Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Abuse of power

The funny thing about an abuse of power is that sometimes you might not even realise you have power until you've abused it. Trust is power, and playing pranks on people can sometimes cross that line where you are abusing that trust and therefore abusing your power.

I'm thinking of a moment on Mythbusters. Very early on, they were testing whether a Leydon jar could put out a noticeable electric shock. The then-known-as "build team" hooked up an electric fence generator to their mock-up Ark of the Covenant, but told Adam Savage it was just the Leydon jar, which would have been a much milder shock. He actually asked them "you didn't hook up the fence generator to this, did you?" and they said no. The look of surprise and betrayal on his face when he got shocked said everything.

I've seen Adam talk about it at some conference, where he said the whole thing was the producer's idea, and that's probably the guy with the most power on set at any given time. That prank, I think, crossed a line into abuse of that power. Adam also said that he and Jamie Hyneman don't prank each other on the show, just because it escalates too quickly and gets way out of hand.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think that's sensible.
PPS - Though it doesn't sound like much fun, on the surface of it.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Watermarks for plagiarised digital content

There is a long-standing practice on the web of stealing other people's content without permission, scrubbing it of all identifying marks and passing it off as your own. It's despicable plagiarism of the most blatant kind, but people are getting away with it, for the most part, because it's really hard to track down and enforce. That's never going to change. The closest you can come to detection is watermarking, but of course people are going to remove that if they know it's there. The best you can hope for is a watermark nobody even notices. Doing that to an image or video is hard. Watermarking text is harder.

Well, Robert Evans, writing for Cracked.com, did so. I don't know whether it was intentional, but I noticed something in the middle of an article. The trick was to mention the name of the original site directly as part of the natural flow of the text. Deliberate or not, it worked as textual watermarking, both to point out the practice and to identify the true source of the material. The sentence fragment was "...whether you're reading this on Cracked.com or on one of the many Indian blogs that steals our content..." and, sure enough, those same content-stealing blogs lifted the entire quote as part of their theft. Now anyone who came across the stolen version might have a moment's pause and say "hang on, reading this where?"

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That is, if people even notice what website they're on.
PPS - Apparently, most people don't.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Milton

There used to be a bowling alley in the suburb of Milton. In it, if you went at the right time of night, you might see a man who looked like he was built entirely of muscle. He would be bowling alone, in a lane at the end, with a ball so heavy that nobody else could lift it, let alone bowl it. The name on his score monitor says "Thor".

The ball swung up high behind him, then curved down in a long arc. The bowler released it only when it kissed the lane, smooth as silk. Then came the rumble, deep in the boards of the lane, so low-pitched you could barely hear it. You felt it deep inside your bones instead as the ball rushed along the polished wooden boards of the lane. Finally, the ball would complete its journey with a crack as the pins flew away before it, exploding in all directions and coming to rest either spinning on the lane or knocked far back into the well. The rumble lingered on just a little longer than it seemed it should have done, and then the ball was on its way back through the chute.

Thor didn't especially like to bowl alone. It was just the only way for him. His scores were respectable, and the thunderclap of his ball was not easy to follow with your own twelve-pound ball. Thor's sixes made your strikes sound wimpy by comparison. But the main reason Thor bowled alone was that he wasn't much of a people person. Thor seemed not so much like a lost soul, but more like a lonely one. Someone for whom the normal company of other people was very difficult or too awkward.

I met the man who called himself "Thor" on the lanes late on a Sunday night, when the alley was normally quiet and clear. He was huge - a metre across the shoulders.

Thor swung back his mighty ball and propelled it down the lane with as smooth a delivery as I've ever seen. The interesting part was that his feet were rooted to the ground. They never moved, while most other bowlers would take a few steps to build up some speed, Thor's power was all shoulder.

His technique was a bit lacking, though. The really good bowlers would spin the ball so that it curved across the lane and struck the first pin on an angle. Thor bowled head on, straight line, and his heavy ball just plowed right through the pins. It was common for him to end up with a bad split.

Being a coach myself, I wanted to offer my services, to teach Thor a little finesse. I mean, power is one thing, and plenty of bowlers would have loved to have power like Thor's, but if you can't direct that power on anything but a straight line, you'll miss all your spares.

I took up the lane next to his and started easing out a few strikes. I didn't want to make him feel bad - if I had, I would have used a kids' six-pound ball - but I wanted to show him that I knew my stuff. Power isn't everything. He huffed to himself, set his jaw and swung out the most thunderous, incredible frames I have ever seen or heeard, but didn't score more than seven on any of them.

