Friday, 31 July 2015

Dolphin language

I saw a TED talk about a team of researchers who are trying to decode the language of dolphins so that we can communicate with them. They have started to do this with wearable computers and games involving toys, and have included new sounds for the names of those toys and also for themselves. So far, the dolphins seem like they might be communicating to some degree. This all sounds very exciting from one angle. Dolphins might have a language! Maybe we can communicate with them! Share with us the wisdom of the sea, oh gentle beasts!

Rewind about thirty or forty years, though, and exactly the same thing was done with chimps. A lot of research time, a lot of money and a lot of hope went into those projects, teaching chimps and apes sign language, only to find out that they couldn't learn anything past a two-year-old's disjointed use of vocabulary and they had very little to say to us besides "want that".

As much fun as the researchers might have, and as much interesting science might come out of it, I think we'll find that dolphins, like chimps, might have some intelligence, but it is a far cry from the human levels of sophistication in language.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - They probably can't even grasp the concepts behind "So long, and thanks for all the fish".
PPS - Or maybe they could, but it would be much more like thinking in pictures.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Multiple exclamation marks!!!

Terry Pratchett described multiple exclamation marks as the sign of an unstable mind, and that has always cast any exclamation marks in a negative light to me. So even when I'm excited, I tend to avoid them in my writing. This can make my writing sound cold, analytical and heartless. It's probably something I need to get over.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or just stick my fingers in my ears and ignore it forever.
PPS - Which also seems like a sound strategy.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Someone should sell fraud insurance

I think we should allow people to buy fraud insurance, in case they get taken in by a scam. We can base their premiums on a test for gullibility.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Really, though, I'd need some harder evidence on scam victims first.
PPS - which would probably be incomplete, since people won't want to admit it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Functional keyboards

The modern keyboard design trend, at least on the laptops I've seen and on my wireless keyboard, is to omit the Function keys and instead provide them as a secondary function on the number row with a special coloured "Fn" button. I don't like this much, because I'm a big keyboard user. I type. I code. I use keyboard shortcuts to make my life faster and easier, but when those shortcuts use Function keys, and the Function keys don't exist, that becomes a big problem for me. Instead of being able to close a window with Alt+F4, now I have to use Alt+Fn+4. Three-finger shortcuts are terrible and always slow me down. There are lots of Function key shortcuts I use every day - several times an hour - in Visual Studio: F5 to run a program, F10 to step through code in debug mode, F11 to step *into* code in debug mode, F12 to go to a variable, function or class definition, and of course the F4 functions to close tabs or windows. Oh, and F3 for searches. Add an extra key to them and you definitely slow down my development.

The very worst part is that this type of keyboard usually also omits the Page Up, Page Down, Home and End keys, too, in favour of the Fn versions. The Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 I'm currently trying out has Page Up and Down, but Home and End are Fn key combinations, which is more annoying than you think.

And, yes, this is all a big first-world problem, because I'm whining about how my amazing, powerful, portable computing and communications device is sometimes a little bit slow to use, but here's something else I like to say: we made these machines, so what good are they if they don't serve their human masters? Humans are undisputed masters of the built environment, but it's pretty pointless to go and build it wrong.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I am otherwise very impressed with the Yoga.
PPS - I did have to adjust the console window font size.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Tracking your non-disclosure agreements

It's not really a broadly-applicable problem, but some people might benefit from NDA tracking software. I see it on Wil Wheaton's blog every now and then: he gets to work on some really exciting thing, but has to sign a non-disclosure agreement to say he won't talk about it for a certain amount of time. He gets excited about it, though, and posts to his blog about how excited he is to be working on this top-secret thing that he can't tell anyone about, and then usually about how grateful he is to be able to work so regularly on such exciting (secret) things. Then months later, when the NDA expires, he can't remember what the post referred to, so he never gets to update it.

So the idea is this: when you sign an NDA, you enter the details into this tracking software, which stores its data locally, strongly encrypted (because gathering NDA data on a server on the internet would be like waving a big "HACK ME!" flag). It gives you a random unique ID - possibly even just a plain integer starting from 1 - so you can talk around it publicly and still know, yourself, what you meant, without revealing anything to anyone. It would look like "Hey, guys! I just wrapped up work on this really exciting project, but I can't talk about it here yet. I'll come back and update you when my NDA5 expires." Then every week or so you can come back to the app and check for expired agreements, search for any posts you've made about them, then update with the details you are now allowed to tell.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wish I needed this.
PPS - There's honestly not much to it, though. I guess even a spreadsheet would work.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Big secrets don't get to be kept

Most big secrets don't get to be kept. The big, world-spanning conspiracies don't get to continue. The bigger the scope, the harder it is to keep secret. Conspiracy theorists love to feel that they are on the inside, recognising the massive lies told to the entire world by an inexplicably powerful group of people. However, while it is possible for a large group of people to be deluded at once, and for that delusion to persist for a very long time just because nobody looked at the evidence properly, if your assessment of the possible delusion is that it persists because of powerful and deliberate lies, you're wrong, every time.

