Monday, 31 January 2011

Digital sound

Our current methods for digital sound reproduction go something like this: digital sound signal is translated to analogue to travel down a wire to analogue speakers that produce the sound. This can result in a loss of quality, particularly if the cable is less than perfect. I notice that effect very often with my computer speakers. You need to ensure a good connection between all the components or you get further signal degradation, and the first thing you check when your sound is bad is the cable connections.

To maintain quality and minimise these effects, we need to push the digital-to-analogue conversion to be as late as possible. In this case, that means right up in the speakers, headphones or earbuds. The cables and connections need to carry digital signals so that even cheap cables can guard against signal loss quite effectively (just like all HDMI cables produce a perfect picture, no matter the price).

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This will make headphones and speakers more expensive, unfortunately.
PPS - It will also make a lot of equipment obsolete or at least incompatible.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Friday Photo - The Ashes

This is a replica of the Ashes, the smallest professional sporting trophy in the world. You can't quite tell the scale, but it's only about a handspan tall. This particular replica is owned by my Dad, who is fond of telling the story of its origin, and simultaneously dismayed that other Australia vs England sporting events call themselves "the Ashes" too.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I know it's not the official trophy of the competition.
PPS - But the official trophies now given are the same size.

Blurring the truth

We will get more access to information in the future but the truth will get harder to determine. We publish lies as jokes, where the only way to know the difference is to know the truth already. But once we've had a few generations of this, how is anyong going to dig up the truth about the past any more?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The answer is not "check it on Wikipedia".
PPS - Also, you can't easily fact-check a vague rumour.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Phone calls don't multitask well

The disadvantage of using our phones for everything is that you can't do anything else while on a call, like take a note or look up a map. And with our world rapidly converging to a place where our primary computing device is in our pocket all the time, this is going to be a problem. Maybe not a very big one, but a problem all the same. The only solution for now seems to be putting your phone on speaker and multitasking. I wonder if we can come up with anything better.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Probably not.
PPS - Unless it involves relying more on text-based communications.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

I Am, You Are, We Are Australian

Today is Australia Day, and I think, as a nation, we still aren't sure what it means to be Australian. It might have something to do with dying in a war on a beach, or it might be all about sport, alcohol and cooking outdoors. People might throw around words like "larrikin" and "underdog", too, but I still don't think we're closer to really defining our national identity.

Maybe one of these days we'll get it clear, but for now I think it's better that we have just a vague stereotype. I'm Australian and you're Australian, and the different ways we express that is how we make up this nation. That way we don't define Australia by what we should be, but what we currently are, and there's nothing to point at and say "this is Australian, and you are not". It's inclusive. I like that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's what "multiculturalism" is supposed to be, right?
PPS - That was never clearly defined either, but that's what I think.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Mozilla disabling Skype Firefox extension

I've heard that Mozilla have decided to flip the kill bit on the Skype toolbar, an extension for Firefox that is always installed with Skype (whether you want it or not), uses tons of resources and is the cause of an absurd percentage of all Firefox crashes. It makes good sense, since force-installed extensions that reduce stability of Firefox will give the impression that Firefox is bad, where the actual reason is that Skype blows big chunks. Is it a concern? Do people actually want or need this buggy extension? Probably not. Even if you do, you can manually re-enable it, but I think Mozilla have made the right choice in this.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Now if only they would make it impossible to install third-party extensions permanently against my will.
PPS - I'm looking at you, Java.

Monday, 24 January 2011 and usability

I have discovered something frustrating about If you know approximately where you want to stay, and exactly when, you can't easily search for that. You can get a list of accommodation around that area, available or not, and you can get a list of accommodation including availability, but what you can't get is a search including only what's available in a certain region on a certain date. The map includes everything and the list doesn't tell you where things are like the map does. As soon as you zoom in or out on the map, the speech bubble pointing to your selection disappears, so you can't see where it is in relation to other places unless you keep your eyes glued on it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If the short list function affected the map too, that would work.
PPS - It still wouldn't be perfect, though.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Friday Photo - Panic Buying

Pictured above is the milk section at a local supermarket during the worst of the Queensland flood panic. I suppose people were just too polite to take the last one?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I didn't need it, so I didn't buy it either.
PPS - The fruit and vegetable section looked similarly empty.

