Back From The Microsoft Research 2010 Social Computing Symposium

Note: I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the various presentations that were given at the symposium. If you want to get an idea of what the presentations were about, you can check my tweets from last week or, better yet, go read Elizabeth Goodman’s notes taken during the symposium.

And so I’m back from outer space… no wait, from New York City, where I attended the Microsoft Research 2010 Social Computing Symposium – and then took a couple of days of vacation. As can be expected from a symposium that brings together so many smart folk, there were a lot of interesting ideas presented and discussed during the two and a half days of the symposium.

I want to particularly mention two presentations that I most enjoyed. First, Anil Dash managed to get me all fired up by talking about his efforts over at Expert Labs at trying to bring the joys of social computing and open source collaboration to the US federal government. Whenever I hear this kind of talk, I always immediately wonder if there is anything similar going on for the Canadian government and, if not, what could we do to make it happen.

In my humble opinion, Kevin Slavin of Area/Code had the best presentation, structure-wise. As you know, I’m always looking at how other people do their presentations in the hopes of improving mine. There were a lot of good presentations at SCS, but Kevin’s approach was most inspiring to me.

Kevin began by telling us about the military high tech of between the two world wars, in particular technology that amplified sound to find out if airplanes were coming (this was before radar), illustrated with lots of amusing images of the old technology. He then segued into modern warfare and how stealth airplanes were created to counter radar technology. He then moved on to an anecdote of how he met a mathematician from Russia who worked on the problem of detecting stealth airplanes and how they came up with a solution (don’t use radar, listen for a moving electrical target). He then segued into the actual subject of his talk, how algorithmic trades are now dominating how trading is done on Wall Street – tying it back both to his original story (this type of trade requires computers to “listen” to the ongoing trades) and to stealth airplanes (traders who are trying to hide large trades break it into several small trades just as stealth airplanes work by breaking up radar to make the plane look like it’s a flock of birds). I just love how he was able to take interesting stories that would seem at first glance to have nothing to do with the main proposal of his presentation – basically, how algorithmic trading is having an impact on the city’s architecture – and tie them all neatly together. Very inspiring.

There were a couple of things that I found annoying as well, although I’m an old cynic, so I …

Home Is Part Of Our Invaluable Childhood Memories

Adulthood is something we all will go through and eventually pass through and leave behind.  As adults, it is not only our duty to look out for ourselves while getting to enjoy life without doing bad things, there will come a certain point in time when we will decide to settle down with the person we love, have kids and family.  When we raise a family, it is not only our responsibility to provide for the children we rear, but it is also our obligation to give them a safe dwelling place such as a home where they can grow and play.

A home is not just a dwelling place as it is in fact a place where you can sleep, relax, raise kids, grow old, and retire.  The abundance of memories that some have for their home, the place where they grew up, are cherished by them as the sentiments you have there are priceless.  Some of the moments that occur within your many years of stay there will never happen again.  Since a home to grow up on is something that leads to very valuable childhood memories, it is therefore your responsibility to provide such a home to your kids if you are planning to raise a family.

The truth is that not many couples or family will ever have the opportunity to have their very own home.  But for those who are fortunate, it is important that you seek out and have a home built by custom home builders so you can allow your children to build their own childhood memories of your home as they grow up and eventually enter into adulthood where they too will follow your footsteps and become responsible parents who value the precious memories you build as a child growing up.

If the home you’ve had custom home builders construct is structurally good and kept well-maintained, there is a distinct possibility that your home may last decades and be even good enough for the next generation.  Aside from just being the place where you will come to retire, your home will hold more valued memories than you can think of.  As long as love, care, and understanding is part of your ways in rearing your kids and not fear, your children will hold your home very dear to their heart…


I have been told that we are having unseasonably warm weather here in Trento. It got up to 17 degrees Celsius today. However, as soon as the sun sets, the weather turns chilly. Makes me miss my electric blanket.

The weekend was a quiet one. With Odin showing signs of separation anxiety during his first days, we just wanted to stay home and chill. Plus, I hurt my left thigh muscle a couple of weeks ago and I’m slowly getting back to normal; but in the meantime, I start hurting if I’ve been walking for too long, so I’m trying to take it easy for now.

I just noticed that I forgot to update my website before leaving the government. As soon as I’ve got a computer at work and managed to upload my external hard drive, I’ll be able to change that information.

I must say, it’s beautiful here. We’re in the locality of Vela, which is a neighbourhood in Trento. It’s east of the city centre. I work in Povo, which is west of the city centre: two different buses to get there.

Next week, André is going to start looking at apartments for us and we should also be going to the police station to hand in our documents.…

And We’re Off And Running!

