Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Majority content

According to Bruce Schneier's blog, his book _Data and Goliath_, when read on Kindle, reaches the end of the main text when the Kindle app (or device) says you're 44% of the way through. Basically, there's more raw text in the form of citations and references than in the main body of the book.

What amuses me about this observation, however, is that 44% means the "main text" is not the "majority content", and you could make a point that what Schneier has done is to gather a very extensive list of relevant reference materials, then written a kind of index summary as an appendix.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I haven't read the book yet, but it's on the list.
PPS - I have a very long and complex list.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Overloading the name "bible"

I'm not a big fan of the overloading of the term "bible" in a lot of contexts. It's not from any kind of religious offense or hurt, though. It's more of a clarity thing. I had a friend once say, out of nowhere, that she'd been reading "the bible", by which she meant "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus". I've heard the primary documentation on software projects referred to as the "project bible", which always gets shortened to "the bible", and it always takes me a few seconds for my brain to latch onto the real contextual meaning rather than the one with which I am automatically most familiar (the actual Bible).

My point is that communication is supposed to be clear, although poetry can sacrifice clarity for emotion. When you refer to some other book or document as "the bible", you are probably being just a little bit too poetic, sacrificing just enough clarity for the sake of your point about the importance of that book.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We'll all know how important a document is, in context, from experience with it.
PPS - Or because you say "this is our most important document".

Friday, 27 March 2015

Mundane time travel

Time travel will be used for the most mundane purposes imaginable. Corporations will hire multiple copies of the CEO for all management positions. Employees will be forced to go back in time so as to never have any time off - sick days will be a thing of the past, because you'll just come back when you're well. On the plus side of that scheme, you can have whatever preferred schedule you like. Two days on, five days off? No problem, as long as you're in the office Monday to Friday. Three months of leave per year? Go for it, just come back to the beginning of your holiday when you're done. It would get tricky to track, and some employees would, as a result, burn out a lot faster than others. Some, who take a lot of time off, would age a lot faster than others, who don't. That would be weird.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Time travel, used this way, would lead quickly to the tech singularity.
PPS - Because corporations will want whole research eras to be done, literally, yesterday.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Cinderella is not an insulting name

With the movie "Cinderella" opening in Australian cinemas today, it seemed time to make this observation. To me, it's never made much sense, in the story of Cinderella, for her name to be an insult. I mean, I do understand that it's meant to refer to her menial household labour, especially cleaning the chimney, but from a purely linguistic point of view, "Cinderella" is a remarkably beautiful name. Flowing and feminine, and reminiscent of the common observation that "cellar door" is one of the most beautiful phrases in English. "Cinderella" and "cellar door" are just a couple of letters away from being anagrams of each other.

So, to me, using "Cinderella" as an insult name has the same kind of meaning as saying "We'll call you Rainbow McBeautifulface Sexybody Unicorn Glitter! Ha! See how you like that!" You know they're trying to be insulting, but it's just coming out all wrong.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you want an insulting name, just go for "Poop".
PPS - It's not as creative, but there's no chance of confusion.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Shopping online

I don't do a lot of my shopping online. This might be weird for someone of my age and technical expertise, but it's been informed by several bad experiences. First, there have been a few times when I've got what I ordered, but it wasn't the right thing. I bought a $199 router from Kogan, paid $9 shipping to get it to me, waited four days for delivery, then had to send it back because I was mistaken about its capabilities. The return shipping and the restocking fee cost me a further $38, so by now I'm out $47 and back to square one. If I had just walked to Dick Smith instead, 5 minutes down the road from my house, I would have had the correct device in my hands immediately. Oh, and I still don't have my money back, more than two weeks later, so there's that, too.

The other thing is that Australia Post delivery drivers don't bother looking for our front door. We live in a townhouse complex with a lot of little twisting roadways and paths, so I understand that it can be hard to find a particular house number, but they don't even try. They get to the mailbox, toss in a "sorry you weren't home" card and sod off again, leaving me to pick up the package from the post office during office hours anyway, or on Saturday morning, which is when I can actually get there. While there's supposed to be parcel pick-up outside those hours, the arrangement where I live is that this is done from the PO Box bunker, and that parcels are not kept there, but inside the shopping centre. Guess whether the PO Box attendant can get to your parcels outside normal shopping hours. Go on. Guess.

