Archive for June, 2009

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Steorn: the jury has spoken

The Steorn 300 program is underway, and yes, I am one of the 300 looking at their information which is coming out in once-a-week bursts in the form of educational modules. So far, nothing interesting. Some basic physics lessons, and somewhat more interesting forum activity.

But all signs seem to be pointing in the wrong direction for a miraculous breakthrough. A jury of members selected by Steorn recently unanimously stated:

The unanimous verdict of the Jury is that Steorn’s attempts to demonstrate the claim have not shown the production of energy. The jury is therefore ceasing work.

Even this announcement raises more questions, and at this point in the game, more questions is not a good thing. Of the 22 original jury members, apparently only 16 were left at the end. Those 16 were unanimous, but what did the other 6 think? Were they booted as dissenters? Also allegedly the jury was never presented with actual hardware, which seems completely crazy and counterproductive from the standpoint of the company that convened the jury.

This kind of story has unfolded many times before, and it doesn’t end well. I’ve spent many hours debunking energy claims and perpetual motion devices. But hey, the company says they are proceeding with plans to commercialize the technology by the end of 2009. No matter what happens, it will be interesting to watch. -m

Previously: How Orbo works, When the experimenter wants to believe, and The downside of free energy.

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

MarkLogic Server 4.1, App Services released

I’m thrilled to announce MarkLogic 4.1 and with it my project App Services, is here. Top-of-the-post props go out to Colleen, David, and Ryan who made it happen.

You might already know that MarkLogic Server is a super-powerful database slash search engine powering projects like MarkMail. (But did you know there’s a free-as-in-beer edition?) The next step is to make it easier to use and build your own apps on top of the server.

The first big piece is the Search API, which lets you do “Google-style” searches over your content like this:

search:search(“MP3 OR iPod AND color:black -Zune”)

The built-in grammar includes AND, OR, parens for grouping, – for negation, quotations for phrases, and easy ways to define facets like date:today or author:”Bill Shakespeare” or GPA:3.95. By passing in additional options, you can redefine the grammar and control all aspects of the search and how the results are returned. Numerous grass-roots efforts at doing someting like this had begun to spring up, so the time was right to come out with an officially-sanctioned API. For those developers who haven’t seen the light yet and don’t fancy XQuery, an API like this is a huge benefit.

The next piece builds on the Search API to offer a graphical App Builder tool that produces a simplified MarkMail-type app around your content. It looks like this:

App Builder screen shot, Search page

The App Builder itself is based on XForms via the excellent XSLTForms library and REST, making it a full-blown XRX application.

Lots more info, videos, screencasts, articles, and more are coming soon.

You can start playing with this now by visiting the download page. Under the Community License, you can put 10 gigs of content into it for noncommercial production free-as-in-beer.

Enjoy! I’ll be catching my breath for the next two months*. -m

* Not really

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

The Science of a Good Beer

When I get time, I want to watch all of this program on from Dave McLean in SF who talks about how to make beer, why it tastes like it does, and why some people prefer various styles of beer.

It’s a good follow-up to the NHC reception I made it to last week, with a 3 course dinner (each made with and served with a different beer), a lecture by the highly entertaining Brewing Scientist Charlie Bamforth, and a tasting panel of 20 different additives as palate training.

Even if you’re busy, take some time to appreciate the things you might otherwise enjoy without thinking. -m

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

RDFa List Apart

A great introduction article. Maybe it’s just the crowd I hang with, but RDFa looks like it’s moving from trendy to serious tooling. -m

Friday, June 19th, 2009

VoCamp Wrap-up

I spent 2 days at the Yahoo! campus at a VoCamp event, my first. Initially, I was dismayed at the schedule. Spend all the time the first day figuring out why everybody came? It seemed inefficient. But having gone through it, the process seems productive, exactly the way that completely decentralized groups need to get things done. Peter Mika did a great job moderating.

Attendees numbered about 35, and came from widely varying backgrounds from librarian to linguist to professor to student to CTO, though uniformly geeky. With SemTech this week, the timing was right, and the number of international attendees was impressive.

In community development, nothing gets completely decided just because a few people met. But progress happens. The first day was largely exploratory, but also covered plenary topics that nearly everyone was interested in. Namely:

  • Finding, choosing, and knowing when to create vocabularies
  • Mapping from one vocabulary to another
  • RDBMS to RDF mapping

Much of the shared understanding of these discussions is captured on various wiki pages connected to the one at the top of this article.

For day 2, we split into smaller working groups with more focused topics. I sat in on a discussion of Common Tag (which still feels too complex to me, but does fulfill a richer use case than rel-tag). Next, some vocabulary design, planning a microformat (and eventual RDF vocab) to represent code documentation: classes, functions, parameters, and the like. Tantek Çelik espoused the “scientific method” of vocab design: would a separate group, in similar circumstances, come up with the same design? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you probably designed it right. The way to make that happen is to focus on the basics, keeping everything as simple as possible. If any important features are missed, you will find out quickly. The experience of getting the simple thing out the door will provide the education needed to make the more complicated follow-on version a success.

