able to write a simple Python program to analyze data she’s collected.

Trailblazing is nice, but bridges may be better. We need better journals, conferences, web sites, amlinl lists, student groups, travel, and internship programs.

Her advisor is using a “Bauhaus model” for education, using a scheme-based tool for projects. He’s demystifying procedural thinking, pointing out that it’s got creative components, not just mathematical and scientific components. He points out how people can use these tools to integrate into their interests.

The next generation of computer scientists won’t be identifiable by current stereotypes. And this will inspire more women and underrepresented minorities to take CS classes and learn computing skills. New contributors lead to cross-pollination, long-term relationships, and groundbreaking work in the field.

(I’m amazed to hear her say she’s never given this talk before—she’s funny and passionate and knowledgable and convincing. She needs to be getting this message out all over the place!)

In response to a question she talks about the panic going on in universities about declining enrollments. (Can’t replicate her very funny version of what the dialogs sound like in departments…) She says, and she’s right, that we need to be thinking about the customer — but that it’s hard to have these conversations when you’re panicked about your own existence (I would really love to have her come give this talk to our faculty and administration at RIT…)

“I think we should teach computer science like we teach spelling.” Why can’t we teach 10-year-olds to program? If they can memorize baseball statistics (and Pokemon characters), they can learn to write code, too. (My 11-year-old has been teaching himself how to program in Javascript for the last year—he’s a great example of exactly what she’s talking about.)

She blasts (appropriately) the advertising for the recent Microsoft DirectX Meltdown, which showed women as g-string-wearing sideline characters next to powerful male superheroes.

There are all kinds of computer scientists, and we need to learn from each other. We can’t generalize form our own experience. None of us knows instinctively what “women” want in games, for example, We need to learn from each other.

We need to acknowledge that there are sometimes advantages to being the only woman, the center of attention—and it can be hard to give up that center stage. But we have to work harder to reach out to other women, welcome them, include them.

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categories: gender | microsoft | teaching

Thursday, 21 July 2005

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.)

Quotes a participant in one of his workshops who says “I’ve spent 20 years thinking about collaboration, but only 2 hours thinking about creativity.”

Much of the literature on creativity doesn’t mention computers at all. This is a new space that he’s claiming. Not making machines more creative (AI approach), but developing/improving computing tools to make people more creative.

Heifferentiates between revolutionary, paradigm-shifting creativity, impromptu everyday creativity, and his area of interest, “evolutionary, normal science, music, and art, creative knowledge work.”

How do we enable professional workers to move a little higher up the ladder in knowledge work using creativity?

Talks about the difficulty of doing empirical research into creativity, and reviews some theorists in creativity research:

Tells about a student who sent him email saying “My PhD proposal is attached, can you tell me what you think?” No context, no definition of expectations, and no reason for him to look at it.

Highly recommends Csikszentmihalyi’s book _Creativity_ (1993) — not quite a software requirements document, but close enough to allow him to take the next step towards that.

  1. Domain: e.g. mathematics or biology “consists of a set of symbols, rules and procedures
  2. Field: “the individuals who asct as gatekeepers to the domain…decide whether a new idea, performance, or product should be included” (originality is a necessary but not a sufficient component)
  3. Individual: Creativity is when a person…has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion in the relevant domain”

(At this point there are a lot of comments and questions from the room; this is like a professor’s dream seminar enviroment—a room full of very bright and interesting people who are here because they want to be, and are enthusiastically engaged in what you’re talking about.)

Shneiderman proposes these eight activities:

  1. Searching and browsing digital libraries
  2. Consulting with peers and mentors:
  3. Visualizing data and processes
  4. Thinking by free association
  5. Exploring solutions — “what if” tools
  6. Composing artifacts and performances
  7. Reviewing and replaying session histories
  8. Disseminating results

Talks about each individually:

For search, we need not just effective basic search, but also improved multimedia search, overviews and previews, result set categorization and visualization, multiple session searches. (Gets a laugh when he says that if you can’t find something to be creative about in search that Google hasn’t done, you shouldn’t be in this business.) We need faceted search, and the ability to preview cardinality of results. (MSN Search folks, take note: you should watch this presentation on the internal resnet site.)

