Thursday, 28 February 2013

Solving hard problems with games we already play

Someone needs to work on encoding our hard problems into games we already play. If all those hours spent playing Solitaire on Windows could actually also be used, completely invisibly, to get people to figure out how proteins fold up, that would be an amazing gain.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have no idea how to do that, though.
PPS - Probably the game mechanics are usually too different to be twisted into solving problems.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Mobile computing offline

My big catch phrase about mobile computing is "offline anywhere". The mobile network, so far, is too slow, unreliable and limited for a lot of common tasks, so the way I want to go is to take those tasks and make them available offline, using bandwidth when they can (preferably WiFi to save on extortionist 3G data costs) but working without any network connection at all most of the time. For a lot of web services, it simply isn't necessary to have a constant network connection. An action list, for example, can live on your phone, but as long as it keeps in sync when a WiFi network is available, you don't need the website itself most of the time. Any commands you issue will simply take effect on the server's database the next time the app connects, and that's fine.

When you're dealing with a small amount of data that doesn't have to be 100% up to date right now, if you're not using a small offline database with occasional sync, you're doing it wrong.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't expect this to be the case forever. We're always building better networks.
PPS - It's just that the mobile data network has the most room to grow.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Misunderstanding computers

What is the average person's mental model of a computer? Most people don't seem to have a clear idea what a computer does and how it works. There's two kinds of space - hard drive and memory - and only one affects how fast the computer runs. This is pretty important for understanding computers, because it affects your behaviour with it. You won't run as many programs at once if you understand that running programs, not installed ones or big files, that slows down computers.

But is it worth trying to correct that perception? How much does the average person need to know about how a computer really works? It might affect how they use it and how they maintain it, but if they're replacing computers every couple of years and mostly using them for Facebook games and email, how much does it matter? People who fail to understand computers will mostly be using tablets in the near future, and tablets can hardly be misunderstood at all. The big difference that helps? You can only run one app at a time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Tablets, though, do still have a memory/hard drive difference.
PPS - That is, you can install lots of apps and not slow it down.

Monday, 25 February 2013

We need packaged services for Windows

There needs to be a concept on Windows of a fully-configured, standalone service that can be packaged up and easily distributed and installed alongside any number of other services performing similar jobs. Quite often it is necessary when developing a particular program to have certain services, such as a database and web service, in place for the build environment to work properly. Every client company will have a slightly different configuration of different services, and they do not play nicely together. Setting them up is always a pain and is always the subject of a lot of the developer documentation - how to find, install and configure the right services - and a constant source of frustration.

It would be far better if the services could simply be configured by the original developers and packaged up, then downloaded and installed painlessly. No more relying on third party projects to keep up to date, no more advising which versions to use and how to configure them for the default build, just a simple set of downloads and painless installs.

The best answer so far is to use virtual machines - entire copies of Windows that run as applications with their associated services pre-configured. The trouble for us at work is that you can't use really big virtual hard drives with virtual machines, so our huge databases don't fit there.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think I might be thinking of something like Juju on Ubuntu.
PPS - But that's not for Windows and is geared towards cloud environments, if I understand it.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Friday Flash Fiction - The Institute

The Institute was opened on a convergence of leylines. On the site previously had lived a jail which had later been converted into an 18th century insane asylum. It wasn't a pleasant spirit on which to found a peaceful sanctuary for the magically afflicted, but it would have to do.

Director Cobb recrossed her legs under her desk, fidgeted with her pen and let her tail swish freely through the gap cut in her chair. The budget was disturbing her. Again. One of the problems with living on a mystical convergence was the insurance: it kept going up, month by month, and Cobb was never sure if their numbers would add up the same way twice. The fae mathematics behind it were beyond her, but it seemed they were beyond the abilities of the outsourced accounting firm, too.

She stood from her desk and stretched her legs, removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. She needed a walk to clear her head, so she strolled past the wide, apportioned rooms (furnished inside the old jail cells, but spaced with much more generosity), down the back stairs and into the garden. Officially, in their brochure for prospective tenants, it was called "The Enchanted Garden", and they'd had plans for manicured lawns and hedges, topiary, a fountain and perhaps even a waist-high hedge maze. Cobb's tail twitched in irritation as it brushed the top of the unmowed grass. The groundskeeper had been slacking again, but they couldn't fire him. He was the only one who could keep the venus fly traps from growing too large and eating residents.

