Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Non-standard office phone headsets

Why has nobody made a phone for office desks that includes Bluetooth, so you can use any wireless headset you want, or even one with a standard plug for mobile headsets? Even my home phone has a non-standard plug. I don't get it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe some office phones do allow the use of standard headsets.
PPS - Just none I've ever seen.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Low-power tablet computers could run on ambient solar energy

We need tablets and phones that consume so little power that they can run on ambient solar energy. That's something I didn't think of when I was talking about orders of magnitude gains in power generation and consumption. If our devices are efficient enough and our ability to generate power grows far enough, then we won't need central power stations at all. Your whole house can run on a couple of solar panels on the roof, and your portable devices can run on ambient solar energy.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unless it's cloudy.
PPS - In which case little wind turbines might suffice.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Paying and getting paid

There's always a tension between customers and producers. As software producers, for instance, we want to keep getting income on an ongoing basis. That means monthly or yearly subscriptions. As a business, we try to set up those ongoing yearly license fees to keep getting paid by our customers, and we congratulate ourselves whenever we succeed.

Our customers, on the other hand, would very much prefer to pay once for our software and never pay again, which is fair enough from their point of view. When I consider BuildMaster, the software I use to maintain my personal programming projects, I try not to hit the limits that require add-on subscription licenses to keep using it, such as having more than 10 projects or more than 3 distributed packages per project. I try to think of how I can organise my projects to avoid those limits, because otherwise I will have to pay every year to keep using the software.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And if I were selling my software, I would be trying to get yearly subscriptions.
PPS - Until someone undercuts me by selling a once-for-all license.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Putting the pieces together

On Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., one of the characters said that she was part of an organisation because one person might not have the whole answer, but 100 people with 1% of the solution will get it done. Those 100 people would still need a coordinator to fit them together, though. A 100-piece puzzle doesn't assemble itself.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unless you count "badly, in a random pile" as "assembled".
PPS - I doubt anyone would count that.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Cmas!

If you're going to abbreviate the word "Christmas", personally I much prefer that you use the English initial "C" than the Greek "X" (chi). Just a personal preference. Merry Christmas!

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you celebrate Christmas as a pagan winter festival, don't say "Christmas" at all.
PPS - Better say "Yule" for that.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Gmail increased image security

Gmail has taken the excellent step of increasing image safety in emails by pre-loading them and presenting transcoded images by proxy. This means it's safe for you to always show images in Gmail now, and you as a user don't need to make a security decision whenever an email contains pictures. That's good, because people are, on the whole, pretty bad at making security decisions. However, Gmail's new functionality is also disruptive to old marketing email practices.

It used to be the case that embedded email images could track who had opened an email and when, by using a unique address for the image in each individual email. Whenever that address was accessed, you could know who was looking at that email. Now that Google hides all image loading behind a proxy, you can't really rely on it any more. It doesn't tell you that an email address is valid, because Google might open that image anyway for an invalid email address, and you can't tell that a particular person opened the email either, because of the same image pre-loading. This could be pretty big.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's one of those situations where we win, Google wins and spammers lose.
PPS - Google's win here is a more usable and more secure email service.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Where the phone connection belongs

If people are abandoning traditional home phones in favour of mobiles, then the wired phone connection is going to be exclusively (or at least primarily) for internet access. Therefore, the phone points that are normally placed in the kitchen would be better positioned in the lounge room (for media servers, game consoles and other set-top boxes). Has anyone done that yet?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I know it would make much more sense for me, personally.
PPS - When we move house next, we won't be connecting a landline.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Airline business conflicts

We have reached an odd situation with airlines now. The modern world requires airplanes to function, but they're so expensive to run that they are already optimised up to the eyeballs. Any little delays bump the whole schedule out of whack, plus they're cutting costs and services everywhere they can just to maintain an operating profit in one of the most competitive industries on the planet. There's no loyalty to speak of, so we all pick the cheapest flight we can get for where we need to go.

However, airlines are also businesses. They should, technically, have the right to refuse service to any person for any reason, from "I think you might be a danger to others" down to "I don't like that thing you said about us on Twitter".

