Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Crane tagging

Lately it has become a hobby of mine to fold little paper cranes from sticky notes and leave them in public, in visible places that people don't tend to go. Sometimes it's surprising how long one will stay there, given how many people must walk past it regularly.

In a way, it's a bit like graffiti, I suppose. I "tag" my locations with my creations, and it is definitely a signature. It's just not permanent. I understand why people mark places like that, though. It's a weird little feeling of power to walk through a place and know that you've marked it as your own, even if nobody knows it but you.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Maybe it's a kind of nesting instinct.
PPS - Which is a weird way to think about graffiti.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014


Although I do it myself in software sometimes, I still find it an odd statement, creatively, to say "I couldn't find anything like what I wanted, so I made it myself". When you're talking about creative work, the appreciation and the construction are two semi-independent skillsets. Appreciating art does not confer the ability to create it, though creating it does strengthen the ability to appreciate it. If, for instance, you're looking for a podcast full of writing tips or insider info, and you can't find one that appeals to you, deciding to make it yourself means you need the same education the podcast would be providing, but from other sources. So you couldn't find the podcast, but to make it, you had to replace it with something else anyway.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Your limitations may come up before you succeed at this endeavour.
PPS - "Nobody had painted a better Mona Lisa yet, so I did," is not an artist statement likely to win friends.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Hollywood chains

I think it's a little bit interesting to link up names of famous people that match first to last. For instance, Nicholle Tom -> Tom Arnold -> Arnold Schwartzeneggar. What is the longest possible one? If you insist on including Arnie, I think your only possible path is backwards from there, and I hadn't heard of Nicholle Tom until I went looking. I'm sure there are others.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I can't find anyone working backwards from Kevin Bacon.
PPS - Or forwards, for that matter.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Why I started using Pushbullet

For some time I was using Firefox as my primary web browser everywhere - at home and at work, on my netbook and also on my phone via the mobile version. I would often pull open tabs from one device to another via the Sync functionality, and it worked pretty well ... as long as it had synchronised by the time I wanted to pull the tabs around and I hadn't closed the source browser before the sync had finished.

Then my phone started misbehaving, I started a new job where Chrome worked better with the web proxy and the whole system fell apart. I looked briefly at XMarks, which is supposed to have cross-browser tab sync, but I couldn't get that working at all.

So I installed Pushbullet, based mostly on the fact that it was a channel available in IFTTT. Now, even though I'm using Firefox at home, Chrome at work and the stock Android browser on my phone, I can push tabs instantly from one device to any other, as well as send small files to and fro and get weather alerts via IFTTT. It's very handy. It was an adjustment to go from a "pull" mentality to "push", but not bad.

The one feature that doesn't quite work is sending SMS from my desktop - I can send texts just fine, and I know they are received because people respond, but there is no record of them going out at all. Not on my phone, not on the Pushbullet browser plugin. Other people have this problem with the feature and for some of them it works to go out and back in to the messaging app or restart their phones. That hasn't worked for me, but I'm not too concerned. I'm very happy with the other features and I plan to keep using them for some time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm very happy with the way another machine doesn't have to be online for a push.
PPS - I prefer my multi-machine software to allow that.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas excitement

As I've grown older, as happens with most people, Christmas has become more about stress than happy family times. In part, this is because family times can bring stress, and the presents that distract us from that stress go away or get less exciting when we get older. This year, however, I'm feeling excited for Christmas. It's a weird feeling. We have the same lights up as last year, the same number of presents and no substantial difference in our plans for the day itself. Something must be different, though. I've got some gifts to give that I'm keen to see opened, but others that disappoint me. One hasn't arrived yet, at the time of writing, because my online shopping was late.