So online shopping hasn't exactly sold me. I don't trust the delivery drivers to actually bother delivering, and I don't trust myself to order the correct item without talking to someone about it. Does this make me a shopping luddite? Yeah, probably. So what? It's still working for me, and until online shopping can actually provide me some savings or benefits, I think I might stick with bricks and mortar for now.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I do order flowers online now and then from our local florist.
PPS - They regularly misspell our street name, and they abandon flowers on the doorstep, but it does seem to mostly work.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The perfect house is a myth

Will you ever have the perfect house? Of course not. Your circumstances and needs change, so the perfect house for you this year might not be the perfect house for you next year.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - We need our houses to be more adaptable.
PPS - Perhaps that's what makes it perfect.

Monday, 23 March 2015


Today I'd just like to let you know that the good people of PodCastle, a weekly fantasy fiction podcast, have done me the great honour of publishing my story, "Lord Darq, Regis and the Orb of Power". You can find the audio file on their site. I've been a fan of PodCastle for ages now, so it's super-cool that they're the ones to publish my first ever sale!

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's only 5 minutes long.
PPS - Go. Listen now.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Motivation is BS

I recognise that a lot of people find exercise "too hard". They "can't get motivated" to do it. I've had people ask how I find the motivation to get up and go for a run. You want the real, honest-to-goodness answer?

I don't.

I'm not motivated to run like that. I don't have some magical inner coach urging me to get up and at 'em, that reaches down through my laziness and bad moods and pulls me up by my collar to get myself moving. That's the secret. I frequently don't *want* to go, but how effective should that really be as a method of stopping me? If someone put up a little sign at the foot of your bed that said "I don't want you to go running", would that stop you? That's what your lack of motivation is: a little sign somewhere in your world that doesn't want you to go and do anything, and the only reason it's standing in your way is that you are sitting there paying attention to it.

Next time, try this: set a time to get some exercise. When that time comes, stop what you're doing and go exercise. When your "lack of motivation" comes up, picture that little sign and ask why it should have any power over you at all, then go exercise, because you are the only reason you aren't getting over your own lack of motivation. When you need groceries, you go get them. When you need fuel in your car, you go get it. When you need water, you go and get it. When you need exercise, just go and get it. Motivation is not in your way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - "But how do I get exercise with this little sign here?"
PPS - You ignore it. That's how.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

How I'd spend one billion dollars

If I were a billionaire, I'd build a hotel in the city and just let my friends and family stay there for free forever, with free food from the kitchen, free laundry service and all those things. I want my family and friends to have everything they need for survival, to allow them to focus on the bigger things in life.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or if someone wanted to do this for me, I'd have no objections.
PPS - I prefer a river view. If that helps.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

All you need to prototype a card game

If you're desperate to prototype a card game, you can make basically anything with a label printer and a normal pack of cards, with the added bonus that they're very cheap. You're welcome.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've been meaning to get a label printer for ages.
PPS - And I have lots of cards.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

You know, one of these days I'm pretty sure they're going to make a super-realistic animatronic replica of Jurassic Park, and I am so there. The world needs a free-range robot dinosaur park. I guarantee, no matter how much you have to pay to construct it, you'll make a killing. Figuratively speaking. I mean, there's a slight chance that the robots could go berserk and kill everyone, but I'm willing to take that risk.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - With the blood, and the kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving.
PPS - I'm sure we can fix it with flash photography.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Better baggage retrieval

I think we could do better with baggage retrieval at airports using technology. Instead of having one big conveyor belt and a crowd of people who could easily mistake someone else's luggage for theirs, or could just wander up and take whichever one they like, we should have a system of RFID tags on luggage so that they can be identified throughout the flight and when you land. Then, at the baggage claim, bags are unloaded as before, but then held in individual bays awaiting claim. To claim your own bag, you take your boarding pass and scan it at a machine which recognises the tag, matches it to a bag and sends it down for you. If the airport doesn't have this system, they can still use their old single-conveyor method.

Now, how can this system fail? Well, if you lose your boarding pass on the plane, you'll have to go and see customer service to get your bag with some other ID. There won't, however, be a situation where your bag gets picked up by someone else by mistake unless you manage to mix up your boarding passes. What if someone steals your boarding pass in order to take your bag? Well, they could take your bag anyway, in the current system, but this way you have a chance for the machine to take their picture when they claim the bag, to give some hint who might have it. If your bag is misrouted? You find out right away when you go to claim it, rather than sitting there and waiting for all the other bags to be claimed first.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The thing is, it's fairly expensive to implement and provides only minimal benefit.
PPS - To the airlines, that is.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Camping on the sea

Having a boat with a sleeping cabin is kind of like glamping on the sea or driving your camper van into the desert and just parking wherever.

