Friday, 29 August 2014


"I deserve" is a very dangerous concept. It rarely leads to anything good for everyone else. For instance, if you have made some noble effort of self-sacrifice, even if it served a need, does anyone owe you for that? No. Nobody asked you to do what you did, even if they benefited from it. Or if you've done one good deed, do you "deserve" a little selfishness? No, probably not. "I deserve this" is a phrase reserved for people paying themselves out of the goodwill they think they have built up.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This also applies to "I've earned this".
PPS - I try never to do this.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Mistakes I made while teaching karate

I taught karate for a year with the Australian Go-Kan-Ryu club, and I quit just before Christmas that year, which meant that I also missed out on the year's remuneration. I just couldn't stand it any more. I enjoyed having students, and especially those few that were outstanding, but I also found it very frustrating with some students and with the very young kids. It's hard to balance the high standards my teachers gave to me with the space to learn and grow.

What made me quit was the need to be available for every class every week. The one or two times I called in sick, it was a bit of a gamble whether a replacement teacher would show up at all. I also felt like my classes were rushed when I went at a normal pace, and then we'd end up trying to fill the last 30 minutes with games that never quite went the distance.

One particular mistake I made still bothers me. I had one student whose sparring was really coming along nicely. He was streets ahead of kids his own age and belt level, and it was inspiring to watch him. I got excited and I wanted to get in and have a go myself, so after the rest of the class was done sparring, I had them all sit down except him, I put on my gear and we sparred for a single two-minute round. He never came back.

What I was trying to do was get back involved in the direct teaching of advanced sparring, because most of the time I just had to watch and make sure it didn't get out of hand. With just the two of us, however, I could finally take part again. What I forgot is that, as a kid with a blue belt sparring an adult with a black belt, that was a terrifying situation I put him in with no explanation. I scared him off with what was meant to be a special learning opportunity. I should have taken a lot more time to explain beforehand what I was doing and why, and asking his permission in a more careful way. Instead of coming across as "HEY, YOU! LITTLE KID! LET'S FIGHT!" (which I didn't say, but is how he would have heard it) at that moment I needed to praise, support and ask permission. More like "I'm really happy to see how well you're sparring lately. If you want, I'd like the opportunity to let you practice with me now, one on one. If you don't want to, that's okay."

What I'm trying to say is: I'm sorry, kid. Just when you were starting to shine, I scared you away.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm fairly sure I bored away a lot of my other students.
PPS - Which is just as bad, but less direct.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

My destroyed hard drives

I wrote a while ago that I had started using BTSync, a personal file sync program based on the BitTorrent protocol. While it seemed to work well, within a couple of months, all three of my hard drives in three different machines had failed, one after another. I can't be sure it was the fault of BTSync, so it might be unfair to say this, but I suspect BTSync was behind the unfortunate disk failures. For those three hard drives all to fail so completely and so close to each other seemed more than a coincidence. There had to be a common cause. When all the drives were replaced, I didn't reinstall BTSync.

Perhaps my collection of files was bigger than BTSync was designed for, and I overstressed the drives as a result. I'd hope that wouldn't matter, but for reference it was about 65GB of pictures, music and videos. I haven't found anyone else accusing BTSync of eating hard drives like this, so it might not be the cause. In any case, the hattrick hard drive failure scared me off.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I would try to figure out the real cause, but the drives are toast now.
PPS - I'm not sure what I could do with them to find out the truth.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Ideas man

"Ideas Man" should be considered a bit of an insult in our results-focused society. If all you produce is ideas but no implementations (uh, much as I have done with this blog...) then you should be asked to do something with practical value with your ideas.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you regularly use your ideas, they call you creative, handy or practical.
PPS - "Visionary" is only a compliment if it's not all you are.

Monday, 25 August 2014

My questions about UltraViolet

Actual questions to ask about the UltraViolet digital streaming service that are not on any FAQ:

1. Since streaming of some titles is region-restricted, and the answer is "watch from a download copy", is it possible to download those copies while in a streaming-playback-restricted location?

2. What happens to my purchased titles when the UltraViolet servers are eventually switched off? Will I be notified in advance and be able to download my movies in a way I can keep using forever?

3. How long will it be before the UltraViolet terms and conditions are modified without notice in order to take away some of the rights that I have purchased?

