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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.

  • 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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    Try F#—Data Console to Big and Broad Data

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    Today, we are excited to announce the latest release of Try F#, a set of resources that makes it easy to learn and program with F# in your browser. It’s available over a wide range of platforms and doesn’t require a download of Microsoft Visual Studio. Try F# quickly reveals the value of the versatile F# programming language.

    Learn how to program in F#. Create and share code with the new release of Try F#

    Try F# enables users to learn F# through new tutorials that focus on solving real-world problems, including analytical programming quandaries of the sort that are encountered in finance and data science. But Try F# is much more than a set of tutorials. It lets users write code in the browser and share it with others on the web to help grow a community of F# developers.

    This latest release of Try F# is an evolution that keeps the tool in synch with the new experiences and information-rich programming features that are available in F# 3.0, the latest version of the language. The tutorials incorporate many domains, and help users understand F#’s new powerful “type providers” for data and service programming in the browser-based experience.

    F# has become an invaluable tool in accessing, integrating, visualizing, and sharing data analytics. Try F# thus has the potential to become the web-based data console for bringing “big and broad data,” including the associated metadata, from thousands of sources (eventually millions) to the fingertips of developers and data scientists. Try F# helps fill the need for robust tools and applications to browse, query, and analyze open and linked data. It promotes the use of open data to stimulate innovation and enable new forms of collaboration and knowledge creation.

    For example, to answer a straightforward question such as, “Is US healthcare cost-effective?” researchers now need to look at several datasets, going back and forth between an integrated development environment (IDE) and webpages to figure out if they’ve found what they need.

    With Try F#, a researcher can quickly and easily access thousands of schematized and strongly-typed datasets. This presents huge opportunities in today’s data-driven world, and we strongly encourage all developers and data scientists to use Try F# to seamlessly discover, access, analyze, and visualize big and broad data.

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

     
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    Seeing Your World Through a Different Light

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    WorldWide Telescope at South by SouthwestAs the saying goes: everything is bigger in Texas. And coming this weekend, March 8 to 10, there will be a couple of Texas-sized telescopes at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin. Housed in the mammoth NASA Experience Tent, a wall-sized display will show off Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), demonstrating the amazing capabilities of the world’s largest virtual telescope. Outside, on the lawn of the Long Center, there will be a full-scale model of the next generation of the Hubble Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—a truly impressive piece of engineering that’s the size of a tennis court.

    Microsoft Research is partnering with NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Space Telescope Science Institute to offer a truly interactive exhibit, with University of Texas, Austin, astronomy students on hand to show off details of the JWST model on Microsoft Surface devices. Meanwhile, WWT will provide festival goers with an immersive virtual experience as they fly through the universe and explore the planets and stars. As you may know, the WWT brings together imagery from the world’s best ground and space-based telescopes and combines it with 3-D navigation. It also includes guided tours of interesting places in the sky, created and narrated by astronomers and educators.

    WorldWide Telescope Experience
    WorldWide Telescope Experience

    In addition to the huge WorldWide Telescope display, Microsoft Perceptive Pixel stations will be accessible, enabling visitors to explore space, Earth, and history—all at their fingertips. By using Microsoft Research ChronoZoom, a candidate for a 2013 SXSW Interactive Award, visitors will be able to explore all of history—from the Big Bang to today—and see connections that cut across disciplines and cultures. Prominent participants at SXSW Interactive will include Microsoft researchers, such as Jonathan Fay, who will deliver daily talks on the WWT and participate in the panel session, “Beyond Hubble: NASA's Next Great Telescope (JWST).”

    James Webb Space Telescope
    James Webb Space Telescope

    Another of my Microsoft Researcher colleagues, Donald Brinkman, will take part in the “Big Heritage, Big Quilts, and Big Canvases” panel discussion on the use of applications to visualize works of cultural significance. Donald’s panel will feature demos of applications built on Microsoft Pixelsense and Surface devices that provide both scholars and the public with an intimate and interactive experience of cultural touchstones, such as AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest community-created piece of folk art in the world.

    In addition to the schedule of great talks, we will also be using Skype to broadcast live daily from the NASA clean room at Goddard Space Center for audience Q&A.

    We look forward to seeing you in Texas for truly unique and interactive experience.
     
    Dan Fay, Director of Earth, Energy, and Environment; Microsoft Research Connections

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