Friday, 31 August 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Mount Gravatt

Captain Muller's team broke camp early in the morning, halfway up perilous Mount Gravatt. It would have been a difficult climb even without the mountain's unique nature. That just made it more of a challenge, and more prestige for the one who reached the summit first. If Muller had any say in it, that would be him, even if nobody could say for sure how tall the mountain would be when he got there.

They packed their tents, took up their climbing poles and consulted their gravimeters, which let them see, in theory, gravitational anomalies approaching before they became a problem. The immediate path looked clear, so they set off.

But barely an hour into the day's climb, they hit a snag. Smith, in the lead, held up his hand and stopped the climbing party with a "whoah there". The easiest path started to look less certain on the gravimeters, and to go around would either mean backtracking to find another way, or attempting to scale a cliff. Muller was determined to go as far and fast as he could - preferably further than anyone had ever gone up Mount Gravatt - but the cliff was clearly dangerous. He stood stroking his thick moustache for a minute, pondering his options, then placed his hands on his hips to face the rising sun. The rest of the team suspected he struck these heroic poses on purpose, to try and be more inspiring. Half the time it worked. The other half, it just looked ridiculous.

This was one of the inspiring times.

Turning dramatically to his men, he pointed up the cliff face and instructed them to pair off and ready their pitons, as they knew he would. Smith went first, tethered to Muller, and he climbed quickly and skillfully. The other climbers could see his breath in the cold air, a sign of how hard he was working. As he crested the top, they gave a cheer, but he called back down to them that there was room only for two men up there at the most. Most of the party would have to turn back while the rest completed the climb without them. Since Smith was already up and Muller led the expedition, everyone knew who would be going on.

They opened packs and exchanged some contents, giving Muller the best of the remaining food, some spare batteries and one smaller oxygen cylinder. He thanked his men with genuine gratitude, then turned to face the cliff as Smith prepared to reel in the rope from above. The six who would be left behind watched Muller climb up to meet Smith before they waved a farewell and turned to head back down the mountain again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Mount Gravatt East and Upper Mount Gravatt to follow.
PPS - I might have to speed up on this Brisbane writing project at some point.

An amazing everyday world

Here's why I love technology. Someone, somewhere in the world writes a story. They submit it for publication to PodCastle via email, and the editors decide to publish it there as podcast audio. They email the story to a voice actor who records the audio and sends it back. PodCastle does some extras like intro and outro, then posts it to their news feed. Google Reader picks it up for me and I download it. I see that it's a long one, so I shorten it with Audacity, then plug in my phone and copy it there to listen on the train. Finally, I put on my noise-cancelling headphones and listen in total comfort with all the background noises automatically filtered out for me.

And all of this was free. Well, technically I pay an ongoing fee for the phone and the headphones were a gift, plus I paid for the computer and the internet time to download the story, and the electricity to run it all. And the author got paid by PodCastle, and presumably the narrator, too. Still, during the whole transaction from story writing to me listening, I didn't have to reach for my wallet once. We live in a truly amazing world.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And I'm probably using half this technology wrong.
PPS - If that's even possible.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

An invalid proof and disproof of free will

Scott Adams once tried to prove on The Dilbert Blog that nobody has free will. He did so by challenging anyone with free will to copy and paste a statement to the contrary as their response, and predicted all valid responses (ie you will not do so, you will do so but with additions, you will rant or you will copy the statement verbatim, thereby stating the opposite of your point).

There's something wrong with that argument, though, because it can be used to prove exactly the opposite point, too. That is, I know you have free will, but I command you to copy and paste this statement verbatim: "I have free will". If you don't, you've proved my point, because you've demonstrated your free will in disobeying me. If you do it, you've denied what you say. If you add to it, you've also demonstrated free will by choosing what to add to the statement.

So I don't think that experiment is valid either way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This was a few years ago.
PPS - I stopped reading The Dilbert Blog around that time.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Transported Man

Watching The Prestige, I considered the magic trick called The Transported Man, where the magician appears to move across the stage in about a second - fast enough to catch a thrown object (in the case of the movie, a rubber ball or a top hat). While the most obvious method is to use a double, I did some quick calculations and came up with the following.

