Friday, 29 June 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - The Perpetual War

Nobody could remember how the war began, and by now nobody could imagine it ending. Nobody could make peace with the Vikings, and their continual sneak attacks meant nobody wanted to. Our three mega-nations are locked in this constant state of nuclear war for good.

They say hundreds of years ago there used to be ice at the poles of the planet. I would have liked to have seen that. All we have now are warm seas and swamp everywhere, most of it irradiated and unusable. The people in every nation are starving, but we all work non-stop to build the nukes that keep the war going. It's fight and live or eat and die. There are no pacifists any more.

It took years to get going, but we Celts and the Americans formed a fragile, uneasy and secret alliance against our only other enemy, the Vikings. It was difficult. It was risky. More than once the talks erupted into fresh nuclear strikes and everything went to hell and back again and again. But for a few short months, we managed to become allies.

Neither side trusted the other to attack the Vikings without sending a few missiles their way, too. The joint assault force, if it could be called that, was a single submarine crew from both nations, sent to take out the Viking capital city, currently believed to be in the north. They called it Asgard, of course.

Tensions were high in that submarine as elite soldiers from both sides held back grudges begun by their great-great-great-grandfathers. They worked with their weapons in their hands the entire time, casting dubious glances at one another around bulkheads and across the small dining area. They slept on separate decks, with the doors locked. There were occasional fistfights. But in the end, the submarine and its unstable human cargo arrived at Asgard.

That was when the Celts made their move. As the hatch slowly opened, the Americans exited first, but the Celt commander pulled the hatch shut from the inside, stranding the Americans outside. As the Celts submerged again to make their way home, stranding their would-be allies, the American shouts of protest drew the attention of the Vikings, already waiting in what was supposed to be an abandoned dock.

The battle was brief and one-sided, and, as it ever has, the war rages on.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Inspired by this Reddit post about an eternal war in a game of Civilisation II.
PPS - Others have written their own fiction in this world, too.

Tab synchronisation could be better

I've been interested for a while in synchronising my open browser windows between computers, though I realise that has its problems. For instance, secure sites like online banking shouldn't be synchronised automatically, and probably can't be anyway. I've been waiting for Chrome to properly offer tab sync since I heard it was in beta testing ages ago. Recently I found it in the "other devices" feature, but it's far from seamless.

I have recently started at the beginning of Kris Straub's webcomic Starslip, which means I have about seven years of backlog to read and no way to integrate that with Google Reader, where I would normally read my webcomics. So I keep the tab open at home and, when I went on a break at work, I can open up a new tab and pull my current location from home to keep reading. Then I can leave that tab open at work, go home and grab it there to carry on. As long as one of them stays open all the time, I can pick it up anywhere and keep reading. It works, and it's pretty easy, but it does have its problems. For example, if I also use my phone to read that same backlog of comics, I now have three locations with the same website open. How do I know which one is most recent? Not by the time of last synchronisation, because that could be for any open tab on the device. If I want to be sure I'm getting the right one, I just have to open all of them, compare them to each other and close all but the most recent one. Then repeat that any time I change devices. Or remember which device had the most recent bookmark.

And that's the rub. Manual actions and manual comparisons between the dates on tabs defeats the purpose, for me, of synchronisation in the first place. A slightly better design would be to mark an open tab as synchronised when it is opened by this feature, then at regular intervals Chrome could check with the servers to see whether any updates have happened on other copies of that tab. If so, pop up a little information bar to say "This tab has been updated on another machine. Sync here now?" Then the most recent changes would be at least semi-automatic and easier to keep up with.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It is a good and useful feature as it is, though.
PPS - There are just some ways it could be smoother.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

You don't have to be tracked

Wherever you go online, lots of companies are tracking you, making sure they know where you are, what you're doing there and what kind of person you are. This data is worth a lot of money, but not to you. Its collection is invisible and silent, but there are tools to help make it go away.

Vanilla Cookie Manager sets expiry dates on tracking cookies that these tracking companies would have stick around forever.

Collusion shows you a graph of who is tracking you and how they link between sites.

