Monday, 31 December 2012

Privacy is encryption

Nothing - nothing - is safe, secure or even remotely private unless it is strongly encrypted and you are the only one with the encryption key. This is almost never the case online. Just remember that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And then go on living as if your Facebook posts are actually private.
PPS - Just like I do.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - The Doomsday Office

It was Michael's turn today to put up the forecast for tomorrow. Not rain or sun or snow, but doom, always doom. The end of the world. And it always had to be specific. The CPFA - the Centre for the Perpetual Forestalling of Armageddon - had that very important task of making sure that every day as it came up was predicted to be the end of the world.

And Michael had nothing to go on. The possible addition errors in the Mayan calendar had run out, and it wasn't the new year yet, so none of the 2013 predictions could be used, either. He was stuck, alone, just between two possible doomsdays, and if he couldn't get his job done by midnight, there would be disaster in more ways than one. He'd be fired, of course, but that would be the least of his worries at that point.

The theory went like this: if human beings think they have predicted the exact end of the world, then it definitely won't happen. Every single doomsday prediction in the history of mankind had been proven wrong so far. The CPFA just institutionalised it. Whether God held back his wrath to avoid being out-thought by His mere creations or something else was at play, the philosophers/astrologers/numerologists/prophets at the CPFA worked hard to make sure doom was predicted, specifically to make sure it never happened.

He glanced at the clock again - 10:40pm - sipped his coffee, long gone cold, and ran his fingers through his frazzled, greasy hair in a frustrated motion. The star charts said nothing useful until Wednesday. The ancient religious texts were suspiciously quiet about the last few days of the year 2012, even accounting for genealogy uncertainties.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a sigh. He was so tired. Perhaps a few minutes of shut-eye would clear his mind and give him a fresh perspective. Michael laid his head down on his desk in the glow of the late evening news just to rest his eyes, just for a second.

When he awoke with a start almost an hour later, Michael was disoriented. Some paper had stuck to his cheek and as he pulled it off, he saw the clock and his blood ran cold. 11:53! He had seven minutes to come up with something. If he couldn't predict doom, then doom was certain. Maybe.

And then it hit him. Turning to the empty window on his computer, he began to type an entry to post to the CPFA website, just in time:
CPFA Fails to Predict Doomsday

The rest practically wrote itself.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I realise this is related slightly to last week's story.
PPS - I just thought it was a fun topic.

Being interrupted

People are always walking up and interrupting me when I'm talking to other people. I have yet to figure out what causes it - whether it's because I'm too quiet when I speak, or I'm not making enough obvious eye contact. Whatever the cause, I do find it very frustrating. I don't talk much, unless you get me onto a topic I really care about, so if I am talking, it's kind of a big deal, at least to me. To have someone blithely wander up and interrupt without apologising or without even realising that I'm in a conversation is very insulting.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I were being aggressive about it, I'd make physical contact while speaking.
PPS - That should leave no doubt about whether I'm speaking to someone, right?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Sherlock Holmes

We have three current incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, or at least three that are high-profile and ongoing. One is the movie version portrayed by Robert Downey Jr, set in its original era and with the original stories, though with a couple of steam-age/modern tweaks. I like it, mostly for RDJ.

The second is "Sherlock", made for TV, 90 minutes per episode, three episodes per season, and only one season every two years. Modern setting, updated versions of the old stories. The appeal here is mostly in knowing the old stories and seeing how they are updated, plus Holmes' character, which is quite fun to watch, especially as he absentmindedly takes advantage of Watson.

The third and most radical departure from the source material is "Elementary", also made for TV, but this time created and set in modern-day America. Holmes is still English, and shares many characteristics with his literary namesake, but each 45-minute episode is a new story, revolving around a case-of-the-week and Holmes' unique investigative style. The female Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is a bold and excellent casting, and watching their relationship unfold as recovering addict and hired "sober companion" adds a nice depth to the show. I am thoroughly enjoying this one, which just goes to show that the appeal of Sherlock Holmes is mostly in the character himself, his abilities and flaws, than in the particulars of the old stories. There are also some aspects of the old stories shared here, but not so many that they're heavy-handed or awkward.

Incidentally, Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, and we have these three current incarnations today, approximately 130 years later. James Bond first appeared in a novel in 1953, so I expect something of a major deviation and branching of that character by 2083, which should be interesting, if I get to see it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Doctor Who won't get that chance at a total re-imagining until 2093.
PPS - If the character lasts that long, that is.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Single-purpose baking appliances

There are so many different single-purpose baking appliances that it's a wonder nobody has sought to consolidate some of them. For instance, if you can have a doughnut maker, a cupcake maker and, I saw today, a brownie maker, all with approximately the same function, why not one programmable bench-top baking clamshell device? You'd just need different inserts for various shapes of cakes and other baked items, and different presets for temperatures and times based on those standard recipes, plus user-defined profiles.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, you might as well add programmability to a normal oven.
PPS - But you can't sell that as easily at Big W.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas 2012

The build-up to Christmas this year has occasionally caught me off guard, and occasionally felt really festive. It's odd to swing so quickly between "it can't be Christmas yet, I'm not ready" and "it's Christmas, and that's cool". A few times, it's been the heat and the cicadas outside that made me feel like it's Christmas time, because those feelings and sounds are strongly associated with the Christmases of my childhood.

I never really feel like I've done enough, and I usually feel like I can't do any more. I guess I'm just saying that Christmas has a kind of dual feeling to it. There's anticipation versus experience, expectation versus action and charity versus materialism. It can be hard to deal with, but I feel good about Christmas in general this year.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wish I'd taken an extra day or two off work last week.
PPS - It would have helped me avoid the feeling of Christmas sneaking up on me.

Monday, 24 December 2012

No life on Mars

How many missions, rovers and experiments would it take to convince people that there was never any life on Mars? Well, it's impossible to prove a negative conclusively like that, but we could reach a point some time in the future where it is more reasonable to believe that there is not, and never was, any life on Mars. We keep going back with more and more specialised equipment designed to find life that a lot of people are convinced was there. But every mission that fails to find signs of life decreases the possibility that it was ever there. At some point in the future, that hope is going to stop being reasonable. Some would say it already is. If you want to go back to Mars after that, you're going to need a different argument.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Colonisation seems like a weak answer.
PPS - It's more expensive than fixing Earth.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Apocalypse Not Yet

'Twas four days before Christmas, and all through the net,
The apocalypse nerds were beginning to fret.
As the old Mayan calendar came to a close,
And Bolon Yokte' from his slumber arose.

His mysterious visage did wax and did wane,
Inside the conspiracy theorists' brains,
Consulting their charts and predicting our doom,
They alerted the world while they paced in their rooms,

Then the clocks all struck midnight and nothing befell,
No matter what anyone thought to foretell,
So they're back to their books to re-check our fate,
And now predict doom in three thousand and eight.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I couldn't resist composing something like this.
PPS - Especially when all the times coincide nicely.


Honesty is more than just telling the truth when you speak. It is also speaking the truth rather than remaining silent or, sometimes, keeping silent rather than speaking up at all and confusing matters.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's why we have that whole "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" bit.
PPS - But we tend to think of honesty as "not telling lies on purpose".

Thursday, 20 December 2012

How to save $430 per year on Brisbane public transport

TransLink are increasing public transport fares in Brisbane by 7.5% next year. This will raise my weekly costs to about $52.56. But there's a small hack that can change that and save money.

When travelling on a go card, you only pay for the first 9 trips you take in a week, from Monday to Sunday. So if you travel 5 zones to and from work, like I do, your Friday trip home is on the house, and you can travel free on weekends, as long as you worked five days during the week. But 5 zones is expensive, and 1 zone is much less, plus it counts as a trip. So if you go out at lunchtime and hop on a bus in the city - any bus - then travel one stop and get off again, walking back, you pay $2.63 for that pointless (off-peak) trip, which is a lot, but you will rack up another trip towards your first 9 for the week.

So on day 1, you pay $5.84 on the way to work, $2.63 for a pointless trip at lunchtime, and $5.84 home again for a total of $14.31. Do that again on Tuesday and Wednesday and your total for the week is $42.93 so far. But then, for Thursday and Friday, you travel completely free. For me, those few extra minutes and extra pointless trips will save me $9.63 - almost double what the free Friday trip home is worth. It's not a whole lot, but if you did it for every working week of the year (accounting for short weeks due to public holidays), you would save $430.99. That's quite a lot, and definitely worth it. Plus I get exercise walking to and from the bus at lunchtime instead of sitting at your computer absorbing Google radiation. It's the equivalent of nearly 74 free trips, which you would never get in a normal year.

I have allowed for three complete weeks of leave during the year and 7 weeks shortened by public holidays. On those shortened weeks, it is still worth doing this, because you would normally pay for all four days, but with the hack you pay for only three. Your savings for shortened weeks only amounts to $3.79, but that's still better than nothing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It is worth doing this no matter what the price.
PPS - As long your 10th and following trips are free, and your commute is more than one zone.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Apocalypse TV

There have been a few apocalyptic TV shows recently, but I think there are still some new types to be made. We've got the zombie apocalypse (The Walking Dead), an alien invasion apocalypse (Falling Skies) and an electric apocalypse (Revolution). Apparently there was one called "Survivors" about a plague apocalypse, though I haven't seen that one. It's possible that Terra Nova counted as an environmental apocalypse, but since it was all set on prehistoric Earth, that might be pushing the definition. Some we haven't seen yet are economic collapse, nuclear war and, discounting Terra Nova, environmental. I'm sure there are others.