4. If my children have been sharing an account with me, then grow up and move out of home, can they take their personal UltraViolet sub-library with them, without needing to create a new account and purchase everything all over again? When kids have sleepovers, can they all temporarily log in to their UltraViolet accounts so that they can all browse a big combined library instead of having to switch accounts to see what the others have to offer? When they get married, can their new spouse merge UltraViolet accounts with them? If they get divorced again, can they split their shared account and take part of the library each in the divorce proceedings? Can I inherit an UltraViolet account from a relative via their will? Can my siblings and I divide up the purchased rights among ourselves from that inherited account? Basically, can you split accounts and merge them, whether temporarily or permanently?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm assuming the answers are "no", "you're screwed", "when we feel like it" and "hell no".
PPS - I don't know anyone using UltraViolet.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Setting priorities

I don't think priorities of "low", "medium" and "high" are very helpful. You'll focus on the "high" priority tasks until it's pretty clear that the "low" and "medium" ones aren't getting done at all. More jobs will be classified as "high" priority just to make sure they get done, and a new "critical" category is usually added to differentiate the "high" priority jobs that need to come first. You can just keep climbing that ladder forever, if you want, until it starts looking ridiculous, with "hyper-critical" over "super-critical" and so on down in an ever-advancing "popcorn sizing" model.

If you want to actually set priorities, you need to compare pairs of tasks and say that one is more important than the other. Keep that up and you'll eventually get the top-level task that is more important than all the others. When that one is complete, you'll see the others below it and you can rank them relative to each other until you find the top priority among them. "Top priority" is an emergent property of knowing which tasks are more important than others. That's how you set priorities.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You may never get to those that get voted down to the bottom.
PPS - But you weren't getting to them anyway, so what's the difference?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Apocalyptic problem solving

Humans seem to need an apocalypse to fix a global problem. They never quite wipe us out, and we always change for the better afterwards. After the black plague, we figured out hygiene. After a world war, we figured out how not to nuke each other. That one's a work in progress. It is likely that we will solve our global warming and peak oil problems only after they become global catastrophes that almost succeed in wiping us out. A case can be made for that being our current position, but as long as the headlines can read "Global Warming Continues, Yet 7 Billion People Still Live", we as a species are unlikely to make significant progress. Perhaps global warming is too slow and gradual an apocalypse for us to respond to in our traditional "wait until it nearly wipes us out" way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe we can make it the personal problem of some powerful people.
PPS - Like spreading a rumour that global warming causes penis cancer in oil company executives, for instance. Which is totally true.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

How to respond to a DDoS attack

If someone attacks your website with a distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS), demanding money to make it stop, what's the best possible response? I suspect the best idea is to do absolutely nothing, or to reinforce and update your infrastructure. My reasoning is that the criminal has a particular business model and a limited set of resources at their disposal, large though those resources may be. Their plan is to bring down your website, get you to pay up, then move on to another target. If you make no response at all, what can they do? Your website is already offline. Their worst possible response is to keep it offline for longer, but that means they're devoting more of their resources for a longer time to a target that won't pay out. It becomes worthless to them. Before too long, it becomes far more worthwhile for them to devote those resources elsewhere, since they stand to actually profit from a different target.

Like spam, if everyone, worldwide, stopped responding to any of it, it would all completely dry up overnight, except for a few weirdos who get off on the power and don't care about the money.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - But, like spam, if it wasn't paying off, it wouldn't exist.
PPS - Crime doesn't pay, but it does scale well.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Logistical problems in the infinite hotel

There's a weird mathematical thought experiment to illustrate the properties of a countable infinity that goes as follows: you are the manager of an infinite hotel. That is, you have rooms numbered from 1, 2, 3 and so on, up and up, never ending, and right now, every room is full. When you get one more guest, even though every room is full, you can make room for them by moving everyone up one room and putting the new guest in room 1. The guest that was in room 1 goes to room 2, room 2's guest goes to room 3 and so on. Nobody has to leave and everyone still gets a room. This keeps working no matter how large a group arrives at once, as long as there's a finite number of them.

If an infinite number of guests arrives at once, you can still make room for them by advising every current guest to double their room number and move in there. The guest in room 1 goes to room 2, room 2 goes to room 4, room 3 to room 6 and so on. The new guests now check into the odd-numbered rooms and there's still enough space for everyone.

What I'd like to talk about, in a silly way, is the logistics of running a hotel like this. When these guests arrive, it's kind of a pain to move people. You could call up each room individually and ask them to move, but you'd never finish. You could just have the first guest relay the message to the next one, so room 1 tells room 2 to move to room 3, room 2 tells room 3 to move to room 4, and so on. Probably the best communication method is an infinite PA system so that you can address all the rooms at once.

