Friday, 28 September 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Myrtletown

A species of myrtle, Diospyros Pentamera had overgrown the whole the suburb of Myrtletown over the course of three weeks. Little patches in yards and gardens, rock walls, cracks in the footpath and disused back alleys joined together under the surface, at the roots, choking out other plants and forming a near-impenetrable wall around the suburb. Too many people realised too late what had happened. They needed to leave, but couldn't find their way.

That's where guides like George came in. Ordinarily a high school biology teacher, George had leapt into the role of jungle guide with great enthusiasm, even locating a pith helmet and safari suit in his father's old wardrobe. People paid him to find a way out of Myrtletown for them, and George always delivered.

George was leading a group of four people down a path that used to be Bancroft Road, hacking with his machete to make way. Where the plant limbs were cut off, tiny green shoots started growing back immediately, but as long as the group kept moving, the plant could not grow quite fast enough to block their way again.

The travellers looked nervously around them at the malicious plant. Those with backpacks hitched them tighter, ducking under the overhanging limbs. The woman who had brought a rolling suitcase had difficulty going over the uneven ground.

Finally they reached the edge of the plant's domain, and the travellers trotted forward, eager to be out of reach and into sunlight again, but George held up his hand and stopped them. It was time for his payment. Reluctantly, even resentfully, the travellers lowered their packs and allowed George to rummage through, selecting one item to take for himself. He made sure to look in the very bottom and in the side pockets, too. That was where people hid the things they least wanted him to find.
From the two young girls he took a necklace and a pair of earrings, probably not worth much, but better than nothing. The rough-faced middle-aged man had buried a beautiful old pocket watch under his folded underwear. George nabbed that too, and the man gave him a disgusted look as he turned to walk away.

Last, there was the lady with the rolling suitcase. George saw now that she had actually worn heels for the difficult walk. No wonder she had such trouble keeping up. As he reached for her case, she pulled the keys from her pocket and dramatically stuffed them inside her blouse, then glared at George as if daring him to demand she pay up. George shrugged and split the suitcase's zipper with a ball-point pen. It wasn't the first time someone had tried this. The woman was too stunned to react in time, and George flung the case open to find nothing but cash. George looked over at the woman and she looked equal parts terrified and furious. He zipped the case shut again and passed her the handle.

"Whatever you're running from," he said to her, "I hope you find your way."
She seemed relieved and grateful, gave George a quick "Thankyou" and took off quickly down the road without looking back again. George watched her for a minute, then picked up his machete, patted the pocket where his payments sat, and hacked his way back into the overgrowth.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Opening a locked suitcase really is that easy.
PPS - But only if it closes with a zip.

Robot car griefing

Robot cars will inevitably have to be designed to avoid obstacles, because you never know what they might encounter, but that leads directly to robo-griefing. Pranksters will deliberately obstruct robot cars in such a way as to make them much less useful to everyone. I expect a few cases of robot cars being obstructed by small, non-obvious obstacles, like reflectors, or large shapes that look like obstacles, but are no real threat, like cardboard cut-outs. I also expect there will also be cases of bicycles and pedestrians deliberately blocking roads to protest robot cars, but I don't know what their point will be.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's hard to claim that something is unsafe when it is refusing to hurt you.
PPS - So that can't be it.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Microsoft should buy Mono

Microsoft should think seriously about buying and embracing the Mono project - a cross-platform .NET runtime - as part of their mobile phone domination strategy. It just makes sense. They already have developers that can use their existing .NET skills to write apps for Windows Phone 8, and on Mono, that code can also run on Android and iOS, which should attract more of them. The same could, technically, be said of focusing on HTML5 and JavaScript, but that brings up my second point. Mono on mobile will perform much better than HTML5 and JavaScript. Anyone who has used Facebook's mobile apps (before the recent iOS update) knows what a big HTML5 app feels like. It feels slow. Very painfully, excruciatingly slow.

Right now, Microsoft's strategy seems to be modelled after Apple's "our way or the highway" approach, but Apple gets away with that because people like Apple. Whatever the reason, that's the truth. When Microsoft tries to take that same line, they get active hostility. The most Apple gets is a resigned sigh, if that. It's not fair, it's just the truth.