Maybe that's it. Last year, I had all of December to stress and plan and shop and stress. This year we've started late, compressing all my Christmas energy into a shorter time. Is that plausible? I don't know. I'm tired right now, so my introspection gland isn't working properly. The whole point is that I plan to have a great Christmas, and I wish the same for you.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I get to spend a lot of time with my nephew, which will be pretty great.
PPS - Assuming he doesn't exhaust me immediately.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The story of the Wattle Fairy scam

I had a clever friend in primary school who figured out how to manipulate his parents based on their desire to maintain his child-like belief in things like the tooth fairy and Santa. He made up something he called the Wattle Fairy who, so he said, would give you a present if you left a wattle flower by your bed at night. He told me about this and I tried it, then was deeply disappointed the next morning to find that the wattle fairy had not left me a gift. I cried to my parents about it who got very awkward suddenly. When I told my friend it didn't work, he said of course it didn't, because you have to tell your parents beforehand. I didn't get it even then. Does that make me a dim kid or just gullible?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've always assumed the former.
PPS - Disappointment is shaped like a wilted wattle flower.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Standing out and fitting in

I do have hipsterish tendencies, in that I enjoy being the unusual exception to the rule. Although it was a pain, at school I enjoyed being the only one taking both Maths C and Drama when they scheduled the exams together and I had to raise an objection. When I was employed at a consulting engineering firm, although it held me back, I liked having a degree that was unrecognised by Engineers Australia, whose accreditation program was intimately linked with the company's promotion practices. I just somehow get a kick out of throwing off expectations. The usual result, of course, is just a momentary "Oh", and then being ignored.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So I guess the lesson is that outliers tend to be ignored.
PPS - And if you aim to be that outlier, you're aiming to be ignored for not fitting the pattern.

Monday, 22 December 2014

You can't take it with you

When people stopped believing in any kind of afterlife, the saying "You can't take it with you when you go" stopped meaning anything. If you don't believe you've got anywhere to go after death, then who cares if you can't take it with you? You don't need it when you're dead, you need it now, when you're alive, and who cares if you die with a lot of stuff or a little? In that mindset, it matters that you have had a comfortable life, not that there's no eternal safe-deposit box for your stuff when you snuff it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Which is not what I personally believe, but I do follow the logic.
PPS - It's a difference of assumptions.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Peer-to-peer MMOs

Since City of Heroes shut down - or even since the announcement, really - I've wondered about how to make MMO games robust against that kind of existential threat. When such games become unprofitable, development ceases and the servers are shut down. That's just business. The obvious answer to that problem is to host the game itself on a peer-to-peer network of player machines. Then, no matter how much the game grows or shrinks, there's always enough server capacity.

However, running a game like that on a peer-to-peer network raises some other challenges. For one, there's the matter of trusting the server code and preventing cheating. If the players, technically, have access to all the server code running on their own machines for each other, there's no central, trusted arbitrator for tasks like random number generation and application of the rules. I've outlined before how some trust can be established between peers for generating random numbers, so it's possible it could be worked around, but it requires a lot more communication than an implicitly-trusted server does. It's also probably not the full story for everything that's needed for a trusted peer network of this type.

Still, I'd like to see it attempted, if only to know that, in the future, there's a definite way to save these games from destruction when they become unprofitable, or for smaller, niche games to get a leg up when they're starting out and can't afford dedicated server hardware.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - On the City of Heroes front, a new game called Valiance Online has started open public testing.
PPS - Which is a long way from a complete game, but more than I've seen in a while.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Snowdrift could fund free software

I really like the idea put forward by, encouraging people to set aside some money to fund beneficial open-source projects so that everyone can benefit. The more people pledge to support a given project, the more funding that project gets, growing exponentially. On the receiving end, it seems like a great way to get this kind of project funded, since the people - particularly big companies - each give a little money to build up the common goods in software.

