Monday, October 29, 2007

Red Sox are World Series Champions 2007

The Sox have done it again - and no 86-year wait this time. With a 4-3 victory in game 4 of the World Series, the Sox complete their 4-game sweep of the Rockies to become MLB champions for the second time in 4 seasons!




Time to celebrate and buy some stuff...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Where in the world...

... was the XML Aficionado, when he took this photo today:

Where in the world?

It is indeed a grim place, and it is no secret that this is somewhere in Vienna, Austria (since that is quite obviously where I've spent this week - as can be seen in recent blog postings). But the question is: where in Vienna, and what place is this? I'll provide just one hint: DiffDog would have loved that place.

Be the first one to comment on this XML Aficionado blog with the correct answer, and you'll win one single-user license of Altova DiffDog 2008, the essential differencing and merging utility for developers.

Disclaimer: all blog comments subject to review; prize cannot be exchanged for cash; void where prohibited; winner responsible for all taxes and dues; employees of Altova GmbH and Altova Inc as well as Falk family members are eligible to participate, since the location of the above photo is only known to me personally and I was alone when taking that photo; batteries not included; no animal was harmed in the taking of the above photo; if you are reading this, then you (a) are probably a lawyer and/or (b) don't need any glasses...

Friday, October 26, 2007

PopChar - a delightful character map replacement utility

There are many reasons why one would need to use the Windows CharMap utility from time to time - be it to insert special mathematical characters, Greek letters, to properly write Daisuke Matsuzaka-san's name in Kanji (松坂 大輔), or enter any other Unicode characters into your XML documents - but one use was mostly on my mind this week in Austria: the need to write German Umlaut characters (ä, ö, ü) and the German sharp-s character (ß) when you want to write proper German text. This is, of course, next to impossible when you have non-German keyboard, because none of these characters are available on the standard US keyboard layout.

Unfortunately the Windows CharMap utility isn't really that helpful at all when you want to type those characters, because you have to find it (typically it's hidden away under Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools) and then you have to copy/paste every character into your word processor or e-mail program one at a time.

PopChar1 I was, therefore, very happy to rediscover an old "friend" this week: PopChar is a character map replacement utility and much more. I say rediscover, because I used to use PopChar all the time some 15+ years ago on the Mac, but they now have a Windows version 3.2 as well, and it is just so much more powerful and useful than CharMap.

After installing PopChar for the first time, you get to adjust some preferences, such as whether you want PopChar to auto-start every time you login, or what hot-key you want to associate with PopChar (I use Ctrl-~ on my laptop). From then on PopChar lives happily among the task bar icons in the lower right corner of your screen. Then, when you want to insert a special character into your word processing document, e-mail, or XML document in your favorite XML editor, all you have to do is hit the hot-key and PopChar pops up with a list of characters that you can insert. Click on the character you want, and PopChar inserts it at you current cursor position in whatever document you've been working on, and disappears again. Fast, convenient, and unobtrusive.

The PopChar display is highly customizable, too, and you can pick either ASCII mode or Unicode depending on what characters you need to work with. The font size of the characters can be adjusted as well as the width and height of the window. You can select what font you want to use, and PopChar can optionally also style those characters in the selected font when you insert them into your document, which is highly useful if you pick some special symbols from a Dingbats or similar font.

PopChar2

But working with Unicode characters in XML documents is where PopChar truly shines, which is why I am writing about this gem of a utility on XML Aficionado. In this screen shot I have entered "ka" as a search term and PopChar immediately displays only those characters that contain "ka" in either the character name or the Unicode Block name. In my example, I was searching for the Devanagari letter ka (क), and PopChar found it quite easily, and also showed me Arabic letter kaf (ك), as well as the Cyrillic letter ka (к). In addition to the search function, you can choose to display all characters grouped by Unicode block, you can immediately jump to a particular block by picking it from a drop-down menu. The available characters in the display do, of course, depend on the kind of font you have selected, and the number of glyphs present in that font, so for intensive Unicode work in various exotic scripts a font such as Arial Unicode MS is highly recommended.

