Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Big Red Button

You know those locked plastic covers they have over the Big Red Button in movies, regardless of what that Big Red Button does? They need that same thing over the "Reply All" button in email programs. That action needs to have some real gravitas. Not a pop-up asking "Are you sure?", but the action itself impressing upon you that this is a big thing you are doing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's going to be a fair bit more annoying.
PPS - And that's kind of the whole point.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Being Batman

I see one of the arguments in favour of Batman is that he is a testament to the upper limits of human ability and training. If that were all he was, then fine, but it's not, is it? I mean, yes, he's well-trained and all that, but also a very large part of being Batman is the gadgets. Can Bruce Wayne even be Batman without armour, a grappling hook and bat-shaped boomerangs, not to mention a sweet ride? Take away all the gadgets and Batman is just Gravel-Voiced Punching Guy. He might be good at that, but it's not everything we think of as Batman.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm sure, in his long history, there has been an exploration of what non-billionaire Batman would look like.
PPS - I'm sure it felt like there was something missing.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

What makes a robot?

Personally, I find it a bit misleading to call something a "robot" if it is completely remote-controlled by a human. Yes, it might have some neat features and perform a useful task, like a snowplow I saw recently, but that just makes it a sophisticated power tool, not a robot. I mean, if a remote-controlled vehicle is all it takes to be called a robot, then I had a robot toy car when I was a kid.

I'll grant that there's going to be a blurry line here. If a remote controlled vehicle has on-board sensors that it uses to, say, avoid rolling off cliffs, but you are otherwise controlling it yourself, is it really a robot? Any question of classification ultimately devolves into this kind of nitpicky legalism, so at a certain point the question becomes a bit of a meaningless time-sink. I just think that using the word "robot" sets up certain expectations of autonomy that are often not delivered.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's the semi-autonomous machines that give the most trouble.
PPS - Taxonomically, that is. I'm sure fully-autonomous ones are the most trouble behaviourally.

Monday, 27 April 2015


I'm kind of interested in the way a game was created specifically to be difficult for computers but easy enough for a 4-year-old to play with standard chess pieces, called Arimaa. It's an interesting goal to push computer game-playing research further, and it seems to have worked. The game was invented in 2002 and then a computer won the yearly human-vs-computer tournament this year (2015). On the one hand, this might represent massive gains in processing power and algorithmic research since the game's invention, or it might represent an unforeseen weakness in the game design. Most likely, it's a bit of both.

My question is: what comes next? Does someone else design a new iteration of game that is really tricky for computers to play but comparatively easy for humans? Do we modify Arimaa to bump up the computer difficulty? When do we reach the point where "easy for a 4-year-old" also means "trivial for computers"? If it takes decades for computers to beat human grandmasters at chess, but only one decade for computers to beat human Arimaa masters, how much difficulty can we expect to squeeze out of a new iteration of game difficulty? Probably a year or two, I'd think, given the pattern.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd love it if a computer designed a game itself to this goal.
PPS - Which, I guess, would make that game a kind of CAPTCHA.

Friday, 24 April 2015

How small can a dishwasher get?

I think it would be possible or beneficial to create a little in-sink automatic dishwasher rack that connects to your taps. It couldn't hold much, and it probably wouldn't do such a good job, but think of the space savings. For small apartments or small kitchens, this could be a real benefit.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or maybe, by then, the benefits are just too small.
PPS - Because, really, you'd only fit a couple of plates in there, wouldn't you?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

To achieve a meaningless first

I want to be the first person carried up Mount Everest on a sedan chair. Sure, it's a kind of achievement, but I could easily be replaced with a sack of potatoes and it would make no difference. I like that kind of weirdness.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That is all. I'm tired.
PPS - Which is the perfect time to be carried around. Anyone interested?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Making online workspaces for teams

To bring together the widely-dispersed teams of the future, we need people who can build virtual office spaces as much as today we need people who fit out physical offices to the specifications of clients. The difference is that today's business says "we need space for 60 desks, each with two computer monitors and a phone, plus we need three eight-person meeting rooms" or whatever, while tomorrow's global business might say "we need a connected workspace for a team of 20 people, including easy video for private meetings, plus of course some shared file storage, and we'd like people to be able to work offline and re-sync later". The virtual architect of that workspace will need to know how to bring together existing and new software seamlessly so that the virtual office just works. That should mean that nobody needs to think about the where and how of talking to each other after a 5-minute tutorial.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Very small businesses may have off-the-shelf solutions for online work.
PPS - Very large corporations will be an altogether different beast.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


Autonomous sensory meridian response, if real, might just be the pleasure centre of the brain reacting to a feeling of intimacy generated by whispering, plus the blessed relief that comes with finally getting some peace and quiet from the noisy world for once. The white noise represents that quiet nicely and, as a bonus, comes with the high-gain settings necessary to capture whispering on a microphone.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not completely convinced.
PPS - I haven't had it myself, anyway.

