Thursday, 31 March 2011

Therapy and enabling

Is there a difference in therapy between enabling someone in their illness and changing their circumstances so they can cope? For an agoraphobe, it can hardly be said to be therapeutic to allow them to remain at home all the time, but to force them outside into their panic state as much as everyone else goes outside would be a wrong extreme too. You don't want to allow someone like that to fully withdraw from reality, but at the same time, you don't expect the same level of interaction from them that you would from others.

At some point you have to be able to say "That's enough for today", but how much is enough? I imagine it's hard for therapists to push their patients into uncomfortable situations and leave them there long enough to do some good, but not long enough to do permanent harm. But if you go too far in the "do no harm" direction, you're helping them stay sick.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not speaking from any personal experience.
PPS - On either side of the issue.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Incomplete tools

External documentation is a signal that a tool is not doing its whole job, or was under-designed. We have a ticket tracking website we use at work, and a OneNote page to track who needs to follow up which tickets where and how. If the ticket tracking software was up to scratch, it would handle that follow-up info on its own, without requiring external documentation.

It's always a pain to keep them in sync, too, which is the primary reason it's a problem. If the tool doesn't hold and manage all the data you need it to manage, you'll end up with at least a second list, extra data entry time and effort as well as occasionally out of date data in one or the other location. So you start mistrusting one data store and don't bother with it any more, leading to its eventual death. If one tool is no good without the other, it will not work to keep two tools manually in sync.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - "Manual sync" should always be a red flag phrase.
PPS - And "red flag phrase" should be a tongue-twister.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Personal data organisation

How do you store and organise your semi-structured data? Do you make lists on paper? Do you file them in any system? Do you have a card index? I struggle sometimes with the amount of data I store, and not all of it has to do with work. I have a lot of text files that grow and grow, lists of TV and DVDs to watch and buy, logs of the time I've spent at work, not to mention my ongoing work diary and personal journal, plus emails, address books and non-time-related writing on various topics not for blogging, but just to lay things out in my mind.

It bothers me that I've never found even a few systems that can handle this to any degree of consistency, availability and robustness. Databases are generally too structured and require tools I don't always have with me. Spreadsheets would be good, but they'd quickly become too large to manage by hand. Text files are clearly inadequate, or else I wouldn't be looking to anything else, and wouldn't be frustrated with them.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm probably after a personal wiki.
PPS - But no personal wiki system has ever struck me as adequate either.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Really jumping on eggs without breaking them

Some time ago, a video from the BBC's past resurfaced online - a man "jumping on eggs without breaking them". He seems to be a little short on real skill (he's just touching an egg with one foot while jumping), and it's quite embarassing on his behalf, but it reminded me of a story I read years ago. There was a man, I wish I could find his name, who used to do stunts like this with two large weights held in his hands. By swinging the weights, he could change his momentum and, for instance, jump on eggs with *both* feet and back off without breaking them, leap over a cart horse from a standing start, and jump over a body of water in two hops, looking like he bounced on the water in the middle. That seems like one of those impressive skills you might find on YouTube these days, but nobody seems to have done it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The trouble is that my search terms keep bringing up this other guy.
PPS - And I no longer have the book where I read about it.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Learning language

How do babies learn language? Spoken nouns ("dog!"), spoken verbs, basic sentences, then reading, then writing. Why don't we teach adults second languages that way? Most of the time we act like the best way to learn a language is to present entire abstract phrases in your native language, then learn to read and write them in the new language you want to learn.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course it gets harder the older you get.
PPS - Personally I want audio-visual flash cards.

Friday Photo - Maitland

This is my attempt at an arty picture of a room we stayed in for a friend's wedding last weekend.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Not bad, if I do say so myself.
PPS - The wedding was in Pokolbin and we stayed in Maitland.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Tablet computers as primary devices

Would you be happy with a tablet computer as your main machine? If it were powerful enough, I'd say yes. I expect I would a least have a dock with a real keyboard on my desk though. The biggest problem I can imagine is screen space. Tablets just don't have the room to move that I need for my work.