So, to recap, there's this platform that's much better to develop on, it already runs everywhere, it already has developers and tools, and it out-performs the only other option to make that claim. The only thing standing in the way is Microsoft, and when you are the one standing in the way of your own success, you should probably re-evaluate your strategy.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It might not count as Microsoft's success if they just buy it.
PPS - But that's probably not a distinction they can afford to make.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Denial of service and adding bandwidth

A denial of service attack happens when one server is hit with so much traffic that it cannot respond to it all and becomes effectively unavailable. There is a perception in some quarters that adding more bandwidth to the internet will make this go away. The problem is that adding more bandwidth to the servers will mean adding more capacity to the rest of the world, too. So, today, someone is capable of sending multi-gigabyte-per-second data bursts at a server, and this cripples it. If it were capable of handling terabytes per second, but only received gigabytes per second, everything would be fine again. The attack would fall below its threshold of significance. But when the attack increases exponentially too, then you've made no gains.

It's like this: imagine a one-lane highway serving 1000 cars per day. It is always packed full. Then the city builds up a second lane going each way, to ease the burden. Now each lane only needs to handle 500 cars per day, and it flows more freely. But when people hear the highway is flowing again, 1000 more people per day come on to use it, and the whole thing grinds to a halt again. Handling denial of service attacks by adding more bandwidth is like that, except that the extra cars are arriving deliberately to clog it up, and whenever you build more lanes, you somehow automatically make more cars too.

I don't think there will ever be enough bandwidth or enough computing cycles to allow spam and malware to coexist peacefully with legitimate uses of the web. More is always more, and adding to the bandwidth or power is only going to add more spam and malware.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unfortunately, every complex system has parasites.
PPS - I wish we had some better ways to manage them.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Body armour

Bruce Schneier makes reference to a good point about crazy people, spree killings and body armour. Basically, the NRA's theory goes, if there's some bad guy out there with a gun, we want a good guy with a gun there to deter them from doing anything. But when that good guy's gun is rendered useless by the bad guy wearing body armour, what do you do? Arm the good guys with armour-piercing rounds?

Ned Kelly is an Australian icon not for the horse he rode, or the guns he used or even the stage coaches he robbed. We remember him because of his armour, and now much better armour is available over the counter to anyone who doesn't want to get shot. That's good, but when we live in a world that encourages us all to go around armoured everywhere, we've lost something. When the sheer proliferation of guns means that everyone needs to be both carrying their own weapon and armour all the time, we are one very tiny step away from a kind of neo-feudalism and knights roaming the streets in a concrete kingdom. That is not where we want to be.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Some people do need access to weapons.
PPS - Those people are far fewer in number than many people assume.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Phone scam goes off the rails

I got a call from a scam operator pretending to be from Microsoft support, calling because "lots of customers have been getting error with their computer". Sometimes I play along with these, because I think it's funny when they talk me, a software engineer, through extremely simple actions and try to get me to install spyware as if I am some clueless luddite. She directed me through looking at system event logs, and when I told her there were no errors, she put me onto her "supervisor". This is where things got weird.

He asked what I saw on the screen, then, when I couldn't understand some words he was mispronouncing, immediately launched into some sexually explicit threats. He was apparently unable to be deterred from this new train of thought and back onto tech support. I tried. I didn't take the threats seriously, because he didn't even know my name, let alone where I lived. He wasn't even in the same country, so "I'm coming there at 12" hardly meant anything real, but they still rattled me. I wasn't expecting them. Eventually he hung up.

What I can't understand most of all is the business logic behind this behaviour. I was playing along. I should have been a perfect mark, apparently ready to do anything they said, but before they could get me to install their malicious software, I got threatened and they hung up. Did they just get frustrated? Was the "supervisor" going rogue on his own, treating these calls as pranks because he was so bored? I can't blame him for getting bored at that job, but his threats were to a level that I would almost have called him demon-possessed.