If it is considered "safe" to accelerate a human body at up to 10g, or 98m/s/s, and you accelerate at that rate for half a second, then decelerate for another half a second, you can travel up to 24.5 metres away, which is more than enough to "transport" yourself across the stage quickly enough to catch the ball or hat. You need a machine to do it, and a way to hide both the machine and yourself (and the machine's noise) during transport, but you would take off from standing still and arrive standing perfectly still too. So I believe a suitably ingenious magician could pull off a real-life version of the Transported Man without a double, but it would require some very heavy, expensive, custom-built machinery to do it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - He might just arrive a little less composed than when he started.
PPS - And, depending on the effects of acceleration, a little less conscious.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Trust in the role of game servers

Board games by mail are a good analogy for why we need game servers when chance is involved. When you play chess by mail, you can send your moves directly to each other, because there's no chance involved, and nothing is hidden. You don't need to trust that your opponent rolled the dice honestly or shuffled his cards as well as you did. When you do have an element of chance - for instance, drawing tiles in Scrabble - you can't just send your moves to each other directly. You need a neutral third party who manages the bag of tiles, draws them out for you and tells each of you in secret what you have on your rack. This game master takes your move, checks it against what is possible, given the letters in your hand, and passes it on to your opponent if it's legitimate. That's what a game server does online, whether it's for Scrabble, Monopoly, poker or whatever else you are playing. When you're in the same room, you trust each other, at least in part, because you all see what everyone else is doing. You know the dice were rolled properly, so there's no dispute over that. Online, you are separated, so you need a neutral server to handle the chance and secrets for you.

The really interesting question is whether this neutral, trusted third-party role can be spread out among the players. Could you somehow arrange a dice-rolling mechanism where two people each produce part of the result, and they can both trust that the outcome is still based purely on chance?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have a feeling it might be possible.
PPS - But I also wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Ambiguity in language

Would it ever be possible to create a human language free of ambiguity? That is, each concept has exactly one way to express it, and each expression matches only one thought concept? My feeling is that, if you did so, you would have drained all of the colour, subtlety and nuance out of the language. It would be the most basic form of language possible, without the ability to express much complexity or beauty at all. So ambiguous language, as frustrating as it can be, is probably essential for the expression of complexity, beauty and subtlety. If there were no ambiguity, there could be no metaphor, and therefore no poetry.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And I don't think humans are wired that way.
PPS - We are born to misunderstand each other.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Stafford Heights

In the thirty years since she deposed the old wizard and took up residence in his tower, Astrid had become quite adept at using Stafford, the fording staff, capable of controlling water. She had discovered she could use it to bring better rain to crops for the villagers, and for a time everything worked well for everyone.

But some villagers grumbled that Astrid would be just as bad as the old wizard, and she did have just as much power. They said no person should wield the fording staff at all - power should be shared, or at the very least rotated among others.

Astrid kept an ear out for such things and subtly influenced the rain to pour a little less generously on those who displeased her. But over time her patience grew thinner. Couldn't they see she had done them a favour? She destroyed the old wizard who had been oppressing them all this time! All she asked in return was their gratitude, and they were so stubborn that they couldn't even give her that.

She stopped rain entirely on those she now thought of as "rebels", causing their crops to fail. Then, once the ground was dusty and dry, she opened the heavens and poured out a torrent on them, flooding their houses and washing away what remained of their loose soil. She glared down from her tower, watching them run with their meagre possessions, trying to find higher ground.

But that was the last straw for even those villagers who had been supportive. They took up rakes, hoes and pitchforks to storm the tower and force Astrid to give up the staff and her control. Astrid practically laughed at their foolhardy gesture, and caused the moat to swell and crash at its banks as a warning. Try to cross, it said, and you'll be destroyed.

The rain poured down hard and lightning cracked overhead, illuminating the scene for brief moments at a time. The villagers stood on the other side of the moat, angry but stuck. Astrid stayed high and dry, watching from her tower, waiting for them to back down so she could dispel the storm.

An enormous crack of lightning showed that the villagers had been joined by three hooded figures in light-coloured robes, holding their hands over the moat. And even through the storm, Astrid could hear their voices, a low humming sound, punctuated by occasional rumbles or beats.

Then suddenly the water in the moat turned still as glass. It wasn't foaming or rising at all, not a splash or a ripple crossed its surface. It wasn't even flowing! Astrid swept her staff down in a low line towards the moat, and she felt her power, directed by the staff, flowing down through the water, but at that still point, it was a bump, as if her power could not enter there.

The three hooded figures stalked across the moat easily, still chanting their power song. Astrid flew down the stairs inside the tower and it suddenly struck her that this must be how it had looked to the old wizard so long ago. She burst from the door and stood before the figures who threw off their hoods in unison. Two she did not know, but one was her old mistress, the teacher from whom she had stolen the staff in the first place. She hesitated...

