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My friend Julie showed me and Akumi around the campus today. She works for the Finance department in Building 4. When I say “campus”, Microsoft really has a collegiate feel to it. We even saw a group sitting in a circle in a plot of grass having what appeared to be a discussion group. We had lunch at the cafeteria there and the food reminded me of my college dining hall, not terrible, but nothing to write blog about.

Seems like everyone we know in Seattle is trying to pimp it to us. Grace, whom we’re staying with, is constantly pointing out how wonderful it is while Julie is selling both Seattle and Microsoft. She certainly knows how to sell Microsoft to a person like me (not that I need any selling). After lunch, she immediately took us by the soccer field where two lunchtime games were going on a perfect turf field. Need I see more?

After walking around a bit, we headed over to the Microsoft Store and Museum. The store didn’t impress me too much, but the museum was neat, and not just because of the X-Box consoles. The old pictures of Bill and crew inspire a laugh and it was interesting to see the box for “Microsoft Adventure”, one of their first games.

After our impromptu tour was over, we sat in the lobby of building 4 when I noticed a group of people on the other side of the glass walk by. I noticed a guy in an orange XML Web Services shirt and told my wife that the huge book in my backpack that adds all the bulk to my luggage was written by him. I would’ve liked to have introduced myself to Chris, but we were already on the outside of the glass.

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I’m here in Seattle hooking an unsuspecting Dan Kalish on the drug I call RSS Bandit. He just finished the Washington Bar (after having passed the Connecticut bar only a couple of years ago. Sucks to be a lawyer and move.) and is enjoying a quiet repose. This is my first attempt to a non geek on RSS.

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We fly off tomorrow to Seattle and don’t let me catch you even thinking about trying to snake my stuff. I live in a very bad neighborhood, you wouldn’t want to be there after dark or in the nude. We have vicious blind dogs in the yard that have been raised on human meat and will bite anything that breathes or walks funny. And robots in the house with lasers and duct tape and … and Barry Manilow CDs!

And…um.. we have cameras all over the place, and a direct upload to America’s Funniest Home Videos so everyone can laugh at you when you’re attacked by blind dogs, including the girl in HR who never looks in your direction you pathetic slob.

Besides, my stereo is out-dated and sounds crappy. But I hear the neighbors just bought a huge flat panel HDTV with a Bang & Olufsen stereo. You should steal their shit instead.

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I have a bad habit of writing specs in the future tense. Since the system I’m spec’ing doesn’t yet exist, it’s so easy for me to fall in the habit of saying things like:

  • This page will look like this:
  • At this point the system will do this.
  • The system will display that control here.

instead of:

  • This page looks like this:
  • At this point the system does this.
  • The system displays that control here.

So what’s the big deal? Well there’s two big deals. Number one is a question of written aesthetics and the other is a more practical consideration. Ok, so they’re not all that BIG a deal. But let me continue.

Aesthetically speaking, using the present tense sounds more active and interesting. Remember all those lessons about active voice and passive voice in high school English? I think it’s made me paranoid.

Secondly, and more importantly, is that after you build the system and someone comes along and refers to you spec as a piece of documentation, it sounds kinda funny to say the system “will look like this” when it already “does look like this”. You can argue that the system doesn’t respond till the user interacts with it so that saying “When the user clicks here, the system will navigate there” isn’t so off the mark. See my first point in response to that point. I thank you for your time.

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I’m no professional musician, but I thought the acoustics at the Hollywood bowl was fantastic. They’ve been touting the improved sound with the new shell and improvements. The sound was sharp and clear.

The opening act played an Eastern influenced set with guitar, bongos, and even some Drum & Bass mixed in there. They were accompanied by Indian dancers on one side and break-dancers on the other. East meets west. I don’t believe for a second that the break dancers are from this world. I think they are former Gumby rejects in the way they contorted and flipped. Of course, I’ve seen just as impressive dancers on 3rd Street Promenade.

Sidestepper soothed us with “In Beats We Trust”, a very reggae-ish funky tune. Nortec Collective picked up the intensity a notch with some thumping music. The Crystal Method then brought it home with a nice selection of a few new tracks and several classics, ending with “Busy Child.”