The only explanation I can think of is that these two operators were starting to follow a script, but because they barely spoke English, they misinterpreted my inability to understand them as hostile, so they responded in kind. It's still bad business to waste time that way, though.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Generally the best tactic in these situations is to put the phone down and walk away.
PPS - Don't hang up, though. Just leave the line active.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Burpengary

Gary drank almost an entire 2-litre bottle of Coke. That was a mistake, especially before his big job interview. As the prim, thin woman sat across from him in her neat business suit, he could feel a familiar gurgling in his stomach. Sweat broke out on his forehead and he pinched his lips tightly together.

Then he realised the interviewer had asked him a question. Gary thought to himself, "maybe if I relax just right, I can burp it out quietly". He took a deep breath and sat up straight, but when he breathed out, instead of a quiet, unnoticed exhalation of CO2, his body betrayed him and he belched the whole 2 litres of the gas forcefully at the interviewer whose wide-eyed stare of shock told Gary everything he needed to know about his chances of being hired.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Just a short, silly piece this week, though still part of the Brisbane series.
PPS - I left it a bit late.

Automatic personal data collection

Automatic data collection could really help us with our lives in some areas. For instance, imagine if you were able to track automatically how much you were eating and how much you weigh, along with how much exercise you've been getting. It wouldn't get in the way of your daily life, because it's fully automatic somehow, but you can get all kinds of reports on how well you're doing at managing your incoming and outgoing calories. Or that other thing people want to know about themselves, where is all my money going? If every cent you spent was recorded and categorised, then you could get an idea at a glance where you're spending all your money, either by time of day, type of goods or services or even the companies to which your money goes.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Personally, I'd like to see some biological measures like pulse, blood pressure etc.
PPS - But only if they could be collected unobtrusively.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

How to sleep near a snorer

I learned this on camps during high school, when I had to sleep in tents with people who snored. Rather than lying there cursing their every breath, throwing things or trying to block your ears, try to breathe in time with your snoring neighbour. Their breathing is already at a sleeping pace, and it gives you something to focus on. Before you even realise it, you'll be asleep again and no harm is done.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not sure how I figured this out.
PPS - Perhaps I was just too passive to throw anything, but had to try something.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

GPS arms race

GPS is going to get better, and GPS tracking is going to get cheaper. GPS blocking or spoofing is also going to get cheaper, easier and more tempting for people who want to avoid surveillance and tracking. How long can this go on? Can you reliably encrypt a signal like GPS for everyone to use (receive) but nobody to spoof (broadcast)? Can you prevent jamming? Could this arms race lead to a general distrust in GPS technology and, therefore, a total abandonment of the idea?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Probably not a total abandonment.
PPS - But how can you trust it if people can mess with the signal?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Waste and flavour

There is a specific type of delusion about the world that there is a lot of waste in a lot of processes, and if we could just find and eliminate all that natural waste, we could do life much more efficiently. Juice the world down to its essential components, its vital nutrients, and we could live an austere life of drip-fed, neon-bright super-efficiency. We were promised meals in pills, in the mistaken belief that most of what we ate was pointless, presumably evidenced by poop. We laugh at that now, but we still try to do it. We want shorter books that give us the essential message in easy-to-digest morsels. 22-minute TV shows have become 90-second YouTube videos of the funny bits. We tweet in 140 characters or less. We are trying to squeeze down the whole world to cram 6 billion people's days into our eyeballs and ears every waking hour.

But when you cut something away, you always lose something unknown. Flavour. Nuance. Character. How many times have you watched the story "boy meets girl, they fall in love, then they fight, but then get back together"? Could you even pinpoint a specific movie from that? Of course not. So what do you get from watching that same basic story over and over? We keep telling it with new characters, new settings, new dialogue, new hooks. The core is the same. Shave it down to that, and you lose everything you keep living for. You know the world already, or at least the skeleton of it. You're missing the flesh because we declared it irrelevant and keep trying to get rid of it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's not to say there's not legitimate waste in the world.
PPS - Just that we overestimate how much of our world is waste.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Cloud RAID

