Friday, 28 February 2014

Witness protection

Hypotheticals: How would you handle permanent witness protection? I mean completely ditching everything about your life, deliberately disappearing and starting from scratch. It is difficult enough when you have to do something like change your phone number or your credit card. Imagine also having to abandon your Facebook profile, your email, your house, your car, all your possessions, your friends, your family, your job (and job history) and even your entire name. Call it the Men In Black treatment. All that remains of you - anywhere - are memories.

Let's assume, for the sake of sanity, that you are being taken in by a secretive government agency for some reason. They'll give you a new name, new house and a new job, but it won't be flashy, and it won't be familiar. How long before you snap and what is the thing that makes you break your cover?

For me, I think it would be the internet. Not in and of itself, but because it's the quickest, easiest way to blow my cover and reconnect with people I know and love.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Bonus question: how would you drop a hint to secretly tell your family that you're okay?
PPS - I'd probably try a cryptic letter, but then it would be hard to know if it worked.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Political incentives

On Extra Credits, a sort of gaming-philosophy-related YouTube channel, there's a video about political incentives, focusing on the USA, because that's where the video creators live. It makes some incredibly good points about members of congress being insulated from the effects of their actions, and ways to fix that, such as tying congresspeoples' wages directly to a multiple of the average US wage, and giving them exactly whatever health care options are available to an ordinary citizen of their age. Those are stellar suggestions, I think, and they would definitely result in a much more fair, balanced, involved and trustworthy government. We should enact those measures immediately, is my point.

The problem comes next. The people who would be 100% responsible for setting up those laws are the very same people who would be voting themselves a pay cut and more limited health care options as a result. That's not going to go down so well with the current members of congress. The crippling arterial blockage we are trying to remove is the very reason many of the most powerful congresscritters are there in the first place: it's a cushy job with tons of benefits and very little in terms of actual negative consequences of your actions, plus the ability to vote yourself more money at any time. Trying to root that out of the system is going to be practically impossible, and keeping it secure once it is miraculously accomplished is going to be a constant ongoing battle. As soon as you say "congressional wages will be 2.5 times the national average", someone will introduce a bill to say "actually, let's make it 3.5 times" and so on.

Because Congress is in power over itself, it is going to drift further and further into corruption as time goes on. The deeper it gets, the harder it will be to root out. In the end, a total collapse of the political system may be required to bring about the necessary change, and that assumes you can keep the warlords and backstabbers out of the revolution.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think political systems naturally drift towards corruption.
PPS - Or basically every one of them has so far, some slower than others.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Online retail needs different jobs

I don't think retail is dying as such with the move to online shopping. It's just that the kinds of jobs we require to support online shopping are different to what we needed for bricks and mortar shopping. We used to need shopfitters and signwriters, but now we need web designers. We used to need commercial landlords, but now we need web hosts. We used to need sales staff, but now we need warehouse staff to pack and ship orders. It doesn't mean that everyone's skills transfer directly over, but there should be room for everyone, at least in theory.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We need to train people for these jobs.
PPS - And, I guess, figure out what those jobs are.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

File everything

If you're looking to get more organised, it's really a whole journey to having a full system and the habits to maintain it. However, if you're just looking for that quick hack that will give you the most benefit with the least effort, start using a filing system. Buy a ton of manila folders and a filing cabinet, and start using it for literally everything that will fit. Don't leave things around the house in places where you'll "just remember", and definitely don't pile things on the desk, even if you have a piling system ("this is next week's bills, this is letters from Grandma, and these on the floor over here manuals for household appliances that stopped working five years ago"). Your goal in this filing-obsessed situation is that the first response when you wonder "where is such-and-such?" is always "filing cabinet". If you can't fit an item in there physically, you find a place for it elsewhere, then write down where it is in your filing system. It should be like the library card index of your house.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My filing system is not quite as good as this.
PPS - It needs some maintenance.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A possible future of social networking

There is a way - a bad way - that social networking online could go. It might look something like this.

In an effort to fight back against heavy-handed NSA surveillance and over-sharing on Facebook, ISPs are forced to take action to protect their customers. Rather than paying Facebook for access and not being sure that they really are protecting the privacy of their users, ISPs set up their own social networks as an opt-in extra. Users pay to have an account, but the ISPs, in a move designed to encourage more business, make these new networks walled gardens, exclusive to their own customers. If you want to network with your friends, better convince them to switch ISPs.

These buggy, awful, too-closed networks will, however, eventually win out, because they don't sell user data to third parties. At first. Then the allure of bringing back the Big Data economy will tug longingly at the wallet-strings of the ISPs and they will cave in. After all, someone else must already be doing that, right?

