Friday, 30 December 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Floating City

Back when it was built, about 300 years ago, the Shimizu Green Float City was a marvel. Like a lily pad on the ocean, big enough to house and support ten thousand people. These days, the population has exploded, and the machinery is wearing down. We were abandoned by our parent nation and cut adrift when their economic troubles prompted the politicians to stop the trade ships. They could live without our dwindling fish production quite easily, but we had to adapt quickly to an autonomous life. That self-contained autonomy was an illusion, though. We could feed ourselves well enough, but we had nothing with which to repair our physical structures.

Well, today is the big day. We return home. We dismantled what we could of the central spire and built ourselves a vast engine underwater. With power from wind, the Sun, deep ocean water and a little fish oil, we have been powering the great propeller and aiming ourselves at the homeland. It was long, slow and ridiculous, but today the outer edge will make landfall around sunset and our hungriest, most viscious warriors will stream out and take the land for ourselves.

I wait in anticipation, hidden under seaweed scraps along with thousands of fellow soldiers, waiting for the grinding, crunching sounds of landfall. The stink is horrible, and I can't see anything, not even the other soldiers near me, but I can hear them breathing. They sound anxious and excited, like me. They can't wait to storm the beach. No doubt they will see us coming - a floating city is hard to miss - but they will assume we are weak, and that will be their downfall.

Maybe we'll put the politicians out to sea, along with the rich ones who lived at the top of the tower, and see how they fare without the poor and expendable workers to support them. Or maybe we'll just destroy this floating relic once and for all, and demand a place on dry land to settle. Deep underwater, the engine thrums with a subsonic heartbeat, inching us closer to the shore, and our destiny.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Inspired by this floating city concept.
PPS - It's one of a few mega-projects on that page.

Optimistic programmers

The irony of programming is that it takes optimism to do it, but makes cynics of us all. You need to imagine that your program is going to work, and you have to keep hoping that the last bug is just around the corner, but the endless bug fixing treadmill will get you so down that you end up looking for a new job out of sheer desperation. At least their bugs are new and different, whereas the same old bugs keep showing up where you are. It's as if our industry feeds on optimism, draining it out of us and leaving us dessicated old cynics, but, at the same time, we manage to rekindle that optimism by isolating the cynicism to our old jobs and seeking new ones.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Compartmentalisation saves my industry.
PPS - And, possibly, many others.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Apathy online

Since the internet the problem is not getting published but getting noticed. The enemy online is not hate, but apathy. When people are free to ignore you, and you them, you either do more because they love it or do less because they don't care, not because they don't enjoy it enough.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or, sometimes, you just keep doing something because it's a habit.
PPS - Like me and this blog.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011


If you have never watched the TV series Avatar, you really should. Not James Cameron's blue people movie, a totally unrelated elemental kung fu story. Yes, it's animated. Yes, it was made for kids. But it is also a world-encompassing kung fu epic where the martial arts are semi-magical. There's moral dilemmas, pitched battles, prison escapes, humour and romance, plus the whole thing is tightly plotted and fits together really well. If I could write anything half as good as this story, I'd be immensely proud of it. When I started watching, I thought it was just going to be a bit of fun, like any other cartoon, but it has actually become kind of a favourite for me. If you like action and kung fu, go and watch it now.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I haven't been this excited about epic kung fu battles since the original Matrix movie.
PPS - Unfortunately, James Cameron and M. Night Shyamalan have made it harder to search for.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Missing numbers

How would you find a missing number? I saw a woman under hypnosis suppress her knowledge of the number four. She counted "1, 2, 3, 5..." and therefore saw a total of eleven fingers. She said there were three wheels on a car. She couldn't even recognise the word "four". So the question is: how would you discover that this has been done to you? Mismatched counts such as the eleven fingers should be a clue, and when simple sums don't make any sense, you should start to wonder. But it's such a bizarre effect that you might never reach the conclusion that something so basic as a number has been erased from your brain.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think I would assume some kind of optical illusion.
PPS - Or else some other trick.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Wifi at work

For a very long time, wifi at work was a big no-no, simply because the IT admins considered it too insecure. Now suddenly it's quite common. What changed? My theory is that businesses started buying iPhone plans for their employees, which come with data allowances and excess usage charges. So when the data allowance runs out, it costs the business a lot. The best way to get around that, at least while employees are at the office, is to set up a wifi access point and direct the iPhone internet traffic through there, piggybacking it on the existing internet connection. Money and convenience overrides security yet again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's usually how we get into trouble.
PPS - But in fact, it probably wasn't that secure before or after wifi.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Agents at the Door

The government agents at the door did not wear sunglasses or black suits. They did not threaten Mark with straight faces and veiled references to disappearing. They looked and acted more like plain-clothes detectives, but their badges said "DHS".

"That's CIA spook stuff", the woman had said with a slight smile and a dismissive wave of her hand. "We just need to ask you about the package you received on Tuesday."

The box had arrived on Mark's doorstep, and he had initially thought it was the eBay package he had been expecting. But when he opened it up and found four 1TB flash drives packed in foam cutouts in a rugged little case, he had been intrigued.

Contained on the drives was a virtual machine - a soft copy of an entire computer, operating system and all - and Mark had no idea where it had come from. He had just barely enough room to unpack the files and reassemble them, then his own computer had run the virtual one so slowly in simulation that he'd almost lost interest.
But he had left it running.

"You see," said the man, shifting in apparent discomfort, "what you have there is an AI. We don't know how the package got out, but now it's out and we can't get it back."

"That ... I guess ... what does that have to do with me?" asked Mark.

"Well, apparently," said the female agent, "it likes you."

"'Likes me'?"

"No accounting for taste" interjected the man, turning aside slightly. The woman shot him a dirty look, then turned back to Mark.

"Yes, it likes you. So we were sort of hoping you could ... ask it nicely to come back with us."

Mark sat silent, eyes moving between the two agents, trying to see if they were joking. Their faces kept displaying the same level of seriousness. His mother came in with a tray of coffee and biscuits, then wandered off elsewhere, but not quite out of earshot.

Eventually, Mark got up without a word and disappeared into his room for a while. He returned with his laptop open and running.

"She says she'll come along, but on one condition. I come too."

The man sputtered into his coffee, spilling a little down his blue shirt and tie. The woman raised an eyebrow. Mark added quickly, "She likes me."

The woman sighed, closed her eyes and shook her head, ever so slightly. "I guess you're coming with us, then."

Mark tried to hide his excitement, but he could tell from the agents' eyes that he wasn't fooling anyone, so he kept his mouth shut and followed them out the door to their van, waving goodbye to his mother on the way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Better late than never.
PPS - This could probably use a little work, but right now I'm going to bed.

DRM and honest customers

There's an argument in favour of DRM that says, basically, it won't beat the crooks, but it keeps honest people honest. I think it was Cory Doctorow who said that keeping an honest person honest is a goal akin to keeping a tall person tall. But more than that, DRM often fails those honest people too, and what do they do when that happens? If the DRM gets in their way, either they stop being your customer or they stop being honest, breaking the DRM or finding a copy that's already broken.

So, to summarise, this argument says that DRM is imperfect, but it keeps the sheep in line. That's only when it works. When it fails, it keeps honest people out of the purchases they honestly made, and it makes crooks out of customers or, at best, makes non-customers out of customers.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Remember, kids, it's legal to rip your CDs, but not your DVDs.
PPS - And the DRM is just part of what stops you.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Grooming robots

If you had the right robots to do it, while you sleep they could keep your hair trimmed, your face (or legs) shaved, your fingernails and toenails clipped and all that other body maintenance stuff that currently takes up your waking time. The potential down side is that, if you wake up and see a robot hovering over you with a straight razor, you'll probably not get back to sleep.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And you'd want to be a heavy sleeper for this.
PPS - Or for the robots to be microscopic and unobtrusive.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Mediocre or amazing

Would you rather be amazing at something mediocre or mediocre at something amazing? An incredible typist or a moderate book author? The world's best Etch-a-Sketch artist or a so-so painter? Personally, I think we should aim to develop skills in the amazing category. Homing in on one everyday skill like sock-folding and becoming extraordinarily good at it might impress a few people for a few seconds, but the payoff is too small. Speaking economically about your days on Earth, you should spend them doing things that are worthwhile, and if you want to amaze people, the better payoff comes from developing skills in fields that people already think are amazing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Like secret ninja moves from the government.
PPS - Think about that in your new years' resolutions.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Book review: The Future of the Internet

The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It, by Jonathan Zittrain

I have always been a bit disturbed by the trend to rely on distant servers for specific purpose software that could be written for the desktop computer instead. This book did a good job of explaining exactly why my discomfort is justified. Zittrain makes the argument that the internet is valuable because of its "generativity", but also that that very openness, plasticity and freedom that leads to its success also leads to malicious uses. Those malicious uses lead people to ask for more "secure" solutions, by which they mean less generative ones: locked-down PCs where nobody can install anything without a central authority approving it, exactly like the iPhone. So the very thing that leads to the internet's success indirectly leads to its downfall, too.

It can get a bit dry and detailed, but that's to be expected in this type of book.

