Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Automatic text summary

We could use software that can automatically summarise text accurately, given our short attention spans, and it seems quite a few researchers are working on the problem. Of course, the usual method has limits, because proper summaries need to understand the source material, and usually these programs remove some extraneous words. Push too far and too much text is removed, making the result incoherent. Since this is a natural language task, it must involve natural language processing, which is still very difficult, and will probably remain so for a very long time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Microsoft Word used to have a feature like this.
PPS - It seems to have lost it in recent versions.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Making your point

Making your point background-first is waffling. You need to make your point first, then build on it. If you can't lead with your point, then you need to find another way to express it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm at a conference this week.
PPS - I expect to identify good and bad speakers by this criterion.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Performance talents

Not everyone has performance talents. Some people's talents are in administration, conversation, catering or software user interface design. There are any number of other arenas in which people are skilled, but we often act as if everyone can get up and sing or dance or play an instrument in a talent show. It's just not true.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And, honestly, that's okay.
PPS - Because, really, what would all those performers be without an audience?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - The Nation of Luna

It cost the corporation billions to officially move their headquarters to the moon. At first they tried to do so figuratively, simply declaring their headquarters to be located on Earth's orbiting satellite, then the UN laws changed, so they physically moved a computer server there to maintain "active business assets" at their headquarters. Then the UN decided the only way to stop this nonsense was to require "regular human presence", by which time the corporation had already begun work on their 200-person spaceship. Before the UN could object, an active, permanent office had been established on the moon as corporate headquarters, and it was still costing less than the taxes it helped them to dodge. That's not to mention all the cash they saved by being able to ignore things like import laws and being paid to host other companies' web servers outside UN jurisdiction.

When Earthside governments heard about the nuclear missiles and petawatt lasers powered by hyperspatial fusion generators trained on capital cities worldwide, the Nation of Luna had already fortified to become impregnable. All operations were now moon-based and self-sustaining. There was nothing we could do but watch.

Nobody knows exactly where on Earth that first shot came from. The missile flew a crazy trajectory low under radar before turning skyward from the Pacific Ocean and headed right for the Nation of Luna's central dome fortress. Many suspected one of the the middling dictatorships, bent on similar domination. Luna destroyed it halfway between Earth and the moon with their deadly lasers, then retaliated by turning five megacities to nuclear glass. They could have used the lasers for that too, but the CEO's paranoid video rant made their reasons clear: the nuclear sites would serve as a warning not just to this generation, but for generations to come. Nobody can stand against the might of Luna.

So now we live under the oppressive dictatorship of a light in the night sky. Most of the time, it's not too bad. They use their near-infinite power generation to feed, clothe and shelter us, but for a price. Few people can afford a lifetime of the bills and become employees themselves, just for the discounts. Before too long, we'll all be employed by Luna, and probably at that point we will take to the stars, just to see if there are any more "customers" out there to conquer.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A lot of my stories seem to turn out bleak.
PPS - Hopefully that's not permanent.

Old tech doesn't really die

Only a few old technologies really die. The rest find a tiny niche where they can live forever. Niches like compatibility, nostalgia, quality or aesthetics, off the top of my head. That is, you might keep an old computer around because it's the only thing that runs a certain program correctly, or you might like to be reminded of the past time it represents. It may be of higher quality than new things, like built-to-last kitchen appliances, or it might appeal to you on a purely artistic level, made with a style and flair that's a bit different and quirky compared to what's available today.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can still buy typewriters online.
PPS - And a lot of other obsolete machines.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The point of ebooks

The beauty of ebooks is not their durability, their price or their flexibility, though those are all contributing factors. The main appeal of ebooks to me is their availability. Without any extra bulk, I can carry hundreds of books with me all the time, and all I need is my phone, which I already carry everywhere. And if I find myself with a few minutes to spare, such as waiting for a train, I can pull out my book and read. They're not better than paper books, and in certain ways they're definitely worse. But that just means they're fundamentally different - a revolution, not a mere evolution.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't actually have hundreds of ebooks to carry.
PPS - Yet.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


We need to know the ideals for which we are reaching, regardless of whether we ever actually get there. Ideals keep us focused in the right direction and provide a reference point to evaluate new things. Are we getting closer to our ideal or further from it? If you're getting further from your ideal, then you're on the wrong path.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Without ideals, it's too easy to go off track.
PPS - Plus a lot more things look ambiguous that way.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Time saved is more time for work

