Friday, October 29, 2010

The Social Network Movie

 Earlier this week, I wen to see The Social Network movie. This is a movie I had really being looking forward to, but I must admit that I was disappointed by what I saw.
At one level it was interesting to learn the story behind the birth of such an influential web site as Facebook. Facebook has become such an important cultural phenomenon that it is amazing to reflect upon the fact that it was created very recently by a group of very young people who had very little prior experience of establishing a busines (or experience of life in general).
I assume that the fundamental facts behind the movie are accurate because none of the individuals portrayed would hesitate to sue the creators of the movie if they felt that the facts were incorrect. However, the medium allows quite a bit of latitude for how the facts can be portrayed. The movie was particularly hash in the way that Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed. I don't know Mark personally and so I can't say for certain that this was an unfair portrayal, but at the same time I find it hard to believe that a site could be as successful as Facebook it was managed by a person so lacking in social skills as Mark was portrayed in the movie.
I also think that the movie perpetuated a number of unhelpful stereotypes:
  • According to the movie Harvard students are obsessed with sex, drunk most of the time and spend very little time studying. I know students do like to party a lot, but it is also true that you don't get into and remain in a college like Harvard without having more than a passing interest in the subject you enrolled to study.
  • According to the movie, women have no interest in technology.  I never saw a female character writing code at any stage and it would seem from the movie that the only female employees in Facebook are receptionists. The only role women seemed to play in the story was as girlfriends to the main characters.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Talbot Hotel relocates from Wexford to Leitrim

I am a big fan of Google maps and normally it is fairly accurate, but when it gets things wrong it can sometimes be wrong in spectacular ways. For example, I was recently browsing the Google Maps and looking at Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim. I was surpised to see the Talbot Hotel marked in beside the Quay because this is a well known Hotel in Wexcford over 280 km away. I am not sure who created the listing page, but it is quite detailed with lots of pictures and even almost hunded reviews. I feel sorry for the poor tourists who book into the Hotel based upon the good reviews and then find themselves over 3 hours driving away from the Hotel's real location when they come to check in.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Antennas Application for Android Phones

One of my favorite applications is the Antennas application, which is a simple but ingenious application that shows you the location of the mobile phone masts nearest you. It knows your location from the GPS sensor in your phone and it also has access to a database of where mobile phone masts are located.

Sample Screen from the Antennas Application
Despite the growth of mobile phone networks, I am sure that you often encounter the situations where you have poor signal. When this happens you know that you probably need to move to get a clearer signal. The trouble is that often you have no idea what direction you should move in order to improve reception. The antennas application can solve that problem by showing you a simple Google map showing your location and where there are mobile phone base stations near you. It also accesses information from your phone about which particular base station you are connected to at the moment (which might not necessarily be the one closest to you).

I find this application very useful. It has helped me get to know all of the mobile phone towers near my home and work. They are easy to spot when you know they are there, but the phone companies often try to hide or disguise them because many people object to unsightly masts.  My favorite type of phone mast is disguised as a tree.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My First Patent gets issued

I just learned that my first ever patent was issued. The title of the patent is "METHOD AND SYSTEM FOR LANGUAGE IDENTIFICATION" and the full text can be download here. It is amazing how long it takes for a patent to be issued. The idea was developed back in 2003 when I was working with the Languageware team and the patent is registered in the name of several of the Languageware team members. I have filed a few more patents in the years since, but none have yet been issued.

I must admit that I have mixed opinions about Patents. At one level I am very proud to have a patent issued in my name and having patents is considered very helpful in advancing your career inside IBM. However, I am also very aware and sympathetic to the arguments of people who argue that the current system of granting software patents is fundamentally flawed. I would consider that this particular patent has valid inventiveness and it does seem to still have value 7 years later, but I know that many patents have been registered for ideas of very little merit.

