Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Online vs offline

There are two ways the future of computing can go, in my opinion, and we'll probably get both of them. First, the network starts blurring the lines between what is local and what is remote, to the point where you'd talk more about your services and data than your computer. Wherever you go, as long as there is a network connection, you can get to your own files, contacts and services, because computing is such a part of our lives that it's woven into the very walls of our existence. Every surface is a computer.

The other direction is to gain more power in our phones, up to the point where they are our primary computing devices, capable of all our everyday actions like playing, reading, creating, communicating and working. Meshed with local services like big touch screens and cameras, they provide everything we ever need, right in our pockets. Everywhere I go, I have a computer with me.

It's a subtle difference, but quite important when the network goes down. If you have a local copy of your files in your pocket, plus the apps to use them, you can still work, to an extent. If everything you have is online, including your files, then you have nothing until you can get a connection. In big modern cities, that might not be a big deal, but travelling between them, or to an area dominated by a rival network provider, you'll be out of luck. In that way, offline storage and power is more important than online, because you just can't beat the availability.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The network is a lot less available than you think.
PPS - This is why it worries me when everything is online.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Steam and geographic restrictions

What is the business case for Steam geo-locking games that are only ever sold via download? I really want to know, because it seems like nothing but a way to keep away potential customers. How much does it cost to enable those games for those regions? Zero. If nobody buys, what's the harm? Zero. And what will it get you in return? Anywhere from zero upwards. If somebody does buy, what's the gain? Pure profit. From this chain of reasoning, it's clear to see that geo-locking is an anti-profit technology.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Okay, there may be some other factors like local classification laws.
PPS - But not always.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Pablo

"Doctor, I don't understand what my mind is telling me," says the patient as he sits across from me.

"How do you mean?" I prompt back.

"It's like a hazy dream, but it keeps getting clearer rather than fading away. And it's more every day."

"How about you tell me your dream?"

"I dream about being a dictator of a small Eastern-European nation. I have mercenaries at my disposal, I call myself General. My portrait is posted on every street corner and there are holidays in my honour that I have declared." He has puffed up a little, then deflates with a sheepish look. "Sometimes I remember specific things, like a plane ride or some ... execution. It's disturbing, but kind of exciting, too. It feels like a lot of power for one man."

"It sounds like a subconscious fantasy, perhaps a response to your job. How long have you been a janitor?"

"Three years now. No, four, I think. You really think it is just a dream? It feels very real."

I wave away the question and try to keep talking about his job. "And you've worked all four years at the one place?"

"Si. Yes." he says, eyeing me suspiciously for a moment.

"Maybe it's time to look for a change of scenery. How about the headaches?"

"A small one all this week. It comes and goes."

"Okay, I'm going to increase your anxiety medication a little." I fill out a new prescription. "I'll see you again next week, Pablo."

"Yes ... if I have the time."

He stands to leave and gives me one last quizzical look. After he closes the door behind him, I make some notes and pick up the phone, dialling a number from memory.

"Chief? Doctor Silvestra. It's about 'Pablo'. The memories are coming back, and I'm not sure how long the drugs can keep them suppressed, and that's if he keeps taking them. We may need to discuss other options."

"Sil, this *is* the other option. We convinced the CIA that assassination wasn't necessary and incarceration wouldn't work. This is supposed to be the new way. If we can't make it work, it's back to the bad old days. Try reprogramming him again, and find him a wife this time."

"I ... Yes, Chief."

I hang up the phone and try to remember how many times we have done this. In twenty years since deposing General Viktor Nostroyev, we have reprogrammed him, let's see, eleven times including those two weeks in Florida. It's worked for longer this time, but the unravelling has progressed further, too. Next time we might not get the same chance to move him.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This one has come together in a few stages.
PPS - Please let me know what you think.

