Recently in sabbatical Category

summer's end approaches

I can't believe how fast this summer has gone. It's slipped through my fingers, leaving me feeling a bit at a loss. I had hoped to have accomplished more...certainly to have written more. But for some reason, this summer I've found myself not at my most articulate. Words haven't come easily...and thus the relative lack of blogging.

Last week I had occasion to go back through some of my older posts, looking for something I wanted to send to a colleague, and I was disheartened by how much more interesting my writing used to be, compared to what I've generated recently.

I think the biggest problem this summer has been the limited amount of interaction I've had with others at MSR. With Lili away for the past month, I've spent too much time sitting by myself in my office, writing code (which, I must admit, has been fun--it's been a while since I've actually built something, even if it's just an internal site for tracking all the information associated with the social computing symposium) and dealing with email. The real work of putting on a good event is inviting the right mix of people--it's like holding a dinner party, but exponentially harder. So that's taken up more time than I really had intended.

There are a lot of things bubbling around in my head, though--having to do with two main themes. The first is the kind of semi-synchronous presence that tools like Twitter and Facebook have made so prevalent. The other is the extent to which work and play are (or could be, or should be) intertwingled.

In a week, I'll be aboard the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship, en route to Alaska. I'll be cut off from email and Internet and phone calls...and I can hardly wait. I'm hoping that the break with communication technology, combined with the grandeur of the Alaskan landscape, will help me focus my mind a bit, and knock loose whatever it is that's gumming up the works in my head.

After that, it's back to Rochester--we arrive home on August 27th, whereupon I'll be immediately caught up in start-of-year meetings (ack) and course prep. I'm teaching a course I love this fall--two sections of the introduction to multimedia and the web course--so prep won't be onerous and neither will teaching.

So there won't be much blogging 'til then...and after that, my hope is that quality and quantity of writing output will increase significantly.

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.

choosing to give

A lot of people have asked me recently if I'm planning on going back to RIT at the end of my sabbatical--or if, having tasted the sweet nectar of well-funded industry research, I might be tempted to stay in Seattle. I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to return to Rochester, but I had some lingering doubts and fears in my mind about whether I was making the right choice.

This weekend I flew back to Rochester for a few days, primarily to attend RIT's commencement ceremonies. For the first day or two, I did have some second thoughts about my decision. Departmental politics were running rampant, colleagues were stressed with last-minute grading, and the overcast skies were more oppressive than I remembered.

Last night, though, I heard two wonderful addresses at the university-wide convocation ceremony. The first was by Dean Kamen, which I really hope will be posted in its entirety on the RIT web site (as they've done with past speakers). Elouise covered some high points, but you had to be there to appreciate the warmth, wit, and charm of Kamen's delivery. It was lovely. (And yes, he did in fact ride a Segway up to and back from the platform, wearing his academic robes.) The second was by Erhardt Graeff, a student whom I first had in freshman seminar, and whose progress I've watched closely over the past four years. Erhardt's a wonderful young man--intellectually curious, adventurous, articulate, creative, and genuinely goodhearted. He was selected as our college's delegate for the university-wide ceremony, and then chosen as the one delegate to give the student address for all of RIT--and he did a spectacular job. Both of the speakers (without knowing the other's theme) chose to speak about graduation as a passage not from learning to doing, but rather as one from taking to giving...something that hit a resonant note for me.

This morning I woke up at 6:15am so that I could be at RIT by 7:15, and in my robes ready to line up for our college's commencement ceremonies at 7:30. Even after nearly ten years of doing this, I still love marching into the field house with pomp and circumstance playing, watching the parents and grandparents and spouses and partners and children craning their necks for a view of the processional, snapping photographs and clapping. And my favorite part of the school year is when our undergraduate students walk across the stage as their name is called. As they come down the steps, there are always a group of faculty waiting to shake their hands, and I'm always part of that group. I love watching the faces of these young men and women, many of whom I taught during their first quarter of freshman year, as they grapple with the realization that they're really, truly, graduating. More than one of them gets a hug from me rather than a handshake.

After the ceremony, our department hosts a brunch for the students and their families. It's hard to explain how much it means to me when a student pulls his or her parents over to meet me, telling them "This is Professor Lawley! Remember me telling you about her?" When I met Erhardt's mother today, however, I got something new...she told me she reads my blog. (Hi, Mrs. Graeff!)

I nearly cried a couple of times today. One of those times was meeting the family of Katie Giebel, a delightful young woman who took my introductory web/multimedia class the fall of her first year at RIT. She came close to leaving IT, but stayed after I (and others) convinced her that it was only a short term rough spot she'd run into. When she was invited into the RIT honors program, she told me she was worried she couldn't handle that and her ROTC responsibilities, and wanted to decline. I helped convince her to give it a shot, and she didn't just survive--she thrived. Katie graduated with honors today, and the Navy is sending her to Monterey to pursue a master's degree. (I'm wiping away a little tear right now, just typing all that.)

