Microsoft Street Slide: Like Google Street View, only better

Microsoft research does great work (Photosynth, Courier, Surface, ...), it’s a shame that it so rarely contributes to actual products. “Microsoft Street Slide” (MSS) fixes a problem that Google Street View has: While you can move around in your virtual surroundings, it is difficult to get a sense of context (“what is around me?”, “where am I?”). MSS helps by allowing one to zoom out and get a look at a whole street.


The new Blogger editor is great

In case you haven’t noticed: Blogger has a new editor (you have to explicitly enable it). And it’s great: No more window-global dialogs (e.g. to enter the URL of a link). True previews of a post. Bullet lists that can be indented. Breaks between the introduction and the main article. A resizable editor field. Shortcuts for applying font styles. Etc. In short, it fixes most of my complaints. A few wishes remain:
  • Touch support: WYSIWYG composing is not supported on iPhone/iPad and dragging the corner of the editor to resize does not work.
  • Navigation (between posting, settings, etc.) could be more streamlined: Some operations should be easier to reach, others should be harder to reach (e.g., how often do you change the design of your blog?), there is some clash between the tabs and the bar at the top, etc. Mozilla has performed a user interface study to solve this kind of problem for Firefox.
  • Paste without formatting should be the default.
  • Leftovers from my past wishes: Smart quotes, tables, inserting symbols, wider layouts (mentioned in the comments), paragraph styles (headings, pre, ...).
But, apart from that, I am very happy with the new editor.

Apple, please give us a wired trackpad!

This is one instance where I hate Apple’s minimalism: They have just introduced “Magic Trackpad” as an alternative to the “Magic Mouse”. And both input devices are cordless. The less wires, the better, you say? In general, I agree, but in this case, having a wire means that one doesn’t have to rely on batteries. And as long as batteries age and are bad for the environment, that is a big plus. Furthermore, Apple has already largely fixed the problem of input device wires, by making their keyboard a USB hub. Then, mouse or trackpad connect directly to the keyboard and only need a relatively short wire which almost never gets in the way. To summarize: not needing a battery = magic. I understand that some people prefer Bluetooth devices, but having a wire should still be an option.

Do you agree? Then let Apple know.

As an aside: Trackpads for input are great and will probably replace mice long-term. With gestures, one takes the idea of the scrolling wheel (an action, directly accessible) and extends it to many kinds of operations: zooming, going to the next page, etc. Trackpads might also be the way to add multi-touch to desktop devices.

Related post:


iPad video: original and spoof

The iPad video is truly annoying (in contrast, the commercial is good). College humor has done a spoof on it.

Smart furniture

I’ve previously written about “Furniture for easier relocation” and just found one more web site that is related to this topic: “Smart Furniture”. If there are any others, let me know.

Teaching RDF

I recently held a 90min lecture on RDF. In it, I’ve followed the obvious path of explaining the usefulness of RDF by showing how it can be interpreted in several ways (set of triples, resources, graph). For a hands-on session, I needed a way to interactively create and query RDF, so I’ve added functionality to Hyena: In the “Query” zone, one can edit a graph in Turtle Syntax and query the repository with SPARQL. It turned out that there was a nice synergy between this zone and the rest of Hyena, because the encoded wiki pages plus attached tags provided nice “real-world” example data. As an exercise, I asked my audience to express in SPARQL the query “all wiki pages that are tagged with ‘Todo’”.
Update: More RDF shells
  • sparql-query: A shell for accessing SPARQL endpoints. [Source: Mischa Tuffield]
  • OntoWiki has an interactive query shell with SPARQL syntax highlightning, saved queries and other features. [Source: Sebastian Tramp]
  • The SparqlTrainer is an e-learning tool to practice SPARQL interactively. [Source: Sebastian Tramp]
Related reading:


    Inconsistent information in your database

    The blog post “Rethinking Form Validation” describes an interesting idea (apparently inspired by one of Alan Cooper’s books): While developers are fond of only storing information that is fully validated, it may help end users if they can store inconsistent data. Related examples include forms that force you to only enter digits for phone numbers (no spaces, dashes, parentheses, etc.) or some obvious characters being forbidden from passwords. Validation should be unobtrusive, because there are always going to be unforeseen cases where rigid control works against the user. Eclipse’s handling of Java syntax errors is exemplary: You are warned about them, but you are not prevented from continuing your work.


    Great TV: Friday night lights

    I don’t understand American football and usually don’t like sports-themed movies. But Friday night lights (FNL) is different, because it offers a compelling portrayal of the people involved in football and how it affects them and their relationships. Furthermore, many other topics are also covered, in a manner typical of good American TV: while the “classics” are there (doping, alcohol, first sex), FNL stays fresh, avoids preachiness, takes its time to tell its story and does so with well-developed characters. Recommended and currently relatively cheap on Amazon UK.


    A USB stick that can be plugged in both ways

    Cool idea: This USB stick is completely symmetrical; it can be plugged in either way. The plug has always been one of USB’s weak points, so it is nice to see progress on this front. Right now, we are in a kind of bus standard limbo, as Intel is still trying to prevent adoption of USB 3 until Light Peak is ready. I like Light Peak, but hate having to wait for it.


