Pin In The Map

Pin In The Map is another Google Maps mashup that allows you to click on a spot in Google Maps, add some text to it and then send out the resulting link to whomever might be interested in it. This could for example be used to show someone the location of a favorite beach or restaurant. I suppose this is sort of a more personal version of the wikimapia that I mentioned previously.

Be warned though, every time that I have visited this site with Firefox for OSX it has caused Firefox to hang and/or crash. Not sure what the issue is, but be aware.

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World Internet Usage

Read/WriteWeb has an posting on how Worldwide Internet Penetration is just 15% with North America, Oceania/Australia and Europe leading the population percentage (not surprisingly perhaps).

This should be a bit sobering for the pundits who think that the Internet is the conduit for reaching the world. I agree with one of the accompanying comments that much of the world not currently accessing the Internet will likely do so in the future via mobile phones. However, you couldn’t tell this from current/trendy design and development trends.

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Google Notebook

I am happy to see the release today of Google Notebook. While the chief grumble appears to be that it doesn’t allow for tagging, I am okay with that (it will no doubt be added soon enough).

What Google Notebook does provide is a means to nab portions of web pages and add them to an online ‘notebook’. Notebooks can have folding sections in them and the text that is nabbed can be edited using a basic function online editor. The editor allow you to modify fonts, color and hyperlinks and a few other niceties. Sections of a notebook can be moved from one notebook to another by simply dragging and dropping. Snippets can also be rearranged within a notebook via drag and drop as well.

Google Notebook reminds me a lot of another application that I use on my Mac called StickyBrain. I use StickyBrain to grab text and graphics from various applications that I can then file away, organize and search for future reference. I find it very handy for when I want to just grab a snippet of something from a web page rather than bookmarking the entire page. Because StickyBrain is a Mac app, I also found myself wishing that I could do the same on the Windows based laptop I use for work. Until now, this really wasn’t possible. I could get part of the way there by using LookLater to have visibility to bookmarks between work and home systems (keep in mind, this was before del.icio.us provided private bookmarks) .

Google Notebook now lets me just nab the bits of pages that I want and share them StickyBrain-like between home and work. Frankly, I was relieved to find that the provided Firefox plugin works identically under both Windows and Mac OS X.

Now if only chronosnet would come out with a way to synch my Google Notebooks with StickyBrain this could be a very powerful solution (they already have an excellent Palm synch conduit and a .Mac synch so this is not new territory for them).

Currently, Google Notebook doesn’t appear to integrate much with the other Google offerings except for search. To me, the big opportunities her are integration with gmail and Google Maps. I would guess that other things like tags and the ability to subscribe to shared notebooks online will come in due time.

Overall, I like what I see with Google Notebook and am curious to see how it will evolve over time.

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Going Green, Literally

I just became aware of the process called promession through the RSS feed of the excellent worldwidewords.

This is an ecological alternative to cremation or burial. The corpse is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then shattered into powder by ultrasonic vibration before being buried in a biodegradeable box in a shallow grave. Green campaigners believe the technique could ease the crowding in graveyards and the increasingly harmful emissions from cremations.

The inventor, the Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak, claims that the process is good for the environment because the powder (which is essentially compost) breaks down in the soil more thoroughly and quickly than by conventional burial. She suggests that relatives plant a tree or bush above the grave as a long-term memorial.

A quick google search indicates that this idea has been around a while, but, like I said, it is the first I have heard of it.

I can imagine that this might have a certain appeal to geeky types (the liquid nitrogen and ultrasonics aspects) and for those who are environmentally conscientious (the composting and tree planting aspects). It might also have some appeal in places like Japan where I have heard that there is little land for conventional burials.

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Ajax and Accessability

sitepoint has an excellent posting on Ajax and Screenreaders: When Can It Work? With more and more sites resorting to Ajax-y interfaces (sometimes for questionable, buzzword compliance reasons), I have often wondered what the effect on the usability of these site is for those users who require screen readers to surf the web. In summary the author states:

Let’s face it, a great many AJAX applications (dare I say, “most”?) use this approach for its own sake, and don’t really benefit from it all — they could just as well use traditional POST and response.

I would even go a step further to call for a fundamental re-assessment of our priorities here. What we’re talking about is making dynamic client interfaces work effectively in screen readers, but maybe that was never the point. Isn’t the real point to make the applications themselves work effectively in screen readers?

Some may read this article and think, ‘meh, why should I care?’. I think that you should because a growing part of Internet users are (or are becoming) ‘senior citizens’ who may need a screen reader at some point. Why lock out a large part of your potential audience/market by succumbing to the need to chase the latest buzz? Besides, isn’t this the same sort of lesson in exclusivity that the ignorant ‘IE only’ sites are continuing to learn to this day?