Consulting with Peers and Mentors: Prefaces by saying the next killer app is responsibility, trust, empathy. The problem with consultation is a lack of trust. Need negotiated expectations.

Visualizing data and process—refers to _Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think_. Many data types to deal with in visualization, scientific visualization is different from information visualization. Getting to networks (from trees) is the challenge.

Talks about exploration and discovery. Shows a photo of birds, asks people to answer the question “what’s interesting here?” High dimensional spaces are messy. You can’t be hunting unless you know what you’re hunting for. If you don’t have hypotheses and/or specific queries, you can’t explore effectively. In any field, peopel are trained to look at things in thorough, orderly way. He says we need to develop the same skills for looking at high-order data. (Can’t you argue, though, that those orderly ways can cause blinders?)

Shows a chemical table of elements in spreadsheet form. Anything interesting? Hard to tell. Shows it in a scatter graph, asks the same question. People note outliers and correlations. So, can we build an outlier detector? A correlation detector? (Ah…yes, it’s the outlier detector that’s interesting to me in the context of social networks. We do a lot with correlation, less with outliers…)

Demos Multi-V: Hierarchical Clustering Explorer. Displays demographic data using it. Very complex tool, but at least demonstrates clustering methods. Also provides some very nice correlation tools; this is a data set with 14 different variables relating to US counties. So…counties with a large number of young people have high unemployment. Decreasing #s of highschool grads correlate to increasing levels of poverty. These are not surprising, but you can find interesting second and third level correlations. For example, slight increases in income cause dramatic reductions in poverty. Also possible to find quadratic relationships, outliers, and other kinds of clusters and relationships. Biologists were particularly interested in how the tool could identify gaps.

This is a fascinating tool. Would love to play with this in the context of social networks, tagging behavior, etc.

He’s running out of time, so flies through the rest of the slides:

Free association—suggests Axon idea processor.

Exploring solutions: mentions the work of Michael Terry and Beth Mynatt at Georgia Tech. Create multiple versions at a time, not one at a time.

Composing artifacts and performances—provide templates and exemplars. Need better tools, for better presentations.

Reviewing and rpelaying session histories…record, review, annotate, disesminate. Treat histories as first class objects. Replay them, step through them, etc.

Adobe photoshop history tools…each event is a discrete component; we should be able to do that in all tools.

Disseminating results—need better ways to do this. (Doesn’t mention blogs, but that seems like an obvious tool here.)

Challenges for creativity work: Domain knowledge is vital, it may take years, individuals have highly varied approaches, and the theories (about support tools) are shallow, evaluation is difficult, need better ways to do triangulation and multi-dimensional representation.

Influencing our colleagues: Want NSF to incorporate creativity into existing programs, also encouraging a new NSF program on software tools and socio-technical environments to enhance creativity. (Hmmm…the “socio-technical environments” piece of that is intriguing.)

Mentions Richard Florida’s compelling argument about creativity as a potent economic driver.

And that’s all, folks. Wow. A lot of content packed into a short time frame, and a lot of great ideas to think about. These research talks are definitely one of the big perks of being here…

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categories: microsoft | research

Wednesday, 20 July 2005

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.

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categories: microsoft | research

Tuesday, 19 July 2005

blogging the faculty summit

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.

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categories: microsoft

Monday, 18 July 2005

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.]

Says an important part of their job is “telling [sic] truth to power,” which first involves finding out what the truth is. (Clearly these are not social scientists.) They put together a team that studies a topic for an average of 18 months, and produce the equivalent of a phd dissertation, complete with bibliography. They’re not interested in people’s opinions, he says, they’re only interested in “fact.” The kicker—they produce one of these reports every day.