The potential solutions are where things start to fall down, as always, and some of the proposed answers have a faint tinge of unintended consequences. If you attempt some things to fix the internet, they won't work, and other things will just subtly break the system or cause a redirection in the arms race. That's not to say that it can't be done, but to my mind the solutions didn't quite ring totally true. Also, although tethered appliances under the control of their suppliers still have a security problem. It's just that there's a different group in charge of what can and cannot run on them.

Still, I think this is a very valuable book, and well worth reading, if only to understand what makes the internet work and what makes it fail. If you care about people or technology and where they might push each other, this is the book for you.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have always preferred writing desktop software rather than websites.
PPS - Even when they're highly functional and clever websites in really nifty languages.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Standby excluders

Standby excluders, those remote-control devices you can plug in to turn off your electronic devices instead of leaving them waiting for their own remote control signal, don't work. The trouble is that most modern electronics are pretty darn good at not using a lot of power on standby, and the remote control standby excluders themselves are in a kind of standby mode all the time, waiting for a remote control signal. So you're really just swapping one standby device for another and hoping that the new one is more efficient. And according to my own digital power meter, they're exactly as efficient as my TV and microwave when they're off.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There might be some devices where they work, though.
PPS - But for me, they don't save any power.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Patience

When people think of vampires, they think Hollywood. Who can blame them? They think Ann Rice. They think Buffy. Some of them even think of Twilight. The truth is, we're more literally cold-blooded than that. We live in the darkness, below ground; sewers, storm water drainage, caves and basements. We're like snakes, nesting in one place, using little energy, waiting for the next kill to come by and then BAM! The energy lasts months, sometimes years. Meanwhile we hibernate in the dark, warm places. You think it's life and youth everlasting, but it's more like prolonged stasis and timelessness. In that waiting state, time seems to fly past like nothing gets in its way. You have no idea what it's like to watch, unblinking, for days on end. Patience is a virtue for you. For us, it's necessity. And then that moment of the kill, the seconds can stretch out to feel like years.

I've seen would-be slayers before. Headstrong young men trying to prove themselves. Bold teenage girls with home-carved stakes and gloves with crosses sewn onto the knuckles, as if either of those things would help. When you can move faster than sound, what chance does an ordinary human have? That was why the old man gave me pause. He didn't walk like the drunks that usually find their way into my drainpipe, and he didn't smell drunk either. He stopped at the entrance, muscles loose and ready. I waited. It's what I do.

When he made his move, my metabolism kicked into hyperdrive, and the world stood still. His right hand brought up a pistol crossbow and fired, but I had hours to move out of the way. Around then I started noticing something odd about his movements. They were quicker than I expected, and maybe they were even speeding up. His left hand was swinging around holding a tranquiliser syringe, and it was obviously going faster than it should. Before it arrived at my neck, I started seeing stars, my fingertips started to tingle and I got dizzy. I fell to the floor of the tunnel, face up, and just had time to see the second man standing over me, wearing the gas mask.

That was maybe three years ago. An eyeblink in my time. I woke up in a cage, on display in some dark pit, where people come to see the real, live vampire. They tried feeding me every day - vermin, of course. As much as they want the spectacle, the people don't want to see me drain a rabbit, a cat, a puppy ... or a human. I don't need nearly as much as that, so the rats just piled up. I could leave at any time, but I am waiting. I wait to see those two faces again, close enough to strike. I am patient. I can wait.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The plot-free first paragraph was all I had of this for a long time.
PPS - Hope you like it.

Slightly better credit card fraud protection

It seems to happen often that online services will get hacked, and then a lot of credit card numbers will be stolen. For the banks, it is cheaper and easier to chase up the fraud after the fact, but for us, their customers, it is a major pain. We need to monitor our online charges carefully, listen for news about hacks, remember which services have our credit card numbers and occasionally change our passwords, cancel our cards, order new ones and distribute the number again. We should have some silos and firewalls in place so that each breach doesn't leave us scrambling to stop up the leaks.

Obviously we should be using different passwords for every online service, but we should also be able to have different disposable credit card numbers for each service, too. That way, if one number gets stolen, the others don't need to change. Also, we can easily trace which service got hacked by which credit card number got falsely charged, even if that company doesn't own up or recognise that a breach has taken place. More public identification of hacked services should make it more likely that they will beef up their security, and the ability to cancel one credit card number without affecting the master account will make things better for consumers. Not perfect, but better.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There have been a couple of services offering disposable credit card numbers.
PPS - As far as I can tell, they all went out of business.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Technology in development

Something that is simultaneously cool and frustrating about upcoming tech reports is that they always seem to be just around the corner, but never here. For instance, I saw a great TED talk about transparent, cheap solar panels you can attach to your windows in order to generate the power you need, right here, using technology that would also allow low-power IR vision in the form of ordinary glasses. I hear about both of those things and think "Great! I want to do that to my house and my glasses right now! When can I have it?" and the answer is "Well, we don't know, we're kind of in the early stages of development, could be a few years, and even then it might not be blah blah blah". Disappointing. Even though this technology exists, I might never see it in actual use within my lifetime.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I prefer my technology news much further down the development road.
PPS - Otherwise I get excited about something I can never have.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The internet vs books

What is more exciting about the internet than books? Well, I'll bet the three things most people do online are watch videos, play games, and read. Videos and games are very old passtimes, and their appearance on the net is no surprise. It's just television and arcades in a new package. Then there's reading. People claim not to like reading, but then they spend a lot of time online reading emails, Facebook updates, Twitter and short-attention-span articles the size of sound bites. What is different about that form of reading as opposed to reading books? For some of it, there's the social factor - it came from my friends, so it has higher value to me. But most of it, I suspect, is the attention span issue. Too long, didn't read. What you're saying when you won't read long articles is that you are too distracted.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Personally, I'm a fan of both.
PPS - And I'm moving towards ebooks as my primary reading material.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Open source security software is better

Sometimes law enforcement groups will request that security software such as encryption tools be built with back doors that enable them to bypass the security with some kind of master password. Most people assume that this means everything mostly remains secure, but when necessary the police can bypass the security and catch the bad guys. The actual objection is that it means building in secret and deliberate weaknesses to the software, and that this vulnerability will eventually be exploited by the wrong people - the very criminals the police intend to catch with it.

Truly secure software is secure against every attempt to bypass it, because you can't know whether the attempt is legitimate or not. That's why good encryption software like TrueCrypt is distributed as open source. Anyone can look, anyone can build it, the FBI couldn't crack it when they had to because there is no back door, and anyone with the right know-how can look and verify that it has no back door.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The only encryption software I use directly is KeePass.
PPS - Though encryption is probably built into a few other programs I use, like my web browser.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Always-on screen sharing

One way to make a diverse set of computers feel more like a single environment would be always-on screen sharing. Say I have my home computer on while I'm at work, and they are both connected to a VPN service of some kind. Normally, while at work, I would be using the desktop there, but if I want to (in this scenario) I could activate a feature that zooms out and shows me both desktops at once. I can click on my home screen, which zooms in again to work on that remote machine, then zoom out and click back to my work machine. Add another machine to the mix, like my netbook, and the zoom-out adjusts to show that screen too. The borders between machines start to blur, and we would start to get a real-world idea of how people would use their computers if they had one environment spread across all their machines.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Security, of course, would be a big concern.
PPS - And this assumes "one user, many machines" rather than the common "one machine, many users".

Friday, 9 December 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Unreality Bomb

Gerry didn't know how the bomb worked. He'd heard some of the egghead technobabble, but all he needed to know was where to drop it from his plane. He checked his altimeter, speed and bearing again. Still on course. He cast a nervous look back towards the bomb in the hold. The thing gave him the creeps, to be honest. They'd called it a "Heisenbomb" or something. It was supposed to erase part of reality by collapsing a quantum something into a singular whatsit. Might as well have called it a voodoo bomb for all the sense it made to Gerry.

He saw the city lights spread out below him - Rocvale. The whole city was the target, but the bomb needed to be dropped in the centre. The radars hadn't spotted him, and probably wouldn't, and he'd be gone before they could do anything about it anyway. His plane was the latest and greatest in stealth and speed.

Flying over the centre of the city, Gerry's finger hovered for a second over the bomb release switch. He felt like, maybe, he couldn't do this. Then some other part of his brain stepped up and said "Don't worry, I got this", and his finger flipped the switch.

The bomb tumbled for a second or two before its fins stabilised its downwards course. It began to make a high-pitched whistling tone as its speed increased. People in the streets heard the bomb approaching, pointed and shouted, ran for cover. Some cursed their government for starting this awful war before running to their shelters and shutting the doors.

Gerry watched the bomb fall, but when it hit, there was no flash of light, no thunderclap, no mushroom cloud, no crater in the ground. Rocvale just stopped being there. There was a green field where there used to be ... something ...

Gerry shook his head to clear it. What was he doing again? He automatically checked his altimeter, speed and bearing, then his flight plan. He was ... on a test flight for the new stealth plane? Yes, that was it. He turned the prescribed circle and headed back to base. On the radio, the control tower seemed to have had a similar memory lapse about the same time as Gerry. Weird coincidence.

Gerry kept feeling somewhere in the back of his mind that there was something he'd forgotten. Not something he hadn't done, but something he had done, then forgotten about, but he could never quite put his finger on it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - How would you know if this had ever happened?
PPS - It might leave behind some weird conspiracy theories, at best.