IBM has a similar mixed attitude to patents. At one level IBM are very proud of our record of being the company to whom most patents were granted for over 15 years in a row, but on the other hand IBM are also promoting an initiative to improve the quality standard for patents.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Arduino Hack

Adruino Hack
Originally uploaded by Brian O'Donovan
Today I put the finishing touches to my Hackday 8 project. I didn't get it finished on Friday, because progress was blocked by a bug in the Mosquitto MQTT broker which stopped it communicating with the Arduino. Since these technologies are new to me I assumed I was doing something wrong. However, Andy Stanford-Clark helped me figure out that if I switched to using the Really Small Message Broker (RSMB) I could get it working.

All that is left for me to do now is to make a little movie of my project demonstration. I intend using Kino for this. It is unlikely to be an Oscar contender, but it will also be the first time I used Kino for anything more than chopping up videos into pieces and/or converting between video formats.

I will also submit a bug report to Mosquitto so that it can be fixed.

I can't really blog about the project in detail outside of IBM. It is not a very complex project, but I am proud of it because it is my first real Arduino project and also the first time I used MQTT.

Friday, October 22, 2010

My Sametime Plugin Portifolio

Hackday 8 is being held today. It is very common for people to write Sametime plugins as their Hackday project and a  number of people have asked me for ideas for what would be a typical Sametime plugin that could be developed for Hackday. The best advice I can give is to provide them the list of the plugin projects that I have been involved in. Most of these plugins were developed before I became a member of the Sametime development team - some of these are all my own work, but others are joint projects with other people. Many (but not all) of these were Hackday projects and perhaps they will inspire ideas for other people.
  • Smasher - This plugin was developed as a simple tool to authenticate with the boundary firewalls used on the IBM network. It was my first ever Sametime plugin, in fact it was originally developed before the Sametime client adopted a plugin architecture. The smasher development is fully described in an earlier blog posting.
  • Auto-Hello -  Many people choose to start Sametime chats by sending a simple message Hi or Hello. to which I must reply Hello before the conversation really starts. I developed the Auto-Hello plugin to automate this process. After I released the first version, I learned that Sebastian Thomischke had already developed a similar plug-in so I collaborated with him on this plugin. This plugin never have many active users and when Sebastian left IBM the source code was lost.
  • Proxy Buddies - When the person you want to chat with is not on-line, you must find someone else to chat with. For Hackday 4, I worked with Mark Wallace to develop the proxy buddies plugin which was an automated utility to select someone else to chat with. It was implemented in a modular way where separate plugins could provide different mechanisms for finding alternative buddies to chat with. We developed plugins which would provide lists based upon:
    • Looking for on-line people within the target person's management chain
    • Looking for people in the same department as the target person
    • Searching for people within the target's person's social network by using the SONAR API
  • Message Attendant - some instant messaging systems (but not Sametime) provide a capability of sending instant messages to people who are not currently on-line. I was thinking about ways to achieve the same functionality in Sametime and I came up with a secure mechanism whereby a Sametime user could provide limited delegated authority to a bot program to take messages on their behalf when they are not online. This mechanism was subsequently the subject of a patent application, so I can't describe too much detail here.
  • IMQ (or Instant Message Queue) - was another attempt to tackle the issue of sending messages to people who are not on-line. It works by allowing people to queue up messages so that they will be automatically delivered when the person was next on-line. This plugin received a mixed reaction. Some people thought it was very useful function, but others thought that it was a potential source of SPIM. After hearing the concerns, I added features to stop the inappropriate use of the plugin. However, the feature was never adopted into the core product because of the mixed reactions.
  • MicroBlogCentral/Status Updater - My idea for a Hackday 6.5 project was to  develop a Sametime plugin which would be able to post to several micro-blog sites at once. When I did investigation, I found out that Jessica Ramirez had already developed such a plugin, so instead I decided to team up with her to extend her plugin. A few other people joined in with us and the resultant project is described in detail by me in an earlier blog post. A version of the plugin with slightly reduced  functionality was subsequently released under an open source license through OpenNTF.
  • Persistent Note store - A customer was developing a Sametime extension with the Sametime Connect Toolkit, but they ran into problems when they cound that they needed to use functions which are only available from the Sametime Java Toolkit. They contacted me through their support representative to ask if it was possible to mix the two toolkits in a single extension. I advised them that such mixing was possible and in order to illustrate the method, I sent them code that extended the BuddyNote sample that ships  with the Sametime Connect Toolkit to store the notes on the Sametime server instead of the local file system (this was only possible by using the APIs provided in the Sametime Java Toolkit). This was subsequently published in an article on the DeveloperWorks site.
I hope this list provides Hackers with the capabilities of the Sametime platform and inspiration for their own Hacks.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Very impressed with new M4 Service station near Enfield