Dangerous driving

One thing that gets us all into trouble on the roads is cutting in to a gap that's too small for us. The reason I think it's particularly dangerous is that the drivers closing the gap slow down to avoid killing you. This may lead you to believe you judged the gap just right, and pull into similar gaps in the future where drivers are not being as alert or courteous. You'll never know they slowed down. My own response, which is even more dangerous, has been to maintain speed a little bit longer to give the clear impression that the gap you pulled into was too small. It's a bad idea, and I don't do that any more.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm sure there are plenty of dangerous, stupid things done on the roads daily.
PPS - And not all of them in cars.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Human responsibilities

Human rights need to be balanced with human responsibilities. You never have one without the other. Lately, though, our society has been vastly over-emphasising human rights, asking us to be greedy, needy, selfish imps, taking and never giving. The world owes me these things, and I demand them right now. And what do I do in return? I exercise my rights. Give them to me and I will use them. End of story.

I'm not saying fighting for human rights is a bad thing, nor am I saying that the idea needs to be abandoned. And goodness knows there are plenty of places in the world that really need someone to fight for the human rights of their populace. But once we've got our rights, we need to move forward to mature responsibility too. You don't have rights in a pure vacuum. You have rights as long as you uphold their associated responsibilities, and your responsibilities persist as long as you benefit from your rights. They're two sides of the same story.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I do think the rights need to come first.
PPS - And the first responsibility is to fight for others' rights.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Protecting discarded hard drives

Sometimes I worry about the advice I give out. Being "one of the computer guys" means I get queries about all aspects of all technology, and it's important to understand what is actually being requested. The most recent one was about how to "get data off a dead hard drive". The request was actually about how to prevent someone reading a hard drive that is intended to be discarded, so I recommended blunt force trauma (hit it with a hammer until "the round bits inside" are broken). Having never done such a thing myself, I actually don't know if that will produce inpleasant side-effects like deadly shards of flying metal, but it's what I would do.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or at least what I would try the first time.
PPS - The second time might involve something more careful.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Sci Fi Channel changed its name to "Syfy". Everyone hated it. Many people insist on pronouncing it "Siffy" to make fun of it. They have also announced their intention to produce more reality shows and push away from science fiction. Everyone hates the idea. However, if the ratings indicate that they get higher viewership this way, they will keep moving away from their "traditional" programming until they are a hyperactive MTV clone.

What those numbers will not indicate, however, is the large body of disenfranchised science fiction fans who are now ripe for the plucking by some other science fiction channel. When you alienate your core audience and replace them with ADHD tweenies, of whom there are more, your raw numbers will go up, but you'll push into an occupied niche, vacating one that was all your own. It looks good on paper, but it would look better on paper if you had started your ADHD channel as well as the science fiction one, since the audiences don't overlap that much.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's a problem of not looking deep enough into the statistics.
PPS - Ratings aren't deep enough at all, but advertisers don't much care.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Superheroes and the police

There are a bunch of guys who dress up as super heroes in Seattle, complete with masks, and go on patrol to fight crime. Leaving aside the question of their sanity for a moment, what's wrong with this picture? We have an organisation designed to fight crime. It's called "The Police Force". And if you want to be a crime fighter, they have a very clear application process you can go through. They'll even issue you with:
  • A costume
  • Cool gadgets
  • A vehicle
  • A base of operations
  • Special training
  • A sidekick and
  • A whole team of like-minded crime fighters to back you up
That's practically a recipe for becoming Batman. If you go out on your own in a mask, no matter how awesome you think you are, you're not invincible. You don't have the proper training or the right equipment, and at some point you'll either get charged with assault or murdered. You'll do just as much good (some would argue more good) as a police officer than as a masked vigilante.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Go and join up.
PPS - If you don't make it there, you're probably not cut out for the gig anyway.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Friday Photo - The lake behind my house

My home city of Brisbane has been flooding over the past few days. The picture above is the lake behind my house on Tuesday, which is usually a park. That red stick is about a metre tall, standing beside a concrete path. It was this sight that led us to self-evacuate for Tuesday night. Thankfully, no damage was done to our property or any of our neighbours, and the water has receded significantly since then.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The water was a good 50 metres from our house.
PPS - We're the lucky ones.

