Monday, 31 May 2010

Accepting DRM for free games

Some time ago, I posted about why I don't use Steam to buy games. I still stand by what I wrote there, but I have since installed Steam for one reason: Portal was free, and I've been keen to play it for ages, but never had such a good opportunity as that. I'm aware that it's phoning home every time I start up the game, and I'm aware that they could revoke my access at any time, just because it was a promotional free copy that they don't want me to have any more. All things considered, I made a choice to play Portal for free, and will still not use Steam for anything that costs me money.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I finished it yesterday.
PPS - I haven't yet played the bonus levels.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Friday Zombie Blogging - Paul Is Undead

A new movie based on an illustrated novel, Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion will portray the Fab Four as zombies, but still performing their music.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I guess that's one way to get a reunion.
PPS - Probably the only way, come to think of it.

Excel extremely auto-fill

I've been using an Excel spreadsheet to track my working time at the office, and I have an interesting problem, which hardly anyone seems to have even mentioned online - even Microsoft themselves. I have the date and time of day, a couple of notes fields, and then some calculations in columns F to I, namely the Duration (time difference between entries), Week number (because I fill out a weekly timesheet), Year and a rounded duration that gives me times rounded to quarter-hours.

When I add the date and time to a new row, the week number and year happily auto-fill on their own, but the duration columns do not. Now, I want to be clear about this: the problem is not that I don't know how to use ordinary auto-fill, nor that the formula columns cannot be auto-filled. The frustration is that there seems to be some very-auto-fill option that doesn't even require ANY user input, and it works for the simple week and year columns, but not for anything else. The most advanced and most informative auto-fill articles online stop at custom series, and not one even mentions this fully automatic formula copying at all.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - One came close to suggesting it was related to auto-correction.
PPS - That also does not seem to be the case.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Device switches

Here's an observation I hope is interesting, if not original. We have speakers, keyboards, wireless networking, mice, trackpads, cameras and microphones on our laptops, but how many can you turn off selectively? And more to the point, how many might be hijacked without your knowledge with horrible results? There have been a few cases of schools spying on kids with laptop cameras, and for some time now there has been concern that mobile phone mikes could be turned on remotely and used for eavesdropping without the user being aware. So how come there's no equivalent to the speaker "mute" option for our laptop cameras and mikes?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, I suppose any malware could breeze right past a simple software option.
PPS - And that makes it the same kind of security problem as every other one.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

XMarks vs Delicious

I've been thinking about switching to XMarks for bookmark synchronisation, and since purchasing a netbook I decided to jump on in and start the process of transferring everything over from Delicious, where I currently keep my bookmarks for online access. Problem number one is that XMarks can only import the 100 most recent bookmarks from Delicious. No problem, I thought, I'll just go through Delicious deleting my most recent bookmarks since I plan to shut the account down anyway. It'll be a bit of a pain, but I'll get over it.

I also figured that XMarks would notice the duplicates (if any) and ignore them. After deleting a few from Delicious and trying a second import, I noticed two things. One, XMarks does NOT notice duplicates or remove them. It puts each import into a separate dated folder, duplicates and all. Two, XMarks lumps all tags for an item into one. So rather than being filed under the tags "video" and "funny", I have items filed under the one compound tag "video funny", and a hundred other combination examples. I don't like that.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - So now I don't know what to do.
PPS - For the moment, because of the import troubles, I think I'll stick to Delicious.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Database audit trails

I have a technology problem, and I can see that it's probably not going to be fixed any time soon. It goes like this. We have some databases that we develop at work, and of course they have to be deployed to client sites to be used. On those client sites, the client database administrators fix minor issues themselves (because it's quicker, easier and cheaper that way) while forwarding on more difficult or intensive tasks to us. Gradually, the scripts we used to create and update the database and the client's version drift apart. Eventually the day comes that we need to do a major update, but before we can do that, we need to get our scripts back in sync with the client's version.

All that is background. This is where the problem comes in. As we compare the databases, we have no audit trail, which means we don't know which version is the source of which difference and which particular version we want to keep. So my job has been to look over all the changes and decide which ones came from the client side or our side and update both sides appropriately. It's long, tedious, error-prone work that will just have to be repeated later.

Now, there is often a similar problem in regular old programming where two developers work on the same thing. We have tools that help track who made what changes, and they allow us to "merge" the two developers' work when we want to make one authoritative version. The tools know who made what changes to which files, which is more recent and what's in conflict (where both changed the same thing in different ways). If databases had the same kind of audit trails and merging tools, bringing two database schemas up to date with each other would be much easier, and would probably be done in an afternoon rather than a week and a half.