PopChar3 Equally useful is the ability to choose between 3 different insertion modes: regular character, styled character (i.e. including font information), and HTML code. The latter one is really crucial for HTML and XML work, because PopChar can automatically insert the proper character entity, such as € for the Euro currency symbol (€), or the numeric character entity, such as ∯ for the surface integral (∯).

In this screen shot I have selected HTML insertion mode, and you can immediately see the HTML code for any character as I hover over them with the mouse - very useful! I have added some red ovals to indicate where the HTML code is displayed. This insertion mode is actually what I used to write this blog entry and insert the special characters in the preceding paragraph.

Bottom line is: if you need to type special characters frequently, if you work a lot with Unicode, or if you need character entities in HTML and XML, then you should definitely give PopChar a try.

PopChar is available to download as a trial version (with only a subset of all characters available for insertion) and a license key is quite affordable at € 29.99 per user (with multi-user discounts available).

Oh, and for you Mac users out there, they also have a Mac version.

P.S. If your browser or feed reader doesn't display some or all of the above Unicode characters, that simply means that you don't have a font installed on your computer that contains the corresponding glyphs for some of the more exotic scripts.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

TV in Europe vs. the US - amazing culture/technology shock

In addition to a visit to the European headquarters of Altova GmbH in Vienna earlier this week, I'm also spending 2 days with my folks in Linz, Austria. Its good to be back home for a bit and we are having a great time here - despite the nasty cold that I caught earlier in the week.

But when we watched a bit of TV after dinner, the huge cultural and technology differences between TV in Europe (in particular in Austria) vs. TV in the US became quite apparent...

Positive things first: we watched a German movie adaption of a Donna Leon novel about Commissario Brunetti, and it was done quite nicely. I was especially delighted to watch 2h of movie on a regular TV station with no commercial breaks whatsoever. It's much harder to do e-mail or Twitter on your iPhone while watching TV if you have to pay attention all the time due to a lack of commercial breaks. :)

Issue #1: there is still no HDTV programming. Yes, there maye be one or two satellite providers who provide HDTV over a dish, but the normal cable TV that is in 90% of households does not include a single HDTV channel. Compare that to a minimum of at least 10-15 high-def channels in the US by now.

Issue #2: when I looked at the TV guide and also did a bit of channel-surfing, I was astounded that I was (a) unable to find a single channel that would broadcast the World Series game tonight (but I could watch soccer on 5 channels - thanks, but not thanks!); and (b) the total number of channels was 34. No, I'm not saying that my folks only paid for the 34 standard cable channels at the lowest price - the brutal reality is that there is only a maximum of 34 channels total. That's it.

I would have thought that over the past 6-7 years Europe would have caught up wih the US a bit with respect to TV technology and avalable selections, but that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Google switches to its own translation system - machine translation still questionable

I've been closely following the various attempts at getting automated machine translation to work for the past 10-15 years, and often found the outputs from those systems laughable at best. Be it BabelFish, or the various commercial systems, the bottom-line is always the same: automated systems cannot do even a half-decent job at translation, because they lack human comprehension - and we are still 20+ years away from any AI...

So I was very intrigued today to learn that Google has switched from Systran to its own translation engine.

As a simple test-case, I asked Google Translate to translate this XML Aficionado blog from English to German, and this is the live result: XML Aficionado in German. For those of you who understand German, this will be a delightful joke!

Bottom-line: machine translation still sucks...

Monday, October 22, 2007

German language legalism on railroad ticket

While being in Austria, I am planning to visit my parents in Linz on Thursday this week, and since the weather forecast calls for rain for the rest of the week, I decided to take the train instead of renting a car. So I went online to purchase a ticket from the Austrian Railroad company. The online ordering process was a bit cumbersome (after first selecting which train I wanted to take I had to then again select which train I wanted to take in order to actually reserve a seat on said train), but finally resulted in a printable ticket (with barcode and all).

However, I was quite bewilderd to find the following "important notice" on the ticket:

Wichtiger Hinweis:
Die Inanspruchnahme des Online-Standardtickets abweichend vom verkehrsüblichen Weg zur schnelleren Erreichung des Bestimmungsortes und in vorwärtsstrebender Richtung gilt dabei nicht als aufzahlungspflichtige Umwegfahrt.

