Snowbike

Most gadgets that I blog about are somewhat electronic in nature, and often connectivity plays an important role. Today's gadget has no electronics, isn't connected to any network, and still beats most other gadgets in its design, usability, and ingenious concept.

I am talking about the Brenter Snowbike, which is somewhat of a cross between a mountain bike and skis. I had the opportunity today to try the snowbike for 2 hours and enjoyed the experience greatly:

AlfSnowbike

As a matter of fact, I had so much fun, that I am going to rent a snowbike all day tomorrow and have some more fun on the slopes. Driving a snowbike is incredibly easy to learn - provided you already have mastered two other skills previously: skiing and riding a bike.

After two test runs on the beginner slope we went up the mountain and on the regular slopes and had a blast. In a timed run, I was skiing downhill on the bike at a speed of 48 km/h (30 mph).

More photos of our lesson today are on my SmugMug photo web site.

Here is another cool tidbit: the owner of the ski school that we rented the snowbike from is Hermann Koch, and I chatted with him after dinner at the hotel tonight. Turns out that he just recently set a Guinness world record: on March 22, 2007, Hermann Koch and Harald Brenter (the inventor of the snowbike) skied downhill 107,400 vertical feet in 11 hours.

Happy Holidays and a prosperous New Year

It is this time of the year again. After a very busy fall season with several trade shows, product launches, and musical adventures we are finally finding some peaceful days to enjoy the holidays, spend time with the family, and enjoy a few vacation days in Vienna, Austria.

We greatly enjoyed watching the Nutcracker at the Staatsoper (State Opera) last week, and while I could not take any photos inside, the Opera building looks quite spectacular from the outside, too:

Opera

 

Yesterday we packed our suitcases again and continued our journey towards Salzburg and the small village of Obertauern in the Alps. The flight to Salzburg was just fantastic with a thick blanket of fog covering many of the smaller valleys and low foothills.

1X5F0140

 

And the approach to Salzburg airport was quite impressive, too. Is there really an airport somewhere underneath those clouds?

SalzburgApproach

 

Upon arrival in Salzburg we were greeted by frigid temperatures and copious amounts of snow on the ground. Even the luggage carts at the airport had a beautiful icicle display to offer:

Icicles

 

The drive from the airport into the Alps to the village of Obertauern was great. The landscape is just so pretty and the mountains left and right got steeper and steeper the closer we came to our final destination.

Trees 

After checking into the hotel, we immediately went to rent skis and poles and were on the slopes in the afternoon already. The ski area here is indeed one of the best places on the planet. Tons of lifts and trails, perfect slopes, well groomed every night, and not too many people. We are going to enjoy the next 10 days here, no doubt!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2008!

Swanee, Calvin, Nora, and Alexander Falk

 

P.S. You can find more photos from 2007 on my personal photo web site on SmugMug...

Atomic Clocks, Street Views, and Flash Disks

A few random things caught my eye today:

GPS has brought atomic precision time to us in the form of small portable GPS devices, as well as network time-servers that sync with the GPS data. The time from the GPS satellites comes to us with such precision, because the satellites carry cesium atomic clocks on board and are synchronized with ground-based clocks and being corrected for relativistic effects.
But for some folks getting the atomic time from GPS is not enough - they call themselves "Time Nuts" and have atomic clocks (such as the 5071A) at home as a hobby. See also this nice article in Wired today. Wow! I've always loved time, clocks, calendar calculations, leap seconds, and physics. I guess that's a hobby that I could get into, too....

From atomic clocks and GPS it is only a small leap to navigation, which brings us to cartography, which brings us to Google Maps - and the second item of interest today: Google has launched Street View in eight new cities in the US, including Boston. Very cool.

Last, but not least, here is something I want in my next laptop: Toshiba announced a 128GB Flash HDD yesterday. My current laptop has a 80GB conventional disk drive, and it looks like the form factor of that Toshiba drive would allow for an actual replacement.

Best Christmas Present Ever

The holiday season is upon us and today we did a little Christmas (and Hanukkah) celebration in the office. I got the Best Christmas Present Ever from the entire staff here at Altova, Inc.:

Fenway Park Bleacher Seats

These are authentic Fenway Park Bleacher Seats, removed in November 2007, and they come complete with certificate of authenticity, holographic authentication stickers, and - most important of all - some chewing gum still stuck on the bottom.

