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October, 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.

October, 2012

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Preserving Mayan Language into the Next B'ak'tun

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    Mayan calendarThe best way to describe how I’m feeling is deeply honored and emotionally moved. This is the feeling I get every time we start a Microsoft Translator Hub project in language preservation or translation because it is always an honor and privilege to work on preserving a language. Whether it’s in Fresno, California, working to preserve Hmong, or in distant Dhulikhel, Nepal, working to provide translations for Nepali, the feeling’s the same—a visceral sense of making an impact. I can attest that this feeling is a distinct benefit of being a part of the Microsoft Research Connections team.

    The last week of September, I visited the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo—or more accurately, I was warmly welcomed to these homelands of the Mayan people. Together with my colleagues Erick Stephens, director of technology at Microsoft Mexico, and Adrian Hernandez Becerril, a program manager at Microsoft Mexico, I came to the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo to finalize a project to preserve the Mayan language. Our visit marked the culmination of months-long discussions with the university and various government officials and was, in my opinion, a significant day on any calendar (more on calendars below).
     
    The future of the Mayan language is uncertain. University president Francisco Javier Rosado-May said it best when we first spoke back in May at the 2012 Latin American Faculty Summit in Cancun: “If we do not do anything to stop it, Mayan will be extinct within two generations.” President Rosado-May is extremely motivated to turn the tide, to change the future of the Mayan language, and his enthusiasm is infectious. So we and our partners in Microsoft Mexico decided to sponsor a project at his university along with Assistant Professor Martin Esquivel-Pat, to enable Mayan to survive the present and leap into the next b'ak'tun (in other words, the next long cycle of the Mayan calendar).
     
    For those of you who are concerned that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world this December 20, let me assure you, as my hosts in Quintana Roo assured me, this is simply the end of a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar developed by the Mayans—a timekeeper more accurate than our own Julian calendar, by the way. What the Mayans say is that this December 21, we will be starting the next b'ak'tun, and with that, we hope, an era where Mayan remains a viable language for generations to come.

    On arrival at the university, we were greeted by Javier Díaz Carvajal, head of the Secretariat of Economic Development for Quintana Roo, who, on behalf of the governor, extended me the honor of being made an “adopted citizen” of Quintana Roo. Afterwards, we signed an agreement with the government and the university to work on developing a Mayan language translation system that is solely built by the community and shared only when they decide to do so. And that is the real benefit of the Microsoft Translator Hub: it places the power of developing automatic translation models into the hands of the community where it belongs.

    For the remainder of the day and the one that followed, we gave presentations and trained our hosts, professional translators, and students at the university on using the Microsoft Translator system, both through the Hub interface (which any bilingual person can use with a little training) and programmatically (which requires some technical knowledge). The latter is significant, as the university is looking to establish a computer and information science program, and this programmatic work with the Microsoft Translator Hub can help them build expertise in this area. My colleagues and I wanted to assist them in this endeavor in every way possible.
     
    But back to building the language translation system. Microsoft Translator Hub makes the process easy, but it still takes time and commitment from the community—it doesn’t just happen overnight. It took our partners at California State University of Fresno and the Hmong Language Partners more than seven months to collect and add enough parallel data (between Hmong and English), upload it to the system, train, build, and release the Hmong translator.

    We got a preview of how the Mayan translation system might work at a workshop we ran in Quintana Roo—which focused largely on building a translator system between Spanish and Yucatec (a local Mayan dialect). Participants employed another distinguishing feature of the Microsoft Translator Hub that enables you to build translation systems directly between any two languages instead of pivoting (and propagating errors) through English. How long it will take to build a functional Mayan translator is unknown right now, but I know the community is very motivated to get it done early in the next b'ak'tun!

    I believe it is vital to future of the human race that we remember and preserve our past. My colleagues and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to play even a small part in making that happen.

    Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interactions Team, Microsoft Research Connections

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    ChronoZoom Receives Digital Education Achievement Award

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    Many of you have heard me talk passionately about ChronoZoom over the past year, especially about our goal to bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities through this amazing open-source tool, which strives to capture the history of everything. I love the amazing breadth of these ambitions.