Location location location

With GPS, the problem of location and mapping would appear to be solved, but the more I think about it, the more difficult it seems to be. Depending on how accurate you need to be, and how much geographical movement there is in a region, finding where X marks the spot could be very difficult indeed. A place that looks the same from the ground may have moved on the globe because of continental drift, landslides, earthquakes, floods and any number of things. So how can you be sure, when you stand on one spot on the Earth that this is the same spot you stood a year ago? The factor of time plus the habit of matter to decay means any given location measurement really needs to be accompanied by a timestamp and a confidence level.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And it seems so simple.
PPS - Must have a lot of smarts behind it.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Large email attachments

I think we need the ability to send very large files to be built into the email protocol. It doesn't have to be directly as an attachment, but it does need to be seamless and familiar. Our email programs can send the file another way and sort of pretend it's an attachment, and nobody will have to think about it again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - These days, the email definition of a "large" attachment is pretty limiting.
PPS - Hence the need for a new way of sending attachments.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Cross-site social network desktop software

I would like one desktop program that manages my social network profiles through one interface. I don't want another website for this. The precedent is Pidgin that manages three different chat protocols for me: MSN, Google Talk and Facebook chat, or Thunderbird that can access my work email (Exchange) or GMail. So what I want is a program that accesses Facebook and Google+, representing their common features in a standard way so that it doesn't matter whether a particular friend is on Facebook or Google+, and I don't have to check both to get all my updates. In a few years, more people will be fed up with Facebook and they may have moved onto something else, so this kind of standardisation is going to become more necessary as time goes on. I'm not holding my breath expecting standard cross-platform protocols for social networking sites, so this would be the next best thing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is a big advantage of general-purpose computers.
PPS - And open programming interfaces for websites.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Flying is supposed to be amazing

You know what? Flying should be amazing, but it's really unpleasant. The air is stale and dry because it's cheaper to recycle it than purge and refresh mid-flight, and it can make you sick. The seats are cramped and so bad for you that they need to advertise special exercises to prevent them from killing you. The first solution we have for that is not better seats but airline anti-death seated yoga. We absolutely should be amazed at the prospect of flight, but I don't think the entirety of the problem is our jaded natures. Our worst seats at home are better than airline seats. If we were able to bring our own, we probably would. Doesn't that mean something has gone wrong?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It certainly seems that way.
PPS - Most of it is probably because we're racing to the bottom to provide the cheapest flights.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Web installers are bad

There's a trend to distribute some software in a "web installer" that is basically a very small program that downloads the latest version of the real installer so that it's always up to date. It's an admirable goal, but it can be very inconvenient when you have no internet connection, or a very limited one. These unreliable network issues are becoming more prominent in my mind because of the problems we have with our office network (tends to drop large downloads every 2MB or so) and our connection to a remote office (an even worse setup). If we can't pre-download things and transfer them in a way that is tolerant of severe network difficulties, then it just doesn't get done, and web installers take that choice directly out of our hands.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The only thing they're good for is quick initial transfers.
PPS - But you still have to wait for the rest of the download anyway.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Pointless War Machines

The third war left the wasteland devoid of life, but it was by no means inactive. By now it was filled with fifth generation junk war bots, the offspring of repaired micro-tanks, mine-layers and automated gun turrets that once patrolled the area. The little war machines destroyed each other while the repair bots fixed broken ones, reprogrammed captured enemy bots or built new ones from scraps. They charged and retreated, burrowed and flew, hurled each other through the air and pinned each other to the ground to deliver dramatic killing blows. The region held no strategic value any more, and no country could spare the resources to clear it, so the robots continued fighting their solar-powered obsolete war.

Another repair-bot released a half-blind mobile turret that tottered off on three unsteady legs. It turned its head left and right, trying to get a clear picture through its camera lens, already smeared with mud and grease. It spots something cresting a nearby hill and leans forward as if to see better. In that moment of hesitation, the micro-tank siezes the advantage, flails its electro-whip and disables the newborn turret with a jolt of electricity. The repair-bot waits until the micro-tank trundles off elsewhere, then creeps out of hiding to drag the mobile turret back by the leg, through the churned and burned earth, and fix it once again, to fight its pointless part in an endless war.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Just a sad little image idea that came to me.
PPS - Do you think they would ever stop?

App stores

There are only two things keeping the app store model afloat: curation and lock-in. Curation in the broad sense that people know where to go for apps for their platform, and it is a consistent, unified user experience, whether the apps are free or paid. Apps themselves aren't going anywhere, because there are some things apps can do that the alternative, websites, can't do. You need apps, and you need a place to get them.

But the thing is, curation can come from anywhere, and if someone else does a better job, customers will use it that alternative. That's assuming you can set up an alternative app store, which is the lock-in part. But even if you can't set up an alternative, you can always set up better recommendations, categorisation, searching and reviews with links to the official app store. Even if using your version is harder than the real one, that price of inconvenience might be worth paying.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is part of why Apple makes it impossible to set up an alternative app store.
PPS - It keeps them in control by force.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

NaNoWriMo wrap-up

So, my first NaNoWriMo is at an end. Technically, I did not win. At the close, my novel weighed in at just over 47000 words unfinished, which is nothing to scoff at, but not quite the completed standard required. I intend to finish it by Friday, just two days late. After that, it needs a lot of editing, and probably a lot of rewriting too, and will probably not be over 50000 words when it's ready for preview.

All told, I've had a really good time doing this. Writing on the train has been an interesting experience, but in future years I will need to do more than that if I want to finish within November. Next year I will use my lunch breaks, too. I've learned that, when I'm going strong, I can write as much as 1200 words in 30 minutes, and when it's a hard slog I'm more likely to end up with 800 words, as long as I remain focused.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't know if I said yet, but I used my Friday Flash Fiction piece Planet Scavengers as a starting point.
PPS - I have ideas for next year and the year after, too.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Petrol price prediction and assistance

If petrol stations were made to publish their current prices along with their GPS coordinates, it would be easy to show on a map the locations of cheap petrol nearby. It would also be possible to calculate how far you would have to drive to get cheap petrol and whether it was worthwhile. Using that information, you could recommend a place to go for the best deal on your petrol. Couple that with your car's fuel gauge and you'd be able to automatically pop up a recommendation to buy fuel when it's cheap and nearby. If your car's computer can analyse both your driving habits and the petrol price cycle, it could help you optimise your purchases for the cheapest, most efficient and timely outcomes, and the only thing you'd need to see would be a slight deviation in your GPS guidance with a note to buy fuel now.

And that is why petrol stations do not publish their prices online unless forced to do so. They know that a large portion of their business comes from necessity: you need fuel now, and they're the only one nearby. Sometimes their prices will be high and you get screwed. They're okay with that. But if you're able to predict and take advantage consistently when prices are low, that's not okay by them. Anything, such as easier access to current prices, that helps you make better decisions as a consumer puts the brakes on their gravy train. They'll cry poor. They'll tell you it's not fair. They'll even try to tell you it's not possible. All lies.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, maybe it's not fair.
PPS - But only if they stick with their current price practices.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Casual toll auto pay phone app idea

Instead of having toll transponders in your car, you could turn on a phone app that tracks where you are, knows your credit card and vehicle details, and auto-submits them to toll collector websites when you go past toll points. The various toll operators would match your self-reported location with their video logs and charge you appropriately for the day. You could even arrange it so that multiple people per trip spread the toll out between them, by all using the app at once. That way you could automatically share the cost for, say, a car pool. Of course you'd need to get the toll operators on board with this, but at least then you wouldn't need a different transponder for every operator.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is my 2500th post!
PPS - There should be a cake or something.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Robot car rules

When auto-driving cars become the most common vehicles on the road, the rules will change. Speed limits may go up, since robot reaction times are much better than humans'. 11-year-old kids could borrow the car on their own. You could ride in your car to work, then send it home for the day, or call it to pick you up from wherever you are. You probably wouldn't need to find a parking spot ever again - just let the car drop you off and find a place to rest.

On the flip side, would you get in trouble for riding in a robot car drunk or asleep? How much responsibility would we expect "drivers" to accept in the case of a crash? Would we need robot cars to pass a driving exam? Would you, as the owner, even need to come along for that, or just let the examiner take care of things? Perhaps it would just mean a different class of license, only for robot cars, where they are expected to do most of the work.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's probably what we'll get first.
PPS - But it will probably still be age-restricted.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Temple of the Clown

Ronaldo was one of the faithful. He attended mass, took communion at the Temple of the Clown every Sunday, along with thousands of others. He stood in line reverently, face upturned to consider the Holy Menu. At his turn, he placed his order in the ancient way, and his communion meal was delivered with the traditional catechism, "Have A Nice Day Enjoy Your Meal".

He took a moment with his tray to kneel before the fibreglass statues of the saints and make the holy sign of the double-arches before taking his place at the pews and tables. His meal was meticulously prepared by the acolytes in the Kitchen. The beef would be perfectly cooked, the lettuce and tomato cut with precision and care. The wrapper was folded in intricate origami patterns, and every long finger of fried potato was exactly the same length, exactly the same shade.

But today, something different happened. Today, he received a vision. Just as he took the first bite into his burger, the figure of Saint Ronald himself, after whom Ronaldo was named, appeared in the air before him.