So, in order to save ourselves from government surveillance, we will sell our social data to our internet service providers instead, who will, in turn, behave exactly like little Facebooks, selling user data and, eventually, collaborating with government spy agencies anyway. We don't get a say. We never did. We are the product. The cow doesn't get a vote on the way to the abbatoir.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I know it's bleak.
PPS - Some futures, especially with little corporate responsibility, are just that way.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Modular design

I really do love modular design. Snap in, snap out customisation. It's something between bespoke designs built from scratch and one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it mass production. I think about it a fair bit, possibly because I played with LEGO as a kid. And as an adult, though less so. Lately I've been wondering about modular housing. You could, perhaps, use shipping containers for the bulk of the structure, and design individual ready-made rooms with power, water and lighting wired up and ready to go. I don't know how well it would work, but I'd love to see someone try.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - People do build the occasional house out of shipping containers.
PPS - I'm thinking more of mass-produced snap-together rooms to make a whole house.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Atypical writer

I feel like I might be a bit atypical as a writer. It's a common observation that writers have this kind of problem where they can't keep their word count down when it's required. They just write and write and before they know it they're 20,000 words into what started as an ad to sell their couch.

I'm not like that. Yes, I can be a bit wordy, but, to take up a horrible metaphor, my writing is more like constipation where other writers have diarrhoea. I have never written as much as I think, and every word comes slowly. My brain needs to slow down, stop and think about what I'm doing, and then the next word comes. It's painful and slow.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, every writer is atypical in some way.
PPS - Just like every human.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Mockery and insecurity

One of the first things John Scalzi says about his Creation Museum visit article and photo essay is "if you don't want me to mock your beliefs, get better beliefs". I don't think he's kidding, because of aforementioned extensive mockery being the very purpose of the visit, the article and the photo captions. In other words, his position is "I will not mock you unless I don't like what you believe". That's not a moral position. That's schoolyard bullying. It's the same as saying "I will mock your beliefs", but it puts the onus on you. It looks like it's up to you whether you get mocked/punched/bullied, but it's really not.

Mockery doesn't change beliefs, it only reinforces prejudices when used this way. This form of mockery is rooted, deep down, in insecurity. If I am insecure about myself, then I need everyone else to validate my choices, my beliefs and my physical appearance by conforming to it. Your sheer comfort with believing something different to me is a threat to the security of my personal world view. It must be attacked.

The point is that, while you could change who you are, what you believe, the clothes you wear and the way you cut your hair in order to appease someone, why should you do that? They're the one with the problem. You are free to express your beliefs (as long as you can defend them with logical argument), just as I am. Instead of mockery, how about we have a proper discussion? We might not end up agreeing, but we should end up understanding our own beliefs better as a result, and that is always a good thing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just know the "get better beliefs" line is going to be repeated without thought.
PPS - Just know that, if you repeat it, it's more of a threat than a hilarious observation.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The people problems of communication

We solved the mechanical problems of communication and found out the real problem was people. I mean to say that these days we have phones that are always within reach, answering machines and voice mail, email, text, Facebook, Twitter, actual video phones, any number of ways of getting in touch with people, and we still fail to do so. We still don't respond to the messages people send us. We misunderstand each other or respond in anger or haste. The technology makes it faster to get in touch, but all of the people problems are still there.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm pretty bad at this, too.
PPS - I was bad at it before I got connected.

Monday, 17 February 2014


If we all had a crystal ball to see who would be important in the future, we would treat some people better, but we would also treat some people worse. I mean, most people you meet won't be critical to your future success, and especially not to history as a whole. If we had some mechanism to tell us who was most important, it would also tell us that most people are not, and we would definitely end up abusing that knowledge. Better to follow the Golden Rule and treat everyone as if they are as important (or more so) than yourself.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't do that nearly well enough.
PPS - It's so simple to say and so hard to do.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The grammar of mobile app interoperation

I have to think in Yoda grammar when navigating on my phone. "person, navigate to", not "navigate to person". It's a weird adjustment I've had to make, but I know where it's come from. It's just the way the software handles app interoperation. If you have data of a particular type - say, an address - then a contextual action on that data can be handled by any installed app that accepts it. It's pretty flexible, and it means you don't need every app to have browsers for data that the others hold. It just means a different way of thinking.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'll get used to it.
PPS - Eventually.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Business software needs integration

Business software customers already have a lot of people using a lot of other tools. If you want to sell some software to a business, it needs to integrate with those existing tools. Selling a customer service issue tracker to a software house that doesn't integrate with their source control is a non-starter. Selling a timesheet solution that doesn't integrate with HR databases and invoicing software won't get you anywhere.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Selling directly to consumers, on the other hand, makes "integration" a dirty word.
PPS - Go figure.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Mars operating systems

A computer on Mars doesn't need a whole different operating system. It just needs a different calendar and clock. Cory Doctorow wrote in his story Martian Chronicles about how computers needed to run on a Mars-specific operating system, to match the particular clock and calendar for that planet. It may also have been a point about the specific circumstances of that story, but it shouldn't really matter. You can run a different clock and calendar on the same operating system as everyone else. The computer doesn't mind, as long as there's a way to translate dates to and from a number of milliseconds. That's all it would need.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is one of those technical discussions that bugs me, deep down.
PPS - It's also one of those with very little impact on my life.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Gaming comics