While I am a programmer and might be able to do something like this on my own, or add it to an existing open-source database engine, we work with Microsoft SQL Server which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't provide any way to extend it in quite the manner I require. Besides that, most database systems are written with the general understanding that changes to production systems should be rare, and should be done through proper channels.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I did find one article that might be of use.
PPS - But the real solution, I believe, involves some new standards at work.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Modem, router, answering machine and web browser in one

I like the idea of the Telstra T-Hub, which is pretty much a very advanced touch-screen home phone plus basic web browser. It's very cool, but I think it has the potential to be more. First, it should include a wireless router for home networking. It should also comprise an ADSL modem, cordless phone base station (allowing both VoIP and traditional telephony) and an answering machine. I guess I'd just like to have fewer boxes plugged into the phone point in my kitchen, especially if the one replacement can do more than what it replaces.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - BoB from iiNet is another consolidated unit that seems pretty neat.
PPS - I want to own ALL the gadgets.

Friday, 21 May 2010

RepRap home 3D printing

I get carried away when I watch videos and read articles about 3D printing, and often fantasize about having my own 3D printer at home. Today I heard about the RepRap project, which aims to make a 3D printer that can print most of its own replacement parts, thereby allowing you to print printers. One of the first things that came to mind was updates.

With software, we have gotten used to the download-and-install process for handling updates, but with an ongoing hardware project, things get more complicated. Since RepRap printers make their own replacement parts and represent an ongoing project too, it would be possible to have them download updated specs from the internet and print out the new parts, but you would have to know how to attach them yourself. That's a bit more trouble than software patching.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not sure exactly what percentage of its own parts a RepRap can print.
PPS - If it's just the plastic bits holding the metal together, it's not much.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Zombie Wonderland

This week BoingBoing posted a preview video of Zombie Wonderland, a zombie defense game for the iPhone. It looks like pretty simple gameplay with cartoony graphics. In between shooting out your windows at the approaching zombies and upgrading your weapons, you also have to clean up zombie guts (rendered as green puddles) off your floor.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The video also shows a Roomba-like device that can clean the guts for you.
PPS - Seems like it might be fun.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Truth serum and lie detectors

Following on from yesterday's "what makes a lie" post, I want to talk about truth serums and lie detectors. If either of these things were really reliable, not only would spy and terror suspect interrogations be very different (and much more civilised) but so would court rooms, police questioning and many other situations where we want to be certain of getting at least someone's subjective version of the truth without complications.

Instead of swearing people in, we'd just dose them with sodium thiopental or sodium amytal, hook them up to a polygraph and ask away. If you want to find out whether someone is a terrorist, do the same thing, and no need for waterboarding, sleep deprivation or other torture methods. Some believe that the fact such torture still goes on is good evidence that no reliable truth serum or lie detector exists, even in the most secret depths of underground government laboratories. If they did, then surely interrogating terrorism suspects would have been an excellent opportunity to put them to use.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Unless the torture was a cover-up to distract us from the secret truth serums.
PPS - But that's being a little too paranoid.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

What makes a lie

Is it a lie if you did not intend to deceive anyone? If you said something you believed to be true, but was not, then your intent was not to deceive, and I would not call you a liar, merely ignorant. If, however, you start from the definition of absolute truth, then saying something that is not true is a lie, whether you knew it or not. The trouble with that second definition, though it is more useful in picking truth from untruth, is that it muddies the definition between who intends to deceive you (and cannot, therefore, be trusted) and who is merely ignorant (who may be trusted to be honest, but may need some fact-checking).

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A polygraph only aims to detect the intent to deceive.
PPS - If it could do more, it would be a very strange device.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Blog Interviewer doesn't really know me

I got a comment (apparently identical to many thousands of others posted to other blogs) suggesting that I fill out an "interview" for this blog on "". At first I figured the link was some kind of scam. Then, having checked out the site, I slightly reclassified it in my head as spam. This "blog interviewer" site, my theory goes, posts comments at random to thousands of blogs everywhere it can, in order to gather revenue for itself through the provision of semi-legitimate content.

