A TweetDeck reply/RT UI workaround

I generally like TweetDeck as a Twitter client, despite the occasional usability challenges of AIR applications. I love having multiple columns to monitor conference hashtags and important (or silly) keywords. Lately, network problems have affected how I use TweetDeck to communicate and it puts a spotlight on a bit of bad user interface (UI) design that otherwise wouldn’t be noticeable.

As an Internet-aware desktop application, TweetDeck makes a lot of simultaneous asynchronous calls to social media web services to get data: your Twitter timeline, @ replies, direct messages, Farmv^H^H^H^H^HFacebook, etc. After making a request, the program doesn’t sit and wait for each request to come back from the server before displaying things it has already received. This somewhat complex idea is critical to a good user experience – the UI becomes much more responsive to the user.

Lately Twitter seems to be having problems serving up user profile images; my timeline loads, but the photos of the people I follow don’t appear until quite some time later (see right).

I suppose this could be a problem in TweetDeck, but my guess is that the Twitter API is throttling (slowing down) profile picture requests to shunt resources to service other requests. Load shifting is common in hosted services, and I for one would rather Twitter prioritize updates from users in Japan, Libya or Wisconsin over serving my ugly mug around the world.

Here’s where TweetDeck botches it: the reply and retweet buttons are grouped as part of the element that displays tweet-sender’s pic. The buttons aren’t available until after the photo loads. Sometimes it takes up to ten minutes. It’s really frustrating to not be able to reply in real time during a conversation without retyping screen names or Re-Tweets by hand. The object of good UI design is to save the user from doing things like that. I might as well use a command-line Twitter client. :)

I finally found a workaround by digging around in TweetDeck’s preferences – the Heads-Up Display (HUD). To reply to an update before the photo has loaded, you can select the update with the mouse and hit the spacebar to bring up the HUD (see left).

All the goodies are right there. If you change your mind about replying, hit Esc to close the HUD.

It’s almost certainly possible to have the buttons always be present – hovering over the empty space where the photo would be – if you design for it. These sorts of issues almost always come to light once systems go into production. If I may adapt von MoltkeNo software design survives contact with the intended user. Every service call can fail. It’s really hard to predict interactions between multiple asynchronous service call failures, but I think this one could have been caught during development.

I’m using TweetDeck 0.37.5 on OS X as I write this. I look forward to the day when this blog post is irrelevant.

If libraries were like relational databases…

I was inspired by XKCD to draw this cartoon for a recent presentation on the Semantic Web. We have this habit of dismembering data when we use relational modeling. Consequently, we spend a lot of our development time figuring out how to reassemble entities to use them in our applications, particularly with large, heavily-normalized databases. It’s occasionally good to remind ourselves that relational modeling is an optimized form of data storage. But it’s not the only one, and it isn’t always the right one for a given problem.

Resources from last night’s PDX SemWeb talk

Last night I gave a presentation at the Portland Semantic Web Meetup (“Goodbye, Semantic HTML!“. I touched on a lot of different aspects of embedding semantic references into HTML – past, present, and future. Below is a list of references to articles or tools that came up during the talk and discussion.


Microformats I’ve used:


Dublin Core Metadata (creators, copyright)

GoodRelations E-Commerce vocabulary (ontology)
GoodRelations Snippet Generator
GoodRelations Templates

How Best Buy Is Using The Semantic Web – an implementation of Good Relations in RDFa

HTML5 Microdata

Dive Into HTML5 on Microdata
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: RDFa and HTML5′s Microdata
Microformats vs. RDFa vs. Microdata

Firefox Toolbars:

Operator (detects Microformats)
RDFa Developer (detects RDFa)

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards - a fantastic book for retraining you to think in terms of clean HTML and use CSS well.

Great XKCD cartoon on the current state of Higher Ed Web sites

Using Neo4j Graph Databases With ColdFusion

After last week, I decided to put off picking a new frontend platform for my Semantic Web rubric project and focus a bit on the server backend.

Since this is just a proof-of-concept project at this point I can afford to take some risks in choosing technologies. I’ve been following the developments around using graph databases for storing data, especially for Semantic Web applications. One project that kept coming up was Neo4j, a graph database engine built in Java. I figured now was a good time to try it out. My server-side logic is built in ColdFusion, and integrating open source Java projects like Neo4j into CF applications is generally a snap.

Aside from one hiccup, porting Neo4j’s 1-minute Java “Hello World” example to CFML proved to be fairly straightforward. The process I used to get this working is detailed below. I’d suggest that you skim over the Java example before continuing – I’m sure I left out some of the exposition.