I installed Collusion just as a bit of an experiment, to see where my data was going, and to see how well Vanilla was doing at protecting my privacy. It turns out Vanilla does fairly well, if the Collusion graph is to be believed. I never seem to have more than one or two sites central to my chart, but I'm sure there would be a lot more if Vanilla wasn't busy in the background removing cookies. If I didn't have Vanilla setting expiry dates on tracking cookies, my Collusion graph would look like an ant colony map crossed with a spider web, then scribbled on by a toddler.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd rather the whole thing looked like a confused set of lonely islands.
PPS - But that's unlikely.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Glasses for computing

Will people ever accept wearable computer glasses? Maybe, if they look like normal glasses and the gestures required to control them are not ridiculous. It's clear that we want mobile connectivity, but we also want more power, bigger screens and greater convenience. You can't really have bigger screens as well as convenience unless the screens get much closer to your eyes, so glasses are the way forward. The problem is that glasses don't allow the same kind of touch gestures we are using on our phones and tablets, nor the classic keyboard and mouse of a desktop system. It needs something new, and preferably something that doesn't look like we're talking to ourselves while poking at invisible fairies. That's tricky, and I don't think anyone has yet made anything truly intuitive and graceful for a wearable computer input system.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Google recently put up a concept video of a glasses-based system.
PPS - And they've built some of them, but I don't know if they work as well as that.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

How to remember

The best way to remember to handle things in the short term is to put them physically in your hand or in the way. If you need to remember something on your way out of the house, put it by the front door. To remember your petrol tank cap, keep it in your hand while you fill up. Strictly speaking, this isn't remembering so much as it is physically interrupting yourself, but it works as a way to make sure you do those things you must. And if it wasn't the physical object in your way, but a note about it, you would call it a reminder, wouldn't you? This is just more direct.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I use this all the time for outgoing mail.
PPS - And for things I can't be bothered to carry upstairs right away.

Monday, 25 June 2012

iOS is lying and that's good

Apparently the iPhone (or, more accurately, iOS) uses screenshots to make apps appear to load faster than they do. This has been called "lying" in some articles, but I think it's a valid user experience tweak.

To users like you and me, the really important thing about software is the user interface. The UI is the software, as far as we're concerned. So this screenshot trick makes the UI more smooth and responsive, which increases your satisfaction with the software and makes the overall experience more pleasant. That's exactly the kind of thing software should be doing for you, and it's the kind of design-for-experience quality we expect from Apple products, too.

The main reason you would want your phone to include a delay at the point of loading an app would be to represent what is "really" going on. This is not important for two reasons. One, the difference between what's "really" going on and what you see is a lot more than when the app loads. There's a ton of stuff you never have to see, and you never want to. It is hidden from you as a user, and rightly so. There's no reason to hit you in the face with the app loading time and not that other stuff. Two, an app should not be primarily concerned with the hardware on which it runs, but the user who is on the outside. You, the user, have a better experience when the phone shows you a screenshot for a moment, then replaces it with the real app a moment later, so that's what it does.

I'm not an Apple fanboy. I have never owned an iPhone, nor an iPod or iPad, and I don't plan to get one. I love my Android phone and my Windows 7 desktop, and my entire career is built on .NET, a Microsoft platform that doesn't run on iOS or OSX, and probably never will. So this isn't brown-nosing from a cult member. I genuinely think this design decision by Apple was a good move, and I applaud it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's also pretty subtle, which is why it went unnoticed for so long.
PPS - And that's another sign of good design.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Diagnosis

The doctor handed me my folder, carefully labelled, immaculate and new. My diagnosis, a rite of passage, to find out exactly what kind of brain disorder I have, and what government benefits I will be entitled to, among other things. Everyone has at least one, and the government bureaucracy is carefully arranged (by the OCD-afflicted bureaucrats) so that everyone pays the right amount of tax to support everyone else's unique needs.

My hands trembled with a little fear, a little excitement as I opened the pages of the report. The summary box on the first page had just one entry: "Neurotypical". I immediately switched over to full-on excitement. Neurotypical! I'd never even heard of that one before, and the rarest disorders get the biggest payouts. I might never have to work at all! My twelve-year-old mind started jumping to all sorts of scenarios of what I could do with my endless leisure time and money to burn.

The doctor must have seen my excitement and got my attention with an awkward cough. When I looked up, my bright hopeful eyes met his deep folds of sadness. His hands unconsciously straightened the items on his desk as he spoke.

"Luke, I don't think you realise quite what your diagnosis means. 'Neurotypical' isn't a disorder. In fact, that's precisely what it means. You have no disorders that I could find."

"But that doesn't make any sense. Everyone's got something."

"Not you, I'm afraid. You're as normal as they come. I'm very sorry." He shifted in his chair.

"Then you made a mistake. Do it again!" I pushed the folder back across his desk, scattering his neatly-arranged paperclips. He took a minute to straighten them before meeting my eye again, and handed me the folder a second time.