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Shake It Up, iPod

Here is a random thought that I had driving into work the other day: what if Apple were to combine the sudden motion sensor technology that they have in the MacBook with the iPod? Then, on the iPod, if you wanted to ‘shuffle’ songs you could simply shake your iPod in a certain way, an viola!, tunes are shuffled. This could even be used to advance or replay a song.

Obviously this would need to have some sort of a button or some other ‘release’ that would allow this to work. Otherwise, the simple act of walking around or jogging would be forever activating this feature.

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Yahoo Tech: Plenty of Bloat But Misses The Boat

Yahoo just doesn’t get it. Yahoo Tech is yet another Yahoo offering composed of flash advertisement incrusted pages that will never be as useful as google, google news tech section or tech.memeorandum at providing you with news, products and more without the annoying, in your face (and completely unnecessary) advertising. Might be tolerable under heavy Greasemonkey-ing, but why not use the more useful, less annoying alternatives?

Nuff said.

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Mac Virus or Clueless Users (and Reporters)?

I saw this posting on CNN about Viruses Catch up to the Mac and had to respond to the faulty, sensationalist claims.

First off, there is a difference between a virus and a trojan horse. It sounds like what this guy (seemingly, knowingly, intentionally) ran was more a trojan. I have my doubts that just by clicking on some links that this ‘virus’ was able to execute. I also have my doubts that he was looking for ‘pictures of an unreleased update to his computer’s operating system’ (pr0n, perhaps?).

And have no doubt, it is an epidemic, having effected the guy in the story and “at least one other person“. This is great too: “It just shows people that no matter what kind of computer you use you are still open to some level of attack” — particularly if you do foolish things, like run scripts and programs of which you have no idea of the origin.

Let’s also be happy for self-congratulatory ‘researchers’ (like the one quoted in the article) who make generally true statements that could be applied to any software with no specifics required: “… malicious web sites can exploit the holes without a user’s knowledge, potentially allowing a criminal to execute code remotely and gain access to passwords and other sensitive information”. Has there been a single documented case where this has happened on a Mac OS X system? It is important to note how he is careful not say that this has happen with a Mac.

Yes, theoretically it is possible — how about some facts? Ah, yes, there is this a bit further in the article: “Apple plans to patch the holes … and there have been no reports of them being exploited … [an Apple spokesperson] disagreed that the vulnerabilities make it possible for a criminal to run code on a target machine.” You wont find the previous excoriating quotes in or near the headline.

Near the end of the article there is a four bullet list of security issues that have been identified on the Mac. Great. In any sufficiently complicated software (like an operating system), I would expect some bugs. Perhaps even some that truly are security vulnerabilities. Notably, however, there is no accounting of how the number of Mac vulnerabilities compares to Windows (just to get a relative sense of the problem they are sensationalizing discussing).

But the grand prize for misleading statements goes to the claim that “With new Macs running the same processor that powers Windows-based machines, far more people will know how to exploit weaknesses in Apple machines than in the past…” Huh? The vulnerabilities in Windows can’t be blamed on Intel-based processors, it can be blamed on a poorly designed, bloated excuse for an operating system (Windows) that has had several unsuccessful attempts to layer on security well after the fact. I would guess that a very, very large number of security vulnerabilities in Windows would be stopped cold by OS X when run as a non-root user.

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Book: Shaping Things

Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling bills itself as a book about created objects and therefore a book ‘about everything’. My experience with it was that it is a rambling, poorly written treatise that never really comes to any point whatsoever.

Many people who have read this book (or perhaps only heard of it) seem to latch on to the ‘spime’ meme in the book. I didn’t find the idea of spimes that compelling. They are basically like RFID tags on steroids — they ‘know’ what they are, where they’ve been and what they associate with. Sounds like the means to create a huge amount of metadata that doesn’t really matter to anyone in most cases. I think the idea owes a lot to the decade old idea of your refrigerator or toaster being on the Internet (remember how that was going to improve things?)

Sterling goes on and on about how this book is going to help designers. I just don’t see it. It seems to just ramble on and verges on incoherent. One example is Sterling and his wine bottle (a reoccurring theme in the book). Somehow, the fact that a wine bottle has a bar code and a URL printed on it causes Sterling to wax rhapsodic about how the bottle is now an ‘intelligent device’ and ‘interactive’. Right. Precisely what interactions does a bottle of wine initiate? To truly be an active participant in an interaction, it must be capable of action itself.

There are much better books that cover the intended material in a much better fashion. Check out Ambient Findability and Digital Ground for two excellent examples.