Yesterday evening I stopped for the first time in the newly opened motorway service station along the M4 motorway near Enfield in county Meath. I was very impressed with the facilities with a number of different food outlets available including, Costa Coffee for the adults, Burger Kids for the youngsters. There was even a play centre for the kids to run off some energy and a number of showers which could be used to freshen up after a long journey. I must say I was very impressed, the facilities were clean (of course a cynic would point out that there was hardly any time for them to get dirty yet).

The Irish Motorway network is only fairly recently built. Initially the National Roads Authority were reluctant to build any service stations. The motorway network started off as a few a few isolated stretches of motorway quality road so this was not a big problem. However, when the network was completed there was public outcry because now people were faced with long journeys with no obvious places to take a break. The National Roads Authority finally relented and agreed to build some service stations. I am glad to see that when they finally built the service stations they did so in some style.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Is it possible to call the Google Street View cameras back to take a nicer picture?

There was much excitement recently about the fact that Google Street View finally released their photos for Ireland. It was a few years since the photographs were taken and the delays were explained by the fact that there were concerns expressed by the privacy implications of people's pictures appearing and they needed to semi-automatically blur any faces accidentally captured.

Naturally I decided to have a look and see how my own house looks on Street View and although I don't think it looks too bad, I was a little disappointed to see that the hedge in the front garden was clearly overgrown. As a matter of fact the hedge in question has since been removed and I wondered if there were any way to possibly call back the Google Street View cars to take a new picture of my now tidier front garden?

For me it is not a big deal how my house looks to casual browsers, but I can imagine if a business premises had spent quite a considerable amount of money to renovate their premises they would not be  happy if people using Google Street View were still seeing the older un-renovated view. Perhaps there might even be a business opportunity for someone to go around taking professional photographs showing off a business premises at its best!

Friday, October 15, 2010

My first Hardware hack - a stand for an iPOD touch

Stand for ipod touch
Originally uploaded by Brian O'Donovan
One of the problems with my daughter's new iPOD touch is that when she places it flat on the table, she is unable to easily view it while lying in bed. This was causing her to have to hold the device in her hands which was not ideal.

I tried several physical and on-line stores to see if I could buy a stand for holding it propped up. Unfortunately I had no luck so I was forced to build my own from a wire clothes hangar. It might not be as elegant as Steve Jobs would design, but it works and hence I am happy with my handiwork.

Why are there Google advertisements appearing on this site?

Personally I am not a big fan of blog sites that are filled with annoying advertisements. Therefore you might be surprised to notice that I have just enabled Google AdSense advertisements on this blog.
Don't worry I don't intend to turn this blog into a money making scheme. The reason why I have decided to enable Google AdSense for their site is because I am helping a local soccer club Castleknock Celtic revamp their web presence. They want to enable Google AdSence advertisements on their site and I just wanted to do a quick trial to ensure I understand how the whole process works.
If you visit their current web site you will see that the revamp is well overdue. In the meantime any revenue I generate from people clicking on the advertisements showing on my site will be donated to Castleknock Celtic so you will be reassured that it will be going to a good cause. I will let yoiu know once the new site is ready to go live.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why aren't Irish people interested in the Facebook Movie

There is quite a bit of fuss in the USA recently about the release of the Social Newtwork movie which is loosely based upon the real story behind the establishment of the Facebook site. I don't know how close it is to the real truth, but allegedly the plot is based upon depositions given in preparation for a legal case between Mark Zuckerberg and some of his former classmates in Harvard disputing the ownership of the ideas behind the site.