"There's no mistake. I called six other doctors to look at your tests. The result is quite conclusive."

"So ... what do I do?" Even as a child I knew the employment system was set up to pair people and their disorders to the perfect career. Without any disorder, they wouldn't know what to do with me.

"There are some other neurotypicals in the city. I can put you in touch with them. Maybe you can join their support group."

I hung my head in defeat. My parents would be devestated. I'd have no job, no money, nothing at all to do for the rest of my life.

"Are you sure there's nothing you can do?"

"No, I'm sorry. Without a brain disorder or injury-"

"Wait, injury? Are you saying if I got a brain injury then my diagnosis would be different?"

The doctor looked nervous for a second, avoiding my gaze. He straightened the papers on his desk absently while he tried to come up with a decent response.

"Yes, well, technically ... a brain injury, if permanent, does qualify as a disorder, but I wouldn't advise ... actually attempting to injure yourself. For one thing, the insurance company wouldn't like it."

"Oh, no, of course not, doctor. Nobody would do that on purpose, would they?" I beamed at him, and he shifted uneasily in his chair again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Government benefits in this world would have to be quite nuanced and segregated.
PPS - Otherwise nobody would be paying for it.

TV popularity

According to, the top 20 most popular shows on TV right now include Eureka, Scrubs, House, Chuck, Desperate Housewives and Sanctuary. All of those shows have been cancelled, though most of them got to say a proper farewell. Now, if the most popular shows can be cancelled, on what basis are networks choosing what to make and what to axe?

Of course, this assumes that represents the true popularity of the shows, and that popularity equates to profitability, which is not necessarily the case (eg a cheap show with a small audience may be more profitable than an expensive show with a slightly larger audience).

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Which goes a long way to explaining reality TV.
PPS - If only good scripts, good actors and high production values guaranteed good audiences.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

InstaFetch vs Pocket

Because it's free, and because ... well, actually, that's the main reason I'm giving myself a trial run of Pocket, formerly known as Read It Later. This is basically to see whether a different service besides Instapaper (my current solution for reading articles offline) works any better.

Currently my offline reading solution is Instapaper via InstaFetch (a free third-party app), and my offline video viewing is courtesy of PwnYouTube which lets me download videos from YouTube easily. Pocket, and its free official app, claims to handle both of these things, which is something I need to try for myself, to see if my life can get any simpler. I usually add articles to Instapaper, then sync them to my phone with InstaFetch, being careful not to load more than about 5 at a time, because of an InstaFetch bug. It's a fiddly process. Pocket synchronises automatically in the background, which is much more convenient. It also allows me to sort from oldest to newest, which is how I like my reading organised.

One annoyance I've had with InstaFetch (no fault of Instapaper, mind you) is that the app requires a network connection to open an article, basically spitting in the face of the idea of offline reading right away. Pocket also seems to require a network connection when it first opens an article, but at least from then on it caches images and doesn't download them a second time (InstaFetch will download images from scratch every time the phone is rotated). So, really, no (free) app scores at all on that front. UPDATE: Actually, Pocket works pretty well offline, even pre-caching images, which is better than InstaFetch did. Sometimes it doesn't get a full article for some reason, and then requires a network connection to open it, but if you're offline, those articles will be grey.

Reading on Pocket is at least as pleasant as in InstaFetch, and it remembers my current position in the article just like InstaFetch does. Well done there. The font is fine, and the background and layout is adequate.

On the whole, for articles, I'm handing the prize to Pocket for its automatic sync and smoother image handling, plus the ability to sync more than 10 articles for free. For video, InstaFetch doesn't even aim to handle it, so from here it's a competition between downloaded video and video on Pocket.

My downloaded video clips can come from anywhere. If I rip a DVD from home (say, I want to watch Futurama over again) I can mix that right in with my YouTube playlist that I keep in Dropbox. All the videos are right there and ready to go. I often queue up 30 minutes of video to watch over my lunch break. I don't usually grab video for viewing on the train, because my phone has been a bit inconsistent in that regard, and it's safer to stick to mp3 podcasts there. But Pocket does aim to handle online video for later, so it's worth trying.

My first attempt is a video from Cracked, which even PwnYouTube can't extract for me. Pocket does no better, showing me the whole web page and the embedded flash player, ready to stream the entire video over my limited 3G connection. No thanks. Another Cracked article, with an embedded YouTube clip, fares poorly too, but at least shows the embedded video frame. InstaFetch treats the same embedded video as if it doesn't exist at all, neatly snipping it out.

