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.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

AirDroid review

I like the AirDroid app because it lets me use my computer to send and receive texts from my phone, and the physical keyboard is much faster and easier to use. But it's still a bit limited. I have to run it on my phone, log into a website locally, and use the custom pseudo-windows interface to accomplish that task. And if my phone loses WiFi connection at any point, I have to log in again.

As for the rest of AirDroid, not much else of it is useful beyond the clipboard access and file management. If you don't have a cable with you, it could be useful for copying files between a computer and your phone, and since it runs in any web browser, you don't need to install anything on the computer itself.

In all, it's a solid app, but the interface makes it look like it does more useful things than you will probably use it for.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - One small annoyance is that using a secure connection is not the default.
PPS - It really should be.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The end of City of Heroes

So City of Heroes is coming to an end. It was the first MMORPG that I played, and I have a lot of love for it. Some people will be able to shrug at this, uninstall and move on, and some others will weep at all the "wasted" effort that went into their now-defunct characters. I'm somewhere in between those two extremes. Character creation was a pretty big part of this game, which naturally led me to invest a lot of creativity in my characters. They are dressed and named as if I were bringing a story to life. Now that they are being corralled and euthanised, I feel bad for them. I took screenshots and some notes to preserve their stories.

But it's not just the characters. I will miss playing the game. I've tried World of Warcraft, and it just doesn't feel right. Not bad, just uncomfortably different, like someone else's clothes. City of Heroes, because it was my first, set my expectations for all other RPGs. Everything else feels funny, possibly because this particular fictional subgenre is not well represented in games. Most others, Western RPGs in particular, like to focus on Tolkienesque fantasy. That's never really been my thing. I'd rather be a superhero.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I took it with me on a recent business trip.
PPS - I played a quick solo mission to say goodbye.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

YouTube Watch Later review

YouTube has a "Watch Later" function, but there are some problems with it. First and most obviously, it only works on YouTube, which is not all the video on the web. For anything that's not on YouTube, you're out of luck.

It will preload to your Android phone, when you're on WiFi and charging, but still needs a network connection to watch. That's not "offline", it's buffering. It also makes me nervous about its actual mobile data usage. Despite preloading on WiFi, a recent train trip cost me 129MB of mobile data on the YouTube app, clearly identified by Android's bandwidth tracking. That's more than half my monthly quota. So it's an unreliable and unpredictable feature, too.

It can't be used to defer videos before they start playing. If you're on 3G, you will take a data hit as they start buffering, then you change your mind. It also seems that the app doesn't keep a list of what it's preloaded, so managing your list when your connection drops is not possible.

In general, it feels like they've taken a step towards fixing buffering issues and high data usage on slow networks, but that same step could be used for a truly great offline experience, and they have refused to go that far. Presumably "offline" video starts making official rights holders nervous about downloading and piracy. YouTube has a delicate balance to strike, between appearing to be a "safe" place to upload video that is streamable but not downloadable (which is a fallacy in itself - streaming is a form of downloading) but also treating their patrons as valuable, which is impossible if they are also the attackers in YouTube's security scenarios.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I won't be using it again unless I've got WiFi on the train, which is pretty rare.
PPS - Or if I'm watching on my desktop, which makes the queue less useful.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Random draws and skewing the odds

What are the odds of one kid winning a car two years in a row after the Bridge to Brisbane race in a random draw? A friend of mine said that happened in 2010 and 2011, and I don't know for sure if it's true, but if it was, someone should have done some very serious investigation right away.

Let's say there are 40,000 people in the race and that 20,000 put their random prize draw tickets in for the car. Someone is going to win, and the chances of it being anyone in particular are 1:20,000. Pretty low. Still, someone is going to win, so we shouldn't be surprised when there is a winner. But if you won last year, your chances of winning again this year should still be 1:20,000. Your personal chances of winning two years in a row would be 1:400,000,000. Staggeringly, mind-bogglingly unlikely. So unlikely, in fact, that it should raise immediate red flags for someone running the competition. I'm not calling "cheat" here, I'm just saying that the occurrence of this spectacularly unlikely event means that something must have skewed the odds. And I have a theory on that.

See, this particular car draw is done with everyone placing their tickets in the boot of the car, and then someone comes along later to draw out a winning ticket from among them. Because this happens after the race, the tickets will tend to be layered, bottom to top, in order of race time. The person drawing tickets at random is most likely to get them from the very top, and the people who finished last are the ones most likely to have their tickets at the top of the pile. That means that people who finish last are the only real contenders for the prize in the first place. From that much smaller pool, it is more likely that the same ticket will be drawn two years in a row, because a person's finish time is likely to remain comparable from year to year, and a child is more likely to finish last than a fit adult.

That's the skewing of odds. It's why such draws are usually done from barrels that are tumbled around beforehand. If you just dump in the tickets as they come, then draw straight from that pile, the last entrants are most likely to win, so we tumble the pile to make it more random. Tumbling the car to make that draw more random is not an option. The solution? Use a barrel.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In this case, it's in your best interest to put your entry in late.
PPS - Which either means finishing the race slowly or waiting to enter until the last moment.