Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year's Traditions

For a while my New Year's Eve traditions have been modest, but satisfying. I like to meet the new year on my feet, to symbolise something-or-other about not taking life lying down. This one is pretty easy. The next one is much more difficult after a long party when everyone else goes home at 1am: I stay up to watch the sunrise, because that's when we feel like days really begin in our Western culture. Admittedly, I haven't done this for a couple of years, and I don't know if I'll make it this year, but I think it's important to keep it as an ideal.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The 1am-to-6am stretch is a pretty hard slog.
PPS - Because there's little to do and, as I said, everyone's gone home.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Paper prototype your software ideas

If you have a brilliant idea for a new program or website that "just needs some programming" to get it off the ground, then you should definitely do what we call "paper prototyping". You sketch out your concept on paper - rough and ready, not neatly ruled or coloured-in - and you take it around to potential customers and users. With you playing the part of the computer, and them being the user, you simulate what happens when they click, flick and interact with your program. From this, you should gain several things: an insight into how difficult software design really is; a more solid idea of how your program or website will actually work; an impression of whether your concept is exciting to other people.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is how you start from a raw idea and move it to a design.
PPS - Trust me: any programmer will be impressed with a tested paper prototype.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Hiding things in Windows

Probably part of the security problems of Windows is that there are many different ways to hide things from the standard tools that manage the computer. There are hidden services, hidden programs, hidden files, hidden flags and attributes and any number of stealthy paths open to be exploited by malware. Microsoft set them up with the best of intentions, I'm sure, but in the end, they are far more useful to viruses than to the owner of the machine.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - In fact, I'm pretty sure they were set up to hide things from you.
PPS - Well, maybe not you, specifically.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Self-personalised letters

It would be possible, via a simple database, document template and mail merge to create personalised celebrity Christmas cards to the general public. The idea would be to submit your name (or a friend's) and maybe a personalised message to a website, then after a certain cut-off time or number of entries, the celebrity has cards printed with those messages, signs them and mails them. Perfect for living in a delusional world where you have personal contact with celebrities!

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Or for passing veiled personal threats to your enemies.
PPS - It would definitely be a problem keeping that database free from spam.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Facebook address book

The oldest entry in my blog drafts file is titled "No More Address Book". I wrote it in 2006, and it describes doing away with the need for address books and synchronisation by keeping one central service where we keep references to people. They change their addresses on their own, and we just use that central reference to find out how to contact our friends. I did note, however, that such a system would be ripe for the plucking by spambots and other advertisers. Fast forward 4 years and we all do this through Facebook, including the advertisers. Facebook is much more than that, of course, but it does exactly this too. Funny, isn't it?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'm not sure why I never posted that.
PPS - I might have wanted to write more about it, or polish it some more.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Tripod - Fabian

This Christmas Eve, remember the least-famous reindeer, as brought to you by Tripod:

Mokalus of Borg

PS - They have a few other Christmas songs.
PPS - This is one of my favourites.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The wrong kind of chess computer

Somewhere along the line we missed the point of building chess computers. We were meant to use the game's structure as a way to investigate human pattern recognition, reasoning and decision making. Instead, we powered ahead with brute force algorithms, beating human players and learning almost nothing in the process.

A real, intuitive chess program needs to group pieces together into conceptual formations, evaluate the board considering only about seven possible moves, and think a few moves ahead. Perhaps just placing those limits on chess programs - seven potential moves, maybe seven moves ahead - will start leading us in the right direction.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Applied to current methods, those limits just make bad chess programs.
PPS - But maybe someday we'll start figuring it out.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