This year at MSR I've gotten an enormous amount from the amazing people around me, and I'm beyond grateful for that. But I don't have the opportunity to change lives that being a professor provides to me, to give what I can of myself to my students. I left the reception today 100% sure that coming back to RIT was the right choice. And as I pulled into the driveway of my mother's house, the sun finally came if to welcome me home.

(on sabbatical)^2

My visiting position at Microsoft ends June 30 (hard to believe it's been nearly a year!), but we can't return back to our house until our tenants move out at the end of July. Since I've agreed to speak at this year's MSR Faculty Summit, we decided that we'd do some vacationing in the Seattle area during the first two weeks of July. However, we procrastinated on making our plans, and I realized earlier this month what a big mistake that was. When I started looking around, all the prime rental spots in the places we were considering seemed to be booked.

Our home for july!Then late last week, I stumbed across this online listing. A boat named Sabbatical! How perfect was that? I was sure it wouldn't be available, but sent an email inquiry anyways. And to my great delight, the answer came back that it was available for rental from July 1-12.

Today we took a trip out to the Pleasant Valley Marina to check her out, and we were all totally enchanted. There's a lot of space, and the boys would each have little "cabins" to themselves in the lower deck. Gerald and I will have the "master" bedroom on the main deck, which is next to the living/dining area. And we'll all get to enjoy the open space on the fore and aft decks, and the hot tub on the top deck.

The marina has a swimming pool, as well, which should be fun for the boys, and may provide opportunities to meet other kids staying at the marina while we're there. And I suspect we'll be able to coax their friends to come stay with them for a night or two, as well (the downstairs bunks actually will accommodate up to five small people).

Now all we've got to do is find someplace to stay for the 12-15. We're hoping we might find something reasonably priced in the San Juan Islands, but I'm not holding my's a little late for that now. If that doesn't work out, we may see if one of the waterfront cabins near my uncle's house in Marysville is available. Worst case scenario we'll find a hotel to camp out in for a few days before the summit begins.

But for now, we're reveling in our wonderful good luck, and thinking about how much fun it will be to tell our friends that we'll be staying on a yacht for half of July--and spending the end of our sabbatical literally on Sabbatical.

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

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...)

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.)

first impressions of microsoft

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

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

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

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

independence day

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

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

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

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

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

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

we found a house!

Yesterday Alex and I went to take a look at a house we'd seen advertised on Craigslist. It had looked good online, but the dates weren't an exact match, and I wasn't sure if we could pull it off.

I was half sold before we got there, based on the photos and description, but was trying not to get my hopes up--in part because the dates weren't an exact match for our housing needs. Turns out there was no need to worry--the house is beautiful, the owners are a really nice couple going to Boston for a year (the husband received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard), and we were able to work something out in terms of the dates.

So, as of August 23rd we'll be living in Kenmore, WA, just north of Kirkland. (Looks like a 20-30 minute drive to work, which is totally manageable.) That means we'll have to extend our corporate housing stay for another month. Hopefully a 3-bedroom will become available--I suspect the close quarters here will start to be a problem after a couple of weeks. But even if we're "stuck" with the small apartment, we can't complain too much; it's like being put up in a hotel suite for a couple of months, with someone else paying the tab.

It's a huge relief to have the housing situation resolved. And the only downside is that the house is so beautiful that it will be hard to leave it in a year! (I've put photos up on Flickr, but they're only available to family and friends.)

down to the wire

Just over 24 hours until Alex and I get on an airplane headed west.

We've got our temporary housing assignment--we'll be at an apartment complex called "The Seasons" near Bellevue Square, in a 2-bedroom penthouse apartment with a view of the lake. (They were very apologetic about the fact that no 3-bedrooms were available, but what we're getting sounds lovely.)

Best way to reach me will continue to be via cell phone--I'll be keeping my Rochester cell number while in Seattle.

Weez and Sally helped me pack boxes yesterday, and Eric helped Gerald move the old washing machine out of the basement. Today is suitcase-packing and kids-room-cleaning day. Got the windshield fixed on my car yesterday, and sold it to a friend today, and she'll pick it up tomorrow--one less thing to worry about. Friends have picked through the unsold garage-sale goods and taken the best of the lot home with them. VOA will pick up what's left sometime next week. Alex is having his friends over this afternoon for a going-away swim party, after which he's going to a friend's birthday party--all in all, a good note for him to leave town on. And I'm doing pretty well. I feel as though I should be more stressed than I am--it probably helps that I know that whatever I don't get done in the next day Gerald will have a week to finish up.