On the other hand, it still relies on charitable giving. Yes, if you fund the development of, say, OpenSSL, which almost everyone uses, then you get active development and the benefits of a well-supported library with motivated developers and proper funding instead of a library casually (but passionately) developed by volunteers in their spare time. But if everyone else funds the project and you don't, you still get that benefit. I'm not clear how Snowdrift solves that problem, except that witholding your funding means a greater chance that the development will stall and you won't get the benefits at all.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Which is just a statement of the snowdrift problem, I realise.
PPS - I'm not quite sure if that counts as circular.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Smart furniture meets sloppy housekeeping

I've seen occasional videos and concept drawings of small living spaces made more functional with fold-away furniture or reconfigurable room dividers. The thing that always strikes me about such concepts is how tidy the whole place needs to be, and how that compares to my house. If my kitchen table had to be bare to fold it away to get out the TV, well, we would have it forever folded away and would eat on the couch all the time. Or if the ground had to be clear to pull out the bed, we'd probably end up with a half-usable bed and a growing pile of life's detritus in the corner of the room. We just have a tendency for things - the stuff of life - to pile up in the corners, out of the way, and get forgotten for two or three years.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's not as bad as that sounds.
PPS - Except in some areas.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The redundant beverage dispenser

Did it bother anyone else that the Heart of Gold ship in the most recent Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie contained a weirdly imperfect beverage dispenser (as per the joke in the books) but also a perfect food replicator hooked up to a mind-reading device designed to detect cravings? I mean, if Arthur craved a cup of tea, why go to the machine that produces something that merely resembles tea instead of the much better machine that would do a perfect job? Why have the beverage dispenser on the ship at all?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's assuming the craving-machine does work any better than the beverage dispenser.
PPS - The craving-detector would be a very useful thing in our house, even without the food replicator part.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Preventing monopolies

Monopolies are bad. We know that. Oligopolies, where a few big businesses control most of the market, are also bad. So what factors make an acceptable level of competition, or what features flag an unacceptable level of complacent non-competition? It's tricky. I think it's more complicated than realising how much of the market is controlled by how many companies. Presumably, though, there's some number of companies required to make conspiracy untenable. I'd guess it's about twelve, the number of people we put on a jury in the understanding that such a group is too hard to sway as a whole. Whatever the number is, we need at least that many companies competing in every market to prevent monopolistic practices.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Making sure that happens is going to be crazy-difficult.
PPS - Especially when someone creates a brand new product.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Personal space on planes

When I read opinion pieces about air travel and leg room, reclining chairs and all things related to personal space, I think of the current designs for car trailers on trucks. See, when I was a kid, if a truck was hauling cars, they would be lined up in two layers of three, nose to tail. Then someone designed this nifty new way of cramming more cars onto a trailer at a lot of weird angles including one hanging over the truck cabin and hauling cars by truck became a lot more efficient with a lot less wasted space.

My point is this: you might think that your current personal space and comfort woes are about as bad as they can get on a plane right now, but just wait until someone clever figures out how to stack human beings in weird and interesting patterns to fit twice as many into the space as currently fit and you'll wish you lived back in the good old days when our only concern was having barely enough room for our knees and people reclining their seats at us, all facing forwards and upright.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Almost nothing is as completely bad as it could be.
PPS - We humans are great at making things worse for each other.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Quitting anything will bring cravings

I can't say that I've ever had to quit smoking or drinking, having never done either of those things at all, let alone enough to be addicted. I am aware, however, that a lot of people approach the Big Quit by looking for an external force that's going to make it happen, whether that's hypnotherapy, acupuncture, the patch, nicotine gum or inhalers to "handle the cravings". And before I get going, I need to stress again that I literally have no first-hand experience with how intense those cravings can be. Still, here it goes.

There are going to be cravings. Lots of them, strong, hard and frequent. That's how you know you're getting over an addiction. The craving is a withdrawal symptom, and you're not going to be able to quit without getting them. What you need to do, however, is to recognise, anticipate and accept that these cravings will happen, and let them pass without satisfying them. Then do it again and again, as long as they come, for the rest of your life, because that's what quitting means.