    Another thing I love about ChronoZoom is how it was created by the academic community, with assistance from Microsoft through Microsoft Research Connections. The academic part of the ChronoZoom team has had a very busy summer, delivering two releases independently, without any coaching from the Microsoft engineering team. I urge you to check out the new features and download the source code on Codeplex.

    I had a fabulous time working with our community leader, Roland Saekow of the University of California, Berkeley, as we presented ChronoZoom at the International Big History Association Conference at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. I’d like to hand this blog over to Roland, to tell you about a great tribute the team received this summer!

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
     

    Three years ago, I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), taking a course on the history of everything. The course was titled “Big History: Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.” Taught by Professor Walter Alvarez, it covered everything from the Big Bang to modern man. One of the most challenging aspects of a Big History course is grasping the timescales– all 13.7 billion years. To meet this challenge, Professor Alvarez and I set out to create a dynamic, zoomable timeline. Three years later, after much hard work by incredible teams of people, ChronoZoom received the seventeenth annual Digital Education Achievement Award.

    Chris Engberg (left) and Roland Saekow (right) accept the Digital Education Achievement award on behalf of the ChronoZoom team from the Center for Digital Education, represented by Kristy Fifelski, New Media Dirctor, e.Republic Inc. (center). 
    Chris Engberg (left) and Roland Saekow (right) accept the Digital Education Achievement award on behalf of the ChronoZoom team from the Center for Digital Education, represented by Kristy Fifelski, New Media Director, e.Republic Inc. (center). Image courtesy of the Center for Digital Education

    This award, which is presented by the Center for Digital Education (a division of e.Republic), recognizes the results of countless hours of planning, discussion, prototyping, and development—the collaborative efforts of dedicated and passionate individuals from all over the world. Our team includes software engineers, program managers, and project leaders at Microsoft Research Connections in Redmond, Washington, and students and professors at Moscow State University in Russia and at UC Berkeley. This dispersed team developed cutting-edge HTML5 code and implemented services on Windows Azure to create a rich, visual database full of historical events and timelines.

    Roland Saekow answers questions during the Digital Education Achievement Award panelOne aspect of the ChronoZoom project I find fascinating is that students—undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs—wrote nearly 80 percent of the code in today’s beta release. This award recognizes the successful collaboration between experienced veterans of the computer science world and students who have been inspired and mentored with great care and passion to do outstanding work.
     
    Work on ChronoZoom began as a dream—a hopeful vision into the future. Not only did the right people have to come together at the same moment, but they also had to learn to work together in near perfect synchronization to transform our dream into a reality.
     
    I am very proud of everyone on the team, and I look forward to our continued success. As an open-source project, we continue to grow our team, and take with us the experience in collaboration that Microsoft Research fostered. We invite you to join us on this journey to bring history to life.
     
     Roland Saekow, ChronoZoom Community Lead, University of California, Berkeley

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    Try Try F#

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    We’re happy to announce that the beta release of the new Try F#  has arrived! We’re proud of this new release, and with good reason: Try F# makes programming in F# 3.0 easy to learn, simple to use, and straightforward to share—all through the browser.

    F# 3.0 is ideal for analytical, data-rich, and parallel component development, harnessing the power of functional programming.

    If you are a researcher who’s been longing to learn the basics or learn about the incredible new type providers in F# 3.0 that deliver information to your fingertips, then Try F# is for you. Likewise, if you’re a teacher who wants to introduce students to the power of this elegant and pragmatic language, then the Try F# browser-based platform with easy-to-use tutorials is also for you.

    What’s more, you’ll be treated to a new “learn” experience, complete with sample materials to get you started and a way to give us feedback so that you can tell us what you think about the look and feel and ease of navigation. The Try F# beta even includes new “create and share” experiences that help you write simple code to solve complex problems and then easily share snippets or sample packs with others. And remember, Try F# is in a browser-based environment, so it’s accessible from any operating system.

    We would love for you to be part of the Try F# beta, which provides the tutorials, resources, and tools to begin working with F# right away. By participating, you’ll experience F# 3.0’s unique, information-rich programming features for Big Data analytics, and you’ll get the power to solve complex problems more efficiently.

    F# communities make it easy to get involved:

    Here’s that beta site again. Now get out there, try Try F# and give us your feedback so we can keep improving Try F#.

    Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing, Microsoft Research Connections, and Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technology Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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