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Book: Ambient Findability

I find many multidisciplinary books to be especially fascinating, and Ambient Findability by Peter Morville was no exception. Morville posits that in the age of the search engine, one of the first considerations for data or a service is how easily it can be found and not necessarily how easy it is to use (though the usability bit certainly comes into play after it has been found).

…design of a useful information system requires a deep understanding of users and their social context. We cannot assume people will want our information, even if we know they need our information. Behind most failed web sites, intranets, and interactive products lie misguided models of users and their infomration-seeking behavior. Users are complex. Users are social. And so is information.

Of course, there is a great deal of information out there to be found and not all of it is terribly relevant. It should also be obvious that the sheer amount of data ‘out there’ is growing. In particular, the amount of telemetry information from GPS, RFID tags and sensors of all sorts is adding more unstructured or semi-structured data to the mix. Morville covers this ground deftly while touching on a very approachable discussion of the nature of information, how wayfinding in the physical world might provide clues to wayfinding in the data-space, and push versus pull models of data acquisition and filtering.

Chapter 6 introduces semantic web technology and approaches and its goals in dealing with data and metadata in a structured, machinable way. These approaches are contrasted with the folksonomy approach taken by the roll-your-own-tags way of doing things such as del.icio.us .

It would seem that unless you take charge of your own findability, someone else will do it for you and not necessarily to your benefit. Typo-squatters were the unfortunate pioneers of this space. More subtle variations on this are competitors who create site to disparage your product and play up their own under the guise of some ‘neutral’ third party opinion.

What you don’t find can be just as bad. I identified a malady back in the early 90s in the context of the then emergent graphic user interfaces that mirrors the contemporary ‘Google mindset’. At the time, everyone was extolling the virtues of What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get. The problem that I saw was that the vast majority of people will assume that What-You-See-Is-All-You-Get and not venture beyond the eye candy that is most immediately in front of their noses to discover richer functionality and interactions. There are folks who truly believe that ‘if it is not in Google, then it doesn’t exist’ and that what they find in Google is the truth. This can be extremely dangerous, as it has been demonstrated over and over how easy it is to manipulate search results (not only on Google but Digg, Technorati and others).

Another issue with current search technology is that it simply isn’t fuzzy enough. For example, when I travel, I seek out CD shops to browse the racks and find new music. Part of finding new music is also simply having an ear out for what is playing in the shop itself. I have found quite a bit of new music that I would never have known to search for but was introduced to by a chance listen or stumbling across it in a section of the shop that I was looking for an unrelated item in. I hold out a great deal of hope that application of semantic web technologies might help to search for and discover items in a manner similar to these physical, chance finds.

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SOAP Intentionally Obtuse

While reading through yet another article on SOAP vs REST, I came across a quote from Tim O’Reilly that confirms something that I always suspected about SOAP:

I think there are also some political aspects. Early in the web services discussion, I remember talking with Andres Layman, one of the SOAP architects at Microsoft. He let slip that it was actually a Microsoft objective to make the standard sufficiently complex that only the tools would read and write this stuff, and not humans. So that was a strategy tax that was imposed by the big companies on some of this technology, where they made it more complicated than it needed to be so they could sell tools. [Emphasis added]

Everything I have seen about SOAP has let me to this conclusion. The funny thing is that many corporations cling to SOAP as if they couldn’t possibly have web services without it (though many crafted and successfully implemented their own simple XML over HTTP services before the SOAP spec saw the light of day).

I think that Tim missed the boat with this comment as well:

It’s not necessarily just Machiavellian scheming. I think Microsoft really believes that you can create better user experiences with tools that give people so much more power.

Not quite. It took vendors like Borland (who has now left the compiler/IDE business) and others creating much more robust and productive environments in the 80s for MS to finally wake up to the need to have a viable IDE. In typical monopolistic fashion, MS latched on to the IDE as yet another means to vendor lock in. So, once it inserted itself into the IDE business, MS ‘strategy’ has always been creating the most obscure, convoluted means to implement code, libraries, frameworks, etc to tie developers to their toolset, plain and simple. If the languages and frameworks were able to stand on their own, there would be no lock-in to the MS tools. Incidentally, you will hear similar arguments around JavaServer Faces and Sun tools as well.

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Google Sketchup

Today Google has released Sketchup, a 3D drawing desktop application. From the little demo animation that they have on the linked page, this looks like the rare combination of a very powerful, yet easy to use tool for creating 3D renderings. Renderings can also be used in conjunction with Google Earth, presumably as some sort of a layer or overlay.

Unfortunately, the Mac version of it is ‘coming soon’ even though the pre-Google acquisition product already ran on OS X. I’ll have to wait for the Mac release to get into this any further. I hope that the delay is something a simple as switching over the branding and a few other minor tasks it truly will be available RSN.