First add the Neo4j Jar files to the ColdFusion server:

  • Download the Neo4j “Apoc” distribution and unpack it somewhere convenient. I’m using Mac OS X, so I put things like this in ~/lib/neo4j-apoc-1.0
  • Add the Neo4j JAR files to the ColdFusion classpath. Log into your ColdFusion Administrator, and select Server Settings -> Java and JVM. Enter the path to the lib folder in your Neo4j distribution in ColdFusion Class Path
  • Restart your ColdFusion server. If you’re at all nervous, log back in to the ColdFusion Administrator and verify that the Neo4j jars are indeed listed on your classpath.

Once this is complete, you can initialize a new database for your ColdFusion app. Decide where you want the CF server to create the Neo4j data files and pass that to the object’s init() method. I put mine in a folder under /tmp on Mac OS X.

<cfset dbroot = "/tmp/neo4jtest/" />

<cfset graphDb = createObject('java',
                  "org.neo4j.kernel.EmbeddedGraphDatabase") />
<cfset graphDb.init(dbroot & "var/graphdb") />

[Aside for non-ColdFusion folks: CF doesn't instantiate Java objects quite how you'd expect. The call to CreateObject() just gets a handle on the class itself. Calling init() on the resulting handle actually instantiates the class via the appropriate constructor.]

Just as in the Java example, it’s good to surround your connection with a try/catch block that will close your database connection if you throw an error. As I was working with Neo4j I would periodically lock up my database and not be able to connect without restarting CF. Adding a CFTRY/CFCATCH block cleared this right up.

   <cfset tx = graphDb.beginTx() />


   <cfset tx.finish() />

  <cfcatch type="any">
     <cfset graphDb.shutdown() />
     <cfdump var="#cfcatch#">

<cfset graphDb.shutdown() />

Where things got really sticky was the use of Java enumerations to declare the available relationship types for the graph:

 /* Java code */
 public enum  MyRelationshipTypes implements RelationshipType

To my knowledge there’s no way to declare something like this in standard CFML. I likely could have wrapped this in a Java class of some sort and loaded it through CreateObject(), but that wouldn’t have been true to the spirit of ColdFusion. So I dug around in the Neo4j docs and found an answer: relationships can be created dynamically at runtime from a static method on the class org.neo4j.graphdb.DynamicRelationshipType. I created an instance of DynamicRelationshipType for the “KNOWS” relationship and loaded it into a Struct, anticipating caching them in Application scope for a real application.

 relationship = CreateObject("java",
 MyRelationshipTypes = structNew();
 MyRelationshipTypes.KNOWS = relationship.withName( "KNOWS" );

It might be interesting to see if these relationship enumerations could be generated and compiled by something like JavaLoader. I’m not yet aware of any downsides with dynamic relationships besides the obvious lack of compile-time checking.

The rest of the exercise follows without any real suprises:

 firstNode = graphDb.createNode();
 secondNode = graphDb.createNode();
 relationship = firstNode.createRelationshipTo( secondNode,
                                         MyRelationshipTypes.KNOWS );

 firstNode.setProperty( "message", "Hello, " );
 secondNode.setProperty( "message", "world!" );
 relationship.setProperty( "message", "brave Neo4j " );

 WriteOutput( firstNode.getProperty( "message" ) );
 WriteOutput( relationship.getProperty( "message" ) );
 WriteOutput( secondNode.getProperty( "message" ) );

And there you have it! A quick and dirty Neo4j application built with CFML.

I’ve put a little work into developing a Neo4j helper class that hides some of these warts in a nice clean CFC. As soon as I can get eGit to behave I’ll post the files on GitHub.

Losing my religion

So I ordered an iPad because I want to build things for it. My first project was going to be a port of the Rubricator concept — the larger screen and interest of the education community made this seem like a good fit for an iPad application.

Unfortunately, I made a crazy choice in February and started down the path of the Flash CS5 Packager for iPhone rather than commit to the straight-up Apple toolchain I’d been dabbling with for the last year and a half. Why Flash? I was hoping I’d be able to use at least some of my Flex expertise – full-blown Flex components weren’t supported, but ActionScript techniques translate readily back to plain old Flash. This would also give me a chance to experiment with a lightweight AS-only component set (minimalcomps) and an interesting Dependency Injection framework I’d been hearing a lot about (Robotlegs).

Not only was this process awkward, my first crack at the app itself was painfully slow. It was obvious that the techniques I’d developed for Web and desktop application development were not going to be enough to make a reasonable iPhone app, even with a good UI concept. I was beginning to see the dark at the end of the tunnel for this pet project of mine.