LEGO and 3D printers

I wonder if the LEGO company will collapse or adapt when we all have cheap, reliable 3D printers on our desks. After all, at that point it will become trivial to print new LEGO-compatible blocks from freely-downloadable templates. Charging lots for models and pieces will be much less sustainable as a business model in that world, and lots of people are willing to create their own designs and distribute them for free, too. The advantages I can see genuine LEGO retaining in that world are:
  • Durability. Home-printed blocks are likely to be a little rougher and a little weaker than the moulded ones from LEGO.
  • Colour. The home-printed blocks will probably be all the same shade of milky-white.
  • Creativity. As long as LEGO has designers working on interesting new models, they'll probably still be able to sell sets.
  • Electronics. 3D printers will only be producing plastic, which means electronic sets like Mindstorms will still have the vital electronic controller pieces and wired bits that crafty bricksters need for their more advanced projects.
Mokalus of Borg

PS - They've already lost a court case about producing LEGO-compatible bricks.
PPS - I think the only illegal thing would be distributing trademarked designs.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Media synchronisation via Libox

For a little while now I've been using a program of my own design to keep my pictures, music and videos synchronised across all my machines, because I couldn't find a sync program that worked exactly how I wanted. As it turns out, I was looking for something like Libox, a private, serverless media synchronisation program that's completely free. Here I want to examine why it's (almost) perfect for my needs:

- Arbitrary profiles, so I can tell it what to sync and where.

- Works between home and the office, so I can have an off-site backup in case one of my computers catches fire.

- Set and forget. Once it's up and running, it will keep going and I don't need to think about it again.

And now for why it's not so perfect:

- No bandwidth limiting. If I add a lot of new media, everything will upload as fast as it can, without disrupting my service. I can't tell it to only upload or download at a certain limited speed, and I can't tell it to only work during off-peak times, so it will chew up my peak quota as well, when it wants to.

- Does not propagate moves, renames and deletes. I have a fair amount of duplicated media, and I want to clean it up to save space. Libox focuses more on streaming media from synchronised libraries, and they're quite adamant that their application does not make changes to media on the hard drive. That's good if it's mostly for sharing, but keeps the "sync" side a bit limited.

And some things I'm uncertain about:

- Does it sync over LAN, so that machines in the same room don't send data over the web and chew up more bandwidth? Don't know, and the website is a bit light on technical details. It seems they're so excited about media sharing, or so eager to appeal to non-techies, that they avoid all tech-speak entirely.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My search goes on.
PPS - But for some of you, Libox may be what you need.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Secret passages

It seems to me it would be pretty easy, especially in some buildings, to hide secret passages and even whole rooms, behind walls that nobody questions. If you work in an office, think about the parts of your floor where you don't go, and the passages and turns that make it difficult to be sure whether your lift shafts are actually flush against this or that wall. How much of the total floor area is accessible to you, and how much of it could easily house another whole room like a board meeting room?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It would be an ideal place for the Shadow Board of Directors to meet.
PPS - Though what could they really do from such a secret location?

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Mysterious Disappearance of Thirteen

There's an episode of House M.D. where Dr Remy "Thirteen" Hadley just up and disappears, much to everyone's confusion. Obviously now we know what happened. She got stuck in TRON.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I bet that happens a lot.
PPS - Or if not, it should be a standard way to write characters out of shows.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Nothing at all

For now, I think I'm done with Friday Zombie Blogging, so this is just a farewell to this feature of the blog. I've posted about upcoming zombie movies, lots of games, zombie walks, a few pieces of art and one or two observations and thoughts. There's not that much any more that's new, innovative or interesting (to me) in the zombie sphere any more, so I'm calling it quits, or at least a hiatus. I'm prepared to reverse my decision at a later date, but until further notice, there won't be any new zombie news here.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I considered posting a montage of zombie deaths from The Walking Dead TV show.
PPS - But at the moment, the gore is not sitting well with me.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Programming puzzles

These are some of the programming puzzles that have occupied my mind this year, outside work:
  • Distributed file systems with unreliable networks or no network at all.
  • Multi-master file synchronisation
  • Windows Presentation Foundation
  • Pentominoes and exact coverage puzzles
  • YAML and other human-friendly, machine-processable file formats
I have wide-ranging interests, but they tend to cluster around algorithmic investigation (WPF being the exception here). I guess I've always been an algorithmist at heart. I love to figure out how to get a computer to solve a problem, though I don't do as well as some professors do.