So, from now on, I think I'm going to call yachts "the trailers of the sea".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It should make me feel better about not owning one.
PPS - Though that doesn't come up much and it's not really a life goal of mine.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Learning actors' names

I make it a point to learn actors' names once I've known them in two or more performances I've enjoyed, or in one very significant one. This is why I know names like Christian Kane and Morena Baccarin. It's important to me to know them as a name rather than a vague collection of typecast roles, like "that guy who was a lawyer in Angel, then the tough guy in Leverage and also the Librarians".

I also sometimes deliberately learn the name of "the other guy" in famous movie duos. Like Keanu Reeves and that other guy in Bill and Ted. Even though Alex Winter hasn't worked much since then, I'd hate to be known as just "the other guy", so I do them the courtesy I'd expect for myself.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Now, if only I could be this good about the people I actually meet.
PPS - I've proven I can do it. I just need to focus.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Thank teachers for their service

I've seen the phrase "Thank you for your service" extended to basically every soldier that appears on screen these days, when they encounter civilians. I think that exact same phrase and respect should be extended, verbatim, to teachers. Just sayin'.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I know a few.
PPS - They're undervalued by some people and taken for granted by most.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Designing houses through living in configurable spaces

I think it would be an interesting experiment to put a family or a group of people into one big warehouse space with movable walls plus power and plumbing easily moved around and just see how the space ends up being configured over time. Do you end up with separate bedrooms for everyone as far away from each other as possible? Does everyone tend to get their own living space, or are we happy with one to share? Would people try really unusual things like a single washbasin in a bedroom instead of a full ensuite?

It would all depend on the type of people you put in the space, of course. Fiercely individual people would probably end up in more of an apartment setup, with everything self-contained. Families might use more space than they expect. Single people might find themselves happy with relatively small living spaces and lots of storage.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess I've been thinking about living spaces lately.
PPS - My interests come and go in waves.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Estimating software is really hard

Are software estimates valuable? It's hard to say. We, as programmers, feel that estimates are very difficult to obtain, usually inaccurate and therefore something of a waste of time. Managers, on the other hand, have a certain budget available and often a certain time frame, too. They want to know if a project will fit into those constraints or, if they are a particularly talented manager, what subset of the blue-sky-dream requirements can be completed within that budget and time. Estimates are the way budgets turn into project plans.

The problem is that software estimates are always a tricky beast. Software isn't like constructing a building. It's more like designing a building for a swarm of robots to build in seconds for no cost. All the effort in software is design effort, not construction, and design is the hard part to pin down.

When you design a building, you have some solid requirements to work from. It will be this tall, with this many floors, we want this many units or offices inside, and this many car parking spaces. That, in turn, leads to some other calculated requirements - to serve that many floors, you need this many lifts. Fire stairwells are this size and regulations require two of them. Concrete can support this much weight per unit surface area. You know what you're getting into.

Software, so far, doesn't have any of that, and might never do. Also, by the time you're done finding out how large the project is, that's part of the design work. If, for instance, you're trying to measure business software by the number of database tables required, then you need to find out what tables are needed and count them. Finding out what tables are needed, though, means gathering all the requirements and designing tables to store the relevant data and oh, look, now you've done a database schema to estimate how long it will take to develop a database schema. It's almost as if the nature of software rebels against being quantified before it is completed. Unfortunately, "I'll know how much it will cost when I'm done spending the money" isn't a satisfying or wise answer to the question of budgets.

So what can we do? Maybe skilled managers have better intuition about how large a project will be, based on some imprecise metrics. If I know we're dealing with five kinds of business data here, then we'll probably have (for instance) 50 tables (10 per data type) and 10 major processes to write (interactions between the major data types), and from there we can guess how long that will take (assuming we know our team well).

The best way, probably, is to say "This is what we want to get done. We have up to this amount of money, or up to this time to do as much as we can. How close might we get to perfection?"

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have to plead ignorance on how other industries estimate their work.
PPS - Except sometimes when I saw managers give a gut-feel guess and everyone called it good.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The "solution" to short phone battery life

So, these days, we seem to be solving the problem of woeful phone battery life by making people carry an extra "turbo charger" or backup battery around with them, to boost the battery when we're away from power and still need our phone to work for, oh, 8 hours at a time.

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the way market demands have completely screwed us over here? I mean, if we weren't demanding that our phone batteries get a couple of millimetres thinner every year, they could actually work long enough for our phones to last an entire day.

