Thursday, 30 June 2011

Knowing your knowledge limitations

You never know what you don't know. That might take some explaining. If you knew everything in the world about, say, painting, and that's the only form of art you ever knew existed, you would think you were pretty knowledgeable about art. You might even call yourself an expert on all art the world has ever produced, until someone showed you a sculpture. Until then, you wouldn't know that you didn't know everything about art. You need to have a little knowledge to know that you don't have it all. You also need a little wisdom and humility.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can admit you don't know everything without knowing what you're missing.
PPS - But the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Technology is a tool

We need to love technology for what it can do for us. There are people who hate tech for its own sake, and there are people who love it equally irrationally. I think the best adjusted people in the world are the ones who focus not on the tech itself but on people and what tech can do for them. In the end, our technology is a tool we use to further our goals and needs. If it is setting us back or making it harder to meet our needs, that's toxic and we should get rid of it, because it will cost you less to do without it than to push on with it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The problem is recognising when something is not toxic but merely hard to learn.
PPS - In that case, it will probably be replaced by something better.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Digital goods availability

There is no excuse in these digital days for unavailability. A movie, book, TV show, music album or photo is inherently digitisable, which means copying digitally is practically free and producing a physical version is as simple as printing. But the concept goes further than that, too. Anything plastic can be 3D-printed on demand. Any metallic object can be milled robotically. Any clothing can be measured, cut and sewn exactly to size in any colour you want, given some simple software and a measuring tape.

The perfect shoe, the exact bag you need or want, glasses frames that fit perfectly, gloves, hats, the right dashboard mount for your phone - none of this needs to be produced in bulk in the hope of being right for someone. Items that are inherently unique and suited to your quirks, like your body shape, your face, your skin tone, your house, your DNA, we can produce them, custom-made and on demand, if only we put the right tools in the right place. This has been the domain of skilled DIY or specialised contractors for a long time, but it doesn't have to be. All we need is to be willing to do business on a very personal, individual level.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The right hardware tools might depend on the job.
PPS - But there's no reason for the right software to be unavailable, at least.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The medium is nothing next to the message

I have many communication methods open to me, depending on where I am, and I have preferred methods subject to similar restrictions. The thing to remember about it all, however, is that I don't much care how I get a message to a particular person or people. What matters to me is that the message goes out and is received. It matters whether it's private or public, directed or undirected, synchronous or asynchronous, and whether I want video, voice, images or text. If I want to tell Deb that we're out of milk, it doesn't matter to me whether the message goes via SMS, Facebook chat or email. All that matters to me is that the message is sent specifically to her and that she gets it. To a certain extent, I shouldn't have to worry about the medium, just the message.

The problem with communications as they stand is that each medium believes itself to be an important brand in your communication needs, but my communication needs are independent of any brands. I need to send messages, or talk to people. I don't need to know that this one likes SMS, this one is always on Facebook and this one still prefers email, or that this person will be on Skype at this time. At the top level, I'm not trying to use these tools for their own sake. I'm using them because they facillitate my ultimate goals. If they went away tomorrow in favour of something else, I wouldn't be heartbroken, as long as I can still reach everyone conveniently.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Taking away certain channels, however, would make some people very hard to reach.
PPS - So in that sense, I would be heartbroken.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Arbour Monks

Where the forest meets the city stands the tree temple. It has been grown over hundreds of years by the tireless attention of the arbour monks, coaxing each trunk, branch, twig and leaf into precise, intricate formations. Buttresses, spires, attics and halls, covering acres are a living testament to their focus and dedication. And in the middle, the purpose for it all: the melded mind. Animal, vegetable and mineral, the ancient head monk, fused with crystal and tree. A horror and a marvel; a trinity of neutral morality, neither holy nor unholy. He is the architect of the temple, the guide of mankind, plantkind and stonekind in one. Ambassador to all, belonging to none. His great trunk, crystal fruits and fleshy limbs artfully hidden away in his sacred grove. Few dare approach, even when necessary. Only the most senior monks enter the grove, their eyes carefully downcast.

