Friday, 28 November 2008

Public transport navigation

Public transport path finding has many more factors than regular GPS navigation. For one, you need the locations of stops plus the routes and timetables of trains, buses, ferries and trams. The time of day becomes a factor, and you have to assume that people are walking between stops, which makes them slower, but more nimble (they can use alleys, paths, cut across parks and go the wrong way down one-way streets, but not along highways at all). Even if you find one route, you should provide alternatives in case the user misses it, or walks more slowly than your calculations allowed for. Considering all this, it's no wonder Google Maps is not yet offering that service. Besides all these difficulties, you need to get timetable and route information from local councils and operators into a usable format and keep them up to date too.

It might make sense to start working on the features as if that information were present, so that it can be filled in later, but you need the cooperation of public transport operators to make it work. Probably the best way to sell the idea to them is that they only need to maintain their timetables if they hand over the route finding task to Google.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The incentive to Google is more traffic, which means more ads.
PPS - And more ads for Google means more money.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Pie hat

In case you think your brains might not be appetising enough to the undead, you could always wear a pie hat. I admit the link is tenuous, but BoingBoing used the word "zombie", which is good enough for me.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The hat is knitted, so you probably won't be followed by a pack of birds.
PPS - Not smart ones, anyway.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Browser engine wars

Lunascape is a web browser that provides easy access to the three underlying rendering engines of the other major browser makers: Gecko from Firefox, Trident from IE and Webkit from Chrome and Safari. I am also aware that there are several JavaScript engines currently in use, including V8 and TraceMonkey, each unique to their host browser.

So how much of any browser is essentially different from others? Will we see rendering engines and JavaScript engines move to the status of plugins rather than core features of browsers? It's possible. And if we can have multiple rendering engines in a single browser, can we select between them as required? Say I prefer Gecko, but some pages only render correctly in Trident. I could specify to use Trident for this page and Gecko for others. Speed can be measured and used as a heuristic for selecting both rendering engines and JavaScript engines automatically, though correctness would not be an automatic selection mechanism. When different engines are present behind the scenes and automatically selected for speed, the "browser wars" are internal to every browser on the web.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This could easily turn into a bad thing for website developers.
PPS - Rather than three or four browsers to test, there are a dozen engine combinations.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Family phone networks

There's a distinct travel advantage in having a VoIP phone account. As long as you can still connect your VoIP phone to the internet, it doesn't matter where you are. I could make personal calls from work on my VoIP plan, or take personal calls from someone else's house while I'm there.

I quite like the idea of a virtual private VoIP network with extension numbers for family members. Then if I want to call Dad, I just have to know that his extension on the family network is 102, not that he is due to be in Bolivia today, where the country code is whatever and what was the name of his hotel again? With mobile phones and digital address books, it's just as easy to look people up and call their mobile phones by name, so it's unlikely the virtual family phone network will be a reality anyone bothers with, except if their families are dispersed around the globe.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There may be other reasons I haven't considered.
PPS - Or there may be very good reasons not to do this at all.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Peer-to-peer power

How do you make power infrastructure more resilient to damage? I guess the first step is underground power lines, though they have been found to be more likely to get struck by lightning, and are harder to repair when they get damaged.

I suppose fully distributed power generation coupled with underground lines would be pretty resilient to local outages. Say each generator is capable of producing 1.5 times the demand of an average home. Most of the time, it will run below capacity, and it has headroom to grow in future. Then say each generator is connected, peer-to-peer fashion, to two or three other houses. If one house requires repairs to their generator, their neighbours can pick up the slack while that repair is done offline. If a single inter-house line is cut, nobody will be without power, even while the line is dug up and repaired.

The trouble will come when many houses in a local area are destroyed. Each one will need extra power, although theoretically it could be routed from elsewhere as long as the underground lines are intact. Such infrastructure, however, would probably allow the use of temporary generators hooked up to specific locations to boost the local grid as required. In the end, though, it is probably cheaper and more efficient to generate power in bulk and run distribution lines over a distance than to wire everything together with single small generators.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If everyone is generating enough power for themselves, one house offline is no big deal.
PPS - This idea is also known as "microgrids" in the electricity industry.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Kung Fu Panda DVD discontinued?