Their customers are typically government agencies (mostly federal), although they sometimes undertake a study without being asked.

Most of the questions are aobut the state of knowledge in some specific area of science to inform a public policy decision. So, for example, what would the implications of changing the CAFE standards? Nearly a third of recent research has been related to counterterrorism. They also do a good bit of research on environmental issues—cites a recent report on “the hydrogen economy.”

Four things on his “bully pulpit” list:

Refers to Friedman’s The World is Flat, which argues that the playing field is becoming more level, and that outsourcing is a manifestation of that fact. (I’d be more interested in seeing references to Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind in this context.) He says Friedman lists ten “flatteners” that have enabled this levleing of the eocnomic playing field. Nine of the ten are either IT or enabled by IT—the only one not related to IT was 9/11. So, Wulf says, it’s the people here in this room that created the potential for this flattening of the world. Like Friedman, he sees this change as a good thing—lowering costs for the US and increasing opportunities in countries like India.

“Whether flatness is good for any particular country depends on how that country prepares itself for the rough and tumble of this flat world.” Friedman argues that the US has not been preparing itself and its children properly.

Notes that every industry involving information has been transformed fundamentally by IT—it seems likely that this will be true of higher ed, as well. The question is, in what way will higher ed be changed?

(I’m reminded of Pat Cadigan’s presentation at an ALA conference some years ago, where she cautioned us about “the danger of predicing the future in a straight line.”)

Says that someone (missed who) said he had never seen a process that couldn’t be sped up by a factor of two while increasing quality. (Um…pregnancy comes to mind as one counter-example.) Asks “Can we imagine a system that would speed up higher educationby a factor of two while simultaneously increasing quality.” (This kind of mechanistic approach to problem solving always frightens me. It’s not possible to reduce everything, and particularly not social systems, to an engineering process.)

He argues that despite this increasingly technological society, the majority of the voting public are technologically illiterate, and are not fit to be governing this society. “I worry a lot more aobut the people with liberal arts degrees who are technologically illiterate.” He says they’re “not equipped to vote.” (I’m in the “Microsoft employee video ghetto,” so I can’t see what the reaction to this statement is in the other room, but I’m appalled by this arrogance—first, the assumption that liberal arts majors are technologically illiterate, and second, the assumption that technological skill is a necessary component for political participation.)

Goes on to ask if we can enable a system that would enable the general public to inform themselves about the nature of a public policy debate, in “a fairly dispassionate, true (his emphasis) way.” (Unbelievable. Who gets to decide “truth,” I wonder?)

Argues that we’re outsourcing technology work not because the people overseas are cheaper, but because they’re better. (And what does he base that assessment on?)

Asks why, when innovation is American’s strongest capability, we’re cutting funding for basic research—across the board. It takes years to go from basic research to implementation. We’re emptying the pipeline, and we’ll pay a price down the line. (One of the few things he’s said that I agree with.)

Cites a statistic that NRC found that the average age for a researcher to receive their first grant as PI (not co-PI, postdoc, etc) is 42. Says that when you fund people that late, you won’t get he kind of courageous, ground-breaking research that you need for innovation. (Great. He’s now dismissed my undergraduate BA, and my age. I suppose I should be grateful that he hasn’t started in on gender.)

Says “We need to carry Bush’s message to Congress.” Asserts that we are not ‘entitled’ to research support. Research is a means to an end, and we need to focus on what those ends are.

A reporter asked him today “Will we still have the best universities in the world in 20 years?” He says he doesn’t know, but that we’re shaping the answer to that question right now.

A question from the audience about the letter from Senator Joe Barton to a Professor Michael Mann, in which Barton challenges Mann’s climate change research and demands supporting evidence. I don’t know much about this issue, but after skimming some information online here and here, I’m appalled by what seems going on.

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categories: microsoft

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.

Klawe quotes statistics saying that the number of jobs in CS is growing, salaries are going up. (I need to find out where those numbers came from.)