Finally, Cobb came to the fountain, which was actually more of a makeshift pond. Sitting on the one stone bench they had been able to afford was Colleen, a sad case who had been cursed to think she was both a fairy and a mute. She spoke aloud, but insisted she was communicating via "mind speech".

Colleen smiled a pleasant smile and patted the bench beside her. Cobb sat down, careful not to sit on Colleen's glittering wings.

"How are you today, Colleen?"

In her sing-song voice, Colleen replied "I am quite well, Ms Cobb. How do you do?"

"Not so well, I'm afraid." Colleen nodded, and Cobb continued. "It's the finances again."

Colleen pouted. "I keep offering to take care of it. With my magic, we wouldn't need lighting, and we could grow our own food. We needn't be beholden to the county in this."

Cobb kept herself from sighing with years of practice. "Thank you, Colleen, but we couldn't impose on you to take over from our light switches. Plus, what would we do when you leave?"

Colleen nodded, accepting the assessment gravely, but added "Let me help somehow, Director. I feel like I should be contributing more."

Cobb was about to refuse, when she remembered something. "You were an accountant before you came here, weren't you?"

"I taught accounting at high school."

"Close enough. Would you like to look at our books? See if you can find us a way to save some money?"

"I would be glad to," said Colleen.

In Cobb's office, Colleen pored over the ledgers with a confused expression on her face, flicking pages back and forth, growing more agitated by the second. After half an hour, Cobb interrupted her saying "It's alright, Colleen. If it's too much, you can go back to the garden."

Colleen startled, seeming to have forgotten that she was not alone. "Oh, no, Director, I'm sorry, I got caught up. It's just that the numbers don't add up correctly."

"Yes, there's something about the fae mathematics. The rules are a bit different here."

"Oh, no," said Colleen, waving her hand, "I know all about that. But these numbers don't add up correctly by those rules either."

"What do you mean they don't add up?"

"I mean, well, look at this account here. This is the building maintenance fund, yes? Well, these additions here should have gone to the total, but even with the twisted fae maths, it's clear they didn't."

"So what's actually going on, then?" asked Cobb, already sure she knew the answer.

"Your accountants are ripping you off, and trying to lie about it using fae maths."

Cobb pursed her lips. "No time to waste, then. Can you perform a full audit, so we can fire these ... creeps, and then, if you would, we'd love to have you take over as head accountant for the Institute."

Colleen smiled. "I'd like that, Director. I'd like that a lot."

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I suppose this one owes a bit to both Sanctuary and Lost Girl.
PPS - Though they rarely deal with accounting ripoffs.

Server-side programming

People are attracted to server-side programming because it simplifies the heck out of network communication. Instead of there being a problem in a network of finding where to send some data or message, a dedicated server taking on that role makes it clear where everything should go. Unfortunately, it creates some problems, too. It is now a single point of failure, so if the server goes down, everything goes down. If the server's hard drives crash, all the data is lost. If the server can't cope with the traffic load, then nothing works. You don't really eliminate the problem so much as exchange it for other, better problems.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Personally, I've never been much of a fan.
PPS - But then, I cut my teeth on client-side software and dabbled in P2P networking back in the QBasic days, so I might be biased.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Political power

Rules for thinking about political power:

1. Power that can be abused will be abused eventually.
2. Power that can be abused in secret will be abused much more quickly and more often.
3. Once power is abused once, it will be abused again more easily.
4. The power to gain more abusable power will not end well for anyone.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I realise these rules are all about abuse of power.
PPS - Because, really, power that's not being abused is almost not worth worrying about.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Catching up with online content

I often wish it were possible, via RSS or some other online mechanism, to catch up on some content you discover online long after it starts. It's overwhelming to look at a website - a blog or a web comic - with several years of history and feeling like you'll never get to catch up. There aren't any tools for dealing with that, you know? All you can do is go to the beginning and click through each page manually, until you get to the point where you are caught up and can finally subscribe. I did that with Starslip, when I finally discovered it, and then it had stopped forever by the time I caught up.