I knew he wouldn't ask for my help, and he clearly wasn't going to accept if I offered it to him, so I tried something else.

"Could you show me how to bowl with power like that?" I asked him.

He took a second for his eyes to focus, as if he had been expecting something else from me. Then he kind of smirked and picked up his ball. He wasn't much for words.

Obviously there was a lot of muscle in Thor's power bowling, but it turned out there was a lot of developed technique, too. Keep the arm bent, he showed me, until the last moment. Follow an ellipse, not a circle. Before long, I was hurling my ball down the lane at dizzying speed, and the crack of the pins as it connected was quite satisfying.

I thanked Thor for his help and watched him bowl a few more frames before taking up my lane again. I put some of Thor's power moves into play, but used them to enhance my own finely-targeted technique. It seemed clear to me that he wasn't going to ask my help, but he could watch me mix his power with my style. He could figure it out on his own, if that's what he wanted.

A few weeks later, I saw that the "perfect game" sign above the lane had changed, listing one "Thor Odinson" as having bowled a 300 game there recently. I smiled as I saw that the lane was also being repaired. A perfect game from Thor must have meant quite a punishment.

I kept going back to the alley until they closed it down years later, but I never saw Thor again. Maybe he found a new haunt, or maybe he just decided he was done with bowling after his perfect game. Either way, I can't hear a thunderstorm now without smiling. I like to think they had to close the old alley because of Thor - because their aging lanes couldn't take his particular brand of power any more - but I'll never know for sure.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The real story of why Milton Bowl closed is more mundane than this, obviously.
PPS - I used to bowl there now and then.

Dropbox and offline media

I manage an ongoing playlist of one-time-media via Dropbox. I download podcasts there, plus TED talks and whatever video I can wrestle from the internet's grasp for offline viewing, because it's much more convenient that way: no buffering, plus the network on my desktop is more reliable, faster and cheaper. Also because I am an adult who is capable of planning ahead rather than a pigeon trained to peck at shiny objects for instant rewards. I like doing it this way, because it doesn't matter if I'm on my desktop or my netbook - they all go into the one synchronised collection, which I can access anywhere.

The point is this: I process a lot of this offline media playlist via my phone, on my train trips home (trips towards work are reserved for reading my towering collection of second-hand paperbacks, which is another story). I don't like my phone being the Source Of All Truth so I don't just download them directly there, and Dropbox doesn't let me select the whole podcast folder to keep it in sync over WiFi only. I do this awkward dance of moving tracks to my phone manually, then deleting them when I'm done. I consider it a bit dangerous, in a way, because when they're moved out of Dropbox, my phone is the only place that holds them. Sometimes I want to keep them, because they were really good, which means copying them back off my phone again before I move new items on there.

What I would rather do is just tell Dropbox that the Podcasts folder is to be kept up to date on my phone at all times, and it is to use WiFi only for this task. Then I know all my podcasts will be on my phone automatically, and I can listen to a track there once, delete it there and know that it is gone from my synchronised desktops and online storage too. I want to use that Dropbox folder as a way of managing media on my phone remotely, and to know that it won't spend my limited mobile data quota to get the job done.

Often I worry that the way I use software has drifted too far from the original design intent, and that's why it has become awkward for me. This may be one of those cases. I've mentioned before that streaming is not an option, so if that's the official answer, I'd be disappointed. I need things prepared offline, and Dropbox is almost, but not quite, up to the task.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I suppose I could use a regular folder sync program, like SyncToy.
PPS - It's still an extra step, but it might be less annoying.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Prequel compromise

With Hollywood's fondness for prequels and our fondness for story resolution, why don't we just have them tell all their stories backwards, starting at the satisfying conclusion, then filling in the background details with prequel after prequel until we get bored of the origins of the origins of the origins of some particularly obscure bit of the long-forgotten story ending? Then they can do marathon screenings where you get to see all the movies in their "correct" beginning-to-ending order and be blown away by how the story all fits together, completely forgetting that those threads you see coming together in the end are actually lazy, meandering storytelling in reverse.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The beginning-to-ending order might take some more editing effort, though.
PPS - Especially if prequel threads go nowhere.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Anticipation of holidays

Apparently a lot of what people enjoy about holidays is not so much the holiday itself, but the anticipation of it. So how long in advance should you plan your holidays to maximise that enjoyment from anticipation? They need to be close enough to the present that they feel real and imminent, but far enough away that they don't just pop up immediately. They also need to be long enough to feel like a real holiday, but short enough not to eat up all your leave time. Tricky balancing act.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Personally, I like taking some time late in the year.
PPS - Because all our public holidays are in the first six months.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

WiFi click-through terms and conditions

I'm a fan of free WiFi in general, and there was at least one trip where McDonald's was our only internet connection. What I don't like is that every one of them feels the need to have a terms & conditions click-through page that won't let you get online unless you agree not to do anything naughty. Even that might not be so bad if they remembered you between sessions - agree once to the T&C legal disclaimer that nobody ever reads, and then it's saved for at least a week. Would that be so bad?