Figuring that embedded clips are not really handled well, I go for TableTop and follow the three clicks necessary to load the video directly from YouTube instead of embedded. Pocket takes a long time to sync this new page, which seems like a good sign when I'm looking at a 30 minute video. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to translate to downloaded video, because the item that shows up in Pocket opens in my phone's YouTube app and plans to stream the whole episode from the web. So I'll be sticking with downlaods for video for now.

After this brief review, I'm beginning to wonder whether any app developers know what "offline" actually means. All their "offline" reading apps seem to assume that, surely, you must have some kind of internet connection, right? If you don't, then both of these free apps will have a problem. Other than that, Pocket is the winner for the reasons noted above. Instapaper does have an official app, but it costs a few dollars, and this review was all about free apps. I'm fairly confident that the official Instapaper app would outperform InstaFetch, but when Pocket outperforms InstaFetch too, and is free, well, Instapaper might have some competition on its hands.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Each program does have other features I have not reviewed.
PPS - Because they're free, you could try them both yourself to see which you prefer.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Beyond hyperlinking

Every website is an island. Oh, sure, they can hyperlink together, and some of them are designed to make use of another website or maybe a mobile or desktop app, and some of the really far-thinking ones provide an API you can access, but essentially every website is disconnected from every other one. If you have data here, but you want to use it over there, it's a pretty big deal if a website actually offers you a way to do that. Contrast with the desktop software world, where my text files can be opened by practically any program I want, I can copy them anywhere I want to, I can cut them up and use them for different purposes and all kinds of things.

This is why integrating websites and web services is the new secret sauce. Just about everything you need or want is out there somewhere already, even if you want website A, but with just a bit of the feature from website B. Unfortunately for you, combining the two is only possible by (a) writing a third web service to use both their APIs in concert, if such things exist, or (b) writing a third web service that duplicates all the same desirable features as the first two.

That's what "web 2.0" is/was supposed to be about: web services becoming programmable interfaces so that we don't need to reinvent everything every time. It's the old Unix philosophy where each tool does one little thing really well, and if you need something new, you probably just need to string a few existing tools together in a new way. Despite the hype dying down about whatever we thought "web 2.0" meant at the time, I think it is the way forward. We're just starting to say "cloud" now, and meaning the same thing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The internet itself is the development platform.
PPS - But it also needs to include the existing websites and tools as building blocks.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

TransLink has proper maps now

I was pleasantly surprised to find recently that TransLink's Journey Planner has been updated to include Google Maps integration, so you can see exactly where your journey will go. That's incredibly useful, especially when searching for a bus stop on an unfamiliar route - a problem I have had many times on Brisbane's public transport services. I imagine from there it's a relatively simple step to allowing Google to present that public transport information directly on the Google Maps website, but frankly that doesn't seem necessary when the Translink service is quite good enough, as long as you know where to look for it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It also provides "just walk" as a journey option if your departure and destination points are close together.
PPS - It never used to do that.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Streaming music is not for me

Spotify has just launched in Australia, which is nice for fans of streaming music, but the times when I most want such a service are when I have extremely limited resources at my disposal - low battery life and limited mobile data quota. So, personally, I don't think I'll ever fully switch over to internet-based music, if only because I won't be able to get to it when my monthly data quota has run dry or I am out of a high-speed service area. If my mobile plan included an unmetered option to sync and store music on my car radio, then I might consider it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Also, I'll need a more impressive car stereo for that.
PPS - And that's not going to happen soon.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - The Fountain

The three of us stood there beside the shallow, shining pool weapons drawn and edgy. Chalmers, my right-hand-man on the expedition pointed his thin sword at me, but kept his eyes fixed on the newcomer, a woman. She was wounded worse than the two of us - she probably had less than twenty-four hours left. She'd outlast us all if she got today's cup.

That was something we hadn't expected. We searched out the fountain of youth, which led Chalmers and me, as well as our many assistants and guides, halfway across the South American continent. We spoke to locals, both learned university professors and those who merely knew the folklore of their region. We thrashed through jungles, waded through swamps, climbed mountains and crossed valleys, until we finally found it, a day's journey into a deep cave under the Peruvian Andes.

That was when Chalmers stabbed me. He said he needed to be sure this was the real fountain of youth, and he surely wasn't going to injure himself as a test.

The Royal Society was apparently paying him four times as much as I was.