With labour saving devices we use the time saved to do more work, not for leisure. It makes work cheaper, not obsolete, and we still need knowledge workers. After all, they're the ones designing the labour-saving devices and their tasks, aren't they? In days gone by, they worried about what people would do with themselves once machines had made manual labour practically obsolete. They simply failed to understand how much work we can find for ourselves as a species.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - They also failed to account for greed.
PPS - If you can get the job done twice as fast, you can make twice as much money.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The extra dimension

Adding one extra dimension to a situation often adds a lot more complexity than you would think. For instance, chess is a well-known game in two dimensions between two players, but try to add a third player or a third dimension to the board and everything gets way more complicated. There are so many ways to do this that no one option has ever emerged as standard. Or good old Spirograph. Try even imagining shape drawing like that in three dimensions and it quickly becomes clear that it's nothing like on paper, assuming you can even figure out how it should behave. The point is that simplified problems can help you get a feel for the more complex variants, but there is always an extra element that means the simplification is inadequate.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Things are often more than the sum of their parts.
PPS - Especially when you're modelling complex systems.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Be Careful What You Wish For

I was cleaning out my grandpa's attic one time and found an old oil lamp. Naturally, I tried polishing it up, because are you going to not try to summon the genie on the off chance that you'll only end up with a shiny lamp? I was naturally shocked to be confronted by an actual genie in the end, though he was less helpful than I expected. Also, he looked kind of like Billy Idol for some reason.

At first I tried that trick from Aladdin. "What? You're not a genie. How could you be? I bet you can't even make a huge pile of gold right here."

I shouldn't have been surprised at the result. "Hey, who's giving out the wishes here, pal? You think you can trick me into giving you stuff for free? If I want to quit, I'm gone, and to hell with three wishes."

"Okay, okay, I wish I had a huge pile of gold."

Out of thin air appeared three gold bars. They hung there for a second - long enough for me to read "US Mint" and serial numbers on the side, then they crashed through the floor.

"Couldn't you have stacked them neatly?" I asked, with a little timidity.

"You get what I give you. There's not a thing you can do about it. Now out with it. Two more and let me get my sleep."

I thought for a second. Beyond money, I hadn't really thought about this. Then something came to me. "Oh, I know! I wish I could understand every language in the world!"

The genie raised his eyebrows, then whump! there appeared an enormous bookshelf stacked with black and yellow books. I picked one up.

"Italian for Dummies?"

"Better get started. One left, and make it good."

I heard some faint sirens in the distance, getting a little louder.

"What's that sound?"

"I expect it's the police. I had to leave an IOU for the gold bars, and moving them here might have set off the bank alarm."


"Well, come on! You've got one left, and if you don't use it quick, I might get bored and leave."

"Uh ... okay ... I wish ... I wish ... I wish the police could never catch me!"

It was a mistake. I knew as soon as I said it. With a twinkle in his eyes the genie vanished and I was left exactly where I was, but the book fell through my hands. That mischevious djinn had made me immaterial so, sure enough, when the police arrived, they absolutely couldn't catch me. They couldn't cuff me either, or take me away in the squad car. I was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost, and they really had no choice but to either ask me nicely or leave me be. In the end, they took the gold and said they'd be back.

That was two days ago, and in the meantime, I've grown very, very hungry.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wanted something besides sci-fi this week.
PPS - Hope you like it.


Culture is made of shared experiences. Television, movies and music make many of those experiences repeatable, so that people can be part of a culture without having to be at the same events at the same time. When you think about it, that's kind of weird. The basis on which I relate to you is, to a large extent, the movies, music and television we have both seen, whether or not that was together. And when we find something that one of us has seen but the other has not, you can go away and fix that, rather than being left out.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is only as we get to know each other, though.
PPS - After that, presumably we do have some significant shared experiences of our own.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A different method for stage actor audio

Face tracking software plus directional microphones means you don't need actors to wear any extra gear. There are methods of using a microphone array so that individual voices can be picked out of a crowd, even in a stadium full of people. There's also face-recognition software that can find faces in images in real-time. Put them together and point them at a stage full of actors and what do you have? A system that allows actors to work on stage without lapel or head microphones, requires no batteries or transmitters, and gives crystal-clear sound reception regardless of house speakers, audience noise or other actors.