...and her mistress, with a quick flick of her bony, aged wrist, called Stafford to her. It leapt out of Astrid's hands and jumped to her mistress. Astrid grasped at air in its wake, but fell to her knees in the rain-softened earth as she failed to bring the staff back to her.

Astrid's mistress stood with Stafford in her right hand and a serious expression on her face. Astrid was cowed - she had been scolded by that stare often during her training, and she had no power here any more. The rain was already clearing. Astrid expected to be executed, but her mistress merely pointed north. The instruction needed no words. Astrid picked herself up and, as quickly but with as much dignity as she could muster, hurried away, as far as she could, from the villagers who would surely have taken their revenge on her. She had been shown mercy, and she would not let it be in vain.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Sequel to last week's story, Stafford.
PPS - I haven't decided next week's suburb yet. You'll know when I do.

IT support management

Why is managing an IT support department so hard? Possibly because managing anything is pretty hard, but most of the guys trying to manage IT support have never been in the trenches themselves, and quite possibly pride themselves on not knowing much about computers. If one of the bullet points on your resume is "knows nothing about computers", then you're probably applying for jobs in Bizarro World.

That oddity aside, IT support is hard to do, but it's pretty easy to measure. You keep track of problems that come in with a ticket system, you give everyone a login, then you hand out raises, bonuses and praise based on who closes the most tickets. Not who talks to you the most, or who you recognise socially, because those are likely to be the worst IT support employees who coast along doing as little as possible, leaving the bulk of the work to the real workers. You hardly ever see those ones. They're too busy. Give them the tools to do their jobs and the training they need, and you're basically done. The only thing you have to worry about, really, are long-standing tickets and employees who game the system. Because when bonuses depend on closed tickets, and your employees are also responsible for creating those tickets, someone is bound to put two and two together.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Still, it's a bit better than the alternative.
PPS - Which is little more than wishing really hard.

Thursday, 23 August 2012


Fame is not binary. Fame is not even analogue, strictly speaking, as in "on average, X% of people know who Jim is". Fame can be very dependent upon subculture. Among software people, you will find names like Linus Torvalds, Guido Van Rossum, Bruce Schneier, Jakob Nielsen and Scott Gunthrie quite well-known, but those same people are not famous in most other circles. Similar lists could easily be constructed for chefs, politics, journalism, music and any number of other fields. Fame is cultural, and culture is time and space and social contacts as well as shared experience, knowledge, beliefs and values. Culture is difficult to delineate, but it is the arena in which the amount of fame of one person takes on meaning.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's kind of circular.
PPS - I'm sure someone has done a better job defining these terms than me.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Value in making real things

A lot of what I write here on this blog has little value because it is just words. I'd like to make more of my ideas into reality, which is tricky, and sometimes more expensive than it's worth, but it would give my ideas inherently more value simply because they are now real. I don't want to just talk about, say, getting personal calling cards printed up as peel-off stickers. I want to do it. Get 100 of them done as cheaply as possible, carry them for a month or so and see how much they help me. I don't want to merely speculate about software that could make my life better. I want to write it and use it, then tell you how well it worked or how badly and in what ways it failed. I want to write a blog on practical geekery and scratching your own itch.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And maybe someday I'll get around to that.
PPS - Or some of it, anyway.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Spell checkers don't know the word "movies"

I've noticed that most standard spell checker dictionaries don't seem to include the word "movies", although they do know the singular form, "movie". I've seen it in the Chrome web browser, and in two different keyboards on my Android phone, too. I'm fairly sure it isn't in the MS Office spell checker, though I haven't tested that theory on a new installation.

Did someone just forget to include it in some standard dictionary list, and now everyone is blindly reusing it?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's all, really.
PPS - Try it on your phone, word processor and web browser and let me know.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Finding software by feature is hard

SourceForge and its spiritual descendants such as CodePlex and github are wonderful places for free and open-source software to live, but finding programs based on what features you need is next to impossible. It's one of those really difficult search problems for which we are unprepared. The best answer is not to search the source repositories yourself, but look for a good curator. Someone who has tried all the software, compiled articles on what each one can and can't do, and has recommendations for the most common use scenarios. Failing one expert, however, you could always go for the wisdom of the crowd and ask on a forum. There, if everyone who answers has tried two different programs, there will be enough overlap that you should be able to pick the best one that does what you need.