As part of their renovation program for Fenway Park, the Red Sox did apparently sell the old seats to fans, and the gang here at Altova managed to pull off the impossible and get me a pair.

IMG_2943

For the time being I am keeping them in my office - until the new house is ready in a few years - and we've rearranged the furniture to make them part of the seating area. That way they will actually be used for our weekly team meetings and are also available for visitors.

If you want to know how happy I am about these seats, just look at the grin on my face in this picture to the left.

Thank you guys! You've really made my day!!

XML 2007 (or not), IE8, and Google on the iPhone

XML 2007 ended in Boston today and despite planning to go to the conference today, I unfortunately missed the event due to some time constraints at work. Elliotte Rusty Harold blogged from the conference (thank you!), and he was asking if nobody else was reporting live from the event. Well, I was planning to do so, but couldn't. Sorry.

The one talk that I had really wanted to go to was by Irina Kogan (IBM) and Dr. Nick Nagel (Altova) who spoke on "XML-Driven Database Design and Information Retrieval" this afternoon - fortunately the presentation slides can be found here so I can read up on what I missed.

In other interesting news today:

I've already played with the Google interface on the iPhone and it is really nicely done. I get Google search, GMail, and Reader all nicely integrated and with a slick iPhone like UI.

OOXML Resolutions to ISO Comments - a closed process to create an open standard?

It appears that Microsoft has now provided 662 responses to the ISO comments on DIS29500 (Office Open XML) through Ecma, but those responses are presently only available to members of the ISO voting organizations through password-protected access. This move is already gathering much criticism from the ODF camp.

Guess what: those responses are neither provided in ODF format nor in OOXML. They are 662 individual PDF files. How ironic is that...?

Fortune Cookie

With a snow storm approaching the Boston area we decided to gas up the car (it was almost empty) and get Chinese takeout tonight. Apparently a lot of other folks had the same idea, because there was a huge line both at the gas station and at the Chinese restaurant.

After dinner, my son found this in his fortune cookie:

If your cookie is in 2 pieces, the answer is yes.

It doesn't get any better than that...

Golden Compass Movie Sneak Preview

We got to see a sneak preview of the upcoming Golden Compass movie today - six days before it opens nationwide in cinemas. The movie is certainly beautiful to watch - the renditions of some of the technological marvels of that other universe are elaborate and impressive. And the acting isn't bad either. However, the shape-shifting of the kids' dæmons was quite disappointing (they shift so fast that you don't get to see any nice CGI-transitions at all). And the story has been brutally mangled as it was turned into a screenplay: important aspects of character-development are missing, entire sections of certain chapters are missing (e.g. the ambassador of the witches), the sequence of events has been overturned (e.g. Bolvangar vs. fight of the bears for the throne), and the end has been turned from a breath-taking, earth-shattering, and tearing-the-sky-open cliff-hanger into a mediocre happy ending, Hollywood-style.

Furthermore it appears that the Authority still has a strong grip on affairs in our universe: the movie doesn't dare to criticize the Church and only calls it the "Magisterium" and even the church buildings in the movie have only a fleeting resemblance to cathedrals and look more like a cross between Metropolis and greenhouses.

Nonetheless, one of the positive things about the movie is that you can visit the movie website and do a quick test to meet your own dæmon - here is a picture of mine, and her name is Hypatia:

GoldenCompass_Hypatia_Cropped

I really like that tiger - I think I'm going to keep my dæmon.

So what it all boils down to is this: I recently read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy on the Sony Reader (a few months before the Kindle came out) and the Golden Compass book is just so much better than the movie. If you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favor and get the book before you watch the movie!

Amazon Kindle Review

UPDATE February 24, 2009: I've received my new Kindle 2 today and posted a detailed review of the new Kindle 2 on this blog.


Being a gadget aficionado, I placed my order for the Kindle yesterday when it was announced and promptly received the new device today. I've now spent about 3-4 hours with the Kindle, including reading a book at the hair dresser, having my hair stylist and friend recommend Anne McCaffrey's Talents series to me, and using the Kindle right then and there to promptly buy Pegasus in Flight and have it download to my Kindle wirelessly within a minute.