It works well enough if it's a normal website, but if it's on Facebook, like Daniel H. Wilson's Amped prequel blog of fictional character Samantha Blex, it is much, much worse. The only thing you can do is scroll up and down the page, visually scanning to make sure you're looking at the right entry in sequence and clicking to expand each one. That's probably more a problem with Facebook's Timeline, though.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I am looking forward to reading Amped.
PPS - But that's getting further off topic.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How to get a job

Steps to getting a job:

1. Find an industry where you would be passionate about the work.
2. Figure out what skills employers are looking for.
3. Get those skills. If that means formal education, do that, but self-education is just as valid.
4. Sell yourself to employers by referencing those skills.

If you find that you can't get the necessary skills, or there are no employers and you can't go freelance, you might need to look for a different industry. This plan actually works just the same for creative industries, but the competition is higher and the entry-level pay grades suck.

The trouble with the usual approach is that it's trying to optimise the usual steps of the process:

1. Resume and cover letter.
2. Interview.
3. Job offer.

Having a clear, eye-catching resume is no help if you don't have something to put on it (ie marketable skills). Being great at interviews is no help if you don't have the right skills to sell. Negotiating a job offer just won't happen if employers don't see the right skills in you. It all comes down to step 3 up there: get yourself some marketable skills.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The only other plan I've seen work is to be born into a rich family (99th percentile) and get handed a large corporation for free.
PPS - Most people have trouble with that first bit. It's hard to arrange.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Watching movies on the train

Over the course of a week, I watched Christopher Nolan's Batman movies on the train to and from work with a small portable DVD player. The experience was not especially satisfying. The screen was small and the backlight poor, so half the time I was just imagining what was going on while I listened and watched a mostly-black screen. The very dark movies probably didn't help in this regard. The other unfortunate aspect of the screen was the resolution. The widescreen movies seemed to be squashed vertically somehow. Sound was adequate, through my headphones, and the player didn't struggle keeping the discs playing while the train jostled me around. So, on the whole, I only recommend this practice for well-lit movies that are low on action. Also, it would work better on 30-minute TV shows rather than 2-hour movies that have to be broken up into pieces.

For comparison, next I watched the Matrix trilogy on my netbook, which has a bigger, brighter, higher-resolution screen. They are similarly dark action movies, so the comparison should be valid. The results were much more satisfying, which proves that screen size and quality are a pretty important factor when watching video. But you already know that. To be completely fair, the weather during Batman Week had been very bright and sunny, while during the Matrix week it was overcast, so there wasn't as much direct sunlight to battle with the netbook screen. Sound on the Matrix movies was more of a problem, but that's a known issue with The Matrix anyway - quiet dialogue followed by loud action and music. Also, the netbook was slower to start up and shut down than the DVD player, which meant I got through slightly less of the movies on each trip.

The goal of this whole experiment was to find a good way to fit more movies into my life in the small pieces of spare time I have. I proved that I could do it on the train, if need be, but in the end, I started resenting the time it was taking away from my reading and writing. So I think, if I must, I will watch movies at lunchtime on my computer at work, instead of struggling with small screens on a loud, moving train.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I had to do it again, I'd use the netbook.
PPS - But I don't have to.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Friday Flash Fiction - Janice and the Vampire

"Why do you wear those things?" Sean asked Janice. Janice looked down at the gloves she was absently putting on - black, fingerless, with a cross stitched on each knuckle.

"Because you never know."

Years before, Janice had been a carefree university student, attending (most of) her classes during the day, studying or partying by night at the share house near the campus. It all changed that November.

The after-exam party started off great. There were dozens of people, the music was loud, the booze was flowing freely and everyone was having a great time. Janice was swimming in the pool on her own, just a few minutes after everyone else had gotten out - there was pizza just delivered, but Janice wasn't hungry.