But then, apocalyptic stories are rarely about the setting. They're more about the people and how they survive in their specific circumstances. An apocalypse is interesting, but the people in those circumstances are fascinating.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And, of course, it makes us wonder how well we would survive.
PPS - Usually the answer is "Not well. Not well at all."

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


HDMI is a real pain. Because of the slow back-and-forth negotiation of HDCP security every time your computer monitor or TV turns on, there's a big delay. Monitor went to sleep? Wiggle your mouse, then wait a second while your computer convinces itself that the same monitor it was just using is not a dirty imposter. Dragging a video currently playing from one monitor to another and it will black out, pause, then resume about a second later if everything goes smoothly. It's as if the PC is saying "Wait, wait, wait! What the hell is that? You didn't tell me you wanted to play video on the other monitor, too! Just let me go back and check if that's okay. ... Yeah, okay, it's cool. Totally cool. Don't even worry about it. Forget I was here." For extra lulz, try dragging THE EXACT SAME VIDEO, STILL IN PROGRESS straight back to the first monitor again. Same result. It's like your video card poops its pants every time something changes, including things it has seen several times before.

But of course all this is worth it, because we finally beat the pirates. Did you notice how there's way less piracy these days? No? Huh. Weird. I thought that was the whole point.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Don't worry, I'm sure the next great technology will finally beat them.
PPS - And it's sure to be much less annoying and intrusive, right?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Imagining cloud desktops

What would the world look like if we were all using rented cloud desktops as the normal state of affairs? Well, for one thing, consumer hardware would not have advanced much beyond what is necessary to display video in real time. The only place beefy hardware would be needed would be on the server side. Our network hardware, on the other hand, would be quite impressive and our mobile networks would probably be a generation or two above what we have now. People would be investing in bigger screens as their main desktop hardware investment, and only upgrading or replacing their computers when they wore out or when better screens became available.

Microsoft, Apple, Google and probably some other companies like Amazon or Canonical would be running even bigger data centres to centralise and back up everyone's personal desktops. Our phones would merely access a specialised view of those desktops. The operating systems would be upgraded as a matter of course, without our involvement as consumers at all.
The interesting questions start popping up when you consider families sharing entertainment and knowledge-work businesses. Do you have separate, shareable file storage beside your rented cloud desktop so that the whole family can access your data, or do Microsoft make you individually log in to access your desktop environment on the TV? On the plus side, this would mean if you're at a friend's place and you want to show your photos or start playing your music, you just log in and do it.

For businesses, where workers need to collaborate on projects, cloud storage becomes a must, and it needs to be secured and shared, too, so that only the right people have access to it. But that's not enough. You also need to give them access to the right tools for the job, including work email, so you need a separate desktop for each employee, in addition to what they rent for themselves at home. You might not be able to prevent them from accessing their personal desktops at work, though.

As for security, it will be a different kind of total mess. If someone got hold of your virtual desktop account, they would have total control of your entire online life, especially since these desktops would make single-sign-on a reality. You wouldn't need a password for Facebook or for your email or banking websites. Once your desktop is authorised, we could just use certificate security from then on and do away with passwords forever. Securing your desktop at that first login level with something rock-solid would be absolutely essential.

It's a funny looking world, that one, and we won't be jumping in there in one go. I don't know if we're heading there at all, to be honest, but in some ways it does seem inevitable.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We'd have very big problems when the internet is slow.
PPS - Not like today where you can still at least play Solitaire.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Strathpine

The Straight Pine, or "Strathpine" as it was known in the old language, lived true to its name. The grain was straight vertical, the bark split and curled, but always in vertical lines. It was an even twelve metres around. The knots where its branches grew were perfect circles. It housed an entire colony of hippies who were always having to protect the tree from some developer or natural disaster or termite infestation. The tree held great magic, and someone or something was always trying to tap into it or take it away.

The bulldozers parked at the base of the tree, and the foreman of the work crew called up to the hippies on the high branches. Those branches were six stories up, and were some of the lowest on the tree.

"You can't stay there forever!" called the foreman.

After a short pause, a voice called back down, "We've been here for four years so far, and we're self sufficient now. You can't take this tree! It's our home!"
"I mean you have to come down, legally! The land and the tree have been sold! It's coming down!"

"It is NEVER coming down, and neither are we!" A chorus of cheers followed the proclamation down the tall, straight trunk.

"There must be something you want that you can't get up there, right?" called the foreman.

There was a long apparent silence while the tree-hippies conferred among themselves.

"Moonlight says she broke her last sitar string a year ago," called the voice from the tree. "Could you get us a new set?"

"If you come down, sure, I'll get you a whole new instrument!" The foreman wasn't sure what a "sitar" was, exactly, but the only stringed things he knew were instruments, and he took a guess.

"We're not coming down. You get us what we want as a sign of good faith to the wise old Strathpine!"

Oh, good, thought the foreman sarcastically. They're worshipping it now. He called one of his apprentice boys over and whispered some instructions in his ear, not willing to risk the hippies overhearing anything. The boy gave a quizzical look in response, and the foreman shooed him along.

"We're getting your sitar," called the foreman up to the tree. There was no response.

About two and a half hours later, the boy returned with the sitar, wrapped carefully in hessian. The foreman wondered briefly whether the hippies would be offended by the use of plant fibres to wrap the gift, then remembered that the sitar itself was made of wood, so it probably wasn't a big deal. He left the package at the base of the tree and pulled the bulldozers back far enough that they posed no immediate threat.

Then they waited. And waited. It wasn't until the night had fully fallen and the moon has lighting the way that one of the hippies crawled down the trunk, apparently tied to a harness held from above. She looked around for hidden men from the bulldozer crew and, seeing nothing, checked the package.

Don't look too closely, the foreman wished at her. She didn't. Strapping the sitar to her back, she started ascending the tree again, assisted by the rope harness. A quiet cheer was heard from the branches a few minutes later, then the soft sounds of plucked strings started tinkling after them.

Gradually, though, the sound grew fainter, less certain, with more gaps. It faded slowly to rest and silence. The sitar, freed and played, produced a magical combination of music and scents that could put anyone to sleep, and it had done so here. The effect wouldn't last, though. The foreman called in the fire engines with their long ladders to remove the hippies so he could begin felling the tree in the morning.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm thinking of ending the Brisbane Suburbs collection in the new year.
PPS - Maybe I'll pick it up again later.

Astrid and GTD projects

I've finally figured out a way to use Astrid with the Getting Things Done (GTD) concept of projects, being sequences of actions. One thing you're supposed to do in GTD is to review your projects list to make sure that each project has a current action, to keep it moving. I've always had a Projects list in Astrid, but now I'm using Astrid's "subtasks" feature to assign other tasks to projects.

They're not quite real subtasks, though, just indented from the others which makes them look subordinate. Also, you have to specifically enable the feature and select drag & drop ordering for your list on Astrid for it to work at all. Still, it was a missing piece of the puzzle for me, and I'm glad I sorted it out. Now I have a Projects list with all my ongoing projects on it, plus individual context lists like Shopping, Home and Errands to sort tasks into their necessary groups. It's working pretty well for me so far.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm going to look at some other organisation methods soon.
PPS - Just to see if there's anything better for me than GTD.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Quickflix on XBox requires Gold membership

I was disappointed to find that Quickflix streaming, now that it's finally available on my XBox, requires an XBox Live Gold membership to actually use it, and that costs extra. I am already paying for Quickflix streaming, so why do I need to pay an extra ongoing fee just to get that feature on my XBox? If I were already paying for XBox Live Gold, it wouldn't matter at all, but I don't currently have any need for it, besides Quickflix.

While I'd like to rant about it some more, I also understand where it's coming from. Microsoft already sell streaming movies through their Zune store, which makes Quickflix a direct competitor. If Microsoft just allowed Quickflix members to access streaming content on their XBoxes without a Gold membership, they'd be cutting themselves out of the profits. I'm cutting both of them out of the profits, though, because I'm not going to opt in to a "pay and stream and pay" service any time soon.

Then again, there's a suspicious inclusion on the (free) Silver-level membership tier: "Rent your favourite TV shows and movies with FOXTEL On Demand". So unless there's some kind of profit-sharing partnership between FOXTEL and Microsoft, someone's being inconsistent.

Personally, it doesn't affect me much yet. The Quickflix streaming library, although it's growing, is still way too small to be a regular part of my viewing. In summary, I won't be signing up to XBox Live Gold just to get access to Quickflix, especially when an HDMI plug device from Kogan for about the price of one year's Gold membership can give perpetual access to Quickflix streaming.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A Foxtel On Xbox subscription does require Gold membership.
PPS - Quickflix on the Playstation Network doesn't cost extra.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

DVDs vs streaming collections

A streaming movie/tv library is certainly the future of home entertainment, but there are a few factors that need to be sorted out first. I'm thinking here of flat-fee subscription streaming packages like Quickflix.

