# Saturday, July 08, 2006

One thing I really don't like...

...is when search engines (like Google, but also MSN) "automatically" sense what language I want to use. I live in Italy, therefore Google thinks I want results in Italian, or from Italian web pages. Well, that's NOT true. I want results and pages in English (like I want to type on an English keyboard and I also want my OS and programs to be in English). Especially if I type google.com instead of google.it. Also, when I search for development-related answers, as a result of this behaviour, I get really poor search result.

Speaking of translations: one of the worst things I have ever seen? Compiler errors (C++) translated into Italian. Even worse, VBA keywords used to be translated into Italian in some old release of Office. THAT was really crazy! :)

# Thursday, July 06, 2006

Windows Vista and Office 2007 Beta 2 (2)

Over all, I liked Office 2007 very much. The only thing I could not test was weblog posting, since dasBlog is not currently supported in the Beta version (it will be in the final version). I surely hope it will work well!

Instead, I have different feelings wrt Windows Vista. I followed Longhorn closely from the first PDC (2003?) and I was really looking forward to see it. Remember the “native kernel + managed subsystems” part? The three pillars, Indigo, Avalon and WinFS? Well, Indigo and Avalon are great but will be part of .NET 3.0, also available for XP, and WinFS is dead

So, what’s the point of Windows Vista? The three pillars gone, it remains the new UI, the improvements to the kernel and window manager, and the improved security model.

Running as a simple User and having to use tedious runas commands to do very common tasks on my notebook (such as changing IP, power profile or directory permissions) I thought the new LUA model of Vista will be great for me. The default user is still marked as “Administrator”, but I think (hope?) it is a simple User account under disguise, and when performing security related operations (i.e. clicking on buttons with the little shield) the security token is upgraded and substituted with one of the Administrator group, if the user grant the permit.
This is my first complaint: why they did that? Be clear, use default account from the Users group and simply ask for an Administrator password before running administrative programs, or on their first security related operation; then make the admin take ownership of the whole program. Surely, it is safest to ask every time if a program can do this or that…or not? People gets bored very easily, and do not always read what it is written on dialog boxes. Normal users almost never do that, they only try to get rid of that annoying (or for someone scary) box that prevent them “using my computer”. Despite this, the new LUA is still better than the previous situation.

The new window manager-UI instead is great. And I’m not only speaking about all the eye-candy (transparencies, the new Flip 3D I already love, the shiny new icons, the sidebar etc.) but also about usability. I love the new explorer UI and the new Open and Save dialog boxes. Finally we went a step further, stripping away the file menu where is no longer useful (like in Office 2007, where it “evolved” into the ribbon) or necessary (like in Explorer and Internet Explorer, where it is… no more!). The click-able locations on the address bar, the search box in the toolbar (yes! No more stupid search dogs…) and the new copy/move progress dialogs are some things I have waited for, and they are really great. And the Sidebar is both useful and beautiful to see (only one complaint: why is it not easy to hide and show it? Maybe with a F-something key, a-la Exposè?).
On the negative side, I have found the new UI very poorly configurable and customizable: If you chose Aero, you can’t even change colors. Very little can be done, but maybe this is the price to pay for a mainstream and “standardized” OS.

Finally, I know this is only a Beta, but I had a LOT of problems installing programs: cygwin does not work, it is impossible to register file extensions for some programs (7-zip comes into my mind), other programs crash without reason. Even SQL Server 2005 needs a patch to work correctly! There is still much work to be done, and it passed a lot of time. Maybe Mini is right, and the Windows team need to change direction.
The course the event took really disappoints me. Vista is great, but not so great and not so radically different to justify for me the switch from XP (a 5 year old OS!). I love .NET, and the managed and secure world, and I’m with Gary McGraw when he says that Vista is a missed opportunity for a new, modern and secure OS; the three-years-ago Longhorn still looks better to me than the actual Vista. I’ll have to wait for Singularity… :)

# Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Windows Vista and Office 2007 Beta 2

I could not resist, and installed both :) I am very pleased with Office 2007. I think is the best release of Office I have ever used! The ribbon is great, although there are some command that are “misplaced”, but I think this is my opinion and it is based on the use I do of Office (Word, in this case). Everybody uses Word or Excel in its own way, so the Office team had done a great work examining usage patterns, correlations between command usages and position, and so on. Just read Jensen Harris blog; as an example, I found particularly amusing his post on “command lingering”.

I used Word, Excel and PowerPoint for about a month now, and I have to say I really like the ribbon, the mini-toolbar, even the Office “Start” button I initially feared so much. And it looks great on both XP and Vista too! I have found myself using and discovering more and more office commands, that I am sure where there even before Office 2007 but were essentially “ghost commands”, buried into menus and not readily accessible.  A really great piece of software, even in the Beta version.

I'm here again!

Sorry, I have little excuses for not posting for a long time (more than one month!). The only justification is that I have been abroad for one month. Yes, I have been to Salt Lake City, UT, for the last month, working on the project I am currently employed on at IASMA.

In the last year, from July 2005 when I started working here on the Grape Genome Project, we prepared all the programs, databases and informatics structure to house and analyze data of the grape genome. This included databases for the handling of huge data volumes, applications for mass-analysis of data (gene predictions, automatic annotation of as many genes as possible using different sources, etc) and a first infrastructure to query and retrieve data on the genome.

This part involved a lot of scripting, being more a matter of handling data and gluing existing programs together, and this was the reason I had to learn Perl. But there was also room for building interesting programs which make a good use of structured data, such as the Gene Ontology. Ontologies have a lot of limitations (I will probably dedicate a post to this subject), but they are a great leap forward from the actual position of biological data handling. The structure of the Gene Ontology allow us to do some very interesting things, like inferring functions in a more precise manner, taking into consideration more than one source, the “informativeness” of the assigned term, and the degree of confidence we have; it is possible, for example, to see if a term is supported consistently among different sources. We also used the Gene Ontology to create a new and flexible tool for the analysis of expression in different classes of biological processes from microarray experiments, and a new tool for data-mining that queries genes not based on textual searches (as most of the public databases do) or on sequence similarity searches, but based on “semantic” queries, i.e. queries based on the “type” of the gene.

Be aware that ontologies and their terms are not type systems and types; personally I think they are a starting point on which to build more formal and complete techniques. But this will be part of future work, maybe even my future work… :)

# Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Did you know...

...that there are (more than) 21 algorithms to compute the factorial of a number?
I discovered this fact today, while implementing the Fisher's exact test for a 2x2 contingency table.
(For those interested: Fisher's exact test for a 2x2 contingency table, like the more famous Chi-square test, is used for the analysis of categorical frequency data: its aim is to determine whether the two categorical variables are associated.
We use it to extract the most significant genes from a gene set experiment: the two categories are "clue present/clue absent", while the two data sets are the control set and the experiment set)
Fisher exact test requires the computation of 9 factorials for each iteration, and one of them is on the total. Typically, applets and code you can found on the internet can handle data up to a total of about 100-200 before giving up due to overflow problems. Even code that uses libraries for arithmetic with arbitrary precision can handle numbers up to 6000-12000 before becoming unsuable.

Here, we are facing two problems:
  • numbers (integers and doubles) provided by the machine (physichal CPU or VM) have a finite precision and extension
  • the simple and dumb algorithm (the one that performs all the multiplications) is very SLOW
The solution is to adopt a good library that handles multiplications of very large numbers in an efficient way (using Karatsuba multiplication or a FFT-based multiplication), and forget about the naive algorithm. At this page you can find implementations and benchmarks for the 21 different algorithms I mentioned. The most efficients use prime numbers (or, better, primorials, i.e. the multiplication of the n first primes), but even the simple and elegant Split Recursive performs a lot better than the naive algorithm!