Floating on her back, looking up at the stars and hoping that she had passed her Psych final, she thought she heard something in the upstairs bedroom. Now, the house had a game they played. If you caught one of the others in their room with a boy, they did the dishes for a week. It had been Cathy's idea. Jan suspected it was just Cathy's excuse to barge into people's rooms whenever she felt like it, but it had saved Janice from dish washing duty more than once.

It was Cathy's room where Janice heard the noise and, watching the window, she saw someone walk past. No, not walking. Chasing.

Janice grabbed her towel and got out of the pool as quickly and quietly as she could. If she could catch Cathy in the act, it would be the first time ever. Either Cathy was very good at sneaking around, or she never brought boys home. As Janice sneaked upstairs, the music was still playing loudly, but everyone was sitting down. Janice was just glad nobody got in her way.

Creeping up the stairs, Janice eased Cathy's door open and could definitely hear sounds like an enthusiastic make-out session. She flung the door wide, flicked the light on and yelled "Gotcha!", but the sounds weren't of kissing.

There was a man in the room, he seemed to be biting Cathy, and she was lolling, eyes wide open and glassy, mouth in a weird quirk. She was dead.

The man turned towards Janice, and his mouth dripped with blood. His eyes were ... mesmerising. Janice found herself getting lost in them from across the room, until he blinked, or she did, and she had the sense to scream.

The man leapt up from the bed and chased Janice out the door. Her still-wet feet slipped on the wooden floor as she made for the stairs, but the vampire - even in her panic, Janice's subconscious offered up the only word that fit - got a handful of her wet hair and dragged her back. He pinned her to the floor and stared into her eyes again, then that same feeling of calm and peace came over Janice. He was just going to bite her. It was okay.

Then Janice snapped out of it again, and remembered the cross around her neck. She held the thing up like a ward and, despite what decades of vampire movies had been saying, it worked. The vampire hissed - actually hissed! - and drew back from the silver crucifix, and even seemed to wither in its presence. He hunched down in a corner, shielding his eyes, but kept peeking back, looking like he hoped Janice would give up and go away.

Janice got close enough this time to press the cross into his forehead, where it left a red welt. With a scream, the vampire turned to dust and crumbled before her eyes.

Everyone else was already dead, but Janice had survived.

"And that's why I wear the gloves," she said. "It's why I joined the police force, too. To hunt them and protect people from them."

Sean just stared at his partner with wide eyes. "Wow. Janice, I had no idea. I just ... I'm going to wait in the car. Come along when you're ready." He left, and Anne, another officer, walked over with a sly grin.

"None of that's true, is it?"

"Well, I did room with a Cathy at uni."

They both laughed.

"So why tell him all that?" asked Anne.

"You know how superstitious Sean is. Bet you twenty bucks he wears a cross for at least a week."

"How about you bet he wears it for two weeks, I bet he takes it off after one."


Mokalus of Borg

PS - I felt much better about this one when I figured out how it should end.
PPS - And that was when I was halfway through writing it.

Hard data and self improvement

Data collection and analysis is the key to self-awareness, and self-awareness is the key to self-improvement. If you want to improve yourself, you need hard data on where you are and what is keeping you there. If you want to make better spending habits, you need to track every cent you spend so that it stares you right in the face. If you want to make better eating habits, you need a solid record of everything that goes into your mouth. The best tools to do this will vary from person to person, but for eating, I suggest the following: take a picture of everything you eat. Collect them by date and keep them somewhere that's always in front of you. You might be surprised how many biscuits, chocolates, coffees, snacks and fast food meals show up in what you think of as a healthy diet. Your mind is bad at seeing that pattern until it is forced on you. That's the point. Actual data is much more convincing than "I think I eat pretty healthy" or "I don't spend that much".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Every fad diet works for someone, because they all start with "write down everything you eat".
PPS - Just like every weird budget technique works on some level by tracking what you spend.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Born last century

By 2030, we'll probably see a fair bit of discrimination against people who were born last century. That's when the first babies of the 21st century will start hitting their 30s and taking up management positions in our corporations. Also, since they're all grown up and the teenagers of the day will be born in that century too, any birth year starting with "19" will start looking really old, even if it's "1999". My "1979" will look like "stone age" to the neon-bright software geeks of the day.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not looking forward to that.
PPS - But then, who does look forward to feeling old?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Microsoft's identity

Who is Microsoft? Do they have a sense of identity that clearly communicates who they are and what they want? They are a server OS company, they are a productivity software company, a development tools company, a game console company and now a consumer hardware company. What if they were aiming to be seen as the mid-range option, producing cheap software and hardware of quality good enough for most people? If the quality is high enough and the price is low enough, that will sell.

