Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Ideas on the edge of consciousness

I've been having the frustrating feeling over the past couple of days that I'm on the verge of having a great idea. It's as if I would have an amazing insight if only I could figure out what I should be thinking about. There are some bits and pieces of ideas floating around, and I'm diligently keeping track of them, but no pattern or eureka is forthcoming. Maybe I need to give it a few more days yet, or maybe I'm just feeling a bit bored recently. Who knows?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I do think of something profound, I'll be sure to post it here.
PPS - It's the best place for it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Faking focus

I'm a kind of restless guy sometimes. I fidget. I don't sit still at my desk all day - I'm up and down all the time, walking here and there to do some thinking. So if I need to sit down and focus on something, it's tough. A trick I've discovered recently is to take my shoes off. Because I don't want to walk around the office in bare feet, this increases the cost of leaving my desk and makes sure that I have a very good reason if I have to leave. This wouldn't work if I didn't care about going barefoot. Or if I had some slip-on sandals in easy reach.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Wearing slippers around the office might not be a great career move.
PPS - But I guess you never know until you try.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Parent-teacher social networking

If parents and teachers are connected on social networking websites, they can be in touch all the time about their child's behaviour and progress. This can eliminate the need for yearly parent teacher conferences, instead spreading those interactions out over time. It can also serve as a way for parents to deliver sick notes to teachers, as long as they keep their accounts secure from the students in question.

The caveat here is that I am neither a teacher nor a parent (or even a social networker of any regard), so I don't know how well it would work on either side. It just seems to me that reducing the communication burden between parents and teachers would probably be a good thing. A similar arrangement would be suitable for the parents of children's friends.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is where the neighbourhood went.
PPS - Online.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Borrowing writing style for automatic story generation

I wonder if it would be possible to analyse many different stories from either a single author or many authors to produce similar stories automatically. I'm imagining mimicry of the writing style as well as common words and phrases. Generally, anything auto-generated falls by the wayside when you've explored all it's possibilities and begun to predict its results. For instance, if you had an automatic story teller that used the same five or six twists over and over, you probably wouldn't use it very long after you'd learned them. But if you can "borrow" twists, plots and styles from the vast soup of the Internet, things might not get so stale so quickly.

Then I expect the problem of feedback to enter the mix. Machines generating stories from web-scraped stories and posting them online are diluting the secret sauce, so to speak. We could try tagging machine-generated fiction and filtering it out of the raw input, but not all of it will be appropriately tagged. What we really need is an objective quality filter. You could say that Google does this already with their mysterious page rank algorithm, leaning on the wisdom of crowds, but I'm thinking of something in a more isolated sense, like a personal spam filter tuned to quality stories rather than spam.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't think spam filtering techniques can be applied directly to this problem.
PPS - Still, it might be worth a shot.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Yoga

Because the undead are generally a bit inflexible, a zombie yoga event was held recently, to help them limber up.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - At least it got them off talking about brains for a while.
PPS - On the downside, if they can move more easily, they're harder to outrun.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

High ambitions and realism

Not every kid can grow up to be Prime Minister (or President, or Benevolent Dictator For Life) primarily because there are too many people. If every Australian had to take a turn being Prime Minister of Australia some time after their 18th birthday, terms would be very short indeed (currently just over 2 minutes per person, by my calculations) and getting shorter all the time. It would eventually reach a point where terms would be shorter than the time it takes to say the next Prime Minister's name, even if it's two syllables like "John Smith".

The point is that it might be nice to have ambitions like that, but the world cannot accommodate all of us at the top. Some of us have to be the little people holding the others up.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most people do not choose that position willingly.
PPS - We don't have a concept of ambitious servanthood.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Sunday Mok to be suspended

For a variety of reasons I've decided to stop posting my usual Sunday rundowns of my previous week.