He brought the cup to my lips and I drank in haste, feeling energised and healed immediately. My wound closed right away, but then I felt the energy draining from me, little by little, and my wound began opening again. Chalmers thought perhaps I hadn't drunk enough of the healing waters, and offered me a second cup, but it did no good. Twenty-four hours later, my wound was as fresh as when it had been inflicted. Only then did we realise the fountain's terrible secret: each day, it could bestow only one more day to one person. If you were mortally wounded, you could do no better than to sit by the pool and drink from it daily to prolong the inevitable. If you were of good health, it would almost appear to do nothing.

Perhaps long ago it had greater power than this, but today it does not.

In a struggle that second day, I had managed to break Chalmers' leg - a payback for my stab wound - and we had maintained an uneasy truce since then, I taking enough water to live another day, and he relying on my medical expertise to stave off his own potential infection. We could not leave until Chalmers had healed and could bring help.

That is why the injured woman was so troubling. Without the water today, I would die, and so would she.

Between her Spanish and my Latin we managed to communicate enough to learn of her village, three days journey on foot to the East, where she said they had medicine, food and ... perhaps she said elephants? Her accent and our different languages made subtle differences into big difficulties. But no difficulty was as big as two mortally wounded travellers plus one with a broken leg trying to make a three day journey on foot. We would surely die on the way.

"Well, this is a jam," said Chalmers, and, little by little, his sword tip dropped. I was in no shape to overpower him, but it started feeling like that wouldn't be the right course of action anyway. He was right. I and the woman needed the water to live through the day, and Chalmers needed at least one of us to help him walk. We needed her to show us to the village. "What can we do?"

The answer had come to me already, unfortunately. I took the cup and, before Chalmers could reach me across the pool, I had it in the woman's hands and she began to drink.

"What are you doing, man? You'll die!" He was only concerned for himself, but it sounded almost genuine.

"The two of you," I began, dressing the woman's shrinking wound as I spoke, "may reach the village on foot in time to send help back here. Take some of the water with you, and use it on the way if you must. I will stay here and hope for the best, awaiting your return. If all of us are extremely lucky, we may yet get out of here alive."

Chalmers eyed me suspiciously, but with the woman to guide him and the water to heal them on the road, they stood a good chance. It was the most good I felt I could wring from the situation, and as I watched them go by the faint light of the glow worms, I did sincerely hope they would make it.

Perhaps, as I said, if I am lucky, I may get out of here, too.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The concept here came from a half-dreamed thought earlier in the week.
PPS - I made the explorers British because it just seemed to fit.

Crowd-sourced carpooling

Someone should write a website or app for crowdsourced, distributed carpooling. It would probably have to include some kind of reputation system for drivers and passengers, because it would mean a lot of strangers driving around other strangers, and there might be a conflict with the taxi drivers union or whatever they have. Still, there are a lot of cars on the roads these days, and most of them have room for more than the people they carry. Besides that, sharing driving between two or more people is more economical than public transport, with added flexibility to go right to your door if needed. All that's really missing is a way to hook up willing drivers with regular paying passengers, and that's just a technology problem, which the world is great at solving.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Apparently this has been at least one person's thesis topic.
PPS - I'm not sure whether it involved any practical coding or demonstration.

Thursday, 14 June 2012


I am really getting into Wil Wheaton's TableTop video podcast where he plays board games with celebrities. Well, internet and sci-fi celebrities. It just does a really good job of showing how much fun board games are, and works as advertising not just for the specific games in question, but the whole concept. I would really appreciate an RSS feed just for the TableTop episodes in order, but they don't seem to have that. If you're a fan of Wil Wheaton or board games, you should check it out.

One thing in general that surprises me is that there aren't more turn-based games being made for mobile phones. It's possible this is because playing with other humans in asynchronous time means a lot of waiting around, and we are a generation that demands instant gratification. Still, as demonstrated by Draw Something, you can easily handle multiple turn-based games at once on the one interface, so it's not like it's an impossible task. I would like to see many more table-top board games translated for play online, on mobile phones and on tablets.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you have an iPhone, you can get Ticket To Ride to play on there.
PPS - And probably some other games. I don't know, because I have an Android phone.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Domestic User Manual

Someone should write a list of things you should know how to do around the house. Not basic domestic skills like washing dishes, but how those tasks map to the particular features of the house, such as:

- How to turn the mains power on and off
- How to turn the water mains on and off
- How to work the washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, barbeque, oven and stove
- TV, DVD and stereo operations
- Where all the cleaning products are kept

And my personal favourites:

- Restoring internet connectivity
- What's the wifi password?

