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September, 2012

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

September, 2012

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Lee Dirks, Remembered

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    This blog post is one I would never wish to write. As many of you know, in late August, my friend and colleague, Lee Dirks, and his wife Judy were killed in an automobile accident while vacationing in Peru. They leave behind two young daughters and broken hearts throughout Microsoft Research and beyond.

    Lee joined Microsoft some sixteen years ago, after many years in the library world, first at Columbia University, then at OCLC (Online Computer Library Center). For 10 years, he worked at Microsoft in many areas, including the corporate archives and library. He was one of the first people I hired after taking over the leadership of Microsoft Research Connections six years ago.

    I met Lee at a library event at the University of Washington. We hit it off immediately, in part because of our shared conviction that scholarly communications were going to change radically over the next five years, with profound implications for university libraries and academic publishers, and in part because Lee was just such a larger-than-life personality, with an infectious sense of humor and an obvious zest for living.

    Lee joined my leadership team at Microsoft Research Connections—a bit of an outlier, as a librarian in a group of computer scientists, but as an important and influential member as there ever was. You see, Lee had a clear vision of where scholarly publishing and library science were headed—even when others did not. He understood that the Internet was changing everything, pushing the existing publishing models towards obsolescence and fundamentally altering the academic library’s traditional role, which I’ve described as being the place where students went to meet friends, drink coffee, and read some arcane journals—all of which they can do today at any coffee shop.

    Lee, more than anyone I know, championed the shift in librarianship; a shift that has seen many top library schools recreate themselves as information schools, or iSchools, for short, where the emphasis has turned to teaching the skills of information retrieval and evaluation. He used his vast connections in the library world to promote the iSchool paradigm. When confronted by old-school reactionaries, he loved to quote U.S. General Eric Shinseki: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

    Lee was a powerful voice for change in the publishing world, too, pushing for the new model of interconnectedness, in which not only journal articles are available online, but so are the underlying data sets for review and commentary. It’s a world where information is rapidly and inexpensively disseminated and where collegial interactions are fostered. Lee also championed the DOCX format, recognizing the power of surrounding the text with meta-data links to the underlying data and related research.

    Here in Microsoft Research Connections, Lee assembled a great team of experts in education and scholarly communications and used his network in that community to create the Scholarly Communications section of The Fourth Paradigm, the book that expounds on the late Jim Gray’s vision of data-intensive science. In this and so many other endeavors, Lee’s connections in the library and publishing worlds nicely complemented mine in the science community. Lee made many other contributions to our organization. He shaped Microsoft Academic Search into an extremely useful tool for the research community. He was a passionate advocate for education research and championed alternate approaches, such as Just Press Play. He recognized the potential for machine translation to be used to preserve indigenous languages around the world. He strongly believed and supported the ChronoZoom project, which will bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences and bring knowledge of the history of the universe to all. These are just a few of the dozens of efforts, large and small, that he worked tirelessly to champion and make manifest.

    Another side of Lee stands out for me as I recall a trip to Harvard. He invited me to join him for a beer. As we sat in the bar, I received a call from my wife, asking me what I was doing sitting around having beer when I was supposed to be on business. You see, unbeknownst to me, Lee had posted the news of our pub crawl to his Facebook site, where it was seen by my wife, a fellow librarian who was one of Lee’s many Facebook friends. Lee and my better half had a good laugh over that.

    And laughter and compassion is how I will best remember Lee. He was a great man with a wonderful sense of humor, and an incredible heart. Unfailingly kind and considerate, he treated everyone as an equal. Just the other day, a writer that works for us told me how sad he was to learn of Lee’s untimely death and told me, “Lee always treated me as equal. He made me feel that my work was just as important as that of the PhDs all around me.” Of course he did. That was Lee. He saw value in everyone and what they were working on.

    And now he’s gone, he and his lovely wife, leaving us all poorer for his absence and the richer for having known him. Farewell, my friend and colleague, you’ve left us far too soon.

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Tools for Researchers Amp Up the Power of Visual Studio

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    Easy to use. Visual. Powerful.As a researcher, I know the value of having the right tools for the job. The right tool makes working easier and more efficient—well, that’s the definition of a tool, isn’t it? So if you’re like me, always looking for programming tools that help bring your research to life, you’ll want to check out this set of Microsoft Visual Studio research tools and services from Microsoft Research. These versatile tools range from games to help you get started in a new programming language to analysis engines that enhance the power and usability of Visual Studio, Microsoft’s premier development environment.