And there's the conflict. Our world depends on airlines, so they're a necessity, and necessities should be rights, but they have the right to deny us their necessary service for arbitrary reasons. We need to fly, but we hate it, and if we say so, they can keep us from flying.

So what do we do? We need an airline that cannot deny us service for arbitrary reasons, only for operational ones. A not-for-profit airline. Well, providing necessary services where it is not profitable to do so should be one of the pillars of government. Perhaps this is a service the governments of tomorrow should consider investing in, along with education, public health care, roads and internet service.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There are very few rights that I think governments should ignore.
PPS - I'm not sure what label that puts on me.

Thursday, 19 December 2013


Apparently I haven't written about this before, or at least I can't find the post, so here goes. I have a custom file sync program I wrote myself, called MediaSync, in order to synchronise collections of files across very disconnected computers that don't have any way to connect with each other except flash drives. I wrote it for picture and video files, but it works on any files, of course. Since Windows Live Mesh shut down, our office network blocked BTSync and my personal photos and videos collections are too big to fit into Dropbox, I have opened up development on this project again, and it's going great.

Basically, it takes an index listing of every machine that participates, checks which files need to be copied around and puts them onto a flash drive. The unique feature it has is space limitations - you allocate, say, 2GB on your 8GB drive, and the sync copies will only ever take up that much space. It might take a few trips to get fully in sync, but you can run it on whatever flash drive you have lying around.

If you can, the whole process would be better served by a large external hard drive and SyncToy, but it's kind of neat to watch the collections gradually get in sync over the course of a week.

The big disadvantage is that it won't update or move files yet. If you rename a file in one location, MediaSync will detect that as a new file and will copy duplicates back and forth between machines. I'm working on that feature, to propagate renames instead of duplicating files, but it could be a while.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's not ready for the general public yet, though.
PPS - It still runs in a text-only interface and requires editing XML for full functionality.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Reviewing free items

The practice of sending free stuff to reviewers doesn't result in the same kind of review as you would get from someone who had to pay for the item. A person who got a gadget or accessory or whatever for free will naturally place a different value on it from someone who paid. The reviewer who gets, say, a free Microsoft Surface Pro 2 just because a lot of people follow him, will feel like it's a pretty sweet deal. And why wouldn't he? He's probably also got so many other tablet computers that he's already got his whole family covered for Christmas. It doesn't even have to last for him, because he'll probably get the next generation for free when that comes out in a year.

Someone who paid for the tablet will need it to last. They'll need it to be worth what they paid, not just do cool stuff. He probably already resents the cash outlay he had to make and so starts with a negative impression that needs to be overcome. A reviewer who gets the same gadget for free is already grateful for that, so the minor quibbles are forgiven and forgotten where they might be a dealbreaker for everyone else.

I'm not saying free stuff for reviewers should stop, or else a lot of reviews will also stop. I'm just saying I'd like to know up front whether a review unit was free so I can calibrate my reading accordingly.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If anyone wants to send me a free tablet computer to review, I'd be happy to do so.
PPS - Any make or model will do. :)

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Software that's always with you

It's odd to me when I see internet services advertised as "always with you", when what they actually do is keep your data far away on a locked-up server and provide you a tiny little window via your mobile phone. That's not "with you", that's available, and it's only so long as you have mobile data, which can be spotty.

Personally, I write portable software and allow it to sync via Dropbox. That's the way I like my data and apps "always with me". They keep working even when my internet connection drops out.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Online services are only "always with you" in the sense that the internet is.
PPS - And their servers are still running and not flooded with traffic...

Monday, 16 December 2013

Toll transponders for parking payments

You know what would be kind of handy for parking payments? Linking to vehicle toll transponders. That way, as long as everyone has a toll account, you wouldn't even need boom gates, just the archways that detect and charge accounts for entering and leaving. You'd still need to impose the same constraints as normal parking payments, such as being dependent on the duration of your stay. The biggest problem I can think of would be waiving the fee for big spenders. The current procedure is to take your receipts and your barcode card to the concierge who makes a note in the database that lets you out for free. Without taking your toll transponder directly to the concierge, you'd either need some other way to identify your vehicle to the database or you'd need a card to show, which brings back the boom gate and ticket reader. Maybe in that case you can do without the boom gate, though.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And you have to rely on toll transponders.
PPS - Which can sometimes be a bit unreliable.