Quickflix wrote to tell me that the Kung Fu Panda DVD has been discontinued and all their copies have been lost or destroyed by other Quickflix members. The result is that they don't have it and can't get it, so I can't rent it. I am a little confused by this, because the region 4 DVD does not seem to have been discontinued - it's still for sale in some places. Or perhaps the next production run is being done in Blu-Ray only, as a ploy to force people to upgrade. Would you buy a $700 Blu-Ray player just to play Kung Fu Panda so the kids will stop whining? Probably not.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just never got around to seeing Kung Fu Panda at the cinema.
PPS - I thought DVD would be a better way to go.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Merge contacts

Why do no address book programs or features seem to have a "merge" feature? Assisted joining of two contacts into one would be a big help in some circumstances, particularly when there are a few synchronisations going on. I have not seen such a feature in Outlook, Thunderbird, Lotus Notes, GMail, Hotmail or Yahoo Mail. My phone does not provide it, nor does the PC software to which it can connect. Neither does any synchronisation program provide it, as far as I can tell, and they are the ones most likely to produce the problem of duplicated contacts. Has nobody ever considered such a thing?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I am often disappointed by address book software.
PPS - That is the usual prelude to a programmer writing something of his own.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Papercraft

The Zombiefie Six are a set of papercraft zombie figures to print and fold for your amusement.
You could stage a tiny stop-motion zombie movie with them, or try to ward off garden gnomes.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or perhaps just use them as garden zombies instead.
PPS - You might have to print them on something more durable than paper, though.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The importance of hospitality in crisis

It's during crisis that people's gifts really come out, and it is particularly those who do hospitality well that I want to draw attention to. These are the people who cook lunch or cut up fruit for workers cleaning the streets. They take drinks of water around. But more than that, these tend to be the same people who open their homes to shelter people or goods as necessary while other houses are being rebuilt. I was out there yesterday, giving food and water to workers, and it's not my natural habitat, but there are people for whom that is the normal thing to do when it needs doing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Everyone is very thankful.
PPS - And so am I.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Power up

The power was restored at home some time yesterday evening, so I guess today I'll be at home with fans trying to dry out as much as I can. Deb and I spent the last two nights away, and our mattress is still ruined, but if we wanted, I think we could move back in today and sleep on the couch. It's going to be quite a while before things return to normal around here, but I expect long before then it will drop off the news.

The army and lots of heavy machinery have been around moving greenery off the roads, helping people move if they have no livable home. People have been saying that the response was too slow, but as soon as the rain had stopped they were clearing the roads. If you think it's taking too long, you don't appreciate the scope of the job.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think the only structural damage to our place is the patio.
PPS - Comparatively, we got off pretty light.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Storm damage

Please excuse the lack of post yesterday. There have been some storms in Brisbane particularly affecting power and blocking roads with fallen trees. As such, yesterday I had no internet at home and no way to get to work. Everyone is safe, but we won't be staying at home until the water is back on.

Our bedroom windows were open at the time, and Deb and I were trapped in our car during the worst of the hail and wind. I keep wishing I had gone back to close the windows when I had the chance.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most reports compare the damage to a tornado.
PPS - It wasn't a tornado, but it was extreme and localised.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Relating to non-programmers

Though programmers will occasionally refer to non-programmers as "muggles", the term typically cannot carry the same separatist connotations as it does in the Harry Potter universe. Programmers write software for non-programmers, so it is essential that we understand the mindset, spend much time with them and consult with them on major points. To do otherwise would result in software that does not meet the needs of the client. Once you start writing software for programmers, you turn into a toolsmith, which is okay, but a bit too theoretical to make good conversation at parties. You become the stereotypical geek.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I am guilty of disappearing into a hole to finish my work rather than contacting clients.
PPS - I can't keep doing that forever.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Pinup calendar

My Zombie Pinup is, unsurprisingly, a zombie pinup calendar. Take out the blood, though, and it might be hard to tell the difference to a normal pinup calendar. It's a novel idea, but a couple of the pictures just seem to be wounded people. Then again, if it was weighted more towards the undead side of things, nobody would want to buy it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Link from Mike.
PPS - I think BoingBoing also linked to it.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Lying through machine-readable privacy policies

It's possible that it is in websites' best interest to post privacy policies that claim to be very careful but actually violate them in the background. With machine-readable policies, the problem gets worse because users can preset their web browser to trust websites to set cookies and so on based on what that site claims to do with your personal data. Only reputable sites will tell you what they actually do. The ones you want to avoid now have a higher incentive to lie through their teeth, because the browser will happily accept their cookies based on their claimed privacy policy.

Even if they get caught, they will take the typical scammer route of shutting up shop and opening again at a new location until that one is compromised. When it's all digital, it's cheap enough that it's worthwhile copying the same scam website to a new location and netting a few more victims before moving on again. There needs to be a strong economic incentive for websites to follow their own privacy policies at the time of browsing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If there's only a legal disincentive that might come up later, that's not enough.
PPS - But privacy policies dictate what you do later, so this might be a tough one.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Am I ready for the next black belt?

I have a black belt in karate - strictly speaking, it is a probationary black belt, standard issue after brown. The student must hold this "level zero" black belt for a minimum of one year before attempting level one, also known as "shodan".

So am I ready? Well, I've gained a little weight, lost a little strength and fitness and have only been attending about two thirds of even the local classes. Other students have gone for pre-evaluation recently, just to see if they're ready for the grading. It's a normal high-level class, not as intense as a grading. The instructors train like that every week. Our students lasted 30 minutes.