But before I begin with this review, let's put a few things straight: (a) I love books - my parents have always had tons of them, my wife and I have thousands of them, and I will never give up paper books; (b) this review is not being paid for by anyone (however, if you click on a link to Amazon.com from this site and then purchase something, I will earn a small percentage under he Amazon Associates program); (c) I've started using the original Sony Reader over a year ago and just upgraded to the newest Sony Reader about 2 months ago - the reason is that I travel a lot and I like to read when I'm traveling, but I don't like to either lug around 5-6 books with me or run out of reading materials during a trip.

To make things interesting, I purchased a few books and a couple of magazine subscriptions for the Kindle through the Kindle Store yesterday after placing my order for the device. Amazon promised that these would "magically" be delivered to my device once I unpacked it.

So when the package arrived today and I unpacked it this evening after coming home from work, I was immediately surprised by the lightweight nature of the Kindle. I had expected it to be heavier based on the leaked photos, but it is actually quite light - it appears to even be lighter than the Sony Reader. The package is a bit of an homage to the Apple iPod (as is the white color of the Kindle, the power supply, the cables, etc). Luckily the book cover that you can attach the device to is still black!

Kindle The actual Kindle is not even half as ugly as the previously leaked photos seemed to imply. The alphabetic keyboard at the bottom takes a bit of getting used to, but the page-turning buttons are cleverly located where they ought to be (the lack of those was a big flaw in the original Sony Reader, that was, however, fixed in the newer version this year). Once you put the Kindle into its book cover, it has the right touch and feel of a book, and is very comfortable in the hand.

The first time starting it up took a little while, but after it had booted I was very pleasantly surprised to find the following on the home page (after going through a few basic introductory help-file pages of how the device works): (a) a letter from Jeff Bezos that started with "Dear Alexander"; (b) all the books and magazines that I had purchased online the previous day; (c) all the blogs that I had previously subscribed to via the Amazon.com Kindle Store. Furthermore the device was pre-configured to be linked to my Amazon.com account so that all shopping from the device was linked to my account and credit card right away without any setup. The promise that is works right out of the box without any kind of setup is actually quite true.

I then proceeded to read a few articles in the Wall Street Journal and it was nice to see that the scroll wheel and cursor sidebar actually worked quite well. I was able to follow links to web pages (courtesy of the built-in web browser). Navigating was very easy with the page-turn buttons in combination with that scroll wheel.

But I couldn't really play nearly enough, since I had a hair dresser appointment and so I took the Kindle with me. As I mentioned above, it was an immediate hit at the hair salon and I ended up purchasing a book wirelessly right there.

After returning home I continued to read a few blogs - including Robert Scoble's review of the Kindle - and then proceeded to test some more functions that the Sony Reader is lacking:

  • I have always been a fan of search (since I can never remember where I've read about stuff before), and so I searched for the most elusive stuff out there - "dark matter" - and promptly found 7 references in the Amber Spyglass (part of Pullman's His Dark Materials series), one entry in the built-in Dictionary, a link to look up "dark matter" on the Wikipedia, and a link to search for it via Google.
  • Where the Sony Reader can only bookmark pages with a very simple bookmark function, the Kindle shines with its ability to either highlight certain paragraphs in a book (by placing a rectangle around the paragraph), to add annotations at any place (via the keyboard), or to store parts of a page or a whole page as a clipping in a separate clipping file that you can access later.
  • The built-in dictionary lookup lets you position the cursor on any line of text and look up all the words on that line simultaneously in the dictionary.
  • I wanted to continue reviewing a recent trade show report that I had received, so I forwarded an e-mail with a Word attachment to the private e-mail address of my Kindle, and was able to read that document in the comfort of my living room without having to balance my laptop on my knees.

All of these features - combined with the ability to go online and buy new eBooks wirelessly from anywhere - easily is worth the $100 extra that the Kindle costs more than the Sony Reader.

And both devices use the same screen technology from eInk, so they both have excellent daylight readability as well as working in dim lighting conditions. Btw, if you have never seen this kind of screen, be ready to be wowed: the text is crystal clear and the resolution is so fine that you can hardly make out the edges of the pixels that are used to render the text. Since it is a grayscale device, it will also render pictures reasonably well (in black&white). However, one thing that requires some getting used to is that the page blinks briefly when you turn it - this is inherent to the screen technology and not a flaw in either device.