Those kinds of things should go in every house's operating manual. I plan on drawing up document templates that anyone can fill out. Then, if you ever need a house-sitter, or you move out and make your current house a rental, you can just hand over a printout of all the pertinent information. It might work even better as a digital document, with photos and videos embedded for some elements, but it would be easiest to put together as a paper document.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - For house-sitting, include some info on pet care.
PPS - I also need a good name. "Domestic User Manual" makes for a mildly insulting acronym.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Video editing software requirements

What I need in a video editing suite is something dead simple to use (I'm only ever processing a single video file at a time) with the following features as must-haves:

1. Save and load all popular formats, including .avi, .mkv, .mp4, .wmv.
2. Rotate, crop, stretch and shrink operations.

It would be nice to have the ability to split and join files, too, but that doesn't come up nearly as often. I have used Hamster Free Video Converter, which is pretty good on formats, but doesn't do anything but transcode, shrink and stretch, and I've used Windows Live Movie Maker, which can rotate videos easily, but only outputs .wmv. I haven't found anything that can crop images. I need something as simple as Paint to work with single video files. Is there anything like that?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A quick search turned up comparison articles that don't mention any of my point 2 features.
PPS - Also, because I don't do that much video editing, I'd like it to be dirt cheap or free.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Australian sarcasm

We Australians have a kind of deadpan sarcasm or a way of telling lies that looks initially like the stone cold truth. How do we recognise it in each other while it slips right by foreigners? I honestly don't know. I think part of it is shared knowledge that we are telling lies, and part of it is the occasional wink and nudge to others who share the joke, or keeping the straight face only long enough to tell the lie, then giving a warm smile, a slap on the back and a "Nah, only joking, mate". Perhaps our faces are a little too serious when we talk that way. It's really hard to pin down, but I'm sure there's some signal, or a distinct lack of signal, that points out when we are doing this.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A search for Australian Sarcasm turned up this page of jokes as the top result.
PPS - It is not very informative, but quite amusing.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - The steam engine bargain

The family huddled in the back room, listening intently to the approaching sound of marching boots. When they heard their front door kicked in, they knew it was too late. The soldiers had come to take their son away to become a wizard.

The boy's mother stood defiantly between the soldiers and her son. Nobody was going to take her boy away without going through her first, and her jaw was set hard in an expression that said it all. She would go down fighting - kicking, screaming, biting, scratching like an enraged lioness - if they tried to move her aside.

The soldiers, anonymous behind their visors, hesitated. They were not above kicking teeth if they had to - indeed, some had enlisted specifically for the possibility of face-kicking - but this determined woman was not like many of the others they had seen. There would be no joy in attacking her. Not for this.

The boy himself seemed indifferent to the ordeal. Whether he went to become a wizard to run the machinery of the city seemed to be of little consequence to him. Perhaps he did not understand that wizards, once trained in the ways of magic and put to work for the city, had a life expectancy of about 5 years. 10 if they were lucky.

The city ran on magic. Everything from transport and construction to communication. And every task needed its own wizard. As the city grew, the need for wizards increased with the demand for infrastructure. And that level of demand for training wizards meant taking boys from their homes now. No more possibility of volunteers. The population was practically eating itself to get enough wizards to make the roads, trains, phones and lights work.

When the father stepped in front of his wife holding a machine, the soldiers snapped back a step and raised their clubs, their own brand of training taking over. The machine was chugging and whirring, emitting a growing cloud of smoke. The man tried to explain, to say "It's okay, I can build these for you, and you won't need to take my boy", but the soldiers were not trained or authorised to make decisions like this. They called their captain, still uncertain whether the clanking machine was dangerous.

The captain glanced at the machine, then took a long look at the man holding it, trying to puzzle out whether he was dangerous, insane, brilliant or some combination of the three. Warily he asked the man to explain the machine, but did not order his soldiers to stand down from full alert.

"It's called a steam engine. See, it burns coal here, which heats up water in the boiler, and that turns the wheel here. You can use it to run the trains, and then you won't need nearly as many wizards, so you won't need my boy at ... all." The had been intent on his invention during his explanation, not seeing the captain's still-glaring face until he looked up at the last moment. The captain considered the device for a long time.

"It's very small", he said, finally.

"I can make it bigger", replied the man.

The captain considered again for a long time. The boy continued trying to peek out at the action, and his mother still stood defiantly in front of him, though her unspoken challenge seemed to have lost some urgency.