Honestly, when you hear that your phone comes with a big brick of a backup battery for on-the-go charging, your response should not be positive. You should be thinking about why the internal battery sucks so hard.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Market pressure being what it is, though, this is the market solution.
PPS - Personally, I'd rather have a battery that doesn't suck.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Modular jewellery boxes

You know, there never seems to be enough of the right kind of space in a jewellery box, from what I've seen. I think it would be both neat and useful to have a modular system where different tiny boxes clip or stick together to form one large box that can expand or contract into sizes, shapes and configurations far beyond its original arrangement. Of course, it's probably not going to be quite as pretty as custom-made, one-size-fits-all boxes, but maybe you can make the pieces out of wood with magnets embedded in them, to keep it looking good.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or keep it simple and just use stackable drawers.
PPS - And probably some dividers inside the drawers, too.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The problems of account recovery

We have enough services online now, holding enough personal information in each, that it is possible to put together a very comprehensive profile of personal information based on what each company chooses to withhold and reveal, and using social engineering to fill in the rest (tricking customer service to reveal personal info over the phone).

So what can we do about that? Well, until we have better standards for information privacy online, there's not a lot we can do. If each company is free to make up their own minds about what should remain secret and what information is required to verify identity, we, the public, will still be vulnerable to these cross-service attacks.

Getting that legislation into effect is a big, difficult step, though. We still need to be able to identify people worldwide with information that is not unique to a given company, but the person themselves, and that is the exact key to these cross-service vulnerabilities in the first place. If my mother's maiden name is the backup "password" for account recovery on every service I use, then that one bit of info can be used to hijack all of those accounts by just calling customer service, then saying I've lost my password when I moved house. As far as the company knows, then, that invalidates just about everything they know about me - phone number, email and postal address - leaving just name, account number and mother's maiden name. And you can't just allow someone with that info to cancel the account, either, because that's a different kind of attack. You can't use social security number, either, because that's unique to Americans and if it's known in more than one place, then it's a vulnerability, not an account recovery strength.

Unfortunately, there may not be a solution to this problem. What we need for account recovery is a shared secret known only to the customer and that particular company, and one that can't be lost or forgotten. The best way would be to register these details with a trusted third party like an attorney. Generate a truly random key for each company account, register it in person with an attorney and go back to them if account recovery is needed. We give up convenience, but we gain security.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - At this point, any gain in security might be worth it.
PPS - Worth it for customers, that is. The companies won't like it.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


The killer feature of productivity software and methods should be prioritisation rather than filing. We deal with such a large volume of inbound traffic in our digital lives, from social media to email to articles and videos from our favourite websites that we need systems to help us focus on the most important things first. Facebook already tries to show you what's most important on your Timeline, but as far as Facebook is concerned, Facebook is all there is. What we need is a way to draw absolutely everything in our lives, from all that digital stuff above to the actions and projects, movies, TV shows, books and so on into one inbound stream, or as few streams as possible. That makes the next step easier: figuring out what's most important out of everything.

This will always take some time. After all, there's always more stuff coming in, and you'll always have to deal with it. However, if you're dealing with the most important stuff first, and you know that it's properly organised, you'll know that everything is as good as it can get. There's no need to stress that you aren't dealing with the hundred and three things that came in this morning when thirty of them are company update fluff from upper-upper management and another thirty are a passive-aggressive "reply-all" war about no business of yours. This, to me, is a key of GTD. Consolidate your inboxes, your filing and your action lists, prioritise them properly and then just do the work. It gets really hard to do sometimes, but it's absolutely worth it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have too many digital inboxes that refuse to play nice.
PPS - One day, I'll figure out how to manage them better from a single interface.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Between share housing and independent housing

Would you agree to live in the equivalent of student housing if the rent or prices were lower? If you had less space and shared bathrooms but gained an inner-city location, would it matter to you? I'm not sure. For me, I don't think I need my shower and toilet to be *in* my house as long as it's in the same building.

When you think about it, this is kind of a step between a share house and your own house. In a shared rental situation, you get your own room, but you have to make do with one kitchen, one lounge and one or two bathrooms. In your own house, you get all of those things to yourself, but for a higher price. There may be room in the middle for independent living with some shared facilities, but more available than just at universities.

Then again, plenty of people will not be willing to give up their ensuites and the privilege of shuffling naked to the toilet in the middle of the night. One day, we may see that arrangement as the "first class" equivalent of living spaces, compared to economy (share housing) and business class (student housing). I've actually never lived in either a share house or student housing, though, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - For me, it would remind me of church camp.
PPS - And as long as it's clean, what's the harm?