Well, after a couple of weeks of mostly running around taking care of bureaucratic stuff, I’m starting to actually do some work.

Today, I had a meeting with a couple of masters’ students to talk about their project.

Friday, I am meeting with the Smart Campus people to find out what they’ve been doing and what they’re planning on doing. And the UI team will have a smaller meeting to discuss our next round of data collection.

I have also learned that my main roles for the project will be project manager and methodology planner. So I’m going to be more in an overview position, which is going to be interesting. The other interesting thing is to be part of such a large research group. I am so used to tiny groups with limited budgets where solutions are McGyvered out of a bandaid, a brooch, and a paper clip.

I do enjoy being on a university campus once again. I liked working at the CRC but I missed the energizing presence of smart graduate students.…

The Social Affordance Of Everyday Things

I’ve had the same joke conversation with people twice now: “How did we ever get around before Google/iPhones?” I know that they’re kidding, and yet I can’t help myself but answer “Maps! We had maps, guys. Remember those? They were great.”

OK, so I admit to having a soft spot for maps. I drive André crazy because, even though we own a GPS to guide us, whenever we take a road trip, I like to have a map with me to follow where we are. The GPS is great to tell you exactly where you are and what route you should be taking to get to your destination. The map, on the other hand, is a wonderful tool to give you an overview, a general sense of where you are, and ideas on where you might want to go. This is especially useful when you’re on vacation and you are open to improvisations in your schedule.

After that conversation, I was thinking about ye olden days, when we only had maps to guide us, and how that had an impact on our social behaviours. An open map is easy to recognize and a clear indicator that the person is lost or unsure of where they should be going. It has a social affordance that the person is in need of help, and I have been on both the receiving side and the giving side of that help. This is a great way to start a conversation with a tourist, to help them find their way and give them extra ideas on where they should go.

But somebody who is thumbing through their iPhone, well, they might be reading their email or checking the stock market for all you know. You have no idea if they need help. On the other hand, maybe if you have access to a Google map on your smartphone that pinpoints exactly where you are and where you are going, maybe if you can do a search on “what’s hot in the city”, maybe you don’t need other people’s help. It’s a pity, though. After all, we are social animals and we thrive on social contact.

I had similar thoughts while coming back home on the train. I brought André’s Kindle with me to read L’ile mystérieuse (*). André has covered his Kindle in a Hitchhiker Guide’s themed gelskin, so whenever we use the Kindle, we look like huge dorks (okay, we are both huge dorks, so I guess that’s truth in advertising). I walked down the wagon at one point and saw several people reading physical books. It was an interesting contrast. I could see immediately what they were reading and how far along they were in the book. There was one guy who was reading a book on advertising that looked like it was either an art book or a critique of advertising. If I had been seated next to him, I think I would have asked him what the book was about …

Many Are The Complications

Yesterday, we spent the morning visiting various offices. Yes, we were once again working hard to get through the requirements to get André his family visa.

As you may know, the next hurdle we needed to jump over was proving to the Italian government that we are renting an apartment which is big enough for the two of us. There is in fact a minimal square meterage that is required depending on the number of people living together. I think we needed to rent a place that was at least 45 square meters. I am unsure what the purpose of this measure is; perhaps they don’t want situations where whole families are crowded together in tiny one-room apartments.

In order to get the proof that our apartment was sufficient for our needs, we first had to go register our rental agreement with the government. We ended up having to go with our landlady, Lorenza, who also needed a registered copy of the rental agreement, so we ended up with a copy each. As we arrived before the office opened, we were out of there in a half hour. Then André and I needed to go to the Comune di Trento’s office to give them this copy so that they could start the approval process.

But first, we had to find the office.

I swear, I think we walked around for a good half an hour, trying to figure out where the offices were. See, the thing is, the building where the Comune’s offices are rise above a shopping centre. But we didn’t know this. We could see the buildings, we looked at the front doors where there were no mentions of the Comune, we walked around the shopping centre looking for a way to get into the office building, heck, we walked out into the back of the shopping centre, turned around, looked at the office building rising above the back-end of the shopping centre, and still couldn’t see how to get into it.

At this point, we were confused and dejected. Were we even at the right building? There are no numbers on the doors of the shopping centre, so we didn’t know if we were where we were supposed to be. So off we went to see if the building next to the shopping centre might have a number. And that’s when I spotted a small sign for the Comune, pointing up the ramp towards the upstairs parking lot.

So up we trudged to the parking lot, where we found a way into the building. Yay! But no information as to where to go. A short discussion with a man who happened to enter the building at the same time as us sent us up to the second floor where we found the correct office. Yay? No yay yet. The first woman we met couldn’t speak English but she found someone to help us. This second woman explained that we needed to fill out a form for the …