The reason I prefer Penny Arcade over Ctrl+Alt+Del is that I'm not a voracious consumer of games. I have a casual association with games, though not in the sense that would necessarily make me a "casual gamer". These days that means you only play Candy Crush. Anyway, because I do not, as my life goal, aim to play ALL THE GAMES, I don't always recognise a significant new cultural artifact a week after it pops up. Ctrl+Alt+Del does a comic about Rust, but to me it's just two naked guys in the woods discussing the merits of guns over pants. Which is fine, I guess? But when Penny Arcade references Rust, there's a comprehensive news post that goes along with it, incidentally explaining what Rust is and what they think of it. To be fair, Ctrl+Alt+Del does often also put up a blog post with it, though not always, and I'm not in the habit of reading it or looking for it, because it is so often absent.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm much more likely to read a book than play a game, in general.
PPS - Depending on the book and the game.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Chuck Wendig on spanking your children

On Christmas Eve, Chuck Wendig posted a long rant to his blog with the title "Spanking Your Children Is Hitting Your Children". Amid his usual profanity, he put forward the opinion that spanking your children is a form of abuse, which is not a new argument, but was backed up with some reasonable and well-thought-out logic.

His follow-up post attempted to address some of the comments he received, and he presents studies that support him, though none that found any alternative conclusions. The main thrust of the argument here is that spanking is the low-brow, knee-jerk reaction to tantrums and other behavioural problems in children. It only teaches them to fear you and that they should not behave that way, not why they should not.

Here's where I started thinking that, whether you spank or put your child in time-out, neither approach is going to accomplish any understanding without some long discussions where you outline expectations and that actions have consequences, choices and all that kind of thing to your tantrum-throwing two-year-old. Do they understand? Probably not. There is going to be a time in your child's life when they are punished for something and cannot know why.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't have kids, though, so I'm not actually qualified to weigh in on this.
PPS - You'll note that hasn't stopped me, but feel free to ignore me on that basis.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Google feature shrink

Google is betting a lot on Google+, shoehorning in a lot of features that used to be provided by other services. Chat? Google+ Hangouts. Latitude? Google+ location tags. YouTube comments? Google+ posts. I suppose, in one sense, it's good, and I didn't use some of those services anyway, so that's more neutral. On the other hand, when they're absorbed into Google+, those services inevitably lose features, and they seem to be the features I was using.

This says one of two things. Either Google is doing a sloppy job incorporating these new features into G+, implying they might come back later, or I am significantly atypical as a Google customer.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm willing to accept that I am atypical.
PPS - It seems to be the way I am.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Predicting the future

Predicting the future is hard. Some small things, especially extending technology to say that this or that will become smaller, faster, cheaper and more efficient is the baseline. Predicting exactly what effect that will have on society is nearly impossible. You could "predict" that cameras will get smaller, networks faster and batteries more efficient, and you could put those together to predict tiny wireless spycams that run for months on a single battery charge. You might predict that such cameras would be worn on glasses to document people's lives, or used by perverts in public toilets and change rooms, but maybe you wouldn't think they would, for instance, be shotgunned into burning buildings for real-time mapping or used to monitor national parks or any number of other applications. What people think to do with technology is always unusual and always astounding.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - People are the usual cause of unintended consequences.
PPS - They are the most creative and most unexpected part of any system.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Videogame brain health

Videogames may be good for your brain in certain ways, but it still matters what you're using it for when you're not playing games. You can't spend all your time on games and expect to come out a genius, even in very specialised arenas. You need to put your brain skills to use.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - As I clearly ... have.
PPS - I word good all time.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Retry, Reboot, Reinstall

My standard computer troubleshooting procedure is The Three Rs: "Retry, Reboot, Reinstall". There's quite often a Google step in between the last two, though, because reinstalling is a big operation and if there's a quicker route, you might as well try that before the scorched-earth policy. Still, that's the basics. If you're going to ask me for help, this is what I'll do.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or this.
PPS - Some problems never get fixed.

Monday, 3 February 2014

What makes an urgent problem

The only things that are actually urgent are where nobody is in control. Need to eat right now and have no food? Urgent. Been shot or stabbed or poisoned? Urgent. Planetary alignment window for space launch? Urgent.

Rent and payday? Not urgent. Sort of. What I mean is that, at the other end of the "urgent" bill is a person, and the huge advantage of people is that we can be flexible. Get talking to the right person and anything "urgent" that they are in charge of can be moved, if the right motivators are in place.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course, there's only so much negotiating that one person can do, in the end.
PPS - When you reach that limit, your urgent problems are staying urgent.