Quick Tangent: Dumb Bots

So, there’s been so much talk about AI lately, and in particular, there’s a great deal of interest in bots. No, not the Mirai kind (which hopefully isn’t plentiful in the future, despite its Japanese translation). No, I’m talking about the friendly, enterprise kind. You know, the chatbots on Facebook that are supposed to be helpful snippets of AI, capable of booking hotel rooms for you. Of course, I don’t really understand the usefulness of these bots, since there’s no way that a bot could help me find the ideal room faster than my own investigation. In fact, they seem kinda…well…dumb. But these bots are probably not aimed at a self-appointed pariah of social media like myself. Instead, it’s probably meant for those people who are younger (i.e., millenials) and who are more predictable (troves of available marketing data via Facebook, less variety of purchases, etc.). In that case, I suppose that it’s useful for some but not for myself…or is it?

Similar to my reaction to chatbots, I never quite understood the newfound love for Slack. It’s a messenger app…so what? However, as I started to delve more into it, I started to understand its appeal through its extensible functionality, especially to developers. I can create a simple bot (or a basic web service) on my public-facing servers, so I can use Slack to talk with it on my phone and get the status of machines and processes? Okay…that’s kinda cool. (Assuming that your company and networking department embraces the idea of allocating machines just for this purpose. Trust me, I know…that can be a hard sell.) So, maybe, must maybe, I could be down with these chatbots. That way I could use Slack (or Skype) and be hip like the cool kids!

Hmmm…so how I could I actually pitch this one to the brass? Curious, I looked to see if there was already an enterprise version of such a solution, and though I did find one or two, they seemed to be costly and less flexible than desired. So why not just build one cheaply on my own? Since I recently read something about Microsoft’s nascent bot framework and its integration with Skype, I figured that I could start there as a quick way to prototype. After proceeding through a few quick tutorials, it became obvious that a chatbot is nothing more than a tailored RESTful web service, and with that realization, I quickly assembled and got working the prototype that I had in mind.

However, over the next few weeks, I started to realize that it wasn’t viable. One, since this framework is too young to even stand on its own wobbly legs, Microsoft keeps updating the framework and breaking my stable prototypes. As with previous experiences when dealing with a Microsoft gestation, I wondered again if Redmond’s new projects (along with their frenetic and seemingly bipolar updates) are victims of Conway’s Law…Two, I read about how Skype does not and will not support third-party bots that are not publicly registered in their Bot Directory. I’m fairly sure nearly all of the company brass would have a problem with a publicly available chatbot that tells the status of our internal servers. Just a hunch.

After taking a quick look at other platforms, I came away with similar impressions. In the end, I’d say that chatbots are like a lot of new tech these days: lots of potential but some distance away from ultimately being practical.

Good Company Is Always Welcome

Over at The Outline, Adrianne Jeffries has written a piece about the all-too-common banality of the interview process for software developers and engineers. You know the drill: invoke bubble sort from memory, balance this binary tree, etc. You know, all of that stuff from college that you did once and never repeated in your career.

Well, as it turns out, there appears to be a growing movement of developers on Twitter addressing and ridiculing that very subject (including notables like David Heinemeier Hansson). I’ve heard a few humorous stories from friends who have undergone that very process with Google and Amazon (though with no serious intentions of working for them); the most amusing anecdotes come from those who have challenged the interview process, getting only confusion and irritation from the interviewer in response.

In any case, after holding the same viewpoint for years, it’s good to know about the multitudes who are on the same page. Hopefully, all this press will create a different mindset, ushering in a new era for the interview process…

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Quick Tangent : XML Schema Evolution

So, after my last post, I got curious: is there any software out there that performs XML schema evolution, even if it’s proprietary? Oddly, after searching for a few minutes, the answer “no” seemed to be coming back from the web. Now, Oracle and IBM do offer a service to update your current XML documents according to a new schema…but only if it doesn’t invalidate the old schema. Basically, their “evolution” functionality allows you to further refine your schema’s rules, like changing the maximum/minimum of a tag’s occurrence or adding a new required tag. That’s hardly any sort of evolution; it doesn’t even provide the ability to automatically rename tags/properties like Avro! So, the claims of Oracle and IBM might be more marketing than engineering.

But I guess that marketing and buzzwords are all too normal in software…After all, whoever coined the term string interpolation definitely took some severe liberties, since it’s sure a long way off from real interpolation. In any case, there seems to be an opening for a niche market here, one which could be somewhat lucrative. However, these days, all the big bets of towering chips are on the table of machine learning, big data, and AI. In the eyes of the major league, anything that deals with XML (i.e., old-school data processing) should go play the slot machines.