From the wrap-up: if you are designing a vocabulary, the most useful thing you can do is NOT to unleash a fully-formed proposal on the world, but rather to capture the discussion around it. What were the initial use cases? What are people currently doing? What design goals were explicitly left off the table, or deferred to a future verson, or immediately shot down? It’s better to capture multiple proposals, even if fragmentary, and let lots of people look them over and gravitate toward the best design.

Lastly, some cool things overheard:

“Relational databases? We call those ‘legacy’.”

“The socially-accepted schema is fairly consistent.”

“It’s just a map, it’s not the territory.”


Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Selling my house

I’m sticking around Sunnyvale, but am selling my house. It’s a smaller “starter home”place good for a small family. It’s close to Yahoo!, Google, Ebay, Cisco, and lots of other South Bay companies. In a great neighborhood with lots of parks, restaurants (Giovanni’s Pizza just down the street is fantastic), and a nearby movie theater. If you know anyone moving into the area and looking for a place, here’s a chance to short-circuit a lot of the hassle and get straight into well-cared-for place from a reputable seller.

I’m hesitant to post my address and pictures of my house, etc. here. Email me if you want to see more. -m

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Geek Thoughts: Pez, the movie (updated)

Since all these childhood media properties (just recently Transformers, G.I. Joe, Land of the Lost) are getting the movie treatment, why not a few more?

Pez, the movie (directed by Michael Bay)

A band of interdimensional travelers with rectangular bodies and grotesquely large heads arrive on earth to plant monitoring probes, with sprout out of their necks. Unfortunately for them, the probes turn out to be made of nearly pure sucrose. Will the children of Earth be able to stop the invasion in time, while dodging whole-screen explosions every 15 seconds?

Lego my Eggo (directed by George Lucas)

A rare double tie-in flick. The special edition will be out a few years later. Jar Jar guest-stars.

Pop Rocks (starring The Rock)

A thoughtful commentary on the futility of life, the meaninglessness of existence, and exploding candy.

The Night of the EZ Bake Oven (directed by George Romero)

Scores of digits horribly burned. Rated PG-13.

When Lawn Darts Attack (based on a true story)

Errol Morris and Ralph Nader join forces at last.

More collected Geek Thoughts at

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

The Inmates are Running the Asylum: review and RFE

The central thesis of The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper is dead on: engineers get too wrapped up in their own worlds, and left entirely to their own whims can easily make a product incomprehensible to ordinary folks. For this reason alone, it’s worth reading.

But I do question parts of his thesis. He (with tongue in cheek) posits the existence of another species of human, called Homo Logicus. Stepping on to an airplane, Homo Logicus turns left into the cockpit with a million buttons but ultimate control over every aspect of the plane. Regular Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, turn right and tuck themselves into a chair–no control but at least they can relax.

But if there was only one “species” of Homo Logicus, members (like me) would never experience usability issues in software created by fellow Logicians. But ordinary fax machines give me fits. The touch-screen copier at work instills dread in my heart. And the software I need to use to file expense reports–written by enterprise software geeks probably very similar to me–is a usability nightmare. Words fail me in expressing my disdain for this steaming heap of fail.

The book is sub-titled “Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy”, but one doesn’t have to look very far to find similar usability bugs in the low-tech world. Seth Godin, for example, likes to talk about different things in life that Just Don’t Work, along with reasons why. Some examples:

  • airport cab stand (75 cabs, 75 people, and it takes an hour)
  • “don’t operate heavy machinery” warning on dog’s prescription medicine
  • excessive fine print on liability agreements–intentionally hard to read and figure out
  • official “Vote for Pedro” shirts that look nothing like the ones in the movie
  • more examples on the web site

If anything, I think Cooper’s work doesn’t go far enough. It is relatively short on good examples, stretching out only four examples over four chapters. If properly-designed software is so hard to come up with examples of, then there are bigger problems in play (that would need to be dealt with by something more manifesto than book).

The book now 5 years old. Perhaps it’s time for an update. Particularly in the world of web software, lots has happend in 5 years. Flickr. Gmail. Yahoo Pipes. Google Docs. Even SearchMonkey. Instead of focusing on pointing at crappy software, I’d like to see more emphasis on properly-done interfaces. More delving into nuance, and common factors behind why both high-tech and low-tech products miss the mark.

But maybe that’s just me. -m

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Displaced Yahoo Placement Service

I was shocked today to find out that one of my old friends from the Yahoo Search days was let go in the last round. He’s simply brilliant and would have been one of the last people I would have expected that the managers-in-purple could do without.

At the same time, I’m getting hounded by recruiters–five so far just this week.

So let me put these two forces against each other and see if they cancel out. To any former Yahoos: get in touch with me and I’ll do what I can to hook you up with a cool opportunity. This offer is good for June and July–after that I can’t reasonably say I’ll have time for matchmaking. Send me your CV via email and I’ll get started. No promises on results, but I’ll do what I can. :-)


Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

See you at Balisage

Balisage, formerly Extreme Markup, is the kind of conference I’ve always wanted to attend.

Historically my employers have been not quite enough involved in the deep kinds of topics at this conference (or too cash-strapped, but let’s not go there) to justify spending a week on the road. So I’m glad that’s no longer the case: Mark Logic is sponsoring the conference this year. I’m looking forward to the show, and since I’m not speaking, I might be able to relax a little and soak in some of the knowledge.

See you there! -m