I checked out what times it was showing in my local UCI cinema and was disappointed to see that it is only shown twice a week once on Sunday and once on Wednesday. Clearly it must not be attracting much audience because the popular movies are typically shown 5-10 times a day. This surprised me because Irish young people seem to be obsessed by Facebook since they defected en-masse from Bebo a few years ago.

Maybe they are all just watching streamed versions of the movie at home!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Does Nelson Mandela support Ubuntu Linux?

I am a great admirer of Nelson Mandela and also fan of the Ubuntu Linux distribution. Therefore I was initially very impressed when I saw the following video which seems to show Nelson Mandela endorsing Ubuntu Linux. However, when you listen closer you realize that he never actually mentions the word Linux.  The video shows what seems to be excepts clipped from a longer interview and it has the logo of the Ubuntu Linux community overlaid on some screens to imply that his words are intended as support for the Ubuntu Linux project.

The African word Ubuntu does not have a direct translation in English, but roughly translates as helping other people in your community. As I understand, it may be close to the Irish word meitheal. I can see why Nelson Mandela might want to support the philosophy of Ubuntu but at the same time avoid explicitly endorsing the Ubuntu variant of Linux (it is quite possible that he never even heard of the Linux variant).

I am confused about how to react to this video, because it must represent one of two very different situations:
  • If Nelson Mandela knows of and supports the Ubuntu Linux community, then someone should clearly document this support.
  • If Nelson Mandela does not wish to publicly support the Ubuntu Linux community then I think this video represents an underhand way of trying to mislead people into thinking that he is a public supporter. In this case the Ubuntu community should publicly disassociate themselves from such trickery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is Microsoft interested in promoting Open Source Software?

Many people were surprised to ses Microsoft named as one of the sponsors of the recent Open Source Software BarCamp in UCD. Some people reacted negatively saying things like "how can Microsoft pretend to be a friend of open source software?", but I was personally very pleased to find Microsoft finally getting behind a movement whose time has come.

As well as providing financial support, Microsoft also sent over Garrett Serack who flew all the way from Redmond to Dublin for the event which was the furthest anyone traveled. He spoke about the Common Opensource Application Publishing Platform (CoApp) which is a project to build a package management system for Windows which would provide many of the benefits that we would associate with for example the Synaptic Package manager on Ubuntu.

His presentation style was really interesting - instead of using a traditional set of slides it seems like he wrote on a whiteboard and then took pictures. I was also impressed with the way he was so open about the limitations of Windows as a platform on which to host open source applications. Unfortunately, we ran into slight technical problems when we recorded Garratt's presentation and so we are missing the end part. This means that we only have recorded the part where he admits the flaws, but are missing the part where he explains how they plan to fix it (this was not deliberate I promise). You can see the partial recording from the OSSBARCAMP channel on Vimeo below.

Bringing Real Package Management to Windows with the CoApp Project, by Garrett Serack of Microsoft from Brian O'Donovan on Vimeo.

To be fair to Microsoft, I will point you to another presentation from Garrett about CoApp where he gets to complete the pitch. It certainly seems like an ambitious project. They will consider they have success when they get the PHP and Apache web server packages available through the system. This is more challenging than it sounds because both of these projects require a large number of dependencies. I am not certain when they expect to reach this milestone,but I hope it won't be too far into the future.

CoApp Presentation from Garrett Serack on Vimeo.

Garrett's presence at the conference prompted an article in the Irish Times which shows that Microsoft getting involved in open source projects serves as a validation for many people that open source has finally entered mainstream business. I wish Microsoft every success with this project. If it succeeds it will help spread the adoption of open source software even further.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Reading books on my phone

Amazon Kindle Device I used to think that Kindle was just an expensive device for reading e-Books, but then a colleague told me about the Kindle Application for the Android platform so I decided to try it out. I did not want to waste money on something I would not like so I first tried it out with a few classic books which are out of copyright.