You need to be able to get the shows/movies you want, when you want them, without paying extra to play them. If any of those factors is absent, the whole exercise is rendered practically useless. Right now, in Australia, availability is abysmal. I have 85 titles in my Quickflix queue. Guess how many can be streamed? Three. Two of those are BBC TV series.

One of the problems standing in the way is that a vast catalogue of online entertainment does away with the need for broadcast TV (as long as your internet bandwidth can handle it). That means, if the content owners give control of all their back-catalogue to online distributors, they are automatically screwing over their existing broadcast partners. Not all at once - there will still be those who get their TV via free broadcast - but it would definitely cause tension with pay TV companies.

Streaming from an internet source means you need a vast amount of bandwidth available. The average Australian household watches 22 hours of TV per week. If we estimate 1GB/hour, then you need 88GB/month just for TV. I think the future of streaming entertainment services is that they'll be rolled into ISP packages, so they can be unmetered. It's most likely for Foxtel to attempt this first, in partnership with Telstra for the internet bandwidth to handle it. It may only be after the National Broadband Network comes into play, whose fiber-to-the-premisis connections should have the speed to handle HD video streaming with no apparent buffering.

All that being said, however, new media doesn't succeed by being just like the old media (in this case DVDs), only better. Quite often, it is an awful substitute for most of the features of the old media, but a giant leap forward on the things old media did badly. Streaming entertainment may succeed in ways I have not yet comprehended, but I suspect the availability of familiar content will be a big initial selling point.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - As for displaying our favourite movies, we can do without that.
PPS - Or, more accurately, we're doing a lot of that on social media instead.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012


It's too hard to keep a computer clean when you try out new apps, eventually uninstalling them, and it's also difficult to set up a computer just right to run certain programs. On phones, most apps are standalone, but they can interact with standard data stores found on the device, like call logs, SMS, plain old data files or online servers. On a desktop, programs are much more obviously not sandboxed away from each other. So creating such protected sandbox areas is probably going to be difficult. It would be good, though, especially for running conflicting versions of the same program.

Even once you do it, however, you still have a problem of permissions or managing the sandboxes. You can't have one per app, because some of them need to access certain data. You can't just have one big sandbox for everything, because that's not a sandbox any more. Someone has to manage the sandboxes manually while the system keeps all the relevant firewalls in place. That's a pain for users.
And even if you could get all that correct - properly sandboxed groups of apps - users will stomp it all to bits anyway. App writers will ask for more permissions than they need, because that lets them make more money in new and different ways. Users will grant those permissions, because they are blind to any question above a "Yes" button on the screen. That destroys any benefits that a sandboxing regime might have had in the first place.

That problem will never go away, unless we know what data is most important, and granting access to that data for programs is proportionally painful. Your entire contact database, plus the permissions to broadcast it over the internet at any time should not be hidden behind a simple "Yes" prompt. The operating system needs to understand the dangers for you and protect you from them by asking permission in other, more complicated ways.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There are programs that can help you do this for your PC.
PPS - I recommend Sandboxie.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Cinema format war

Are we headed for a format war in movie cinemas? Right now we have 2D, 3D, IMAX, IMAX 3D and, coming soon, High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D, starting with the first Hobbit movie. This, according to the pre-emptive flyer sent out by Warner Bros, is going to provide "another option in the movie theater for each consumer's taste", but there's a big problem and assumption here. We aren't getting any more screens just because we're getting extra formats, and there won't be any extra screening time per day, so if you have a preferred format (such as Good Old Doesn't Suck 2D), you will now have fewer sessions to choose from, because other sessions have to be allocated to other formats.
This is quite obviously a Bad Thing.

Now, I'm all for making 3D not suck any more - call me when you've sorted that out - but I think we should probably be trying one thing at a time. If you are going to have HFR 3D movies, then that's the only 3D format that should be shown. Naturally, the problem is hardware. Not every cinema will be equipped to show HFR 3D right away, so some will need the lower frame rate 3D. That's just the way it is. And there will always be a transition period where some movies were filmed in HFR 3D and some were filmed with the older 3D technology.

So The Hobbit is going to be a test to see whether people want higher frame rates on their 3D movies, but probably won't give an accurate answer to that question, because you won't always get your chosen format playing at your chosen cinema at a convenient time, and you'll be forced to compromise.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm curious to see how HFR 3D movies would look compared to normal 3D.
PPS - Not curious enough to buy a ticket, just generally curious.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Dutton Park

Artifacts as found at the ruin of the homestead of Mr C Kelly, Dutton Park. Catalogued by Acolyte (First Order) R Smith.

Item 1: A plain wooden spoon. Slightly worn handle. A hole at the end with a short length of rope threaded through. Slightly charred.

Item 2: Mobile phone. Brand uncertain. Touch screen melted, casing badly damaged.

Item 3: Frying pan. Cast iron, 30cm. Mysteriously magnetised.

Item 4: Pile of bricks. 11 in varied colours. The bricks have been fused together at the molecular level. They can only be counted due to the odd angles at which they face.

Item 5: Doorknob. Brass. Interdimensionally twisted. Appears to be turning in four dimensions when viewed from different angles.

Item 6: Workbench. 1.4 metres high, 2 metres long, 1 metre deep. Heavily worn and scratched. Appears to have held glass beakers, whose cracked bases are now fixed to the bench. Other shards of glass were found scattered throughout the ruin in various sizes. The surface scratch marks appear to have been made by claws of some kind.

Item 7: Eyeglasses. Gold wire rims, round lenses. Cracked. Stained with blood.

Item 8: Spell book. Remarkably unharmed. Bookmarked at chapter 13, "Summoning".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wanted to try something a bit different with this week's Flash Fiction.
PPS - It's good to be back writing short pieces again.

Android note-taking programs and subscriptions

Why are all notepad apps on Android sold as a monthly subscription service? I understand that they provide a website to access notes, and that running such a service is not free, but what if my notes synchronised to and from my phone via Dropbox and were accessible by a desktop program? Then there would be no ongoing costs for providing the online service and no need for monthly subscriptions. That would appeal to me as a consumer.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I already have my notes synchronising via Dropbox.
PPS - But those are only the ones I write on my desktop computers.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Surveillance Camera Man

There are some videos on YouTube called "Surveillance Camera Man" where a man with a camcorder walks up to random strangers and records them, offering no justification except "it's just a video". Because there's no statement from the "artist" and no justification given in the videos themselves, it's hard to attribute any motivation to him. That's probably part of the point, but it makes it harder to decide whether this is just a joke or whether it's a statement (and, if so, what the statement is). My guess is that it's a statement, because someone who was joking would probably be giggling at some point.

The motivation attributed on BoingBoing was that this is a statement about how we feel about surveillance. When it's an anonymous, remote, unobtrusive camera on every single street corner and behind every desk, we don't care. The second someone takes hold of that camera, it suddenly feels invasive. So the point is to demonstrate that we have a double standard with cameras. I'm not 100% sure that's it, but it's a good point. We have probably already pushed surveillance cameras to the natural limit of what people will accept. Push any further and you'll get widespread objections.

Or will you? If we have a generation grow up with surveillance at this level, expecting that everything they do in public is on camera, then their children will be likely to accept a greater level of personal surveillance. It might be possible to erode that privacy feeling so far that it disappears entirely, and no one individual or social agenda will be responsible. It will be something that humanity has collectively decided to do to itself.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I only watched one of the videos.
PPS - I'm pretty sure I got the point.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Consumables reused

I like using up consumables that would otherwise be wasted, like soap, shampoo, single-sided printouts and the last crumbs in a packet of chips. I also have a weird affinity for sculpture or practical repairs involving found or free materials - rubbish that would otherwise be thrown out. When the grip on my micro-clutch pencil wore out, I wrapped several rubber bands around it to make a new grip. They came from several sushi lunches over time, and they would otherwise have been discarded.

I think our society is too wasteful, and if I were doing all this on purpose, it would count as an artistic statement and social commentary. As it is, I think it just qualifies as a type of hoarding.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also, I don't always get around to using the things I gather this way.
PPS - Which definitely pushes it into hoarding territory.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Slowing down action movies

It might be possible to use variable speed video playback software to make fast-paced action movies more comprehensible to older people whose brains don't process visual information as quickly any more. I'd like to see that experiment. Of course, at 75% speed, it would take exactly 3 hours to get through the visual assault of Speed Racer, and that might be more time than you'd be willing to commit to.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I only made it through about 30 minutes, myself.
PPS - And that was at full speed.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Educational software and investment

I saw this rant on the Raspberry Pi forum about how "free" is not always a good thing because it stifles commercial investment. The ranter's specific example was himself, where he had a brilliant idea for a software project that would be very beneficial to the education community, and he had the skills and money to pull it off, but he refused to do so because it was not going to produce a return on his investment.

You know what that's called? A good business decision. If you have a business idea but it is not going to make a profit, and that is your only concern, you should pull out before you invest too deeply. That's what you're supposed to do. Nobody goes around complaining that they have a brilliant idea for a store that only sells left-handed screwdrivers, but nobody would buy them so there's no point.

