Friday, 30 August 2013

Friday Writing Update - Dealing with critiques

I've run a couple of stories through Critters writing workshop now, and I think I need a system for dealing with critiques. People are helpful and friendly, but the feedback can get overwhelming when there's a lot of it. After the first couple of critiques come in, I usually feel really good. People tend to like what I've written, they almost always want it to be longer, and they have good suggestions that I take on board immediately. Towards the end of the week, I'm getting into double digits of feedback and losing enthusiasm. I don't even get to reading the last few when they come in.

Here's how I want to try handling it from now on:
1. Read each critique once. Make small editing changes as you go.
2. Extract each major point into a list. If a point has been made before, mark it up as more important.
3. If clarification is needed, or if the critique was particularly helpful, write back.
4. Let the story sit for a while before reading the notes and trying to improve the work.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I haven't tried it yet.
PPS - Next time.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Hydrophobic umbrella

If it were more affordable, I would buy enough Ultra Ever Dry to coat my umbrella. My umbrella already does a good job of keeping the water off me, but it would be even better if, once I step under cover, a single shake would leave the umbrella dry as a bone. No need to cover it in a plastic sleeve to keep it from dripping on the floor, no need to open it inside to dry out for several hours and, perhaps most importantly, I could fold it up and put it back in my bag on public transport immediately. That would be a really big benefit, because I've left at least one umbrella on the train before, simply because I had to keep it away from my bag while it dripped. If it could hardly help but keep completely dry, there would never be any need to keep it separate ever again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There may be similar hydrophobic coatings that are more affordable.
PPS - The question is why umbrellas aren't manufactured hydrophobic in the first place.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Safety equipment and risk

Safety equipment merely raises the bar on what risks people take. We like a certain amount of danger. When you reduce the amount of danger involved in a certain activity, we increase it again by doing the activity in a more dangerous or extreme way. As soon as you give a helmet to someone, they'll feel free to endanger their head as much as before, safe in the knowledge that the helmet will turn deadly activities into merely disabling ones.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unless they're a teenage boy.
PPS - In which case "risk" is not yet part of his world view.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Giving credit

I wish it were easier to give credit to creators rather than curators online (or worse, plagiarisers). The fact is that it's way easier to just credit the person who shows us something cool than to go looking to see if it is being properly attributed.

Perhaps we should be in the habit of watermarking all photos, videos and audio with creator info so that it's easily discovered no matter where it goes. If it's important information about a file, it needs to be inside the file. That doesn't mean plagiarisers won't be able to re-mark a file to claim it as their own, or that someone can't steal the idea behind a piece and produce something similar on their own. It would just make it easier, when someone shares a video or picture online honestly, to track down and inform the creator that their work is being shared.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course a lot of sharing is just linking these days.
PPS - However, linked or copied, marked by the maker is best.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Lacking communication skills

I am constantly frustrated by my own communication skills. I understand that it is important to express ideas in a way that other people can understand them. That's very clear. My problem is that my mental model of all other humans in existence seems to be flawed. Not just a little bit off-centre or sometimes too presumptuous about shared knowledge. I mean I say a sentence, then spend ten minutes trying to explain myself. Or we just drop it and move on with dismissive hands waving in my face. "You don't talk right. Stop it and let the humans have a go." I am very familiar with the furrowed brow of all my acquaintances, friends and family.

What can I do about this? I'm already very slow to speak. I feel like if I speak sooner, before my thoughts have had a chance to ramble off topic, I'll be even less coherent. My words will become alien sounds bearing no resemblance to your earth languages at all. If I take longer, I'll appear fully autistic, responding to questions long after the conversation has moved on.

My usual response is to sit completely silent, avoiding the embarassment of speaking and being misunderstood and replacing it with the mild shame of being the only one who can't contribute to group discussions.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Every idea seems to take too many words to express.
PPS - And too much background info to establish.

Friday, 23 August 2013


My early attitude towards user-friendliness was a kind of elitism, at least in part influenced by the movie Hackers. We'll skip over the argument about computer realism in Hollywood and go for some examples of what I mean. I learned to touch-type at school, and the first time I got my own computer keyboard that I didn't have to share with Dad or my brother, I covered the keys in stickers to obscure the letters. If you can't touch-type, was the not-so-subtle message, then get out. I carefully replaced the indicators on my multi-colour pen that I used at university so that all the buttons were black but it retained all four individual colours of ink. Learn the arrangement or get out. I used to say "destroy user-friendliness" when I did things like this, and at the time I believed that it was to educate people and force them to learn, but didn't provide any path for that learning.