There has been much talk about whether the iPhone isn't a better eBook reader than the Kindle. Trust me, it is not. I love my iPhone and carry it with me all the time, and it is great for reading a few web pages here and there and maybe some blogs on Google Reader. But the screen doesn't even come close to having sufficiently high resolution that you would ever want to read an entire book on it, nor is it big enough - you'd go crazy flipping pages every 2.5 seconds. The iPhone is fantastic for what it was designed to do, but reading books isn't part of that scope.

One thing that is presently being criticized by many is that Amazon actually charges for blog subscriptions - what these people don't realize is that the wireless service that is offered with the Kindle is free. There are no monthly fees, no yearly contract, no hassle. However, if you want content delivered over the wireless network, Amazon charges a small fee for the use of the wireless network, and actually splits the revenues with those bloggers - that's only fair.

In addition to all the official features, the Kindle also has a section of functions that are termed "Experimental", which include a Web Browser. So you can easily venture beyond the blogs that are presently offered through the Kindle shop and access any web content out there. However, reading the fine print in the terms & conditions reveals that Amazon reserves the right to charge for such web usage, since you are, of course, using the wireless network for that purpose.

Another fact that might be of interest to international travelers: currently the Kindle doesn't offer roaming outside of the US. You can, however, still get new content onto your Kindle if you are abroad: all you need to do is connect the Kindle to your laptop via USB, download the files from Amazon.com manually and place them on the Kindle via the USB interface (the Kindle appears as a storage medium to the laptop, like a USB stick or iPod). I might be testing this, when we go skiing in Austria this winter...

Overall, I am definitely rather impressed with this device from Amazon and look forward to reading a few books on it on my upcoming travels. There is, of course, plenty of room for feature enhancements and improvements, but it is a great first version and definitely beats the Sony Reader in just about every aspect, so it will be in my briefcase on all future trips.


UPDATE December 5, 2007: I've now owned the Kindle for two weeks and I continue to be impressed by it. So far I've added about 12 more books to my library already, and after "borrowing" my Kindle a few times, my lovely wife has also bought one and we are both looking forward to reading a lot during our upcoming skiing vacation in Austria.

I've also found a few more things over the past two weeks that I wish Amazon had done differenly or simply a few additional feature requests for the next version, and I provided the following feedback to Amazon already via e-mail - repeated here for your enjoyment:


  • The search function doesn’t seem to index all books on my Kindle. I bought the CIA World Factbook 2007 and it is not getting indexed. Unfortunately this totally defeats the purpose of me buying the book. For example, searching for “Linz” does not find the entry for Austria in the CIA World Factbook.

  • I’ve bought plenty of books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers (and I’m using an SD card) and the home-page on the device is getting a bit unwieldy (4 pages already). It would be nice, if I could create folders/directories on the home page to group my books into categories. And it would be necessary to be able to sort different folders by different criteria. For example, I would like to be able to group them into:

    • Periodicals/Subscriptions (blogs, newspapers, magazines) – the content of this folder I would want to sort by Most Recent First

    • Technical Books (sorted by title)

    • Reference Books (dictionaries, CIA factbook, etc)

    • Economcis Books (sorted by title)

    • SciFi Books (sorted by author)

    • Others


  • It is great that I can send PDF and Word docs to my Kindle via my personalized kindle.com e-mail address. But that is not enough. When I place annotations, notes, and highlights in such documents on my Kindle, I now want to be able to e-mail them back to my office e-mail address and I want to see those comments, annotations, notes, and highlights back in the Word or PDF doc so that I can send it to others in the company. This would allow me to use the Kindle for actually reviewing business documents – it would be fantastic!!!

  • How can I get additional blogs on the Kindle? I am happy to pay extra, but I want to be able to enter any RSS feeder URL into my Amazon account and create a Kindle blog feed for it.

  • It would be nice, if Amazon could integrate some Social Networking aspects into the Kindle. How many of my friends are reading books on it? What are they reading? How can I post comments about a book to my blog? How can I tell my friends about comments I have on a book?