I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable I found the  experience of reading on my phone. The small screen was not really an issue, since I only needed to see the part of the page that I was reading at the time. Unlike the real Kindle device, the Kindle reader on the phone actually lights up the screen which means that books can be read in pretty much any light.  By default the book is rendered as black text on a white background, but I found that this caused the battery on my phone. However, when I switched my preference to white text on a black background I found that the books were just as readable and it had a dramatic effect upon the battery life.

After reading a few literary classics, I decided to try out the experience of  purchasing a book through the associated store. I decided that "30 Arduino Projects for the Evil Genius" would be an appropriate first purchase. The buying experience was very smooth and within a few seconds I had the new book on my device with no shipping charge added to the bill. However, I don't think it was a good choice of book to read on my phone because unlike the literary classics I would like to be able to view both the text of the book and the wiring diagrams at the same time. Nevertheless I think that the next time I go on holidays I will be stocking up my phone with reading material and saving myself on some luggage charges for a suitcase full of heavy books.

Here are my most recent acquisitions on Amazon:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hackday is coming

As I explained in a previous blog post, one of the best things about working in IBM is the regular Hackday events where employees are encouraged to spend a day hacking at a project of their choice. After the day there is a judging process to decide who are the champion hackers - as well as improving morale and climate within the company many brilliant ideas for major IBM projects started life as a Hackday project.

The next Hackday is scheduled for Friday 22nd of October and since this is number 8  in the series we are using the tag line "1 event, 100s of ideas, ∞ possibilities".

The excitement is already starting to build and people are already beginning to form teams and register their projects. I am a great believer in leading by example, so as well as helping run the event I also make a habit of entering a project each time (I  even won a few prizes over the years). Today I finally settled on a project which will involve bridging MQTT event messages with the world of instant messaging. Hopefully this project will allow me to enter this brave new world of Smarter Planet Technologies.

Traditionally the Dublin site has been one of the most active sites in the Hackday events, however our southern neighbors in Cork are doing great work in generating interest so I am afraid we might be passed out this time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Recording events for posting on-line

I recently volunteered to help organize recording some of the sessions from the Open Source Software (OSS) Barcamp event in UCD. I am not very experienced in this type of thing so I thought I would document my experiences for the benefit of anyone else who would like to do something similar.

The first thing I tried was USTREAM. This was really simple to use, within 2 minutes I had created a free account and created a channel for OSSBarCamp. In addition I found that there are  Ustream Viewer and a Ustream Broadcast applications available for my Android phone. I tried out the viewer by watching the Linux Outlaws live stream and the quality was almost better than when I watch it on my PC. I also tried out the Broadcast application and found it alarmingly easy to upload videos - within minutes I had a few videos uploaded of the cables behind my PC (I still haven't figured out how to delete them - if anyone knows how to do this I would love to know).

A colleague also recommended the QIK application for my phone. However, this required more memory than I had free space on my phone so I wasn't able to evaluate it.

Luckily I received an offer of help from some colleagues in DERI in Galway who had professional video recording equipment. Pierre Ludwick and Laura Dragan even volunteered to bring the equipment up from Galway and operate it.

I am always nervous that something would go wrong, so even though Pierre was recording the initial keynote talk by Stefano Zacchiroli, I also recorded it on my phone using the Ustream Broadcast application. I think you will agree that the results shown below are reasonably good. Most of the problems with the video were due to the fact that my hand was getting tired from constantly holding the phone up so if I had a tripod rigged up it would have been even better. (sorry about the advertisements - I would have to upgrade to a professional account to get rid of those).

My hand was sore from holding my mobile phone aloft so I decided to relax and trust the professionals for the rest of the sessions. They did a great job and at the end of the BarCamp they transferred all of the files onto my laptop. Each recorded session was contained in a .mts file which was about 1.5 to 2BGytes. These files are clearly too big to be uploaded to a video sharing site so I had to convert them to some more efficient storage format before I uploaded them.