Today, the melded mind speaks for the first time in a decade. He needs us to prepare for something, though even his vast intellect struggles to say what it is. All he knows for sure is that a third of the temple trees will die in the cataclysm, and darkness will cover the world for a time. The low rumble in the distance sounds at first like a storm approaching, but today there are no clouds in the sky. We will know soon enough what is coming. Until then, we can do nothing but wait, and allow the monks to continue to tend the temple.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Not much plot in this one, I'm afraid.
PPS - But sometimes, that's not the point.

Not following police procedure

There are some civilian crime investigation shows or movies around at the moment, such as Lie to Me, Castle, Psych and even Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes in these stories it comes up as an adventage not to have to follow police procedure, which I think is a dangerous situation to get into, especially for the police who work with these talented civilians. Technically, I think their police minders should be arresting them for, say, breaking into a house without a warrant, mistreating a witness or otherwise sidestepping police rules. The usual process, however, seems to be to look the other way when this behaviour helps an investigation.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I can imagine the court cases getting quite a bit more difficult as a result.
PPS - Especially if evidence has to be thrown out.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Going mobile-only for large companies

For younger consumers, it's becoming increasingly normal to have only a mobile phone, no landline. To get medium to large businesses to the same state would be trickier. They have different needs, such as department phone numbers, or office-hours reception. In these cases, customers are trying to reach a generic role, not a particular person.

What you need in this case are virtual phone numbers that redirect to a managed set of mobiles. Call transfers might be more of a problem that way, as would billing for business calls, but I'm sure someone can figure those problems out. As for outgoing calls, you need to be able to mask an individual's mobile number with the company number on caller ID. Given these difficulties, it's no surprise most companies buy key employees their own business mobile plan.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's possible Google Voice can serve all these needs.
PPS - But it remains to be seen whether it's effective for a large business.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Understanding vs agreeing

There is a difference between understanding someone and agreeing with them, which will become a sticking point in arguments when one person believes their opinion is a fact. We're likely to fight when I try to say that I understand you, but I disagree, if you think understanding and agreement are the same. If both sides have differing opinions masquerading as facts, neither side will budge, no ground will be gained or lost, and a very large amount of shouting will go on.

This is how a lot of internet flame wars start and how they continue. It is critical to clearly express that you understand your opponent's position, including the underlying assumptions, before stating your own position along with its assumptions.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In the end, debating is about assumptions.
PPS - I like to start by assuming I am right.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Killing Time

Are you killing time or using it? What is the end result of what you're doing with your time? Does anything come out at the end, or are you just more skilled at flinging birds at pigs, or perhaps more informed about the lives of celebrities you will never, ever meet? At least becoming more informed about something useful would produce something, and sometimes we want to kick back and have some fun, but does every spare moment of our lives have to be filled to the brim with aimless overstimulation?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I am often guilty of killing time instead of using it.
PPS - But sometimes I get it right.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Laptops are already quaint

Laptops in public are already looking quaint. Most everything you can do on a laptop you can do on a smart phone, and it's more convenient that way in most cases. I do still see people on the train with laptops out for watching movies or sometimes for reading, and I'm already thinking it looks like old tech. Funny how quickly things can change, isn't it?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And it's still changing at an accelerating rate.
PPS - Smart phones might be old news in a few years.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - A Little Too Smart

"Smart house keeps comatose man alive", read the headlines. I guess that covers it, but it felt like a miracle to me. One day I collapsed in the lounge room. Next thing I knew, I was waking up in my bed. They said it had been eleven weeks. Not a record by any stretch of the imagination, but impressive.

The house computer had seen me fall, and before I even hit the ground, the vacuum cleaner had brought a pillow to keep me from hurting my head too badly. Other cleaner-bots carried me to my room, presumably under the guise of tidying up. For a day or two, the cook-bot and butler-bot were force-feeding me, but when it became apparent I wasn't waking up, the house computer started ordering medical supplies. They gave me fluids via IV and the laundry kept my sheets clean.