Amazon Kindle - the eBook gets connected

A very interesting new gadget is being announced by Amazon today: the "Kindle" is an eBook reader that is always connected to the Internet. Unlike the Sony Reader, which I currently own and have used with great delight on several recent business trips, the Kindle does not require a connection to a PC in order to buy/download new eBooks. The two devices share the same eInk screen technology, which provides for a very crisp display with excellent readability both in bright (i.e. sunlight on the beach) conditions as well as in low-light environments (e.g. airplane during trans-Atlantic flight).

amazonkindle

Looking at the first leaked photos, the Kindle does certainly not look pretty at all (unless you are into 70s retro design). This is in stark contrast with the Sony Reader, which is extremely elegant and regularly gets people excited like the iPod and iPhone when they first see it. However, the Sony Reader has certainly not been met with any business success so far - which is largely due to the fact that the Sony Connect application, which you have to use to buy your eBooks, outright sucks. Therefore, the Kindle has a fair chance to become a success-story, especially due to its always-on connection to the Internet and the ability to buy eBooks directly on the device as well as read blogs or do other connected things. Together these things could more than make up for the design deficiency - it's definitely worth giving it a try, and I plan to purchase mine tomorrow.

Newsweek has a 7 page article about the Kindle based on an interview with Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon. There is also plenty of buzz in the blogosphere already: TechCrunch, TechMeme, Gizmondo, Scobleizer (the latter one pointing out a fantastic similarity with an April Fool's joke posting that is worth reading), ...

UPDATE: I just placed my order on Amazon.com with overnight shipping (courtesy of Amazon Prime) and will blog more once I have received the device tomorrow.

Best Practices for XML Internationalization

The W3C has released an updated working draft of "Best Practices for XML Internationalization", which has been authored by the Internationalization Tag Set (ITS) Working Group.

This document is a complement to the W3C Recommendation Internationalization Tag Set (ITS). However, not all internationalization-related issues can be resolved by the special markup described in ITS. The best practices in the new working draft document, therefore, go beyond application of ITS markup to address a number of problems that can be avoided by correctly designing XML schemas, and by applying a few additional guidelines when writing XML content in an XML editor.

See also this announcement on the W3C Internationalization (I18n) Blog.

MLT's Wizard of Oz dazzles audience


Marblehead Little Theatre's Wizard of Oz production opened this weekend and the performance was enchanting. The story, special effects, and first class acting bewitched children and adults alike.





Starring Ron Amon as the Lion, Lianne Gennaco as Dorothy, Ted Merritt as the Tin Man, and Erik Rodenhiser as the Scarecrow, the "Fab Four" set out on their quest to find the Wizard and follow the Yellow Brick Road all the way to the Emerald City.





Janet Sheehan is spectacular as the Wicked Witch of the West, as she tries to get Dorothy's slippers and attempts to block the way of the quartet every-witch way she can.





Likewise, Ursina Amsler attempts to help the four as Glinda the Good Witch of the North, and comes to the rescue when things get sticky.





The Munchkins are adorable and oh so thankful to Dorothy when she drops her house on the Wicked Witch of the East.



DSC02865



Karin Anderson, Nora Falk, and Barbara Lasovick are the Apple Trees who don't like to be picked, and are defending their reputation by throwing apples after the Scarecrow and Dorothy.





The best thing about the show, however, are the dance scenes - both in Oz and in the Enchanted Forest, where the Jitterbug captures the travelers. This elaborate choreography is a clear departure from the old ways for MLT and adds greatly to the overall professionalism of the performance.



For more photos, please see this gallery, where you can also buy prints. However, I should add that I wasn't able to attend the dress rehearsal this year, so these photos were taken during an actual performance, without flash, and only with the small 7 Mpixel camera, so they are not as perfect as in previous years.



Last, but not least, if you want to see the show, you can buy tickets online on the MLT web site. The show runs the weekends of Nov 10, 11 and Nov 17, 18 with Saturday performances at 1:00 PM and 7:00 PM and Sunday performances at 1:00 PM.

Google's Open Social API - is this the end of Facebook?

Google is holding a press conference right now, and it appears that they have everybody's support for the new Open Social API in an attempt to stem the popularity of Facebook among 3rd party Web 2.0 application developers. Supporting sites include MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Friendster, etc.

UPDATE: Full text of press release here.

TechCrunch has reported on this topic before and has some details on what the APIs contain.

Marc Andreessen also writes about the API and concludes that the Open Social API is "the next big leap forward". He cites two big differences compared to the Facebook APIs: (a) with Open Social API there can me more than one container, whereas with the Facebook API there is always only one container (i.e. Facebook); (b) the Facebook API requires the use of FBML and FQL, whereas with the Open Social API developers can use any standard HTML and JavaScript.

I haven't seen the actual Open Social API documentation yet, but I bet it'll be using XML all over the place. Good news for the XML Aficionado... ☺

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...

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.

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.

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...

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"... :)