It also makes it possible for the sound desk to use an idiot-proof visual interface, showing actors' faces and their volume levels either on a grid or in real spatial orientation. Someone should make that. Every time I've worked on stage with microphones, there have been some kinds of problems, either with hiding the transmitters under costumes, batteries going flat or cords interfering with physical motions. This kind of system would eliminate all of that in one go.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course, other things could (and would) go wrong.
PPS - Starting with any time the actors turn away from the cameras.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Arguing about more than facts

We can't argue a lot about facts any more because of the internet being almost everywhere. That should mean we can start arguing about interpretations of facts. Also, since raw facts are so readily available these days (alongside blatant misinterpretations, false etymologies, outright lies and invisible sarcasm) there is little value in the skill of digging them up. Anyone can do that. What matters more is collating, summarising, interpreting and commenting on facts.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And, of course, telling fact from fiction.
PPS - We could always do with more of that.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Managing a family computer network

Professional IT support people have tools they can use to mass-manage whole networks of machines, set policies, install updates and so on. Some of us act in that role for our extended families, and would appreciate tools to help manage their computers too, ensuring they have the right firewall settings and things like that. Would such a thing be possible? Would it be popular, or is it too niche-focused to gain traction? I suppose the trouble is that family groups are different to businesses. They're not co-located, they don't have servers or internal domains from which to manage settings and there is every likelihood they aren't even online at the same time. The tools to manage such a mismatched wild stable of machines would be quite different under the hood than centralised business tools, but I think it can be done.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm sure there's something like this out there.
PPS - At least something to make certain tasks easier.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Housing grants and prices

Housing grants don't make houses more affordable. If you announce to the world that everyone buying (or building) a house is going to get an extra $10000, the prices will go up in proportion, meaning those people will out of pocket the same amount as before. The extra cash will go straight to the seller, on top of the original price. It makes more sense, then, to limit payouts by the type of buyer, because not everyone will be a first home owner, or below a certain income threshold. Limiting payouts to certain types of homes, such as new houses, on the other hand, will raise prices for that type of property across the board.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It may seem to help on the surface.
PPS - On the whole, though, the money never goes where it's meant to.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Ahab

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago I joined a planet-hunter ship's crew, and this one was captained by a wild-eyed and hearty old man they called Ahab. The ship, under his command, like so many other planet hunters in the galaxy, would sail from star to star, spearing worlds and harvesting their magma. There aboard the ship it was processed for desirable heavy minerals, especially radioactive ones. Thus we made our living, but to Ahab it was more.

Today we have changed course, based on a star sighting, a faint radio signal, and Ahab's hunch. There were murmurs among the crew, that we were searching for some particular planet, home to a particular race. I hadn't heard of this before, so I asked in the mess hall that evening.

"Ahab was held as a slave in his youth," said Stubb, "by some white-haired alien creatures. That's when he lost his leg, and they replaced it with a rudely-fashioned rod of stone so that he could keep working in their mines. Nobody knows how he escaped-"

"Nonsense! There was a civil war."

"No, it was a slaves' revolt."

"Rubbish. He struck down a hundred of those white-haired alients himself, fled across their sun-scorched plains and stowed away on a cargo ship."
"Well," continued Stubb, with a little irritation, "whatever his means, he did escape, and now his passion is inflamed by nothing less than finding and destroying the homeworld of those white-haired slavers."

So this ship was his means to revenge.

It made the crew more than a little nervous, as we travelled the stars, to think that one day we might follow a particular radio signal back to a world Ahab recognised from his nightmares, and there we would be ordered to spear it with the great ship's harpoon. To suck dry an inhabited world is not done in this business, and for more reasons than one. A ship that did such a thing would be destroyed on sight if others learned of such a horrific deed. But Ahab was steadfast in his goal. He would find and destroy that world, and if it ever bothered him that he might die in the attempt, his stern face never showed a wrinkle of that fear.

It may be a long while before we arrive at that radio signal's origin, but I will pray fervently every day, to whatever gods will listen, that no white-haired aliens will be at its end.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I kind of wanted to link this with Planet Scavengers, but it didn't fit.
PPS - I've been reading Moby Dick, and I'm getting near the end now.

Leading and following

Someone has to do the boring work. If we are all following our own dreams, no project bigger than one person is going to get done. So someone needs to be a follower, an assistant, an apprentice. The world can't get by without followers the same way an army can't all be Generals.