Incurable bad breath

I suffer from bad breath. I think I got it from my Dad, and I have it nearly all the time. If I haven't brushed my teeth in the last few hours, my breath smells like a toilet. The most frustrating part of the whole experience for me is that there is no way to cure this condition. The best you can do is cover it up and hope nobody notices. While I realise that bad breath is probably an invention of people who wanted to sell us scented toothpaste, mouthwash and chewing gum, that doesn't help me when I live in a culture that values smelling nice over actual bodily cleanliness. Now if you'll excuse me, it's been a good three minutes since I last chewed some gum and the house plants are starting to wither.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Nobody seems to know what causes chronic halitosis.
PPS - Or at least the people who claim to know are inconsistent.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Flooding and communication

The floods in Brisbane over the past couple of days have made me realise that it's pretty difficult to get real information about vulnerable areas and predicted levels of flooding. For instance, depending on what sources you listen to and what their mood is, you might hear about at-risk areas in terms of "regions", suburbs, catchments, rivers, altitude (ie "low-lying areas"), bridges or roads. If you want to know whether you're in danger, you need to know all of these things about your local area.

Second, up to date flood maps are very useful, as long as they are clear. The only map I could find of my area had thin blue lines for all creeks, rivers and overland flows, and thick, unlabelled grey lines for every road. That made it nearly impossible to tell what areas were at risk and which were flooded.

So what should have been done differently? The Bureau of Meteorology, city council and emergency services need to coordinate their information better and provide simple, consistent, easy-to-access lists of contact information and maps of flooding and at risk areas. Simply talking about "low-lying areas" of particular suburbs isn't good enough. Also, if you say on the radio that "information will be available on our website", you'd better put it prominently on the front page.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - On the plus side, if you wanted shocking video, the TV had that covered.
PPS - But never any location captions.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Online parking reservations

I wonder whether any parking buildings provide online reservation systems. You'd go online, print a reservation slip, then rock up and scan it to be let in. They'd have to be prepaid and have an expiry time, though, or else be for a specific vehicle. Otherwise you'd get scalpers standing at the gates overcharging for their acquisitions.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In general, it seems like a system that would work.
PPS - Maybe not in every case, but it would function.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Rechoreographing failed dance auditions

You know what I would like to see? A dance show that takes the awkward self-choreographed routines of failed auditions and reinterprets them as they must imagine they look. So instead of just playing these cringe-worthy auditions, someone spends the time studying them to figure out what was the intended look, then performs the polished version. Granted, amateur dancer/choreographers won't match up to professionals, so the end result may still be a bit off, but I just want to see what these people think they look like.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Some of it might come out well.
PPS - But by then it might not look much like the original.

Monday, 10 January 2011

LoseIt and converting measurements

I've started using a website called LoseIt to help lose a little weight by tracking my food intake. It's just calorie counting, so nothing revolutionary there, and all the measurements are in imperial units like fluid ounces and pounds. I looked for an option to switch to SI units and instead found an FAQ entry that states why the site is limited to the old system. The claim is that this is because of the database storing information in imperial units, but that makes no sense. After all, can't computers multiply and convert between units after they're retrieved from the database? I could write all the necessary conversions in a single afternoon and probably in a single hour.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Adding such conversions to their software would take longer.
PPS - I'm sure I could do it.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Friday Photo - This Is Jacob

Here's something new I'm going to try this year instead of Friday Zombie Blogging: a photo every Friday. Above is the Secret Santa gift I received at the office Christmas party. It's a Twilight Jacob doll, and I managed to sell it to a coworker as a gag gift for $10.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So, really, I got $10 from Secret Santa.
PPS - I bought a muffin with it.