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The Effect of Standards on IT Business Strategy

As always, a compelling and insightful commentary by IBM’s Irving Wladawsky-Berger (via AlwaysOn); this time discussing the effect that technology standards are having (or will have) on IT Strategy. One of the points that he makes is that standards aren’t just about software leverage; hardware and web services standards are going to allow enterprises to grow and share in ways they couldn’t easily before.

Now, what we have seen is the continuing emergence of standards as we keep going up the stack. In this world of grid computing, what you’re really trying to do is share all kinds of IT resources—computing capacity, storage, files, applications, and so on—all built around the common standards that everybody uses. So you can essentially begin to virtualize the system so that people can access your resource without having to know precisely where that resource is. A very difficult example that must have been used in let’s say supercomputing systems is that you can form a grid out of multiple supercomputers in a location or in a country, and when somebody submits a job they submit it to the grid. And then the systems themselves get their act together, find where they have capacity, and make sure they can access everything, but you’re essentially sharing all the extreme capacity that wasn’t there before.

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Sun Open Sourcing Some Tools

Sun announced earlier in the week that it is open sourcing (via netbeans.org) some significant enterprise-level tools. These include:

* 2-way UML modeler for architecting and reverse engineering complex enterprise applications. UML tools generate diagrams and keep them in sync with source changes without adding markers to the source code. Full support for the current version of the UML specification is provided.
* A set of XML infrastructure and visual editing tools which help enable developers to manage complexity in their XML files. These tools are intended to provide a base that can be extended by third parties.
* Orchestration and SOA tools are included for building composite applications. These leading-edge SOA tools leverage the business integration technology and expertise from Sun’s acquisition of SeeBeyond.

I am quite happy to see that there might finally be a decent open source two-way UML tool available. Last time I looked at this space, there was not much on offer and what was there was pretty sketchy.

Hey, I know that Sun’s tools aren’t as “cool” to use as Eclipse but there is no reason why the Eclipse community can’t swallow hard and look at how to incorporate these new tools into their IDE.

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CL1P.net : The Internet Clipboard

I recently discovered a handy little tool at cl1p.net that lets you ‘store’ a chunk of text or a small (less than 2MB) file at a URL of your choosing and then retrieve it again using the same URL. As the site states, clip has some interesting use cases:

Getting around firewalls. With cl1p.net you can easily move data from one machine to another. All you need is a URL.

Enhance Instant Messages. Instant messaging clients do a poor job at sending large blocks of text. With cl1p.net you can create a cl1p and post the URL in an instant.

Improving productivity. Cl1p.net is the fastest way to post to the Internet. Why go to the trouble of logging into e-mail just to move data?

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RedHat Acquires JBoss

I was a little surprised at how little coverage there has been of the RedHat acquisition of JBoss — could it be acquisition fatigue or general disinterest. The latter is a little hard to believe considering that both parties have at some point been the darling (or bane) of the open source community/movement. With the general love/hate relationship with RedHat, I’m not sure that having the bombastic Marc Fleury on the roster is going to be much more than a liability.

This blog post over at zdnet was one of the better I saw on the merger.

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Now with Ajax

This week I saw an announcement on Ajaxian that several high powered engineers were leaving Sun Microsystems for JackBe. I recognized all of the names of the engineers from the influential Core J2EE Patterns book that they collectively co-authored.

Unfortunately, visiting the JackBe web site does not give a very good first impression, particularly the large-ish advert that might as well read “make your company fully buzzword compliant with our Ajax assessment!!”. This reminds me of around 8-10 years ago when every consulting company was offering a ‘Java assessment’ or ‘Java Jumpstart’ and how such things will give you a ‘technical/competitive advantage’ to anyone who would take the bait. Repeat the same for client-server, object-oriented programming, eCommerce, agile programming, INSERT_YOUR_FAVORITE_HERE.

This is not to say that Ajax does not have value (it does, when applied appropriately), but it is to say that anything can be oversold.

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Domain Name Fun

Yafla has an interesting and amusing analysis of registered internet domain names and some of the characteristics they exhibit:

If you want one of the 676 possible two-letter sequences, for instance for an acronym or abbreviation, you’re out of luck: They’re all taken. Even allowing for digits, giving 1296 combinations, again every single variation is taken.

Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that .COM registrars now mandate a 3-character minimum length, so it wouldn’t be an option anyways.

Of the 17,576 possible three-letter sequences, again every single one is already taken. Adding digits to the mix (note that I’m intentionally ignoring obtuse dashes for such short domain names, though technically they are legal from the second character onwards), giving 46,656 permutations, yields a larger number of garbage domain entries (either REGISTRAR-LOCKED, REDEMPTIONPERIOD, or with no nameservers), giving a false hope of 228 seemingly open domains, yet they aren’t actually available.

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