Motivational speakers always seem to assume that everyone wants to lead, or that everyone wants to be a CEO. They at least assume that everyone wants to be running their own business. Some people want to let other people do that, and there is nothing wrong with working to further someone else's vision if it's compatible with yours.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm starting to think worldly motivation is the wrong direction.
PPS - Some posts on Seth Godin's blog just seem to rub me the wrong way.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Cheaper TV show prototypes

We need cheaper ways of prototyping TV shows to see what will work. By the time you get a pilot episode up and running, you've already got sets, props, costumes, actors, scripts and everything else. Producing the second episode would cost you almost nothing, so the process is very loaded against new, innovative shows coming out (except for reality TV, which costs nothing but dignity). What if we produced 30-second ads for notional shows and released those online to see what buzz they created? You don't need a whole episode script and you can probably get away with a reused set and props, depending on what kind of show you have.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, you need each show to have a unique feel.
PPS - That might mean lots of CGI backdrops.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

City of Heroes Freedom

City of Heroes is going to become City of Heroes Freedom, with a hybrid price model based on free, "premium" and "VIP" accounts. Anyone who has been a player and created more than two characters would need to become a VIP subscriber to retain them, however, and that applies to both Debbie and me. On the plus side, all my friends who have wanted to play can soon do so indefinitely on a casual basis for nothing. In summary, it seems like a good idea if you're on the way in, but for existing players it doesn't feel like there's much "freedom" to be had.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, there's not much change if you keep paying, so I've got nothing to complain about.
PPS - I'll reserve my final judgment for the proper release.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Economics and the greater good

Slow and steady wins the race in economics. More people make more money on average when businesses run by trying to keep customers by treating them well and giving them a good deal. The problem is that one company can make more money in the short term by treating their customers somewhat badly, locking them in and crushing the opposition like bugs. The long-term effects of such lock-in are stifled innovation and loss of goodwill. That means the users won't trust a new competitor and the existing monopoly has no incentive to do anything different.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This should be taken with a grain of salt since I am not an economist.
PPS - Unless taking one subject ten years ago counts for anything.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Cross-compatible web services

I need services spanning websites; protocols that can break the bonds of individual domains. I need a universal wishlist that isn't dependent on Amazon at all, a friends list that doesn't care if it's used on Facebook or not. And I need those services, despite being website-independent, to operate with those websites seamlessly, so that I can (for instance) shop around for good book prices on my wishlist.

Think in terms of email. Before the standard emerged, only users on the same network could email each other. That's like needing several different mobile phones on different networks to allow you to call your friends on the different networks they've chosen. That's exactly the situation we currently have with social networking right now. It's a ridiculous situation that's crying out for a unification of standards. We need people on Facebook to be able to connect directly to their friends on Google+ and MySpace, without anyone needing to switch websites, maintain multiple accounts or sign up to yet another website that aggregates the others. We need Twitter to enable followers from Buzz and Tumblr. We need Live Messenger, Google Talk and Facebook chat to be seamlessly cross-compatible. We do want competing services, but we need them to compete purely on user experience, not critical mass or proprietary features. This will take a long time, especially when it's easier to keep your users by locking them up than by being the best.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The first of any new type of service is unlikely to be open.
PPS - But once it becomes common, it needs a standard.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Friday Flash Fiction - Planet Scavengers

I see a cave made of dust, or maybe ash. I see ancient machines, tall and hollow, now so rotted through that the slightest touch would crumble them. I see the remains of ancient soldiers who stayed in pointless vigil to protect the machines that once protected them, and through it all is dust caked thick on the floor, the walls and everywhere around. This cave is dry and dead, dessicated but not destroyed. A relic of a war-torn age.

I pick my way through the machines, little more than statues now, searching for pieces of value. Everything but the metal has rotted, and most of that has rusted. Here and there, however, I find a few pieces that have escaped decay. A badge, some tags, a long, thin tube with a complicated mechanism at the end. We may be able to melt them down, turn them into something useful. It's only recently that a blacksmith has managed to open up shop in the village, and he needs raw materials like these to work with. We don't have the means to mine it. We have to scavenge.

We are here only because this world is already dead. That's what we do - we are the slum-residents of the galaxy, forced from worn-out world to worn-out world, just able to scrape enough together to escape to another world and start again. Always racing against decay, outrunning the crumbling metaphorical cliff behind us. This world, they tell us, was once called "Erth", which sounds to us like a last, dying breath. Appropriate.