(Gates wants to know why physical education is the fastest-growing field in higher ed.)

Klawe send a softball question to Gates—“Are you finding enough people to hire in the US?” His response is an emphatic “no.” He says it’s not hard to find project managers in the US, but it’s much harder to find excellent software engineers.

She asks him to describe the ideal engineering candidate. He says he wants more emphasis on the basic underlying mechanisms of computers and algorithms. Then he veers into selection process rather than preparation, talking about the success of the intern program. Mentions the intern dinner—apparently they bring in 300 per night, not everyone at once. He says that they ask sometimes about other companies, and then describes Google as “faddishly hot.”

K: What’s your position on how interdisciplinary CS studies should be? Should students be doing double majors and application-focused coursework?

G: There are still plenty of pure CS problems—in privacy, security, navigatio of information. (Hmmm…I wouldn’t call information navigation a “pure CS” problem.)

K: These problems will only be solved if people work on them. We need funding for students to do so.

Her son is going into CS, but her daughter doesn’t want to. One of the issues that stops a lot of women and minorities from wanting to study CS is the image of the career and perception of what a CS professional is like. She says she knows it’s an exciting field that requires interaction, communication. So, how can we create a more positive image for our profession? What is Microsoft doing?

G: Microsoft can set an example of what kind of jobs these are, and how interesting they are. He says MS can promise people that within 2 years they’ll have the opportunity to move beyond basic development roles. If people really understood the jobs, they’d feel differently. He says he just “doesn’t get it” as to why people don’t have more interest in these jobs.

K: Notes the increased number of women who have gone into medicine and law in her lifetime. Points out that during that time television shows and movies have glamorized those careers. Why don’t we have the same thing for CS?

G: Well, if you took a movie camera into one of our buildings, it wouldn’t be that interesting.

K: That’s true for all of those other fields, too!

moves on to next question

K: CS is the only field in science and engineering in which the participation of women has been dropping. What would be more effective in getting women into these fields?

G: Women need to be visible.

K: (frustrated) We are doing that. It’s not working! Things happening on the grass roots level aren’t working. Every woman in the field is doing this. There has to be another way to succeed at this.

G: (Seems at a loss for a moment.) Mentions studies showing that we lose women at every step of the pipeline, and the problem with not having reached critical mass. He asks—is this different in Asia?

K: No. A few countries have high participation. Ireland, possibly because of the prevalence of single-sex education. Turkey, because students aren’t given choices, they’re assigned.

(She’s going from a prepared script, which causes some of this to sound really stilted and programmed.)

K: What are the areas you’re most excited about?

G: What’s happening in MSR is the most exciting, and the most interesting part of his job. TechFest is one of the “funnest” things on the Microsoft calendar. The TabletPC is cool; eventually every student will have one.

[… lost focus for a bit; I’m watchign this on a video screen, which is less engaging than having a real person up there …]

Ben Shneiderman does a very long statement-in-the-form-of-a-question, and claims that the ocmputing fields have the highest level of introversion, which Gates and Rashid dispute. (Rashid seems to be confusing introversion with isolation, arguing that software teams have to work together.)

Rashid points out that the social and media tools that kids are using now (iPods, IM, cell phones, etc) are tools created by computer scientists—why don’t kids want to be involved in creating them and making them better?

(decided I needed coffee at this point, so missed the rest of the q & a)

Of note following the dialog: several new RFPs being announced today:

Later this year:

Also coming: “institutes” with deep msr collaboration, 3-year commitment, IP agreement. Topics being considered are mobile phones, bioinformatics, and robotics. More information will be forthcoming, but details are not yet available.

Upcoming workshops include gaming technologies in education, and Tablet PC in education. Dates not yet finalized.

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categories: conferences | microsoft | research

Thursday, 7 July 2005

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.

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categories: microsoft

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

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.

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categories: microsoft | sabbatical

Monday, 4 July 2005

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.

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categories: microsoft | sabbatical
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna