Posts Tagged ‘berlin’

Through The (Boutique Hotel) Window

There are many things I’ve learnt through staying in hotels in Berlin. Firstly and most importantly, I miss my family terribly. Secondly, whenever you see a hotel described as boutique it seems to mean interesting interior design that you might like to see in a magazine but which you probably wouldn’t want to live with and bathrooms where the key feature seems to be that they don’t need walls and you can literally roll out of your bed and straight into the shower; literally and hopefully not by accident. Thirdly, I never seem to tire of the sight of Berlin’s Fernsehturm or TV Tower.

This week I’m staying in the Arcotel Velvet, a self proclaimed boutique hotel. Interesting interior design? Check. Floor to ceiling panoramic windows? Check. Wall-less bathroom? Thankfully not.

But it does have a balcony with a view of the Fernsehturm and the Berliner Dom, which looks rather fine in the early dawn. I still miss my family though.

Written and posted from Nokia House Berlin, Invalidenstraße, Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

WordPress Shortcodes; Documenting The Undocumentable

WordPress shortcodes. A great idea. Small snippets of text with a special meaning, enclosed in left and right angle brackets. Put one of these in a WordPress post or page and WordPress automagically expands the shortcode and replaces it with the thing that the shortcode does.

WordPress has a built-in set of shortcodes and many plugins add to this repertoire, adding one or more of their own shortcodes. But here’s the problem. Shortcodes are meant to be expanded and in 99.999% of cases, that’s just what you want to do. But what happens if you’re one of those 0.001%; you’ve written a plugin that adds a shortcode and you want to document it. You can’t just write the shortcode in a post as WordPress will go ahead and expand it for you.

You could take the time and effort to replace the [ and ] characters which surround a shortcode, writing something like [shortcode], which is exactly what I’ve been doing since I released the first version of WP Biographia. But this is a long and laborious process. Frankly, it’s boring and a pain in the backside.

But then I noticed a crucial phrase in the documentation for the WordPress Shortcode API

The shortcode parser uses a single pass on the post content. This means that if the $content parameter of a shortcode handler contains another shortcode, it won’t be parsed

… in other words, if you put one shortcode inside another shortcode, the shortcode inside won’t be automagically expanded by WordPress for you. Which is exactly what I wanted to stop me from constantly having to write posts using the HTML entities for [ and ].

So, despite the irony inherent in writing a plugin to stop the shortcode from another plugin working, I hacked together WP Shortcode Shield. As far as plugins go, it doesn’t really do much, it just defines two shortcodes, one called [wp_scs] and a slightly more long-winded one called [wp_shortcode_shield] which allows me to wrap references to other shortcodes in a post without WordPress doing what it’s supposed to do, but which I don’t want it to do.

Which means I can write this post … without having to worry about WordPress shortcodes. Of course, this feature of the WordPress shortcode API may well be fixed at some point, in which case WP Shortcode Shield will promptly stop working, but for now, it does the job. As with all of the other plugins for WordPress I’ve written, it’s sitting in the WordPress Plugin Repository right now, as well as living on GitHub.

Photo Credits: Erik Hersman on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Hilton Berlin Hotel, Berlin (52.51191, 13.3926)

Smart Phone. Clumsy User

I have learnt four things over the past year or so.

One. The iPhone 3′s glass was scratch resistant but not dropping-onto-a-stone-floor resistant.

Two. I am clumsy.

I Think I Need A New iPhone. Bugger

Three. The iPhone 4′s glass was scratch resistant but not dropping-onto-a-pavement resistant.

Four. I am still clumsy.

FFS. Not Again!

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

At The Airport, Not All QR Codes Are Created Equal

Another day, another flight, another addition to the ever growing and increasingly arcane number of steps that you need to go through in order to get through an airport and actually take off on a plane. I’ve written before on the world of airport security, be it having your bags X-Rayed or searched and on engaging flight-safe mode on your mobile phone/tablet/e-book reader/laptop.

Last week, flying from London Heathrow to Berlin’s Tegel airport I found a new addition to the increasingly detached-from-reality world of airline security … the electronic boarding pass. In principle, the electronic boarding pass is a great idea. First introduced in 1999 by Alaska Airways, checking into your flight online and putting a QR code on a graphic of your boarding pass cuts down queueing and waiting at the airport. Some airlines either send you the boarding pass as an SMS message, as an email attachment or as a time limited web URL. Some airlines provide an app on your phone; British Airways falls into this category and their app covers Windows Phone 7, iOS, Android and Blackberry.

With this in mind, consider the following electronic boarding pass, taken from last week’s flight.

Berlin Boarding Pass - Original

This boarding pass gets checked three times between the time I arrive at the airport and the time my posterior makes contact with seat 11C. The first time is at security when the QR code gets scanned; if the QR code is valid, I’m granted access to the airside part of the terminal at Heathrow, but my passport isn’t checked so as long as the QR code says it’s valid, I’m through. The second time is at the gate. Again, the QR code is scanned and this time it’s cross checked with my passport; so not only is the boarding pass valid, but I can prove that the name on my passport and the name on the boarding pass matches. The third and final time, is when I actually board the plane and the cabin crew visually check that the boarding pass is actually for that flight.

Now consider this version of the boarding pass. The QR code is able to be scanned and it contains exactly the same information as the previous one. It will get me through the first two boarding pass checks but apparently it won’t allow me onto the aircraft. Why? When boarding last week’s flight the member of the cabin crew who checked my boarding pass told me she needed to “scroll your phone” and “check that your boarding pass isn’t a photo“. the underlying assertion here being that if I wasn’t using a boarding pass on BA’s own mobile app, I couldn’t board the flight.

Berlin Boarding Pass - Copy

If your eyes are crossing from concentration at this point, you’re not alone. I still haven’t been able to comprehend what the difference is between a valid QR code, which is itself a graphic image, in BA’s mobile app and a screen shot of the QR code, which is, err, a graphic image. I have an even harder time comprehending how this makes the theatre of airline security any safer for me or for my fellow passengers.

Written and posted from Theresa Avenue, Campbell, California (37.2654, -121.9643)

Farewell Ovi Maps, Hello Nokia Maps (On iOS And Android Too)

In May of this year, Nokia announced the retirement of the Ovi brand and the observant map watchers amongst you may have noticed that pointing your browser of choice at maps.ovi.com now automagically redirects you to the new, shiny maps.nokia.com.

What you may not have noticed is that Nokia maps doesn’t just work on your desktop or laptop web browser or on Nokia smartphones, as Electric Pig nicely pointed out, Nokia has invaded the iPhone too. Point your iPhone or iPad at the Nokia Maps for Mobile Web at m.maps.nokia.com and you’ll see something like this …

Nokia Maps on iOS

… a fully featured version of Nokia Maps that does search, satellite views, GPS and location fixes, navigation, even public transport and, of course …

Nokia Places on iOS

… places. And it’s not just iOS devices that the new Mobile Web maps supports, Android users can have this too as can Blackberry users.

Nokia Maps on Android

That’s not just geo-tastic, it’s geo-egalitarian.

Written and posted from theRadisson Blu hotel, Berlin (52.519648, 13.40258)

WP Biographia In The Real World

It’s been almost a month since I released the first version of WP Biographia and in that time, according to the stats on the WordPress plugin page, it’s been downloaded 212 times. That’s rather gratifying. Several people have also emailed me to tell me that they’re using the plugin. That’s even more gratifying.

But despite its simplicity, a typical WordPress install is almost infinitely customisable and so is almost never what’s supplied in the installation download. People add in plugins, widgets and themes. This blog alone has 18 active plugins and a custom theme. While the plugins, widgets and themes should all play nicely together, sometimes there’s strange and unforeseen side effects; here’s two that have come to light over the first month of WP Biographia in the real world and not in the safe, sand-boxed environment of my blog.

Firstly there’s a CSS clash between WP Biographia and the WPtouch plugin, which displays a mobile optimised version of WordPress when visiting the site on a smartphone browser. The combination of the default options for WPtouch sometimes messes slightly with the CSS for the Biography Box as can be seen below.

WPtouch - Restricted Mode Off

This is something I’ll have to look into in more detail, but for now, the workaround is to enable WPtouch restricted mode; once that’s done, the CSS reverts to how it should look.

WPtouch - Restricted Mode On

Another interesting oddity is when running WP Biographia with the Biography Box configured to be displayed on Archive pages. Some themes display this fine, but for other themes the Biography Box never appears. Each time I’ve seen this it turns out to be down to the way in which the theme renders the archive page. If the theme’s archive.php uses the_content() as part of the WordPress Loop then the Biography Box appears as it should, but if the theme uses the_excerpt() as part of the Loop, then either the first 55 characters of the post or the post’s specific excerpt will be displayed. As WP Biographia appends the Biography Box to the end of each post’s content, themes which use the_excerpt() will, sadly, never display as intended when used with WP Biographia. Thankfully, this is less a shortcoming of the plugin or of the theme, it’s simply the way in which WordPress handles post excerpts.

All of this will appear in the FAQ section of the plugin’s README on the next release, which should, if I manage to write it, make the Biography Box available as a sidebar widget as well.

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

iOS Location Caching Round-up – Conspiracy Theories: 0, Smart Location Caching: 1

More a meta post, or what Kuro5hin would have called MLP (meaningless link propagation), this post started out as a comment to one of my previous posts on the iOS location caching controversy but soon expanded way beyond a comment into a full blown post.

Firstly, let’s get the conspiracy theory out of the way; this theory has been presented in a variety of ways but all of them seem to think that your iOS device is tracking your location and that the reason for this is some shadowy request from government or intelligence agencies. Perhaps the most eloquent case for this was on Frank Reiger’s blog.

Now I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person and Frank’s blog post was a great read. But I have to take issue with the two main points he raises. Firstly there’s “if it was a bug then it would have been fixed … it hasn’t been fixed so it can’t be a bug and must therefore be deliberate“. Secondly there’s “not only has the bug not been fixed but the file even moved location without being fixed so it must be (even more) deliberate“.

Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories

I’ve worked in the software industry for almost 25 years, many of those cutting code, and can say with hand on heart that bugs, oddities and plain wrong behaviour stay in code bases not because they don’t need to be fixed but because other factors push them down in the priority list, factors such as hard release dates, new features taking precedence and the ill defined side effects of complex software systems not being able to be fully QA’d. Just because a bug or an unforeseen side effect remains in a production code base does not make a conspiracy theory of government or intelligence agency intervention.

We also live in a world of distributed software development teams. It’s enough of a challenge to keep teams in different floors of the same building in synch; it’s even more difficult when language, time zones and different countries get into the mix. Just because the consolidated.db cache moved location again, does not make a conspiracy theory.

So all in all, nice post, great conspiracy theory but, sadly, very little to back up the assertions.

But if your iOS device is tracking or caching your location, why is the data so inaccurate in places, showing places you’re pretty sure you haven’t been or have visited only fleetingly, yet not showing places you’d think would show up, such as where you live or work?

For the answer to these questions, I’d recommend a thorough reading of Peter Batty’s excellent three posts on the topic, which actually digs into the data that is present on iOS devices, rather than making shrill conspiracy theories based on other, equally shrill, media headlines.

Peter’s posts, “So actually, Apple isn’t recording your (accurate) iPhone location“, “More on Apple recording your iPhone location history” and “The scoop: Apple’s iPhone is NOT storing your accurate location and NOT storing history” go into great detail about what the consolidated.db location data cache does contain and, more importantly, what it doesn’t.

An anonymous comment on one of Peter’s posts points to a document submitted by Apple to US Congress in July 2010, which includes the following

When a customer requests current location information … Apple will retrieve known locations for nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points from its proprietary database and transmit the data back to the device … The device uses the information, along with GPS coordinates (if available), to determine its actual location. Information about the device’s location is not transmitted to Apple, Skyhook or Google. Nor is it transmitted to any third-party application provider, unless the customer expressly consents

Another comment from Jude on one of Peter’s posts makes this observation …

My Guess?

It’s not a list of cell phone locations that you’ve been to, but the opposite, a list of cell phone locations near you downloaded to the iPhone from Apple in case you move into range of one of them. i.e. At a guess what is happening is location services identifies a cell tower and asks for its location, and is replied to with the list of locations that contains that cell tower, that list is then cached so that it does not need to be requested again.

Of course, this is only a guess based on the wide range of addresses people are seeing and how its near to, but not exactly where, the people have traveled.

So rather than iOS actively and accurately tracking you and reporting this information to some, unspecified, intelligence agency it’s actually the complete opposite; your device is actively downloading the next cell tower and, in some cases, wifi information that is near you and where you might be going to provide a better location experience. Which explains the inaccuracy of the locations people have been seeing in their version of the cache data and explains why there’s some places they haven’t been showing up in the data and why places they have been aren’t showing up.

hat Fool Columbus Hasn't Got GPS

Of course, this information still has personal value and should really be secured by iOS and not by an individual having to secure their handset and encrypt their backups but if anyone still thinks they see the black helicopters circling, it looks more and more unlikely and, as Ed Parsons pointed out, a smartphone without location just isn’t … smart.

Photo Credits: Álvaro Ibáñez and Tom Jervis on Flickr.
Written at home (51.427051, -0.333344) and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

Communicating To The Communicators (At The CIPR Social Media Conference)

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my comfort zones when it comes to speaking at conferences. If there’s maps, geography or location involved, however tenuous the connection, I’m well within my comfort zone. But speaking to a room full of seasoned communicators, such as Public Relations professionals? That’s way outside of my comfort zone.

Nonetheless, on Monday of this week I found myself at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, in London’s Russell Square, at the CIPR Social Media Conference 2011, allegedly talking about something called The Smartphone Web, to just such a room full of seasoned communicators.

Smartphones Are Always With Us

I say allegedly talking about The Smartphone Web, as that was the theme and title that the conference organizers asked me to opine on. But as is so often the case, when I sat down to start to write the talk, it morphed into something slightly different.

There’s been a meteoric proliferation in social media over the last few years, driven not only by increased awareness and availability of social networks but also by the increasing use of smartphones and the sensors that these devices have built into them. Whereas before, social networking was chiefly about sharing thoughts, comments, views and links, social networking now also allows the sharing of photos and videos, the sharing of location and checking-in to locations. You’ll note that I cunningly managed to work location in there, thus retreating ever so slightly to my comfort zone. And so it was that what started out as The Smartphone Web, ended up as The (Geo) (Mobile) (Smart) Social Web.

After a brief introduction and displaying my own set of social media credentials, I looked at the history of social media, of smartphones, of the sensors within these devices and of the convergence of all of these factors into the social media experience we now know and use on a daily basis.

As so many times in the past, writing this talk was an education in itself, and my initial assumptions that social networking and media was a relatively recent, post Web 2.0 bubble, phenomenon, were quickly disabused as I traced the forebears of today’s social web as far back as the late 1960′s when CompuServe was founded.

I also touched on some of the side effects of today’s social web; how social media accounts have become the single-sign-on for lots of online services, bypassing contenders such as OpenID and how you can build web presences entirely from existing social media content with a few simple lines of PHP code. How social media acts not only as a social broadcast medium but also a social conversation medium. How our own social media interactions can form a valuable aide memoire (where was that bar we went to two weeks ago?) and provide insights into our own lives.

I finished the talk with a brief look to the future; how the next billion people getting online are predicted to do so via a phone and not via a laptop or desktop computer and how social media has drawn attention to some of recent time’s tumultuous events, such as recent natural disasters and events in the Middle East.

Due to pressures of work I wasn’t able to attend the entirety of the one day conference but was lucky enough to arrive in time to see Euan Semple give a fascinating (and at times highly amusing) talk on What Wikileaks Has Taught Us About The Web. I’ve always liked reading Euan’s Twitter stream and to finally meet a social media contact face-to-face was a great way of rounding the day off.

Photo Credits: Lily Monster on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

The Missing Manual For OpenStreetMap?

The first computer I used at work was powerful for its day (though pitifully underpowered compared to the phone that’s sitting in my pocket at the moment) but was somewhat unfriendly by today’s standards. You sat down at a terminal (not a PC, they hadn’t been invented) and were presented with a command line prompt that said “Username:“, pass that barrier to entry and it said “Password:“. Armed with the right combination of username and password you would be rewarded with a flashing cursor preceded by a dollar sign as a prompt … $. If you wanted help you couldn’t browse the web (it hadn’t been invented) nor ask in a mailing list (the Internet was in its early days and you probably didn’t have access). Instead you consulted the big, heavy, ring bound, bright orange documentation set; these were the heady days of DEC and VAX/VMS.

The computer I’m writing this on still needs a username and password but is easy to use, graphical, intuitive and comes with multiple web sites, discussion and documentation sites and mailing lists to ask questions in. But to get the most of today’s computers you still need a book sometimes, which is why David Pogue’s Mac OS X: The Missing Manual is still one of the most well thumbed books I have, 8 years and multiple editions later. There’s a version for Windows too.

So what does this have to do with OpenStreetMap? Bear with me … there are parallels to be drawn.

OpenStreetMap Book Cover

OpenStreetMap is easy to use, graphical (on the website), comes with multiple discussion and documentation sites and well supported mailing lists; you can always find the answer to your question. But sometimes you don’t know what the question is. Sometimes you just want to read a book.

OpenStreetMap: Using and Enhancing The Free Map Of The World is that book … consider it the Missing Manual if you will.

Originally written in German by mailing list stalwarts Frederik Ramm and Jochen Topf in 2008 (names which will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on the OSM mailing lists), the book was translated into English with Steve Chilton (chair of the UK’s Society of Cartographers) towards the end of 2010. A translation would be impressive enough but the English version also comes with expanded sections and all of the content, examples and illustrations have been revisited, revised and updated.

Whether you’re an OSM expert or you just want to see how one of the largest voluntary, crowd sourced projects on the face of the Internet works this is a worthy and valuable addition to your bookshelf. While no OSM expert I considered myself fairly well versed in how to use OpenStreetMap. Reading the book was a salient lesson on just how much I didn’t know; the section on GPS was an education in itself.

The book also provides a well written and easy to understand explanation of what you can and what you can’t do with OSM’s wealth of geographic data and answers so many of the questions on data licensing that crop up again and again in conversations around OSM and on the mailing lists.

As a written work, the OpenStreetMap book works on multiple levels. You can dip into it, select the parts that interest you, get distracted by reading about stuff you didn’t think you’d want to know or you can read it from cover to cover.

  • If you want to contribute data to OpenStreetMap … this is the book for you
  • If you want to use OpenStreetMap data to create maps … this is the book for you
  • If you want to integrate OpenStreetMap data into a web site … this is the book for you
  • If you consider yourself as a fully paid up geo nerd who lives and breathes open data … this is the book for you. No … really

One final thought; the old adage about the Internet being an information hose pipe holds true where OpenStreetMap is concerned. The volume of information and data is simply staggering. You can find your way through all of this information by yourself. Or you can just read a well written, well thought out book instead. Even in today’s online world there’s still a place for the feeling you get from holding a book in your hands and leafing back and forwards through the pages. My copy of this book is still reasonably pristine, despite being hauled on and off planes and read from cover to cover. I can’t guarantee it’ll stay that way for long.

Written and posted from theRadisson Blu hotel, Berlin (52.519648, 13.40258)

Putting The Tube On The Grid; A Geeked Out Cartographical Recipe

Here’s a simple, cut-out-and-keep recipe for making a very geeked out update on a cartographical classic. First, take a classic and iconic map which appeals to both the map geek in you as well as the Tube geek in you. Harry Beck’s 1931 reworking of the map of the London Underground system will do nicely.

Old School Tube

Next, take a classic, 1980′s movie which appeals to both the scifi fan and the computer nerd in you and classifies as a guilty pleasure as an added bonus. Disney’s 1981 Tron fits the bill here.

Tron Poster

Add the ingredients, mix well and serve. The end results might just look like Kevin Flynn’s version of the London Underground network on The Grid.

Tron - Tube Map

To paraphrase Kevin Flynn (the Tron character not the artist) … “Who’s that guy?“, “That’s Tron. He fights for the Tube Users“.

Photo Credits: thehutch on Flickr and Kevin Flynn on Deviant Art.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)