Three years ago, my reasons for starting up the Sunday Mok posts were to keep my friends up to date with my life and for added content. Well, with all the little things I post there, "keeping up to date" is a bit of an understatement. It's a bit too close-up in that sense. Also, "my" life is now "our" life - Deb and me - and it's getting more difficult to separate what bits are mine to share and what is private to us. As for added content, well, if you want to hear about me going to work, watching TV and playing games, give me a call and we'll chat. And finally, I started posting from my journal as a character development exercise - I wanted to be a more open person. I think that goal is accomplished, so from my side it has served its purpose.
Of course I'll still be posting on weekdays about tech in the news, the future or whatever else takes my fancy, so the blog is still going, but I'll be averaging six posts per week instead of seven from now on.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I may use the extra time in my life to write other things.
PPS - Or I might just sleep in on Sundays.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Software courses had better be advancing

I really hope university software courses are teaching things slightly differently now than they did when I went through. There have been some new developments in software project management particularly, and some interesting frameworks come along too. Any university not mentioning agile methods, iterative planning, design patterns and Ruby on Rails is short-changing its students.

Then again, it may just have been me. Any time you try to engage in higher learning you sometimes hit a wall and need practical experience to make it real. I knew some design patterns for two entire projects before I understood them. To learn, apply and discuss, then repeat for the same material, would probably work well.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Any course that didn't advance wouldn't get as many students.
PPS - At least in theory. They don't really know enough to choose before they get there.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The Sky-Temple

A piece of random writing, dug up from the archives for your enjoyment. It's just a setting so far - the opening of a piece rather than the real meat.
The sky-temple sits among the city blocks as if it were nothing special. It is not visible from the ground, as it sits atop a building. But there, high above the streets, it is another world. The grass on the roof is lush, green and deep, comfortable to sit on. Butterflies flit aimlessly among the stunted cherry trees. There is a clear view to the ocean over the tops of shorter buildings, though some taller ones prevent a full panorama. There is a modest wooden structure in the centre of the improbable lawn. It is made of untreated pine and surrounded by a deck. Wooden wind chimes make occasional earthy sounds, and rich, moist earth is visible between the deck floorboards. The roof is tastefully decorated with curls and trestles and is tiled in red. The temple is two storeys tall and is the home of just one unusual boy. He listens, day in, day out, to the distant sounds of the city traffic far below.
Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not totally sure where I was going with it.
PPS - It was written some time ago.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

The Sunday Mok - Slow throat infection

Sunday - I got up a bit early and went for a run before church in the morning. After the service Deb and I did our weekly grocery shopping for half the cost of the previous week. I ran the computer in the evening church service, then Deb and I went to the Coffee Club for supper.
Monday - For most of the week I didn't feel like getting up in the morning to go to work. I did anyway. I met Deb in the city to talk to MBF about medical insurance at lunchtime. While Deb was at her meeting in the evening, I folded laundry and washed dishes, then watched some television I recorded ages ago.
Tuesday - I started feeling like I had a throat infection. After work I went with Deb to Mal and Linda's for dinner with Murrae and Mia too. That was instead of karate.
Wednesday - A code quality meeting at work kind of turned into an optimisation meeting instead. Deb was babysitting in the evening, so I did some dishes and laundry.
Thursday - I had a pretty restless night which was a combination of little sleep, throat infection, cold and loud fighting neighbours. After dinner Deb and I watched The Wedding Crashers.
Friday - I was hungry when I got to work, which often happens when I'm a bit sick. In the evening we went bowling with the youth group kids, but only had time for one game.
Saturday - Finally I got to sleep in. I helped Deb with her taxes in the morning, then after lunch we took a short nap. In the afternoon we rented the first two discs of Stargate Atlantis season 3.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Taxes are not much fun.
PPS - Mostly because some of the questions are hard.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Computer generated fiction

An idea that is still many years away, but still within the realm of possibility is a movie generator set-top box. We have people working on computer generated stories and a mature computer animation industry, so mixing the two is not that unreasonable. Imagine a black box on the top of your television that can just generate fresh new 1.5 hour movies on demand.

Initially, I think such a technology would only be suitable for children's entertainment, since a coherent plot and well-developed characters are a little less important than bright colours and funny voices there.