I was big on insider knowledge. It was fun, because it made me feel powerful. I know things that you don't. I had to force it, but I did it, because I wanted to be powerful and that was the quickest, easiest way to demonstrate power. In that sense, it was kind of a bully thing, albeit intellectual bullying.

Now that I've been out of university for some time, and I've worked with real software users, my attitude is completely the opposite. If you can't use the software or hardware without first taking a course, studying a manual and practicing for several days (or weeks, months, years) then that piece of technology is broken, and people like me need to fix it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can take user-friendliness too far.
PPS - Usually, however, it's not taken far enough.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

History and hilarious lies

Sometimes I worry that historians of the future will be unable to tell the difference between our genuine scholarship, our satire, our hilarious lies for their own sake and spam. Where you have real news, you also have misinformed news, biased news, fake news, celebrity news and propaganda.

Perhaps history and archaeology in the future will merely involve the development of more and more effective spam filters and a sense of humour. Which is much of what we are trying to cultivate today, actually. Carry on.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I sometimes have trouble telling the difference myself.
PPS - Because sometimes satire is so close to trolling.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Why you need disposable identities

When you care about privacy and security, then every system where you link to someone else - all social networks and communications methods - or any time you give someone a powerful piece of personal information (like a credit card number) then you have to build in temporary aliases that can be revoked later. Instant message accounts, emails, phone numbers, credit cards, mailing addresses, social network accounts. Every one of them needs to have two layers of identity in them: the real account details, known only to you and the service provider in question, and an ever-changing set of straw man contact details that are known to your peers and colleagues, but are only valid until you revoke them.

Because you will eventually have to revoke some of them, and you never know which ones those are in advance. Maybe you gave your credit card number to a dodgy internet site, or a friend's phone got stolen and now you're getting obscene phone calls at 3am. No matter who you trust or how you manage your life, these details will eventually cause you grief, and you need to be able to shred them without having to undo your whole life, change your phone number, move house and assume a new name.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It does seem like an extreme position to take.
PPS - And in some cases, the risk is too small to bother.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Schoolies Week vs Spring Break

In some ways, I think Schoolies Week is a bit worse than Spring Break. At least in the States, Spring Break is full of college students who have been starting to learn how to do life on their own. They're failing, because a lot of life is still taken care of for them, and they have other priorities than, say, laundry and hygiene, but at least they are dealing with a little bit of responsibility along with their freedom in their daily lives.

Schoolies Week, by contrast, is full of high school students who are out on their own for the first time ever. They haven't learned anything yet except what they've been taught in school (algebra, Shakespeare and dissecting frogs) and now they're out on their own for a week, unsupervised. That's not a celebration, it's Lord of the Flies.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Keep in mind, however, that I've never experienced Spring Break for myself.
PPS - And my Schoolies Week was remarkably tame.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Samsung Galaxy SII Review

At the beginning of 2013, I upgraded my phone to a Samsung Galaxy S2, which is a fair bit more powerful and capable than my previous Google Nexus S. From that point of view, I'm very happy with it. It's got more storage and more memory, so it can handle video without choking, where my previous phone basically drew the line at audio. The screen is a bit larger, too, which is good, and the battery usually lasts me the whole day as long as I save battery-intensive tasks (such as aforementioned video) to the end of the day.

Almost everything else is a disappointment. Samsung, of course, loaded it up with their own inadequate launcher program and their decrepit bizarro-world Samsung Apps store, plus several crapware apps that can't ever be uninstalled and are difficult to distinguish from real apps.

The hardware leaves a bit to be desired, too. The phone will frequently turn itself off for no apparent reason (eg, sitting flat on my desk can trigger it) and the mic and speaker work just barely well enough for phone calls. It can't hold onto a WiFi connection to save its life, and just the other day it ignored my selected alarm tone and volume settings, electing instead to play the default alarm tone at full volume.

In short, my Android phone is less reliable than my desktop computer was in the 90s, with less control and more broken software. And you can't take it away from me, because now I feel as if I need it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have been informed that some of these issues are due to a Samsung software update.
PPS - And the whole review is moot anyway since the phone is outdated now.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Friday Writing Update - I've been doing it wrong again

When I stopped posting weekly flash fiction here, it was so that I would not be putting half-finished, dodgy work out in public and ruining a nascent reputation before it was formed.