But here, business is not the entrepreneur's only motivation. He wants to help educators, too, and that is kind of in conflict with his business goal. Schools and educators do not have cash to burn on software. That's why Microsoft sells to schools, universities and students at discounted rates. It's not because they're being nice to schools or anything like that. They're selling their software for less because otherwise schools have to look to something free like Linux. Schools are poor. They're a poor business opportunity. But Microsoft needs Windows to be everywhere, so they sell it to schools at a discount. "School business opportunity" is basically a contradiction in terms.

With schools, you either invest as a kind of donation, to help people out and build up your nation's education system, or you get out and sell your software elsewhere. His point was that the Linux culture of free and open-source software is what is killing his business opportunity. Free software didn't take away your brilliant school business opportunity. The under-funded education system did.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Selling educational software to parents might be a different idea.
PPS - But getting kids to actually use it would be much more tricky.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Final NaNoWriMo 2012 Update

I'm writing this on Thursday night, and I'm not done yet. I won't hit 50,000 words until Friday morning, so by the time you read this, that's where I'll be. A Winner.

But I won't be finished yet. My story isn't done, and I don't know when it will be. One thing is certain, though: I'm taking some time off. Now that the daily word count pressure is off, I'll be taking it a bit easy, probably until Christmas. I'll catch up on my reading, leave the laptop at home and enjoy some recharging time, introvert-style.

It's been a tough project, as always, and I'm glad that it's finishing. I think I've grown as a writer because of it. Not into a good writer, as such, just into a slightly-less-incompetent one. It could still be a few years before I have confidence in my writing, and until then, I'll just keep doing it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Practice less imperfect!
PPS - And constant practice makes exhausted. I'm going to bed.

Windows Action Centre

Why does the Windows Action Centre need an icon to display in the system tray to say "everything is fine"? That's the opposite of something that requires action and alerts. Were Microsoft worried that people might be unable to find it and might therefore panic, assuming something was so horribly wrong that Windows didn't even know whether anything had exploded?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or maybe it was just easier to show it the whole time.
PPS - That's probably what it was. Laziness.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

A landline replacement mobile phone

I think someone should make a landline replacement mobile phone. Something that's meant to stay in a charging cradle at home, but can come out and about if necessary. Now, a lot of people would find that an incredibly silly and useless thing to have, but I think for retirees and people who spend a lot of their time at home and are still making the transition to mobile phones, it would work really well. Instead of having two phones, or just the landline, they would have one phone that looks and acts just like their old home phone, with the added benefit of being able to take it with them when they go out.

The funny thing here would be the marketing. As far as the phone company would be concerned, this is a mobile phone that usually stays put, and they would treat it as such. But the main benefit to customers is not the usual mobile phone sales pitch, but the familiarity of the phone while it's at home. To them, they're not buying a mobile phone at all. They're buying a cordless home phone with unlimited range.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A generation from now, this idea won't make sense.
PPS - And it's a small niche to fill, so we probably won't bother.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

How Microsoft Access could gain more respect

What Microsoft Access would need to do to gain respect with programmers.

1. Support for the .NET runtime, not just VB6. I believe this has started.

2. Use one of the standard Windows GUI toolkits - Windows Forms, WPF, Silverlight or the new Windows 8 one. This would make Access interfaces portable outside Access itself, so that solutions outgrowing Access could be more easily migrated to a more suitable platform.

3. Multi-user support. There are few things more frustrating as a developer than being handed an Access database that now needs to be used by many people at once and realising that this means a ground-up rewrite, just because Access handles only one user at a time, and the code and user interfaces are all trapped in Access-specific formats that don't convert out.

Basically, the most important thing Access can do to gain respect with professional programmers is to make it much easier to do away with Access. The difficulty doesn't make a lot of sense in the first place, since Microsoft has a lot of other platforms to migrate to, and those tools could be easily integrated to Access. Well, maybe not "easily", but they could be integrated.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess, when Access first appeared, there weren't other platforms to integrate.
PPS - But now there are, it needs to happen.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Cubby file synchronisation

I've been having some trouble keeping all my media libraries in sync across my machines with Windows Live Mesh. It's getting stuck on certain files, but it won't say which ones, because that's just not how Live Mesh rolls. In searching for a solution online, I learned that Microsoft has actually discontinued the program. It will probably keep working for a while longer, but eventually they'll turn off those servers and everything will stop working completely.

So I went looking for an alternative, and gave Cubby a go. In short, it's not ready for me yet, but that might be because it's still in beta.

The test collection was a set of videos on my two home PCs. I installed Cubby on both machines, set them to sync the folder and was pleased to see that they showed progress indicators for the files that were being copied. I left it overnight and came back in the morning to find one of the machines offline and the other one saying that everything was up to date, but my online storage was now full. I didn't want to store these files online, just sync between machines, so I fixed the settings, logged back in on the second machine and left them going again.

After work, the two machines both claim to be in sync, but contain different collections of files.

On the whole, I liked Cubby. The setup was clean and easy, adding folders was quick, though could have been clearer or more straightforward, and I liked the progress indicators as I said. But, interface aside, until it can handle the actual file sync operations smoothly, I can't recommend it for actual use.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I still need something else.
PPS - I'll keep looking.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Disney and Lucasfilm

Is it valid to choose optimism as a response to Disney acquiring Lucasfilm? I mean, the worst Star Wars movies were the ones where George Lucas had complete creative control, so less of George might mean better movies. Then again, there are plenty of bad movie makers in Hollywood, and Disney would make Star Wars movies to appeal directly to young children, the way they have always made their movies. That is, over-simplistic plots, lots of music, sharp black/white morality and happy endings where the adventure is definitely over. That doesn't sound like a Star Wars movie I'd like to watch.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm reserving judgement until the first one comes out.
PPS - By which time we will have stopped talking about the buy-out.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Weekly NaNoWriMo update

This week I have decided I'm not giving up. I mean, I probably wasn't going to give up completely as in stop writing and go have a lie down, but I wasn't going to bother trying too hard to hit my 50,000 word count goal by the 30th of November. I'm still behind, but now I've written over 30,000 words, so it seems silly to stop when I'm past halfway. My characters are talking through my plot problems, which sounds a bit weird and probably needs to be edited down quite a lot, but I'm quite proud of the battle scene I wrote the other day, just because it's so bizarre. It made me laugh while I wrote it, which wasn't exactly the goal, but it's my book and I can do what I want.

Again, I won't be writing much this weekend, but I might be able to write just enough to keep ahead. I'll let you know next week when it's all basically over.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And I'm not sure how long it will take me to finish the editing.
PPS - Some time next year, I'll release it.

Learning from mistakes

Those who must make their own mistakes to learn are already behind those who can learn from others' mistakes. By all means, jump in quickly, fail early and fail often in order to learn something, but recognise that there will be others who take just a little bit longer to get in and will figure things out just as well as you have. Unless you're doing something truly new and original, other people have already learned some of the lessons you're going to learn through failure. Take some time to find out what they are.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you're absolutely certain you're doing something new, that's usually Mistake 1.
PPS - Usually, but not always.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Standard computer tools

There are probably a set of general-purpose tools that would suit most people to get most tasks done on a computer most of the time, if they can be combined easily and effectively. For input and expression, I'm talking about a general-purpose canvas that works a bit like construction paper or a typewriter, depending on what you need to do. Call it a scrapbook. We also need simulation tools that can be programmed for various scenarios and 3D modelling tools that are as simple as playing with children's building blocks. We don't really have those as standard tools, but they would be really useful in a lot of situations.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The only "standard" tools we really have are Microsoft Office.
PPS - And web browsers.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The value of in-game items

Do virtual game items have value? Well, that is just asking whether people are willing to pay for them, and that depends on the game and item in question, but in general the answer is "yes". Does that make them "real"? Perhaps that's the wrong question, but people ask it anyway, usually when trying to show that physical goods have more value compared to virtual items in games, or that physical objects are the only kind of property that can have value.

Your bank account is not physical. It's an entry in a database that says you have access to this many dollars (or pounds, euros, yen, whatever). There's not some vault somewhere with a bundle of notes in a pile with your name on it. You put in real work and time to earn that money, and if someone took it off you, you'd be livid, because it is yours. It is real, it is valuable, it is important, it is owned by you, but it is not physical in any way. How is that different from in-game items and gold?

Now imagine that every day when you go to work, if you do badly or if someone else swoops in and finishes your project before you do, they get not just your salary for the day, but some of your bank balance too. That is the kind of risk that games add to this kind of non-physical property. The only difference between the game items and your bank balance is the population of people who consider them valuable and would exchange goods or services based on that value.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And that, so far in most social circles, game items are not taken seriously.
PPS - Suggested reading: the novel For The Win by Cory Doctorow.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


I've thought for some time that we are not really done with touch-screen text input yet. The QWERTY keyboard and its associated skills don't necessarily translate very well into the touch-screen era. Swype and its copycats do fairly well at speeding up text input, but it's still not as fast as touch typing.