Notable news

Some funny / useful things I found browsing last week:
  • From Brad Adams, .NET Framework 2.0 Poster
    It is the replication of the version 1.1 I found shipped with Visual Studio 2003; unfortunaltely the same poster wasn't in my Visual Studio 2005 box. Great!
  • selk'bag
    The SELK’BAG is a sleeping bag you wear. The entire bag fits like a glove. You can walk with it, sleep in a sit position.. I think it would be great to have one of these for my work place in summer: the ice-conditioning system makes our offices freezing cold!
  • TiwyFeeds
     "Take It With You" Feed Reader: the idea is great, the realization is poor..

    But I'd definitely love a feed reader 'a-la' gmail, where you can store all your feeds and news for an unlimited amount of time, with a searchable interface!
  • Krugle
    A search engine for developers: personally I use google + MSN desktop search (for code on my machine). But a tool tailored to developers is surely great! I'd like to have Visual Studio search and navigation facilities in a desktop serch application...


# Wednesday, April 19, 2006

User interfaces

There is a lot of hype around new user interfaces lately: the new Vista glass look, how it compares to the always improving Mac OSX interface, and the Linux response (Xgl).
These are all nice and eye candy evolutions of existing interfaces, though. Like I discussed in a previous post, and as Jeff Atwood frequently reports in his articles, there is a lot of room for UI improvement. Embedded and ubiquitous search is a key improvement in my opinion. But surely future interfaces will bring more interesting features, even without a radical shift of paradigm. In the last "In our time" column of IEEE Computer (March 2006), David Alan Grier talks about pervesive computing. The definition of pervasive computing dates back to 1991, and it is due to Mark Weiser. Mark wrote that "the most profound technologies are those that disappear", "weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life".
Mark war an engineer working at (guess where?) Xerox PARC. Exactly, the same lab where GUI as we know them today were born. 
He was aware of the importance of such ideas, but he also felt that they were incompatible with the idea of a pervasive computing environment. A windowing operating system, no matter how sophisticated, only makes "the computer screen a demanding focus of attention, it does not fade into the background".
I agree with him: where I work I often see people that are so focused on the screen to forget somehow they primary work. They are so focused on how, they forget what.

But is it really a defect of the window paradigm?
I don't think so. Especially after seeing "The Island". Take a look at this desktop environment:

do you see the computer? The operating system?
Maybe a closer look...

The desktop... is the desk. It is amazing to see it in action! Using some sort of mouse, the principal (The character with glasses) "throws" a window at Lincoln (the guy in white). Then Lincoln begins to draw, like on a sheet of paper on the desk. And when he finishes, he passes the window with the drawing back to the principal.
And there is no shift of paradigm. There are windows, and folders, and documents on a desk. A mouse to grab and move them. But the desktop IS the desk!

This is pervasive computing, for me. And I really want one of those desks... :)
# Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I am Windows 2000

This is ironic...

You are Windows 2000 SP3.  You're a steady and reliable friend.  People think you're all business, but with your recent therapy you've become a little more playful.
Which OS are You?

But I like Win2000 very much!
# Friday, March 24, 2006

Rotor 2.0!

Finally! From JasonZ through Brad Adams. I was waiting for it... I'm downloading it right now, and this week (if work premits me to do it) I'm going to digg into some new cool features, like anonimous methods and delegates (C# compiler) and Lightweight Code Generation (LCG - BCL).

# Monday, March 06, 2006

Security lesson no.6: .NET Security

Finally, we reached the last topic in our cycle of security lessons on software attacks: the security model of .NET. We will see how CAS work, what are evidences and strong names, etc. I'll also give an hint about the "weakest link" in this model.

NOTE: my assumptions were made for version 1.1 of the framework. Some things where updated in 2.0 (in particular, there are good news on how the new version cope with the "weakest link".. but I want to speak about this point more precisely in a future post, since the work I did on this topic allowed me to learn a lot about the .NET runtime/loader and the Windows loader as well!)

dotNETSecurity.ppt (619.5 KB)