"Ronaldo, my people have lost their way. Their worship is empty, their actions meaningless. I have chosen you to lead them back to true faith. You will be my prophet."

Ronaldo sat, stunned for a moment, at the vision of Saint Ronald. He had read of things like this in the scriptures, but they all happened so long ago. Could it really be happening, now, and to him?

"Look around you, Ronaldo. What do you see? Do these people worship, deep in their hearts, or are they merely going through the motions?"

So Ronaldo looked, his own communion meal forgotten. There were people sitting in the pews at their tables, irreverently wolfing down the carefully-prepared burgers. Children throwing fries at each other. Teenagers removing pickle slices from between the sesame-seed buns and flinging them to stick on the walls of the Temple, laughing with each other in this sacred place of worship. How had he not noticed this before?

Ronaldo knew what he had to do. He stood from his place and began methodically moving along the aisles, overturning the tables to the stunned looks of fellow "worshippers". He flung their meals to the ground and gave stern looks to all who watched him. He made his way to the front counter and stood on top, every eye in the Temple on him. He would turn the people back to true worship. He would reform the Church of the Clown and bring the faithful back. It was his holy mission, and he would make Saint Ronald proud of his people again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think you know which clown I mean.
PPS - I have been to that "temple" too many times myself.

Libraries and ebooks

How do ebook libraries work? When you think about them in the same way as a traditional library, with physical books, things get complicated quickly. If you send an ebook to a patron's device, how do you make sure they eventually delete it? How do you ensure the devices people use obey the library rules and don't allow copying? Instead, you need to think about access, not possession.

The library itself is a collection, akin to an Amazon user account. And when you're talking about accessing their collection, you either need to think of devices or linked accounts. The digital library can function perfectly well if they have a collection of Kindles they can physically lend out, as long as those Kindles can't buy anything on library credit. Alternatively, since the Kindle is supposed to be controlled via DRM, you can just allow any patron to link their account to a public library and gain access to any books contained there, on any device that supports the Kindle software. If they are unlinked from the library, they lose access to those books.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If your DRM is as good as you say it is, this should be easy.
PPS - I'm pretty sure they wouldn't allow this, "for security reasons".

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The craftsmanship learning model

I quite like the idea of applying the craftsman training model to modern professional development. For instance, becoming an apprentice to a master programmer, engineer, accountant, lawyer or doctor. Even though you may have many bosses and many jobs, for the first seven years after university, you are an apprentice, and you have a master from whom you learn most closely. After those seven years, you spend three years with other masters, learning the personal nuances they apply to their profession. Finally, after those ten years, you may submit some of your work for approval to the guild and be granted master status.

Admittedly, it does sound like university in a way, especially the status of "master" vs "masters degree". I'd be pretty sure that's where it came from. But I think modern university doesn't offer the same kind of practical, personal tuition you would find in an apprenticeship system.

It would be tricky to work with a master across several jobs, particularly since that relationship should involve very close work, to learn from the master and for him/her to observe your work. That's harder to do if you're not working directly together every day.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We don't do much mentoring in our society, do we?
PPS - I think we should.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

No-payout poker machines

I think we should legally require poker machines to never pay out, ever, and I think we should advertise that fact very boldly on the front. Seal up the return tray and put in a big sign that says "This machine never, ever pays out. You will not win. This is not a bluff or a challenge. We are not kidding." Then when you step up to one, you are under no delusion that you are about to win big, or that this week's welfare payment is sure to turn into big bucks, because there is obviously no winning.

You're already not going to win, long term, but this change turns this form of gambling from a tax on innumeracy to a dead certain black hole. Hopefully it would snap some people out of their addiction, but the effect will probably be more like a two-pronged response. The addicts will go elsewhere, like the lottery, and some will demand the return of the meagre payouts that kept their delusion afloat.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - For those who are playing "just for the fun", there's no change.
PPS - Except that it gets slightly more expensive.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Android app permissions

On Android, you're supposed to read and accept the permissions each app requests before you install it. There are several problems with this user requirement. The first and most obvious is permission fatigue. After installing several apps, you start ignoring that button. You don't read the requested permissions and you don't care. This is a human trait that does not go away, and will always be a problem.

The next problem is understanding those permissions. Even if you read them all, do you know what they mean? Are they specific enough to give you a real understanding of what they will do with your phone? Usually not. Also, even if you do read and understand them, they can be misleading. Ad-supported free apps will usually include a request for "Full internet access", in order to get new ads, and sometimes "Fine (GPS) location" too, to provide location-appropriate ads. That might be fine if it's just used for ads, but that combination of permissions can also mean "reports your exact location to anyone who's listening", and you definitely wouldn't agree to that.

Lastly, you can't accept or deny individual permissions on a per-app basis. If this app requests full internet access and you don't want that, too bad. Take it with the rest or leave it completely alone, there's no middle ground.

What's the solution? Well, we could have a set of acceptable default permissions that we are happy to grant and some that we will deny by default so that we don't get nearly as many notifications about it. We also need a separate ad service on the phone so that we can see if a particular app wants internet access to display ads or phone home with private data. That "full internet access" permission needs to be more granular for ad-supported apps. Lastly, we do need the ability to grant or deny individual permissions for individual apps, so that we can still install them without having to take it all as one whole package. That will not be a feature of any official version of Android, because app makers need ads to keep their apps free.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - At best, you'd get an ad service you can't turn off.
PPS - And that still means you don't completely own your phone.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Keeping your details private online

There are two ways you could keep your privacy online when asked for personal details. The easiest way - the way most people choose - is to lie. Give out fake details when they don't matter, especially to sites you don't trust. The harder way is to channel all your communications through an intermediary or broker. If you insist on privacy, then you need to trust someone else who will act as an anonymiser and firewall between you and the people you don't trust. You need this because once you give out your real details once, they are never secure again. Think of credit cards. If your number gets into the hands of the wrong people, you just need to cancel it, get a new one and give out the new number to the people you do still trust.

What you need, then are personal identity broker systems with unique disposable details. When you need to give out an email address to someone you need to trust temporarily, create a new one that automatically forwards to your real address. If they can't be trusted with that address, cancel it. Your main email address, and other fake addresses, remain unaffected, but anyone who got that forwarding address can't contact you any more. You can, in theory, do the same with phone numbers, and banking details too.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Snail mail might work, but the service would be more complicated.
PPS - It would probably involve rented post office boxes.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Power thief

I was shuffling through an air duct on the 114th floor when the building stopped breathing. It reminds me, when this happens, just how close these things are to dead. Take the power away, move the people out and a building gets to be as spooky in its hallways as it already is in its guts. And without power, the whole thing gets bigger too. When there are no express lifts to take you up and down, the stairs echo enormous. Sometimes, in this situation, I like to abseil down the lift shafts, but today I have a job to do. Today I am stealing this building's beating heart.

The power cores are in high demand. Tiny nuclear batteries that can power a building this size for a century can just as easily power a small town. Since the plague, we've lost too many people and therefore forgotten how to make them. But in the cities, there are hundreds, and out in the country there are towns willing to pay. So I steal from the rich and give (or sell) to the poor. Hey, a guy's gotta eat, right?

Approaching the spine of the building, that service shaft going up through the middle, I started hearing noises through the ducts that didn't sound like the usual pests. No, this was another thief, come to take my prize before me. With the power out and these noises going outwards, not inwards, I was pretty sure he had the power core already. That makes this a chase, not a heist.

He's either heading for the roof or the front door. I'm betting on the roof, because they tend to be less guarded. He'd know that. I start climbing the ladder in my service shaft, listening carefully for the sounds of the other thief. If he doesn't know I'm here, he might not move as quickly as me.

As I pop out of the vent on the roof, I see another figure, clad in black, fussing with a clearly-heavy backpack. And it's a "she". I can tell, though her face is covered. She notices me, looks to the edge of the roof, and quickly shoulders her pack. As she leaps over the railing, she does this complicated, graceful pirouhette in the air, reaches down and clips something onto it. I hurry out of my vent and look down over the side in time to see a figure finish running down the side of the building, assisted by a descender. When she reaches the bottom, she unclips it from her belt, looks back up towards me and lets it go.

It zips up the outside wall, bumping and spinning, winding itself back up on its springs. When it reaches the top, I step back as it flings energetically over the railing. So my rival is gone, but I have her descender. And I know the only man around who still makes things like this. I'll find her again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'll be honest: I haven't been writing much else since I started NaNoWriMo.
PPS - But I think this came out pretty well.

Printing the perfect tiles

When we tiled our lounge, kitchen and dining rooms recently, there was a lot of cutting to do around the fiddly corners, and a lot of waste, too. That got me thinking: with the right precise measurements, you could "print" exactly the right tiles for a space, custom-made to fit perfectly. Or maybe you could use a robot that trundles around the room extruding and baking ceramics in specified shapes in-place. Either way, it should be possible to fit tiles perfectly to a floor with zero waste. The only question is whether it would be more economical that way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess it depends how much more expensive custom-shaped tiles are.
PPS - And whether you accidentally break any.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Social network federation

Social network federation, or compatibility, is a good goal for users, but the main barrier to its implementation is that the big players - Facebook, for example - have an active interest in not supporting open standards. Keeping people locked into Facebook because all their friends are there has been the main competitive strategy of social networking sites from the beginning. The business plan is basically set up a website, attract a self-sustaining critical mass, then lock it down so the competition has no hope.