I think, at some point in the future, the power of phones will have increased to such a degree that they are our primary computing devices. When we want to use them at home, we'll have docks with standard connections that we can drop them into, from which they will power desktop screens and full-size keyboards.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or maybe most of our software will change to match small screens and touch.
PPS - A lot of it is changing that way already.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Context-aware video resizing

I watched a demo of seam carving for video retargeting. Basically, they're cutting out the "most boring" bits of video frames to resize video in a context-aware way. It's not perfect, especially when there are big foreground objects, but it's a cool effect to see. The seams they were using were across all frames and intended to resize vertically or horizontally.

I wonder what would happen if you applied the seams in the time dimension, cutting out dynamic frames to "retarget" a video to a shorter time. There's nothing in the algorithm that would prevent doing so, and I think the results would be pretty interesting. It would probably come out looking a bit hyperactive. For instance, if two people were talking in turn, such an algorithm might cut out the parts where each person is not talking, compressing the conversation until the participants just talk over each other the whole time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In some movies, you might not notice the difference.
PPS - And some important scenes might go missing because they're too visually simple.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Recognising procrastination is important but it is also important to recognise the underlying reason. Whenever you're procrastinating, it's likely because of something you want to avoid. Why are you avoiding that? Is it just because it's unpleasant? Do you not know where to start? Do you fear you'll fail or let someone down? After finding out why you're procrastinating, you also need to decide what you can do about it. Sometimes (usually) the answer is to just grow some discipline and get started. Sometimes, however, the task you've been avoiding doesn't need to get done at all, or really requires a different approach than the one you were putting off. In that case, you should either remove the item from your action list or replan and take a different approach.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My usual reason is fear of failure.
PPS - Which is very counter-productive, since it leads to certain failure.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Life-critical learning

Someone has to get the first time surgeons. If you told the patient that their surgeon had never done this before, nobody would take that chance. But then we'd quickly run out of surgeons because the new ones aren't able to learn properly. At some point, someone has to take the chance on a new surgeon, or a pilot on their first trip, or the air traffic controller on his first day. I wonder how often we trust our lives to the (technically) inexperienced.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I bet it's more often than we think.
PPS - But probably not alarmingly often.

Friday, 18 March 2011

When recycled is normal

I wonder at what point we will start assuming things are clean and green, environmentally friendly, and change over to labelling harmful items with a warning. A lot of companies and products these days are trying to project a "green" image, so much so that it's expected. So before long it won't be remarkable or boast-worthy any more, it will be the norm to expect products to be recyclable and made from recycled materials. At that point we switch from proudly displaying the fact that such-and-such is the greenest product or company around to pointing out those that are not.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - At that point, progress would have to accelerate.
PPS - Because nobody wants the "WARNING: TOXIC" sticker on their product.

Friday Photo - Ballina Sunrise

A classic from the archives, several years ago. This was taken at sunrise one day on camp. That's me on the right. This was my Windows desktop for a long time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Sorry for not posting one of these for a while.
PPS - I just sort of ran low on material.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Somewhat perfect

Perfection needs to be defined in order to be sought. Usually there are too many trade-offs for something to hit 100% on all axes. For example, what is the perfect car? Is it one that can carry your entire family plus a month of groceries, one that costs very little to run, one that's super-safe or one that goes extremely fast? You're not going to get all of those factors in one car. At most, you'll get two, and as a result will bottom out the others - a fast car that holds your whole family will cost a fortune to run. A fast safe one will hold a driver and nothing else. A big, efficient car won't be very fast. The point is that there is no such thing as absolute perfection, which means there is no such thing as absolute progress. Instead, we just have fitness for a particular purpose and change.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The trick is to recognise what is and is not a trade-off situation.
PPS - Which can be tricky.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Future computing looks a lot like today's

The things we tend to see in video demos of "future computing" are super-thin touch-screen phones, translucent LCDs, wall-sized interactive "whiteboards" and gestural interfaces for just about everything including data transfer. That's all good, and quite exciting, but it represents little more than "better, faster iPhones" to me.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Someone out there must have more imagination than that.
PPS - Or perhaps imagination is a dying skill.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Vocabulary of the future