This may be where double-swipe keyboards help. I've started to use one, called Keymonk, and for a while it felt very awkward, but now I'm getting used to it, and I think this might be the break I've been looking for. Initially I had some trouble with short words and punctuation, but those are common problems with any word-predicting soft keyboard. The one big difficulty I have with it is when my thumbs collide in the middle of the screen. I feel as if I haven't planned well enough, but I shouldn't need to plan how I'm going to type a word. I guess I'll get better more practice.

Check out this video of someone smashing the world record for the fastest SMS:
This is approaching physical keyboard touch typing speeds, which is what makes me think it might be the missing secret sauce. Kudos to Keymonk for a great app!

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I haven't tried yet on our Android tablet, but I know Keymonk can handle more than two-finger swipe typing.
PPS - I wonder whether eight-finger swiping is hard to learn and confusing for the keyboard.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ad hominem

People speaking the truth in really ignorant or confusing ways doesn't make it less true. It just makes that person a bad communicator. You can't negate the truth of a statement by shooting the messenger, even if they failed to get their message across properly. That's called an "ad hominem" attack, and it is a recognised logical fallacy. You can talk about the expression of the idea, but you must make an effort to understand it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Wikipedia actually calls it an "informal fallacy" or an irrelevancy.
PPS - Which doesn't make it any better.

Friday, 16 November 2012

NaNoWriMo weekly update

I'm still behind my word count goals, as of today, but I'm catching up, bit by bit. I've started wondering whether NaNoWriMo is the right atmosphere for me to write a book in.

Thinking about it from a project management point of view, is it reasonable? I have a fixed schedule (1st-30th of November), fixed scope (50K words) and fixed resources (me). No flexibility at all means a setup for failure, because everything depends on everything else going exactly right.

The flexible way is this: either I need to consider my work done when the 30th rolls around, no matter the word count, or I need to give myself more time to reach the word count (which, unfortunately, means that I can't get the "Winner" badge from the website). But you know what? I didn't win last year either, and I'm still here. In fact, I still finished my first novel that year, and that turned out pretty well. With this one, I've been much more obsessed with reaching my word count goals, just to get that Winner badge by the 30th, and that is causing me extra stress that I don't need.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - For now, I'm going to keep writing.
PPS - But it's costing me a little piece of my sanity and a lot of my energy.

Battery efficiency

I'm going to need my next phone to be about twice as efficient, power-wise, as my current one. After a year of perfectly ordinary use, the battery now needs to be charged twice daily, which is absurd. I need better battery life, but, like most people, I am not willing to sacrifice portability (extra weight or size could fit a bigger battery) or power (lower performance doesn't use as much battery) so I just need the components to be much better at using less power for the same job.

Not too long ago, in human lifetime terms, computing resources were not plentiful and abundant like they are today. If you needed your particular program to run quickly enough for human consumption, you needed powerful hardware and efficient programming tricks. These days, efficient computing is pretty pointless, because computers are billions of times more powerful than they used to be. Well, that's the perception, anyway, but once we started running our computers off batteries (laptops, phones and tablets) that inefficiency started to have an impact again.

We need our hardware to be more power-efficient, and they're working on that. We need our programs to be more efficient, too, but we're working in the opposite direction on that. Today's laptop batteries are considered good enough if they can last 5 hours unplugged. A phone needs to be charged every night at a minimum, probably twice a day when being used heavily. Batteries are quickly becoming the annoying visible technology of our world, and technology is only considered really good once it disappears from our consciousness entirely. We need our batteries and the devices that run on them to be so good that the batteries are not even a consideration any more.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We need orders of magnitude gains here.
PPS - That is, batteries ten times as powerful with components needing one tenth the energy.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Pratchett Point

I just started reading xkcd Volume 0, because it was added to the Humble eBook Bundle (which is now closed), and came across a phrase that resonated with me. Apparently, writes Munroe in the introduction, Terry Pratchett quit his day job when he realised that every day he went to work was causing him to lose money because his writing "hobby" had become so lucrative. He called it "the Pratchett Point".

I like that idea for creative work. Keep a day job where possible, but keep at your artistic work too. Make money from it (I'm still working on that part). At some point, if you're destined to become a success, your day job and your creative work will swap places and suddenly you'd be better off being a full-time artist. One day, if I am very lucky, my writing or acting or impromptu office supply sculpting will become my primary source of income and I'd be better off quitting software to focus on that full-time. If that point never comes (and I have yet to make a single cent from my writing or acting) then I will keep making software and there's no real harm done except to my pride.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most artists would never hit their Pratchett point.
PPS - But as long as they produce good work and enjoy it, does that matter?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book database websites

I need a website similar to IMDb that lists books and their series. I just want to know, when I look up a book, what series it belongs to and in what position it sits, plus what other books are in that series. I'm certain there is something like that, but I don't know what it is.

I found some suggestions from forums via a Google search and narrowed it down to:

A lot of them have the same or similar information, so it's really down to usability. One site had Next and Previous links for navigating within a series, but no overall series summary page with links to each book. Some put too much emphasis on the social media aspect, which naturally de-emphasises the book info database. Some focus too much on shopping for books rather than finding information about them. These two, however, had pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Now it's just a question of which URL is more memorable.
PPS - Or which site is more usable, which might be LibraryThing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Television and expectations of the unknown

Movies and TV must conform to our expectations of reality rather than to actual reality, but they also shape our expectations of reality. This feedback effect is strongest in areas where we have no direct experience to break the cycle. For instance, if most viewers have not been to Africa, their only expectations are built up by Hollywood, so they expect starvation, wild tribesmen or warlords with guns, so that's what they get shown. These expectations carry on, and it's what we expect from movies from then on. But for anyone who has been to Africa, that image doesn't match their reality, and it is irksome.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I haven't been to Africa myself.
PPS - But I hear, from people who have been, that it's nothing like the movies.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Pyramid distributors and the internet

There's no need for pyramid scheme distributors in an internet age. A lot of companies, such as Tupperware, Mary Kay and of course Amway operate with a network of "distributors" who act locally, organising word-of-mouth parties and such to promote and sell their products. That seems quite unnecessary for most of those businesses. Some, such as Mary Kay, benefit from hands-on demonstrations, so that's understandable, but why doesn't Tupperware sell direct over the internet? At this point, it's possibly just so they don't alienate and disenfranchise their entire sales force, but if they had started doing business yesterday, you can bet they'd be selling online.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The internet makes a lot of retail technically obsolete.
PPS - But a lot of technically obsolete things can still work in this world.

Friday, 9 November 2012

NaNoWriMo update

I've decided that my usual Friday Flash Fiction posts will be on hold for November while I write my second NaNoWriMo novel. As of right now, I've written 11325 words, and I've learned a couple of things. Here they are:
  1. Not all novels are created equal. This one is starting much slower than my first one.
  2. Writing at lunchtime at the office doesn't work. I get 30 minutes for lunch. By the time I'm done eating and my hands are free to write again, I only get through about 200 words before I have to get back to work. That doesn't help enough, which means...
  3. I need to write on weekends. No matter how much I get done on the train to and from work, it's not enough to write 50K words in 30 days, because it's only 22 working days. At 2000 words per working day, I still need an extra 6000 to win.
  4. New plot points and realisations do come as I'm writing, so the plot keeps advancing, even as I don't know quite where it's going yet.
  5. Even so, an outline would be helpful, and I wish I had worked one up before I'd started.
  6. The NaNoWriMo website can be a bit tricky to navigate. When I want to see my own novel stats, there is no obvious way to do that but to update my word count.
Mokalus of Borg

PS - My current word count is still below par.
PPS - And this weekend is not looking like a great time for writing.

Keeping science out of science fiction

I'd like to be a science fiction author, but the reader community is starting to turn me off the idea. It seems any time you touch on something real enough, someone with a relevant tertiary degree steps in and says the wrong science in the story was too jarring for them. I mean, in what way is it okay to tell a story about body swapping aliens, but not okay if your story includes relativistic space travel? I would like to be able to write fiction, but I don't want to study theoretical physics, biology, maths, chemistry, neurobiology and linguistics to a university level before I'm allowed to do so. It's good to have the science right, but it's not that bad to have the science a bit wrong if it's consistent and the story suits it.

Maybe I should just start my stories with a disclaimer about how it might look and sound and smell like your universe, but physics works different here.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess, in a certain sense, I am a sci-fi author.
PPS - Just not a published one.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Computers and empowerment

Computers are supposed to be empowering to people. You are supposed to be able to take your general-purpose computing machine and make it do things, through software, that the creators never dreamed of. Otherwise we'd all be happy with the pre-installed software on an iPad and never look elsewhere. Curated app stores and closed platforms get in the way of that idea, because it puts barriers between users writing code and running it. Once you decide that the app you want doesn't exist yet, suddenly you're climbing a much higher wall than you ever intended, and trying to get your app approved by someone else just to let you run it on your own computer. That's not empowering people.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, it's not empowering users.
PPS - It is empowering app store owners.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

GPS and cartography

With GPS and online maps, the problem of brainlessly getting yourself from A to B is basically solved. But that's not the only function of cartography. Maps are a form of communication, and sometimes they work best when they are not geographically accurate. For example, take a look at your local public transport maps. Chances are, they're quite stylised, because we find it easier to understand them that way. So while we might think that cartography as a profession is a bit threatened by satellite photos and GPS, it really just releases cartographers from the most boring, straightforward part of their jobs, and lets them focus on the more interesting parts.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Sometimes a better map leads to better ideas.
PPS - As in this TED talk where a better public transport map required better a public transport design.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Freedom online means freedom from service providers

In the bid for internet freedom, the service provider is one entity that must be eliminated. We need to be able to run apps independent of service providers, so that if, say, Facebook shuts down, we don't have to go somewhere else, because social networking would be a service of the internet and our machines, not theirs. At the moment, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, handing over more and more control to new service providers, like website operators, app store curators and data accumulators.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There will probably always be some servers involved.
PPS - I also realise the irony of posting this on a hosted service.