Expect more blogging once we get to Seattle, and lots of Flickr photos as we explore our new home.

See you on the other side...

fun things to do upon arrival in seattle

Alex and I will arrive in Seattle the evening of June 23rd, and we'll have almost two weeks before I start work on the 5th. I'm looking for suggestions--what are the most fun things that he and I can do together during those weeks?

Top of the list right now is a visit to Pike Place Market, where he's really looking forward to watching the fish get tossed around, and eating fresh brioche at the french bakery. But I know there have to more things that will be fun for him, and I'd love to hear from people with kids (or grandkids, or friends) that age who can give us a good list. If there are web sites associated with your suggestions, feel free to link to them, so that Alex can do some exploring in advance.


the serious packing begins

For weeks now, people have been asking me how the packing was going. The truth of the matter is, it wasn't. It didn't make sense to me to drag the packing out over a several-month period. But now that I'm down to 2.5 weeks before my departure (3.5 weeks for Gerald), it's time to get serious.

I'm trying to actually sort through our belongings and do a lot of purging in the process--we didn't do that when we moved up here from Alabama, and as a result our basement was full of boxes of junk for years. So this time I'm filling trash bags with things that really aren't usable anymore, and stuffing boxes with garage-salable items. (Garage sale planned for the 16th-18th of June; in Rochester, it's typical for sales to go Thursday through Saturday rather than Friday through Sunday...)

Friday I spent a lot of time sorting out things from the kids' rooms that could be tossed or sold. Yesterday was music sorting day. I cleared out space on my hard drive, and have been ripping all our CDs so that we can store them rather than shipping them. Turns out we have more than I realized, and I'd digitized fewer than I thought already, so it's taking a while. I'm almost done, though. This afternoon I'll return to the kids' rooms to figure out what needs to be boxed up for storage or shipping. (Winter clothes to ship, books to store, etc.)

We've made yet another change in our travel plans. Alex and I are still going to fly out on the 23rd, and Gerald will still be driving out at the end of the month. But Lane will stay another week here with my mom, because he'd like to celebrate the 4th of July here with his friends, and will then do a solo flight to Seattle.

The fact that our tenants want the house furnished does help enormously. We've got plenty of box storage space in the basement now, and lots of moving boxes from the last time around (plus an offer of more from a friend who recently moved). So I'm really not all that stressed about the process. If I run out of time to sort and cull, we'll toss what's left in boxes and stick them in the basement. If the garage sale turns out to be unsuccessful, we'll call Volunteers of America and have them cart the excess away.

And in a month it will be over, and we'll be settling into Seattle.

it's the people, stupid

A lot of people have been asking me if I think I'll come back from Seattle after my sabbatical is over. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the prospect of working on interesting projects, for more money than I currently make, in a beautiful city, attractive.

But as we make our preparations to leave, I keep running into the one thing that will make us likely to return to Rochester next summer...the people in our lives.

We've been here for nearly nine years, and we've built a life. We have wonderful friends, supportive family, great health care providers. Relationships and connections like the ones we have here don't happen overnight--they take time and nurturing. And while I have no doubt we could eventually build up a life in Seattle that was rich and rewarding, I don't want to walk away from the life we already have built here.

Today we had a few close friends over for an informal cookout (well, as informal as my southern-born-and-bred husband can manage), and I was reminded of how much a part of my life they'd become, and how much I didn't want to lose that part--even if I could splice in "replacements" somewhere else.

So, what does my "why I'll be back" list look like?

  • My mother, stepfather, sister, and father...all close enough to have dinner together any night of the week.
  • My dear friends, many of whom are also my colleagues
  • My wonderful doctors, who know me and my health and my family, and whom I trust completely
  • My neighbors, who we're finally seeing again now that the grass is green and the temperatures have warmed
  • Our newly spruced-up house. On an afternoon like this one, with sunshine casting long shadows on the lawn, a light breeze rustling the leaves outside all the windows, and the sounds of kids, birds, and dogs outside, it's hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else
  • Summer vacation--one of the best perks of academia
  • The low cost of living, which makes my relative-to-Microsoft small academic salary go a long, long way
  • My new lab at RIT

That's a lot of powerful reasons to come back home.

turning it over

The third step in 12-step recovery programs is "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him." I'm not a religious person, and the wording of this step has always been a little difficult for me. Similarly, the Al-Anon slogan "Let go and let God" has been tough for me as well.

Today, however, has been a good day for remembering that even if I don't know exactly what I'm turning things over to, the idea of taking something difficult to manage and "turning it over" is worth trying.