I'd also expect movie studios to be outraged at the very existence of such devices (since they would probably cut into cinema and DVD revenues) but I also think they'd have no real recourse to argue against them. They'd have to change their business strategy again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe they could sell character files.
PPS - And there would still be a market for human-produced movies of high quality.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Spray on Pants

The "Spray on Pants" music video by Kisschasy features emo zombies. When they bite you, you become emo too. Just like in real life.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I laughed.
PPS - Then I made sure there were no emo kids hiding in my cupboard.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Senator On-Line

There are many interesting points to make about Senator On-Line, Australia's first online political party. The point I would like to make is that it neatly sidesteps the problem of rich companies lobbying for favourable legislation, because they'd have to spread their money out to every individual party member. Though they'd probably just run PR campaigns instead, it makes me think.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wonder if PR campaigns would be more successful than lobbying.
PPS - With a mix of traditional and online senators, they'd have to do both.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

A bowling ball with a liquid centre

Homer Simpson's "bowling ball with a liquid centre" (from a catalogue he was reading once) would probably be more hype than help. A liquid centre in a bowling ball would tend to retard the rolling motion of the ball, decreasing its power and accuracy simultaneously. If it only operated side to side, it would mean the ball would tend to stay on track, but since the rotating motion is more down the lane than side to side, extra energy would need to be imparted to the ball to set up a liquid gyroscope effect.

I don't know enough fluid dynamics physics to back this up with solid calculations, but I did spend a good ten minutes rolling my water bottle up and down my desk. It didn't work very well.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also, my water bottle is not spherical.
PPS - Nor is it as heavy as a bowling ball.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Usability on the Enterprise

Yelling status and instructions on a starship bridge seems too inefficient as a way to run a starship. It's good for the audience, but if you have to waste eight seconds in the heat of battle to hear an officer read out the numbers of which decks are leaking atmosphere, then bark back to seal them off, you're going to lose because meanwhile the hostile aliens are still firing. Someone needs to do a usability study on starship bridges and how to run them efficiently.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Better data visualisation would be a start.
PPS - And improved command interfaces too.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Getting Things Done six months on

After more than six months practising Getting Things Done as my personal workflow management, I find that I am never bored, I have more energy and I'm more motivated to get little jobs done around the house.

The biggest challenge is deciding which projects to take on.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's amazing how many little jobs are unrecognised until you gather them in.
PPS - And housework that never stops is a pain.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

The Sunday Mok - Many movies

Sunday - I slept in a bit before Deb and I went to church. Our weekly groceries were a bit more expensive than usual. In the afternoon, I played City of Heroes, then I sang in the evening church service.
Monday - I dropped the laptop in for repairs in the morning during work hours, so I stayed later in the evening to make up the lost time. Deb picked me up in the rain from the bus stop and we spent the evening watching Eight Below.
Tuesday - I felt depressed in the middle of the week for a few days. In the evening I had to dig my uniform out of the washing basket for karate. The smell was unpleasant. We watched Cirque du Soleil's Quidam on DVD and one Stargate episode before bed.
Wednesday - I picked up the laptop around lunchtime to be told that they had to replace the hard drive. The old one is still here, but non-functional. I cooked soft shell tacos for dinner and we watched Stomp the Yard.
Thursday - After work I took the train to Indooroopilly and met Deb and Mia to see Stardust which we all enjoyed.
Friday - I woke rather tired. I worked all week on data imports for Knowledge Workbench and finished by Friday. We had six kids at youth group in the evening, which was a nice change, and it was also good to have someone like Richard in charge.
Saturday - Deb was out all day dress shopping with Tracey, so I had the house to myself. I did laundry and dishes, then settled in to watch most of the recorded Simpsons episodes that have been building up. In the evening we went to Sizzler with the church crew to celebrate Murrae's birthday, and before bed we fit in one Stargate episode.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Network connection is down right now.
PPS - This post was composed offline.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Friday Zombie Blogging - Books

Here's an interview with a zombie book author. Some of the books sound pretty interesting, particularly the unimaginatively named "Zombies II: Inhuman". It's a zombie story with superheroes as the protagonists.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And one thing I like almost as much as zombies is superheroes.
PPS - Maybe one day we'll have Friday Superhero Blogging here.

Layman's programming language

Making a programming language simple enough that any user can master it is the easy part. It's the higher-level thinking that users struggle with, because they think in an event/response loop while traditional programs work in a sequential fashion. The same requirements specification from a typical user vs a typical programmer would look very different. The user would specify a number of "when ... do ..." statements, while the programmer would say something more like "the X function takes input of the form Y and produces output in format Z, meanwhile storing results in the database". Maybe we've been doing it wrong the whole time.