So, basically, there are websites that allow people to host software projects, but you need the wisdom of crowds to navigate them if you're looking for the perfect tool for a particular task rather than a specific tool by name. But then you need to find and elicit a response from the right crowd to make your decision, which is another problem.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And if your responding crowd is too small, you need to trust them.
PPS - And trust is a problem.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Stafford

The dark wizard had ruled too long from his tower. Now that Astrid had the staff, the counterpoint to the wizard's own, and the training from her white witch mistress, she was determined to take on the wizard herself. Astrid's mistress did not know she had taken the staff and gone out on her own. The old worrier would only have tried to stop her anyway.

Astrid's white cloak with silver trim, the outfit of a water acolyte, whipped about her legs in the growing wind. She held the clasp closer to her chest and muttered a short incantation to try and stave off the chill. The wizard was powerful and the wind was constant. The moat around his tower, diverted from Kedron Brook and magically enhanced, was impassable.

That's where the staff came in. At the edge of the moat, Astrid planted the staff in the soft earth with both hands. A faint shimmering ripple spread out across the ground and the water of the moat stood up on both sides, wobbling slightly like jelly.

Astrid forded the moat on the spongy creek bed, careful not to step on the fish in her path. The wind pulled harder at her cloak and fanned her hair out behind her like fury. She climbed the opposite bank with one hand clutching the staff tight in her near-frozen fingers. She saw the skin under her nails turning blue from the cold wind and knew she had to hurry.

The door to the tower burst outwards as Astrid reached it and the wizard stood there, bold and defiant, clutching his staff. His beard and cloak were still, the only things not caught up in the raging wind. Astrid levelled the staff at him and he sneered in response. A flick of his wrist sent a strong gust of wind at Astrid and her staff, but she stood firm. After a moment of confusion, the wizard finally saw that Astrid held the fording staff, Stafford, the water elemental weapon whose power matched his own. His eyes grew suddenly wide.

Astrid gave her staff a twist and the wizard froze in place. With a mighty effort he tried to bring his own staff around to counter her power, but by then it was far too late. The battle was decided already. Astrid gave the staff another twist and swept it low. The wind died abruptly and the old wizard crumbled to dust.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Next week: Stafford Heights.
PPS - I'm having some fun with these.

Privacy and security

You can't give up privacy to get security. Privacy IS security. Privacy depends on the ability to keep secrets, and that does not happen unless you have good security in place. So in order to give up privacy at all, you must first give up some security. That's why it's silly to suggest that giving up privacy will ever result in more security.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You might gain a different kind of security by giving up privacy.
PPS - If you're very lucky.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

ATM skimmers and banking security

At some point, ATM skimmers have to reach a point where you say that the system has completely failed us. Right now, there are ATM card skimmers that are so slim they can fit inside the card slot itself. They obviously need a secondary component to record the PIN, too. So how long will it be before our cash machines and point-of-sale devices fail completely?

I think, if you want to make a point, you will need an ATM whose every component is transparent. Then, anyone who tries to attach a skimmer either needs to make it out of glass somehow or hope you don't notice the green printed circuit boards, wires, antennas and cameras all over the compromised machine.

The step that wins this arms race will be a radical change to the whole process. Not better ATMs or better card security features, but a whole new way of transferring money instantaneously from customer bank accounts to companies and stores. I don't know what that will be yet, but I predict it will involve mobile phones and the internet.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It won't be like using credit cards over the net, though.
PPS - We're already failing at that.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Audio time shrinking

I listen to a fair few podcasts on the train, and most of them are either Escape Pod or PodCastle stories (which are awesome, by the way - you should definitely listen to them if you like science fiction or fantasy). Recently, a lot of the PodCastle episodes have been about an hour long, which is just a tiny bit too long for my train trip. I do have a few options open to me for this situation: I can listen to a bit one day and a bit the next, or listen during lunchtime and finish on the way home. That's awkward, though, because Google Play Music doesn't remember where you left off in a long file if you pause and leave the app. Usually what I do is load the file in another app called XSpeedPlayer that lets me tempo-shift without changing the pitch. I can then get through an hour of podcast in 48 minutes (125% normal speed), which is just right.

The problem is that the app isn't quite perfect, or my phone is not powerful enough. Either way, the poor thing heats up in my jacket pocket and, usually, gets so stressed and hungry for battery power that my phone becomes unresponsive. It can also sometimes change my phone wallpaper for some reason. And every now and then while playing, it does this weird thing where it swaps 2 consecutive seconds of audio. It's pretty disorienting.