Someone should write a program to consolidate multiple cloud file storage services into one simple interface with as much free space as you can get. So, if you end up with a little extra space on Dropbox and some on SkyDrive, Google Drive and other services, all you need to do is add a plugin to your file sync manager, tell it your credentials, and its space is added to your pool. Then you set up sync folders and the tool decides where in which service those files should go. It would only be a stopgap solution, really, to make use of little bits of online storage together in one clean app, but it does seem like a useful thing for some people.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - On desktops and servers, that's called "RAID".
PPS - In this implementation, it would just be working on cloud services instead of physical disks.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Upper Mount Gravatt

Muller and Smith had hit a bit of strife, just metres away from the peak of Mount Gravatt. Tethered to one another, it seemed they had each fallen prey to separate gravity wells, and were now being pulled apart in a tug-of-war. Muller with his heroic moustache tried to coordinate a double-self-rescue with Smith, but their voices were being snatched away in the freezing wind.

Muller had his climbing axes buried as deep as he could in the ground, but Smith had lost his into the gravity well behind him. If Muller crawled his way out, Smith would be lost for sure. If Smith tried to pull himself up on the rope, Muller might lose his grip.

It was just then that Muller spotted Earl coming over the ridge with that ridiculous helmet of his, and a smug grin plastered on his face. As if things couldn't have gotten any worse.

But then Earl noticed the serious predicament of Muller and Smith, and his smile turned to intent seriousness. He dropped his pack quickly and rummaged for some spare rope, shouting redundantly at them both to "hang on".

Earl the Mountaineer tied the rope around a sturdy-looking stump to anchor it, and laid one end aside for Muller before tying a climbing axe to the other end and lowering it slowly and carefully towards Smith. Smith gratefully took the axe and, with a deep *thunk*, sank it as far as he could into the ground, then held on for dear life.

With Smith secure, Muller began a slow crawl out and away from his gravity well, and Earl began pulling Smith to safety. As soon as Muller was upright again, he assisted, and Smith was free of the anomaly.

And there they sat, out of breath, rivals for the peak, but brothers in strife. When Muller had recovered enough, his gruff pioneer's face returned, and he bid Earl a curt farewell before heading off with Smith again. Smith, considerably more grateful, gave Earl a heartfelt (but silent) gesture of thanks, to which Earl responded with a modest hand wave of his own.

And though both Muller and Earl did reach the peak of Mount Gravatt and both braved the gravity wells to return home again, neither could be coaxed to say who had reached it first, for the rest of their days.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That's the most respect I could imagine either character giving the other.
PPS - Next week's suburb is yet to be decided.

Digital distribution

One cloud-based software delivery and management channel we can handle. Steam, for instance. Everything we purchase goes through there, everything is available to install on a new machine and it all just works. Two channels we might grumble about, but if the games in question are exclusive and highly desirable, we'll probably cave in and use it, but we'll curse the companies who make such things necessary. Three and we'll balk. No. You're done. I have two of these things already, and there are tons of other games here. I know Helicopter Explosions 4 is the must-have game of the year, and exclusive to Upstart Software Channel, but honestly I find I can live without it, especially if I have these thousands of other titles available.

This is a problem for anyone who wants in on the digital game distribution channel racket. The solution is to make all of them compatible suppliers that can work as plug-in accounts to any one of a few customer-friendly front ends. The customer installs one of them, then adds their credentials for any of the supplier channels they want, and they can shop at will over all of those suppliers. That is a much more consumer-friendly way to go. It's the "sales platform" model that Amazon uses to sell for a lot of other suppliers, thereby becoming the one place everyone goes for physical goods.
The problem with the digital version is that you must have interoperability, and for now the games industry is high on DRM which is to compatibility as salt is to slugs. That's not to say it can't work with DRM. It will just require those suppliers to work out one standard DRM model that can be applied across everything evenly.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The solution won't happen.
PPS - Because DRM is not generally open to that kind of negotiation.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