A functional specification in the "when ... do ..." format can be checked automatically for overlapping conditions. It's not object-oriented or anything like that. It's event-oriented. Granted, structuring a specification this way does not automatically confer some user-centric design on the program, but it's simple and clear. Given to a novice programmer with a traditional language, it will be a struggle. Given to a user with a novel programming language, it will be trivial.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not aware of any languages that do things this way.
PPS - But I don't know all languages.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The Considerate Phone

Under certain circumstances, a mobile phone could be programmed to go into silent mode. For instance, if a number of calls has gone unanswered recently, either the owner of the phone is not present or does not wish to be disturbed. The phone can then be silent for a while, since continuing to ring out loud is clearly doing no good.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - With suitable software, this would be pretty easy.
PPS - As usual, I have not done my research, so I don't know if some phones do this.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

I want Yahoo Pipes on my desktop

I'm way behind the times on this, but yesterday was the first time I've played in any kind of depth with Yahoo Pipes. I took a detailed look because I was thinking about how to make a simple stream-processing desktop programming language. Pipes is exactly what I described except for the fact that it only works online. A desktop version would be able to load from Internet or local sources and produce files or effects on the machine. An appropriate module would also allow remote control of the PC, which is a potential security risk, but it's a very interesting idea. Several of the specialised applications I use daily could be replaced with an application like this.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Time tracking, diary keeping, application scheduling ...
PPS - Possibilities abound.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Weighted Amazon ratings

I wonder if a reputation system could be applied to, say, Amazon book review ratings. It would be a more complicated calculation, but what if a star rating could be weighted according to those reviewers with whom I seem to agree? That data could be gathered by what I bought in the past and who reviewed it, and could be further refined if I gave my own rating later. Then instead of every rating counting equally, ratings for new books I'm considering are biased towards the opinions of those like-minded reviewers.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Yes, it is complicated.
PPS - And I'm not totally sure it's necessary.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Paying a geek in attention

When a geek fixes a friend's computer, there might be a difference of opinion on the standard procedure. For example, the non-geek might picture the interaction like this:

Step 1. Notice broken computer.
Step 2. Call geek.
Step 3. Geek fixes computer.
Step 4. Repeat as required.

The geek is likely to include an extra step that I'll call "3.5" to slot into the correct position:

Step 3.5. Explain the cause of the problem so that it can be avoided in future.

This is the kind of payment we expect for our help. Not so that Muggles will be in awe of our skills, but so we can both avoid the hassle from then on.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Some problems are a bit too weird to explain, though.
PPS - But those ones are less likely to be fixed this way.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Sunday Mok - Stargate Season 10

Sunday - I went to church alone in the morning, then mowed the front lawn when I got home. Deb and I watched Stargate SG-1 until church in the evening. I ran the computer.
Monday - I worked all day on data imports for Knowledge Workbench. In the evening I visited one of Deb's Mary Kay meetings with her and Linda.
Tuesday - I went to work early because I had a dentist appointment in the afternoon and wanted to make up time before I left. It had been a long time since I'd seen the dentist, but I just needed a clean. After karate, more Stargate.
Wednesday - I was at the office for about ten hours total (including breaks) so I wasn't that focused by the time I left. In the evening Deb and I had a visit from Gwen, the minister, after which we had some ice cream.
Thursday - I've been tired in the mornings for a little while. I think I might have been a bit sick. Family dinner in the evening included cake for Wendy's birthday, and was followed by Stargate at home.
Friday - Deb and I met Murrae and Tracey for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Aspley, followed by bowling nearby. I had two bad games.
Saturday - We went out shopping for Operation Christmas Child, then spent some time stuffing all our gifts into the shoeboxes. In the afternoon I suddenly felt queasy and broke a fever out of nowhere, so I went to bed early.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Our Internet connection seems a bit unreliable right now.
PPS - But obviously it's good enough to post with.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Personal Unit Tests in NUnit

I read yesterday about a geek who checks his daily goals via "personal unit tests", and I thought to myself that it would be pretty funny if those tests could run in an actual software testing tool, like NUnit. A few minutes later:

(click to enlarge)