The elders tell us it was war that finished this world. It's usually war. I don't think they even research it any more. And our goal is always the same: survive, build a new ship and move on to the next planet. I keep some pieces for myself, though. I think it's important that somebody, somewhere, remembers the ones who came before us. Some piece of them should survive, the way we survive. They are not our relatives, but they are our ancestors, in a way, and I feel for them, even if they are no longer here.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Not so much plot this week.
PPS - Hope you like it.

Microsoft, HTML5 and the end of .NET

Microsoft are kind of trying to kill .NET, starting with the UI frameworks, Silverlight and WPF, and probably moving down from there. In its place, they are trying to go where they imagine the developers are: HTML5 and JavaScript. In one sense, that's smart and gutsy, considering you will tick off and abandon all the developers who were loyal to you, and maybe (big maybe) get a whole new batch to take their place.

If their platform disintegrates to the lowest common denominator, they won't be attracting developers to theirs at all, just levelling the playing field and competing on ... what? Apple wins at hardware design, which everyone copies, their "metro" design style is much more difficult for users than the other two major smartphone operating systems, and that leaves exclusive content, which just makes everyone feel betrayed or locked in.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - .NET has had a good run as a development platform, I guess.
PPS - But in some ways, it's just getting started.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cash security online

Cash security online and in a new age should be a problem we can solve. Strong encryption is readily available, and our banks are online. We can have our banks communicate with each other over strongly-encrypted channels, passing one-time tokens to each other to represent transaction authorisations. At no point do we have to exchange any information that can be used again or that will enable any other party to access our funds. That basic idea has to be more secure than handing out reusable numbers (credit cards) and trusting everyone, everywhere, all at once not only to use that number responsibly but to keep it safe from everyone else. That's absurd, and it's been going wrong for a long time.

But how wrong, exactly, has it been going? How much is credit card fraud costing the banks and us as their consumers? I suspect it is still cheaper to chase down fraud after the fact. That is, it's more worthwhile for the banks to fight the fires as they come up rather than working to fix the whole system.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And systems like Visa Paywave (with no authorisation) confirm that suspicion.
PPS - The banks don't try to stop your credit card being stolen, but they'll fix it if necessary.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Mock-up trailers for potential movies

I think movie pitches should be made via mock-up trailers. Start releasing trailers for unmade movies online and just see what generates the most buzz. It's not a guarantee, of course, but it's a cheap way of testing the waters without having to get the whole production together, and it involves the movie-going public rather than just a few producers. It would also help to democratise movie making, even though you still need those producers and their money.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - By the time you get the real movie together, though, the world may have moved on.
PPS - But that's always a risk.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Paying for access rather than ownership

I find myself mentally blocked when asked to pay a one-off fee for digital goods like music, ebooks and movie downloads, especially when they come wrapped up in DRM. I fear that they might disappear at any moment and I might be forced to buy them again at some later date, which is something I definitely do not want to do. At the same time, I find I am attracted to the idea of a flat fee all-you-like subscription service for the exact same goods.

While I won't pay iTunes several dollars for every locked-up, tightly-guarded movie I want to watch, I might be convinced to pay $15 per month for unlimited access to all music, movies and TV in the store, even if I don't get to keep any of it afterwards. I wouldn't feel so much like I've been ripped off if I didn't pay specifically for any one item and then later had to cancel my subscription. I would feel the same way about books. Rather than paying Amazon $10 per ebook, I'd pay $10 per month for unlimited access to the library, even if it goes away when I stop paying. As long as those titles are still around, and I can still re-subscribe later (perhaps to another provider) I'd be happy.

My point is that an unlimited flat fee subscription model is a different - and sometimes more appealing - value proposition than pay-per-download for copy-controlled content. If you're going to wrap your content in DRM, it makes more sense to ask people to pay an entry fee, not "buy" things that, technically, they won't own.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My prices are probably much lower than those companies would like.
PPS - But that will always be the case.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Unintended side-effects of brain downloads

The hypothetical science fiction technology to download knowledge directly into the brain gives you knowledge without discipline. That could be a problem. If knowledge is power and discipline is responsibility, then it creates people with great power and no responsibility, otherwise known as supervillains. So even if you shortcut the fancy book learnin', you need minds trained in general mental discipline, ethics and critical thinking first. You might be able to put some of that into the download, but for other things there's no substitute but actual, real-time training.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In general, the time taken to learn something makes its own discipline.
PPS - Which becomes more of a problem when that time approaches zero.