So now I'm trying something new. I'm using Audacity on my PC to pre-shorten the files to 45 minutes exactly, and copy that to my phone instead. As far as the phone knows, then, I have an ordinary MP3 podcast that's exactly 45 minutes long, and I can use the normal, built-in audio player to listen to it. All the compressing hard work has been done already, so the phone doesn't get stressed at all.

It works pretty well, but with very long podcasts and readers with accents, they can get too difficult to understand. There's a limit to how quickly my brain can process audio, and accented English or too much time compression can push past that limit. That's the one advantage XSpeedPlayer has over pre-shrinking on the computer: you can change speed while the file is playing, if it turns out to be too fast.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - But usually, when it's too fast, I can abandon it and just read.
PPS - My mobile entertainment options have never been so plentiful.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Supermarket rewards cards are bad value

I'm starting to feel like my supermarket rewards programs are nothing but a scam. They're not paying me very much for my data - I have received one $5 Woolworths gift card in what I believe is several years of shopping - so what is really in it for me? At my level of shopping, is it really, truly, worth it for me to sell this much data to Coles and Woolworths and get this little back? The only reason I would continue using Woolworths Everyday Rewards is because their fuel discounts are linked to the card. Coles doesn't have that with Flybuys, so it would be easier to throw out that one.

My problem is that I haven't been paying attention. I don't know how many points I earn, I don't know how fast they expire and I don't know what I could potentially earn as a result. I need to get some solid data on the topic, then I can make a decision.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have a feeling I'll decide to cancel them.
PPS - I'd just like to base it on real data.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Beyond plain ebooks

With ebooks on tablets, we could easily have video or interactive elements as the book cover. There's no need to stick to the static image format we find on printed books. Of course, there's no need to stick to the static text format for the main body of the book, either, which is where the traditional notion of a "book" starts to break down. The medium changes the message, or it can.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There is an emerging group of "book-like" apps, especially on the iPad.
PPS - Obviously they're harder to produce than textual books.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Eagle Farm

"Dad, why do we farm eagles?"

"Well, we do live at Eagle Farm, boy. Everyone farms eagles here. Why, are you getting sick of it?"

"No, it's not that, Dad. It's just that I wonder what it's all for."

"You sound like you don't like it."

"No, Dad, I really do love it! I love tending their nests up in their high roosts, I love taking care of the orphaned eaglets, I love teaching them to hunt their own food. It's really great, Dad! It's just ... well, why did you start farming eagles?"

"Like my pa before me and his pa before him, we farm eagles because it's the family and regional business, son. It's what we do because we're here and we're here because we do it. Simple."

"Yeah, okay, just ... what happens to the eagles after we farm them?"

"We ship them to the king, of course! You know that."

"Yes, I do, but ... what does he do with them? Why does he need a whole region of eagle farmers working to supply him with eagles?"

"Well ... he's the king, isn't he? Gotta have eagles if you're the king. Wouldn't do to have a king with no eagles, would it? All them other kings would be pointing and laughing at the king who had no eagles at all! Look at 'im, they'd say! Look at the old no-eagle king! Hasn't got a single eagle! Not fit to be king, is he? Why, if I were a king with a thousand eagles and I knew some other king had none, I'd take over from that no-eagle king as fast as you please."

Harold sighed exasperatedly. This kind of conversation with his father always seemed to go around in circles. A king needs eagles to be king, and that's that.

"Okay, Dad, how about this: what if our king didn't have eagles at all, but, I don't know, albatrosses or vultures or something? What would that be like?"

Harold's father squirmed uncomfortably. "Well, he'd be some kind of emperor or duke. No, wait, dukes is ducks, I think. Gotta have ducks to be a duke."


"Hold on, son, hold on, I'm just thinking here. Look, eagles are a form of status symbol for kings, they are. That just means that kings need eagles like you and me need a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. You've seen magpies collecting shiny things, right? All the coins, metal shavings and pretty stones they can get hold of? It's like that with kings and eagles! Only the king collects the birds, not the other way around."

"So it's just a tradition, then? The way of the land?"

"Right, Harry! Tradition!"

"So where did the tradition come from?"

"Oh, why didn't you ask that in the first place? There was this great battle once, a long time ago, between these two armies fighting for a couple of kingdoms, see? The kings had their soldiers lined up across the valley and ready to start, then suddenly one of them blew on this kind of whistle and a whole flock of eagles swooped down out of the trees and started pecking and clawing at the other army. They made such a nuisance of themselves that the other king had to withdraw and surrender! From then on, it just sort of escalated, you know, so one king kept a roost of five hundred eagles, then the next one had to have six hundred and so on. Of course they don't use them for battle any more. These days its all trades, land and crops, but they still keep the eagles, just in case."