Now, it's just a prototype to prove a point at the moment, but this could easily be extended in many useful ways. For one, it needs to be much easier to maintain and modify the list, because I don't want to write code every time I do that. But for the proof of concept, it's working.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I need to set more goals for myself.
PPS - Or I need to encode them here.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Brain-eating bacteria

What's more horrifying than a zombie? A zombie bacterium that eats your brain, that's what. Can't even cut off its head.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Strictly speaking, as with all reality, this is not really a zombie.
PPS - But it sounds like a B-movie plot.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Computing in Heaven

In Heaven, you never run out of hard disk space. In Heaven, your computer never needs rebooting. Everything is flawless Plug and Play. Instant messaging works on one universal protocol, and it never kicks you off. You log in only once to your PC and are then recognised on every website. That's only for personalisation, not security. There is no spam, ever. Downloads take only as long as you feel like they should, never longer, but also never so quickly that you blink and miss it. Sharing files to cooperate with someone else never means emailing versions back and forth. Scanning and printing are done from the same box that holds your hard drive and everything else. There are no power cords and no signal cables.

Playing movies from your computer on your TV is as simple as asking or using the remote - no cables or translator boxes. Your portable media player can carry your whole music and video collection no matter where you are, and never needs to recharge. It can also access your collection at home. Your camera (video or still) can upload immediately to the Internet, so it never runs out of space (or batteries). It can share storage with your home PC.

Your hardware never wears out or becomes obsolete. You can modify it yourself with only the knowledge of what you want to do. You can write new software as easily as playing with Lego. Using data from one program in another is a breeze, and if two programs need to work together, they just do. If you don't feel like reading all the news today, your computer can summarise it for you, rephrasing and picking out the important points seamlessly.

The Internet is free and without advertising. The wireless Internet connects everywhere with equal strength. It's never crowded or bogged down. You can search online with the vaguest of queries and expect perfect results. "I'm feeling lucky" is the only button on Google you ever need.

Phone calls are free, but if you prefer to receive email, your voice messages can be dictated. You can email a telephone to leave a voice message, read out in your own voice. You can conference in real time between telephones and instant messaging programs. SMS, email, pagers and IM are all one seamless communications protocol, with a bridge to live or asynchronous voice as needed. You can receive email in your physical postbox if you prefer, and send it the same way. All communication is instantly and flawlessly translated to your native language.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Now, which bits can we do today?
PPS - Some, I admit, are unrealistic in this world.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Why I am not on Facebook

I've avoided getting on Facebook up to now, because I know what happened to MySpace. If you try to tell me that nothing will ever replace Facebook as the social networking Place To Be online, I'll laugh in your face. And, with the speed of the internet culture, chances are good that Facebook is headed the way of MySpace any day now. So should I spend all my time on Facebook only to have it burn down in a few months?

Yet despite myself I am drawn to it like a siren song. Something deep within me prods now and then. "You're disconnected. You're out of touch." That's the allure, I suppose. Peer pressure of a sort. Everyone is doing it. I've never been one to follow the crowds. If I was, I'd have been playing World of Warcraft all this time, not City of Heroes (link). But the crowds are what defines a community. If there's no crowd, why would we be networking socially anyway? I know people. More people than I can track in my head or even properly on paper. To be figuratively linked to them through this medium entices me, and perhaps it's time I stop holding out.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Even without joining I've got a few friend invitations.
PPS - But that's probably the case with every non-member.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

I am a technology idealist

I think in many technological senses I'm an idealist. I find myself wondering "what is the best possible way this could work?" when I see technology that's not quite doing its job. Once there's a vision, ideas start to flow on how you'd make it happen. Then, once the steps are clear, why not make it happen? Ah, if only.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Non-idealists simply swear at their computers and carry on.
PPS - And sometimes rant about it.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Swarm behaviour for companies

When I read articles about swarm behaviour, I wonder if the same principles could be applied to companies to eliminate all management positions. Nobody would be in charge and nobody would fully appreciate the big picture because the big picture would involve every single individual. Defining the rules would be difficult at ground level, though. I wonder how the information flow would go through the organisation and whether things like hires and fires would start happening organically or even higher level stuff like mergers.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd bet some higher-level decisions would require more cooperation.
PPS - I'd still like to see it attempted.