How I Work

Because nobody would come to ask me, and because I think it might be interesting to sort out my own thoughts, I'm posting my own version of some interviews that have been on Lifehacker lately, called "How I Work".
Well, I'm Mokalus and this is how I work.
Name: John/Mokalus
Occupation: Software Engineer, aspiring author
Location: Brisbane, Queensland
I work: when it's interesting
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
I have Dropbox on all my PCs and my phone, because it's the best, most unobtrusive way to keep my files in sync and accessible everywhere. It's the core of my PC setup, the first thing I install. I'm also a bit in love with my phone, a Samsung Nexus S running Android 4.1. I like Astrid for my action lists, and I do a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing in a self-made app I call WorkDiary. Microsoft Visual Studio is essential to let me code my own tools.
What’s your workspace setup like?
At work I have a long, straight desk with 2x 21" monitors, a Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard and a pair of TDK headphones, all on a monster of a new HP desktop. It's generally tidy apart from pens and paper.
At home, I'm on a cramped old desk with a single monitor and a filing cabinet with everything in it. My inbox has to perch on top of my computer tower. It works, but I'd like more space there.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
I opt to use Thunderbird at work for email instead of Outlook, just because I can teach it what is irrelevant email and from then on it gets sorted into the junk folder where I can deal with it later (usually by deleting). I sort my junk mail by subject, because it's easier to select a lot of related irrelevant things at once and delete them. My email inbox is constantly emptied, because it's only for things I haven't dealt with yet.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
I have a small tool case of occasionally-useful items that I keep in my work bag. Despite being a software guy, the one that comes out most often is probably the Phillips-head screwdriver. I also like my Kindle for reading.
What do you listen to while you work?
Generally I don't listen to music at all when I'm focusing on work, because lyrics are too distracting. If I want it, I have my whole library kept in sync to my work computer via Windows Live Mesh (it's too big for Dropbox). I favour Green Day when I need to pick up my energy.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
I've been fortunate to meet and work with enough brilliant people that I don't think I'm the best at anything, though I do have a copious library of movie and TV quotes in my brain, especially The Simpsons. I have occasionally surprised people with obscure knowledge of Shakespeare.
What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Approach tasks with the aim of getting better at them, not with being awesome this time. I struggle to live up to that one, but I think it's a valuable way to keep learning. Also, the good old Golden Rule: treat everyone as you would have them treat you.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I have yet to figure out exactly how my brain works.
PPS - Half the time, the answer is "badly".

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Google Play should have a wish list

Why can't I have a wish list for Android apps on the Google Play store? Or for music, movies and books to buy there? If you're going to provide that much for sale, you need to provide a way for people to manage their shopping for later, like Amazon does.

I'm guessing the answer is something like "everything is cheap enough for you to buy right now", but lots of cheap things makes shopping expensive. Some people like to budget.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And some people have no concept of budgeting.
PPS - I suppose they're easier to serve.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Real and semi-real curse words

Do you object to foreign curse words? What about curses in dead or made up languages? What about curses produced specifically for science fiction to let the characters swear but get around censors and make it sound futuristic?

Personally, I seem to have a strong aversion to common curse words used by English speakers, but not to anything beyond that. I am, in fact, less comfortable using made-up sci-fi curses than real foreign language ones. It's a weird and inconsistent sharp line, but it's there.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My inner monologue picks up and uses words like "smeg", "frak" and "frell".
PPS - But usually only when I'm watching the shows they come from.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Global problems, local governments

Humanity's big problem is that humanity has global problems, but all seats of power are focused on local issues. Acting in the best interests of those local powers, even holistically, leads us downhill on our global problems. As long as local interests can trump global solutions, we are not going to make progress on problems like poverty, climate change, energy supply and demand, slavery and environmental conservation.

So how do we get national governments to focus on global problems, sometimes at their own expense? Who knows?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's not as easy as saying we all need to think globally.
PPS - Well, really, it's easier said than done.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Friday Flash Fiction - Mount Gravatt East

They simply called him "Earl the Mountaineer", and he was a humble man but for one goal: to be the first to climb Mount Gravatt. Nobody had yet succeeded because of the mountain's infamous gravity disturbances, but Earl was sure he could do so with nothing more than his wits and his grandfather's dowsing rods.

He was also convinced he could do so before that pompous Captain Muller.