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Google originally wanted to raise $2,718,281,828, but based on this article, I predict they’ll be closer to $3,141,592,653. In any case, that’s a big piece of pi. (sorry. really. don’t shoot me.)

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Google Inc., the world’s No. 1 Web search provider, said on Monday its highly anticipated initial public offer could be worth as much as $3.3 billion as it prices its stock in a range that could value the company at more than $36 billion.

[Via Reuters: Top News]

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Soccer ball My team, Nothend United, tied the Westsiders 2 to 2. Our goalie was phenomenal in staving off their aggresive attack, but sadly the opponents scored twice by capitalizing on deflections of our defense that took our goalie out of position. I scored one off of a penalty kick. For the record, I didn’t dive. I never do.

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I have to hand it to Microsoft, they really do listen to their customers. And I don’t mean in that head nodding “I hear you but I don’t know what you’re saying” kind of way so common with people who really want you to think they’re listening, but have no time for you. I posted my question about device support on Don Box’s Wiki and here’s his response:

There are several small XML parsers (expat being the most well-known) that should make it exceedingly straightforward to implement basic SOAP functionality on your device (you will have to write some code, as the tool support is zip when using this approach). The challenge going forward is getting XML DSIG and Encryption, both of which require a real investment if your platform doesn’t include support for them. How long it takes Sun to bring these technologies to J2ME is out of our control. If it’s any consolation, we don’t have them on .NET Compact Framework yet either. For the near-to-mid-term future, if you want reach, transport-level security is your best option for getting messages out of the device.

Now, I know this may be out of Don’s control, but I think its pertinent and I might as well ask. The way I see it, a huge source of consumers for SOA will be mobile devices running on other platforms connecting to these services. Although J2ME (and BREW etc…) is out of Microsoft’s control, now that Sun and Microsoft are good buddies, can we expect to see some more collaboration and perhaps even a bit of friendly pressure on Sun to provide toolkit support for WSE 2.0 now and Indigo near the time Indigo is released? At the very least Microsoft should be (and I imagine are) concurrently building Indigo support into the .NET Compact Framework. Out of curiosity, is that the case? Microsoft says they’ve run out of things to buy, but perhaps they should buy or start some spinoff companies to build toolkits for platforms that do not have decent support for Web Services. What better way to complete the chicken-egg problem than to make both?

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SoapIn this post, Tim Ewald talks about using Doc/Literal/Bare for your web service. There are several benefits he ticks off, but one seems to be the aesthetic effect of cleaning up the format of the XML within your SOAP message. In SOAP, the XML sent back and forth is just the wire format. As a typical developer, why should you care what the wire format is? In general, you shouldn’t. If you have the tools to generate WSDL and generate a proxy off of a WSDL to call a web service, you’re all set.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not that easy. My job right now is to expose my company’s platform to clients running cell-phones, set-top boxes, etc… These platforms are running J2ME, BREW, C, etc… Potential future clients are interested in SOAP, but our first client is dead set against it because they say it’s too verbose for their tiny devices and there is scant tool support for them.

So I went and took some sand-paper to our SOAP services and shaved off every bit I could, smoothing out the edges, shortening the namespaces I have control over, making everything so “Doc/Literal/Bare” you’d blush just looking at it. Still, no go. They weren’t having it. They have their own proprietary XML format they want to send to us over HTTP with a roll-our-own authentication scheme. I was hoping to take advantage of all the plumbing VS.NET and the .NET Web Services provide.

I recently watched a video in which Don Box and Doug Purdy discuss Indigo and SOA. They hope that most developers will not have to become plumbers and understand how it all works under the hood. You just use Indigo and it automagically takes care of it for you. You just focus on your business rules.

The problem I see arising is that as Microsoft takes web services and SOA to the next level, not everybody is keeping up. How will I get these people on mobile devices to interoperate with my service if they are lacking the tools to even generate simple SOAP messages? These guys didn’t want to use XML until I showed them their format required very little change to make it XML compliant. As much as I don’t want to know what’s going on under the hood, I’m afraid I am forced to hike my pants down a bit and expose some butt crack to become a plumber.

In my next post, I’ll talk about my solution to this problem and a problem I ran into.