Apple aims for gleaming sculptures of consumer electronics, polished within an inch of their lives, and priced as if they don't expect you to replace it in 12 months. Microsoft should produce solid quality at reasonable prices. Not the no-fuss, no-frills, bargain basement stuff, just good hardware and software that people can afford. Differentiate from Apple by going for sensibility, not being just as shiny.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The problem, of course, is that shiny also sells.
PPS - And sells very well.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Email rewards links and phishing

The practice of sending emails with rewards program offers waiting to be "activated" by clicking a link in email is setting a bad precedent. If we are expecting lots of these things (I typically receive three or four per week from Woolworths) then people will get into the habit of blindly scrolling down and clicking the link, because it's the fastest, easiest, least-intrusive way of getting all you can from a rewards program. Why would you *not* activate an offer like that? Even if you think you won't use it, since it costs nothing but offers something in return, it's infinite value for money. You might as well just click them all automatically.

That's where phishing can start. A scammer constructs an email exactly like the rewards ones, but directs the link to a malware site that does a drive-by download of whatever they like. Woolworths is making that easier, and I think that's a bad idea.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Most security checklists start at number 1 with "Never click a link in email. Ever."
PPS - And number 2 is "No, seriously. Never."

Monday, 11 February 2013

Good ideas and good actions

It's not enough to have good ideas. You have to be able to act on them. You can't make money directly from the idea of a gadget. You can't be a conceptual house painter. There are no theoretical gardeners. You make actual things of value, or you do not. I am personally too often on the theory side of that theory vs practice fence.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's a matter of priorities, and sometimes skills.
PPS - I prioritise my writing above all my other creative pursuits.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Friday Flash Fiction - Sister Margaret

A nun walks into a bar with a crow on her shoulder. I know how that sounds, but stick with me. Sister Margaret is not an ordinary nun, nor is the crow an ordinary crow. Oh, she wears the habit and carries a rosary, sure, and as far as anyone else can tell, the crow only says "caw", but they are far from ordinary.

They hunt monsters.

The bar patrons lower their voices on instinct. Many try to hide their drinks behind their hands, childhood shame taking over, but Sister Margaret is not here for them. A nervous man sits at the back of the bar at a table by himself, nursing a small glass of something clear. Sister Margaret takes a seat and the crow hops off her shoulder to sit on the table and peck at a bowl of nuts.

Despite the quiet, nobody can hear their conversation. If they could, they'd wish they hadn't. The man speaks and Sister Margaret nods, absently clicking the beads of her rosary. Her expression of grim concentration never wavers, but the muscles twitch beneath the scar on her cheek. When she nods, the man pushes a bulging envelope towards Margaret with pleading in his eyes. She opens it, removes two green notes and pushes the rest back. A vow is a vow. She takes what she needs to survive, having long abandoned the convent.

Later, in a dark alley near the man's home, Margaret crouches in the shadows, her face covered by a veil. The crow perches on a nearby fire escape. They wait a long time, until a movement alerts the crow who caws his warning. From the sewer grate crawls a shape with bulbous forearms barely a metre tall. As it passes a beam of light, Sister Margaret gets a view of the creature, and a look of hesitation crosses her features for just a second.

The creature is a child. Or, rather, it used to be a child. Now it is a hive, flesh pocked with hundreds of honeycomb cells and leaking vital fluids in its shuffling gait, mouth frozen in a silent scream. Margaret almost pitied it, until a stray cat dashed in front of it. With hands that moved too quickly to see, the monster snatched the cat and broke its neck, then bit a huge chunk out of the flesh, fur and all. The creature's distended belly squirmed with some internal activity Sister Margaret did not wish to contemplate.