    What I especially like about this collection is its range. There’s something there to help researchers at every level—from professional computer scientists to eager students. As our marketing mavens like to say, these tools are powerful, helping to amplify your coding productivity; visual, bringing your code to life; and easy-to-use, providing you with a nearly painless way to get familiar with the many programming languages supported by Visual Studio.

    These are tools made by researchers for researchers, designed specifically to meet the needs by people who share their needs. For example, the Social for Team Foundation Server (Social for TFS) tool recognizes that much successful research is collaborative and needs software support. Created by the Collaborative Development Group at the University of Bari, Italy, Social for TFS is an extension of Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server. The tool aggregates team members’ content from multiple social media sites in order to facilitate interpersonal connections and increase the ability to connect successfully.

    We also know that code visualizations are one of the best ways to help programmers discover and repair errors as well as find and enhance efficiencies, so we’ve included a tool for this, too: Debugger Canvas, which brings together code in a single pan-and-zoom display of code bubbles. Debugger Canvas is based on a long collaboration with Brown University. It keeps the size of the visualizations meaningful and manageable, so you can make corrections easily and quickly. What’s more, you can use Debugger Canvas with large touch screens that really make the code “pop,” especially in a team code review. As John Robbins, co-founder of Wintellect in Seattle says: "Debugger Canvas demonstrates the possibilities of debugging of the future and will help break us out of this rut we are in with our debugging tools. My view is that Debugger Canvas is the start of twenty-first century debugging."

    And then we have tools like Try F#, which help you explore this powerful functional language via your browser on any operating system. Try F# can help you start using Visual Studio, quickly and easily, and it’s loaded with online tutorials and tools for creating and sharing code. It lowers the barrier to learning and utilization and has proven tremendously popular. As Try F# develops as a language, our tools are expanding, so do return to our page to look for future updates.

    Anxious to test out these tools, or just learn more? You can find them and more at Visual Studio Research Tools.

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Microsoft Interns in the Clouds

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    Well, not literally, but many of our interns did spend a lot of their own time probing the stratosphere over the last 12 weeks, building cloud-based apps for the Windows Phone. These interns were participants in Project Hawaii Intern XAPFest 2012, a contest for building the coolest, most useful apps for the Windows Phone. And for eight contestant teams, August 14 was judgment day. These lucky few were the finalists, vying to place among the top three finishers and take home a cash prize.

    Of course, we didn’t just throw down this challenge without providing some assistance. Our interns are sharp, but even the best and brightest need some support. So throughout the summer, we held a series of workshops and hackathons, each attended by more than 100 interns. Topics ranged from programming with Microsoft Silverlight, to working with Project Hawaii services, to optimizing Windows Phone applications. Developers from the across the company volunteered their time and knowledge to help the interns getting started.

    Finally, the big day arrived. The eight finalists presented their ingenious projects to a panel of three distinguished judges. The judges had some difficult decisions to make, given the high quality of the contesting projects, but our steely-eyed jurists were equal to the task.

    And the winners are…

    Pictured from left to right: Nishant Shukla (LyncUp), Kevin Mehlhaff (Vocab Stacks), and Matt Oates (Speak)
    Pictured from left to right: Nishant Shukla (LyncUp), Kevin Mehlhaff (Vocab Stacks), and Matt Oates (Speak)

    • Grand Prize to Jasdev Singh and Nishant Shukla for LyncUp: Doesn't it seem like you and your friends always want to hang out, but no one can decide where to go? With LyncUp, you and your posse can find mutual meet-up spots based on your GPS locations. What’s more, LyncUp will track everyone's arrival status in real time!
    • Second Prize to Matt Oates and Duncan Horn for Speak: Ever wonder how to pronounce Où est la bibliothèque? Or maybe Una cervaza, por favor? Well, that’s why you need Speak, an application that helps you say common phrases in different languages. With Speak, you can hear how the phrase is supposed to sound, and then attempt to say it yourself. Glückwünsche, Matt and Duncan.
    • Third Prize to Kevin Mehlhaff for Vocab Stacks: Hey, sometimes you need help with words even in your native tongue. In that case, it’s Vocab Stacks to the rescue. You simply type or speak a word into your Windows Phone to look up its definition. If the app can't find a definition for a particular word, you ask one of your erudite friends to enter a custom definition so that the phone will know next time.

    Congratulations to the finalists and winners, and to all who entered Hawaii Intern XAPFest 2012.

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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