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Dare asks the question whether or not we should change the browser used by RSS Bandit. He was greeted by over 30 comments, mostly in favor of the switch. This is purely anecdotal, but I get the sense alot of people are upset by recent vulnerabilities in IE. I also get the sense that a lot of people feel that upstart browsers are toeing the line of innovation while IE has sat on its fat ass and done nothing lately.

Whether that’s true or not, as Dare points out, integrating another browser into RSS Bandit is a bit of work and could open a whole can of worms. I’d like to point out that there’s something you can do now with RSS Bandit as a stop-gap. It may not appease the die-hard Firefox or Gecko users, but hopefully it will help you feel more secure using RSS Bandit.

A little while ago I wrote up some documentation called Changing The Web Browser Security Settings which can be found on the RSS Bandit documentation site. There are two important features the document discusses. One is that you can have HTML links within RSS Bandit opened by an executable of your choice. This may not integrate with the nice Tabs within RSS Bandit, but at least you’re using the browser of your choice.

If you decide to stick with IE, I suggest configuring the Security, Restrictions options. You can deactivate ActiveX controls (the source of most vulnerabilities) and browse in relative safety. The documentation describes the risk of checking each option.

The Reading Pane (or “Item Detail Pane”) is not affected by these settings. It never allows any script or ActiveX controls. While we debate removing IE, you can read your feeds with more security. Happy RSS Reading.

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Soap In my last post I discussed a client who requires that we build a web service using a proprietary XML format (lets call it MyXML) so his mobile devices can interact with our platform.

Naturally, I didn’t want to limit ourselves to one client, but looked at the big picture and decided I should build a standard Web Service using SOAP, but provide some sort of facade that would translate his MyXML requests to SOAP and translate the SOAP responses back to MyXML.

My first attempt was to write a Soap Extension. I was planning to do something like this (some code ommitted):

using System;
using System.IO;
using System.Web;
using System.Web.Services.Protocols;

/// <summary>
/// Soap Extension that transforms incoming MyXml to 
/// SOAP and outgoing SOAP to MyXml.
public class MyXmlToSoapExtension : SoapExtension
    Stream _soapStream;
    Stream _tempStream;

    /// <summary>
    /// Transforms incoming MyXml to SOAP and outgoing SOAP to 
    /// MyXml
    /// <param name="message">
    public override void ProcessMessage(SoapMessage message)
        switch (message.Stage)
            case SoapMessageStage.BeforeDeserialize:
                // Code to transform incoming _soapStream
                // into the chained _tempStream via XSLT.

            case SoapMessageStage.AfterSerialize:
                // Code to transform chained 
                // _tempStream and write result to 
                // the outgoing _soapStream via XSLT

    /// <summary>
    /// When overridden in a derived class, allows a 
    /// SOAP extension access to the memory buffer 
    /// containing the SOAP request or response.
    /// <param name="stream">
    /// <returns>
    public override Stream ChainStream(Stream stream)
        // by overriding ChainStream we can
        // cause the ASP.NET system to use
        // our stream for buffering SOAP messages
        // rather than the default stream.
        // we will store off the original stream
        // so we can pass the data back down to the 
        // ASP.NET system in original stream that 
        // it created.
        _soapStream = stream;
        _tempStream = new MemoryStream();
        return _tempStream;

And man, it was working like a charm in my unit tests. I was converting straight up garbage into SOAP. The beauty of this scheme was that SOAP requests and MyXML requests were happily going to the exact same URL. Everybody was getting along. All I had to do was examine the request. If it was a SOAP request, I didn’t change anything. If it was a MyXML request, I ran my transformations. For a moment, I was daydreaming about the articles I would write about how brilliant a solution I had created (not realizing there were other problems as well such as maintaining the transformations between MyXML and SOAP) until I noticed that my unit test was cheating a bit. When making the HTTP request, the test did the following sneaky thing:

HttpWebRequest request 
    = (HttpWebRequest)HttpWebRequest.Create("http://localhost/Svc.asmx");
//...Code Omitted...
request.Headers.Add("SOAPAction", "http://mynamespace/MethodName"); 

You see, a SOAP request is more than just the contents of the SOAP envelope (especially when using doc/literal/bare), there’s also crucial information in the HTTP headers. So I removed that line in my test, and tried to add that line within my Soap Extension like so:

HttpRequest request = HttpContext.Current.Request;
request.Headers.Add("SOAPAction", "http://mynamespace/MethodName"); 

Not going to happen, my tests failed. By the time the HTTP headers reach my web server, they are READ ONLY. They won’t let me get my grubby hands in there and change them. I might be able to convince my client to add this header to his clients for kicks, but I don’t think he’d go for it. Why would he? He doesn’t want anything to do with SOAP.

