Thursday, 31 October 2013

The lost newspaper

On the train the other day, someone left a newspaper behind. I and several other people who live on the internet daily thought nothing of it. An older man, however, seemed agitated. "Someone's left their paper there! Is that yours? Who left their paper? It's not mine, I've got one at home..." And on and on for a while. Eventually he picked it up, folded it carefully and left it on the seat, presumably for someone else to find and make good use of.

My only explanation for the agitation, besides some mental problem, was that, to him, newspapers are the only place news comes from. If you don't read the paper, you don't know what's going on in the world. If someone left it behind, that must have been an accident. To me, newspapers are a relic, published too slowly to be ahead of the game. They're worthless, because everything important in the paper will have already crossed my web browser the day before.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, newspapers actually do have some relevance to me.
PPS - The small, free, local ones are a better place to find local news than anywhere else.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

True fans

Some fans take it on themselves to police "true" fandom, weeding out the heretics so that only the faithful in the Church of SciFi (or whatever) remain. They obviously do damage to fandom in general, their chosen obsession in particular and to authors and creators everywhere, at the same time as thinking either that they are doing someone a favour, or perhaps that they are somehow "winning" at fandom.

These are nerd bullies. "Oh, you can't name every actor who played The Doctor's companion? What makes you think you're a true fan, then, eh? Are you gonna cry now?" That's really the only motivation I can think of that makes sense. It's not a good motivation, just a motivation. These people may have been bullied at school for their unusual tastes, and when they find themselves in a place where everyone is a lot like them (a convention or just a fan subculture), their misplaced rage and a sense of localised superiority makes them lash out. Finally they can be the tiny king of this tiny little hill!

They're not going to be put off by the creators of their chosen show/movie/book/comic saying "cut it out", or at least not permanently. They need to heal.

The only other reason I can think for behaving this way is when you think someone is faking as a publicity stunt or as a way to sell something, like someone putting bad perfume in a turtle-shaped bottle and wearing a turtle suit to sell it to fans of the Ninja Turtles. That person may be pretending to be a fan, but the best way to get them to stop is to pay them no attention or money at all. Maybe what they're doing is damaging to the "brand" of the fandom subculture you're in, but being a bully about it is damaging too. Walk away, let their parasitic business fail and keep loving what you love.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - True fandom is gleeful and positive and inclusive.
PPS - A true fan just wants everyone to experience their joy.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Examining unconscious skill

People who have mastered a skill to the point of unconscious action rarely have the self-awareness to teach you how it works. For instance, to get a good idea of how human masters think about chess, it's too late to ask someone who's already very good. You need to take someone who is an amateur, or merely average, and observe them learning how to play at a much higher level. Then you will get some insight into their thought processes as they progress from average play to exceptional play. Learn how humans build mental models of a chess board and you might be able to build a chess program that doesn't require the analysis of millions of positions to play against a human.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Chess programs are actually still improving, efficiency-wise.
PPS - Whether they are providing any psychological insight remains to be seen.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Options for sanitary public toilet design

Up to half of men using a public toilet do not wash their hands. Some of them fake it, because they feel enough social pressure to appear like they're not filthy, but not enough pressure to actually use soap. For this reason, I recommend the following options for public toilet designs that do not depend on changing the human nature of people who just do not care.

Option 1, noting that door handles will pick up germs, is to move the wash basin outside the toilet doors completely. This has two huge advantages. One, as implied above, it means handwashing occurs after using the door handle, which is obviously the preferred order of events (assuming there is a door handle at all, see below). Two, because handwashing is now occurring in public, non-hand-washers are forced to parade their behaviour under the withering scorn of everyone around.

Option 2 is to arrange the doors so that "Push" is an option to get out, allowing a clean human to use shoulders, feet, back, hip or elbow to push through the door, preserving the cleanliness of his hands until the next handshake or nose blow or computer keyboard use. The doors don't have to push only one way, either, and they don't have to be ordinary doors. Automatic sliding doors, two-way swinging doors, automatic revolving doors or even S-bend hallways with no doors would be acceptable. I have seen many of those options work.

