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NOTE TO TOOL OWNERS: In this blog I will occasionally make statements about products that you will take exception to. My intent is to always be factual and accurate. If I have made a statement that you consider to be incorrect or innaccurate, please bring it to my attention and, once I have verified my error, I will post the appropriate correction.

And before you get too exercised, please read the post, date 9 Feb 2006, titled "All Tools Suck".

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

FASB ASC U.S. GAAP DITA Application Is Live

[How many initialisms can I get in one post title?]

For the last year or so I've been working as part of a larger team at the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), helping with the implementation of a DITA-based system to support authoring and delivery of the newly-codified U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the Accounting Stanards Codification (ASC).

I contributed design of the DITA topic and map specializations used for the codified content and also implemented automated data conversion from an earlier XML format used in the initial codification editorial process.

The live Web site is here:

I've posted some details about the project on the Really Strategies blog:

Update: I should have mentioned (but wasn't 100% sure of the details) that the CMS system was built on the empolis e:CLS product and the Web delivery platform uses the empolis e:IAS search platform. The empolis Web site is I was not personally involved with that aspect of the system and was not involved with FASB's technology selection process (I was brought onto the project after they had selected their core techology). The system integration and development work was done by Ovitas, empolis' chief North American integrator.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

I For One Welcome Our Cleaning Robot Overlords

As long as they keep the house clean.

My main gift this holiday season was a new Roomba 560 floor cleaning robot. This brings the cleaning robot population of Chez Kimber/Woods to 3, including our original Roomba 300 series and the Scooba.

I wanted the new Roomba because I found that, with a two-story house, it was just inconvenient enough to move the one roomba between floors that I was less likely to go to the trouble to run it at all. We also found that the 300 series couldn't really deal with the area rug in our livingroom (we have concrete floors with one big run in the livingroom) and that the noise of running it on the concrete floors was just a little too annoying. So in short, the robot was underused and the house tended to be not as clean as we would like (but couldn't actually be bothered to clean ourselves, not being what you would call obsessive house cleaners).

The 500 series promised to address all those problems with improved tolerance of things that would stop the 300 series (such as cords, furniture it tended to get trapped under, and the edge of the rug), reduced noise levels, and more effective capturing of pet hair (the 300 tended to just push around big clots of pet hair rather than sucking it up).

So far I have been very pleased with the 500 series--if anything it exceeded my expectations. It is significantly quieter, handles the rug just fine, doesn't get trapped where the 300 did (we have one big sideboard with these decorative bits at the base that the 300 would tend to get wedged under, the 500 never does) and seems to have a longer battery life.

So now the old 300 lives upstairs where it can focus on keeping our master bedroom clean and the 500 takes care of the downstairs.

As I said in my report on the original Roomba, these are amazingly well-engineered products that can serve as models and inspirations for all of us that build things for other people to use. Compared to the 300 the 500 is not signficantly different but there are a number of minor but important refinements that add up to a much improved user experience, from the simplified controls (got rid of one button that wasn't of much use) to the better brushes to the easier-to-empty dirt chamber. And all at a reasonable price.

And it makes cleaning the house fun.

Loopwing Wind Generator

One of my best Christmas gifts this year was this model of a loopwing wind generator from Tamiya (

I was unaware of this particular wind generation technology but it seems quite intriguing in that it claims to be better able to extract energy from light winds and takes less vertical space (and presumably is less dangerous to birds) than straight-wing wind turbines. This means you could have one on your house in your back yard and maybe not put the entire neighborhood in danger or violate local noise ordinances.

The kit itself went together quite quickly, the hardest part being cutting out the wings themselves, which actually required a little skill and care rather than just screwing the parts together (there's no gluing or anything).

The turbine drives a generator that then charges a little model car that plugs onto the top of the generator body. The energy is collected in a super capacitor that can then run the car for about 3 minutes on a full charge.

The connector to the car appears to be standard connector so it ought to be easy to build other things that can charged. I was thinking a little LED display that indicates the level of output or something or maybe something decorative. It would certainly be easy to adapt it to charging solarengine BEAM robots.

The generator doesn't swivel to face the wind but it would easy enough to mount it on a turntable with a wind vane if you really cared. I've got it mounted on a pipe that rises to about 5 feet and stands where the north side of our house forms a little wind tunnel that catches the northwest wind that tends to blow this time of year.