The speed of phone technology advancement

Mobile phone technology moves a lot in two years. I have a phone that was new and exciting 24 months ago. It's running Symbian S60. Meanwhile, whole generations of iPhones have come and gone, as have several versions of Google's Android. Windows Phone 7 has been released, Nokia announced their undying love for it and canned development on not one but three of their own operating systems.

It's understandable that a 24-month warranty on mobile handsets might upset some of these telecom companies. It's just too long to keep supporting hardware and software in a fast-paced industry like that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My pone is due to be replaced now.
PPS - I'll be going with an Android model.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Saving the world

Why do you save the world? So ordinary people can live their ordinary lives. That was an argument made in Torchwood and, like all deeply true things, it is opposite to the way the world thinks. It feels like people out there saving the world are doing the big job, the important one, the only one that matters, but if you take away the ordinary people, then there's nothing to save. Of course, if you take away the world-savers too, then there'd be nobody doing the saving, so they're both necessary, but the reason you save the world is so regular people can go about their business untroubled.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It also means I'm not unimportant just because I'm not saving the world.
PPS - If you follow my multi-negative point.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Operating system contexts

Our computers are still very much focused on the OS+app model, where you have an operating system and a selection of applications open. The organisation, if it can be said to exist at all, is taken from the "big pile, you sort it out" school of thought. It's up to you to remember what each app is for and what you were doing with it.

What if, instead, the operating system allowed you to set up different operating contexts, with collections of applications in each one, each with certain files open and certain settings relevant to that context, like "Research for Project A" with web browser tabs and note-taking programs, "Socialising" with chat and Facebook open and so on. Switching contexts is different to switching applications, especially when a task or project involves more than one program.

It could also be useful for contractors who have more than one job at any given time, and need to remember which documents and programs go with which client. To me, this seems like a more user-centric way of organising our machines, rather than making our mode of operation fit the machine's way of thinking.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Sometimes I wish I had this.
PPS - I guess the OS vendors are too busy making things shiny to worry about productivity.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hollywood vs hard drives

Anything you can download or store for yourself scares the pants off the entertainment industry. If computers (and phones and games consoles and portable media players and GPS devices and ebook readers and so on) didn't have hard drives, the MAFIAA would be a lot happier, because then everything would have to be streamed over the network every time, and piracy would be dead since there's no way to store anything. So all they need to do to retain their old business models is destroy the entire market for consumer devices with any kind of storage capacity.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Anyone else would look at that situation and say "oh, well, what else can we do?".
PPS - Apparently Hollywood says "challenge accepted!".

Monday, 23 May 2011

Being exceptional

Anyone can love the lovable. Anyone can give up what they don't want to keep. Anyone can persist when the going is easy. Loving, giving and persisting are not commendable in those cases, because that's the default position. You need to love the unlovely, give up what you want and perservere against resistence to be exceptional. Nobody gets commended or noticed for doing something really easy or common.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's hard to be exceptional.
PPS - That's pretty much what "exceptional" means.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Thin operating systems

With the move to more online services, are desktop operating systems likely to become "thinner"? That is, providing fewer services besides disk management, hardware drivers and network connections. It seems likely. Google is starting to market "Chromebooks" which are laptops running pretty much nothing but a web browser. So what about private data I don't want to store online? I have tens of gigabytes of pictures and videos that are way too big for cloud storage. What is Google's plan for them? And what about my apps that don't have web equivalents, like City of Heroes and my programming tools? Although Google's ads claim "you can do everything online", I don't think that's quite true yet.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe it will be eventually.
PPS - That does seem to be the trend.

Friday Flash Fiction - Heroes Dream

We perch atop a skyscraper surveying the city. My friend's name to the world is Cruel Fate. They know me as Dread Naught, which means 'fear nothing'. We are superheroes, like half the population of the city. I ask my friend "Where do you think people go when they log out?"

CF snorts derisively. "You think too much, Dread. They don't 'go' anywhere. Nothing happens between logins."

"How do you know?"

He rolls his eyes the way he does when he thinks I'm being dense. "Because I've logged out hundreds of times and nothing has happened to me. So have you. It's like going to sleep."