This also explains why I write my own software to exactly match my needs and why I get so discouraged when I need to find workarounds for bugs or limitations in the frameworks or hardware I use. It's not interesting or fun to try and trick the computer into doing what you want. Only occasionally are the limitations part of the puzzle.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The tough days are when my work is much less interesting than these puzzles.
PPS - The only classical "puzzle" here is pentominoes.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Dream therapy through programmable dreams

Given a hypothetical programmable dream machine, it could be used for therapy. Say you were afraid of heights. You (or your therapist) programs a series of dreams in which you overcome your fears through increasingly high-up experiences like stilts, springboard diving, a flying fox and hang gliding. Or say you never got over the loss of your childhood pet, and it's causing you stress now. Program a dream or two that unite you with your pet, but you say goodbye. The possibilities are endless, though some of them are undoubtedly disturbing, too.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I'd much rather some people express their urges in dreams than in reality.
PPS - As long as that's where it stays.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Legitimate American TV downloads in Australia

What are the legitimate ways to view American television digitally in Australia? I'm not talking about any form of broadcast or DVDs here, just pure, on-demand TV show downloads. There's iTunes, if you're lucky enough to have your show provided here. For instance, Bones is available, but Dexter is not. There's ... um ... no, actually, that's it. iTunes if you're lucky. But since each episode on iTunes costs 2.99AUD, you're better off subscribing to Foxtel and just learning to like what they show, since you'll pay far more per show on iTunes than on cable.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I've written about download costs vs Foxtel before.
PPS - At least the iTunes cost seems to have dropped by $1 since then.

Monday, 13 December 2010

MP3 vs AVI

Long ago we settled on a standard format for music files. It's not the only one, and it has many options and variants, but it is universally supported. When are we going to settle on such a format for video? AVI is the most popular and many major devices refuse to support it. Furthermore, if you want to buy music in MP3 format, (almost) everything is available and it hardly matters where in the world you are. If you want to buy movies and TV digitally, you pretty much have to live inside the United States.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I realis AVI still comprises a variety of codecs.
PPS - Still, can't we settle on one?

Friday, 10 December 2010

Racial mute

When reading about "racial" problems, events, prejudices and whatever else, I like to mentally snip out the race words to see what has really happened. For example:

"Many white business owners chose to close their businesses and move away rather than hire black employees"


"Many business owners chose to close their businesses and move away rather than hire employees"

Which is just weird.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I mean, imagine presenting it as part of a business plan sometime.
PPS - Similarly odd effects can be had by reversing the roles.

Friday Zombie Blogging - Zombie Accountant

This week in zombie news I present Zombie Accountant, a fairly simple side-scrolling platformer, has you collecting tax returns and avoiding eating your co-workers. It actually looks like good, mindless fun.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I gather it's on XBox and Windows Phone 7.
PPS - And the full version only costs $1.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Standard meals to measure food

Like the "standard drinks" model for alcohol where we know how much our liver can metabolise in an hour, we should adopt a "standard meals" system to tackle obesity. Everyone's metabolism is different, yadda yadda, so is everyone's liver, but we still have that model, don't we? It should be easier than calorie-counting for fast food, and if we define 3 standard meals as how much one person should eat in one day, then printing "6.2 standard meals" beside some menu item would really make you stop to think. Based on a sub-standard Google Search, one standard meal should probably equal 500-600 calories.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It may need a more complex definition than a calorie count.
PPS - But it's a place to start.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Doubling the price of houses

Thirty years ago the price of a house was about three years wages. Now it's six. It seems more likely to be exponential than linear growth which means it will be twelve years wages by 2040 and twenty-four years' wages by 2070. By 2100, you'd need most of your income for most of your working life to afford a house, and that's if you don't eat, clothe yourself or have a family. If you expect a working spouse to help, you should also expect that advantage to disappear by 2130, when most of their wage will be required too. In 2160, your children will inherit your house debt. In 2190, their children will inherit yours and their parents' too. Long before then, something will change.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It has to, because it's unsustainable that way.
PPS - One change might be a property price crash.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Drive-through convenience store

How many times have you been driving home and realised you needed a loaf of bread, some milk or whatever other staples you frequently run out of? Wouldn't it be great to have a drive-through convenience store where you could get those things without having to get out of your car? I would definitely have used such a store at least once, if it existed.