I played around with the various tools that come with Ubuntu before deciding that Kino was the tool that I should be using. The first step was to import the files into Kino which creates a .dv file which was ironically bigger than the original - typically about 8-9 GBytes per 40 minute talk. The import process could take the best part of an hour. My first few attempts at importing files failed becuase I was using an external drive for storage which had been formated with the FAT file system (the FAT file system has a limit of 4 GBytes as the maximum size of a single file). After importing the file, then I had to export it to .mpeg format. By taking all of the defaults I ended up with a file of about 300-400 MBytes  per session, I could have tweaked the parameters to get a smaller file size, but I didn't feel confident in adjusting to many parameters since I didn't know what parameters would affect video quality in a noticeable way. The export process could take about 2-3 hours on my poor old home PC which meant the overall process was quite time consuming.

I looked at the various video sharing sites and quickly settled on Vimeo as the best for my needs. They offer a free account which has a limit of 500 MBytes uploaded per week. I could have used this and uploaded the materials gradually, but I was keen to get the job done quickly and so I paid out for a professional account which also eliminated advertisements from my videos and gave a few more benefits. You can view all of the recorded videos on a special channel I created

Here you can see the same Keynote presentation that I recorded with my phone. Although the quality is better, I am not sure the difference affects the usability.

Overall I am happy I volunteered. It was a great learning experience for me and now there is a permanent record of the event available for anyone who wants to see it. I can see from the Vimeo statistics that some of the more popular session have already been viewed by more people online than attended the BarCamp in person.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Domain Renewal Group Scam

This morning I got a letter from the Domain Renewal Group about the renewal of one of the domains I own. I was a little bit surprised to receive the letter, because I though that the domain was not due for renewal for several months and in addition the renewal charge of $28 per year seemed a little above the going rate. I was not particularly bothered by the fact that I never heard of such a company because companies are constantly changing their names and often use different names on physical letters from the name on their web site.

To be on the safe side, I decided to do a little bit of research into the company before I reached for my credit card. It is just as well that I did, because I found several articles complaining about the company (click here for an example). The letter is posted in New York, but they want me to send money to an address in London. I would be surprised if the authorities in these jurisdictions are not already hot on the tails of these guys if the reports on the web are true. In the meantime, be warned!!!

Monday, October 4, 2010

My OSS BarCamp presentation on "The growing usage of Open Source desktop client SW in IBM"

At the recent Open Source Software (OSS) BarCamp in University College Dublin. I delivered a talk entitled "The growing usage of Open Source desktop client SW in IBM". The talk was recorded on video, so if anyone wants to see the session you can view it here.

Brian O'Donovan - The growing usage of Open Source desktop client SW in IBM from Brian O'Donovan on Vimeo.

Here are the slides to go with the talk:

I think it is a great idea to have talks recorded, because people who cannot come to the physical event can benefit from the information being shared. It is not too bad seeing myself on video, but hearing my own voice sounds very weird. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the talk. There were quite a few questions asked on the day, but if you have any more questions feel free to leave a comment below and I will be happy to answer.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Is Linux an operating system for computer savvy geeks?

Many people assume that Linux is an operating system which is only really used by computer savvy geeks. However, this reputation is no longer really justified - especially since Ubuntu have started living up to their slogan of "Linux for human beings".

The most interesting talk at last weekend's OSS Bar Camp event in UCD was a talk entitled Mumbuntu where Alan Pope (a.ka. Popey) describes his experiences in teaching his elderly mother to use an Ubuntu based machine. His siblings told her she was crazy to follow Alan's advice since they thought that it would be difficult for someone who has no prior computing experience to learn how to use Linux. But Popey was happy to report that his brother admitted they were wrong and overall her experiences were very happy.

Here is a video recording of Alan's very entertaining talk in which he honestly describes all of the issues he encountered and how he overcame them (mostly they were unrelated to the operating system):

Mumbuntu from Brian O'Donovan on Vimeo.

We have video recordings of quite a few of the OSS Bar Camp sessions and I will be posting them on line gradually over the next few weeks as I get around to doing the various processing steps required.