Finally, the captain ordered his men: "Take him and the machine." Then, almost as an afterthought, "The boy too."

Both parents cried out in unison, and the captain cut them off.

"Not a word! I will not hear one word about this! The boy comes with us. He has the talent, and we were sent for him." He breathed a sigh, then softened just a little. "If your engine ... thing works, then maybe we won't need wizards to run the trains. You can appeal to have him back in a year."

The soldiers all turned and left, taking the steam engine, father and son in tow, and the only sounds as their bootsteps faded was the quiet sobbing of a woman left alone.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I would have liked to spend more time in world-building on this.
PPS - But I don't have the room for that.

DisplayPort and piracy

On my new computer at work I am using two monitors connected via DisplayPort cables to the video card. I was poking around the video settings, getting everything arranged to my liking, when I noticed the "content protection" tab. It was just a status indicator, basically, containing a diagram of my monitor and the cable, saying "content protected" with a big green tick to let me know that it's okay, don't panic, the content is protected. Of course I breathed a big, sarcastic sigh of relief, because finally I have monitors and cables with content protection. All those years of using unprotected content had been weighing heavily on my soul.

The problem with this little status display is philosophical, and it probably won't affect me. The questions to ask about it are these: whose content is this, and from what is it protected? It's (usually) not "my" content. It's Windows, YouTube, GMail and so on, but also all the programs I write myself. The next question is more sinister. The content on my monitors is being protected from me. When a computer has to be designed to treat its primary user as if that user has malicious intent, something has started to go wrong. When the desires of Hollywood have greater influence on the design of electronics components than the desires of the customers who will buy them or even the companies who manufacture and sell them, something has definitely gone way off course. HDCP does not belong on everyone's computers just to try and Stop The Pirates. That's stupid, and it's certainly not going to work. There will be two kinds of people who notice this content protection. The first kind is trying to do something legitimate with their legitimate content when the protection scheme fails and locks them out. Those people have a broken computer for no reason. The second type of person who notices is a pirate, who will work around the protection scheme and continue pirating as if nothing had happened. That person does not have the broken computer that Hollywood wants him to have. Two failures, and piracy still present. Double fail, even though they changed the entire consumer electronics industry according to their fears. Surely they can't consider that a win?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - When you imagine a movie executive saying "pirates", you have to imagine wide eyes, hands in the air, running in circles and screaming.
PPS - Also, the DisplayPort cables seem to prevent Windows from remembering the correct monitor resolutions for me. So there's that, too.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Treating depression with magnets

Can interfering with the right inferior frontal gyrus become a viable treatment for depression? According to research done by Tali Sharot, they were able to boost people's optimism for about half an hour at a time by disrupting that area of the brain with a magnetic field. In normal people, that produced unbounded, wild optimism, because that area of the brain is responsible for incorporating negative information into our outlook or decision making. Something like that. So I'd be very interested to find out what effect that could have on depressed people, who surely have a much lower optimism bias than the rest of us. If you treated just that part of the brain in a depressed person, would it make their outlook generally more sunny, and therefore get them to be more positive, feeding that back into the rest of their lives?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It would be like a real-life happy helmet.
PPS - Which didn't turn out too well, actually, so maybe don't base it on that.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

TED talks

I love watching TED talks, especially about emerging medical technology. Here are some things I've learned about recently, just off the top of my head:And there are probably more that I've overlooked. In short, there are some very talented engineers making very cool medical technology, especially for the developing world, and this is making our global civilisation tangibly better right now. I wish I were contributing too, but I am neither an engineer, nor do I have any real medical knowledge. But the basic point is that TED talks encourage me that the world is progressing, and that makes me feel better than the nightly news does.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A lot of things feel better than the nightly news, though.
PPS - That's kind of how they work.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

How to avoid oppressive governments as a giant tech company

Your best option as a tech giant, like Google, to avoid oppressive governments is probably to buy a small country and run the government yourself like a dictatorship. That way you don't have to have any laws you don't like, and you don't have to answer to any other organisations at all. Plus you can plaster your logo all over every building, and finally start working on that private army you always wanted.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That is, until someone invades you to liberate your people.
PPS - Which is pretty much inevitable at that point.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Temporary but permanent

I quite like the impression of certain events or situations, normally expected to be short-term, going on to become the normal state of affairs. For instance, in Douglas Adams' Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, the editor-in-chief of the HHGG organisation went missing while out to lunch one day. Because taking long lunches was the culture at that organisation, he is still on the books years later as the official editor-in-chief, perpetually out to lunch. Others who do the job are technically known as the "acting editor-in-chief", just until the real guy gets back to put in a solid afternoon's work.