Monday, 20 April 2015


I've always thought, if I could have a super power, that super-speed would be pretty great. I just think I'd get a lot done, plus the opportunities for messing with people are huge. We discussed this at a recent dinner with friends, because I have awesome friends, and we bounced back and forth different ideas of what you could do with such power if, say, someone was giving a speech. With a couple of props, you could make it look like they were trying to avoid giving the speech at all by performing a bunch of magic tricks. Imagine putting ping-pong balls in their mouth any time it opens up, releasing doves from their sleeves every time they gesture widely, then replacing them with a monkey in a critical moment. Hilarious.

Of course, this assumes that the force and speed don't disintegrate anything, create sonic shock waves or superheat the air, which is a real danger with super-speed and not at all fun. It has to be a weird kind of magical, non-destructive speed power. Quicksilver, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, holds Magneto's head so he doesn't get whiplash, then runs at a speed that would disintegrate a human body anyway. You want to avoid that, if you're super-speeding about. Just a tip.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd probably get a lot of reading done.
PPS - Then I'd probably get super-bored, to be honest.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Are backer rewards worth it?

Do backer perks kill or at least bog down creative projects funded through Kickstarter or other crowdfunding sites? If I were attempting a project like that, I'd be surprised if I didn't spend half my time signing things and shipping them out, rather than doing the actual project. And a significant amount of the funding would have to go to those backer rewards, too, which leaves less available for the actual project. That could easily be a trap that creative people fall into when asking for crowdfunding money. If you think you'll need $100K to complete your project, and you reach that goal, but you have to spend $50K on backer rewards, you're going to fail, because you're really only half-funded. Or if you're making some new device and you promise one to every backer, then you fund your whole first production run, send them all off to backers and you're back to square one.

While I realise that backer rewards are something people can easily comprehend, I think crowdfunding should probably work more like ordinary venture capital. I invest in your project, you make it happen, I get dividends in return from your sales. If I want a copy of the movie, TV show, nifty gadget, I can buy one like anyone else. Freebies for backers work pretty well if you've got two big investors. Throw them a bone to sweeten the deal. Why not? But if you're funded by ten thousand of your biggest fans, then you give away the work to them afterwards, I think the money would all just form a complete circle and cancel itself out.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Presumably, though, you learn some stuff.
PPS - And are in a good position to start a second run, if you made any profit.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Calorie counting made easier

Counting calories is a massive pain, especially when cooking for yourself or eating out. Who knows exactly how much of each ingredient has gone into a meal? All the charts and tables are really, really precise - often listing individual meals from popular fast food chains down to single-digit accuracy. This means you need to find the exact thing you're eating, not a reasonable facsimile, and if you can't find that, then you're kind of screwed. Calculating calories for your own home-cooked meals means measuring each ingredient, finding that on the chart and adding it all up. If you're eating out at a unique restaurant or little cafe, you'll be guessing more than anything.
My idea of the day is to draw up a rough-idea grid of calorie counts in different classifications of food - not "chicken", "pizza" and "beer" but "bad", "so-so" and "good", with a breakdown of portion sizes, "small", "medium" and "large". From this, you should be able to get a good enough idea of your calorie intake without needing to look up the difference between white rice and brown rice. We're sacrificing some precision for better usability. You do need to know enough to say whether a meal is good or bad, and that might get subjective, but how much difference does it make to your system if you think you've eaten 50 calories instead of 60?
So here's my chart. Consider it a work in progress, able to be tweaked if you want, but remember the goal: simplicity over precision, but maintaining accuracy. By all means, adjust the values, but if you start trying to add in the difference between chicken and beef, stop.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's weird, but I put off writing up this table for weeks.
PPS - I guess I thought it would be hard.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Whole-system design

I think there are probably some gains to be made in whole-system design in houses, for energy efficiency. After all, we have one device to pump heat out of a small box and into the air (fridge), a different box to pump heat from the inside to the outside (air conditioner) and then a tank to put heat into water (water heater). I have a feeling that all of these heat pumps could be connected for greater efficiency somehow.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd be surprised if that were the only gain to make.
PPS - A good architect probably designs this kind of system all the time.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Domestic training

I used to take some offense at the idea of women "training" their men. It sounds so degrading, like teaching a pet a new trick. It puts the woman in charge and the man in a subservient role, and it's not truly enjoyable for either person. It's not a partnership at that point, but more of a matriarchal dictatorship. Neither side is supposed to be "in charge" of a healthy relationship.