I don't have anything to lose by going to the evaluation, except perhaps dignity, so I will go. I just don't know that I'll be ready for grading at the end of the month.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I go, I'll let you know.
PPS - At the very least, it should be amusing.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Distributed version control

Forgive me if this post gets extremely geeky. There's just no avoiding it in this case.

Since starting to research distributed version control systems recently, I've been able to think of little else, computer-wise. Regular version control involves using a server to make backups of previous versions of files, usually program source files, and resolving conflicting edits between team members. Distributed version control systems do this without the central server. They seem to be the solution to two problems that I'd forgotten I had.

One thing I do as a programmer is set up occasional personal projects. They're small projects generally, but they still need source control and I want to carry the code with me between home and work. That makes it hard to have a central server, so version control that doesn't need a server would work perfectly.

The other problem is managing my personal files - plain text, mostly - that might change at work or at home. Usually I'm at work, so if I come across a funny quote, I just make a note of it and my flash drive gets an updated copy when I turn off the computer and go home. If I'm at home, I have to sync my flash drive with the hard drive, make a note, sync again, then remember to sync at work in the morning. It's a hassle I'd rather do without. With distributed version control, I can just make the note and merge easily later.

I haven't done too much to test out any software for this, except for Bazaar, so that's probably what I'll end up using. That's assuming I manage to go ahead with it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Wikipedia on distributed version control.
PPS - I hope it makes sense to someone.

Monday, 10 November 2008


Recently I've been noticing more similarities between strangers and people I know. It's weird to see someone, think they're familiar, then pick out a face from a group of maybe 50 people that matches them almost exactly. You'd think the designers of the Matrix would have taken a bit more care than that, right? It's a bit of a give-away if there are only a few dozen faces in the world.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The same goes for body types too.
PPS - Maybe we're all part of an advanced version of The Sims.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Simple solutions

Sometimes problem solutions are impressively simple. Yesterday, for instance, I had to plug in my phone charger, but because it was designed specifically to occlude the plug to the left, that limited my options. As it turned out, it completely excluded all the options.

My two monitors and PC were switched on and plugged in to the only points available. It would be okay if I could move them, but I'd rather not shut down the whole machine to rearrange the power board. I knew also that I could unplug the monitors with little consequence, but unplugging the computer would be a bad idea. The final problem was that the monitors are on the desk, the power board below it, and all the cords tangle into a spaghetti mess through a hole on their way between those two points.

My solution was to attach a paperclip to the computer power cord and slide it down through the hole. Then when I crawled under the desk, I could easily identify the cord I should not unplug, and was able to move another safely.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course, turning off the computer is even more simple.
PPS - But what if that were not an option and you were alone?

Friday Zombie Blogging - World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is being infected by some kind of zombie plague as a promotion for the upcoming Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Players can be infected either by strange boxes on the docks or by other infected players. Cures are available too, but who would want that?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - City of Heroes also had a zombie event for Halloween.
PPS - Not many images available, but this article has one from Warcraft.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Harry Potter 6 movie delayed

The next Harry Potter movie, The Half Blood Prince is being delayed until next July. This will be good, bad or indifferent news to you, of course, but that's not the point in this case. It was scheduled to open this month, but, apparently, Warner Bros. doesn't want you torn between buying Dark Knight DVDs and seeing Harry Potter. From that point of view, it's a smart business move because it will make them more money. Right now, however, I think it's going to enrage the fans just a bit.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Probably review copies will leak to the internet long before July.
PPS - And then many fewer people will care when it comes to cinemas.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Simply Male

Thought for the day: When did "chauvanist pig" become a standard suffix to the word "male"? When did we stop being offended by it?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think we need to start being offended by it again.
PPS - Not everyone says it, of course.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The New Scribes

The days are past when we needed to outsource the physical acts of reading and writing, since we are all taught to do so in school. However, there may come a time again when we need another to put into words what we cannot. Speech writers for hire. Bring them your ideas and the message to convey, and they work to express it for you in colourful prose.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - But how do you prevent rich school kids using the service for their homework?
PPS - You can't just publish the results, since they might be private.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Pink in Brisbane

Pink is coming to Brisbane in June or July next year, and I'd love to go. However, tickets went on sale on Friday and I heard about it on Saturday. This annoys me for two reasons:

1. One day is too late to get tickets.
2. I went looking for this exact information a week ago and found nothing.

Now you'd think, wouldn't you, that when someone goes searching for something as simple as "Pink concert Brisbane" they'd at least find someone's excited blog post or advance notice on the Ticketek website. At the very least, you'd expect the upcoming tour dates information on the artist's own website to mention Australia in passing, right? Nope. Nothing. As far as I could tell at the time, Pink was just doing a tour of television appearances.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The Pink website above lists concert dates only up to May next year.
PPS - Here's hoping there are extra shows added to the schedule.

Update: Three of the four nights in Brisbane are the extra shows, already announced and sold out.