I find the prospect of having a home-sized loopwing generator interesting. We already have a 3K watt PV system on our house--it couldn't be that hard to add in the output from a small turbine, such as described here:

Where we are in Central Texas we have a pretty reliable 5-10 MPH breeze most of the time and quite often stronger winds, especially in the spring and fall.

I think this year will start to see some interesting developments in alternative energy generation. Austin will be home to a new thin-film solar cell factory and is already home to a company trying to make high-capacity capacitors usable in electric vehicles. Taken together those technologies could make electric and solar-electric vehicles much more attractive in cost and range, not to mention the possibilities for home energy.

For example, imagine having a bank of capacitors that could provide the same power output as the little gas motors in all the three-wheel taxis in all of Asia and that can fit in the space currently used by the fuel tanks those vehicles carry (or otherwise fitted into available space).

Now imagine putting low-cost, flexible solar panels on the top of each of those three-wheels (they all have some sort of canopy on them) as well as on taxi stand shelters scattered around a typical Asian city. If most of those three-wheelers spend most of their time waiting for a fare, it seems reasonable to think that they could be mostly or entirely charged by their solar panels, taking from the main grid or a taxi-stand battery or capacitor bank only during peak times (e.g., morning and evening rush hour). Or maybe they could use one of those small fuel cells the Japanese are selling for home power use for peak-time charging where the grid is not reliable (or where natural gas is inexpensive).

The effect of such a change would be dramatic: a significant source of air polution would be eliminated, the need for fossil fuel would be significantly reduced in a part of the world where oil demand is rising much too sharply, and the operating cost of the taxis themselves would be reduced (assuming both that electricity costs per kilometer would be lower than fuel costs and that much of the operating energy would be from the vehicles' own solar panels).

With current battery technology, batteries could never be used to realize this vision: they're too expensive and too toxic and have too little energy capacity. But capacitors, if the current claims of orders of magnitude improved capacity prove out, could, because they have both a much higher energy density and lower toxicity (at least I assume they do) and they can charge very quickly, meaning that a taxi could do a 15 or 20 minute fare and then recharge in minutes at a recharging station or charge over say an hour using its own solar cells. That means a three-wheel taxi doesn't need to carry as much on-board energy capacity as it would for a battery solution.

Assuming the technology were there, what would it cost to, for example, provide a retrofit kit to every tuk-tuk operator in, for example, the Philippines? It would be several hundred million dollars at least (e.g., say $500.00 per vehicle) and as difficult to administer fairly and efficiently as any other aid project, but I would think that there would be lots of incentive from many parties to make something like that happen. And once the local population got used to the technology and had access to spares and second-hand parts so forth, the technology would be applied in many other creative ways. And at some point you'd hope it would be good enough to, for example, allow Philippine jeepneys to be retrofitted for electric power.

And cities like Manila and Columbo and New Deli would be much much quieter, with all those two-cycle motors replaced with electric drives.

Of course, the possibilities for other transforming uses of low-cost, physically flexible (that is, bendable) solar panels in developing and third-world countries are quite exciting. It will be interesting to see how the technology develops in terms of its economics and manufacturing environmental costs.

While there's no obvious direct connection between XML and alternative energy we, as an industry and as a society of large-scale computer system users are starting to realize that the collective cost of computing equipment does represent a significant fraction of our total societal energy draw. So the degree to which a technology like XML enables more people to do more with system, the greater the power such use will draw.

As a I write this, I'm sitting in a room with three computers running, drawing a couple hundred watts, as well as using Google and Yahoo, backed by massive data centers drawing terawatts of largely coal-produced electricity (except for those data centers built in Central Washington to take advantage of the cheap hydropower provided by salmon-habitat-destroying dams on the Columbia river and its tributaries). I'd feel a little better about that if I could at least make my urban house electricity self sufficient without spending too much more than I already have on alternative energy systems that make little economic sense under current U.S., Texas, and Austin energy policy (in particular, that, unlike Europe, utilities can buy back excess power at a steep discount from market rates, making the payback on my solar PV system 15 years or more *after* having half the initial cost rebated by the city and federal tax credits). Obviously we did it because we felt it was the right thing do and we could afford it, not because we had any financial incentive to do so).

Anyway, that's a long way from a cool toy that I got for Christmas....