There's an unspoken question here about whether the T&C page is necessary. Public hotspots block whatever sites they don't like anyway, and any other conditions either amount to "don't break the law" or "don't be a [badword]". Anybody who was going to do those things is still going to do them anyway, and the legal disclaimer is pointless in that case. I didn't read it, they certainly didn't read it, and they're not going to respect it just because they had to tick a box and click a button before getting online.

If the disclaimer is to protect the service provide (eg McDonald's) in court, will it actually do so? If someone managed to break the law on a WiFi hotspot like that, would the provider even be liable for a portion of the damages? I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just hate losing network connection when I walk past a hotspot.
PPS - All because my phone grabs a WiFi connection and shuts off 3G until I sign in.

Monday, 23 July 2012

I want to like Google+

I haven't been using Google+, though I was quite interested in it at the beginning. Why not? Well, all my friends stayed on Facebook, because Google+ isn't much different. Until that changes, I'll still be on Facebook, like it or not.

But I want to like Google+, so every month or so I'll open it up and see what's up. Today I opened it on my phone, and it showed me a long list of links from "my" circles that were half made up of people I absolutely do not know. I tried de-selecting "What's Hot" and "Nearby", just in case Google+ had decided I would be interested in something without consulting me first, but every single link remained firmly in place. I closed it again within a minute. If you're curious, that amounts to approximately 0.0003% of my total time I spend on Google+, and that's after accounting for sleep time. Google is fighting a very long uphill battle with this one, and if Google is having a hard time competing with Facebook, what does that say about Facebook and monopoly status?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Someone needs to compete, convincingly, with Facebook.
PPS - I just wonder who that will be and how.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Ashgrove

In the middle of the suburb of Ashgrove lies a dense grove of ash trees, hence its name. They weren't deliberately protected, amid the rise of houses and businesses, but nobody felt a need to cut them down, either. So there they stand, weirdly placed, an odd interruption to the urban landscape, like a block that was never developed or someone's tiny, misguided nature reserve. Get up closer and stare for long enough and you might see tiny lights flitting back and forth between the ash branches, as if fireflies existed in Australia. From the inside, those lights move at a very different speed. Much more slow and sedate. They are the Fae of the Ash Grove, and it is their entire world within those trees. Their lives whiz past ours at blinding speed and to them we are ponderous stone giants.

Two sisters, Tania and Monica took turns daring each other to step closer to the trees, each trying to get better photos than the other. None of them turned out very well until Tania stuck her arm in, past the tree trunks, and snapped a picture there with her phone. It hurt her hand somehow, but when she pulled it back, they could see at last. The tiny creatures flying back and forth among the grove had dragonfly wings and wore tiny silken clothes made of spider webs. They had leaves woven through their wiry hair and they appeared so magical that Monica did not waste any time on thinking. She dove right between the tree trunks as quickly as she could, and she was gone into the mysterious gloom.

Tania didn't know what to do. She called out to Monica a few times, but there was no response. Her mother had told her not to play in the ash grove, but here they were, and her mother had also warned her to take care of Monica. She couldn't abandon her sister, even if her mother would be angry. She followed Monica into the trees, and the quiet thumped into her ears like a thick blanket.

The world grew darker for a moment, but soon the faint lights of the place - from the creatures and even from the trees themselves - began to show her the shape of things. She couldn't see Monica anywhere.

She looked around her at the wonder of the place, so much more than a grove of trees. It was a whole world, and she stood towering above it like a skyscraper. She could see tiny ploughed fields under her feet and little Fae farmers shaking their tiny fists as she inadvertently trampled their crops. There were roads paved with pebbles and little Fae houses in the tree branches - mansions made like birds' nests of interwoven twigs.

And off a little way, there was an old woman, who must have been ninety, sitting on a throne woven together the same way, from hundreds or maybe thousands of tiny twigs. There were Fae weaving to repair little tears in her spider-silk dress, and she had leaves arranged in her hair, like the little Fae themselves.