Basically, I'm saying that if the moon landings were faked, or if there were a second shooter on the grassy knoll, our best evidence wouldn't be photo analysis. It would be the leaks from several dozen people who got tired of keeping the secret decades later and came forward to tell the truth. The most hilarious thing, to me, about conspiracy theories is that all the conspiracy theorists are all sitting around buying each other's delusions and lies.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Wake up, sheeple.
PPS - Where, in this case, "sheeple" = "conspiracy theorists".

Thursday, 23 July 2015


When I see this:
Nano Bible no bigger than the tip of a pen
I immediately wonder how people would misuse and market the idea. I picture a lot of products undergoing a process I'll call "baptism", for want of a better word. I imagine companies mass-producing these things by the billions and putting them in everything. Think of bible-infused makeup and deodorant, a phone case flecked with dozens of nano-bibles, table salt with occasional nano-bible grains. House paint, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, clothing, keyrings, sheets and blankets, floor tiles, all of this off the top of my head and they keep coming.

Basically anything that could accept the adjective "bible-infused" with a straight face. Except toilet paper, I assume.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It is a terrifying future, for a few reasons.
PPS - And it may be on its way.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015


To me, the idea of haggling over price assumes a kind of fundamental dishonesty of the human race. I realise that some salespeople will try to get away with something by pricing their goods high, and that sometimes they need to be called out on that. My problem is when this becomes the normal state of affairs. When you have to assume that all prices are negotiable because all items are overpriced to begin with, it starts to feel like we're wasting our time together. Just tell me what you think is a reasonable price. Don't make me work to extract this information from you with a dance of offers and counter-offers including a big show of how much it would hurt your business to give away these goods for this lowered price.

That's how it feels to me. We begin with a lie (the initial asking price), then we proceed to histrionics and performance (haggling) until we finally arrive at the accepted price, which is, if this has gone right for you, the vendor, higher than the true acceptable price.

You can't compare in that environment. Vendors can't compete on price, because all prices are fluid. You can't shop around without doing the haggling dance at every vendor, but by the time you finish with one of them, that is assumed to be a completed sale.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I do know some people who love that game, though.
PPS - So maybe it's me. I find it insulting, exhausting and inefficient.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015


I don't like improvising as an actor. I never have. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just that I prefer the comfort of knowing there's a script and knowing where the scene is going. Maybe it's lazy, because if nobody else is doing anything too strange, I know how to react to it. Maybe it's fear - since I so often say things the wrong way or baffle people with my words (not by being clever, mind you, just by choosing the strangest, most awkward possible phrasing) I worry that I will derail the whole scene for everyone else and look like an idiot on stage. Or maybe it's a learned response, over years of half-written church skits. When people at a small-to-medium-sized church hear that you like to act, every now and then they'll grab you to be in a skit, which usually involves a vague briefing five minutes before the service telling you to "just stand over there with those people, say some mean things, then fall over when I throw the box." It's the second-most awkward possible form of acting I've ever done, the first being job interviews.

At the same time as feeling awkward and inadequate when improvising, I recognise that it's a pretty big part of the job. If you can't get into the head of a character and at least work close to the script if not completely off the cuff, then you're not much good as an actor. Missing a line is definitely going to derail the whole scene, throw off the other actors and make me look like an idiot.

And, of course, like so many others of my personal flaws, I seem to have only enough self-awareness to recognise it, not to know how to fix it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I figure that part out, I'll let you know.
PPS - Exposure therapy would probably help.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Exercise app review: Zombies, Run!

I took the exercise app Zombies, Run! for a spin on the weekend, just through "episode 1". For the full experience, I used no music and had zombie pursuits switched on. On the whole, I like the app - I get the feeling that the story will unfold in an interesting way, and that's probably what I'm in for. Base building is not much of a draw to me, but I see the appeal for other people. As I said, I'm mostly in to see how the story plays out, and I'm keen to do more running to discover more of it. Which would be the whole point.