However, I do recognise that many men grow up with terrible domestic habits. We leave wet towels on the floor, we don't cook or clean or tidy up, things like that. These are habits and behaviours that we should have grown out of, but if a boy has his mother picking up after him all of his life, it won't even occur to him that towels should go anywhere else. Why would it? Don't count on self-awareness and consideration developing naturally. We do need to be told things sometimes. If you pick up after a man and wait for the guilt to set in after self-reflection, you'll never get what you want. If you ramp-up the consequences of inconsiderate actions ("Put his wet towels under his pillow!") then you will grow to see your man as a child. I think the better move is to talk about it. It's still training, in a way, but respectful.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also remember: nobody is the perfect partner.
PPS - Not even you.

Monday, 13 April 2015

I need sports info

At social gatherings, I often feel left out when other guys start talking sports (which, in Australia, means cricket and two codes of football, plus the soccer world cup). The last time I thought to myself that there must be some news feed I can follow that gives enough info for me to fake my way through these conversations.

Then I thought, maybe there isn't, and I could create it.

Then my last thought was maintaining the site - adding content - would mean making it my job to watch these sports live (so the site updates would be timely) and suddenly I've signed up to be Full-Time Sports Guy when my goal was not to have to deal with sports directly at all.

So, in short, this is probably not happening, but I wish someone else would do it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I need this for world news, too.
PPS - Right now, I'm only as informed as John Oliver can make me.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Cargo cult consumer design

Samsung's new phones have no removable batteries or storage card expansion slot, probably because that's what Apple does. Hey, Samsung, you know what I'll buy if I want something like an iPhone? An actual iPhone. I buy Android phones because they aren't like Apple's lock-in crap. You're giving up your differentiating features in a cargo-cult mentality, believing that if you copy Apple, you will copy Apple's success. That's a flawed concept, as far as I'm concerned.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - When you're a little Apple, you might have a little bit of Apple-like success.
PPS - But not a lot.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Dealing with the entertainment singularity

We are already at an entertainment singularity. Not only is there already more entertainment of every form (books, movies, TV, cat videos) than any one person could experience in a lifetime, but we are already producing far more of it than any person could hope to keep up with. What is the best way to deal with this flood? I have a system where I keep a very large list of items, carefully prioritised, and add anything new to the list so that it gets the same chance of washing up on my beach as anything else. It is, however, always getting longer, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

The only other way I can imagine dealing with it all is to learn to let go of the idea of doing the "best" things and just let absolutely everything wash over me all at once, doing whatever new thing I have time for right now and forgetting about the rest forever. Is there a new book coming out, but I'm reading another one? Too bad, new book. I guess I'll see you in Heaven. New TV show, but I have no time? Oh, well. I guess I'll never know what it was about.

That feels like giving up, to me. I know being the latest thing doesn't mean it's the greatest. I just can't let go like that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess most other people are already at that last stage.
PPS - I might have a fear of missing out.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Amazon Dash is disruptive

The Amazon Dash button, announced just before April Fool's Day, caused some confusion among people online. Was it a joke? Is it necessary or just lazy? Is it a bad thing to be lazy this way?

If you missed it, Amazon Dash is a dedicated physical push-button reorder system for household consumables like coffee, paper towels and laundry detergent, for Amazon Prime customers (so, not for me in Australia, then). The promo video is an unselfconscious revelling in consumerism, but that's another post.

I'm kind of torn about it. On the one hand, it's a neat gadget, and that seems cool. It's like convenience shopping inside your home. Very "Internet of Things", in a way. On the other hand, it does seem really goofy. I look forward to a lot of parody videos.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The thing is, I can't think of any ways to make it really funny.
PPS - Just sort of mildly amusing.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Board games on mobile

I really like the idea of board games playable on mobile devices over the internet where it doesn't matter how long each person takes to play their turn. Because it can be hard to organise a group of people to get together all at once to play a game, this way everyone is always playing, and the game just goes on, even if one person delays a bit. It will take a lot longer to play a game through, but who cares? The fun is still there, and you've got other games to play, too. This is just a way to play specific games with friends that would otherwise take a lot more effort and commitment to play.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wish there were more of them.
PPS - And that I could play them. Obviously.

Monday, 6 April 2015

On-demand basic services

Here's a weird thought. With internet services for on-demand travel and shelter (eg Uber and AirBnB) plus storage lockers and wireless data, could some people live "homeless" but as fully-employed, fully-functional members of society now? Or, if not now, then when? It might not be too long from now that robot cars provide transportation as a subscription service, and it's not too far-fetched to picture the same deal for accommodation and storage.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - People who sleep in robot cars will be a very weird sub-tribe.
PPS - Though I plan to do that myself on my way home all the time.