A side-option, for the truly germophobic is automatic taps. Using a dirty hand to turn on the water, washing, then touching the dirty tap to stop the water is also considered futile by true germophobes, so automatic taps are a nice touch to consider, but not essential.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can turn off the tap with your paper towel as an option when the taps are manual.
PPS - The easiest changes to an existing arrangement are probably to have the doors swing outwards.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Advice for your 13-year-old self

Really, the question is not what you would say to your 13-year-old self if given the chance, but how you would make yourself listen. You know what you were like at 13: a whiny, opinionated, entitled brat, even if you were hiding it. What makes you think that unstable bag of hormones would listen to anyone, even if it's you? Unless you're talking about parties, music, dating, sex or maybe food, or how much it sucks to be 13, you're just going to be a buzzing background noise to the rest of the world thundering in your own young ears.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And that kind of renders your time travel a bit pointless, doesn't it?
PPS - I hate when that happens.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Priority vs capacity

Priority traffic sounds like a good idea until you throw enough bandwidth at the problem. For example, laundry. If you have some garment that you need to wear and wash every couple of days, such as your only work uniform for a messy job, you might keep it aside and throw it into the wash whenever you put on a load. Everything else sits in the basket and waits its turn. This is a perfectly functional system, but it can break down if too much laundry gets the priority treatment. At that point, even though you have a system for treating some garments as special, their express handling doesn't mean anything, because they still don't get washed quickly enough.

The real solution is more capacity, not prioritising. If you wash enough laundry per day, then all of your garments get washed, whether they are high priority or not. It doesn't make sense to bypass a queue that operates at high speed. The same argument applies to anything buffered: theme park queues, to-do lists, internet traffic, highways or airport security. The answer to delays in general is not to create a new, better, alternative queue, but to throw a lot more capacity at the existing queue.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you're selling express tickets, though, you have no motive to increase capacity.
PPS - In fact, you are now motivated to clog up the regular queue as much as possible.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sinners Anonymous

I have the phrase "Sinners Anonymous" in my head as a description of what the church should be. It's not complete, and it's not that original either, but it's a radical reimagining of how people in church should relate to each other, and how we inside the church need to appear to those outside. We come to church because we need help. We recognise our brokenness and that of our brothers and sisters. We aim for virtue, but we haven't arrived yet.

As I said, though, it's not a complete picture. If the church only focuses on being a support group for morality, we will lose track of Jesus, and he was the one who started his church among the downtrodden in the first place. Jesus' followers were a bunch of prostitutes, tax collecters, addicts, sick and sinful. The ones, he said, who "need a doctor". That is all of us, whether we've learned to hide it or not. Sinners Anonymous is how Christians should look to other people, inside the church or not. Come join the rest of us who struggle with sin. Maybe we can learn together.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or maybe it's still so incomplete as to be meaningless.
PPS - Though if it helps bring more forgiveness and understanding, that could only be good.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Explaining colour

I find it fascinating to hear a blind man explaining on YouTube that the concept of colour is meaningless to him. He says nobody has ever explained it to him adequately, because there's really nothing to relate it to. You can't say it's like certain smells or temperature or sounds, because that's stupid. It's not like that at all, it's vision, and he has no concept of that. It's a quality of light, and in his blind world, there is no light. Not darkness, because that's just a way of saying light that wasn't there. This blind man does not, cannot, know what light is, let alone its different qualities.

It would be like some alien creature trying to tell you what it's like to sense magnetic fields, their strengths and directions. It's not like seeing some other colour, or hearing a high-pitched tone everywhere he goes, nor is it as if the air itself has some extra tactile resistance he can physically feel. He just detects the magnetic fields all around him, all the time, because the flurns in his blarndarp are quiggly, and he knows how strong the field is by how dralnip the pindle trebs, you know? Of course you don't. Those words are meaningless to you, because no matter how much he explains or what analogies he draws, it has to do with some fundamental experience you simply do not share and cannot know.

