Saturday, November 28, 2009

I will be helping run the IBM stand at the young scientist exhibition #ibm4btyse

I am excited about the fact that IBM is planning to run a stand at the BT Young Scientists exhibition this January. This is a first for IBM (although the competition has been running successfully for many years).

I have volunteered to help run the stand. The details have not been worked out yet, but if you want to learn more about what is going on you can subscribe to the newly established blog site, follow us on Twitter, or become a fan on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teens prefer Facebook to Twitter because they want to waste time

Facebook (and social networking in general), was initially popular with teenagers before it gradually spread to an older audience. Even now the average teenager uses much more time on Facebook and similar sites than their parents.Twitter has initially become popular with an older age group and has not (yet) become equally popular with teenagers. For example, this survey reports that although 98% of 18-24 year olds use social networking sites, only 22% use Twitter. It is not immediately obvious why that should be so.

This report makes a convincing case that it is due to teenagers inherent narcissism, but I think that the explanation could be much simpler. Many of my contemporaries who have become fans of Twitter tell me that the big advantage of the site is that it takes them much less time to check out what its happening on Twitter. Older people have very busy lives, they would like to check out what is happening in their social circle - but they don't want to waste too much time on it. Twitter's simple interface ensures that it doesn't take too long to check it out.

I think that many teenagers are not overly busy and have lots of time to waste. I was looking at this interesting session from the O'Reilly 2.0 conference where they bring in a random selection of teenagers and interview them about their web usage. None of the teenagers use Twitter regularly. When they discuss why they don't use Twitter they seem to say that when they checked it out they could not see what the big deal was. Later in the interview they discuss why they like Facebook, one of the teenagers says that she loves the Facebook quizes because "they are a great way to pass tie when you are bored and have nothing else to do". I think this single sentence summaries the different attitudes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Recent heavy rain in Ireland

Ireland's famous "40 Shades of Green" is only achieved with lots of regular rainfall so we are well used to dealing with rain. However, in the last week or so the rain has been much heavier than normal.

In Dublin we escaped the worst of the deluge - the only impact upon me was that I had to cycle to work by the regular roads rather than taking my preferred scenic route through the park (the path trough the park was partly under water).

As you can see in these pictures, other parts of Ireland had much worse flooding.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is Britain controlled by a powerful clique?

I have often heard it alleged that Britain is controlled by a clique of powerful people who are tied together by family relationships attended the same schools and are members of the same clubs. It is often hard to know if this is factually correct or not.

Channel 4 has recently launched a web site who knows who, which attempts to document the facts. The site grew out of research done for a program "When Boris met Dave" which examines the many links between Boris Johnson the mayor of London and David Cameron the leader of the conservative party. At first glance it is a very interesting site, but the interface is not very good. The maps do not seem to be visible at all in Firefox and even in Chrome the maps appear more flashy than actually useful. For example you can only browse from a single person, school or club and then navigating through their connections, but I would really like to be able to put in two names and have the system find the connections that exist between them (if any).

The data is far from complete. For example, if you relied on the information from the site you would think that only 8 people ever attended Eton College. However, Channel 4 are hoping that viewers will extend the data and have even suggested that they will Open Source the code behind the site in the future. I will be watching carefully to see how this evolves.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Beware of XML PrettyPrinting Service

The XML file format has become very popular recently. One of the features that makes it popular is the fact that since .xml files contain plain text, they can be read by anyone using a simple text editor. This is very useful when you are trying to debug a complex system.

Unfortunately, many large XML files are not really readable because the files are too complex to be easily understood. This problem is made worse by the fact that many machine generated XML files try to save space by writing the XML as a single line without any spacing or other nice layout.

Recently I was trying to understand a large complex XML file and was a little frustrated that it was hard to see how the elements had been nested because no indentation had been used to help poor humans like me (software programs are generally unaffected by aesthetic concerns like this). I found this free on-line service for pretyprinting XML. At first glance it seemed to do what I wanted becuase it produced a nicely formatted XML file and displayed it to me in multiple colours.

Unfortunately when I copied the text back into my development environment, I discovered that the nicely formatted XML did not actually match the original and my program started to report XML parsing errors. There were two errors that I saw:
  1. The first error (which was easy to fix) was the fact that the XML file was tagged as using the utf-16 encoding while I was using utf-8 in my editor (probably they were using utf-16 on their web site so this was technically correct)
  2. The second error (which was tricker to fix) was when I had XML tags which were both a begin and end tag (for example using the syntax ) the pretty printer converted these into end tags (e.g. for my example they used which has a very different meaning and caused the XML parsing errors).

So be warned, prettier does not always mean better!!!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How rapidly is Dublin Changing

People often remark how quickly Dublin is changing. A common complaint is that if you come back to Dublin after a gap of only 5-10 years you no longer know your way around due the number of new roads which have been built in the meantime.

South County Dublin County Council put together this interesting site to help people get a quick visual view of how the area has changed over the years. Users can start with a current map and zoom/pan to the area that interests them. With a single click of the mouse they can then switch to see one of many maps of the area produced since 1760.

As I clicked on various parts of the area and I was struck by the huge change in the map between the current day and the most recent historical map in 1942. For example Tallaght which now features a large built up urban area was only a small rural village surrounded by farms in 1942. It would be really interesting to see the changes in increments of every 5 years so that the detailed timeline of this change could be seen.

I was also struck by how little the map changed between 1760 and 1942. You can see that the style of map changed over the centuries as the practice of map making evolved, but the features on the ground seemed to change very little.