The next part is what I always thought would get me down about staying in an infinite hotel. When that infinite group of new guests arrives, it's not so much trouble for the guest in room 1 to move next door to room 2, nor for room 2 to move to room 4. The guest in room 50 might be a bit miffed at having to move all the way up to room 100, but what about the poor saps up at room 1,000,000 and above? You'd probably still be on the move when the next call came over the PA to move up. So you start at room 1,000,000, and the manager calls out "infinite new guests, everyone please double your room number and move up there". You pack up your things and start walking from 1,000,000 to 2,000,000. Before you pass the door for room 1,005,000, the same call comes again, so now your new room is 4,000,000. It just gets further away all the time. Beyond a certain point, you're better off turning back to the check-in desk and announcing yourself as a new guest. In fact, that's probably where all these "new" guests keep coming from.

Lastly, every time you hire a new cleaner, you never see them again. They'd start cleaning at room 1, move on to room 2, then room 3 and so on down the line, never finishing until they just quit. Realistically, you probably need your guests to clean up after themselves.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Past a certain point, though, it would be impossible to verify.
PPS - Plus, on average, you'd probably spend all your time travelling to evict guests whose credit cards were declined.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Mismatched cutlery

I like mismatched cutlery. It means every fork has a story. When they all match, the story is "we bought these in a set". It's as if you have no personality in your home. It's just a pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped picture of what you think a home should be. When a home (or anything) is real, it has stories, scars and scratches.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I should incorporate it into a story someday.
PPS - I just have to figure out how.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Could a TV catch a virus?

Deb asked me the other day if it was possible her sister's TV had become infected by a virus of some kind, since it's been playing up very badly. They usually have to unplug it at the wall to "reboot" it a couple of times to get it to turn on, and the remote works maybe 50% of the time. My first thought was no, although the TV undoubtedly has a general-purpose computer inside, there's no viable infection vector. There's also no tangible benefit to anyone to write such a virus, even if they could get it into the TV. In all likelihood, the TV is just broken somehow.

However, there's one crazy possibility. Keeping in mind that I don't know quite enough about the protocols and systems involved, with their Playstation 3 connected to the internet, if they play a video over the HDMI connection and that video has some malicious code inside it somehow (maybe a buffer overrun) then there's a slight chance that such a video signal might infect the computer in the TV with a virus. The only thing it could really do from there is break the TV, though, which doesn't really benefit anyone ... except competing TV manufacturers. After all, if you buy a Toshiba TV and it breaks six months later, are you going to buy another Toshiba? You'll probably look to another manufacturer, and those guys are the ones who would write a TV-bricking virus targeting their competitors, in the hopes that you will buy from them instead. It's not a foolproof plan, but it has a slight chance of success. Sometimes that's enough.

With new TVs connecting straight to the internet, we may need to patch our TV operating systems regularly from now on, along with everything else in the house.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Although most manufacturers are unlikely to be that diligent in issuing patches.
PPS - And most devices won't be worthwhile targets for malware.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Obsolete version names

It bothers me when new versions of technology - typically wired or wireless network standards - get names like "long-term evolution" or "high-speed" because, inevitably, those standards end up being older and slower than whatever comes next, and confusing everything. Imagine trying to have this conversation in an electronics store:

"Which model is better?"
"Well, the old model only came with New High-Speed Future-Proof Best-Ever ports, but if you want to keep up, you should really go for the latest model."
"So what does the latest model come with?"
"They're called Version Next Lightning-Fast ports. Backwards compatible, of course."

It's just too much marketing-speak in the mix for average people to handle. That may be part of the goal - if you can still sell last year's model because it still sounds impressive, then you won't have to discount any stock, which is a win for you, but it really seems like a deceptive move.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Code names are slightly better, but version numbers are best.
PPS - You still can't compare version numbers between brands, though.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Declining cinema attendance might not be a problem

Is declining movie theatre attendance a problem to be solved? Well, first of all, Hollywood continues to report record profits every year, so they probably have nothing to worry about for the forseeable future.

Declining cinema attendance is either a sign of change in the entertainment industry or an opportunity. Either you go with it and, basically, bank on streaming services for home use, or you produce a better cinema-centric experience that people can't get elsewhere. Not just a bigger screen and louder speakers, and definitely not 3D. Something fundamentally new to go in that space so recently vacated by all those cinema audiences. Think about what people will gleefully pay for in a public space like that, not what they will grudgingly pay for because it's the only way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The answer is also probably not "vaudeville" or "musical theatre".
PPS - If I knew the answer, I'd be on my way to doing it already.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Colonise other planets with bacteria

The more convinced we are that we just can't find the fascinating extraterrestrial life, and the more sure we are that our dirty, smelly, boring Earth bacteria will contaminate and destroy it, the less we will be able to explore in general. We already know we're not keeping even new, unknown species of bacteria out of NASA's clean rooms. What makes anyone think we haven't already contaminated Mars and the Moon? I say we give up on finding extraterrestrial bacteria for now, and instead try to spread Earth bacteria to places like Mars and the Moon.