This notice was quite puzzling to me, because I could not undestand the meaning of the entire sentence - despite the fact that German is (or should I say: was) my first language.

For those of you who don't speak any German, let me attempt a literal translation to show you why this is so strange (but it almost does make sense once you see the English translation):
Important Notice:
The utilization of the online standard ticket deviating from the usual
traffic path for the faster arrival at the destination city and in a
forward-going direction does not constitute a detour that would require extra
payment.

And I always thought that legalisms in English were bad enough...

Sox win ALCS, go to World Series 2007

After being down 1-3 against the Cleveland Indians, the Red Sox did the impossible (again!) and just won game 7 of the ALCS defeating Cleveland 11:2 to go to the World Series 2007. Similar to the great come-back of 2004 (they were down 0-3 against the Yankees then), they just focused on one game after the other to take back the series.

So how do I know about this, despite being in Europe on a business trip this week. Well, this is another fun story all by itself: I woke up at 5:18 am this morning (due to a bit of Jet Lag coming in from Las Vegas yesterday). Since I couldn't fall asleep anymore, I turned on the TV to see if they would have any channel broadcasting the game - but alas, there was none. However, I did find a channel broadcasting a time-delayed version of the Patriots game against the Miami Dolphins, and so I am watching that right now, and that is great fun to see, too. Amazing work by Tom Brady and gang.

Anyway - back to the baseball story: so I ended up using my iPhone to watch the pitch-by-pitch reporting of the game on wap.mlb.com from the top of the 8th inning on. It took me only a little while to realize that it was still before midnight in the US, so after reading about the fantastic double by Pedroia with all the bases loaded, I called up my lovely wife and we "watched" the rest of the game together with her reporting to me on the phone pitch-by-pitch and we cheered for every single out counting them down during the top of the 9th. It was great fun, and we had to laugh so hard, because it reminded us very much of Kishon's classic phrase "Die beste Ehefrau von allen...".

So there you have it: I'm sitting in a hotel room in Vienna, watching the Pats on TV, cheering for the Red Sox and talking baseball with my wife, and blogging about it at the same time - all before even remotely considering the idea of breakfast. Can we get any more "americanized"... :)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Smoke gets in your eyes...

You know, it's really strange: it has only been a little over 6 years since we relocated from Europe to the US, and yet certain customs over here are by now totally alien to me. For example, take smoking: I cannot remember the last time that I was bothered by smoking in the US (not even in Las Vegas last week). Today I met with Alexander Schaelss, an old friend of mine, at a Kaffeehaus (i.e. cafe) and we later went to have dinner at a Beisl (i.e. local restaurant) in the first district. The amazing thing was that both in the cafe and at the restaurant people at the next table were smoking numerous cigarettes and it was totally acceptable to everybody. Never mind that I found it offensive and it impacted my enjoyment of the Einspaenner (i.e. a strong black coffee with whipped cream on top) or the Schweinsbraten (i.e. pork roast)...
I hear that in Italy that have already passed a law (similar to the US) banning smoking in public places, offices, and restaurants. I can't wait for that to happen in Austria, too!

Update: it appears that our discussion yesterday has inspired my dear friend - Alexander Schaelss is now on Twitter, too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

IBM Information-On-Demand XML Highlights

I am writing this quick report from the airport lounge in San Francisco, as I am waiting for my flight to Frankfurt and onward to Vienna for a week of meetings at Altova GmbH's headquarters in Austria. You just have to love Wi-Fi access - how did we ever get anything done before the Internet, laptops, Wi-Fi networks, and blogs?