And that's what you sound like when you try to explain colour and light to a blind person.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or so I have it from reputable sources.
PPS - The video I linked says pretty much that.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Code vs words

I don't like just producing words, because they get lost and forgotten. They need people to remember and implement them, like lawyers or bureaucrats. Code can run on computers long after everyone forgets it has to be there. That raises its own issues, but at least you don't need vigilant experts.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You just need decent programmers.
PPS - And maintenance techs.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Calendar software views

In calendar software, it is normal for a monthly view to show the whole month on one screen without scrolling. This is good. It is also normal to show the weekly view stretched out vertically so that you can't see the whole thing on one screen without scrolling. Why is that? Why go to the trouble of making one view fit the screen and let another view expand to go way beyond the screen boundaries?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's it. I just really don't get it.
PPS - It's not a choice I'd have made, and not even consistent.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Imagining electricity breakthroughs

Breakthroughs that would change the way the world uses power. Orders of magnitude advances in battery capacity, charging time, power generation and consumption efficiency. If our houses used 10% of today's power, and that power cost 10% as much to generate, you'd be paying less than a dollar per year for all your electricity. Or we'd use 10 times as many appliances, because we could, and that would still cost less than $10 per year.

An order of magnitude advance in battery power and electronics efficiency would mean that your phone could go for about three months on a single charge while still doing everything you do today, and when you do need to charge it up, it would take about a minute. Imagine only needing to charge your phone four times a year, for one minute each time. I expect a lot of new possibilities for mobile computing might open up. We might have more of them or use them in more situations.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - With that level of power storage and use, maybe we wouldn't even have big central power stations any more.
PPS - It might become much more local.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Reprogramming brains by force

Several authors have posited a kind of brain reprogramming through normal sensory input. In Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, the human brain stem can be reprogrammed via the Sumerian language spoken aloud. In David Langford's short story BLIT, a human brain can be crashed like a computer by certain images. It's an interesting concept, and in each of those examples, it involves some of the most complex sensory tasks we humans engage in - visual pattern recognition and language processing. My guess is that complexity played a part in the formation of the concept. Nobody was about to suggest that you could reprogram a human brain with a particular smell, taste or touch.

Obviously it's just a story piece or a worldbuilding concept, but I don't believe anything similar would be possible in real life. It would be like trying to reprogram your computer through the webcam and microphone. Maybe you could sort of do it, but it would exploit a flaw that exposes the normal reprogramming mode the computer was explicitly designed for. The brain was not designed to be reprogrammed like that. The brain was designed to learn the world, make sense of the patterns it finds there (vision and language, in particular) and to control our bodies by conscious will.

The only way to "reprogram" a brain would be to forcibly break neural connections that were built and reinforced over years, then form new ones in their place. That would, as a side-effect, destroy the personality and memory of the person, even if it were only partial, and force a new version to emerge in its place, if at all. While small-scale reprogramming might be possible, doing so on a large scale would be like pulling apart a car to build a motorcycle. It's not going to be the same vehicle afterwards.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And much smaller.
PPS - Which is not what you want in a brain.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Google Glass picture taking UI

Just a quick thought: if the Google Glass aims to be a computer you wear on your face that stays out of the way all the time, then the command to take a photo shouldn't be "OK Glass, take a picture". That's cumbersome. It takes longer than pushing a shutter button.

In my opinion, the command to take a photo should just be "wow". It's what you're likely to say when you see something amazing, so Glass should take a photo at that prompt. Just my 2 cents.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I had a Glass headset, and you could remap the voice commands, that's the first thing I'd do.
PPS - Besides taking a self-portrait in a mirror, of course.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The downside of a meritocracy

The downside of a meritocracy is that it does not value the weak, the poor, the disabled, the elderly or children. Merit for the things you can do means that, if you can't do anything, you are not valuable.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There's not really any such thing as a welfare meritocracy.
PPS - It just doesn't fit.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Friday writing update - failing to write

For a couple of weeks now, I haven't been writing much. Except by "much", if I'm honest, I have to say I mean "at all". It's been a choice. I could have kept up exactly the same writing schedule as usual - my morning commute to work is still available - it's just that I've been filling my time with TV instead. Breaking Bad in particular. I guess, when I started, the plan was to power through every episode in time to watch (and comment on) the finale with coworkers who were into the show. I didn't make that deadline, despite devoting all my free time to it. Now that I've missed that deadline, however, I've continued to give up my writing time to fit in more episodes, and that's something I really shouldn't be doing.