And maybe discovering some form of Earth bacteria that can survive or thrive on other planets would be a really useful discovery. Maybe that would be the first step to terraforming those places.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or maybe we doom a bunch of bacteria to a slow, cold death.
PPS - Which is, frankly, better than doing so to people.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Programming and tools

Someone asked on Slashdot some time ago whether using an integrated development environment ("IDE") makes you a bad programmer. I think it's equally valid to ask the counter-question: does it make you a good programmer to refuse to use an IDE? In the end, probably not. Since this is a question about tools, let's pose it a different way: does it make you a bad carpenter if you use a nail gun? Does it make you a better carpenter to use a traditional hammer? Looking at it that way, without even getting into the concepts of programming at all, then answer should be a very obvious "What? No, of course not."

The other side of the question is: what defines a good programmer? Is it one who can use power tools to produce something very large with a fraction of the effort of an old-fashioned manual labourer, or is it the craftsman's skillset that lets him produce the perfect, elegant solution? It's probably a combination of both.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or else there's room and a need for both kinds.
PPS - I'd probably rather have the craftsman's skill, with the power tools option.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Peeling mandarins

There's a method of peeling mandarins where you remove the top and bottom of the peel, then just "unroll" the rest into a long chain of separated segments. It looks neat, but I think that's about where the advantages end. For me, the problem with peeling a mandarin isn't the presentation of the finished product, it's the juice. If you have a mandarin that's just a bit soft, you're going to end up dripping some juice around, regardless of how you peel it. I've tried this "caterpillar" unrolling method, and it doesn't seem to result in any less juice. I still have to dig my fingers in and put pressure on the segments to separate them in that configuration, so they still get slightly squashed and release juice. I'll probably continue to do it this way, but if I hear of another way that promises to reduce the juice, I'll try that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you tell me some method is called "flaying" a mandarin, I might pick it based on name alone.
PPS - But then I'd feel self-conscious saying it to anyone.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Complexity in software development

I see a lot of programmers online these days complaining about their craft these days. I think some of them are getting close to the heart of the matter. For me, the problems in programming usually come from third-party dependencies. That's it. We have complex tools to manage them, because we need to, and we have lots of options for this or that functionality because it's difficult to figure out how to work with some libraries, or it just feels easier to write your own. Depending on one third-party library might not be so bad. Depending on several, especially when they all depend on different versions of some other fundamental library, is where it gets tricky.

Soon, rather than hearing about Agile software development methodology and tiered architecture, we may start hearing about designing software specifically so that it is easier to work with third-party dependencies. Maybe each layer will be split in two, with a dependency module to hold all the third-party tools it needs, and a nicely-engineered facade for the rest of the program to use. That's just a thought. The main point is that, for me, the complexity and frustration of software always seems to arise from third-party libraries and frameworks. While they give us power, they add integration complexity.

I work mostly in .NET, where apps can be nicely architected into layers and complexity hidden, if needed. I imagine this problem is much, much worse in everyone's favourite "modern" development environment: unstructured HTML+JavaScript. In that environment, you can't even tell if your third-party dependencies will still be there when you run the code, let alone whether they will destroy each other by trying to define the same things. Attempting a big, modern development project with JavaScript would be the opening of a horror movie, for me. JavaScript does not want you to succeed.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Yet people do it.
PPS - Somehow.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Jobs of the future

I wonder what jobs of today will make future generations look back and wonder what the hell kind of caveman lifestyle we used to lead. I mean, probably 90% of us these days are either telling machines how to serve their human masters or hammering them back into shape when they break. Boil it right down and, since the industrial revolution, a heck of a lot of jobs can be summarised just that way. You're either a Machine Operator or a Machine Repairer. Or a CEO who pays a secretary to read his email aloud.

So what jobs of today might technology make obsolete tomorrow? Taxi driver? Bartender? What jobs might the future hold that we had no idea we needed? One thing I really hope becomes a thing is "robot car herder". When our roads are full of self-driving cars, some of them are going to break down either in places or ways where they can't drive themselves back to the repair shop. A tow truck would handle those. The robot car herder would be tasked with tackling those cars that go out of control in their software, driving out into the desert, circling the same roundabout for days on end or that just got hacked to drive through the city until their GPS log trail spells out "BUTTS".

