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.