But then disaster – Apple pulled the rug out from under the entire Packager for iPhone concept, taking their ball and going home. Boy howdy, I loved middle school. It took a few weeks, but yesterday Adobe finally cried uncle and the proprietary software apologist in me died a little. The two companies that saw me through Microsoft’s bungled hegemony over the Web are now taking shots at each other. Can’t mommy and daddy just get along?

So where do I go now? Do I succumb to Apple’s strong arm tactics and commit to the platform in the way they so desperately want? Do I ditch Apple and run careening for Google and Android?  Or do I run to something like PhoneGap, which promises a more open way to develop apps with JavaScript and Web standards.

Anybody wanna buy an iPad, slightly smudged?

Synchronized Web development workflow

It’s been six years since I switched from HomeSite to Eclipse+CFEclipse as my primary ColdFusion development environment. At the time, my switch was primarily driven by my switch to Mac for development, but the desire for integrated support for version control (e.g. Subversion) directly within in the IDE helped with that as well.

One of the things that has long bugged me about developing ColdFusion apps locally on a dev box (i.e. not on a shared network server) is the need to place project files directly in a Web root somewhere – for example, C:\InetPub\wwwroot on Windows/IIS or in C:\ColdFusion9\wwwroot if you use ColdFusion’s built-in Web server. This throws off my game in two ways:

  1. Browsing to where your files live (in Finder/Explorer, or via the command line) inevitably adds an extra step to every task
  2. Placing the project home outside your user space on the OS makes it more likely you’ll lose the files when upgrading/uninstalling/migrating.

Pain point one could be tackled by sprinkling my system with aliases, shortcuts and/or symbolic links. This reeks of configuration, and would be something I’d need to duplicate on any system I use.

Pain point two there is really the kicker. Sure, using version control keeps you from losing your work, but rebuilding the workspace after a system migration can take a long time. I rarely migrate applications when I get a new system; I prefer to just move the user files and reinstall the apps manually. This periodically cleanses the system and keeps me up to date on patches, even on apps I don’t use often.

I tried keeping my actual project files in a workspace somewhere convenient, such as in my home directory or in the root of the drive (e.g. C:\workspace\MyColdFusionApp)  and then copy the files to the server root to test them. I tried both manual copying and even Subversion commands, but I couldn’t keep that up for long. Part of the benefit of developing anything locally on your system is removing the step of uploading your code to a server to test it, and I was basically backsliding towards that kind of process.

But the idea was sound, and I looked around for something that would painlessly synchronize two folders in different parts of the drive – the project files in my workspace, and the files in a folder under the Web root. My last resort would be to use something like rsync, but I looked around for some sort of plugin for Eclipse – something that could keep the preferences as part of the Eclipse project and/or workspace and be easy to migrate and hard to lose.

With a little digging I found FileSync – a plugin which really fit the bill. It’s open source, and if you can look past the, ah, unpolished Web site of its creator the plugin works pretty well. When I save a file in my workspace, it painlessly gets pushed out to the Web server root for testing.

The plugin also appears to work with network drive targets, so you may be able to use it to publish changes out to a preview or QA server automatically, but you should probably be using some sort of version control for that. :)

April 14, 2010Permalink

Hey iPad – Twitter called and it wants its haters back

I’ve spent the last few days playing with my new iPad. I don’t really think of myself as an Apple fanboy, but evidence might be starting to mount. I originally wanted an iPad for application testing – I’m working on a few projects that would benefit from ultra-mobility and reasonable screen size.

To me this is a whole new category of device, and I wanted to get a real feel for what this thing was all about. I already have or use the devices around the niche the iPad appears to be destined for – the MacBook, the iPhone, netbook – but I really did see this as Something Completely Different. I desperately wanted to like the Windows Tablet; I’d been an early Palm user (III/V/m105) and I tried two early generations (a Compaq TC1000 and a Toshiba M205). I  carried them from meeting to class to meeting, but it never clicked. I saw the potential, but the experience was truly lacking for me.

Yes, I am still ticked off that there’s no Flash – I enjoy building apps in Flex and AIR. I’m even more disappointed that Apple appears to have removed the blue brick icon when a missing plugin is needed for page content. I have yet to see one in Safari when browsing Web sites. This was serving as an ensign for the Flash community.  If Apple has indeed removed this emblem, perhaps Flash developers should put that icon in the alternate content area of the embed/object tag. [Update 4/13/10: Someone has done precisely that]

But the real amazing thing to me has been all the vitriol about the iPad – it’s like the usual unsocialized nonsense of Slashdot has exploded all over the Web. It frankly reminds me of the early days of Twitter – “Why would anyone want to know what I had for breakfast?” was the usual slant. And that showed that they didn’t *get it*

I also feel the same sort of guarded optimism as I did with Twitter – something’s different here. Now that folks with an inclination to develop have the actual devices, There Will Be Code. And from that code will come new kinds of applications and uses that we have only begun to consider.