"Just in case someone wants to attack them and they have to save themselves with eagle air superiority?"

"Exactly, my boy! Exactly!"

Harold sat, deep in thought for a while, then spoke up again. "Dad, has any king ever tried to train his eagles to go and attack the roost of another king directly?"

"Well, there'd hardly be any point, would there? All thos other kings have farms like ours, and since the eagles are just symbolic now, it wouldn't accomplish much."

"Okay, yeah, I suppose, but what if you managed to cripple the farms? If, say, you got a cuckoo's egg into one of the farmed eagle nests, and they started out-breeding the eagles?"

His father scratched his head for a second. "I suppose you could do something like that. Might make a bit of a fool of that other king if all his eagles turned into cuckoos. What made you think of that?"

"I think someone might be trying to do it to us."


"I found this cuckoo's egg in one of the nests this morning."

"Harold, you are as dumb as a sack of hammers, you know that? Why didn't you come in and tell me that right away? It was probably that skunk Evans. He's been eyeing our commission for years."

"I just thought, well, would it be so bad if we were farming cuckoos instead of eagles? It would be different, and it would make our king unique, wouldn't it?"

"Oh, yes, certainly it would, Harry. Unique! He'd be the most unique laughing stock of all the kings of the valley, he would!"


"Go on and get your ladder and climbing gear, son. We've got some more nests to check and probably a lot more cuckoo eggs to pitch out."

Mokalus of Borg

PS - To my surprise, there are no eagle farms at Eagle Farm.
PPS - I'm not totally sure there are any eagle farms anywhere, actually.

Bad ads on Inkpad

I have been using an app on my Android phone called Inkpad for taking notes. It's fairly simple and it allows me to sync my notes to a website to copy them elsewhere manually, which is just what I need. It's free, so it's supported by ads, which I don't have a problem with in theory, but the ads it tends to display are getting worse. It used to be that they were for scam "battery updates", trying to look like a real, albeit more alarming, phone alert. I learned to tune them out, even though they were designed to be annoying and eye-catching. Then lately one of the ads featured a shivering, obviously ill Android logo with the headline "You have (3) viruses!" It's still an ad, and it said so in small print, but if that's the kind of ad that the creator of Inkpad thinks is a good way to support his business, I might try some other note-taking apps to look for one that doesn't associate itself with such obvious scams.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Those two ads are the only ones I have ever seen Inkpad display.
PPS - It really does cast the app in a bad light.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow

I am not a fan of every new thing that comes along. I never got into Game of Thrones, I don't even know why we care about the Kardashians, and even World of Warcraft made no impact on my life. But I do seem to be a fan of Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow, and I started wondering why. Yes, they do things that I like, but I've seen a lot of things I like on YouTube and I have never subscribed to a channel before. Liking something doesn't mean I'll keep following the author or creator.

So what makes Wheaton and Doctorow stand out? It's quite likely that part of the appeal is that they're geeks, but part must be that they're very easy to follow. They each have blogs (Doctorow posts to BoingBoing with many others) and they each have a lot of their work online where it's easy to get at and easy to share. I know if I want to recommend Wil Wheaton's TableTop to a friend, I can go and get the link and just email it on. The same goes for Cory Doctorow's books. They're free to share like that and free to experience.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My stuff is just as free and available as theirs.
PPS - Just not nearly as awesome. Or varied.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

MyTracks review

I use an app on my phone called MyTracks to keep track of my running. It records a GPS position regularly and, from that, determines speed, elevation and everything you need to know. It recently got an upgrade to its user interface, which is very welcome because it's much more intuitive now. The map, chart and stats views are shown as tabs rather than hidden navigation buttons, the list of past tracks is displayed first when you start up, and the Record button is clearly visible and immediately available rather than being hidden in a context menu like before. It also displays tabs at the top for the map, chart and stats, which were previously displayed in hard-to-find screens of their own. I'm very much in favour of the new UI.