"You don't dream?"

"Of course not." He is still scanning the streets below, looking for roving gangs. Then he thinks enough to ask: "Do you dream?"

"I think so, sometimes. It's like I'm a big green orc in another world, only it's not quite me, you know? It's a bit like here, but different."

He scrunches his forehead, thinking hard. "No, sorry, Dread. I don't know what you mean."

"I think there are other worlds out there, but they're not really ... connected to ours. It's like we're all different parts of someone else's dream."

"You mean, like, we're not even real?"

"Like that, yeah. We're all kind of playthings. A game played by God, or something."

Fate gets a deep, distant look as he considers this. Then he spots a mob on the street, points with a gleeful "Ha!" and drops like a stone over the edge of the building. I follow quickly, not to miss out on the action, and the wind whips our capes like flags as we plummet thirty stories to street level. He's probably right. How could this not be real?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just wondered one day what it would look like to MMORPG characters when other characters logged out.
PPS - And how it would feel for them.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

TV input renaming

Why doesn't my TV allow me to rename the inputs to be more meaningful? Once a device is plugged in, it doesn't matter to me that it's going over HDMI connection number 1. It matters that it's my XBox. Granted, it would take more effort to provide the capability, and we have enough trouble understanding our technology without added complexity, but I think once it's done it would help a lot of people. Maybe some high-end televisions allow it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - On the other hand, how many people would take the time to set it up?
PPS - I'd be one of the few who did.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Context and cross referencing

Our tools are missing context and deeper search. For instance, answer me this question about your Facebook account: which of your friends are in both of any two groups you choose? Or did any actors play in both of two given movies? That's "cross-referencing", and almost no program or website does it. Google sort of does, but only for keywords in documents, and there's a lot of data that is not kept in documents like that. It's an essential tool if you want to go beyond merely finding information and understanding it or comparing it with other information. We need our software to do this.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My own software doesn't do this either.
PPS - Except that one basic file search tool.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Expectations vs technology

For some of us, our expectations of technology are lower than average in terms of reliability, but higher in terms of potential. This tends to be the attitude among tech workers. We think bigger, but expect less day to day. For people who just need to use it day to day, the opposite seems to be true: they expect it to be very reliable, but can imagine a lot less of what technology could do for them. I guess they just wish it would work properly today, rather than thinking ahead to tomorrow.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Because if you can't rely on it today, how can you do so tomorrow?
PPS - And if it never does anything new, what's the point?

Replacement parts

As manufacturing has moved from items with many components connected together with wires to more integrated designs, the concept of "replacement parts" has drifted out of use. A TV used to be a collection of little systems working together - a cathode ray tube, an electron gun, a phosphor screen, a channel knob, an antenna - to bring a picture to you. Now we have TVs that consist entirely of one integrated component with a plastic case around it. If it breaks, the only "replacement part" you can get to fix it is an entirely new television. Ditto for phones, except for replacement screens, every kitchen appliance made in the past decade and too many mass-market computers. If it breaks, you might as well buy a new one, because repairs cost just as much. When did we get this wasteful?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Custom-made goods are even worse in this regard.
PPS - Unless they've been designed with common components.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - A Pinch of Time

The old man tends his garden carefully, because it is literally his life. The memory-bulbs grow under the surface in the corner by the fence, his strength tree in the middle, mood flowers over there near the gate, and close to the house he keeps the time herbs. They won't grow indefinitely. That's the nature of these mystic plants, but whenever he can get a new cutting to take root, he knows he will live longer. Today he is transplanting thorned rose bushes, grown for his teeth and eyesight, to a sunnier place, where the beans used to grow. Some days he misses those beans, and the hair on his head, but it is only cosmetic. He will survive as long as he can grow more thyme. He carefully uproots the roses and moves them to the freshly dug holes, packing rich, dark earth around their bases, not too tightly, and pruning the branches with love, but no misplaced mercy.