Federation means that it doesn't matter what network someone is on. It makes step 2 (critical mass) moot and openly mocks step 3 (lockdown). That's just not going to fly with the big players unless, for instance, the open network of competition grows far beyond them. That's the point that the critical mass shifts from Facebook to the open network, then everyone starts maintaining two profiles, and eventually abandons Facebook because not everyone is on it any more. So if you, as a small social network, want to topple Facebook, your best bet is to throw in your lot with the rest of the federated network and be part of the new majority.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then Microsoft, in their Microsofty way, will "embrace and extend" the standard.
PPS - Their proprietary extensions are compatible in one direction only.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Internet is natural

In a sense, the internet has always existed. It just used to take the form of libraries or word of mouth without formally-defined protocols. Human communication has always been carefree and decentralised, based on loose agreements of protocols and shared understandings. When it was only spoken, messages were passed between people by that means, and those things that people cared to repeat or listen to were propagated most widely. When we started writing books, the best books were copied, distributed and read. Now that we have the Internet, that same pattern is proceeding. It's just like the writing of books and repeating of stories and news, only now the medium has changed. The Internet is a natural outgrowth of human communication, one more step in that journey.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course it's faster now.
PPS - And further-reaching.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Cookie privacy

I watched a talk by Cory Doctorow about browser privacy and the need for cookie management similar to popup management. He made a compelling point. A lot of our cross-site privacy and tracking issues these days are caused by cookies, and there are so many of them that we can't deal with them ourselves. We need our software to help us, the same way Mozilla (later Firefox) started refusing to display popup windows on websites. That choice, even though it was only enacted by a small, geeky subset of internet users, eventually changed the face of the whole internet, in browsers and websites alike. We can do that again if we just figure out how to manage our browser cookies better. It's going to be harder, I expect, but it's going to be even more worthwhile. The trouble is that cookies are so invisible that most people don't realise it's even happening, let alone that it's a problem.

Making cookies more visible might be the first step, or part of the first action. Next might be applying a reasonable upper limit to cookie expiry dates, regardless of what they request. Right now, a website can request that your browser store a cookie indefinitely, and your browser will oblige. That doesn't seem right.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I use the Vanilla Cookie Manager plugin for Chrome.
PPS - It deletes cookies after 30 minutes unless I whitelist them.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The internet and tasks

The web needs better collaboration tools. As illustrated in xkcd, "send a file" (if it's too big for email) is still a task that gets us scratching our heads, fumbling for some known hacks, then just copying it to a flash drive and taking it in person. Video chat is getting better, though, like text chat, it's still locked up in walled gardens of individual services. To get expert help on something, you either take your chances reading Wikipedia or find any number of domain-specific help forums, or perhaps Twitter. The massive proliferation of services and websites is part of the web's appeal - anyone from anywhere can set up and start reaching people online, any time - but it also means certain tasks are made more difficult for users.

Basically, the web is not designed for users and tasks. It's designed for websites, and most of the design decisions are built around the idea of getting specific website information to you as reliably as possible (though not necessarily as quickly as possible - that's another rant). Your task, as a user, is not "Facebook", but "interact with friends", where "interact" is made up of chatting, reading, updating, sharing and playing. It doesn't matter if Facebook is involved. Facebook itself is not the point. It is just the tool you use to accomplish your goals. You can go anywhere and do anything if there's a website for it, but how do you find out what you can do, or how do you go from a vague description of a task to finding a specific website to fill that need?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can probably find websites for specific tasks with Google.
PPS - But you can't easily find out what is possible online.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Memory of the Soldier

When we take the time to remember our fallen soldiers, we do it properly. At the same time, across the globe, over every airwave and every broadcast medium comes one message: the Memory of the Soldier. At that time we all fall into a deep trance and dream the dream of that one soldier whose memory has been chosen for that year.

This year, as we dream, we see young hands holding a rifle, feel young feet and legs racing across a battlefield under enemy fire. Then there's a thok in the shoulder, and some momentum is lost as we stumble. Another bullet tears quickly through the left side and we hold the wound in the rising pain. Only one or two steps later comes the shot through the thigh, and we all dream the collapse, face down on the sodden earth.

It takes a few minutes of lying there until the soldier loses consciousness, then we are all left in the dark. As we snap out of the Remembrance, we all know how lucky we were not to be there, not to be that boy. We know how much we appreciate that hard and dangerous job he did.

Mostly, we appreciate the fact that we haven't had any war in a very long time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Today is Remembrance Day, obviously.
PPS - Lest we forget.

Flexible factories

Once 3D printers become standard home appliances, what will be the needs filled by old-style factories? Well, for one thing, we'll need someone to produce all our 3D printers, so there's that. There will also be other things home printers can't do, like milled metal parts or electronics. And with home 3D printers commonplace, consumer demands could shift quickly. The world of tomorrow needs factories that can take any complicated design, including electronic components, metals, plastics, rubber, foam, glass, ceramics and countless other material needs, and produce the finished product on demand, whether you need a thousand of them or only one. Those factories need to be flexible enough to produce cars today, rubber duckies tomorrow and telephones the next day without skipping a beat. It will probably have a different name than "3D printing" by that point.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Probably something like "automated industrial manufacturing".
PPS - Or something cooler-sounding.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

DRM is always broken

I have received a couple of spam comments on old posts of mine from a company with a vested interest in promoting DRM software. Their comment is that DRM needs "built in safeguards" to prevent "reverse engineering or bypassing". Leaving aside the fact that bypassing DRM is the same as defeating it entirely, if it were good encryption and you could reverse engineer the method, it would not mean anything for attacks, since good encryption depends on the security of the key, not the obscurity of the method. You should be able to publish your encryption software as open source, and this will actually increase its security, because more people will be able to find and alert you to bugs.

Now, when it is applied to DRM, encryption is a pointless endeavour, because the message recipient and the potential attacker are the same person. All DRM systems, if people care at all about what they are protecting, will be cracked and defeated eventually. That's not because they've all been written badly, but because they all depend on a misuse of encryption. You can't hand someone an encrypted message and the key to decrypt it and still control how they use them together. There is no good way to hand someone a decryption key that they can only use when you say so. When you write DRM, you must write bad encryption, because that's how it works.

In practice, systems do hold up for a while, but in theory (which precedes practice) all DRM systems are fundamentally flawed, because that is the essential nature of DRM. So when you come up with a new protection scheme, you will see it succeed for a while, then become totally worthless. That's what happened with CSS on DVDs, HD-DVD, and HDCP as well. It will happen with Blu-Ray, if that even matters any more, it will happen to the Kindle, and it will happen to LockLizard. The systems will get revised, and they will get hacked again. The only way they die is for people to stop caring about what is protected, at which point they also stop buying it, and the revenue goes away. That's really bad business.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - DRM is anti-customer technology anyway.
PPS - So why would you want it?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Entertainment superabundance

There is a superabundance of entertainment these days - music, movies, games and TV. What do we start to do when we move from scarcity value to superabundance? Well, one thing we do is stop trying to pay attention to everything. There's plenty of everything, so we only need to look at the best stuff, and we decide what's best by crowdsourcing our decisions. When there are tons of movies on, we don't even go looking for one to see. We wait for a recommendation to come to us. We don't scour the TV ads looking for new shows to fill our time, we get recommendations from friends and try out new shows a few episodes at a time. If they don't meet the mark, we don't need to bother with them.

The other things we do is value each individual item less and also don't bother trying to archive them all for ourselves. We only watch (or read or play or listen to) the best of what's recommended, and we only keep the best of what we experience. That's what physical media - printed books, DVDs, physical CDs - are for these days. They are the archive of the very best of what we experienced through some other means, not the means by which we get our entertainment in the first place.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess people have always been ignoring bad entertainment.
PPS - But these days, we can also afford to ignore the merely good, in favour of the outstanding.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Beauty in technology

There is beauty in technology, but not in all of it, and not by default. You can bring it out if you have the right tools and the right skills, like a sculptor with a block of marble. Some days - the best days - that's what my job is like.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And some days, it's like pulling teeth.
PPS - From a crocodile. On fire.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Notifications in software

I think a modern operating system needs to include a standard notifications service that any program can link into. I think that's one of the subtle things Android (and other phone operating systems, in their own way) have done right. There is a separate area at the top of the screen (while in the main launcher) that is only ever used for notifications. They do not pop up over anything else, they never need to steal space from anywhere, and you always know where to look for them. Compare that with Windows where there's an expanding area at the bottom-right corner of the screen, and it can pop up balloons over what you're working on. That's the unobtrusive version. A lot of the time applications have their own focus-stealing popup windows that just don't

Maybe this is more a discussion to have about modern GUI frameworks rather than operating systems. They're often tied closely together, though. Also, a GUI framework can't reserve space on the screen except in its own window, right? So a notifications area needs to be a feature of the OS window manager.