The feature that didn't get me were the zombie pursuits. The voice announced "Warning: zombies nearby" or something to that effect. Okay, I thought, better put on a bit more speed. They're zombies, though. No need to overdo it. Pretty soon, the voice announced "Warning: zombies 50 metres". Oh, okay, they must have started closer than I thought. Better speed up some more, to a fast run. I swear, before I'd gone another 10 metres, "Warning: zombies 17 metres". What? Alright, done with this. I break into a full sprint. "2 items dropped, zombies distracted". I slowed to a walk, exhausted.

This pattern continued a few times over my run, and it got tiresome (which I suppose is better than winding up dead in a real zombie pursuit). This did not seem to be helpful to me. How fast am I supposed to be going? My usual speed is 9.5 to 10kph. Granted, this weekend I was not at my best. I'm recovering from a cold and I haven't been for a proper run in a few weeks. Still, when the voice tells you "If you've got two legs and can go faster than a slow shamble, you should be fine, right?" it's demoralising to have three or four successful zombie attacks per run. I went looking for how to switch off that feature later and couldn't find it. I hope that doesn't mean I'm stuck with it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If I can turn zombie pursuits off again, I'll keep using the app for now.
PPS - If not, I'll start using my running time to catch up on podcasts.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Modem not included

I am currently in the market for some new networking hardware, and I like the simplicity of a single device to cover the modem and router parts of that equation. Unfortunately for me, it's rather difficult to be specific about this when searching for reviews and suggestions online. It feels like I'm having this kind of conversation with Google:

"Hey, Google, what are some good routers I could buy?"
"Here's a list of popular and well-regarded routers (modems not included)."
"Okay, I guess. How about modem-routers? You know, all-in-one devices?"
"Here's a list of popular and well-regarded routers (modems not included)."
"Ugh. Say, Google, what are the best modems on the market?"
"Here's a list of popular and well-regarded routers (modems not included)."
*deep sigh* "Google, what are the best modems on the market, excluding routers?"
"Welcome to Momento Demento, a festival of uncertain purpose! (website not available)"

The comments at the bottom of these router articles are along the lines of "Where are all the modems?" or "I bought one of these based on this article but now I need a separate modem too, what the hell?" which are usually followed by extreme networking nerds saying things like "Of course you need a separate modem, because the all-in-one things suck. Just get a cheapo modem and hook it to one of these awesome routers. Works for me!"

So my question is this: why can't anyone (apparently) build an all-in-one modem-router if all you need to do is add the cheapest, nastiest little modem to your kick-ass, blazing-fast router to get it online? That seems like the entire industry suffering from some kind of spot-blindness to me. All the network nerds nod to each other knowingly, saying that of course this is the way things are. How else could they be?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm a bit frustrated.
PPS - Especially with our ongoing Netflix performance.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Unreliable autopilot brain

When I'm on "autopilot", I have terrible spatial awareness. This is bad, because I tend to stumble through my physical environment on autopilot when I'm exhausted, such as when I've just woken up in the dark hours of the early morning, or when I've just come home from the gym. Last night, just home from the gym, I felt like I was crashing into the walls, barely balancing as I rounded the laundry basket and coffee table and basically hit Deb in the face as she was looking in the fridge. What I need, when I'm in that tired mode, is an autopilot that reliably steers me around obstacles and keeps me from flinging a rogue hand into walls, furniture and people. Instead, it seems, as with most things in life, that you can only have it if you don't need it. When I'm most exhausted, what I need is to engage more fully with my environment, expanding my awareness and amping up my alertness to its fullest extent. When I have energy to spare and plenty of light, then I can switch off and coast. That's like only driving to conserve fuel when you have plenty, and then flooring it when the fuel light comes on.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Sometimes my mind frustrates me.
PPS - And that's getting kind of meta.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Predicting stories

I think, when I spent a year writing one flash fiction piece per week, I did get a little bit better at it, but one of the biggest effects was that I became a better reader/viewer/audience member. I paid more attention to what stories were doing and why. While it's certainly possible to just sit back, brain off, and let stories pass through you, I enjoy recognising these little pieces that the author is going to bring together ahead of time. If it is in the story, it matters, so how is it going to matter?