With a week of conference sessions and trade show work in Las Vegas behind me, here is a quick summary of what I perceived to be some of the highlights of IBM's Information-On-Demand show from an XML Aficionado's perspective:

IBM announced DB2 version 9.5 (scheduled to ship October 31st), which contains several feature enhancements to the pureXML functionality, including inlining of XML, compression, several performance improvements for transactional XML, and the first implementation of XQuery Update in a major database. The last bit is probably the most interesting, because of the lack of updating capabilities in the original XQuery specs, which was exclusively focused on queries (analog to the SELECT statement in SQL). XQuery Update provides the ability to insert, delete, or update any node, i.e. potentially just one single element or attribute in the database, which should provide a huge difference to current implementation, where the entire XML document typically needs to be written back to a column in the database.

Altova's Nick Nagel, spoke on XML-Driven Data Management in a Developer Den session on Wednesday, which was well-attended. Nick's presentation addressed a "top-down" approach to data modeling using XSD (XML Schema Definition language) as a data modeling language with implications for data storage and retrieval as pureXML in DB2. Nick spoke on how XSD in turn can drive process implementation serving as formal design document, and how XML facilitates process development by enabling automated data binding, data mapping, as well as storage and retrieval with XPath 2.0 and XQuery. He also showed several screenshots on how Altova's tools can make working with XML in DB2 easier for developers.

IBM's Berni Schiefer conducted a Birds of a Feather session on Performance Tips, Conundrums and Experiences with DB2, where he answered customer questions and spoke in-depth about performance tuning of DB2, including tuning for pureXML. He also gave a few other interesting talks, but I did unfortunately not have time to attend those.

There were also plenty of interesting customer talks about how they are using XML, as well as more in-depth sessions on various aspects of pureXML in DB2, but my flight is boarding in a few minutes, so I don't have enough time to report on those anymore.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Restaurant Review: Shibuya at the MGM Grand

I had the pleasure of having dinner at Shibuya twice this week: on Tuesday I invited our trade show booth team to celebrate a successful presence at the IBM Information-On-Demand conference and trade show in Las Vegas, and on Thursday I ate a quick bite at the Sushi bar before seeing KA by Cirque du Soleil.

Sushi Bar @ ShibuyaShibuya is located in the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas and features regular restaurant tables, teppan-yaki style tables, where the chef grills at the table, and a fantastic Sushi bar right below a gigantic virtual aquarium.

For our trade show team dinner we set at a regular table and were served by a very competent, friendly, and knowledgeable waiter.

To start the evening off we had cocktails, and I can only highly recommend the Shibuya Cocktail: it is a delightful Vodka- and Sake-based drink with crushed sake-flavored ice, that give it a unique texture and taste. Not too sweet, but also not too dry. If you like Cosmopolitans, you will definitely enjoy the Shibuya Cocktail, although it is not nearly as sour as a Cosmo.

Sake Business Cards The Sake menu at Shibuya is simply impressive. They boast the largest selection of Sakes in the country, and while I cannot verify that claim, it certainly sounds plausible, given that their menu is practically a book. The sakes are nicely organized in separate groups between the honjōzō-shu, ginjō-shu, and daiginjō-shu. When you order a bottle, the waiter brings a little "business card" for each guest that describes the Sake that is being served. We had two junmai-daiginjōs and they were equally exquisite. My favorite was the Wataribune from Ibaraki Prefecture: light and pure, with subtle hints of pineapple and peaches.

The appetizers are inspired and range from Kobe-Beef-Tataki to Toro-Tartar. They are all wonderfully presented and simply delicious. Make sure to order some Edamame and a seaweed salad to share for the table, and don't skip the Miso soup. It is also a good idea to order a few appetizers and share with friends to take in all the different tastes.

Yellow Tail Jalapeño + Toro Scallion (Negi Toro) While the menu certainly has a wonderful variety of warm dishes that are probably excellent, we didn't try any of them. I simply cannot help it: when I'm faced with a spectacular Sushi bar, that's what I'll have. The Sushi menu has a broad selection of Nigiri, Nori-maki, and Temaki, and all the fish is freshly flown into Las Vegas for them. The O-Toro that I had melted like butter and was just wonderful. There is a Spider-Roll (soft-shell crab) on the speciality side that is to die for. And I can also highly recommend the Negi-Toro (or Toro Scallion) maki. An inspired combination is the Yellow Tail and Jalapeño maki - the spiciness of the Jalapeño very nicely compliments the Yellow Tail and is slightly subdued by the Sushi rice, so as to not be totally "in your face".