Earl took in the mountain air and watched the sunrise sitting outside his tent. The air was sharp and clean. He flicked cigar ash into the wind and dreamily watched it float away, thinking of his grandfather, the one who had taught him to climb and taken him on his first expedition when he was eleven years old. The old man had taught him how to read a trail, how to pick your footing across uncertain ground, all the practical necessities of climbing, but he also taught Earl how to sense the moods of a mountain itself.

Yesterday, the mountain had been in a bad mood. It didn't want to be climbed. The gravity wells had sprung up all over the place, sometimes directly in Earl's path, but he patiently circled around them or turned back down. No sense agitating a mountain you're trying to climb.

So Earl had settled down, taken his time to get to know Old Lady Gravatt and her funny moods. He had spent the day tracing the outline of the peaks, feeling the texture of the snow, and, at sunset, listening to the birds settle in for the night. He liked to call it bird politics. At dusk all the day birds congregate in the trees and argue loudly for the best spots. The best arguers get the best branches. Just like human politics, or as much as Earl cared to know about such things.

So this morning he was ready to head up again, with a much better understanding of the mountain. Earl fixed the dowsing rods to his helmet, took his climbing poles in each hand and headed up the mountain's East side with his tent packed on his back. And today, it seemed, the mountain was much more in the mood to be climbed. And that, he took it, was a sign that Mount Gravatt liked him just a bit better than it liked Captain Muller.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is a sequel to last week's story, Mount Gravatt.
PPS - Next week, the conclusion: Upper Mount Gravatt.

Google two-factor authentication

I have enabled 2-factor authentication on my Google account, which basically means I have a more complicated login process now for my Google services, especially those that are outside a web browser. For each one of those, including Chrome sync, I have to go to my Google account management page, generate an application-specific password, and enter it instead of my usual password.

Why have I decided to put myself through this? Well, Google services are a huge part of my online life. If someone else gained access to them, I would have some pretty big problems. Security is always important, and Google have my most important information, so it makes sense to use extra security measures there.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I quickly got the Authenticator app on my phone.
PPS - It's faster and less annoying than waiting for SMS codes.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Astrid app review

I've been using Astrid for my action lists on my phone and on their website for a little while now, and it's mostly good, but there are a couple of annoyances. Some are to do with the associated website.

For starters, the "forums" link on the website is broken. Either there are no forums any more, or they no longer live at "". Whatever the case, I can't leave feedback there for the developers to see, so I'll have to do it here and hope for the best.

Next comes inconsistent handling of the Enter key. When you're adding a task on the website, if you hit Enter, it adds the task. Simple. If you're adding a comment to a task and hit Enter, it adds a new line. And you can't just compromise and get used to hitting Tab then Enter to go to the submit button, because Tab goes to different places from those two boxes. Not big, but I notice it every couple of days and it starts to grate.

A feature I wish Astrid had is projects or sequences of actions. You can have lists, and I do, and actions can belong to lots of lists, but a list is not a project where one action follows another in a logical sequence, only appearing one at a time. I would appreciate that.

Lastly and perhaps most seriously, the synchronisation to and from the phone frequently un-deletes and un-completes actions. If I mark a task as complete on the website, then open Astrid on my phone, the synchronisation (when it eventually finishes) is quite likely to pick up that task and un-complete it, adding it back to the list. I don't know why that is, but it's quite annoying. I frequently have to check my lists one by one just to make sure tasks have not started re-appearing after I completed them. The saving grace with this one is that Astrid displays a log of recent activity that I can visually scan for the prefix "un-" to see what has gone wrong.

In all, though, I do quite like Astrid. It's better than the text files I was trying to use before, it stays in sync automatically (which is something I demand of every program since I started using it) and the visual style is easy to use and kind of fun. I'm going to keep using it for now, but I'm hoping that some of these bugs, problems and desired features can be fixed or added in the near future.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's always a pain to change to a new app.
PPS - Data migration in any form is a pain.

UPDATE: I emailed Astrid support about my un-completion/un-deleting issue, and they provided this response:
This is usually the case in a bad sync. Sometimes the logged in data doesn't get sent to the phone properly.

When this happes, usually logging out and logging in will fix the issue.