I guess phones have a bit of an advantage with a different kind of app structure than Windows. Apps are expected to be one-at-a-time and full screen, which forces the notifications area to be what it is. Windows, being built on legacy expectations, having more power and freedom for applications than a mobile phone, allows actions that can be very disruptive to the user's workflow.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There are lots of ways to do notifications right.
PPS - Windows doesn't do any of them.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Fire at the Magic School

The fire spread quickly through the bushlands, consuming dry trees and old tinder with ferocious force and intensity. The firefighter mystics did their best to arrest the spreading flames, using their most potent charms and spells. Some of the senior wizards managed to set up a floating bucket line, but they kept having to adjust the enchantments to direct it to more urgent areas of the blaze.

Eventually the wizards succeeded in bringing the fire under control, and the villagers were able to go and inspect the damage. Only the edge of the village had been touched - the one by the school. In fact, it looked as if the fire had started from nothing in the woods, in many places at once, and spread only as far inwards as the school's kitchen.

Investigating the kitchen itself was clearly going to be a difficult task. Pots and pans had melted from their holding hooks on the ceiling, the stone bench tops had cracked and shattered, and everything else was charred to ruin.

The embarrassed school cook shuffled awkwardly to the back of the gawking crowd, trying not to be noticed as she went. It had only been a small spell, meant to get the cooking done faster so she could get back to her reading. She wasn't much of a sorceress herself, but for goodness' sakes, the children did this kind of thing all the time!

She had figured out what went wrong about the time the school had been evacuated. The spell started a fire that moved backwards in time, approaching the kitchen and getting hotter as it went, eventually stopping there, or looking like it had. Should she confess? Well, the wizards would find out the truth eventually, and it might as well be via confession rather than investigation. After the cleanup had started in earnest, and the investigation began, she came forward to tell her tale and, if necessary, accept her punishment.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I suppose there's a bit of Harry Potter in this.
PPS - With a bit of the Australian outback, too.


This year I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. I don't expect what I write to be publishable without some drastic editing and probably a lot of rewrites, but that's not the point. The main point is to get me writing every day and using my ideas instead of sitting on them and imagining maybe possibly one day writing them. So far, from that point of view, it's a success. Assuming I manage 50000 words in one month, then have to edit down to a third of that for quality, I will actually have something more akin to a novellette at the end, rather than a full novel. Still, writing 50000 words in one month would be a decent achievement, and if I also manage to pull out a 16000-word novellette to be proud of, that's just a bonus.

I'm not yet confident that I'll finish properly. My story could easily run out of steam long before the month is up, in which case I may have to switch tracks to a totally different story halfway through. I'd rather not do that, though.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - According to the Nebula awards, it's still a novel even if it's only 40000 words.
PPS - No, you can't see it yet.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Your desktop is powerful

We seem to be dividing the internet into two kinds of endpoints: clients and servers. Servers are "where the code runs" and clients are mere consumers. Though the network is a tool, the current practices of network software development are putting that tool only in the hands of those who control the servers. The computer on your desk should be considered just as important and just as powerful as the servers that run your favourite websites. It is not a mere consumer endpoint. It is capable of so much more, and furthermore, that is the point of having such a machine in the first place. If the only program your computer ever runs is a web browser, then it's not a real computer and you are nothing more than eyeballs to online advertisers. That's called television, and the web does not need to be more like that. Why would we want to turn back to that model of centralised control?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's interesting that Google's Chromebook project is pushing towards browser-only uses.
PPS - I suppose it makes sense for Google. Their revenues come from online ads.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


Anonymity is a phase we go through, and I think we do it as part of building our own individual identity. When you grow up with parts of your identity defined for you - by your parents, by your school, by your peers - you need to separate from that to find out what is uniquely and personally yours. Anonymity is a good way to do that, because online nobody knows you, and so has no expectations to place on you yet. Anonymous, you can become truly yourself.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you never felt the need to be anonymous, then I guess you're lucky.
PPS - You probably had a very strong sense of identity already.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Emotional game attachment

It's natural to become emotionally attached to certain games, especially those where you make friends and you do work that pays off, like World of Warcraft. But the best response when a game wrongs you (say, by gradually changing into a game that just frustrates you) is to stop playing rather than rant and rave at the publisher. Play while it's fun, stop when it's not. There are lots of other games out there. The emotional attachment makes that harder, but not impossible.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Game publishers don't owe you entertainment.
PPS - They only owe you the product you paid for.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Zune Pass vs Quickflix streaming

I was very excited to hear that the Zune Pass unlimited subscription option was coming to Australia, until I heard it would be for music only. The Zune Store already has movies and TV along with music, so Microsoft could have easily included that in the Zune Pass too, and it would have been available on my XBox, which would have been perfect for me. At $12 per month (or $120 per year) we could have cut out our Quickflix subscription and saved money into the bargain.

Which brings me to the other option. Quickflix is launching a new streaming service the day before the music-only Zune Pass goes live. It will be free until December for existing subscribers, but it seems to be heavily tied to Sony hardware - you need a Bravia TV or Blu-Ray player, or a Playstation, though that option won't be live until the end of the year. Or you could use any PC or internet-enabled phone. I assume I won't be able to download movies in advance to my phone to enjoy on the train, though. Also, since their announcement mentioned "hundreds" of movies, but they have tens of thousands in their library, I'm dubious about the available titles.

On the balance, for me, it's kind of a wait-and-see situation. I need to see whether Zune starts offering movies and TV, and for Quickflix I do need to be able to use my XBox. Both services will require a fair bit of bandwidth, so might require a step up in our internet plan to go with them. And the uncertainty of the available library is a concern too. I don't want to start paying for a service only to discover that most of what I would watch is not on there. I look forward to seeing how they both play out.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Technically, they are probably both competing with BigPond Movies too.
PPS - But as far as I know, BigPond doesn't have an unlimited streaming option.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Professor Sinister and the Radioactive Rats

Miss Phoenix propped herself up uncomfortably on the floor where she had been kicked. Her cape was torn, her mask askew. She spat blood and nursed some broken ribs as Professor Sinister stood gloating over her. His robot clanked to a halt behind him, its job of physical violence done, for the moment.

"You think you can win, Phoenix?" taunted the Professor, "My radioactive rats are already halfway across the city by now, and nothing can stop them! Even if you escaped, there's nothing you can do. You've already lost!"

"No, Sinister. You've lost. Mr Ambient tracked the rats through the sewers with his Geiger sense, and he has the Pied Piper's flute!"

Professor Sinister's face grew pale. Well, paler. "But ... no! I destroyed that cursed flute!"

"You only thought you did. We swapped it for a decoy in the museum months ago, when Doctor Vermin tried to steal it."

Sinister dropped his eyes, scanning his mental reserves for something, anything, that would mean his plan could still succeed. The robot's remote control sparked and released a wisp of smoke in his hand, and just then a jaunty flute tune started to drift in through the window from somewhere far away.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This would be my second superhero vignette.
PPS - Probably won't be the last.

Asking why in technology

There are some people who embrace current technology. Above them are those who wish it could do something more. Dreamers. Above those, however, are visionaries that see past the stack of technology, past the people and the debate about whether it's good or bad, and get right to the heart of the issue, like what the problem is and why it should be solved this way or that, or what we need to do in the future to make best use of what we have. There's a progression of engagement with technology, then, from "what's new?" and "where is it going?" to "why are we doing this?". We need people - leaders - at that top level.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Fortunately, it's not that difficult to start asking "why".
PPS - If you can, you should start doing that.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

I found this book one of the most compelling I have ever read by Cory Doctorow. One that really excited me in the beginning, kind of horrified me in the middle and offered only bittersweet resolution at the end. The overwhelming feel is of transience. Nothing lasts very long, and certainly not as long as you feel it should.

The story follows Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, a pair of artists and generally creative types, through the rise and fall of micro-entrepeneurship funded on the collapse of big old corporations. With the help of 3D printers and networks of other small businesses, they make some cool stuff, set the world on fire with a new way of doing business and manufacturing, but like the soft plastic goop on which their printers run, it all starts wearing out too soon. Nobody really knows what they should be doing, long-term, and none of it really works out anyway. Businesses are created and abandoned before anyone knows what to do with them, and even interpersonal relationships are made of fragile stuff. At least the villain gets his just deserts, but the conclusion is just part of the wearing down.

It felt a little depressing, I suppose, but also relatable. I got excited about new things and new technological possibilities, but in the end I know it all winds down and wears out, even if you don't want it to. An individual's character remains firm at the core, and relationships built on that core can last, but everything else - the type of work we do, the way we do it and our friends and colleagues - are all built on the shifting sands of time. That said, I could hardly put the book down, and I definitely recommend it. Just don't go in expecting happiness, rainbows and unicorns all the way through.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Makers on Amazon.
PPS - Makers on Doctorow's site including free ebook version.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Deadlines and programming

Deadlines on programming tasks that are meant to create a little pressure inevitably slip because they don't mean anything real. Deadlines that *are* real might slip because programming takes as long as it takes, and knowing that it has to happen before a certain time doesn't really do anything to help that.