Terrorism vs journalism

I've heard Wikileaks branded as "an act of terrorism" because it's a threat and induces fear. But isn't terrorism meant to be defined as a fear-inducing act for the purpose of waging war and destroying a culture? Journalism, on the other hand, is an act that can induce fear, but is intended to preserve a culture by revealing illegal acts done by people in power. The threat of revelation is meant to keep those people from abusing their power or, if it's too late, to take their abused power away. We have freedom of the press to counterbalance the corrupting effects of power.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Every king needs a fool to make fun of him.
PPS - And that fool needs to be free to do so.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Do not pay more for premium HDMI cables

You should never, ever pay more for a "high quality" HDMI cable. Here's why. In the days of analogue signals, high-quality cables made a difference. A shoddy cable might introduce a certain amount of noise into the signal, delivering only, say, 80% quality. That 20% signal loss would translate directly to poorer audio or video, because there's less signal to work with.

HDMI, however, delivers a digital signal, which can stand up to 49% signal degradation with no loss of quality whatsoever. So while a high-quality cable might manage 99% signal fidelity, and a cheap cable only 60%, these two cables will sound and look identical in the end. The only difference will be the amount of cash left in your wallet.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The difference between digital and analogue is no contest.
PPS - As you'd know if you've compared them.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Multi-touch desk computers and real users

A recent study at Aachen University created a single-display multi-touch desk intended as one big, smooth work surface. They called it BendDesk. When tested with real users, however, they used the horizontal and vertical surfaces much as we currently use screens, mouse and keyboard - they treated them as separate planes and avoided the curved, connecting section like it was diseased.

Personally, if I had a desk like that, I'd be more likely to do my work on the horizontal surface, like a normal desk. Something else I'd like to see someone try is a tilted surface, like an architect's desk. I think that might turn out to be even better for large-screen multi-touch computers.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think the results indicate current habits more than fundamental psychology.
PPS - Maybe that's just me, though.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

GMail spam filter adjustments

I used to keep my spam folder in GMail turning over automatically, just allowing items to expire as they reached their 30-day limit, then it seemed everything got a lot worse and my spam volume jumped from 20 per month to over 50. It held there for a really long time, and I got sick of marking things as read every day (to keep the unread message count invisible) so I just deleted the lot one day. Suddenly, the volume of new messages dropped, so I can't help but think GMail bases its minimum delivery threshold on how many messages you manually delete from GMail, not how many spams you receive or how many automatically expire from your spambox. Now that I've thought about it, it does make a kind of sense from a certain point of view, but it's not how I assumed things would work.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Spam is spam, deleted or not.
PPS - And I like to have a rough idea how much I'm receiving.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Is it the future yet?

  • Many of us carry tiny, powerful, touch-screen computers in our pockets (or purses) BUT Steve Jobs gets to say what you're allowed to do with them.
  • We have tablet computers just like Star Trek, except Steve Jobs has veto over those too.
  • Our books now come in electronic form, as long as you're happy for Amazon to be able to revoke them after sale.
  • We can communicate with just about anyone, just about anywhere, just about any time, BUT you still need multiple user accounts to keep up with everyone, because IM and social networking are walled gardens.
  • We have video phones, as long as the network stays up.
  • TV is available online, quickly and cheaply ... as long as you live in the USA. You can record, pause, rewind and fast-forward live broadcasts, with the right equipment.
  • In-car computing is finally starting to take off, thanks to the mobile web and GPS navigation.
  • 3D printing is readily available as a service, but not generally in everyone's home yet.
  • We are legally forbidden to rip our DVDs for personal viewing.
Mokalus of Borg

PS - So plenty of room yet to grow.
PPS - And probably a lot of things I haven't thought of yet.