Friday, 13 December 2013

For-profit social work?

I saw a TED talk saying that the best way to tackle poverty and other global social problems may be to get for-profit businesses involved. If there's a profit there, said the speaker, that motivates business to succeed and also means the solution will scale, because the more you do, the more profit there is, and that is a big carrot to business.

My objection is that "profit" is not some magical wealth created out of nowhere. Wealth is zero-sum. There's no such thing as making money, only taking money. So if your business is working on global poverty and making a profit as a result, where is that money coming from? If it's just you and a poor country's economy involved, then that wealth is coming out of a poor country and into the pockets of a rich company.

That is the exact opposite of solving the problem, and it is the only way that I can see for turning a profit from social justice projects to work. The only other thing they have to give is time and work, and that quickly turns into sweatshops.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Which is the time an ethical business will withdraw.
PPS - Here's the talk, if you're interested.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Art of any kind needs practice

I'm starting to think about writing in the same way that people think about music. To get started in music, you take lessons, buy instruments, practice in private, eventually allow your close friends and family to hear what you've painstakingly rehearsed, then, if you're good enough, get some live performance gigs or a recording contract.

People's general view of writing goes more like "pick up pen, if good, get published". There's no notion of practice, let alone tools, and no popular conception that getting good at writing is something that takes time. Of course, there are also people who don't think that getting good at music takes time, either, perhaps because they aren't willing to put in the work themselves.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I practice most days now.
PPS - Not every day, though.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Making a living from art

I feel like I would rather make my living from acting and writing, but that's not a sound economic plan. It's my art, not my trade, and most people can't make a living from their art, for a variety of reasons. It begins with a saturated marketplace: too many artists for the level of demand, therefore the natural price point is negative. If you want people to see your art, you'd better be prepared to pay them, rather than the other way around. It's simply unreasonable to expect to be noticed in that kind of environment. The other consideration is quality. If most artists are amateurs, then most art is going to be amateurish and not worth paying for even if it does get noticed. There's plenty of art of all forms, and there's no rush to see it all. Every cent spent on art is discretionary and non-vital. Nobody *needs* to spend a dollar on your painting, drawing, sculpture, novel, play, interpretive dance performance. They could just as easily spend that dollar on food or clothes or any other basic need. Art is never going to be a need, essential for survival, so convincing people to spend any money on art at all is going to be a bit of an uphill battle from the start.

In addition to all that, it's not even a matter of being good at what you do. Plenty of artists are good at what they do, but they aren't going to get far because they don't have the right connections. Does every single blockbuster movie draw from the same pool of 50 different actors because they're the only ones available and suitable for the roles? Of course not. They do it because they're the ones the top five Hollywood directors have worked with before, and learning to work with new people is really hard, you guys, like seriously. It's easier to stick with the club you know rather than give newbies a shot, so that's what you get.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, that plus big names have drawing power.
PPS - Which is another way of saying fame makes money which means more fame.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Android app permissions

One thing I always thought would make a brilliant addition to Android is individual app permissions. Some apps I don't want to be able to use 3G data at all. Some that are just greedy with their permissions need to be put in their place. All of this is in Android version 4.3, and I intend to make the most of it, if my phone ever gets to update to that version.

Now, what are the potential side-effects? Well, legitimate app makers will want to explain why they need certain permissions, but will need to write their apps to deal with the situation if they are running without them. Less scrupulous app makers will actively ensure their apps don't work at all unless all of their sleazy permissions are enabled. Don't expect to disable the ability of the Facebook app to read your contacts and messages and still have it work. They don't want to lose that permission and the juicy, juicy data that makes their money in the process, so the app will simply refuse to operate if those permissions are denied.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Probably.
PPS - It depends how many people actually try to turn the permissions off and how many kick up a stink about it.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The paradox of data convenience and unity