Sushi chefs at work The only thing on the menu that I disagree with, is the Hinomaru roll - Buffalo Mozzarella and basil in a Sushi Roll? Who's ever heard of that combination? However, John Judy actually tried the dish and insisted that it was not only delicious, but also argued that it is permissible to try such new cuisine cross-over variations. I don't know about that - when it comes to Sushi I'm a bit of a traditionalist....

But during my second visit I saw many other people order the dish, so I guess it must be pretty good - maybe I'll try it some day, during a future visit to Las Vegas.

Master Sushi Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa On my second visit I also had the honor of sitting right at the Sushi bar in front of Master Sushi Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa, who directs a team of 5 sushi chefs and they are truly experts at the art of creating Sushi.

Watching Nakazawa-san work his magic up-close was inspiring and made the visit to Shibuya a mesmerizing experience. And the Sushi tastes even better when you sit right at the bar and it appears in front of you the very second that the chef has finished his creation - and a true creation it is, with all the detail that goes into making each piece.

If you are brave enough to leave some room for dessert, you will be aptly rewarded. My favorite is definitely the Mochi ice-cream, which comes in 3 flavors and is just spectacular. A thin layer of Mochi wrapped around fruit and green-tea flavored ice - heavenly!

To end the evening, I recommend a cup of hot Genmaicha to round things off.

In my opinion, the Sushi at Shibuya is at the pinnacle of Sushi restaurants in America, and puts Shibuya on par - if not even above - my favorite Sushi places in San Francisco. More on those in a future review here on the XML Aficionado blog.

My rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ (5 out of a possible 5 diamonds).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

iPhone SDK - Apple (finally!) listening to user demands for 3rd party apps

Apple Computer's Steve Jobs just announced that Apple would (finally!) provide an iPhone SDK to 3rd party developers in order to enable them to create native applications for the iPhone (and, incidentally, also for the iPod touch). While the actual SDK won't ship until February 2008, this announcement is a monumetal shift in strategy for Apple, who has thus far tried to control the applications available for the iPhone and limit 3rd party developers to Web 2.0 apps running in the Safari browser.

The story leading to this announcement is also a great example of how public opinion of a product can quickly swing the opposite way, when a company attempts to not only create a closed system, but then also tries to punish customers, who used 3rd party applications, by turning their expensive phones into "bricks" (which is what happened during the recent 1.1.1 software update).

Pressure on Apple from customers and bloggers alike very quickly led to this turn-around in strategy - and this can only be a good thing or both Apple and its iPhone customers. Having the iPhone be a true mobile platform - similar to Palm, Nokia, and Windows Smartphones - is key to any long-term success of the iPhone product line.

While I haven't personally installed any 3rd party apps on my own iPhone in the past, there are certainly several that I am missing since I switched from a Windows Smartphone to the iPhone this summer - and I am looking forward to the ability to get this extra functionality back next spring!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

XMLSpy awarded Certificate of Excellence for IBM CTO Innovation award

XMLSpy 2008 was selected today as one of only three finalists for the IBM Information-On-Demand CTO Innovation award.

It was a very diverse list of nominations for the CTO Innovation award and a very competitive judging process - with Altova being the only company in the XML and developer tools space among the semi-finalists and finalists.

At the award breakfast today the actual "winner" didn't even show up, but we received the above Certificate of Excellence. The judging was done by a panel of CTOs, experts, and IBM executives, and they were positively impressed by the new DB2-specific functionality of our XML editor.

XML Aficionado in the News

Two articles hit the news today that are based in part on interviews with the XML Aficionado:

The former is a detailed analysis of the OOXML vs. ODF controversy from a developer's perspective, including interviews with Burton Group analyst Peter O'Kelly, Microsoft's Brian Jones, and me.

The latter is a review of the new Altov XMLSpy 2008 release (in German).

Monday, October 15, 2007

What are you doing with XML?