"Excuse me," called Tania, "Have you seen another girl like me, only a little younger?"

The old woman looked puzzled for a while, as if she were trying to figure out some riddle in the speech. Then her eyes suddenly brightened and she reached into a bag beside her throne to withdraw an old battered mobile phone - Monica's phone! Its battery was long drained, but through some Fae magic, the old woman waved her hand over the phone and called up some photos. There were those first few pictures the girls had taken from the edge of the grove, and the one from inside, then a series of portraits of Monica herself. As the old woman flicked past the photos, the face grew older and more worn. Wrinkled, but more beautiful. Tania gasped and her little sister - now an old woman - nodded and smiled.

"You have to come back!" said Tania, but old Monica shook her head. "No, you have to! I promised to take care of you! I'm sure ... someone can fix this, or the faeries can make you young again with their magic, maybe?"

Monica smiled gently and shook her head again. She pointed to her throne and gestured at the miniature wonders around them as if that explained it all.

"But what will I tell Mum?"

Monica took a long time to form words. She hadn't spoken in decades. "Tell ... her ... I am ... happy ... and she was .... right. Don't ... come back ... and don't ... eat ... the ..." she made a clutching motion with her hand and furrowed her brow, then pointed at a big ripe fruit on one of the trees.

"Fruit?" prompted Tania.

"Yes! Don't ... eat the fruit. It will ..." Monica made a vague hugging gesture, "... keep you here."

Tania turned to go, but took a long last look at her sister, now aged long past her prime. She gave the frail old woman a hug, then tweaked her nose like they used to do.

"Mum's gonna kill me." She said in parting.

"Then ... bring her here. She can ... see for herself."

"Alright, I will." Tania lingered a moment longer. "I'll miss you."

"And ... I have missed you. It was ... good to see you again."

Tania gave a weak smile, then stepped out of the grove into daylight again.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have realised that, if I stick to this pace, it will take me 3 years and 8 months to finish all of Brisbane.
PPS - I may have to take some breaks along the way.

Words for small sets

On xkcd, Randall Munroe posted a list of "words for small sets", saying that all of the terms "several", "a few", "a handful" and "a couple" basically mean "2 to 5". For me, however, I've always felt more like this:

A few: 3 to 5
A handful: 4 to 6
Several: 7 to 10
A couple: 2 or 3

It would be interesting to conduct a very large survey of internet users, presenting them with a small collection of objects (anything from 2 up to about 12) and asking them to choose the most appropriate descriptive phrase out of those four, or "none of the above". You'd probably need quite a lot of data to make any conclusions, and you'd want some other participant info such as gender, age and nationality to dissect the results further. I think that would be an interesting experiment, along the lines of xkcd's own colour survey.

Then again, you'd probably end up with exactly what he posted in the first place.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Personally, when I say "a handful", I'm usually speaking literally.
PPS - That is, "put as many in your hand as you can hold".

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Artistic statements

If your art needs an explanatory statement, then you fail at art. A painting, or a movie, or a story that does not say clearly everything that it intends to say, is not artistically solid. If you have something to say about your art, then you should be saying it in your art, and if you cannot do so, then that is your artistic failure, not the fault of the audience for being unable to interpret your art on its own.

That's just how I feel about it. An artistic statement seems to say, alongside the art to which it connects, "I tried to say all this, but it didn't quite come out properly, so here's the missing bit".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So, what I was trying to say here was...
PPS - Oh, dang it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Cloud desktops are almost already here

How long before our computer workspaces are all services, sold to us over the internet, persistent across machines? Cloud desktops seem inevitable.

And you know what? We're halfway there already. What's to stop Apple, for instance, from adding a "cloud app runner" interface to the iTunes store? Then all the apps you've bought for your iPhone would be available from anywhere on the internet, as long as you have the right iTunes login. Tell me that small change wouldn't make iTunes a consumer cloud operating system, complete with a whole host of apps ready to go and user accounts wired up already. That's where we are, people. One tiny step away from cloud desktops, linked to app stores, and we already signed up.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Browser-based operating systems (eg Chromium OS) are another path.
PPS - Because then your extensions, bookmarks and in-browser apps need to sync with a server to make it worthwhile.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Business cards doubling as stickers

When doctors need to fill in your details on a form, they will often have a set of stickers printed up and ready to go. Instead of writing out your name labouriously and with possible errors every time, they just peel off a sticker and paste it on the form. The writing is clear because it's printed, and they save time and effort.