I also pretty much stopped writing weekly flash fiction. I took away my deadline, and I stopped doing work. I kept editing for a second draft of my first novel, but that's not so much writing. It's writing out again some of what I wrote before, and it's not satisfying in the same way.

I don't know if there's a good solution to both of those issues at once, but I think I'd rather be writing than not, so I may have to start posting stories here again. We'll see next week.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I did, however, write those two entries for the PodCastle flash fiction contest.
PPS - And I've already started completely rewriting one of them, because it was all tell, no show.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Rethinking what apps are for

When I see a Lifehacker article about a weather-aware alarm clock app that wakes you up early if the weather is bad (and hence the traffic to work is likely to be bad) I wonder whether we really need more apps at all. After all, this is not a complex task. If [local weather] is rain, set alarm minus 20 minutes. We don't need that app, we need better ways of using apps together. We need an excellent meta-tool that lets people use their apps in new and interesting ways, no matter what those ways are.

We need to rethink what apps are and what they are for, on mobile and on the desktop.

What if all our apps were either event triggers or event responses? Instead of every app needing its own alert system (I'm looking squarely at Windows here) it could just send out an alert event and let Windows handle it? Instead of needing a smart weather alarm clock to adjust itself in case of rain, your weather alerts could be channelled into an action to modify your alarm, no special app necessary.

We need IFTTT and general compatible APIs so that events (weather, location, Wi-Fi access, time) can trigger app actions (adjust alarm, remind me about my actions, turn down my volume, download my podcasts). We do still need some apps in the form of those triggers, and we need preconfigured recipes connecting those triggers to actions, but most of the time, this "event triggers response" pattern is all we need.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There are some apps on mobiles that do some of this.
PPS - They don't generally have access to all the other apps that could be useful to them.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Browser speed dial page comparison

Compared to how other browsers handle it, Internet Explorer is pretty bad on the "speed dial" page. Firefox shows a full-page, 3x3 grid of your most frequent visited sites, and usually including thumbnail previews. Sometimes it doubles up on sites.
Chrome has 2 rows of thumbnails, titles below each one, with favicons in their bottom left corners, which looks pretty good.
IE, on the other hand, has 2 rows of 5 tiles, all white, and only seems to manage a favicon in the top left corner some of the time, plus a weird coloured bar at the bottom which I guess represents how frequently the site is visited. If they're already arranged in order of visit frequency, why have the bar at all? The text usually seems to be URLs rather than page titles.
I only use IE for work, and it does have all my most frequently-visited work-related sites listed, but because it's only text and the titles are rarely helpful, I find it much easier to bookmark them and use the menu instead. I think Microsoft have overestimated the usability of text vs pictures. Even their own IE add-ons gallery doesn't come up with a real title, just a URL.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I had to award a prize, it would go to Chrome.
PPS - I've just found it the most usable and consistent implementation of the feature.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Water supply

We have moved so far from communal water supply and sanitation to private infrastructure that we don't have many options when that private infrastructure breaks down. If your home plumbing breaks and you can no longer get fresh water from the tap, you can't just wander down to the local well instead. There's no backup plan. You have your own water at home or you don't have water. You have a working toilet at home or you don't go, unless you have very understanding neighbours or a nearby shopping centre. I suppose, if you have your own back yard, you could dig a pit latrine.

In times of natural disaster, this becomes a wide-scale problem, and the only way I've seen it solved is with water delivery trucks and portable toilets. So at least in that disaster time, everyone has the same problem and it's able to be handled by a mass solution. If you're the only one with a problem, though, then your solution options are very limited.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Just don't let your plumbing break down, I suppose.
PPS - If it's up to you.

Monday, 12 August 2013


"The only cure for a broken heart is time". Sounds nice, but I think it might matter what you're doing in that time. No, you can't fix it right away, and some coping strategies will be better than others, but that also means that some strategies will be worse and some will be downright bad. So when someone asks how to cure a broken heart, they really want to know what is the most effective coping strategy. You're going to feel rotten for a time - maybe a long time - but how can you make sure you're moving forward instead of staying still or going backwards?

It's probably a personal thing. What works for one person might not work for you at all, so you just need to pay attention to it. What did you do today, and how did it make you feel about your situation? If you felt worse, don't do that again. If you felt better, keep doing things like that. If you felt better for a little while, then much worse later, that's probably an addictive practice and you should run away from it as fast as you can.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Telling the difference between long-term happiness and short-term highs is tricky.
PPS - But you can learn it if you work at it.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Friday Writing Update - submission formatting

As I start looking into submitting some of my stories for publication, it strikes me that it would help authors in their submissions if there were some standard way of describing formatting requirements. Most publications have their own preferences for submissions, including fonts, spacing and such, but all are just slightly different. Rather than spending the time reading, interpreting and implementing each subtle difference for every submission, it would help a lot to have one basic format (say, MarkDown) that can be compiled into any publisher's preferred format as specified in a particular style sheet.