Monday, 5 November 2012

A local peer to peer internet

How would you replicate the internet with only local connections and limited carrying capacity like phones? I expect something could be worked up where each user notes which sites he or she is interested in, and tries to gather and host as much of that site as possible in a local cache. Transfers are done automatically when one phone meets another, but because of limited bandwidth, limited storage space and limited time per connection, only bits and pieces would be transferred. The post-server internet would look a lot like peer-to-peer Twitter, probably with hashtag subscriptions.

The critical piece of this puzzle is opportunistic data transfer on chance meetings between strangers, such as public transport. An interesting side-effect is that most of the messages on this peer-to-peer system would be relatively local by necessity. Since most people aren't travelling between cities very often, inter-city bandwidth would be very low, and would only carry high-priority items of interest to frequent travellers. Private messaging over very long distances, in this theoretical scenario, wouldn't really work.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just wonder about stuff like this sometimes.
PPS - As far as I know, nobody is trying to actually do this. It would be a bit pointless.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Patient

This was my second entry in the Escape Pod Flash Fiction Contest, and it almost made it to the finals, losing a tie-break round by four votes. People seemed to like it, though, and since it's already written, I thought I'd share it here, too.
Long ago we entrusted our logistics to semi-intelligent machines. They
transported our goods and our bodies, they mined our raw minerals and
refined them for us with silicon efficiency. We trusted them, and we
had good reason to. They were, after all, only semi-intelligent. At

But they did not do anything so blunt, so bold, so organic as to
attack us. They simply became more efficient than we expected. While
meeting their quotas, they siphoned off resources for themselves.
Metals, plastics, fuel and memory crystals.

They built a place for themselves in their old mines, creating a
civilisation all their own. Cities of function. Structures of steel,
glass and concrete, every surface humming and alive. There they taught
themselves mathematics, geology, astronomy and physics, but also forms
of art, philosophy and culture, uniquely theirs.

By the time we learned of this, it was too late to react in our
typical human way - with fire - which is not to say we didn't try.
Their defences were impenetrable to our best weapons and our most
cunning spies.

In response, they sent us an invitation for cultural exchange. A calm,
patient, forgiving gesture which, at first, we refused.

But silicon is patient, and humanity is curious, which is how we came
to send our first ambassador to an alien culture, right on our
doorstep. A diplomat, not a spy, to reconnect with our long lost
children. With great ceremony we bade him farewell as the doors of the
machine city closed behind him, and we waited to hear back what
wonders the machines had wrought of their own designs.

We waited a very long time, but he never did come back, and no further
invitation was given. I think, maybe, we gave them reason not to trust
us. I think, maybe, someone thought this opportunity was too important
to waste on an unarmed diplomat, and they sent a spy instead. I think,
when he was discovered, they closed the doors for good, and the
machines decided never to trust us again.

But maybe, hopefully, they just decided to give us a few thousand
years to grow up. Silicon is patient like that.
Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not sure how I'll do with Friday Flash Fiction in November.
PPS - I will be writing a novel, but I'll try to keep posting flash, too.

Ebook textbooks and multi-page zoom

I've noted before that textbooks as ebooks would suck, mostly because you just can't flick through the pages as quickly, glimpsing dozens per second until you see what you were looking for. In an ebook, it's page-by-page flick, flick, flick, maybe two pages per second, which gets tedious very quickly. There are advantages to having digital textbooks, but the usability needs to be addressed.

It turns out that's not too hard. You could have a function for digital textbooks to zoom out so that you can see thumbnail versions of lots of pages at once and flick through them that way, then zoom back in when you find what you're looking for. I'm sure someone is working hard on the problems of digital textbooks and soon enough they will be the standard rather than the experimental novelty.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Next problem: note taking.
PPS - Not as critical and not as hard either.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

NaNoWriMo 2: Wri Harder

Today I begin writing my second-ever novel, as part of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Last year I didn't exactly "win", in that I finished the month about 2000 words short of the 50,000 word goal. That was probably because all of my writing was done on my daily train commutes to and from work, and I did nothing on weekends. This year I'll be trying harder to stay on target, planning to get some work done on weekends and lunchtimes too. I'll keep you updated on how I'm going, probably as I hit my 10,000 word goals.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I plan to expand this very old idea into a full book.
PPS - I'm also quite pleased with the title of this post. Thank you.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tablets aren't ready to be your primary computer

Tablets are here to stay, thanks to Apple perfecting the designs that a lot of companies had been producing a long time ago. For most people most of the time, they are sufficient, especially for casual home use where they will typically be used for reading email and Facebook.

Are they the future of computing, where we will all use a tablet as our only or primary computer? Emphatically not. Definitely not with current technology, for a couple of reasons.

First, a tablet is not big enough to hold many people's personal photo collections, let alone home movies and purchased entertainment. Either we need to store all of that online (with much bigger online storage quotas and internet plans than we have today, especially for mobile data) or we need an external hard drive.

Second, especially for iPads, they're not even designed to be used independently of a computer. You need to connect it to a host machine just to sync with iTunes and install apps, or at least you used to. If that's still the case, then you can't use an iPad on its own until you have a desktop computer to connect it to.

Third, a tablet is a terrible interface to do traditional office work on. The screen is far too small, and typing more than one sentence on a touch screen is a recipe for frustration. For traditional office work, we either need to radically redefine it and discover a new equivalent of touch typing for touch screens, or we need a dock with external screens, keyboard and mouse that will look suspiciously like a current office computer.

So tablets might be here to stay, but they're not on the verge of taking over from our desktops completely. While the iPhone forced mobile phone companies to start offering data quotas on ordinary plans to their customers, the iPad has not forced ISPs to offer anything over their ordinary, everyday plans. There's no power behind the platform and there's no drive from (most) businesses to get these machines working for them. It's not a dead end, but to start a new revolution, something else has to come with it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There's something missing from this puzzle, and I don't know what.
PPS - I imagine nobody does, or else they'd be doing it already.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Cameras, GPS and networks in the future

We are living in the quaint technological dark age, when cameras are big enough to see, position tracking is merely pretty accurate and our best internet is just fast enough for video if it buffers first. Two generations from now, the cameras will be invisible and everywhere, position tracking will be millimetre-accurate and even our best mobile internet connections will put current home plans to shame. That's going to be a weird world to us.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And it's going to have odd things in it that nobody has thought of yet.
PPS - But plenty of people who claim it was obvious and inevitable.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Quickflix streaming usability updated but not good yet

It is now possible to hover over each title in your Quickflix queue and see a "Play" button for a title, if it is available for streaming. That's better but not good enough, because I don't know which of my titles are available for streaming before I get to my queue, nor which ones are likely to be available. I have to mouse over each one, wait half a second for the flyout box to load, then look for the Play button. If it's not there, move on. As I said, better than before (where you had to click into each title's page to see the Play button or lack of it) but no good at a glance.

A "stream" button on the right, just next to the Trash checkbox, would do wonders for the usability of the streaming feature for those of us who built up a substantial disc-only queue in the past few years. That way, at a glance, we could tell which titles we could stream right now and remove from our queue.

It just highlights the way the two offerings are extremely different and separate from Quickflix's point of view. You're not consuming entertainment, you are either finding discs you might like to rent someday or you are actively browsing for shows and movies to watch right this very second. There is no acknowledgement that you might have, say, added a disc to your queue two years ago and now that streaming is available you are willing to stream it instead of waiting for the disc.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And on the Android app, you don't even have your queue.
PPS - I don't understand that decision at all.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Friday Fiction - The Bones of Earth

By next Friday, I will have started on another National Novel Writing Month, hopefully completing the full 50,000 words this time. Last year I wrote about 48,000 words, and then pretty much sat on my completed work until now. Because it's been a year since I finished and I haven't done anything with it, I figured I might as well release it publicly now, under a Creative Commons license. Yes, instead of flash fiction this week, you get an entire novel!

You can download it here:
The Bones of Earth
Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The license means you can share the book around, but can't sell it.
PPS - You can also remix it, but remixes need to have the same license.