Friday, 3 April 2015


I find it really hard to forgive myself for mistakes. I make plenty of them, so you'd think I'd have enough experience, but I'm still just as bad at it today as when I started beating myself up about my screw-ups, which was many years ago. "Progress" is managing not to call myself names while I am figuratively punching myself in the guts in the aftermath. That progress is often short-lived. I even get into some meta-self-flagellation about my self-flagellation, this post being a soft example of that.

I think part of it stems from (or is at least related to) my long-standing behaviour of trying to elicit pity as an attention-getting strategy. I would cry at school, I'd tell people how my mother died when I was young, I'd loudly and publicly lament that I'd never had a girlfriend, I'd avoid bringing up people's mistakes about my name or about overlooking me in order to spring it on them much later to maximise their shame and the pity they'd feel for me.

It's pretty pathological behaviour, when you look at it like this. The point, in context, is that seeking pity is now a long-ingrained reflex for me, and tearing myself down is just one step in that process. I need to be low to get pity, and if I'm not low enough, I'll make myself lower.

This does not mesh well with forgiveness, or the problem-solving mindset I have to use for my work. Often there's no solution and nothing to do but accept the loss and move on, trying to do better next time. I never feel like I can just move on without trying to figure out how it all went wrong this time. This leads me to focus obsessively on my mistakes and the costs associated with them, which can be exhausting.

Take a recent example: I had a function to attend after work, and this would have been most easily managed by driving to work that day so I could drive there and drive home at night when it was finished, instead of taking the train as I normally do. I didn't plan my transport and didn't discuss it with my wife until I had already taken the train to work that day. We only have the one car, so if I drive to work, she needs to know that. I could have discussed it in advance, the night before. I could even have tried discussing it that morning, though that wouldn't have been so easy. I leave early, and let's say not everyone in the house is alert in the mornings.

Still, there are a lot of ways I could have done better, and I was well aware of these in advance. I didn't do them or even make an attempt, resulting in some tense exchanges of texts that made me feel like an irresponsible child. That's a recurring feeling here: that of an irresponsible child. It readily feeds into a number of other anxieties and personality issues, too, such as not being good enough to be a father, not being worthy of being a husband, remembering all the poor organisation and problems I have caused at home and so on. It's what makes me feel, most often, that I am not a Real Man, whatever that means. Real Men, says the voice in my head, communicate properly with their wives so they don't have to ask for a lift home at night. Real Men are confident, in control and show a basic life competence far beyond yours, obviously. Self-flagellation. And, in the end, it turned out not even to be a big deal.

Wanting to break out of this cycle is not enough. Knowing how, clearly, is not enough. Suspecting that I might have mild anxiety or depression is not enough, because you can hardly go to the doctor and say "Doc, sometimes I feel like an irresponsible child and that makes me feel bad, is there something wrong with my brain?" I need therapy. I need to do better. I need ... I don't know what else I need. I feel like forgiveness is just enabling my problems, most of the time. It's not that I don't feel I deserve forgiveness, because true forgiveness isn't deserved or earned. What I feel is that I shouldn't get forgiveness because it wouldn't help fix me.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm sorry if this is too long and heavy.
PPS - It bothered me, though.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What separates programs from queries?

Sometimes the line is quite blurry between what is a program (or a programming language) and what is an expression. I'm not even completely sure what to call the second one, actually, but after reading about "runnable tweets" written in Wolfram Language and seeing the graphical plot results, it seems to me that these programs are more like search expressions or queries. They require a very rich interpreter with access to a lot of very complex data sets and extremely heavy functions to manipulate them. It's difficult for me to think of something like "GeoListPlot[GeoEntities[Atlantic Ocean, "Shipwreck"]]" as a program. It might be meaningful and unambiguous when interpreted against a particular data set, and clearly Wolfram can produce results from it, so I'm not sure what is my objection. Perhaps that there is only one system in the world that can run it? Well, that would be true of any very specialised software. I've written expression parsers that only my programs use, but I never called the input a program.

One objection might indeed be the power of the functions available. You could write a "language" whose only function is "List The Monarchs of England In Chronological Order", but is that input a program, or is the interpreter the program?

Maybe it's a size issue. Because of the massive scope of the language, and its inherent complexity, every program written in it will be many orders of magnitude smaller than the interpreter itself. I think that's what's bugging me.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Plus there's something about the native data sets.
PPS - It doesn't feel like big, real-world data sets should be considered part of a programming language.