So why can't we all do that? I would personally like my business cards to be printed with a peel-off sticker incorporated right into them. That way, I could carry a couple with me at all times (as I already do), and they can still serve as business cards, but if I need to fill in my name and contact details on a form, I can just peel a sticker off one of my cards and attach it to the form. No fuss, no time wasted, no errors.

VistaPrint will print business card stickers like this in Australia at a cost of about $6 per sheet of 10. That's 60c per sticker, which is a lot to pay just for the privilege of not writing your name out a few times. Also, the only sense in which they are "business card stickers" is that they are business-card-sized and the designs are drawn from the same stock imagery as their business card range. Not exactly what I'm looking for.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Even if you buy in bulk, you're still talking more money than convenience here.
PPS - Which is a shame, because I would have liked to try them out.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Early Warning Network now charging for SMS

Apparently the Early Warning Network, a once-free service in my area that gives warnings about severe weather and other incidents by email and SMS, will now be charging an annual subscription fee for SMS alerts. Since email alerts are free, however, and since I can get email on my phone whenever I have phone service, I think I'll be okay with email-only alerts.

They also have mobile phone apps ($4.95) that will tell you if you enter an area with a current alert. It's not clear from the website whether this also allows you to get alerts for free that are very similar to the SMS system, or if they allow you to set up points of interest (say, your house and place of business, houses of close family) to get alerts for them when you are currently far from there.

I wish we'd had a similar service back when The Storm hit, as I've mentioned before, but sometimes I've found the warnings to be erring on the side of over-cautious. Sometimes a warning means storms, sometimes it just means light rain, though that's probably just when we're further from the epicentre.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I do recommend the system.
PPS - But it's up to you whether you're willing to pay for SMS alerts.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Sunnybank

"You are NOT leaving the house dressed like that!"

Nobody quite knew by what magic the suburb of Sunnybank existed in perpetual darkness, but that's the way its resident vampires liked it. Once it became clear that the situation was permanent, vampires felt free to come out of hiding and take up (relatively) normal lives above ground and during "daylight" hours. But as much as they adapted to the world around them, they were still vampires at heart. That's what bugged Christine about her parents. They were so stuffy and old-fashioned, with their facial piercings, gloomy decorations and wearing nothing but leather. To their dismay, Christine refused to get even a single neck tattoo.

"Dad! I'm nearly sixteen! You can't tell me what to do all the time!" She hated the whine in her own voice, but it always came out that way when she fought with her parents about this.

"Well, just look at that skirt! It's so long! And what's that stuff it's made from?"

Christine rolled her eyes as she replied "Wool, Dad."

He made a face and turned back to his newspaper. "You could at least put on some eyeliner."

"Oh, come on, Dad! All the kids are dressing like this now!"

"Well, you're my kid, and no kid of mine is wearing her hair in that ... horse-tail thing, or ... what do you call those shoes?"

"Ballet flats."

Another wrinkled nose face. "What happened to your nice platform boots, Raven?"

"They're too tall, besides I grew out of those last year. And I told you to call me Christine."

Her Dad pinched the bridge of his nose like he was getting a headache.

"No. Look, this is all too much. I can almost deal with the woollen skirts and the lack of tattoos and makeup, but Raven is the name I gave you! You've had it since you were newborn. What's wrong with it all of a sudden?"

Just as Christine was about to spit her retort back at him, her mother stepped in to make peace.

"Oh, Memnox, leave her alone. You've seen her friends wearing outfits just like that all the time. Let her go."

Her Dad snapped his newspaper up and buried his nose in it. "No. Not without any makeup."

"But Dad...!"

"I said no!"

Her mother made a little "Shh" gesture and led Christine upstairs to the bathroom. There she pulled from her own makeup bag a soft, understated pink lipstick.

"Mum! Where did you get this?"

"Oh, it's just something I wear now and then ... for fun."
Christine gave her mother an uneasy, but thankful, look, applied the lipstick and was ushered out the front door before her father got another look at her.

"Now, just be good, Christine, okay?"

"Of course, Mum," she replied, and gave her a full-fanged smile in the perpetual moonlight.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Second in my series on Brisbane suburbs.
PPS - This one was originally titled for a train station called "Sunshine".