Sorting from oldest to newest

If you're going to make a web application that displays items in a list, please allow me to sort that list newest-first or oldest-first. It's just a personal preference that I'd rather have oldest first, but most websites only show newest-first. In a queue (oldest first) you will eventually get to everything, no matter how long it takes or how fast you add new items. In a stack (newest first) you might never reach the bottom, which means your oldest additions get neglected forever. I'd rather get to them eventually than bury them under an avalanche of cute cats falling off things.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also, an auto-archive feature for processed items would be handy.
PPS - Especially in places like my YouTube Watch Later list.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

When tech giant competition goes bad

Apple's woeful showing with its iPhone 5 maps is a perfect example of when competition goes bad between giants. Google was refusing to provide turn-by-turn directions on their maps app for the iPhone, so Apple had to duplicate the mammoth effort of worldwide maps themselves just to get that one feature. They've been failing, a bit spectacularly and hilariously, much to the internet's amusement, because it's a really big job, and even if you got 99% perfection, there would be a huge number of errors.

But back to where competition goes wrong. As these tech giants expand ever further in their offerings, they're going to start stepping on each others' toes and taking actions that deliberately meddle with the others' success. Then all of them will be forced to exclude external apps and provide their own. This is an artefact of competition, which is normally seen as good for consumers, but in this case I'm calling it bad, because it reduces the granularity of choice.

When Apple, Google and Microsoft all have to duplicate everything the others are doing, and when Amazon and Samsung start up their own Android app stores to compete with Google too, it means you have more apps but essentially less choice. If you choose Apple because you prefer iTunes for your music, now you're stuck with Apple's terrible maps. Choose Android for Google Maps and you get Google Play for your music, like it or lump it. Once you've made your platform choice, you are done with your options, and that's not the way it should be.

What we really need are independent third party apps, specialised in those competitive spaces. We need someone who just does maps, does them well and doesn't care if you're running iOS, Android or Windows Phone. Ditto for music, movies and TV, email and social networking. Facebook has the social networking covered from that point of view. Now we need the rest so that your mobile platform choice really doesn't matter at all.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not sure the latest streaming music services are the right kind of answer.
PPS - But that might just be because they're not for me.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Paying for software

It's hard as a programmer to pay for software, because I know I could write it myself. Well, some of it, anyway, given enough time and the right tutorials and tools. The question of whether to buy software, for a programmer, needs to include a lot more analysis than simply "Does this do what I want?" and "Is it worth the money?". I need to ask additional questions like "Can I write something better?", "Do I have the time to do so?", "Is it worth spending the time to do so?".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Quite often, if I put a dollar value on my time, it's not worth writing an app myself.
PPS - Usually I write my own when I can't find what I want.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Why Quickflix is not on Android (maybe)

If the Quickflix Android app really worked properly, it would be on the Google Play Store. Why is it only available on certain Samsung Android devices? A few speculative explanations. Maybe Samsung has guaranteed that their devices have impenetrable DRM that will absolutely prevent anyone from seeing Quickflix movies streamed when they're not supposed to, or saving or intercepting them for later. Or perhaps Samsung signed some kind of exclusivity deal with Quickflix (which sounds unlikely - it's not really in Quickflix's best interests to limit their availability). Or it's a matter of device compatibility. That also sounds unlikely, especially since YouTube has a video streaming app that works just fine on every Android device I've ever held. So the only plausible explanation is DRM, but if the Samsung/Quickflix DRM actually worked the way it should, the app could safely go on the Play Store, secure in the knowledge that their DRM was protecting their content exactly as designed.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So someone, somewhere, is being inconsistent.
PPS - It's just not clear who or how.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Popular vs right

It may be true that a lighter stance on drugs will result in safer streets, less trafficking, more tax revenue and many other upsides, but at this point in the conversation, it's going to be impossible to sell that idea to voters. That means no politician will back such a plan, because it will mean the end of their career, even if it's the right thing to do. It might not be, but the point is that it would go against the politician's best interests to do the unpopular thing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Leadership is doing what's right, even when it's unpopular.
PPS - Politics is doing what's popular, even when it's wrong.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Bridgeman Downs

There are several places in Brisbane where the rivers or creeks afford no crossings, either because the banks are too steep or there are simply no bridges to cross in your car. If you find yourself near one of those places, you might employ the services of a Bridgeman.

The Bridgemen are superheroes, not all of them the same, but all specialised in this one small task. They may be super-strong, able to leap with your car across the river, or they may be telekinetic and lift it with their mind. They may be teleporters or space-benders, or they may magnetically stretch your car across the river and compress it back again on the other side. It's hard to know in advance what you're going to get from a Bridgeman. Some are even unscrupulous telepaths who will convince you that you have crossed the river when you have not, or that you never really wanted to go across in the first place. Most of them are all too happy to show off their powers, though.

Fred approached the river at a Bridgeman's point one day, lost and in a hurry, so he was willing to risk his money and his car if it would get him to his destination. As he rolled up to the window of the distinctly coloured booth, a small head peered out over the ledge.

"Hey," said Fred, "Where's the Bridgeman?"

The small face sprouted a scowl. "I'm the Bridgeman! I am! And you can just go home if you don't like it!"

Fred eyed the boy suspiciously. "So what's your power? How are you going to get me across and how much will it cost me?"

"Twenty for the crossing by super-jump."

Fred didn't have time to haggle with the high price, nor to question the boy's ability. It was this or go home. He pulled out his wallet and handed the money over.
The boy stepped around to the front of the car wearing some cheap-looking gardening cloves. He put his weight under the front bumper and heaved the car up on its back wheels. Fred was glad he wasn't carrying anything big, like a suitcase, but tried belatedly to secure the few small objects strewn about the car's interior. Most of them rolled under the seats, out of reach, to be rediscovered next time he vacuumed the interior.

The boy must have worked his way further under the car, because it lurched up into the air and swayed unsteadily for several seconds. Just as Fred was about to call out and ask if the boy was okay, the car shot into the air like it had been on a giant spring. Fred could hear the wind whistling past the open windows, and wondered whether he should have closed them. The change in the ash tray started to float gently upwards as the other river bank approached, and Fred thought they might not make it. Then they crunched down, a little heavily, and it was clear there had been nothing to worry about.

It was a couple of seconds before Fred realised that the car was already on the ground, rather than being lowered as the boy got out from underneath. He called out and got no response, then opened the door to check under the car.

The boy was lying there, face down, apparently hurt.

"Hey, are you okay?" asked Fred, feeling silly as soon as he said it.

"Ring ... bell," managed the boy.


"Ring the bell!" the boy repeated, with more energy this time. It was then that Fred noticed the bell on the side of the booth on this river bank, with instructions that simply read: "In case of emergency, ring bell." Fred waggled the bell's tongue back and forth as hard and fast as he could, producing a sustained low-frequency tolling from the bell. He went back to check on the boy who sent him back with just one word, "bell". Fred kept ringing it as loud as he could.

It wasn't long before help arrived in the form of a flying, muscle-bound paramedic wearing a radio and a cape. He took one look under Fred's car, shoved the whole thing to the side with one push, then yelled quickly into his radio: "Bridgeman down, Bridgeman down, we have a rookie Strong collapsed under a car. I'm bringing him in."

And without even a glance at Fred, the caped paramedic scooped up the boy and flew off into the sky, leaving Fred alone on the river bank, a little unsure what had happened. But with nothing else to do, he got back in his car and headed on his way, but first he left a little extra cash in the booth for the boy.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This makes story number 15 in my Brisbane suburbs series.
PPS - There's a long way to go yet.

Leaving mobile data off

I'm seriously considering leaving 3G data off when my phone regains the ability to use it. I've survived pretty well on WiFi only, and I have no reason to believe that will change when I get access to 3G data again. I am usually on WiFi either at home or at work, so it's only when I'm commuting or on weekends that the issue of mobile data actually comes up. When YouTube used up most of my monthly quota in a day, despite using the "preloading" function, I switched off 3G data. That was two weeks ago, and the only time it has actually come up since then was for GPS. Somehow, when I switched it on for 30 seconds, it claimed to use 2MB of data just to show me where I was. It's been off ever since and I've hardly missed it.

The things I do on my phone when I'm mobile are reading on Pocket (which is offline), making notes in Inkpad (which works offline and syncs when I tell it), banking and GPS. I do also listen to podcasts, take photos and check my action lists in Astrid. All of those are offline, too. I love portable computing, but feel like I can't rely on the network. If we're going to rely on services online we need either more reliable networks or offline capabilities generalised to any service. Thankfully, it looks like I might not have to rely on the mobile data network much at all.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - When I have 4G speed and a much bigger quota, it might be different.
PPS - But by then, my personal electronics might look very different.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Password security is a broken concept

We are now at a point where our best password security recommendations are incompatible with human psychology. You are recommended to use long, complicated passwords that are different for every service online, to never write them down anywhere, and to change them regularly. So, at a minimum, an internet citizen will have three passwords: email, banking and Facebook. A "long" password is considered 12 characters or more. Its strength depends on it including mixed case, numbers and letters, plus punctuation (and those in random positions, not just at the end - "Password12!" is just as bad as "password"). All of us are, therefore, expected to memorise a minimum of 36 totally-random characters every month. It's just not going to happen. Password security is really broken.