One other thing I've encountered is the fact that nothing ever goes smoothly for characters. The straight line plot leads straight from boredom to boredom through unbelievable dullness. If something is going right, it won't go right for long. If there's a plan, there will be a hitch. Things go wrong for characters that have to keep going forwards. That's what stories are. You can end with all of the wrongness turning on the villain in one glorious moment - where the wild babboon picks up the gun that the mental patient loaded with the silver bullet just as the werewolf comes through the door - or you can have it all go horribly wrong for your heroes so that nobody really wins, but unless something is going wrong, your story is not going right.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wish I could bring more of that to my stories.
PPS - I have plenty of ideas for settings and characters. What I need are plots.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Security is a social decision, too

How empowered are ordinary web users to start encrypting all their web traffic, to protect it from the NSA, GCHQ, other over-reaching government agencies and the many criminal organisations that are, no doubt, doing exactly the same internet spying but aren't trying to tell us it's for our own good? If I wanted, for instance, to start using a social networking tool that couldn't be (easily) spied on, what are my options? Keep in mind that "social" part of "social media", too, which either means I need to convince all my friends to come with me and install pain-in-the-arse encryption software or it needs to be seamlessly compatible with their existing social media tools.

See, I could jump ship off Facebook and start using some hypothetical third-party encrypted social networking website, but unless the rest of my social network comes with me, it's just me. Yes, it's better for their privacy if they come too, but how do you convince every single one of your friends to take their medicine and eat their peas like good boys and girls when they're already set up on Facebook and it seems to be going fine?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So I think we are kind of locked into insecure services if they're insecure by default.
PPS - Which just means everything should be made secure by default.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Planning for kids that never leave home

Because young adults are going to have an increasingly-difficult time gaining and keeping work, and paying rent or for a mortgage, it is becoming more common for them to stay living at home for longer. I think, because this pattern is becoming more common, families will start planning for it as an expected stage of life. We'll build our houses to handle a few adults in transition to independence, rather than planning houses for young families that assume you'll be out the door when you hit 18.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's going to be a subtle difference.
PPS - Or no difference at all, depending on who you ask.

Friday, 10 July 2015

What's in a name, and Who's on first

I would love to hear of someone naming their dog "police" or "fire". Calling him in for dinner would be weird but totally worth it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I also think any police officer with the last name "Down" is in for some confusion.
PPS - I once had an acquaintance who named his dog "Oi".

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Data safety

If you've spent your life naively polluting the dataverse with your detailed life story and now decide to take your personal data security more seriously, how do you find out what data is out there and get people to delete or amend it?

Getting a company to update your details with something fake is probably the best you're going to do, assuming you can find the particular company with your data in the first place. In many cases, this won't be an option, because current, correct data is required. For instance, if you try to list a bogus name and address for your credit card, that's not "protecting yourself". I'm pretty sure it's credit fraud, in fact. As long as you have that card, you're going to be giving away purchase data to your bank, and there's really nothing you can do to protect yourself from that, except to cancel the card.

The point is, data safety is much more than not sharing certain details on Facebook, although that matters, too. Real data safety looks a lot like being a spy on the run - using disposable and fake details for everything, and refusing most of the modern conveniences like paying bills online, being on Facebook, reading your email in any kind of normal way or having a mobile phone.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You are, in general, much less private and secure than you think.
PPS - This is why so many people feel powerless to stop Big Data.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Fake video glitches as artistic features

Recently (well, for a while now, I guess) it's been somewhat fashionable to introduce video artifacts like stutter, visual pause and digital glitch artifacts into video art. Take a look at the opening credits of Revolution and Falling Skies, or see if you notice it on a video billboard ad. It's like we're living in a Max Headroom revival.

My point is this: streaming video or even DVD and Blu-Ray playback is so often glitchy or a bit unreliable these days that I can't always tell whether the glitches and artistic choices made with the video are intentional or not. When a TV show opts for a momentary freeze frame and I'm watching on Netflix, I am never sure if that's deliberate or if it's Netflix screwing up and recovering quickly. Do it several times in a montage and I will probably pause the video to make sure it's buffering properly. There's a video billboard at the train station now that is so glitchy in general that I still don't know if the title screen is supposed to do what it does.

So is it going to stop? I doubt it. Maybe we'll see less of it over time. Maybe directors will start experimenting with something else, and that will be next year's fashion. I don't know.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or maybe streaming video will get so good that I never expect it to stutter or glitch.
PPS - Well, no, probably not that.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Writing the right software

Writing software is easy. Writing the right software is hard. A lot of the time, that's the problem: teasing out the requirements from the client, and then separating the blue-sky dreams from what should actually be done. A lot of software projects, even if they're on track for budget and time get into trouble when the clients ask for more. Cowboy developers who grew up writing their own software on their own time for their own amusement can take a while to learn that "could" and "should" are different. That is, in a way, even more important than the correct architecture. Badly written software that still functions is a pain, but software written to the wrong requirements doesn't do anyone any good.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You have probably encountered both kinds.
PPS - Older software can drift either way, depending on whether the requirements change over time.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Martian

This week I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir, and I loved it. Ask anyone around me: I couldn't shut up about it. I wanted to keep reading, and I stayed up late to do it, which is a big compliment for me.