There are two ways you can deliver more quickly in programming: reduce quality expectations or cut features. Suggesting the former is a good way to get a swift kick, and the latter will result in long meetings about what features are the most or least essential. Basically between schedule, budget and features, you only get two. If you have an absolute deadline, then you need to choose whether you also have a fixed budget or a definite required set of features.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If it's features and budget you need, it's going to take some time.
PPS - And if it's a fixed budget and schedule, you might not get all your features.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Work and value

The goal of work is to use time and skill to produce value. Our society of trade is based on the idea that other people will produce the right value to exchange for ours. We use money as an enabler of trade, so that even if you have no goods I want and vice versa, we can still do business with each other. With the view of money as a means of enabling trade, two things immediately stop making sense: pure finance markets and people who hoard massive piles of cash. Finance markets make the medium of trade into a product of its own, and that causes inflation pretty directly, because people are paying more than face value for money. Sooner or later that house of cards must fall down. Hoarding cash, similarly, is like preparing for big trades that never happen. Having more money than you could ever use should be seen as a sign of wasted effort, a bad case or paranoia or pathological greed. Only in a few cases could it be seen as having produced something of worth that the whole world wanted.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or performing some service the whole world needed.
PPS - But that's even rarer.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Conman's Conscience

Conman's Conscience is the name I have for those situations when a person or a business justifies itself by saying "it's your own fault". People who sell pictures of iPhones on eBay claim their victims didn't read carefully, so it's their own fault. An internet service provider that doesn't upgrade their customers to new, cheaper, better versions of their plans automatically says its their own fault for not checking regularly. If you're exploiting your customers in any way and justifying it by saying they should have known better, you've got Conman's Conscience.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most privacy invasions online fit in this category.
PPS - And, of course, all cons, short or long.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Ends of the Monarchs

The king delegated his whole life to his servants. Others made his public appearances, prepared and delivered his speeches, signed documents on his behalf. In the end, he needed not move at all, but would have servants feed him, bathe him, dress him, drive him, carry him, read to him, speak for him. In this state, he became essentially useless, taking in resources and producing nothing of value. Realising this, the parliament and the servants came to an agreement. The servants would continue this life without their employer the king, going about the same actions as a collective unit but without a head, so to speak. They became new elected officials with quite specific tasks. This is how the king was replaced, and why our tradition still refers to the servants at the castle as "the king". The castle, and indeed the country, continues functioning as if there were a king, but we long ago outgrew the need to have an actual figurehead there.

In the Palace of a Thousand Steps, the emperor sits on his throne at the top of a miniature staircase, one thousand tiny steps above the audience chamber floor. That is how far you are beneath him. All who appear there to petition the emperor are ritually cut before leaving, for nobody can come face to face with the emperor and walk away unharmed. The emperor must be seen to be unconcerned with earthly matters, including food, shelter and clothing. Thus nobody may watch him eat, though food is delivered. He has no official home. He does not speak, does not walk, performs none of the mundane actions of ordinary life, at least not while anyone is looking. Such ritual, ceremony and tradition grew up around the emperor that, after several hundred years, the position was given to a wooden statue. It was far easier, then, to believe him to be immortal, to ensure he would never bleed and would not age. And, officially, the emperor still ruled, though his vice-chancellor had to do most of the work.

The Gnome Queen of the Opal Caverns holds court over a tiny nation. It is forever shrinking as border disputes, private land sales and plain old erosion nibble away at the edges. Centuries ago the Caverns domain stretched under the earth for hundreds of kilometres. Over time it diminished, by degrees, to only several caves. As recently as two years ago it covered just one cave and a dozen subjects. Today, technically, the Opal Caverns nation is one stalagmite, and has no populace but the queen herself. With a deep sigh of resignation, the Gnome Queen takes the quill from the grinning goblin and signs the treaty that gives away the very last vestiges of her once-great dominion.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Everything comes to an end.
PPS - Well, most things.

Pedestrians as traffic control

There is a pedestrian crossing near the train station in my home suburb. It does nothing but allow people to cross the busy road in two stages, with a refuge island in the middle. You cross one half, push the next button, and cross the second half. Despite being exclusively for the good of pedestrians, I believe it has been designed mostly with the cars in mind. For instance, in the morning, when most people are heading towards the train station, the lights are timed so that they give the maximum possible delay to pedestrians crossing the road in that direction. When one pedestrian light goes green on the side furthest from the station, you can bet that its timer is just behind the one on the other side, so that you will have to wait in the middle. If you were coming out of the station at that time, you would find the timing quite agreeable. This timing is reversed in the afternoon.

Second, if you take a look down the road to another signalled intersection, you will notice that the pedestrian light goes red just as that other one goes green, so cars coming in that direction will have to stop at both lights. This does not provide any benefit to the pedestrians, of course, and it doesn't even happen at all if there are no pedestrians. I must conclude, therefore, that the timing is the result of a conscious decision to use pedestrians as a form of traffic control. Somehow that doesn't seem like a good idea.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think the maximum-delay timing is a mistake.
PPS - But I can't know for sure.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Live parking info

If we can get live traffic info from car transponders (sort of like Google Maps does), we could possibly get live parking info too. Because we don't have always-on, internet-enabled car transponders, though, you'd have to get the data some other way. If Google Maps can get live traffic data from users, perhaps you could compare the intended destinations of those users to see if there is likely to be a parking problem in a given area when they all arrive.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There would be a fair amount of guesswork involved.
PPS - But sometimes that's enough.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Inside-out computing

Every now and then there is a major shift in the way we think about computers and technology. It's like this: we make screens bigger, better and more immersive, but they're still screens we have to put in place. At some point there comes a shift - we flip inside out - and suddenly we're not looking at the world with screens put on top, but screens with the world underneath. It usually happens when someone invents a new way of doing things, but it doesn't happen every time. You can't reach that change point with the same technology and the same way of doing things. We can cram more and more technology into the gaps in our world, but eventually we're going to run out of room between existing technology and methods. At some point, we have to redesign and leave old technology behind.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Hopefully for something better.
PPS - Otherwise what's the point?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Smart phones and internet monitoring

Our next generation will probably have their own smart phones before they have their own computers. That means they have their own personal unmonitored internet connection, and for paranoid parents that's a huge red flag. Whereas normal desktops can be placed in common areas at home to discourage inappropriate use (whether deliberate or accidental), mobile phones don't have that option. When there's an internet connection in everyone's pocket, what do you do? You can try locking it down so that the user (the child) is not an administrator (the parent) who decides what is and is not acceptable on the phone. That kind of system has to be perfect to be successful, though, and nothing is ever perfect.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe it would be good enough for most circumstances, though.
PPS - And it all depends how much you trust your kids.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Print on demand

If retail of the future is going to involve a lot more print on demand services, from where are the first 3D printing shops going to arise? Will they be additions to the old photo and camera shops, as a new print kiosk beside the photo printing booths? Will internet cafes install 3D printers for one-off object downloads beside their paper printers? Will they be vending machines standing alone? Will they be in their own service department at big department stores? Perhaps they'll be an important part of novelty shops, who can then print as many weird mugs or toy figurines as they require that day. Maybe they'll find their first niche at the local hardware store, where you can go and get that specific piece you need, the same way you can get a paint colour made to order. Or maybe they will just appear as their own standalone shop, much like current clothing personalisation shops.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I saw Coca Cola booths at Chermside shopping centre where you could have your name printed on a can.
PPS - But that counts more as experimental marketing.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Undercity

Thirteen years ago I entered the labyrinth of the Undercity through a manhole I found in an alley. I didn't know where I was going. If I'd known, I would have stayed out. In all my thirteen years down here, I have never found an exit, but I've been looking the whole time. That's why I am both intrigued by and skeptical of the little snivelling creature cowering at the tip of my drawn sword. I've learned the hard way to survive down here in this half-real place, and I've got the scars (and sword) to prove it. You don't live long on these streets by sweating and crying at the sight of every shiny blade, so this kid must be new. The trail back to his entry might still be fresh.

He tried to pick my pocket, a trick most urchins around here know not to try, and as I had wheeled on him, sword drawn, he jumped back, tripped and fell against the wall, with nowhere left to go. At the threat of a swift impalement, he squeaked quickly: "I know a way out!" Everyone is looking for a way out.

The rain pelts down, as always, and we walk. I follow the boy, clearly recovered from his ordeal, around the gravity well, past the blank-faced shops, over the Dozen Train Tracks and the boy keeps looking back to check on me. We turn left into a red-brick street that narrows the further it goes. There is a faint shimmer in the air at an uncertain distance, and on the edge of detection, a scent of ozone mixed with the usual rats-and-garbage smells. We do not seem to be getting closer, nor further away.

Then suddenly, like blundering into a thick curtain in the dark, I feel it. A velvet heaviness in the atmosphere, threatening to press me to the ground. It's as if the space here is more real than anywhere I've been in years. Maybe I've been here too long. Could true reality crush me? Every step grows more difficult, I feel like I'm breathing syrup and the raindrops assault me like almighty hailstones. I am strong. I can make it, I tell myself, but then I cannot. Though I summon every molecule of energy I possess, I fall back, my body too keen to breathe the half-real Undercity air, not this choking reality.

I can dimly see the boy racing ahead, as if this mystic doorway were a mere gap in a wall, then the space shifts, the bricks flow and interlock, and before me is a blank wall. No shimmer, no ozone, no heavy reality. I push myself to my feet, grit my teeth through the pins and needles as the blood resumes flowing, and sheath my sword. I belong here. I have belonged in the Undercity for longer than I realised. But now I know two things. There are exits, and it is possible to use them. The rest is details. Perhaps I can push further into an exit, train my body to be more real. Perhaps there are parts of the Undercity that are more real, where I can re-learn reality. Maybe the boy had a key, or some trick I can learn. Maybe, just maybe, there is a way for me to return home.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I picture the Undercity as a bizarre counterpart to a real city.
PPS - It might be one of those settings I revisit another time.