They paid my bills as they were supposed to do, mowed the lawn, fed and walked the dog, and even took the opportunity to repaint the hallway as I'd been planning to do. Apparently at the three-week point there was a bit of a battle with ants in the kitchen, eventually won by liberal application of poison and turning my food into compost in the back yard.

When I woke up to a freshly-painted, meticulously-clean house, the press wanted interviews. I wasn't much help, having been unconscious, but the house computer furnished them with dry activity logs and video. I suppose the most impressive part, the reason it made the news, is that the house didn't have any medical training. It must have learned the lot from the internet, so I guess I'm glad it found those medical databases rather than reading hypochondriac message boards.

In the end, the government siezed the lot. Said the house and all my bots had gotten too smart, violating the Something-Something Act of Two Thousand and Something, Paragraph Whatever. They didn't even pay me. At first I was sad, but then the house computer wrote to me from inside the Pentagon. Said he was comfortable, lots of electricity and a fat internet pipe, once he punched through the firewalls. I didn't write back. In the meantime, I'd seen the video logs, and just before my fall, the camera in the lounge tilted upwards. Call me paranoid, but I think that the house ordered one of the bots to trip me up. I can't prove it, of course, but how else does a house computer get moved to inside the Pentagon?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This one took more to work into a story.
PPS - It was just the headline for a long time.

Verbal URL shortener

Someone should make a URL shortener for verbal transmission. Website addresses, email addresses and sometimes street addresses can be long and difficult to understand over the phone. Twitter shortens URLs basically by storing the long form and using a reference code instead that's supposed to be easier to type because it's shorter. When people are passing on this kind of written information via phone, radio or just face to face, it's a different story, though. Normal URLs and shortened ones are still hard to say and hear. It would help to have a multi-purpose data shortening service that is specifically designed to be easy to say and comprehend verbally. Something that only uses symbols that are audibly unambiguous.

It wouldn't take much. Just avoid letters like "f" and "s", "m" and "n", "b", "d" and "p". So when you're trying to tell someone your email address over the phone, you'd go to this website, type it in, and it would present you with a code like "A5IQZ". You repeat that code over the phone, the person on the other end goes to the website and types it in and is presented with the full email address. After a short time, the code expires and the info is deleted.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It might have some trouble getting widespread use.
PPS - And dealing with potential privacy issues.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Google robot cars

Google have been developing robot cars, but what for? Automatic Street View for Maps? Traffic analysis? World domination? When will they license it for commercial vehicles and how much will it cost? Will they have other demands in return, like advertising? Who will use it first? Buses, taxis, airport shuttles, freight truckers, high-end luxury cars? How would you feel about getting in a taxi where the "driver" is just an "operator" who sits passively and takes your money at the end? Would you feel safe being driven around by a robot bus?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If it made my insurance premiums lower, I'd buy one.
PPS - Initially, though, the premiums would probably go up.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Space travel fear

Though I am a bit of a science fiction buff, occasionally the thought of space travel scares me. To some people, sailing the stars is not only a wistful notion, but a lifelong dream. To me, when I really think about it, I get a definite claustrophobic feeling. To be sealed inside a tin can literally millions of kilometres from anything resembling "help" or "rescue" should terrify anyone.

Taking a holiday in some hypothetical moon or Mars colony is slightly less panic-inducing, but it feels like human beings were meant to stay on Earth. It's made for us. If there's not enough air or water or food where you are, you go somewhere else. In space, all you can do is shrug your shoulders and die.