The thing is, all of this content is generated by blog authors themselves, so what exactly have the interview site provided? They allegedly give unspecified prizes to the top-ranked blogs as an incentive to get their "interviews" into the database, and probably aim to be some kind of popularity ranking service for all blogs in general. I'm not really convinced. If they want an interview with me, I'll accept an actual personalised request, rather than the exact same text everyone else gets.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I might also accept if they can tell me who "recommended" me.
PPS - I suspect the answer is "random link following".

Monday, 17 May 2010

Facebook privacy chaff

It seems to me that if Facebook is going to retain and data-mine your info when you quit, it might be worthwhile muddying it up before you leave. So instead of retaining all your friends and applications, what if you had a program disconnect them all, then make some random searches and request them as friends? Next, delete all your applications and start fresh with more random searches so that the data Facebook gets for "you" in their unpersons archive actually represents a collection of random noise of no value to anyone.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Apparently they are holding an all-hands privacy meeting this week.
PPS - They probably want to increase the feeling of privacy without increasing actual privacy.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Space Cremation

I was talking with a friend on Sunday night about various funeral traditions and he suggested "space cremation" as a way of disposing of bodies that would be simultaneously cool and effective. You'd shoot the body out of a huge cannon practically into orbit, in order to have it burn up on re-entry. This probably wouldn't meet with any level of approval from environmental agencies, nor would it be especially cheap or easy to fire a projectile of that weight to such a height. You'd want to be sure you got it right, too, or else someone kilometres away could get struck (or at least very confused) by a ballistic coffin.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I wouldn't want to get falling ash in my eye and think it might be from a body.
PPS - I guess alternatively you could fire the bodies into the Sun.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Killer Zombie Satellite

If only for the headline that sounds like a terrible B-grade movie, I like this "Solar storm creates killer zombie satellite" story on BoingBoing. Apparently a solar storm knocked a satellite called "Galaxy 15" partially offline, so all it's doing now is traipsing around in orbit blasting random "C-band" telecoms signals and generally interfering the hell out of other satellites until it dies or gets turned away from Earth. At that point it becomes a "here we are and we're really bad with our own technology" beacon to attract ravaging alien races. Hurrah!

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Apparently this kind of thing has happened before.
PPS - It must not be too big a problem, or we would have tried to shoot them down.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 fails a little bit

I've upgraded my older computer to Ubuntu 10.04, AKA "Lucid Lynx". On the whole, as with any upgrade, there's not much different, but there are a couple of problems that are starting to bug me. For one thing, since the upgrade, Ubuntu has forgotten how to work my sound card. It isn't even being detected any more. I can't remember if I did anything different to get it working in previous versions, but whatever I did, it should have carried over through the upgrade.

The other major problem is that the computer will no longer shut down. When I tell Ubuntu to shut the computer down, it logs off and won't allow anything else but to log back in. If I want to fully shut down, I have to restart, boot into Windows, then select Shut Down from there. I really don't get this one. I know my machine is a custom build, but it's got standard parts in there, and, again, this used to work.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I haven't had much more time to poke around yet.
PPS - Or look for solutions to my problems.

Update: Both of these problems seem to have sorted themselves out together after a hard reset then immediate shutdown from the login screen.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The trouble with e-books

The primary trouble with e-books, as I see it, is range, not device or price. Because publishers are so fearful that e-books will compromise "real" sales, they just don't offer most books electronically. That doesn't prevent them from being available electronically, though. It just prevents the publishers from being paid for electronic versions.

The second problem is that you can't even express interest in them without being treated like a criminal. The fear, again, leads publishers to demand DRM on what books they do offer. In most cases, the restrictions are so tight that you'll probably lose access to the book after you read it once.

Now, along with the iPad, Apple is trying their hand at e-book sales. I doubt apple's iBookStore will solve either the problem of range or open access, let alone price.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Apparently in some cases the iBookStore charges more than for a physical book.
PPS - That's because publishers set the prices, and they don't really want you buying books this way.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Smartphones could replace cash cards

Magnetic and chip key cards will eventually be replaced by smart phones for cash-like transactions. I think there will still be a place for cash itself, though. Now, although smart phones can conceivably perform this function, they have a few difficulties to overcome.

If I go to the supermarket and elect to pay by smartphone electronic transfer, then I need some way to be sure that I'm paying into the correct account. I need to be sure that the store is telling me the right details and that the person at the checkout is not scamming me by somehow giving me false information. Maybe there need to be several big official signs around the store advertising the correct info.