During the replanting, a thorn pierces his skin, and the wound seeps a little blood. The tree, too, oozes sap from a branch in sympathy, and he sighs a weary sigh. He is getting too old for this. The sun saps his energy in a way it never used to do, and he has less time in his garden these days than he could stand when he was younger. Of course, in those days, he pretty much left the garden to take care of itself. Such is the limited foresight of youth. He must go in and rest for the evening, but the day has been well spent, and because of his roses, he can still read and enjoy a good steak for dinner. But as he goes to sleep for the night, he will fail to hear the rabbit digging under the fence and nibbling away at fresh thyme.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Took me a while to find this one.
PPS - I wanted something just a bit different this week.

3D technology for privacy

Using 3D technology for computer screen privacy. It might be possible to use 3D-like polarising filters with a computer monitor to keep anyone else from seeing the same thing as you on the screen. As long as the monitor is capable of displaying two different images at different polarisations, and you have glasses that can filter for only one polarisation, you could display the private stuff polarised to match the glasses and display random noise pixels polarised the other way. Anyone looking over your shoulder would see only randomness, but you with your polarised filter would see the real image. That is if you can withstand the pounding headache.

Given the generally poor state of 3D, this might not work perfectly, but it should be a little more comfortable and less conspicuous than a giant hood, and more effective than an angle restricting filter. And you wouldn't have to use it for the whole screen all the time, just for sensitive things like password fields, email or chat windows - things you'd rather not have anyone read over your shoulder.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This also assumes that nobody else has their own privacy glasses.
PPS - That's probably the biggest security hole.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Tilted touch screen desks

I think, if we're going to make desktop-sized touch screens, they should be tilted up towards us at about a 30-degree angle, like an architect's desk or drafting table. A flat desk is just not the way to work with a huge touch screen, nor is a wall panel comfortable to sit at for a whole day. But those tilted desks are just what we should have. Maybe we need flat shelves at the top or bottom to hold things so they don't roll off, but the main point here is that the touch screen itself needs to be tilted. Horizontal and vertical are not the only options, which seems to have escaped the creators of BendDesk, X-Desk and other big touch screens.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Microsoft's DigiDesk concept is close.
PPS - The demo video is all about the software, though.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Google Chrome and PDFs

Google Chrome now loads PDF files natively and much faster than Adobe Reader. So wouldn't it be worthwhile to switch the default file association to for PDFs Chrome and uninstall Adobe Reader forever? Seriously, how many weekly updates are necessary to keep loading PDFs in the slowest possible manner? How much has Adobe Reader changed for you in the past decade, and how much has it improved in speed and efficiency?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - For me, the answer is "none".
PPS - To both questions.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Inception plus Facebook equals sleep socialising

If we had those dream-sharing machines from Inception, and they could operate over the internet to connect with, for instance, our Facebook friends, then we could get days of socialising done while we sleep. It would be like going to a party where the food is infinite and non-fattening, the booze is free and the consequences of your actions are only as permanent as a video game. The problems of sharing your subconscious with your friends, however, are too many to list.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also, sleeping with a needle in your arm every night might not appeal to people.
PPS - I would assume it actually works with some kind of head gear.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Kindle vs textbooks

Until electronic documents are as easy to mark up, modify, combine and carry as paper, it's likely the Kindle will not make great inroads into universities. That's a shame, because carrying one slim device would be far less cumbersome and painful than a pile of textbooks. It would seem like a major selling point.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's also hard to flip through the pages quickly to search for something.
PPS - Which I suppose you should do via keyword search if you can.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - High Stakes

Eight elite poker players gathered together from all over the country tonight, by anonymous invitation, for the highest-stakes game of their lives. With the prize pool taken from a ten million dollar buy-in (each), who could resist? There was Chip Trehorn, chewing on a toothpick and hiding his twitchy eye tell under a Stetson hat, Black Jack with the scarred cheek, the twins, Rocky and Rolo, and Lady Cooper, who was not really named Cooper nor, by all accounts, was she much of a Lady either.