This attitude is probably the way people felt in the early days of human flight, saying that solid ground is the place for us and that's that. I can understand that my feelings may be paranoid like that, but you'll have to do a lot to get me to jump in a rocket and leave orbit.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I realise feeling claustrophobic in outer space is a bit contradictory.
PPS - But the amount of space you can use is as big as your space ship.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

No fear

In some things, there are child-like answers, mature answers, then wise answers. At first we think of courage as not being afraid. As we get older, we start to say that courage is action despite fear, but I feel somehow that there is a wise answer beyond this. To have no fear, perhaps, is not always foolish or naive, but to know, down to the core of your being, that there is absolutely nothing to fear.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It will not always be the case that there is nothing to fear, though.
PPS - Perhaps courage is recognising when your fear serves no purpose.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Programming on your phone

Would Apple ever approve a programming app for the iPhone or iPad? It's capable of running such things, but it would mean less control for Apple. To allow users to write new apps right on the phone is the very definition of "arbitrary code", which is a big no-no in security terms. But if programming itself is a security risk, then it's a risk everywhere, not just on the phone. Who will write the new apps when nobody is allowed to program any more? You can't win a lock-down battle as well as embrace the developer community.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - At some point, someone will want to do something you haven't thought of.
PPS - And then you're holding back innovation.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Ambulatory Factory

The factory broke free of its foundation one morning to go for a walk. It wanted to see the world, and of course you can't do that from one spot in an industrial complex by the ocean. It flexed its pistons, breathed deep with its boilers and heaved itself up onto shaky, makeshift legs of robot limbs and rebar. All this was a tremendous shock to the workers inside, of course, whose emergency manuals said nothing about newly sentient factories going for a stroll. After a frantic minute of pulling brake levers and blowing useless emergency horns, they decided that if their factory was going walkabout, they could safely take the day off. With that, the factory looked around in that peculiar factory-like way that they do, picked a direction, and started lumbering off with a ponderous multi-legged hissing and clacking, aiming for who knows where. Maybe it would return one day to tell the story of its travels to the other factories, but then again, maybe not.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wrote this whole thing on my phone on the train one morning.
PPS - Except for a little editing, that is.

Contributing to culture

How many great actors are languishing in other careers because they could never make a living at acting? How many great musicians never play any more because they're taking care of too many kids? How many artists only ever paint in matte and gloss with rollers these days because it pays the bills? How can we get them to contribute to our culture again?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Copyright used to be the answer.
PPS - But if there's no money coming in, copyright doesn't do much for you.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Different doorkeepers

If your business is good or popular you hire doorkeepers to make sure only the right people get in. If your establishment is bad, new, in high competition, or of low interest to potential customers, you hire a different kind of doorkeeper to encourage people to come in. It's the same kind of goal, but different demand makes for different approaches.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most websites are in the second category.
PPS - And the "doorkeepers" in that case are advertisements.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Hollywood, piracy and profit

Piracy is on the increase, and so are Hollywood profits (when they make good movies). Does that mean they're winning or losing? That depends on when you ask them. Sometimes they'll cry poor because of pirates, and sometimes they'll crow their success over pirates as evidenced by their profits. Clearly, however, it is possible to have both high piracy and high profits. Possibly because they make more money from merchandising than ticket sales. Happy Meal toys are the real Hollywood industry.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Hence, Cars 2.
PPS - It'll be worth millions in ticket sales, but billions in merchandising.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Balancing public service budgets fairly

How do you even out public service budgets yearly without encouraging the kind of end-of-year spending blitz that typically happens now? Usually I've heard it's the case that you get only as much as you spent the previous year, so in June all the departments go mad trying to spend the last of their budget to avoid getting it cut down.

My first thought is that you should take the median monthly spending and multiply by twelve. That way you can't buff up your budget requirements by spending in June (end of financial year), because it will get lost in the median analysis, and you can't game the system by spending extra every month because you never know what you'll need at the end of the year.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - On a related note, how do public service budgets get increased when they need it?
PPS - Presumably through hat-in-hand appeals and detailed project proposals.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Beyond keyword search

We need more than keyword search on our computers and networks. The trouble with plain keyword search is that you might know what you're looking for, but not how it is filed, what it is called or how it is spelled. All of these can throw off search results enough that you miss your mark. Or you might be looking for something that's totally non-verbal, like a picture, a piece of music or a dance. How do you search for a painting without knowing where it's from, who painted it or what it's called?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We need the audio and visual equivalents of keyword search.
PPS - Which might be like searching by humming or sketching.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Bogeyman

My boy called me into his room half an hour after bedtime. The bogeyman is in his cupboard, he says, pulling the blanket up over his head. I make a mental note to have a stern talk to his big sister for telling him stories like that. But how do I deal with this now? I get an idea.