Science fiction writers often seem to use new words or terms for the inevitable next generation of technology, like '3D So-Vi' for television or 'time teller' for clock. The problem is that words have momentum that's hard to overcome. People were referring to "ice boxes" long after they required no ice. I frequently say I'm going to rent a video when I mean a DVD. I've even heard a television referred to as a "picture wireless". If those terms persisted, then "television" and "clock" will, too, and, English being English, the simplest word is likely to win.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - But how will you know it's the future unless they have weird words for things?
PPS - I think the jet packs will give it away.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Replacing Space Quest

While cleaning out a cupboard the other day, I found my old Space Quest game boxes. I've held on to them because they had great sentimental value to me. They were some of the first games I played and loved, not to mention the fact that the boxes contained all those extra goodies that game boxes used to, like maps, comics, collectible pieces and manuals. The trouble with these games now is that they are contained on floppy discs of both the 3.5" and 5.25" variety, and I have no way of actually reading them, let alone checking their integrity.

I would, theoretically, replace them with the Space Quest Collection, an updated version on CD or DVD, but this is unavailable in Australia because ... actually, why is that? It's also on Steam, but banned from sale in Australia, since that would obviously be too much trouble. In short, these games are still technically available for sale, only not where I live, for no apparent reason.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The only reason to ban their sale on Steam would be to sell them another way.
PPS - Or because you hate money.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Helicopter-like parachutes

Could we use passive helicopter-like rotors instead of a parachute? There's a manoever possible with helicopters alled "autorotation" that allows for (relatively) safe landing in the event of engine failure. The same idea might work for a one-person backpack helicopter. I'm not a pilot, though, nor am I familiar enough with helicopter physics (or Wile E. Coyote gadget designs) to say whether it would really work.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - From videos, it still looks difficult.
PPS - So probably not a great idea, but interesting.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


The internet enables much more niche-targeted interest groups, each with their own micro-celebrities. This means an end to mega stars because we can all indulge our more specific tastes and focus on people who match them better than one-personality-fits-all celebrities. It also changes the definition of "famous", where one person may be famous among their tiny subculture of, say, cereal box art enthusiasts, whose members are spread across the world (and in that sense, "world famous") but utterly unknown elsewhere.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess, if you fracture society enough, everyone is famous.
PPS - But by then, what's the point?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Protecting you from candid photography

Most mobile phone cameras have an artificial shutter sound, designed to alert you to candid photography. It's not just a user feedback mechanism, or else there would be a way to turn it off. It is actually meant to protect other people from your camera. Here are some situations where it does not achieve its goal: loud places (concerts or even just a busy street), long distance, crowds (can't see), too quick (snap and run), deaf, distracted, listening to an iPod. And that's if you don't manage to turn the sound off through some other means. So the only real thing it has accomplished is annoying users.

Anyone who wants to take photos without you knowing will do so whether their phone makes noise or not. But all of that is not even the most serious problem, which is that the photo, by the time the noise is made, has already been taken. It's too late already. And these days those photos can be on the internet as fast as the button is pressed, so you can't even chase them down and prevent it going further with confidence. What you really want, in this type of alert system, is flashing lights and very loud sirens that go off for a full minute before the shutter. That way you can be alerted to the presence of the camera and take preventative action before the photo is taken.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Which is, of course, ridiculous.
PPS - And would be impossible to enforce.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Preventing phones in prisons

Apparently phones are being smuggled into prisons at an alarming rate, and it seems like a losing battle trying to keep them out. So if you can't keep phones out of prisons, you can make them useless with a faraday cage, which prevents radio waves getting in or out. And this is exactly one of those circumstances where such expensive measures may be justified. Rather than spending a fortune trying to search for phones in prisons, admit limited defeat on that front and prevent their actual use. Or set up a local, fake phone tower for them to latch onto, which just swallows up everything that goes into it. That might be a problem for anyone living, working or driving by the local area, though.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Both of these measures would adversely affect guards and visitors, too.
PPS - Maybe that's acceptable.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Google encrypted search

Google has an encrypted web search option, running over SSL, which should keep third parties from reading your web traffic, but exactly how much does it protect you? Your ISP still needs to know where to send your requests, and it knows what those IP addresses mean, so they're going to know which websites you're on, even if they don't know what you're doing there. And the same will go for your employer, if you're trying to use encrypted search at work. Also, if you're signed in to your Google account while you search over SSL, your search terms will still be listed in your Google history.