Now, unless someone comes along and shows me how to modify incoming HTTP headers from an ASP.NET service, I am going to resort to plan B. I will write an HttpHandler that takes in the MyXML, does the authentication etc…, figures out which method to call, and then call the appropriate Web Service method. I’ve put the code that implements my web service in another assembly like so:

<%@ WebService Language="c#" Class="Svc,MyAssembly" %>

That way my HttpHandler doesn’t have to make a second HTTP request to the Web Service, but just use the underlying logic (assuming my methods don’t access such things as the SoapContext etc…). I was hoping to avoid this type of duplication of efforts, but oh well.

UPDATE: As my friend Ben points out, I can modify the HTTP headers with an ISAPI filter, but that’s a lot more work and I prefer to work within the ASP.NET model and not have to deal with ISAPI.

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First Kyle, then Micah. I’ve bugged him, cajoled him, annoyed him, till finally he caved and installed RSS Bandit. Took about five minutes before he became a full fledged addict. I have a feeling he’ll be up really late tonight. Next step is to get him set up with a .TEXT blog. I’m so eeeeevil.

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VacationI’m taking all of next week off of work. Wohoo! Well actually, I’m only on vacation from my day job. Monday and Tuesday I’ll be working on some contracts I’ve got going on the side. Then on Wednesday, the little lady and I are heading out to Seattle to visit her best friend. Hopefully I’ll have some time to work on RSS Bandit too.

Tonight I’ll be going out for a few drinks with my buddy Micah. He quit his job and went independent. He’s poised to take over the world soon, while I’m jockeying to position myself to ride his coattails. ;) He’s got a lot of great ideas on how to make IT a value proposition and not a cost.

Saturday night, I have a big soccer game. Sunday I have an acupuncture appointment and we’re going to the Hollywood Bowl concert. Whew! We’re pretty busy this weekend.

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Scientists will soon rip open the door to real Quantum computing. Will it be a peek into alternate universes? Or will it fizzle with a whimper?

Physicists have succeeded in entangling five photons for the first time. Although four photons have been entangled before, five is the minimum number needed for universal error correction in quantum computation. Moreover, the same team has demonstrated a process called “open-destination teleportation” for the first time (Z Zhao et al. 2004 Nature 430 54). The results represent a major breakthrough in efforts to exploit the laws of quantum mechanics in quantum information processing.

[Via Physics Web]

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Via this article in Newsweek, I found an interesting blog geared towards the professional philosopher but open to others with an interest.

Although some posts such as Are Deontology, Consequentialism, and Pluralism the only viable theories of ethics? will give you a headache just trying to decipher the title, many of the posts (the aforementioned included) ask very thought provoking questions such as “Who Would Suffer the Greater Misfortune?. It may not help you track down that elusive threading bug, but it may help you deal with it philosophically.

One of the contributors is a professor at my alma mater, Occidental college.

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Let’s Make a Deal Ian Griffiths blogs about the Monty Hall problem.

The problem, named after the host of a game show on which it sometimes appeared, is as follows:

There are three doors, behind one of which is a valuable prize, but you don’t know which door. Choose a door. You are not told straight away whether you’ve made the right choice. Instead, the host of the game will then open one of the doors you did not pick, showing you that there is no prize behind it. You are now offered the chance to change your mind. This effectively narrows down your choice - the prize is behind one of two doors, either the one you picked, or the door that neither you nor the host picked.

What should you do to maximize the probability of winning the prize? Should you stick with your first choice, or switch to the other door? Or does it not matter?