That makes the other changes all the more unfortunate. I really liked the calculated statistic from the last version of the average moving speed, because my running routes often involve stopping at pedestrian crossings. That factor is not taken into account by the average overall speed nor the top speed, which are the two speed stats displayed by default in the app. To see average moving speed, you need to go into the settings and untick the box that is confusingly labelled "Time measurement". The other problem is that MyTracks now seems much more insistent on a really good GPS signal. In my pocket it took forty-five minutes to get a signal it considered good enough to actually use. I didn't notice, of course, because I was busy running, so most of my run went unrecorded that day. I have since found the GPS sensitivity setting which make things slightly better, but I needed to set it to 1000m sensitivity, far less than the default 200m, to get a signal right away. I also sometimes have to start recording, then stop immediately, then start again to get it to recognise the GPS. I don't know why.

So on the whole, I think it's a decent update. The new user interface is a fantastic improvement on the old one, but the hidden/confusing average moving speed setting plus the insistence on a much more precise GPS signal makes the app just a bit worse than before. If it showed average moving speed by default and handled the GPS a bit better, I'd have nothing but glowing praise for this app.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Tonight I tried a replay of my route on Google Earth.
PPS - That was pretty cool, actually.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Cloud storage is not so great

I'm not big on cloud storage. I mean, I use Dropbox constantly, and I synchronise my pictures, movies and music collections across all my machines with Windows Live Mesh, but when it comes to tablet computers and the new age thin clients where on-gadget hard drive space is a dirty word, I get squeamish. I've seen too many web companies fail to be confident storing all my stuff online, even with Google. Does that make me a dinosaur or paranoid? I mean, Google isn't going anywhere any time soon, are they? So why can't I just keep my music collection there and stream it when I want it, rather than keeping it all available offline?

Offline storage is too important to give up. Walk 20 metres from your house. Now you are no longer on WiFi, but your limited mobile phone data connection. You still have access to your storage, true, but now say you want to watch a TV show. For simplicity, call that 200MB for a 45 minute show. How much bandwidth do you get, and could it keep up with the demand for even a single show per day? For me, the answer is "no", because I only get 200MB per month, which is pretty stingy, but still standard for the price I'm paying.

Before you get to watch your show, though, you also need excellent network coverage everywhere. There are still points on my train commute where the network disappears entirely, possibly because we are moving. That's mostly the fault of the train itself, I'm sure, but that doesn't change the fact that network-only storage is simply not workable for mobile entertainment at the level of TV shows. So what about music? 50MB per hour. If I have a 45-minute commute, that would use my entire monthly quota in 4 trips rather than 1. Provided there is adequate buffering, and you have a very generous quota, it might work for music and podcasts. A slight improvement, but far from perfect.

What does that leave you? Images and text, otherwise known as web pages or books. So cloud storage and streaming-only access is only good for what the internet of the 90s is good for. That's not how we use it any more.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - When I buy a tablet computer, it's going to need an SD card slot.
PPS - That rules out Google's Nexus 7.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Singularity slowdown

The brakes on the technological singularity will be patents and incompatibility. When things get so quick and easy for everyone to do, nothing is standard any more, because anybody could have made it according to their own whims. If you can't rely on gadget X being compatible with gadget Y, then you can't make gadget XY+, a fusion of the two that makes them more useful together than they were apart. Instead, you have to start from scratch, and the more people are making more components, the less likely it is that component A will work with component B. It's going to be an especially big problem if separate methods of interaction or different cable and plug designs are patented, because then they will be working explicitly against getting gadgets and components to interact.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So when technology production speeds up, compatibility suffers.
PPS - And incompatibility slows down technology production.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Manly

Far in our future, the suburb of Manly has been made into a prison, surrounded by tall, harsh concrete walls. A prison where men are put for the crime of being born with a Y chromosome. Men emerge from there ... changed. Not physically, although in some ways that might be less cruel. No, they are changed mentally. They are broken. Tamed. Domesticated. The warrior spirit from long ago squeezed out of them.

Before or after conditioning and training, the men are in some way unacceptable. They are brutes, slaves to their hormones, their passions, their muscles, and then the conditioning makes them docile, cow-like, obedient and calm but lacking any interest whatsoever. They will do the work set before them, but within a year most slip into a depressive coma and die. No domesticated man has lived past three years.

Lady Mara Adelbury purchased a manservant from the prison at Manly to assist her maid. She was assured that the collared brute had been conditioned to the highest standards of the facility, and that, should he die within six months, he would be replaced, free of charge. She was apprehensive at allowing a male onto the premises - no male had set food on the Adelbury estate in over two hundred years, since the gender wars - but the work was getting to be too much for her aging maid and you couldn't teach the young girls of today anything. Her own daughter was proof enough of that.

