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 …