Now the down sides. The selection would be a little limited by necessity. The prices would likely be higher even than ordinary convenience stores. And if you're ordering a lot, you might need to stop to arrange it properly in your car before heading back on the road anyway. Still, it would be interesting to see someone give it a go.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - A quick Google search confirms I'm not the first one with this idea.
PPS - Still, it's not so common that I'd call it "convenient".

Monday, 6 December 2010

An alternative to holding on the phone

Instead of putting people on hold in this technological age, can't we put them in a call-back queue? Then they can hang up and go about their business until someone is ready to assist them. This would be particularly helpful when congestion at the call centre is very high, but would actually be bad when it's very low, since it would be more trouble in that situation. I also imagine people would be very distrusting of such a call-back system, and would rather wait than risk never hearing back again. Still, if you trusted it, all you'd have to do is call the queue line, state your name and reason for calling, then hang up. Caller ID can handle the number, or you can specify another by using your keypad. If you're on a mobile, you could even text in a call-back request.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This doesn't even seem like it would have to be very high-tech.
PPS - Would you trust a high-tech version more than a low-tech one?

Friday, 3 December 2010

Excel vs Access

Is Excel the reason Access is so bad? For most people, Excel is their "database" tool of choice, and for good reason. It has flexible tabular data CRUD operations, search, sort, group and pivot query functions, plus it makes charts. It can load data from external sources, calculate results, colour-code them and export them in other useful formats. It can even be programmed in VBA or, with the most recent versions, CLR managed code. Given all these features, what advantages does Access confer? It doesn't even add multi-user capabilities cleanly, and getting up and running with an Access database is much harder than opening Excel. Given such a consumer focus on Excel, is it any wonder Microsoft would spend a lot more time and effort on it than on Access?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I can imagine more Access features being added to Excel over time.
PPS - But my imagination doesn't drive Microsoft.

Friday Zombie Blogging - No more P&P&Z movie

Rumour has it that the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie adaptation might be dead. The director bailed out, then Natalie Portman, producer and star, ditched in favour of playing Lois Lane in a new Superman movie. Looks like we might not get zombie action plus Jane Austen on our screens for a while.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Then again, you can't keep a good zombie down.
PPS - Which part of the cast or crew would count as the head?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

High standards vs growth

Debbie and I recently started karate together (well, I started again) and I wondered about maintaining standards versus growth. On the one hand, you want to maintain high standards that encourage people to join and build up the club's reputation. On the other hand, you need instructors if you want to grow, and not all of them are likely to meet the standards, so eventually you need to start being more lenient and allowing average instructors through, rather than just the outstanding ones. Past a certain size, you'll either lose your standards or stop growing. Probably both at once. High standards are (usually) incompatible with fast growth.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I can't think of any general high-quality growth examples off the top of my head.
PPS - I'm sure there are a few exceptions that prove the rule.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

GMail and conversation view

My boss and co-workers were complaining that GMail does not allow you to turn off "conversation view", where items with the same subject are grouped together. I found it within a few minutes, and a quick test confirmed that it works just as described. It's a pretty recent addition, though, so it's no wonder they didn't know it existed. What I don't understand is why you wouldn't want it. Personally, I would hate to be searching through my email looking for the different connected pieces of one conversation. I suppose if you get tons of unrelated mail all with the same subject heading it might get annoying, but apart from that, I'd rather have it on than off.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't get a lot of same-subject email.
PPS - And GMail doesn't seem to group it together anyway if there's a long gap.