This morning, we got a call from the person to whom we thought we'd be renting our house while we were on sabbatical. She had decided to rent a place downtown, instead--which plunged me into a moment (well, more than a moment) of panic. I spent most of the morning feeling overwhelmed by everything that had to be done in the next three weeks: sort all of our belongings into store/ship/sell/toss categories, box up the first two categories, dispose of the second two categories, move all of our furniture into storage (either off-site or in the basement), sell my car and buy a new one for the week-long drive to Seattle, get to all of the various doctor and dentist appointments we're cramming in before we leave, etc, etc etc.

Gerald finally said to me around lunchtime, as I was sorting through car specifications, posting our house to every online listing site I could find, and hovering dangerously close to my emotional redline zone, "just turn it over."

My first thought was "Don't be ridiculous. If I let go of all this, it won't get done, and we'll be even worse off." But then I realized he was right. I needed to let go of trying to control everything, and trust that if I did the next right thing, the rest would follow.

The first thing I did was think through worst case scenarios. What if we didn't rent the house? Well, we'd be okay. We'd probably have enough money between RIT and Microsoft to cover the expense. And we could always ask a realtor to find a tenant for us--we'd get less money, probably, but it would be something. So I posted the house online, and let it go...either it would rent or it wouldn't, and freaking out about it wasn't going to change the outcome.

Then I thought some more about the car issue. The motivation for getting the new car right away was to avoid driving across the country in an old car that might break down. But...what if I sold the car before I left town, and then flew to Seattle with Alex instead? I looked again at the benefits Microsoft had offered, and realized that one of them was a month-long car rental. So, we could fly to Seattle, pick up a rental car at the airport, drive to the corporate housing, and have a month to squirrel away cash for a bigger down payment on a car. I emailed the relocation support person to let her know our plans had changed, and another big task dropped off my "must do this week" list.

After dinner, I went to my Monday night Al-Anon meeting, and talked about how good it had felt to "turn it over" today. Walking out, I felt really good about where I was. When I walked back into the house at 10pm, Gerald was on the phone with someone, laughing and talking. I figured it was a friend or family member, until he said "Well, my wife just walked in--why don't you talk to her and she can tell you more about the house."

It was a woman from LA who'd seen my post on the U of R off campus housing site. Her husband is doing a one-year residency at Strong Hospital starting in August, and they don't want to move all their furniture across the country. They were hoping to find a furnished house that could accommodate them, their two small kids, and her mother--and that had a good school district for her older child, who's about to start kindergarten. It's a perfect match--for them and for us.

So tonight, my IM status message is "an attitude of gratitude." Which is, I know, a platitude. And I'm okay with that.

seattle move update

Part of my agenda while in Seattle was to find a place for us to live, so I spent a good bit of time on Thursday and Friday driving around Eastside neighborhoods and visiting apartment complexes. I also sent out several emails to Craigslist advertisers about their properties. The net result was that I finally realized that it didn't make sense to rent something before my family has a chance to get to know the area with me. I think it's very likely we'll end up in Bellevue or Redmond, but the city is seductive as well, and we should all decide together.

So we'll spend the first month of our time in Seattle in corporate housing while we look around. That will make it much easier to check out Craigslist postings, since most of those are "available now" properties.

The weather was spectacular while I was there, and I really fell in love with the Seattle area. It definitely didn't hurt that a number of wonderful people were gracious enough to have me over to their homes, and made me feel welcome and at home in the area. I met people's families, got to socialize informally, and definitely got the sense that there will be great social network waiting for us when we get there in June (for the kids, too).

The changes at MSR that I referenced in an earlier post are going to have an impact on my year, mostly in a good way. Lili Cheng, who hired me, is leaving MSR to take a great job over on the Windows team--and she's taking her wonderful development team from the Social Computing Group with her. Scott Counts and Shelly Farnham, the two resesarchers who'll be left after that exodus, will be joining Marc Smith's group at MSR, and he's going to shed his group's current name (Community Technologies) for the Social Computing moniker. So, I'll be with Marc's group.

But...after some discussion with Lili and Marc and Brady Forrest (a project manager for MSN Search), I've asked that I be able to split my time between Marc's and Brady's groups. The search team has wooed me with their search champ meetings, and I'm excited about the idea that I could be able to influence the development of live products as well as do more prototype-style work with MSR. Everyone seems amenable to the arrangement, so it looks like a definite go.

I'm feeling much more excited and enthusiastic about the whole sabbatical plan now--it helped immensely to spend some intensive time in Seattle and with the folks I'll be working with. I've got a better mental model now of where I'm going, which reduced a lot of my anxiety.

So, that's the pre-move news. Now I've got to get serious about packing and storing stuff here, so that we can actually go!

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