For me, having my own data all in one place, cross-referenced and easily queried is exactly what I want. It's convenient, useful and valuable to me, because that makes it easier to use. Unfortunately, having all that data together and easily-queried is just as valuable for anyone with access to the data, including identity thieves, spies, marketers and unscrupulous government agencies with too much power. So when I'm dealing with a corporate or government entity I can't trust, it is better for me to have all my information scattered, difficult to retrieve, error-prone and out of date. In other words, for myself, I want Facebook to expand and expand until it is the only online tool I ever need. For the NSA, I want Facebook to shrink, stagnate, fragment and die, because otherwise they will end up using it against me. That data is power, and I do not want to give over that power where it may (will) be abused.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Some would argue that governments naturally produce error-prone, out of date, scattered data.
PPS - But even that can be dangerous.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Dish soaking detergent

I wonder how long it will be before someone markets a dish detergent specifically for soaking prior to washing up. Never mind how necessary it is - deodorant wasn't "necessary" until it was for sale, and for a long time there was one type of soap, rather than the definitely non-interchangeable hand soap, face soap, body wash, shampoo, laundry soap and dish soap we have these days. If someone can convince enough people that a soaking detergent is a good idea, it will start to sell.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If nobody is doing that already, then patent pending.
PPS - I'd probably start with dishwasher powder.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Peak time bus information

TransLink should allow a search for which bus numbers go where I want, especially at peak time. At those times, buses don't run perfectly on time, and there tend to be a lot of them I could catch. They all go to the same places, and they often leave from the same stops in the city. This means I have a lot of options, so I don't need the specific time and number if an earlier one arrives and will do just fine. The way the TransLink website presents search results works well for off-peak travel, and shows several options for a specific journey, each on a separate tab and each assuming they run exactly on time. It's good for answering what's the best bus to catch for a given journey, but less useful for finding any bus for a given route.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It wouldn't even be so bad with more results and a slightly different interface.
PPS - Acknowledging that the schedule can be off at peak time, however, would be a good start.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Nothing to hide

The first response to "I don't worry about surveillance, I have nothing to hide" should be "Cool, what's your ATM PIN?" If you think you have nothing to hide, you're not thinking very hard. There are things you hide right now whose secrecy is such a natural part of your world that you don't even think of them as secrets. They're just private, personal details or actions that are hidden by default. They're not secrets because they're shameful. They're secrets because they have to be for the world to work. Those are the things you should think about when people talk about NSA-level global surveillance, not your empty criminal record.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The next question is usually "But why would they even be interested in me?"
PPS - In response I ask, "I don't know. Has anyone named like you ever done anything bad?"

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

In case of emergency

People don't know what to do in case of an emergency building evacuation. I was a fire warden at our previous office for nearly three years and I was still vague despite six-monthly training. Everyone else's idea of procedure is considerably less informed.

Buildings in Queensland (and probably all of Australia) have two-stage evacuation alarms. The first sound you'll hear is a constant tone, often written down as "Beep-Beep-Beep". On this tone, the fire wardens get up, put on their hats and look around for hazards. You, as a non-fire-warden, gather your belongings, lock your computer and stay in your seat to keep out of the wardens' way. Most people, rather than sit still and wait, get up and walk out the nearest door to mill about aimlessly or follow the first crowd they see. Often, this is not a big problem, but it is against standard procedure for a reason.

First of all, what if the danger is outside and your best course is to stay in? You are walking straight out into danger because you didn't wait for anyone to do their job and keep you safe. Second, what if the danger was in a hallway and, because you don't pay attention to stupid emergency evacuations, stumble straight into it before the wardens can determine a safe evacuation route and direct you there? Again, dead because you hate waiting. Third, you might not need to evacuate at all, in which case you're wasting time.

In short, everyone please remember that you don't evacuate until the rising tone, usually written down as "Whoop-Whoop-Whoop".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unless your building has a different procedure for some reason.
PPS - Such as being located in another country with different regulations.

Monday, 2 December 2013

WiFi Terms and Conditions annoyance

I have a few public WiFi networks to which I connect regularly: Queensland Rail on my commute and the "guest" network at the office (because it doesn't block Dropbox). Each one of them requires a terms & conditions click-through or a manual login every single time, and I was thinking it would be nice not to deal with that more than once, or maybe not more than once per month. If Windows or Android had some kind of automatic click-through process for sites where I've already agreed or logged in, or the same was available via a browser plugin, that would make life a lot easier for me.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I did go looking for one, but didn't find anything yet.
PPS - If I ever do, I'll be sure to post a link.