There's also a problem of trust. How do you know the small shop you visit on holidays won't use the information you leave behind to rip you off? The banks will need to put in safeguards of some kind. If you're connecting with someone else wirelessly, how do you know it's the right device you're connecting to?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's probably easiest if it's just friend-to-friend.
PPS - And that we already have.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Why streaming television is not more common

There's a good article up on BoingBoing about why so many TV shows are not streamed online or are region-restricted when they are. It's a good explanation of how the internet absolutely does not fit with the old media model, but it's written from the old model's point of view. My point here is that the internet is not some adjunct to old media that they can tack on and exploit. It's a whole new way of thinking about media.

Sure, if you're going to try selling your TV shows at a loss to broadcasters and cable channels, you'll get into exactly the kind of dead-end mindset described in the article. If, on the other hand, you think internet first, you put the shows up on, say, iTunes and start making money worldwide immediately. Once there's significant support in local areas, some broadcasters might pick up the series and start paying you for those rights. In the meantime, you don't need to be restricted by old media thinking about how long a season needs to be, or how many episodes you need to produce in advance. Just keep going as long as the iTunes sales are covering your costs.

Shows won't have such high budgets this way, or at least not for the first few episodes, so I suppose this is not really a way to think about moving old TV production online. It's about the way mid-length entertainment video should be made for profit on the internet. New distribution, new rules.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It might just be the perfect way to pilot a program.
PPS - It's easier to get and keep online distribution than broadcasting.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Watching internet TV on a big screen

I have noted that a few happy coincidences have recently resulted in my being able to watch internet-streaming video like the channel ten catch-up service on my big TV. First, that TV has a PC input option, so it can accept an AV signal straight from a computer. Second, our new netbook just happens to have a compatible AV output option, so we can plug it straight into the TV. The only down side is that we sit across the other side of the room, so we can't control the playback remotely. It's handy, but it only feels like a prototype arrangement. I'd rather have a dedicated media streaming box permanently connected that we can control with a remote.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Not that I need another remote in my life.
PPS - But I could always use more computers.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Zombie Farm

Zombie Farm is a free iPhone game similar to FarmVille, but with zombies. It seems to be about creating a pleasant environment for zombies to live in.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I do wish I had an iPhone.
PPS - The game is free.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Complimenting actors

For some actors, the greatest compliment you could pay them is to tell them breathlessly what a huge fan you are, then to list of everything BUT what they are most well-known for. I have a feeling Sarah Michelle Gellar and Leonard Nimoy would be two of those people.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't attend any Buffy events like conventions.
PPS - Leonard Nimoy has publicly announced he's stepping down from a character he first played decades ago.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Alternative exercise entertainment

I've recently joined Jetts Fitness and I was interested to see that the treadmills in the gym have televisions in them. I'd be even more interested if they had DVD players or internet connectivity. With DVDs, Deb and I could do our exercise and watch movies at the same time, though we'd need two copies of any disc we wanted to watch together. Yes, broadcast TV is simpler, but DVD would make it so much more useful. Or if it had a touch screen and ebook reader software, I could get through more reading while I exercise. Maybe. Though if I'm that keen on reading, I'm sure I can bring a paper book.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - There's an input selector button on the TVs for alternative video sources.
PPS - But I couldn't see any actual alternative input plugs.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Anne Dudek is in every show I watch

It's a weird coincidence, but Anne Dudek seems to be a supporting actor in every TV show I've been watching lately: Psych, Bones, House and Castle. It might also be a coincidence that three of those four shows are about crime investigation, and the other is medical investigation. I guess that's what I enjoy, and it seems to be what Anne Dudek gets hired for, too.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Though for some reason I've never watched CSI.
PPS - Or any of its several derivatives.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Auction house bug follow-on effects

The auction houses in City of Heroes are currently not running. This change coincided with the release of Issue 17: Dark Mirror, which coincidentally introduced a new user interface for auctions. The Known Bugs release notes for Issue 17 indicate that the auction houses they will be offline until further notice.Now, this is going to cause some pretty significant, if short-lived, follow-on effects for the game.

For some players, the inability to sell certain Salvage artifacts for millions of Influence points will be unacceptable - they will refuse to play until it is fixed. Others will continue to play but attempt to hoard their Salvage for later, eventually running out of space (though extra space can be purchased in supergroup bases). Others will compromise and sell their Salvage at ordinary shops for vastly deflated prices. Once the auction houses come back up, there will be less Salvage available in general, so the prices will tend to be much higher than they were at the beginning of the trading pause.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I do hope it's back up soon.
PPS - The improved auction user interface does look pretty good.