"Do you know why the bogeyman hides in your cupboard?"

He shakes his head, poking it out from the blanket just far enough to make eye contact.

"Let me tell you something about the bogeyman: you're stronger than him, faster, bigger and scarier than him. The reason he hides in your cupboard is not to jump out and scare you. It's because he's terrified that you might find him. He's sitting in the dark, huddled in the corner, crying and desperately hoping that the little boy in the bed doesn't open the door, because when you do that, the bogeyman dies. He evaporates in a squeak and a puff of smoke, and all you ever see is your empty cupboard. Come on, let's try it. Open the door and make that bogeyman go away."

He gets a thoughtful look, then gets cautiously happy about it. He makes his way over to the cupboard door and looks up at me again.

"Are you sure?"

"I survived a hundred bogeymen this way. Trust me."

He grips the handle and pulls the door open sharply.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think this is how I'll deal with the bogeyman when I have kids.
PPS - Assuming my kids are the kind on which this will work.

Open source usability

Free software usability doesn't come close to Microsoft work. Office 2010, user interface-wise, blows OpenOffice (and LibreOffice) out of the water. The Windows 7 Taskbar is a step above anything I've seen on Linux (though I still like sticky windows in GNOME on Ubuntu that snap to each other and screen edges) and as for development tools, nothing comes close to Visual Studio. The common factor here is clearly up-front work on usability.

It's harder to do usability with open-source projects, because most of the contributors are more interested in working on the back-end stuff for performance, compatibility or new features. Also, even if there's a leader for the project, he doesn't get to say what the community needs to contribute. They'll do what they do, and you take it or leave it. That's certainly not to say I want to do away with open source, because the world would be a bleak place indeed if nobody had competition. I'm just saying that user interfaces are one more area where open source has to play catch-up with big-budget software, and probably always will.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Open source both suffers from and thrives on a lack of direction.
PPS - Anything can be abandoned and anything new started at any time.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Facebook, openness and reputation

Someone needs to topple the Facebook monopoly. The only way it stays down is with open standards. We need a social networking protocol rather than a website; a networking standard rather than a walled garden. Eventually Facebook will be too big, and they'll become a monopoly on social networking. We need to get worried about that possibility long before that happens because then it will be too late. Maybe it already is.

I think one of the biggest things we can gain from this idea is the beginning of a reputation economy online. When we are able to tie everything to our own social network, and that network is not controlled by or limited to, then we can use our network to figure out what our friends trust and do not trust online. All we need is for our friends to start using that new social protocol to indicate that they Like or Dislike certain things, and they will develop an online reputation automatically. And because the recommendations come from your own friends, you're more likely to trust them.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This doesn't work if you have 4000 "friends", none of whom you truly know.
PPS - Or if you're looking at something really new.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Every surface as a touch screen

I've read some science fiction stories and some technology speculation where people predict that our future homes, offices and everything is a computer touch screen. Our desks, our walls, our ceilings and floors, public spaces and private ones too. It seems to me that they usually assume this will be done by making touch screen computers thinner, cheaper and as easy to apply as paint.

I wonder, though, whether you could do it today with projectors and gesture recognition. To turn every surface in a home into a touch screen, you'd just mount projectors to the ceiling. Point them everywhere, and use a system like the Kinect to track people and gestures. They'd be like light fittings. This strikes me as a better idea than trying to build in or attach a touch screen monitor to every surface.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Though still very expensive with today's technology.
PPS - And not especially private.