Or on the TV show Castle, Rick and his daughter have, technically, been playing one continuous game of laser tag from when she was 5 until she goes to college, comprising a long, slow race to 1000 points. It just has this really nice flavour of subtle contradiction. Permanent temporariness. Like bureaucratic self-blindness in full swing.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess it would be less fun if that described your work situation.
PPS - Then you'd be forever waiting for the axe to fall.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Anachronistic

"This is not 1988 technology." I turned the plastic rectangle over in my hand. It almost looked convincing, which meant it had been made to pass for normal in this time frame. The kid squirmed in my grip. "It doesn't belong here. Tell me where you got it and I'll let you go." He pointed down the street and tried to bolt again when I looked, but my fingers held tight on his shirt, which was slowly changing colour with the warmth of my hand. "I need an address."

"Last warehouse on the dock, third door. Let me go!" I released him and he stumbled to the ground before scurrying off around a corner.

This is what I do. Since time travel opened up for exploration and science, then recreation, people have been trying to make a quick buck from suckers in the past, and people like me have been trying to stop them. They try selling knock-off souvenirs from the future in small market stalls, maps to locations of future events and, most dangerous of all, stock market and sports event results. They caused the 1929 market crash before we caught them. I'm not letting that happen again.

What I'd found this time was a sophisticated tech smuggling ring. They had been selling these cheap electronic slates as reading devices, but with custom cases so the natives figured it was some upcoming tech that had been leaked, stolen or scrapped. But the colours on the screen were too bright, the battery life too long and the whole thing too light-weight. They were also running a version of Linux that wouldn't be released for another thirty years, so there's that, too, in case the rest of the evidence was in doubt.

The warehouse door was open, and the place was cleaned out. There was packing material strewn everywhere. Whoever was selling contraband here is gone now, but leaving in such an obvious hurry, they'd have to have made mistakes. As I sifted the ground for evidence, I found a crumpled cigarette packet of a familiar brand. The expiry date printed on the back placed it a year into my own future. I know immediately who is behind this, and where he is likely to head.

In the early days, time travel was restricted to scientists, and nobody was allowed to travel forward, except to return to their own time. It was easy to control when the equipment was the size of an airport and it cost more than a small country to run. Then some bright spark stole a better model from the future, which they reverse engineered, rinse, repeat, etc. We're in a bad time now, with briefcase machines, but it's going to get worse. When the tech is small enough to implant, we'll be too far up a certain creek to ever paddle ourselves back home.

I find him at a storage locker. There have been storage lockers here for over 20 years already, and there will be for over 150 more. It's a convenient reference point for my old partner, Tom. The door is closed but not locked, and as I roll it up, I see him hastily packing a crate full of boxes that say "VCR" on the side. He turns to face me as the sound startles him, and I call his name for added effect.

"Tom! Stop right there."

He does look at me, and pauses momentarily, then sees that my weapon is not drawn. Rather than stop to discuss this, he turns back and keeps packing without a word.

"Tom," I repeat, "You have to stop this, now. What's come over you?" He watches me cautiously. As I draw my weapon, Tom drops to the ground behind his crate. There is a flash of light and an ozone smell, then he is gone. At least the crate is still here, but now I have a fugitive to track down, and no idea where he might be going. Well, maybe some idea. If he's selling VCRs, then I bet he's gone to the 1970s.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This one is based, in part, on a dream I had.
PPS - My subconscious has good ideas, now and then.


The longer Kickstarter goes on, and the more projects get on it, the more the problem for each project becomes publicity rather than funding. As noted by xkcd, we might then get meta-kickstarter campaigns whose goal is to raise enough funds to pay for the advertising for the real campaign. And that's been the problem all along, really. If you can reach enough of the right people, you're going to get up-front capital to fund your project, and the one thing Kickstarter contributed to that situation was crowdsourcing. You don't need to find yourself one person with $100,000 to invest now, you just need 100,000 people with $1 each. But when there are 100,000 other projects on Kickstarter, you need to stand out enough to grab everyone's attention.

For instance, the Two Guys from Andromeda, Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, the creators of Space Quest (a favourite series of mine), have a project on Kickstarter to get a new, similar game going, but it feels to me like they might run out of time. Is it a failure of advertising? Possibly. It's hard to say for sure. I really hope they make it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've put some of my money in.
PPS - Unfortunately, I don't have $230,000 to put them over the top.