By all means, get support, call people, talk to your doctor, read about it, substitute better behaviours, but for goodness' sake, don't keep taking in exactly as much nicotine as before. You don't expect someone who has "quit drinking" to take a little nip every now and then to get over their cravings, do you? If you quit sugar you don't have a little chocolate now and then just to keep the edge off. If you quit, then you quit. Don't half-ass this. It's your life and you're going to be the one making the change.

"But," you say, "it's really hard!" Yes. Yes it is. Of course it is. If it weren't, then they wouldn't bother putting the addictive stuff into cigarettes in the first place, and there wouldn't be a whole industry also built around helping you quit smoking, would there? If it were easy, you'd just decide to quit and then there'd be no step 2. So prepare yourself for a hard job and stick to it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And if losing weight were easy, we'd have an epidemic of skinniness on our hands.
PPS - Which would be very strange.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Personal disaster planning

Whatever role you are in, it's important for everyone around you to have an idea of what you do and how they could replace you in case you were hit by a bus tomorrow. It doesn't even have to be such a permanent situation as that. If you broke your leg and had to stay home from work for six weeks, how would the business cope? In some cases - menial work - there won't be much of a problem. Someone else will cover your shift, some other person with similar skills can fill in on a temp basis, no big deal. In some other roles, though - husband, parent, museum curator - your disappearance or disablement may cause serious disruption to the people around you. If you are proactive about this, you should prepare for this eventuality. I call this "the black envelope".

Inside the black envelope is everything anyone would need in case you are no longer available to fill your role, permanently or only temporarily. What you do day to day, how you do it and where everything important is kept. It's like putting together a job handover package before it's necessary, because you might not get to deliver all the information in person.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I actually don't have one of my own yet.
PPS - But, like backups, I've been meaning to start any day now.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


Sometimes it happens that a particular subgroup of employees will go on strike for better pay or better conditions. I don't have a problem with fighting for your rights or for your basic living requirements, but I think sometimes people lose sight of the fact that they are part of a much bigger machine. "You can't run a hospital without nurses." That's true. It doesn't make you the only important part, though. You also can't run a hospital without doctors. You can't run it very well for very long without janitors or administrators, either. You can't run a (modern) city without sanitation workers, but you also can't run it without power workers or water supply or police or firefighters or ambulances.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Being critical to a complex system's success doesn't make you more important than anyone else.
PPS - You're just important. Be happy with that, and get what you need.

Monday, 8 December 2014

How 3D-printed toys will work

I have a feeling that domestic 3D printing is going to be a real breaking change to the toy industry. Rather than having mountains of plastic rubbish in the house that gets used for a few weeks, broken and discarded, a home 3D printing system (with plastic recycling) can print off any toy you like, then take it back to be turned into something new or just restored if it was particularly loved. The toys that pile up in the corners of the room and are never used any more can be shovelled into the recycler to be made into new toys when the need arises.

So how will the toy industry adapt? Well, one of the most obvious steps is to sell toy designs for 3D printers. Rather than printing Turtle Man 07b from some knock-off download, kids will value having genuine toy designs from the original source. Yes, it will matter to them. Think back to your own childhood and try to remember if it mattered that the label on your clothes was genuine, that you owned a real Nintendo console or even that you ate brand-name cereal for breakfast. It matters to kids.

Selling printers and branded feedstock might matter, though possibly not as much. Particularly sinister companies might sell printers that are designed to sit and monitor the TV, only unlocking or downloading exclusive printer models if it sees the right ads. Basically, you have to watch our cartoon and all the ads if you want the cool new spaceship model for the week.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's going to be a different world.
PPS - But it's probably not going to be here for a while.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The lottery prediction meta-lottery

For the low price of one dollar, I will predict for you whether you will win the lottery this week. I guarantee 99.9% accuracy or your money back. Think about the money you'll save by only paying me $1 on weeks when you would have lost anyway, when it costs much more than that to enter the lottery!