We are exhibiting at the IBM Information-On-Demand conference and trade show in Las Vegas this week, where we are demoing Altova’s deep integration with IBM DB2 pureXML, and I just noticed a profound change in the answers I get to my standard question that I’ve asked every booth visitor for the last 6-7 years.


For the past several years, when I ask my standard “So, what are you doing with XML?” question, I’ve always received very diverse answers ranging from the “Oh, I’m just getting started” to the more elaborate descriptions of what key-role XML plays as a part of an entire information management infrastructure. And – depending on how general the show audience is (i.e. if this is a pure XML-specific event or rather a more general developer conference or industry event) – there was always a fair share of “XML? What is that?” responses.

What struck me only today – at the end of the second day of this show – is that I haven’t gotten a single “What is XML?” answer. Every single person I’ve talked with is using XML for something! And this is not an XML-specific event, but rather a very broad audience that goes way beyond just developers. I think that is a significant change – and a very positive one.

So let me use this observation as grounds to proclaim what I’ve predicted all along: XML is now ubiquitous. It is all-pervasive, all-encompassing. It is the lingua franca of how systems talk to one another, how data is transported, how content is stored, reused, and manipulated. And it only took a little over 8 years for XML to conquer the world.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Jaiku has been bought by Google

Very interesting! Google apparently moved into the micro-blogging or "lifestreaming" space today by acquiring Jaiku. That they acquired Jaiku instead of Twitter came as a surprise to some.

Maybe it's time for me to switch from Twitter to Jaiku...?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

The Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II has been my favorite camera for the past 2 years. Several of my best digital photos were taken with that camera, and I really love the versatility of the EOS series and all the lenses I can use with that body.
I was, therefore, very delighted when Canon recently announced the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III successor model that will ship in November this year:


The technical features are just amazing: a 21.1 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, dual Digic III image processors, 3.0 inch LCD monitor with live-view, 45-point AF, SDHC support, and tons more.

And the sample photos in this gallery are equally impressive (even though only four have been posted so far).

For more details see the whitepaper (PDF).

Sure, it's not a Hasselblad, but then I'm not really a good enough photographer to warrant that either.

So this Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III gets a clear Thumbs Up from me and is hereby officially added to my Christmas wish list....

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Josh Beckett shuts out Angels

Josh Beckett, in top form today, throws a complete game, shutting out the Angels in in the ALDS game 1 at Fenway Park tonight. Final Score Red Sox 4 - Angels 0.

Go Sox!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo - interesting synchronicity

I could not help, but notice an interesting synchronicity between the various announcements and news clips about these three firms in the last 2-3 weeks or so:


Sep 9, 2007Microsoft fails to win ISO approval for OOXML. A review of detailed country comments does, however, show that they are likely going to succeed in the next round in March 2008.
Sep 16, 2007Yahoo launches Mash - a new social networking site designed to compete with Facebook.
Sep 17, 2007Google adds slide-show/presentation application to Google Documents in an effort to increase competition with Microsoft Office.
Sep 24, 2007The The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft is in talks with Facebook to acquire a 5% stake in the social networking site.
Sep 27, 2007Microsoft announced an updated Search capability in the Live Search engine. Incidentally it is also Google's 9th birthday.
Sep 30, 2007Microsoft unveils its answer to Google Docs called Office Live Workspaces.
Oct 1, 2007Yahoo announced a new Search Assist function to improve Yahoo Search.
Oct 2, 2007Steve Ballmer speaks in Europe and says that the craze for individual social networks such as Facebook risks being exposed as a "fad". UPDATE: Robert Scoble responds that Steve Ballmer doesn't "get" social networking.

Office, Social Networking, Search, Office, Social Networking, Search, ... — is it just me, or is there some kind of pattern here?

And it all seems to revolve around online advertising platforms. Hmmmm.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Yahoo launches Search Assist

Yahoo announced a new Search Assist function to improve Yahoo Search:


The Search Assist function brings suggestions for related concepts and point-and-click query refinement to the search box.

Looks pretty cool - and nice to see that the fourth suggestion when searching for "XML" is "XML Spy", Altova's XML Editor.