Punishment as a deterrent

Punishments meant to deter crime only work if criminals are anticipating facing consequences of their actions, and they're not desperate. Increasing the maximum penalty from 10 years in prison to 20 years isn't going to make someone think twice before robbing a petrol station to feed his starving family (please note that I'm making up both these circumstances and their associated punishments - I have no idea about specifics, I'm just talking principles here). Or for someone who doesn't think they'll ever get caught, potential punishments are meaningless. Your only choice is to take a course of action that rehabilitates that individual after the fact or, better yet, pre-empt the problem and prevent the circumstances that lead to the crime in the first place.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have no authority to speak on this subject at all.
PPS - That should be a standard disclaimer on something like 95% of my posts here.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Google Chrome app store

I was puzzled for a short while about the Chrome "app store" functionality. It's distinct from the Android Market (now the Google Play Store) and installs things directly in the browser that are not (necessarily) websites, but must be written basically the same. Now I realise where it has come from. Google has plans to make Chrome a thin operating system for desktops and notebooks, which means the Chrome Web Store is how those computers would get their software. But since the advent of tablets, Android seems to be their operating system of choice. What does that mean for the future of the Chrome store and Chrome apps? Is Chrome a better fit for proper desktop computers than Android?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I had to choose a Chrome operating system or Android for my desktop, I'd probably go for Chrome.
PPS - But it would still be a painful restriction.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Search is hard

The messy, non-taxonomical, distributed nature of information on the web really makes some kinds of searches hard. For instance: is there anything interesting (to me) happening in my local area this weekend? Well, your first problem is that all the information for "my local area" is scattered across the internet under a lot of very different names. It might be filed, by some people, under your suburb name, or the name of your county, the name of nearby suburbs, or the names of streets. It might be filed specifically under names of local businesses or venues, or vague colloquial descriptions of nearby geographical or man-made features, such as "the cliffs" or "main street". So even describing your local area can be a challenge.

But we aren't even nearly done yet. Assuming you could pull all that information into one place, it's still a mess, because half of it is not described properly, some is misspelled, some is mis-dated and some of that information has changed since it was put online and nobody bothered to update the website. So good luck even telling what's going on.

Then there's the problem of figuring out what's interesting to you. If you can accomplish the herculean task of gathering and correcting all the information about events in your local area, you still might not stumble upon something that's interesting to you, because it's buried under tons of other information that leads you astray.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And that's why I don't know what I'm doing next weekend.
PPS - I don't think there's a good solution for this.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Sharing cloud service accounts

The move to cloud services linked to an individual account means that the days of "family" accounts for a lot of things are passing away. Or maybe that just happens when you have more than one computer in the house, dedicated for use by a single individual. You can't use one Steam account in a situation like that, which means you also can't do the perfectly reasonable thing of sharing games among the family. The real problem, from Valve's point of view (let's say) is that a family sharing an account for quite legitimate reasons looks the same on their end as two conspirators sharing an account to avoid buying two copies of one game.

That kind of control is never going to account for all the reasonable ways we are used to treating our property (such as lending, giving away, selling on, remixing) without also allowing other unreasonable actions (unauthorised duplication, scalping). It's time to choose: are you going to eat your cake, or are you going to admire it? The one thing you can't do, as a company, is tell everyone that the good people will never notice it while the bad people can't get around it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's my birthday today!
PPS - It's okay, you don't have to bow or curtsey.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Alone together

I think we need to speculate about shared experiences again. We've gone a little too far in the direction of private entertainment, so that even our "social" spaces are private, walled off, lonely deserts. We need to regain the ability to interact with each other. Not just in online snippets that we choose to edit and release, but in real time, face to face, inconvenient, messy, embarassing, but also uplifting, endearing and edifying. It's ironic that when we gained the ability to reach out to our friends and family any time, anywhere, it only made us more isolated.

I want my technology to enable greater personal interactions. At the moment, we have tech that lets us get in contact over great distances, which is awesome, but when you're physically present, it tends to get in the way. We have little screens and outmoded input devices, single-user interfaces and slow networks that mean we are either using tech or interacting with people, but not both. We need to change that, and we can do so either by making face time our top priority and putting away our phones or, perhaps, by finding some way for our phones to enhance our face time. Right now, they don't do that.

We've been heading down this isolation, filtering, walling-off path for a long time now, so it's going to take effort and time to turn this juggernaut around, and it's not going to be the path of least resistence. If you're headed down the wide, easy road, you know where that leads. You need to do something different about it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Recommended viewing: Sherry Turkle's talk "Connected, but alone?" at TED.
PPS - Or just look around you at everyone on their phones all the time.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - The Gap

The Gap opened up in the road overnight. I mean, it must have done, but nobody heard or saw anything. It was just a massive gash in the world, dividing the suburb in two. And now I was stuck on one side while my family was stuck on the other. We could just see people on the other side, but The Gap seemed to swallow up all sounds from the other side. It also seemed to be consistently just too far to throw anything, too, no matter who you were or what you used. The Gap was uncrossable. I mean, presumably you could fly across, but since nobody had a helicopter, we weren't sure about that.