    Use a single version number for Ant and Java (bonus: GWT)

    Problem: If your application has a version number, it should be accessible during run time from Java (e.g., to display it in an “About this application” dialog) and during build time from Ant (e.g. to include it in file names). The solution is as follows. Access the version from Java Create the following properties file src/de/hypergraphs/hyena/core/client/bundle/BuildConstants.properties and put it into the class path.
    Access BuildConstants.properties as a Java resource. I usually construct the resource path relative to a Java class (a sibling of the file). That way the path to the properties file will always stay up-to-date, as long as I move the Java class with it. Ant Ant can read external property files as variable with the following statement.
        <property file="src/de/hypergraphs/hyena/core/client/bundle/BuildConstants.properties">
    Additionally, you can insert the value of $buildVersion into a file while copying it, by using a filterset.
        <copy file="${data.dir}/index.html" todir="${version.dir}">
                <!-- Replace @VERSION@ with the version -->
                <filter token="VERSION" value="${buildVersion}">
    GWT For client-side GWT, you can use constants. Then the version number is compiled directly into the JavaScript code. To do so, you add the following interface as a sibling of BuildConstants.properties.
    package de.hypergraphs.hyena.core.client.bundle;
        import com.google.gwt.i18n.client.Constants;
        public interface BuildConstants extends Constants {
            String buildVersion();


    Running Tomcat on port 80 in a user account

    If you already have a servlet container and also need a web server, there is usually no need to turn to a dedicated web server such as Apache. Instead, your servlet container can easily perform double duty, by putting your HTML files into the “ROOT” web application. If you run Tomcat on Linux, you have two choices: First, run it on a user account. Then you can only use “non-privileged” ports which start at 1024 (this is why Tomcat’s default is to use port 8080). Second, run it on a root account, but that poses security risks. There are many solutions out there for running Tomcat on port 8080 on a user account. The simplest solution that I have found is to use authbind. To do so, you need to perform the following steps:
    1. Install authbind
    2. Make port 80 available to authbind (you need to be root):
      touch /etc/authbind/byport/80
      chmod 500 /etc/authbind/byport/80
      chown glassfish /etc/authbind/byport/80
    3. Make IPv4 the default (authbind does not currently support IPv6). To do so, create the file TOMCAT/bin/setenv.sh with the following content: CATALINA_OPTS="-Djava.net.preferIPv4Stack=true"
    4. Change startup.sh
      exec authbind --deep "$PRGDIR"/"$EXECUTABLE" start "$@"
      # OLD: exec "$PRGDIR"/"$EXECUTABLE" start "$@"


    RDF (almost) is the next generation of relational databases

    I love RDF and SPARQL, especially their elegance and simplicity. They surely deserve a lot more attention and not just as a formalism for ontologies and semantics, but also as a next step for relational databases. Especially with the “No SQL” movement becoming popular, RDF could be an alternative that builds on the achievements of the relational database community instead of shunning them. Note that the No SQL implementation Couch DB offers JavaScript-centricity and is a little bit simpler than RDF, so one might prefer it for some scenarios. On the other hand, RDF is not much more complicated and offers other features (composable data, standardized symbols, a general-purpose query language, etc.) that Couch DB cannot match. Alas, some of the basics are still complicated in RDF, such listing properties in a table. My paper “Using RDF for social information management” has more on this topic.


    Cloud-sync your iOS calendars (bonus: PC/Mac)

    Scenario: You have an iPhone or an iPad and would like to collaboratively edit calendars. You probably want both web and offline access. Thus, neither syncing with iTunes on your PC/Mac nor using a web application such as Google Calendar is an option.

    Why isn’t “paste without formatting” the default?

    I can’t even remember when the last time was that I wanted to keep the formatting when pasting something. Thus, “paste without formatting” should be the default, keeping the formatting should be an option. Microsoft Office 2010 does it this way, why doesn’t everyone else, too?


    Making sense of the iPad

    When I went to a workshop in California, I made the experiment of leaving my notebook at home and only taking my new iPad with me. This gave me more insight into the nature of this slightly perplexing device. The first part of this post will describe this insight. The second part will go into detail about things that I liked and disliked about the iPad.

    Free text book on RDF (foundation of Semantic Web)

    My dissertation is online. While many chapters are specific to the topic of the dissertation, some chapters of it should be very readable introductions to RDF and related ideas such as Linked Data. While RDF is the foundation of the Semantic Web, there are two communities using it:
    1. RDF as a knowledge representation: This community is concerned with semantics, ontologies, etc.
    2. RDF as data: This community uses RDF as next-generation relational database
    The focus of this dissertation is (2). Recommended reading:
    • Part I: Background. Explains RDF, Linked data on the web, folksonomies, ontologies, schema and ontology languages.
    • Part VI: Related work. Mentions work that is related to Hyena: information management, hypertext, etc.