With NaNoWriMo coming up, I had intended to plan out a second draft of my first novel, The Bones of Earth, so that I could write to that plan and get more than the 50,000 words done in the month. Now, however, I have 20 days left, no plan and I'm not even done with Breaking Bad. So here's the deal I'll make with myself: until November, I will write every day. I'll plan what I can of that novel draft, and I'll be ready for NaNoWriMo. That's my priority. If I have any time left over, maybe I'll allow myself an episode of Breaking Bad.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My friends warned me Breaking Bad would become an addiction.
PPS - They were right.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Compatibility breeds progress

Industry becomes easier when machines are modular and compatible. They can then be combined, feeding the output of one into another as required. Flexibility is key to expediency, and expediency leads to progress.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The same is true of any technology.
PPS - Software in particular.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The pursuit of true happiness

Life changes as you grow up, and nobody is there to tell you what's important and what isn't. You pick and choose as best you can, but sometimes you get to wondering if you picked up and put down the wrong things. You see other people who held onto things you let go, and they seem pretty happy. Cars, booze, music, painting, travel, fashion. You start to wonder if you made a mistake, and whether you can catch up again. But, for the most part, there was no mistake, just different choices.

It comes down to happiness, and some people can't be happy unless they have what everyone else has, or more. So if you gave up a social life to have a career, or gave up surfing to tow cars for a living, you might wonder if you'd be happier the other way around. For the most part, you wouldn't, because people tend to plateau at one level of happiness. It gets better, then you adjust and it feels about the same. It gets worse, and it sucks, but you get used to it. You throw away your whole career to go back to partying all the time, and it feels good for a while, but eventually it fades again.

So rest assured that the only wrong choice you really made was questioning your choices.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Happiness is mostly a matter of being content with what you have now.
PPS - I mean, after a certain point. You have basic needs to meet, as a minimum.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Credit fraud customer service

If you're going to ignore credit fraud until it is reported, because it's cheaper, you had better have good customer service at that point. Victims of credit fraud are only going to be understanding about your response and strategy if they get their money back very quickly and nobody gives them the third degree about anything they should have done differently.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've never been a credit fraud victim myself, so I don't know how it goes.
PPS - From what I've heard, second-hand, though, banks do pretty well when handling it.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Closing the analogue hole

I don't think it will ever be possible to "close the analogue hole", which is what DRM addicts call it when no older analogue technology can capture movies, music or pictures. If they did, then it would literally be impossible to record a movie in a cinema with a hand camera, as it would also be impossible to record music that is playing over speakers - any music, any speakers, any recording device.

The reason I think it is impossible is because that would close the ability to watch movies and listen to music at all. If audio is immune to capture by any analogue means, that includes your ears. If video is similarly immune to capture by analogue means, that includes your eyes. Anything that truly succeeds against all analogue capture would have to work so well that you can't watch or listen to that media at all.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That may be the goal.
PPS - The only way to truly stop pirates is to stop the entire entertainment industry.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov

I borrowed a collection of Isaac Asimov short stories from a friend ("Robot Dreams") and found some of the stories surprisingly dark. I thought I knew Asimov. He's like the grandfather of science fiction, and his early stories are really quite bright and hopeful. There's one I recently heard on Escape Pod ("Rescue Party")of aliens responding to an apparent distress call on Earth. The host noted that it was quite positive because the aliens find no corpses. The whole of Earth had to evacuate, and humanity did so, without destroying each other just for the hell of it. Asimov wrote that when he was 19.