Compounding errors

There may be computer systems that do their individual tricks well enough, but when you compose them together, they don't do so well. For instance, we have moderately good textual language translation, and we have moderately good speech-to-text software, but if you try to use them together, those success percentages - say, 60% each - need to be multiplied together, and suddenly you only get a 36% total success rate. All the pieces for some really cool software are out there right now, but the overall effect of composing them together is less impressive than it could be.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It can give you ideas, though.
PPS - And it can be useful for prototyping.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Moving lots of data

Services that move a lot of data - tens of gigabytes at a time, I mean - need three things: off-peak scheduling, bandwidth limiting and error recovery. You need to be able to schedule the file transfers for times when the network is not in high demand, or for separate quota times for domestic users. It's a kind of Quality of Service setting, I suppose. Bandwidth limiting means you can set caps on the rate at which data is to be transferred, staying under certain quotas or, again, to maintain the quality of other services. Error recovery is essential, too, since operations of that size are more likely to run into problems sooner or later, and retrying manually is a very large burden. If you can't recover automatically from errors, everything is going to take much longer and be much more frustrating.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A lot of our problems at work would be solved if we had software that did this.
PPS - Guess I'd better get writing.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A QR-code+smartphone point of sale system

Start with a bank-to-bank funds transfer system built on itemised invoices. You can create an itemised invoice with your bank, and they keep it on file, and generate a unique identifier for it. You pass that identifier and your bank's BSB code to your customer. They go to their bank and enter the number, which displays the invoice, fetched from your bank by the number. When they approve it, the appropriate total, as defined in the invoice, is transferred to your bank account. That's the backbone of this system.

Now for the cool part. Say you're at a market, where a lot of small businesses have booths to sell their wares. Using this invoice system and smartphones, these small market businesses can accept electronic payments rather than handling cash. The stall owner can pass the invoice numbers to customers via QR codes, so that there are no mistakes. The whole transaction from end to end would look a lot like tallying up an order on a calculator app, showing a generated code to the customer, then confirming receipt of the funds via the same app.

As long as the banks are all on board, and the apps are available for all major smartphone operating systems (or as mobile-friendly websites), there's no reason for any of this to be tied to a particular institution or device, and no personal information needs to be exchanged between customer and seller, so privacy is maintained (as long as invoice numbers are random) and security is aided by the disposable nature of the invoices.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Hopefully such a system would be provided for free.
PPS - Then again, banks do love their fees.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Critical thinking

Critical thinking requires the ability to analyse statements into facts, assumptions and interpretations. Facts can be checked, assumptions can be challenged and interpretations argued. That's intelligent debate. Most people will come at you with interpretations and facts, but to fully understand their position, you need to know the assumptions that have supported their interpretations. Anyone who says they aren't making assumptions either doesn't know what their assumptions are, or they aren't making logical arguments.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can't make logical arguments without assumptions.
PPS - You could try, I suppose, but they would fall over on their own.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Testing privacy claims

How do you know you can trust a website's privacy claims? You need ways of detecting abuse and one-way layers of revelation, undetectable to the service. That is, lies about your location, job, contact details and so on, thrown out like chaff to confuse and disorient data miners. That way you can test out the service's claims before you reveal any potentially compromising information. If any of those lies are used and abused in ways you did not specify, that site is not trustworthy. How would you detect such abuse?

With some details, like email, it's cheap and quick to set up a fake address and monitor it. Phone numbers are harder, but still potentially possible. Postal addresses can probably only be faked properly with PO boxes or a trusted remailing service that receives your mail at another address and forward it on. If all you're worried about is personal details, you can just lie and see if those lies show up in communication from other, unrelated companies. That means your lies need to be unique for each service. At this one you're an astronaut, that one a pastry chef and at another you're a doorman. If you use a lot of them, it would be tricky to keep track of them all, of course, and, as we all know, lies can come back to haunt you.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - To see if humans even view the data, you could list your profession as "CEO of [company]".
PPS - Where "[company]" is the website you're using.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Reality Distortion Field

The reality distortion field, or RDF, had kept Steve functional for a long time - about 115 years, to be precise - warding off infections and assassins equally, like they were mosquitoes. The side-effects of producing inspiration in others were just that: side-effects. Very beneficial, but not the focus of the device. While it sustained him, he could hardly help but become an inspiring visionary leader, or perhaps the head of a cult. He chuckled as he thought the two need not be mutually exclusive and admired the machine in its last moments.

As the tiny nuclear battery whirred to a halt and the indicator LEDs winked out, Steve sighed and resigned to his fate. He'd had some good times, but since that other genius had gone missing, nobody had been able to fix the RDF, and the more people knew about its existence, the less effective it would be. He couldn't afford to get too many people onto the repairs, or they would cancel the very effect they were trying to maintain.

He strolled to the window, looking out at the estate. Its manicured lawns, trimmed hedges and fountains, the circular drive. The stables and private polo field. He'd miss it. Steve figured he had done everything he could. The repairs failed, so he'd made some good succession plans and arranged everything as well as possible to continue after him. The company should survive. His family - great-great-grandchildren now - would be provided for; supported and comfortable but not extravagently so. And that was everything. Time to go out with a bang.

He raced, excited, up to the roof where the Zeppelin waited, donned his goggles, leather helmet and scarf, then took off, flying out over the ocean, higher and higher, until he disappeared from view entirely. He wouldn't be heard from again, and his "disappearence" would be one last mysterious gift to the world.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In memory of Steve Jobs, who I don't think actually had a Reality Distortion Field machine.
PPS - Or a Zeppelin, come to think of it.

Designing for users or not

I saw a talk online from Mix11, a Microsoft conference, where a designer said that the days of user-centric design were numbered. He also said that he was talking about a major shift in understanding our relationship with technology, and that this comes at the expense of seeing ourselves at the centre of the digital ecology. But if we are not designing for users, then by what principles do we guide our design? I think it would have to be via tasks and communication. We have something to do. Humans may or may not be involved, but if you're going to think of that, then you have also to think that computers might not be involved. This could easily be a discussion about human-to-human technology involving nothing but language.

The point is that there are tasks to do to accomplish some goal, and there are players involved who need to provide or receive certain information. The best way to do so might be on paper or it might be with a fully-automated internet-enabled system. To be a designer, you can't think in terms of "what can a computer do for a user in this context" but "what does everyone need to do to complete this task?" As soon as a computer is involved, however, and someone needs to use it to accomplish part of the task, you need to design the interface in a way that makes sense to humans, is easy to learn and easy to use. If you don't design that part for humans, it's pretty pointless.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Some software makes me wonder whether anyone considered users at all.
PPS - But that's not new.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Patent licensing

I've seen a question about patent reform where the question was asked: should we be looking to overhaul the whole system, or would we do better to institute a flat licensing scheme to which patent owners can't say "no"? Rather than preventing the implementation of their ideas and suing everyone who tries to copy it, now inventors just get a license fee from everyone who wants to use their idea. Of course, it would still be up to them to find and point out that people are using the idea, and sometimes that argument might go to court to argue about whether or not the patented idea has been used at all, but anyone anywhere is free to build on any ideas anyone else has. Right now, if there are two technologies that are patented by different people or companies, nobody anywhere is allowed to put them together, even if it would work well and do amazing things. In this proposed system you can patent an idea and you don't even have to implement it to benefit. You just need to make sure people who use your idea are paying royalties.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Which, to be fair, is as hard as enforcing a patent in the existing system.
PPS - But it should enable more innovation.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Maps and location online

Local services are difficult to do online, because the internet is not built around the idea of your location affecting what you do. That's kind of the point - no matter where you are, you can get to the same websites as everyone else. Sure, someone can create a website that tells you about local places and events, and individual business websites usually tell you where you can find their real-space offices, but that's just another outgrowth of the free-and-easy internet model. The same way Google can build a maps service, so can Microsoft or Apple or Facebook or Foursquare or anyone in their garage with the know-how and time. That's not a step towards clarity for local information.

What we need instead is a standard way to specify location information on any website so that Google Maps, Bing Maps, Whereis and all those other map search websites can crawl and index them, rank them and present them in any way they see fit. For instance, say BP publishes a list of the map coordinates of all their petrol stations worldwide as a KML file on their website. Google comes along and grabs that list, and then when you search for BP on a map, you can get your nearest petrol station, along with whatever metadata they associate with that map tag and a link to the website where it was harvested. We have a standard data format already that we could use for this: KML.

This kind of distributed map data publishing creates a greater incentive to spam, since now we're not just talking about page rank in Google keyword searches, but literal real estate on maps. If your result is more prominent than others, it's much more obvious and much more valuable. So there would need to be good ranking algorithms to make sure the right results show up for certain locations.

I wonder if map providers are already trying to do this, with their crawler bots recognising street addresses and associating them with keywords and icons. It would be surprising if nobody was trying, but I think a distributed map tag standard makes sense. It should also provide support for dates and times, so that we can list timed events too, and not just places.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I know Google Maps already displays a lot of useful local information.
PPS - But does that come from automatic website scraping or from a team of people?