WordPress Plugins for the Personal Web

The first thing I looked for after successfully migrating my old blog content to WordPress was some new plugins. The plugin ecosystem for WordPress has always impressed me with it’s diversity and range. The first two plugins I installed have actually changed the way I think a little bit about what it means to have a personal identity on the Web.

My first task was to find a plugin to embed my “Friend of a Friend” (FOAF) profile into my blog pages. FOAF is a Semantic Web standard for describing personal information and social networking links in a way that is open and distributed.

Facebook is a fine system, but they’ve made it clear that the information you post about yourself and your friends is their intellectual property. I don’t begrudge them this – they’ve spent millions of dollars building a system that (for the most part) just works. But the real pain comes when Yet Another Social Networking Site comes on the scene. You sign up to join in on the fun, and immediately start building your social network up again in a different silo, a different walled garden.

The designers of the FOAF standard aimed to provide an open way of defining your social network using the tools of the Semantic Web: URIs and RDF. I hope that some future Facebook or Twitter will import and export a social network graph in this form. In the mean time, we can still build our own individual applications using the FOAF vocabulary. Addmittedly a stupid name, but a very powerful idea.

The wp-rdfa plugin adds support for FOAF to WordPress. It generates a very basic FOAF profile for the blog owner based on your already-defined user profile. This is the case where the Semantic Web shines. RDF and OWL are not going to replace (X)HTML over night – they’re too complex and arcane to be readily adopted by Web designers and developers who code by hand. But Content Management Systems, for example, can be modified to generate Semantic Web representations of the data it manages. Drupal 7 is a great example of this – they implemented RDFa as a standard part of the system.

With a bit of hacking to the plugin, I now include a reference to my (rudimentary) FOAF profile in the pages of this blog. It’s nothing fancy, but I can add additional information as I go, eventually building up a description of my interests, projects, friends, etc. that is independent of Facebook and LinkedIn, and is wholly mine. As more blogging packages add support for FOAF, we can begin to build a semantic distributed social network, with blog posts and comments replacing Newsfeeds and Wall posts.

I’m working on some modifications to the wp-rdfa plugin to make it a little more flexible. The first mod makes linking to an external FOAF file possible. I wanted to be able to put any sort of information into the FOAF file that it allowed without being limited to the profile boxes in WordPress. The second mod will make sure all additional FOAF data generated by the plugin (such as comments on posts) link back to the appropriate parts of the FOAF file.

Want to be FOAF? Use the FOAF-a-matic profile generator and follow the instructions shown on how to link this profile into your blog theme – it’s no more difficult than linking in a stylesheet or JavaScript library.

Meet the New Blog, Same As The Old Blog

I spent a fair amount of time this past weekend working on this site. While the new look is probably obvious, the more significant change was the move to WordPress.

When I set up this blog in 2005, I was spending a significant amount of time developing Web applications in ColdFusion.  I anticipated wanting to tinker with any blogging engine I installed. I enjoy working on CFML-based systems much more than PHP, so I chose BlogCFC as my blogging engine.

So why change? So after almost five years of irregular blogging, the hacking of BlogCFC never really materialized. When I signed on to the Nerd Thunderdome festivities last month, I was reminded of the somewhat do-it-yourself nature of BlogCFC (case in point: Ray is again considering including a Rich Text Editor in BlogCFC). I was also still using the stock visual design of BlogCFC. Over the years I’d talked to various people, including my wife (Michelle Panulla, a talented Web designer and developer) about getting help in skinning this site. The fact that I was running a fairly custom system meant I was probably going to have to do the bulk of the template work myself.

After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to switch to WordPress. Though I still love ColdFusion as a platform, I’m less interested in opening the hood of every piece of software I install. I equate this to building your own computer system or tinkering with desktop Linux – at some point all that mucking around loses its charm and you want to focus on the objective. Or, maybe I’ve just refocused where I want to do my tinkering.

I did some research and I found a nice post by James Netherton from 2007 with a small CF app he wrote to migrate BlogCFC to WordPress database-to-database. The app got me most of the way to where I wanted to be, but it had some issues with posts labeled in multiple categories. I rewrote the parts of the conversion that dealt with categories and was able to migrate all of my posts, comments, and categories without incident.

Since it seems that someone migrates from BlogCFC to WordPress every year or so, I’ve posted the source of the updated migration tool to my space on GitHub for the next person who wants to make the jump.