Fast forward to the stories in this collection, and among the first few we already find a human deliberately killing the robot equivalent of Moses and some robot cars that actually murder a man. On purpose. When his previous robot stories were basically all about how the famous Three Laws of Robotics interacted and could cause unusual effects, the later ones seem to hold a lot more unease about robot slavery and a potential uprising. It's just not the Asimov I thought I knew.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I believe there was only one story in the collection I'd read before.
PPS - It was "Little Lost Robot".

Thursday, 3 October 2013

BuildMaster review

I've been using a program called BuildMaster for my personal software projects for a while now, and I have to say I am a fan. All I've really been doing with it is managing builds and releases for little apps that manage personal data for me - tracking spending, making notes, keeping time at work - but it's still been really helpful.

Previously, I would develop code up to a certain point, manually deploy it, use it for a bit, realise it had bugs, fix it a bit again, then leave it alone for a while. Repeating that process, even though I was using source control, I would grow less and less confident in the code itself and the releases I had done. What version am I running here? Could be anything. Where did it come from in source control? Can I get it back without having to fix the code I'm updating now? Not unless you figure out all the other answers first.

That's what BuildMaster does for me and my one-man, self-serve software shop. Because I'm naming releases, numbering builds and labelling them in source control, it's all tied together very nicely. Because I have set up an ad-hoc testing environment between development and production, I can do some tests before promoting a build and be confident that, should it be necessary, I can revert to a previous build or get back exactly the previous code version if I need to, without searching the source control history for what looks right.

There's a lot more the BuildMaster can do - integrating with issue tracking, automated testing, databases and so on - and some things I wish it could do natively, such as integrating with Bazaar, my personal source control system of choice, but it has been a real boon to my personal projects so far, and I intend to keep using it at least for that. If I can convince the company to use it, I think it would help at work. We have similar problems to what I had, but on a larger, more annoying scale.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We need something at work, in any case.
PPS - Every software shop needs some kind of system, even something manual.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Google Now

At a prompt from my phone, I switched on Google Now, just to see what it was like. On a positive note, I like that it warns me in advance of traffic delays between wherever I am and home and work, as long as I remember to check. What's more, I didn't have to tell it where I work, it just figured it out, presumably from where I spend most of my working hours. That's both cool and a little bit scary. The weather alerts work about the same as my previous alert widget, so that's kind of a neutral change. The big negative aspect is what it did to my calendar reminders.

I rely on getting audible reminders from my phone about upcoming appointments, and Google Now does provide cards on that, but it does so in complete silence and invisibility until I go to check. At that point, I always see a weather alert, plus maybe a note that says I've got "other cards" to display. Tapping that button gives a several-second delay that might, eventually, tell me about the appointment I missed half an hour ago because of the silent "reminder". I found that I had to disable Google Now for my calendar, then turn reminders back on in my calendar app. I can live with that, but it seems like an odd implementation choice.

I've seen a couple of cards for nearby restaurants, which I thought was interesting at first, but now it seems more like advertising to me. "Hey, I noticed you're near the Hog's Breath Cafe! Why not stop in for a steak?" When I'm looking for somewhere to go, it might be good, but Google can't know when that is.
I've also started using the reminders system via voice commands. "Remind me tomorrow morning to call Dad". "Remind me when I'm at the shops to pick up milk". Location-based reminders are really handy, and creating them in natural speech is a huge plus.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Google Keep also does location reminders now.
PPS - You just can't set them up the same way.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Fighting bad reviews with photo evidence

How can we combat fake or bad reviews online? When a business owner pays for dozens of fake reviews to puff up their business, that's bad, but it's also bad when someone posts a fake negative review, or when someone merely threatens to do so in order to get better treatment. That last behaviour has seen many hotels demand that no "unauthorised" reviews be posted at all, just to protect themselves from those crazy people.

We could try to take the "pics or it didn't happen" route, dismissing any reviews that don't include photographic evidence. In some cases, that would be enough, but it wouldn't necessarily stop aforementioned crazies from ruining a hotel room before taking pictures as proof.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In short, requiring photos and video may help, but won't be the silver bullet.
PPS - There is never a silver bullet.