Settings -> Sync & Backup -> -> Log Out
Then, "Synchronize Now"

If it's still having trouble, this page will usually provide an error report
as to why sync failed.
For me, that seems to have solved the problem.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Use a webcam as a baby monitor

I think it would be possible to use a network-enabled webcam as a baby monitor, with the right software. Instead of a devoted audio baby monitor, you'd just buy a webcam, connect it to your home network (wired or wireless), set up some alert software for motion and sound, and you're away. The big advantage here is that you can monitor it from your phone which, if you're like me, you have with you at all times, and it doubles as a nanny-cam too. It also lets you record video of your baby asleep or playing in his or her room and, if you set it up correctly, you could even use it as home security and get alerts while you're away.

I'm trying really hard to think of a down side to this, and the only thing I can come up with is that cameras are creepy. But if you go looking at baby monitors in department stores, I guarantee at least one will have built-in video. So it's not even my idea.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It might also be less reliable.
PPS - Particularly if it's a cheap webcam on a dodgy network.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Maroon: a hypothetical peer-to-peer software platform

Just about every programmer (and a few non-programmers) have an idea that consumes them. Their amazing personal project. For me, it's a reaction to "cloud" services and central control. Something peer-to-peer, that also works with highly-disconnected machines. I call it "Maroon" for two reasons. One, it's the clearest name for the colour that's the inverse of "Azure", the codename Microsoft uses for its cloud services platform. Two, I am from Queensland, where maroon is the state colour, and the name of a particularly successful football team.

The idea is this: I have a few computers, including my work and home desktops, a small netbook and my phone, plus an Amazon Kindle if we're going to be very ambitious. They're not all easily connected, but there are loose associations between all of them. I also have personal files and data - such as my photos and videos - that comprise a larger amount of bits than I would like to copy to and fro over the internet for various reasons (I don't want to slug my employer with a 30GB download just to keep an offsite backup of my files, for one). It would be good if, using a collection of flash drives, my phone and, where appropriate, LAN sync, I could keep those files up to date across all of my machines with little effort. It's basically meant to be a peer-to-peer software platform that handles data storage and replication as well as messaging for you. It should let you write peer-to-peer programs as easily as little local databases and file management apps.

This would also enable some interesting effects, such as:

- Remote file management, copying, moving and renaming files on disconnected machines.

- Remote control of machines without necessarily having an active, reliable network connection.

- Synchronising metadata such as my Kindle bookmark for ebooks I did not purchase from Amazon.

- Distributed data storage, where I can record, say, my spending on a day out on my phone and have it turn up on my desktop at home later without going through a web server (for privacy).

- File sync with friends and family without needing Dad to sign up for a much larger internet plan than he really needs.

The best part about all of this is that it would be 100% free and independent of any service providers. You set it up on your machines and it never has to contact any servers. Even if I get tired of it and abandon the project, nobody loses out. Nobody can reach out and shut down a network like that, because it doesn't have to rely on the internet, although it could.

The main reason Maroon is not a reality right now is time. I don't have enough time to develop it, and there are actually a lot of development challenges in it, too. It's a pity, because working with highly-disconnected machines would be a really useful property sometimes at work. We deal with some remote mine sites whose network connections could be described as "intermittent" if you were being kind. That's at their home base, too. Out on drill rigs, the network does not exist. If we could maintain some functionality in those situations and create a smooth transition from online to offline and back again, we'd have much more reliable software and much happier clients.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've realised that "Amazing Personal Project" creates the acronym "APP".
PPS - Seems suitable.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Escaping harassment on Facebook is not easy

How are you supposed to escape from harassment on Facebook? A person who is stalking you or otherwise bothering you can be blocked, but can then set up another account and harass you from there. Do you just have to block every new person from sending you messages? Are you supposed to abandon your old profile and start a new one for greater privacy? Somehow I doubt Facebook wants us to throw away profiles that are heavily-laden with juicy marketing data only to start again and lock everyone out.

You need a way to disconnect a certain identity front - a kind of nickname - from a Facebook account so that nobody looking for that nickname would ever find you. But to make that method effective, the nicknames need to be the only way people interact with Facebook.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - That level of privacy protection will not happen.
PPS - It's too much work for something that Facebook does not value.