So what actually gets hidden? The contents of what you search for, but not where you go after that, and not the fact that you're performing searches on a secure connection to Google. To keep the actual destination of your browsing a secret, you'd need an encrypted VPN to reroute the traffic.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Privacy and security get more complicated all the time.
PPS - But they've always been particularly difficult on the net.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Piracy vs obscurity

The only thing worse than having your work pirated is not having it pirated. The only things that stop piracy are obscurity and indifference, neither of which translate to monetary success. If your work is popular, it is going to be copied, and if your business relies on that being difficult or rare, it's going to fail eventually. Your business model needs to allow copying or, better yet, thrive on it. That might be enticing people to come to your concerts by putting clips on YouTube and encouraging ticket-holders to do the same.

YouTube will never replace the experience of actually being there, and live experiences can't be copied. This may mean we return to live-action shows rather than movies, and concerts rather than CDs. They have value because time and space are genuinely scarce, while digital copies are not, and monetary value (in this case) derives from scarcity.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Prepare for a full-scale Broadway revival, planet Earth.
PPS - But not until the movie cinemas start to die out.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Windows Live Mesh

I've installed and evaluated another media synchronisation tool: Windows Live Mesh. The setup seems more slick than other programs I've tried, and it keeps the options simple to keep the program usable. This means it misses the mark on bandwidth limiting and scheduling, too, but allows me to set up any number of sync folders that I want, and does them peer-to-peer. It synchronises over the local network when possible, so no bandwidth is used to keep things up to date between my home machines.

The one little problem is that it convinced itself there were 20 files changed on one machine that, in fact, do not exist. No matter what happens, whether I remove and re-add machines to that sync profile (My Music) or create dummy files to pretend to be the ones in waiting, it is perpetually waiting for these imaginary files that will never exist. The only advice available online for fixing this tiny problem is to uninstall the entire program, reinstall it, then set up all your synchronisation again, on every machine. For me, that's four machines and over 20GB of data, so that's a giant red mark on the Live Mesh score card. Other than that, I endorse it by the fact that I am currently still using it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I previously reviewed Libox.
PPS - I uninstalled that one after just one day.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Source Code

There is a movie coming out soon where people use a device and - importantly - some software called "The Source Code" to travel back in time to relive the last 8 minutes of a person's life and investigate crimes or disasters. The one point I want to make is that "Source Code" is a silly name for a program, specifically because source code is what programmers like me write. It becomes the program, when you run it through a compiler, but calling the resulting program "Source Code" is like calling a finished movie "Undeveloped Film".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not sure if I'll see the movie.
PPS - The trailer didn't grab me, beyond that one point.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Distracted driving

Talking on a mobile phone in a car, whether on hands-free or holding the phone to your ear, is a bad distraction. Either way you don't have enough attention on the road, and our road rule makers are starting to wake up to this fact. What will this mean in the future? Well, for one thing, we won't get any more car stereos with built-in Bluetooth for hands-free phone operation. There may also be some subtleties in the rules about using a dashboard-mounted phone as a navigation device (or dedicated nav devices, too). And if it's bad talking on the phone, surely it's bad to drive with misbehaving kids in the back too. How much distraction are we going to allow a driver to have, and how do we measure it? Perhaps it's time we got car manufacturers all working on robot chauffeurs built into our cars and left human drivers on the race track.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have a feeling it would change more things than we intend.
PPS - It would seriously cut into the taxi business, for one.