Now I'm going to spoil my business plan by telling you this: I'll just always answer "no", and it still works, because all I've done is set up a cheaper lottery with almost no payout (in part because, if you pay me for my prediction and you win anyway, I'm the least of your concerns).

The only problem is if someone pays me my dollar, I tell them "no win", then they pick the winning numbers without playing and sue me for the prize money they should have won.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Of course, the only way to prove you "would have" won is to actually register the entry.
PPS - And it's probably not going to happen anyway, because that's how lotteries work.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Real hoverboards

So it looks like we are finally getting real hoverboards. This has been a source of prank material for quite some time, beginning with a Back to the Future behind the scenes documentary and including a recent video with Tony Hawk pretending to ride one. Now there's a Kickstarter campaign and another video of Tony Hawk. This time, however, I'm inclined to believe it, mostly because it looks like it's impossible to steer. If you were going to produce a video of a fake hoverboard, you'd be inclined to make it look more ridable. As it is, this one seems to handle like a block of ice on a sheet of glass. Oh, and it has to be used on a non-magnetic metallic surface, too, so unless you have copper footpaths or, as in the video, a copper halfpipe, it won't be nearly as exciting as it sounds.

Still, the production of a self-contained, non-superconductor electromagnetic hovering effect is quite the accomplishment, and just in time for 2015 - the year featured in Back to the Future Part 2.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also, since Tony Hawk apologised for the prank video, I doubt he'd do a second fake one.
PPS - The Kickstarter campaign is here: Hendo Hoverboards.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Security, privacy and spies

How do you define cybersecurity? To me, it is the resistance of computer systems to unauthorised access of any form. And how do you define digital privacy? Well, to me, it is the ability to keep secret anything I wish to remain secret. Okay, so how do you keep secrets on computers? Well, by preventing unauthorised access, of course.

This is why I say that security and privacy are the same thing, and if you try to give up some digital privacy to get better security, you're going about it completely backwards. What people are usually thinking of is spycraft and, in that case, yes, giving up some of your digital privacy does result in easier spy work. Just keep in mind that spies aren't (directly) keeping you safe. Spies are, in essence, a kind of covert *assault* force. The extent to which they keep you safe is just the extent to which they manage to smite your enemies. If everyone has different locks on their doors, then breaking into one house doesn't open up everyone to attack. The thing is, online, everyone lives behind the same door.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Well, to an extent, in a manner of speaking.
PPS - Like all analogies, that one has its flaws.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Just get started

There are a lot of articles I've read lately about making games, specifically how to "get started". Most of them begin by saying "Just get started. Make something and you'll get better to make new things." That's not very helpful if the actual question was "I am thinking of making a game, and I don't yet know how to make images move on the screen. Can you help me?" and your response is "Just do it". There are some specific technical questions behind the first "how do I get started", and I think these game-making mentors should start with "these are the tools I use, this is specifically how I built my first game". That's more helpful than a vague motivational speech about keeping at your art to get the skills you will need later.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Motivation is good, too.
PPS - It's just that specifics help more sometimes.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Blind computing

If you were designing a computer operating system from the ground up for blind people, what would that be like? You'd probably have to ask a blind person to help you, or blindfold yourself while you worked on it. Watching Tommy Edison using his Mac with the help of the screen narrator was like watching him fumble around in the dark. He was able to do it, but it was clearly blind-enabled as an afterthought to the primary design. Computers are about the one place where you'd think he would be able to find a level playing field, but all our normal desktop operating systems, software and websites are built assuming you have vision.

An operating system built for blind people would be - should be completely different to any existing desktop OS of today, just as a phone for blind people needs to be something better than stock Android on a featureless glass touch screen with an assistant to read out what you're doing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've seen a blind man using a touch-screen phone on the train.
PPS - It did not seem easy for him.