Through the wet sounds of bloody mastication and the buzzing demonic insects, the crow cawed again and the thing turned its head, dead white eyes staring. Margaret wasted no time. She covered the distance in a few long steps and swung her sharp blade, beheading the creature with one swipe. The swarm buzzed about her in anger, but her veil and gloves kept her from becoming their next monstrous hive. She fogged the local area with a special blessed pesticide, and the bugs began to pop in white flashes of holy light.

When the dust had settled, Sister Margaret knelt and administered the last rites for the child, closing his eyes, covering his unrecognisable face with her handkerchief, but then pushed the body back into the sewer grate it had crawled from. The soul should have rest, but the body needed to be hidden. Her crow pecked out the eyes of the cat, and Margaret supposed that was as good as the cat was going to get from either of them.

She cleaned her blade and sheathed it somewhere beneath her habit, then she and her crow strode off to find some humble lodgings for the night.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I really like this one.
PPS - It was going to be a contest entry at Pseudopod, but now it's over the word limit.

Internet access is important for work

To most IT departments, the internet is like a big, messy, dirty, dangerous playground to which they hold the keys. It's not necessary for anyone to go there, ever, and if the gate is blocked (or broken or on fire), there's no hurry to fix it. It's just an unnecessary playground, after all.

To a programmer, the internet is the library where we keep all of our reference materials, and the IT department is the unnecessary bouncer at the library door, sometimes preventing us from getting in, and sometimes refusing to clear the door when it's blocked. Also, quite often, the internet is how we contact and maintain the services for which we are responsible. If we can't get in there, we literally cannot do our jobs, either partly or completely. So when the IT department treats internet access as an optional extra to the office and a low priority to fix, we can get a bit upset, but to them it probably sounds like we're crying because we can't get to Facebook.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Thankfully, this doesn't happen too often to us.
PPS - But it still does happen.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Better spies than James Bond

To me, James Bond has never seemed very interesting as a character. What's interesting about Bond seems to be what happens around him. He's got a bunch of gadgets that come in handy at just the right moment, cool cars and fast women. The man himself doesn't even seem to matter very much to the story, except that he's there to set off his gadgets at the right time.

To me, a spy is most interesting when you take away all the gadgets, the resources and the backing of a government agency. The interesting part is their training that allows them to survive on their own, despite the odds. It's why Jason Bourne and Michael Westen appeal to me a lot more than James Bond. Before the reboot with Daniel Craig, Bond was all about gadgets, cars and women, over-the-top villains and ridiculous plots. What I liked about Casino Royale was that they took all of that stuff away from Bond - to such an extent that there wasn't even a Q in it - and made Bond work with much less. That, plus the opening parkour scene, made it the first memorable Bond movie I had ever seen.

Then, of course, they started bringing it all back and I lost interest again. And that's okay, as long as someone else keeps making spy movies that are about spies, not toys.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - From now on, I will refer to James Bond movies as "toy movies" instead of "spy movies".
PPS - It really sounds different like that.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Disposable bandwidth

They say it's when a resource becomes so cheap that we can consider it disposable that situations really change for it. When paper was precious, only the most important things got written down, and only the richest or most important people could read or write. When paper got cheaper, we started having a publishing industry. Now, paper is practically free, almost everyone can read and write and we can afford to tear up paper to wrap up gum to throw away.

Internet bandwidth is still in that middle stage. It's common, so we've been building an industry around it, but it's not so cheap or reliable that we can consider wasting it, especially on mobile devices. It's everywhere, but it's still precious. Only important tasks get to use it. It's becoming a reflex, for sure, and we don't think of it consciously, but it hasn't really earned that, in my estimation.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If bandwidth were practically free, we could keep all our media in the cloud without thinking about it.
PPS - For example.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Where were you when you heard about Google?