I'm not sure who started calling it The Gap, but it was kind of confusing. After all, that was also the name of the suburb we lived in. I guess someone thought it was funny.

The army arrived at noon with a couple of scientists - seismologists, I think - who set up laser distancing equipment on either side. The Gap was expanding, and it was also warping space. In one sense, technically, it was infinitely wide: you could never build a bridge to cross it, because as far as you could build, there would always be further to go. In another sense, it did not exist at all: if you measured from far enough back, the distance was exactly what you'd expect - no Gap at all.

The phones still worked, so that was good, but unfortunately for me, my Dad, stuck on the other side, had never been big on technology. He did own a mobile, but it stayed at home, usually with a flat battery. I could see my Dad on the other side of The Gap, jumping up and down, waving and shouting to get my attention. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I could tell he was shouting, the way he did, with his hands cupped around his mouth and leaning forwards as if those few extra centimetres would help the sound carry further. It didn't. Through some big semaphore-style gestures, I tried to communicate that I was going to try and walk around to meet him at the other side. I figured even if it took all day I'd be there before the army was willing to ferry people across in the helicopters. Dad gave me a big two-thumbs-up gesture with his whole arms. He approved.

I had to make a stop first. I went over to my friend's place and told her about my plan. I was going to borrow a little food and a bottle for water, but Ange wanted to come with me. I'm not sure why - her family, after all, was still on our side of The Gap, so she wasn't trying to get to them. I guess she was just a good friend, trying to help me get over to my own family. She crossed her arms and gave me a solid stare that said she wasn't going to take "no" for an answer. There's no arguing with her when she gets like that, so we packed up two bags and headed out together.

For a little while, my Dad followed us from the other side, until we got to the mountain. His big gestures at his knees probably meant that they were playing up again. He wasn't an old man, as such, just getting older, and his joints weren't in such great shape any more. He turned around with a big, exaggerated wave goodbye and we kept going.

We trudged up the mountain and, at the top, got a good view down the valley and across several other suburbs. The Gap - the chasm, not the suburb - extended a long way, jagged-edged, deep and wide, perhaps curving slightly, but not going on forever.

It took us two hours to walk two suburbs over, through Keperra to Arana Hills, where the hole seemed to gradually close up. We were able to go around the end of it and head back on the other side, which took another two hours.

Although it was only afternoon by then, we were both exhausted, and the army and scientists didn't seem to be getting anywhere, so we went with Dad back to his place, and had some dinner. The people on the news spent a very long time saying they had no idea what was going on, so we all just hit the hay. Ange was planning to walk back to her family the next day.

In the morning, the other side of The Gap was invisible. The gaping ground yawned before us, a canyon that surely dwarfed anything else in the world. The darkness at the edge was scary, and there was no visible bottom to it. No more hope of crossing in helicopters. No more far side, as if the Earth had just broken it off and sailed it away. One guy with a telescope on his roof said the other side was still there, just much further away now.

I wondered aloud to Dad and Ange about what might happen to the other side. Would it keep functioning? Would The Gap close on itself, pinching off that piece of land and trapping everyone there?

Then Ange reminded me that we'd seen the end curving left - to the West - and, presumably, extending further around as time went on. We'd crossed it to get to the inside of the curve, which meant I would get my answers soon enough: we were on the inside. We were trapped here now by whatever mysterious force created The Gap, and unless someone could find a way out, or The Gap spontaneously closed on its own, we could be trapped here forever.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've decided to do a series named after and set in Brisbane suburbs.
PPS - Just because I can.

Android update procedure oddity

Something is off about the Android app update process when there is only one update vs several. See if you can spot the difference.

When there is only one app to update:
1. Swipe down and select the update notification.
2. Select the name of the one app that is to be updated.
3. Select "Update".
4. Select "Accept and Install".

When there is more than one app to update:
1. Swipe down and select the update notification.
2. Select "Update All".

The first case is also what you must do if an app's requested permissions change.

I'm just surprised that the "Update All" option only appears for more than one update at a time. It would be just as easy to have a similar button for single app updates, and it would save me manually distinguishing between apps whose permissions have changed and individual apps that just happen to have an update now.