Monty Hall Problem I love this problem as an example of a very straightforward but non-intuitive result. I once presented this problem to a group of young kids who were in a summer math and science enrichment program. They were floored by the result. I demonstrated the proof to the kids via both the logical proof (as Ian does) as well as by running a Monte Carlo simulation. I had two teams play the game over and over, one choosing to switch every time, and one choosing to stay. Like mathematical magic, over a series of 20 or so trials it becomes quite clear that always switching is indeed the better strategy. Argue with me as they did, they could not argue with their own eyes.

Now, lest you think that this is only difficult for non mathematical types to grasp, I used to frequent the sci.math newsgroups and with a bemused grin read the long rants of Ph.Ds in mathematics argue over this problem when I now knew a group of 13 and 14 year olds who could demonstrate the result to them.

I’d like to point out that in the real game show, Monty didn’t always give you the option of switching. Sometimes he’d just open the door you chose. When you add that unpredictable human element, all bets are off.

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I promised a friend I’d show him some pictures of the time we went to burning man in 2002. So of course, I figured might as well make a blog entry about it. For you geeks out there, the Playa (A nearly level area at the bottom of an undrained desert basin, sometimes temporarily covered with water) has a wi-fi network available. Every year, Black Rock City, a temporary city, is formed in the midst of the desert near Gerlach. This city is the host of the Burning Man festival. It’s about a thirteen hour drive from Los Angeles and the closest city is Reno, Nevada which is about 4 hours away.

Let me introduce you to the gang of burners (people who attend Burning Man) that we camped with. Here we are demonstrating the preferred method of locomotion on the Playa. This assumes you’re sober enough to ride correctly, which isn’t as much an issue during the day as it is at night.

Took a right when we shoulda took a left on the Tour de France.

Although the heat is oppresive by day, there’s plenty to see. One of my favorite installations is a replica of the Terror Dome from Mad Max movies. That’s Akumi and myself climbing on it. At night, the dome is covered with people cheering on epic battles as two would-be gladiators strapped with bungie cords swing around whacking each other with foam padded sticks.

Two monkeys climb the extremely large jungle gym.

Can't you just feel the terror?

The primary danger on the playa is overheating and dehydration, so be sure to bring plenty of water. That’s not to say that there aren’t other unexpected hazards on the playa.

The author auditions for Jaws 5. Notice the temple in the distance to the right

Every year, Burning Man has a theme. The year we went the theme was “A floating world”. This explains the presence of dolphins.

The author in a dead heat with Flipper.

Some of the installations on the playa are truly magnificent, such as the Temple Of Joy. The prior year, the artist who built this temple had built the Temple Of Tears as he had tragically lost a family member (I think his daughter). But in having overcome the pain and sorrow, he built this temple to celebrate the joy he had with her.

Our friend Laura parks at the Outhouse Of Joy.

Amazing what you can do with some balsa wood, glue and a lot of time.

And then, of course, there’s the Man. At night, the Man is totally wired with bright blue neon lights. From any point in the camp, you can pretty much see him standing there as a beacon. Very useful if you happen to be trashed and have wandered off into the darkness of the playa. It’s nearly impossible to get truly lost out there, but people are resourceful and manage to find a way.

The one on the lighthouse, not with the shades.

There are the occasional dust storms that can be downright aggravating. We only had to endure one or two. Huddling in the shade shelter we built in the middle of our camp site, we battened down the hatches and munched on snacks. Afterwards, a dust storm will leave a really beautiful sky in its wake.

Still not worth the pound of dust in my eyes.

At night, as the temperature dives, the playa really comes alive. I unfortunately don’t have a lot of night pictures, but believe me when I tell you that anything and everything you’ve ever imagined in your sleep is crawling around. This place creates a bull market for the neon and glowstick industry. All the colored lights create a surreal nighttime wonderland. For example, as we walked about, we almost ran into this moving aquarium full of laughing people.

Nemo didn't sign up for this.

Every day on the playa is a build-up to the big day when they burn the Man. Preceding the burn is a parade of fire walkers, dancers, and mechanical fire-breathing dragons. It’s truly a pyromaniac’s wet dream. The intense heat of “The Burn” conjures up several dust devils with the appearance of sinister tornados dancing on the ashes of the Man. The following day, the Temple of Joy is burned, but we didn’t stay around to see that.

The man. The man. The man is on fire. We don't need no...