Good for me…I don’t mind being stuck alone in a dark corner! Reminds me of playing Street Fighter 2 by myself in the back of a pizza parlor and having a blast…In any case, I was looking for tools that could help build an engine for XML schema evolution. Interestingly, I found an open source project by Dmitry Pekar that can convert both ways between XML and Avro. That could help by extending the functionality already in Avro…but besides the simple renaming of tags/properties, it doesn’t satisfy my proposed requirements. (Plus, your distributed architecture would have to ultimately use Avro, which would be a refactoring headache in some instances.) I haven’t found anything else yet, which makes me suspect that my handcrafted MDD approach might be the only viable option.

Quick Tangent: An Open Standard for Indoor Navigation

“Since when did this blog become solely about indoor navigation? I thought that this thing was supposed to be about metadata?” Well…I can’t argue with you. I need to get back into that at some point.

In any case, after sampling different platforms for indoor navigation, I’ve come to notice something: there is no open source standard for indoor navigation yet. Of course, there is much discussion about indoor navigation within the gaming industry, especially within the community for Google’s Project Tango…but there isn’t as much talk when it comes to API standards. Considering that open source standards seem to be falling from the sky in the last few years (for cloud computing, for automobiles, etc.), it seems fitting that one of the bigger players (like Indoor Atlas or Estimote) should take this opportunity to lead the way with an open standard. As IoT invades our lives, indoor navigation will probably become more prevalent, and more development standards would be beneficial to the industry. (Of course, these Northern Europeans are probably too busy slugging it out, since that’s part of the travails of being a startup company.) I suppose another unmentioned company could also take this lead, but I’ve found that many are not as developer-friendly as Indoor Atlas and Estimote; most require any interested parties to fill out an application before even allowing access to their documentation.

Now, it wouldn’t have to be an all-encompassing standard, but it should probably take into account each of the strengths in the current set of available platforms. In addition to the practice of emulating Apple’s Location Manager (which they all seem to do in their iOS SDKs), an open standard could include interface methods for functionality like:

  • The ability to overlay the indoor navigation map over an actual world map (which is offered by Indoor Atlas).
  • The ability to generate a map of the indoor space dynamically (which is offered by Estimote).
  • The ability to raise a signal (email, text, etc.) when someone enters the navigable area (which is offered by both Indoor Atlas and Estimote).
  • The ability to generate an account with the vendor’s services programmatically (which I could see as being helpful to developers who want to incorporate these services into their own products).

Maybe I’ll create a sample and upload it to Github in the near future, as a more verbose example.

On a side note to this new standard, we can leave out some of those confusing and misspelled messages that are generated by Apple’s Location Manager. Who comes up with these things?

The Game that Could Be

Oh, I had such lofty aspirations when I came up with the idea for a haunted house game. I had been so sure that there was an existing technology whose SDK would fit my plan…and, at this point, maybe there is!

So, having found an indoor navigation system that didn’t require the purchase of peripheral beacons, I decided to actually give it a try (though, due to past experience, I didn’t get my hopes up). So, I followed their tutorial’s advice, and I constructed a map image of my home. I created the map to scale, in order to achieve optimum results. After I uploaded the plan to my Indoor Atlas account, I then proceeded to follow the next step: using their tracker app, I did two walkthroughs of my house, hitting over a dozen waypoints with various permutations of edges. (After all, you’re creating a directed graph for them.) With some assistance from the helpful people at Indoor Atlas, I got my settings and floor plan to be exactly as I needed them to be. Thanks Elina!

Since they didn’t have an app that helped demonstrate the power of their SDK, I sought an open source project that helped to showcase their tech, and after poking around a bit, I eventually found one. I pulled the project, and after making a few corrections and downloading the right parts (updates from Apple, Homebrew packages, required Cocoapods, etc.), I was able to compile and deploy the project to my iPad. (I have to admit that I love how XCode offers to fix your code when certain methods have been deprecated or renamed. I wish that other IDEs offered the same service.)

When I ran the demo, it did load my map image, and I was able to navigate around my place with the demo project in hand. Finally…I had achieved some form of success! Now that I had a feasible technology stack as a solution, I could reflect on this platform as a possible choice:

Pros:

  • The indoor-navigation functionality works well, even though it’s sometimes inaccurate in more confined spaces and smaller rooms.
  • The SDK is fairly easy to understand and integrate into your project.

Cons:

  • In order to integrate their tech stack into your project, there is an investment required, especially for any potential user of your product (generating a scaled map image, walking through your place, etc).
  • Your potential product will require the user to create an account with Indoor Atlas.

In the end, I’m not exactly sure if this particular solution is a best fit…but any potential is good news to me. I’ll have to play with it a bit more in order to find out.