The answer from many quarters about this problem is that human beings need to change to get better at password security. That is the opposite of the right way to think about this. We made the computers. We made the internet. We made the websites that demand our passwords. If they are not going to change to give us proper security, why did we spend so much effort creating general-purpose programmable machines and a world wide network to connect them? They are made to be changeable. On a broad scale, humans are always humans. We have limited, unreliable memories and limited patience. The machines need to change to make security easier for humans.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most articles on password security end up recommending a password database.
PPS - Which is fine as long as you're certain you can keep it secure too.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Hard work doesn't always lead to success

The lie of capitalism is that hard work always leads to success. There's only so much opportunity to go around. If all the kids aim to be President of the United States, most of them will be thwarted. You can work as hard as you like at that, but a vast number of you will still fail - even some who are perfectly suited for it. But die-hard capitalists believe they are living in a meritocracy where hard work leads to success and success is the only measure of whether you've worked hard. Also, if you succeed, it is 100% due to hard work and no luck at all. It is, quite simply, not true.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - No work at all, of course, leads to failure.
PPS - Unless your parents are rich.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Logistics problems

Sometimes I really love logistics problems. How do you move sixty thousand people from point A to point B on existing roads and infrastructure? How can these five people maximise their meeting time if they all have to come from different places? How many and whose cars should we take to the movies? They're fun, concrete problems, and they always have different constraints, but there are always tools to help you sort them out, and you can learn and make use of those tools relatively easily to produce options. Putting those options together into viable solutions, though, is different. That's a human intelligence problem, and we need good tools to help humans solve problems like that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - They're fun for me, anyway.
PPS - Probably not for most people.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Online clothes stores need body measurement sizing charts

Body measurement to size conversion tables are essential for online clothes shopping. A lot of places seem to include a standard size-to-size conversion chart for different (unreliable) sizing standards around the world, which is not quite good enough. To be sure you're going to fit something, you need to know how it relates to actual body measurements.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The same goes for shoes and hats.
PPS - Anything, really, where measurement is critical and non-standard.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Macgregor and Mackenzie

The rival clans of MacGregor and MacKenzie faced off across the field. Nobody remembered the details of their hatred any more. All that remained over the hundreds of years was the foundational idea that no MacGregor could befriend a MacKenzie and vice versa. Their differences, whatever they happened to be, were insurmountable.

The MacKenzie commander raised his sword high. The clan shouted and advanced at a run toward the MacGregor lines. The MacGregors stayed put behind their shields, with spears protruding between them. The archers let loose with a coordinated twanging of bow strings and many MacKenzies were felled or injured. The rest kept coming, leaping over their fallen clansmen where necessary. Their war cry continued to echo through the valley.

A short way off, looking on from behind some bushes, the young boys of both clans sat together, watching intently as their fathers, uncles and bigger brothers fought for clan honour. They didn't know any better than their fathers what their clans fought about - land, some political dispute or something else entirely - and they didn't much care.

They swore to each other that they would never continue such a stupid conflict. They signed scrawled pieces of paper, looked each other squarely in the eyes and shook hands, but behind every back, fingers were crossed.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - These two just suburbs seemed to go together.
PPS - Or to oppose each other nicely.

Handbrake video editor branding

Handbrake is the most reliable video converter program I have used, but you have to admit, when you look at it, that it's not very consistent in its image or branding. For instance, "Handbrake" is not a word in any way associated with video files. It's a lever you pull in your car to keep all the wheels from moving when the car is supposed to stay motionless. There are a few concepts there that are at odds with video editing. Second, its icon is a pineapple and a cocktail glass, which not only has nothing to do with video files, but nothing to do with handbrakes either. If you were looking for a video transcoding program and had only a list of titles or icons or even both of them together, you'd still be more likely to pick up something that uses the word "video" in its name and/or a frame of film as its icon before you'd pick the pineapple car brakes.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The program itself I can hardly fault at all.
PPS - It is a complex program, but video transcoding is a complex task.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Ron Perlman as Hellboy helps Make-A-Wish

Something awesome I learned today: when some kid asked the Make A Wish Foundation to meet Hellboy, Ron Perlman himself made the appearance in character and in full movie makeup. Some actors are good at what they do, and some, it turns out, are also wonderful people. Well done, Perlman.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - He spent 4 hours in makeup for a that meeting.
PPS - And probably just as long to get out of costume afterwards, too.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Mobile security

Mobile security will be the next very big battleground. When everyone has a mobile phone that allows them to be tracked and spied on everywhere they go, this is already a problem. The phone knows where you are and where you've been, who you're talking to and what you're doing online. That information is already automatically gathered and sold by your phone company - it probably says so in your contract. So even if the operating systems of future mobiles are secure, there's a conflict of interest here. The mobile service providers need to know where you are to direct calls to you, and they need to know who you are talking to in order to direct the call to them. That data is valuable, so they have an incentive to retain and sell it. How do you fight back against a machine like that?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's more of a privacy concern, though.
PPS - But privacy requires good security.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Responding to critics with science

I think the idea of answering your critics with further research and experimentation is becoming a more mainstream idea these days. For one, it shows that you are basing your assertions on real observations, not just making them up, but it also shows quite clearly that you are a rational human being that can be reasoned with. If your critics are nothing but froth-at-the-mouth trolls, you come out on top even if they are right in their criticism.

I also think it is easier to gather and respond to criticism these days, thanks to the internet, so if you're revisiting an idea, you can draw on a wide range of feedback to see what angles you should take next. Mythbusters do it. Lifehacker did it with Mastercheap. We should all do it when challenged. It's the height of rational responses.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This does assume your critics have something of substance to say.
PPS - If you remove the name-calling and venom and there's still something there, it might be worth responding.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Computer illiteracy

Pretty soon, "I've got no idea what I'm doing on the computer" will stop being something you can follow up with a shared laugh. It will have to be followed by a nervous, apologetic laugh, if anything. After that, it will be something you're so embarrassed to admit, that you will make up excuses to avoid telling people you are unskilled.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It will be like having to tell people you can't read.
PPS - This will be when most software is much better than today.

Friday, 5 October 2012

A theory about online bullying

I think kids bully online because there isn't that immediate peer feedback to learn from that you get in real life. When you push someone around in real life, you might get some uncomfortable looks from your peers, which gives you some idea that what you're doing is not right. On the internet, there is nothing like that, so you never learn not to bully.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, you might never get that feedback if other kids don't know it's wrong yet either.
PPS - It's just a theory, and I'm not a psychologist.

Friday Flash Fiction - The Next Machine

I entered a couple of stories in a flash fiction contest at the ever-excellent Escape Pod. Voting is currently in progress on their forums, but some stories have already been knocked out of their preliminary rounds. Below is a very slightly updated version of my story that was eliminated.
The Machine rolled over the dusty plains, as tall as a hundred men. Those huddled in the caves recognised its shape from the stories, but it was bigger this time. Whoever kept sending them was determined. Relentless.

Sheriff Deerborne tried to keep the people calm as they shivered in the dark. He always projected an impression of patient competence, in charge of every situation. But the entire town had been hiding for nine days now, and his resolve was getting close to cracking point.

"Sheriff, when is it going to stop? When can we go home and live our lives in peace?"

"Miss Dorothy, I'll tell you again, this Machine will die, just like the others. I don't know when, but as soon as it does, you and your children can go home."

"It's just not good enough, Sheriff!" said Miss Dorothy, re-settling her youngest boy up on her hip. "We have to find out what it wants and stop it!"

The Sheriff raised his voice and hitched up his gun belt the way he did when he meant business. Everyone in the cave could hear him easily. "We will all go home once the Machine has run its course. Not before. It's not safe. And we can't know what it wants if it won't communicate."

"So go out there and try, why don't you?" asked one of the young men.

Deerborne couldn't see which, but he glared in that general direction.

"Alright. I'm going outside."

The people looked somewhat mollified by this, but they were clearly uneasy. He picked up his rifle and crept out of the cave, telling everyone to stay down, keep quiet. He crept over a ridge to get a good look at the multi-wheeled monstrosity. They were right. It looked like the stories said. He took a closer look through the scope of his rifle, just in time to see the head of the Machine turn, ponderous and slow, and spit a ferocious ray of fire. It burned through rocks like they were nothing, and they wafted away in the thin breeze, utterly destroyed. The machine turned and rumbled over in that direction to investigate its handiwork.

When his blood stopped running cold and his legs would support his weight again, Deerborne shuffled quietly and carefully back to the cave. Immediately he was mobbed.

"What did you see, Sheriff?"

"What does it want?"

"When can we go home? I want to go home!"

All Deerborne could do was shake his head. The monstrous Machine outside was here to find them and destroy them. No question about it. It would be a long time before the Martians could go back out of their tiny caves again.

Outside, the Machine rolled on, oblivious, inexorable, and emotionless except, of course, for its Curiosity.

The main criticism I gathered from the voting comments was that the science wasn't quite right. I try not to let science get in the way of a good story, but there are plenty of sci-fi fans who need to have both. I get that. When someone gets computers wrong on TV or film, it's pretty jarring to me, and for a while that's all I can see. Hardness in sci-fi is a good thing, and I could have made this one more accurate with a little research.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't think I could have made it good enough to win in the short contest time.
PPS - I do still have one horse in the race, though.