The stacks of chips grew and shrank for hours among the evenly-matched players. Nobody looked set to pull ahead until the Ginger Ninja, in his bright orange hood, bluffed on a pair of sevens and lost it all. Slowly, the players were knocked out one by one, and by the time the sun rose on that dim, smoky club, Lady Cooper had emerged victorious, to the reluctant congratulations of her fellow players. It was only then that they discovered the club's mysterious owner was nowhere to be found, and neither was their collective eighty million dollars of buy-in cash.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Please let me know what you think.
PPS - Part of the reason I'm doing this is for feedback.

In charge of entertainment

Who is really in charge of the entertainment industry? There are those with limited scope veto power, there are the writers and actors, directors and editors, publishers and distributors, then us, the audience and customers. If all of any group left, it would come undone, but the industry can survive the loss of any one person.

In a way, every song, book, TV show or movie happens not because one person wanted it, but because no one group involved didn't want it to happen. There weren't any writer strikes, the director didn't quit over creative differences, the actors didn't walk out in a huff and the crew didn't down tools for more money. Because all of those things didn't happen, a completed product comes out the other end of the pipeline.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There does have to be some actual work, too.
PPS - Or else things that don't happen would result in spontaneous entertainment everywhere.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Gaming services vs piracy

Gaming as a service (eg OnLive, aka "cloud gaming", aka "gaming on demand") is probably the only way big budget games will be produced in the next generation of consoles and desktops. You subscribe to a service for a flat fee and get access to their whole library of games, but you play over the network - it's like a highly interactive video stream. It's the only way you can truly prevent piracy in the sense of copied games, and it works because they're interactive. Capturing the video and sound that comes down the wire only gets you a demo video, not a game you can give to your friends.

While I think it's good that there's a business model out there for games in a post-copying era, it will also shape the direction our technology takes from then on, and will mean that you can never play games without a network connection again. You can't even deal with a slow connection, because it has to be big enough to support twitch-fast video and audio. So I'm a little conflicted about this, and I cringe to think of where it might end up, but I don't think I can stop it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just hope there won't be too many competing services with exclusive games.
PPS - But I don't want one provider in a monopoly, either.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Touch keyboards versus QWERTY

It's good that people are trying to rethink they keyboard for a touch-screen age, because it's not really an interaction method that carries over very well from the typewriter age to touch screens, big or small. We have Swype that works via continuous touch, BlindType that anticipates where you imagine the keyboard to be and some more unusual designs like 8pen, a radial touch pad with circular gestures for each letter. Nobody has the answer just yet, though. I wonder what we'll eventually settle on. Whatever it is, I'm fairly sure it won't be a QWERTY keyboard forever.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And it will probably work pretty well without looking.
PPS - Google liked BlindType so much, they bought it for Android.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Family data sharing

I'm very interested in family data sharing and backup. For instance, how do you share your family photos between houses? I'm sure there are some photos among your family of which specific people want copies, and that can easily be seen as a kind of backup, too. The problem is how you do so when Uncle Frank doesn't have a computer and Aunt Betty lives three hours away and only has a very limited internet connection? It's all well and good to point people at an internet file sync service like Dropbox or Live Mesh, but sometimes it's not an option. So what do you do?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If Uncle Frank has no computer, it's probably going to be more difficult.
PPS - But what about a digital photo frame and a big flash drive as a present?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Getting rich at the expense of others

"The love of money is a root for all kinds of evil" - Jesus.
"I wanna be a billionaire, so frickin' bad" - Travie Mccoy.

See a problem? It's not just that, though. Getting rich, quickly or slowly, is a zero sum game. That is, if you get richer, someone else has, as a direct result, become poorer. So part of what you're saying if you want to be richer is that you want everyone else to be poorer. Any way you look at it, that's just mean.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wish I could link to "Chase The Dollar" by Gerald here.
PPS - Both because it would help make my point, and because I like the song.