It seems to be common among geeks to remember where you were when you first heard about this amazing new search engine called Google. How did such an event come to stick in our minds as much as events of great tragedy? For me, I didn't even get to see the website for several hours, so it wasn't a reaction to seeing it in action. What I remember is being at a party and a friend telling me that Google worked more intuitively than AltaVista. I filed away that info and checked it out later when I got home, I assume. So why did that conversation, rather than actually seeing Google in action, stick in my mind?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've checked this with my workmates.
PPS - All of them have a similar story.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Anonymity play

I was at university when my friends and I got email for the first time. One game we played was to change our names on email or chat, to keep our friends guessing who was really on the other end. Why did we do this? Were we playing with identity, trying out different personae to see what fit? Maybe. From what I remember, though, most of the game was just to see if you could keep a friend from recognising you, which doesn't make much sense if you're trying to sort out the essentials of your identity. After all, that's much more easily done with strangers who don't know you at all, and there are (or were) plenty of strangers to chat to.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe we were just playing with anonymity because it was our new toy.
PPS - That's the best explanation I have.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Friday Flash Fiction - Traveller

This will be the most difficult Travel I have made so far.

A few weeks ago, a kind of blimp floated into the sky above my home town. It's fairly unremarkable, except that it's relatively small, it doesn't seem to have a pilot and it's got a platform attached to the side with a door that leads into the body. I've seen this much through my telescope. It seems obvious to me that it's meant for Travellers like myself - people who can teleport at will - because there would be no other way up there.

Well, maybe you could shoot it down, or a particularly skilled helicopter pilot on a very calm day could lower someone on a rope, but nobody has been trying that, as far as I can tell. It's meant to find me, and others like me.

I dress warm, about three layers should do it, and pack a little food and some tools in case I have to force my way inside. I take some last-minute measurements with my telescope, estimating speed and distance as best I can, then I take a deep breath and Travel.

The world twists beneath my feet, like I'm spinning on an axis that doesn't fit in the world. There's a sound of rushing wind and the shapes don't make sense to my eyes. I have to concentrate to make sure I go to the right place. Keeping the blimp fixed in my mind, I feel for the platform in this swirling space and suddenly I find it, tumbling out and rolling towards its edge. I put out my hands to brace myself and my left goes off the edge, overbalancing me. My foot slips and I am dangling for a second, several kilometres up. The sharp metal cuts my fingers as I strain back up and pull myself onto my back, and I rest. The platform sways in the wind and I hold on until I catch my breath.

A little closer to the door, the platform has a handrail, but I decide not to trust it with my weight. The whole platform is a bit rusty and creaks as I crawl forwards. I can push the door in a few centimetres before it stops on the rusted hinges. Lying on my back, I kick at it until my feet hurt, and it opens just far enough for me to squeeze inside.

The room is even smaller than I thought it would be. There's a bit of broken glass on the floor, probably from a porthole on the wall. A gas lamp hangs on a chain from the ceiling, but I don't need it, and couldn't light it anyway. The walls are covered in photos and note paper in several different styles of handwriting. I see one section written in German, too. There are dozens of different faces, and the notes don't seem to follow any kind of pattern. At a guess, I'd say this place has been used by dozens of different people over a long period of time. As I take out my camera to start snapping pictures, the floor lets out a long, creaking groan, then breaks open under me and I'm falling.

Before I build up too much speed, I Travel to the local pool and startle some kids as I splash down. My camera's going to be ruined, and I don't know if I can - or should - go back to the blimp. Whoever made it is long gone, obviously, but the others who used it might still be around. Maybe I can find them, if I can figure out where to look.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm late with this because I was a bit busy today.
PPS - And now I'm going to bed. Goodnight!

Bank website design

I don't like that transferring money online through Suncorp is broken into three different types: transfer between my accounts, transfer to another Suncorp account or transfer to an external account. Internally, to the bank, I am sure these are very different operations, involving quite distinct methods of funds transfer, but to me, the customer, they are all basically the same, and that's what matters to me. The main problem is that it divides my bank account "address book" into two distinct lists: Suncorp Customers and Others, and I have to remember which group someone is in before I can transfer any money. It doesn't matter to me whether they are Suncorp customers or not. That only matters to Suncorp, but they are foisting that internal distinction onto me, presumably to make life easier on their programmers.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Other banks do things like this, too.
PPS - I only know this one because I'm with Suncorp.