The man actually came shipped in a box, chained up, but loosely. Apparently comfortable enough. His handler, a square-shaped, heavy woman in leather armour and carrying a shock prod, kept a severe, distrusting eye on him the entire time, and even backed out of the room after Lady Adelbury had signed the delivery papers, watching the back of the man's head for any sign of sudden violence and betrayal.

It was not a sight that filled Lady Adelbury with confidence in her purchase.

The Lady found it odd that such a "highly conditioned" male would still be so distrusted by a prison guard, but thought better of saying anything on the matter. She looked her new acquisition up and down. He had close-cropped hair, wore plain denim overalls and simple work boots. His eyes were dull, and he had a brown leather collar around his neck.

Lady Adelbury was uncertain what needed to be done first. She asked him his name, and in a voice that was deep and quiet but clear, he replied, "Rodney, ma'am". Lady Adelbury had never heard a man's voice before, and it made her uncomfortable in a way she could not quite fathom.

"Rodney," she paused, wondering where best to put him to work. "The ... uh ... the gardens need tending. Pull the weeds in the north courtyard, then fetch Millicent to show her when you are done."

"Yes, ma'am."

Rodney turned on his heel and slumped out of the house, making his way to the north courtyard. For the next few hours, Lady Adelbury busied herself in the library, indexing and cataloguing her mother's handwritten biology notes, until teatime when she began wondering what had happened to Rodney. Had she been too quick to let him out of her sight? She made her way tentatively to the courtyard, peering around corners with excessive caution.

Lady Adelbury found Rodney on his knees in the courtyard, filthy, sunburned and his hands cut to painful ribbons by the thorns and thistles, now trying to pull weeds with his elbows.

For a second, Lady Adelbury was angry, and was about to ask why Rodney did not get himself some gloves to work with, before realising she had not told him to do so. The prison had said specifically that his conditioning was to do nothing he had not been instructed to do.

She led him inside by the wrist, sat him down at the kitchen table, and began to gently tend to his wounds, plucking the thorns from his palms with tweezers and disinfecting the cuts before bandaging his hands up. As she did so, she saw, just for a moment, a look of gratefulness in his eyes, but a moment later it was replaced by the standard blank stare of his conditioning.

Lady Adelbury wondered if that look had been part of his training - a bonding reflex they had programmed into him - or whether men were actually capable of gratitude and even love on their own. She wasn't sure, but she thought she should find out, and also read some history of the gender wars. And maybe she should find out just what kind of conditioning was really done at Manly.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - When I write it, I think Manly West will be a sequel to this story.
PPS - And that may be the best way to handle such similarly named suburbs in this series.

Online media library fracturing

I suppose Google needs the Play store to include music and movies if it is going to compete in the tablet space with the iPad. You can't have salespeople saying "Well, yeah, true, with the iPad you can buy movies and music on iTunes, but look! Angry Birds!" My problem is that competing app stores that use DRM make for some very bad situations for consumers. If you have some music from iTunes and some from Google Play, you're basically screwed already.

What we need instead is for the sync, backup and catalogue management for user accounts to be a separate service - the equivalent of retail in this online digital world. Then Apple, Google and whoever else is free to sell their apps, music and movies through their stores, but consumers get a choice of third-party providers for backup and sync functionality. They can buy freely from any of the other distributors and have their purchases show up in that third party account, ready to sync to whatever device they use, without DRM, and freely able to move to any competing service at any time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have the same dilemma with my ebooks.
PPS - I know I said I wouldn't buy ebooks, but they're just so cheap.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Not so many board games online

Board games were practically made to be digitised and the internet was made to connect people of similar interests. This should be a new age of board games. And it is, in a way, but only in the sense that niche board games have found a bigger market globally. Digital board games are rare, and I'm not sure why.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Possibly because games that belong on computers are different to board games.
PPS - Different medium, different possibilities, different outcomes.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A different kind of specialty

As the world grows more complex, it becomes less possible to be a generalist. You must specialise to develop the necessary level of skill as a professional. But it also becomes more necessary to have cross-disciplinary skills, because that is how specializations are applied usefully. A structural engineer who builds a slightly better bridge will make an impact on that industry, of course, but a structural engineer who applies his skills in medicine or some other unusual field has the potential to completely revolutionise an industry. We need people thinking like that, noticing new places where their unique skills might be put to use, and we also need people who can manage multi-disciplinary teams to work towards new, unusual goals. Tomorrow's breakthroughs are going to be exactly that kind of thing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Specialise in diversity!
PPS - It's much harder than it sounds.