I picture the robot car herder riding back into town, standing atop a herd of rescued cars, his cowboy hat silhouetted against the sun on the horizon. Godspeed, noble car herder. Godspeed.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Thank you, Mr Car Herder, you've saved our village!
PPS - Okay, I'm getting carried away now. I'll stop.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Ice challenge vs troll status traps

A few "challenges" and games have been going around Facebook in my circles lately, as tends to happen from time to time, and they're often put forward as non-optional for people you've either deliberately dobbed in or who have fallen into a trap of some kind. I'd like to mention two that came my way to illustrate the differences.

The first was the "ice challenge". The idea (at least in the mutant version that came my way) is to either donate $10 to charity and tip 3 buckets of ice water over your head or to donate $100 and stay warm. I opted to go for the ice, because I thought it would be more fun to participate than to chicken out, with or without charity donations. I posted the video, donated the money and nominated 5 friends, 2 of whom took on the ice and 3 of whom made no response at all. That's their right. This isn't law, but I thought it was a bit of fun, and since there was charity involved, I figured I might as well participate.

The other "challenge" was a plain old trolling trap of a status update. One person posts a worrying status from a pre-written list, then anyone who likes or comments gets stabbed with the same list and a demand that they, too, post one of the worrying statuses without any explanation. I commented just to see what was up, and found out. I declined that particular challenge, because it just felt like pure troll-bait to me. You get your friends worried about you, or at least confused and curious, then when they express their concern, you punish them for it. There didn't seem to be much positive fun in that, and I said so. I'm not going to propagate something like that.

Is there a difference between the two? From some perspectives, no, not really. They're both somewhat involuntary to get into, and they both propagate among friends like a meme. On the other hand, the difference I see is that one is a "gotcha" game of trolling and one is more of a dare where charities benefit. Maybe the difference is subtle. I don't know. I just know that I'm not going to bait my friends and family into expressing some misguided concern, then attack them for it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - No offense meant to anyone who has played along with the status trolling game.
PPS - If I hadn't had friends opt out of the ice challenge, I might have just played along with trolling, too.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The retrofuturism of Hyperland

Watching "Hyperland", a documentary about early ideas of interactive media as they were being developed in the 1990s, I saw that a lot of the vision has come to pass, but in ways that the original creators might not have imagined. Instead of an intelligent agent rifling through the world's information for you, personally, we have Google (and others) scanning the web, indexing it and presenting that index for you to search. What we don't have, so much, is an ever-present "related sites" function. The "back" button was featured, which made sense, but then most links were presented as moving icons ("micons", according to the movie) over other video. It was pretty distracting. A large amount of what was described is embodied in Wikipedia. Most of the rest is Google and standard web browser functionality, but far less anthropomorphised and intelligent.

They got into VR as well, of course, because this was the 90s, then finished with an unintentionally hilarious idea of what VR would look like in 2003, which was then 10 years in the future. The headsets did look a bit like the Oculus Rift and other devices that exist today, though.

What struck me most was the way so many people seemed to envision encapsulated, carefully-curated, rich databases of information on narrow topics, such as one Picasso painting or Beethoven's 9th symphony, and how users would be encouraged to edit together their own content from them. These "databases", of course, resembled early "multimedia experience" programs from the early CD-ROM days. We don't tend to bother putting together media museums like that any more, even though we now have an internet capable of delivering them faster and better than in 1993.

One of the main thrusts of the program was that this interactive experience is far better than linear, non-interactive television, and would surely replace TV in the future. Of course now we treat the internet as very different from television, and we still have both. We use the internet to talk about and enhance television, and even to screen cheaper shows with global niche appeal instead of local majority appeal. It's recognisably similar to the future portrayed in Hyperland but, as is usually the case with futurism, fundamentally different, too.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's a fairly long program to explain the internet to an audience only familiar with TV, really.
PPS - And slightly ironic in that it's a completely linear, non-interactive video about how much better interactive, non-linear media are.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Interview performance

A job interview, for me, still brings out the nerves, even though I don't get nervous on stage. I think this is because improvisation has never been my strong suit. Even though you could make a case for a job interview being like a performance, there are some very important differences. For one, the interviewer is the only one who gets the script. Nobody is allowed to rehearse, at least not with full knowledge, there is only one performance, no audience, no director and no second chance. To top it all off, the interviewer is half trying to help and prompt you, to a degree, but also half trying to trip you up and make you fail. It's adversarial improvisation with unequal preparation and real consequences, but only on my side of the table.

The whole interview process is set up to favour people who are strong personal communicators face to face and that's it. Unless that's the job, I think you should find a better way to test actual job skills rather than interrogating someone whose job is going to involve staring at a computer screen most of the day.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've had some companies screen by programming puzzle.
PPS - They were the best ones.