It's not that big a deal. I mean, it's two extra taps to update one app as opposed to many, which seems backwards, but it's still workable. But the habit I find myself in lately is to put off single updates until another one comes along to do at the same time. Because of those extra taps, it doesn't seem like it's worth installing updates when there's only one app to do.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And this is from a guy who, for some reason, kind of enjoys updates.
PPS - I think it's just that I know a fully updated system is more secure.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


We are all collectors. Curators of the private museums that comprise our lives and the tiny slice of culture we experience in our time. We keep our collection in our head, where it becomes a part of our personality. Our shared experiences form the groundwork of the ways we relate to each other - a common cultural vocabulary we can use to quickly and easily communicate complex ideas to each other. Often this is where it stops.

But part of social media is the ability to take your curatorial collection - your cultural conglomeration - and put it on the web for people to inspect. This is who I am by way of what I know and what I love. It's not complete, of course, because some things are so subconscious that we just assume everyone knows about them. Of course everyone saw The Matrix. They know who Neo is, regardless of whether they liked the movie. Just like everyone knows who Martha Stewart is, or George Clooney, or Snooki and Jersey Shore. We assume everyone knows these things (personally, I am only vaguely aware of Martha Stewart and I'm only 50% confident I could spot a Snooki in the wild).

Our reaction when these assumptions are overturned is usually confusion or ridicule. How could you not know about that? You must have been living in a cave! But if we are to understand each other, we need to be able to fill the gaps in each others cultural knowledge, to strengthen the foundations of our diplomatic relationships. The internet does bring the world closer together, but also, by the fact that the entire cultural milieu is online now, it strengthens our assumptions that everyone knows what we know, or it overwhelms us with so much information that we despair of ever knowing it all.

The good news is that we can't know it all, so it doesn't matter if you have gaps in your cultural knowledge. The bad news is that most people won't help you fill them in. You'll need to go looking for it if you want it in your personal museum, and to understand the people who talk in that language.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - To be part of a culture, you must explore it.
PPS - And, preferably, build on it.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Security and convenience in browser cookies

I started on my new computer at work with a simple-sounding security goal: never let anything save any passwords. My web browser is obviously the main culprit, and I also have a plugin called Vanilla that cleans up cookies - even those set not to expire - after 15 minutes, unless I am still viewing that page. But my resolve has been eroded by inconvenience, coupled with the fact that I don't actually know a lot of my passwords (they are auto-generated by KeePass).

First it was Astrid, the website I use for my action lists, because when I am trying to quickly record something to get it off my mind, I need it to be quick, and I can't spend the time opening the website, clicking to log in, then waiting for it to reload. Next came Delicious.com and Instapaper, for my bookmarklets. Again, they're supposed to be quick, no-brainer operations, but they rely on accounts, which means I would have to log in to each one when I use them. Now I've allowed Amazon to remember me, and I'm this close to allowing Google as well, because when I want to check my email or add a book to my wish list quickly, it's just annoying to look up my password rather than allowing the browser to remember it. I am less secure, but I have gained some convenience. That is the usual trade-off.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - "As secure as possible" also means "very inconvenient".
PPS - You should aim to be secure almost up to the point of noticeable inconvenience.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Sharing computing resources

Allowing single computers to share resources in local or far-flung networks could be pretty important in the future. It would couple with the idea of mobile ad-hoc networks. When our machines are mostly portable, they won't all be very powerful, and that will be okay, as long as they can access extra computing power or storage when it is needed. So when you take your tablet computer out and about, it won't necessarily have enough storage for your entire music, TV and movie library, or enough computing power to run your high-end games on the go, but when you get it back home, you can slip it into a dock that houses your backup hard drive and a graphics processor to give it that extra boost. The dock, by itself, might not be very functional, or it could be a full-fledged machine in its own right. But when you plug in your tablet, they should act as one seamless environment.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - None of our current operating systems are designed for that.
PPS - And they may have to be, from the ground up.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Having no RSS feed is bad

I might be a little weird, or a little set in my ways, but when I come across a website that I would like to follow, and it doesn't provide an RSS feed, I tend to forget about it. RSS simplified my online life so much through Google Reader that it was almost as if Reader became the web to me. If you don't have an RSS feed, I'm probably not going to remember to come back, and that goes for Facebook too. Whatever the cause, when I find a website I like, I add it to Google Reader. If I can't add it, I won't be back.

If there is anyone else like me, then they might come up with this question: why does WordPress not produce RSS feeds by default? I don't know a lot about how WordPress works, but if it's got a database of content in the background, then producing a feed is trivial. Perhaps it's the fault of theme-makers who don't want to clutter their art with icons or extraneous links.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This problem may apply only to me.
PPS - It seems a lot of problems apply only to me through my weirdness.