The story is about an astronaut who gets accidentally stranded on Mars when his team has to evacuate. That sounds more careless than it was, though - they had good reason to think he was dead and good reason to leave early when they did. A lot of the book is Mark's personal log as he struggles to survive in a harsh environment with equipment that was never meant to last that long. The sense of humour and resilience he displays through the ordeal is endearing, and the way he solves his technical problems (and causes some others) is fascinating to me, too. The writing flows surprisingly well for a book that is (almost) all mission logs, and I was with the story right through the end. It wouldn't get out of my head.

So, basically, I loved it. If you love stories of survival, the idea of manned space exploration and good-natured characters with indomitable humour, this is one for you.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think the movie has great potential.
PPS - There are no aliens in this sci-fi. Mark is "the Martian" because he lives on Mars.

Friday, 3 July 2015

True forms are worn in

The true form of anything is worn, bruised, broken and used, not pristine, because that's what occupies the bulk of life. Things are meant to get used up. Yes, it means they'll go away, that they can't be "enjoyed" by future generations, but if you lock up your possessions in glass boxes, you're not enjoying them and neither is anyone else. Things get dirty, scratched, faded, worn down, and that's okay. That's life. It doesn't mean you don't have to treat your stuff well, because if you take some care, it will last longer, but if you don't use it at all in order to make it last forever, then it's wasted as much as if it were tossed away immediately.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I hate waste.
PPS - It extends to a problem with destruction and loss, in general.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Safe employment or following your passion

If I had the option, I think I'd rather be writing and acting for my career, rather than working on software. It's not that I don't like software, it's just that the other things appeal to me more and, in the end, I know it is possible for people to make a living doing them. The real question is whether I, personally, could make a living writing and acting. And of course, the longer I wait, and the more time I spend writing software instead of fiction, the more time I'm not spending getting better at my craft. If it takes ten years of dedicated effort to become a sellable writer, and I'm only half-committed to it, then it's going to take me twenty years to get good enough for publishers to notice. The same kind of argument goes for acting.

I could just quit and focus on writing and acting. That's a scary thought, though, because the amount of money I've made from them, in total, so far in my life, is not enough to buy dinner for two. If our mortgage payments rely on me making money at writing and acting, I predict a rapid descent into despair and homelessness. That might be an irrational fear, but I know the money is a real risk.

I saw Jim Carrey encourage a graduating class to follow their dreams by saying that you can still fail at what you hate, so you might as well do what you love. The trick is, sometimes what you love is a much bigger risk than the other option. That's why they call it the safe choice, the stable career. Sometimes you will lose your job as an accountant or as a software developer, but as a writer and actor, you are defined by unemployment, with brief periods of work. That is a life of never-ending risk and work-seeking, and I get exhausted enough looking for one job every couple of years after my various contracts run out or my employers go through rounds of redundancy.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unemployment is fun only for about three days.
PPS - Or maybe up to two weeks.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

This post revised for positivity

I wrote this whole post before, from a very negative standpoint, and I've had a change of heart. I had just ranted about all the "clickbait" headlines being thrown around the web these days, urging you to find out new facts or see photos and videos that will "blow your mind". To see things that will "change the way you think forever" or that you just "won't believe". It's a tease, like a six-year-old jumping around saying "I know a secret! Not telling you!" It's deliberately uninformative, which is the opposite of a good headline (unless you define "good" as "lots of clicks", which is clearly what has happened). It's designed only to pique your interest enough to click the link, after which they get their ad revenue and they're done. It offends me as a writer, in part because they're all exactly alike. Throw in one or two different keywords and the whole headline changes. Pair it with a picture of boobs and you're guaranteed legitimate clicks from soon-to-be-disappointed readers. It's hard to be positive in the face of this, so the only positive thing I can say is that I'm going to focus on other things that deserve more of my attention. Jump up and down in your clown suit all you like. I'm going elsewhere. If something you say is that important, it will come up in another, more respectable form some other time.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Defining "clickbait" is really tricky.
PPS - If you're looking for examples, though, try Buzzfeed.