However, this might just be the programmer in me, wanting to reduce effort, recycle input and encode processes. Also, I believe this is the rabbit hole down which Knuth disappeared when he invented the TeX formatting tool and language.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or a similar one, anyway.
PPS - I don't want to get lost or sidetracked on this.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Threat prevention

When someone says that the intelligence community really dropped the ball by not recognising the threat of this or that person in advance, ask them which threat is currently being ignored. The question is not whether some other "preventable" horror will befall us, but when and who will do it. Chances are there's someone out there right now who is giving off "all the telltale signs", but with the mountain of data to sift and any number of crazies who will never do anything dangerous, picking that needle out of the haystack is not easy.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And reacting to every one of them is out of the question.
PPS - Nobody has that kind of time, money or energy.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Google Glass

I'm kind of fascinated by the Google Glass project. I wanted a wearable computer a long time ago, back when that would have meant a backpack, an industrial headset and learning to use a one-handed "chording" keyboard. Now it means a pair of glasses you talk to.

I would love to have one, because I think it would be more convenient for me, especially when looking up facts online or watching and listening to podcasts on the train, or navigating. I have a feeling it would revolutionise the way I interact with my phone.

The one place I feel it would go backwards, however, is in sharing what I find with others. Right now, if I find something interesting on my phone, I can turn it around to show to someone else. With Glass, I would either have to look them up and send it to their phone or their Glass somehow, or I'd have to take it off my head and let them look through it. It does come up now and then, so I'd be interested to see what day-to-day usage turns that into.

Also, if we are all forever running around with cameras strapped to our faces, will that change how we feel about privacy? Will there be places like that where it becomes socially unacceptable to wear them, like change rooms, restrooms, government buildings? With the awkward shape, how will you put them away to show that you're not recording everything someone is doing or saying?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - All questions that may be answered sooner rather than later.
PPS - We've developed an unspoken mobile phone etiquette already.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Servant's passages

If I built a mansion, I would want it to be full of servant's passages, for two reasons. It would give them the ability to appear and disappear from rooms without the need to pass through other areas, and it would also give them their own space, the shadow house, where only the servants go. It would be tricky to design such a place without appearing to have done so, but I would like to try.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Anyone want to give me the money to try?
PPS - Maybe I should just try it in The Sims.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Compatibility for progress

Technology working together is what enables big leaps and bounds, but that requires compatibility, which is hard. It also requires sensors or triggers and actions that can be programmed in some way. We can have some form of glue-ware in between all our systems, like IFTTT, as long as they expose the right programming interfaces, or we can depend on each device or app to interact directly with others.

Also, however, if you don't provide a way for users and developers to extract and work with your data, someone is probably going to do it for you, only a little bit worse and without your permission. You can either provide those features your users want, or you can let someone else do so. What you can't do is be deliberately incompatible in a way that nobody can work around, ever.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - People want compatibility enough to break in and steal it.
PPS - It's much easier all around if they don't have to.

Friday, 2 August 2013

USB and backwards compatibility

I suspect that USB 3.0 is likely to be the last iteration of that brilliant standard. There just doesn't seem to be any way to cram more bandwidth into the cables and sockets while maintaining backwards compatibility, and even version 3.0 was a bit of a stretch. We may still get USB 4.0, but it will probably have to break the backwards compatibility of the standard. Whenever that happens, whether it's version 4.0 or later, it should be given a different name to avoid confusion.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It will feel like a sad, strange day when USB is obsolete.
PPS - It's going to happen, though. Someday.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Videotaping plutonium on Back to the Future

I had a thought while watching Back to the Future the other day. We see Marty with an 80s-era video camera filming Doc Brown inserting plutonium into the time machine's reactor. Both he and the Doc are wearing radiation suits, but the camera is not shielded. So here's my question: would the radiation from the plutonium have any effect on the magnetic recording heads in the camera? Judging by the thin suits Doc and Marty are wearing, I'd say it's likely the camera's case would be protection enough, but I'm not sure. If those suits are not accurate for the amount of plutonium being handled, then it might have an effect, right?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Obviously I can't test this myself.
PPS - I also can't find whether anyone else has tested it.