Friday, 28 November 2014

High school

When you're in high school, everything feels momentous and important. Then, the second you walk out of those gates for good, all of it - every single event, team, fight, hookup, embarrassment - completely ceases to matter for the rest of your life. This is beginning to be very common knowledge among adults, but it's hard to grasp when you're there for yourself because, as mentioned, it feels like you are in the middle of the most important time of your life. And you are, but not in the way you think at the time.

It feels like this relationship will go on forever and will matter to you with the burning intensity of a thousand suns for the rest of eternity. Then three months later you're at university and nothing could be further from your mind than your childish hookups. You get a "C" instead of a "B" in your class, which drags down your entire GPA and it is SO IMPORTANT, until it just isn't. Or she says he says she says you did and EVERYONE KNOWS and OH MY GOD IT IS THE END OF THE WORLD but then it isn't. Because the most important thing that happens in high school is that you develop a personality. You wait until the hormonal fire in your brain settles down to a gentle three-alarm blaze and if you actually overcame obstacles, you'll be a decent human being. If, on the other hand, high school felt so easy that it was like barrelling down an oiled waterslide giving high-fives on both sides and crashing into a pool of non-stop bikini chocolate-wrestling, real life is going to kick you in the guts straight away when you graduate.

You can climb the social ladder in high school all you like. When you get out, though, the world tips that ladder upside down, shakes you all off and says that, if you don't like it, you'd better fight back. The only people who succeed and never outgrow high school are politicians, and I'm not sure "politics" really counts as "success".

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My own high school journey is kind of a blur in my memory.
PPS - Mostly I think it was frustrating.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Capitalism is zero-sum

Is there such a thing as a capitalist economy where everyone wins? I think not. Capitalism is zero-sum. There's no such thing as making money, only taking money, so for you to "win" at capitalism, someone else loses. Those extra dollars in your pocket come from the people who lost to you. Everything you have comes from someone else's failure and your billion-dollar empire is built not on your MBA and good instincts but on the blood and bones of the enemies you didn't even know you had.

Consider it on a smaller scale. You have twenty people locked in a room for a day. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. No matter what they find in the room, what they buy or sell between themselves, no matter what they do, it's a closed system. The same amount of money is coming out of that room at the end of the day as when it began, even if it's all in the pocket of one guy. He might think the system works, and it did, but only for him.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can print more money, but it represents the same total value as before.
PPS - And all of this is why we need governments that stand up for the poor.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Too hard

I try not to say something is "too hard". I always mentally correct that to just "hard", because "too hard", to me, means "I quit". Some things really are "too hard", though. The whole class of computing problems called "NP-Hard" are kind of one-directional, and, with sufficient size, they are too hard to solve before the universe will collapse into heat death. There are physical tasks that can't be accomplished because sufficient force would destroy the components, which makes them too hard as well. In general, though, I try not to apply the label "too hard" to something just because it is a huge challenge or because it is beyond my current abilities. Those things are hard, but they are still possible. That's what I mean.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Stop me if I ever say "too hard" when I mean "very hard".
PPS - Also, I consider this a case of language pedantry rather than positive thinking.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Measuring favours

How would you measure a favour as a unit of currency? Time would have to come into it, but then there's also skill and difficulty. It would be different getting a master tradesperson to tile your bathroom than getting your two mates to do it for their first ever attempt. And one hour of a really tricky problem is far different to one hour of mindless repetitive labour. You probably can't quantify it adequately in the end. It has to be negotiated each time between the parties involved in a trade.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It might be one way to try and build a cashless economy, though.
PPS - Well, until we start printing generic favour coupons to pass around and keep track.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Excessive security is hard to detect

It is very difficult to tell if you have over-secured something. The results of adequate security and too much security look about the same: no security incidents, in whatever form you have defined them. Whether you've spent just enough on security or way too much, your efforts will be an obvious success, and it's very easy to pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

However, think of it in engineering terms, if that helps. I want to build a bridge across a chasm. I need it to carry foot traffic, and I have $100,000 to build it. An adequate solution is a simple steel span footbridge costing $10,000. It results in easy crossings for everyone, costs less than budget and lasts many years with appropriate maintenance. An over-engineered solution is a four-lane highway bridge with a smart lane control system, traffic cameras, solar lighting and emergency communications systems. If such a bridge costs the whole $100,000, but also results in easy crossings and lasts many years with appropriate maintenance, then it might be tricky to see, without knowing that the simple footbridge was a possibility, that the solution is over-engineered.

It's the same with security. When you spend way too much on security, it does the job just as well as spending a bit less would have done, but you can't tell how much less you could have spent. Think about that if you are ever in a position to boast about how effective your security precautions were.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It becomes more obvious if you start spending less and nothing bad happens.
PPS - Unless you just faced fewer threats that day.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Friday Flash Fiction: What does morning smell like?

What does morning smell like?

Linen a little less clean than the day before. The fading wisps of last night's cool breeze replaced by new dew on the grass. The bitter stale of morning breath.
Hot steam, cool tile. Vanilla soap and foaming shampoo. Egyptian cotton and lavender fabric softener.
Wholegrain toast, strawberry jam. Bitter plunger coffee. No, the home espresso machine. No, wait, barista cappucino, cream, caramel and chocolate! Warm, fresh-baked muffins.
Dusty concrete. Aged upholstery. The gagging sweat of unwashed strangers. Earbud plastic.
Thin carpet with a fine layer of dust. Pine-scented suface cleaner. Burnt ozone of electricity and flourescent lights.
Morning smells like the cycle of daily life.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This was the first and only writing prompt I picked up from there.
PPS - Maybe I should look for others when NaNoWriMo is over.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Software shortcuts can make you a worse programmer

I read recently of some people lamenting the lack of skill shown by modern software developers and the difference between using tools to take over from already-mastered, mechanical processes in your work vs bypassing the learning of that branch of practice entirely. The argument was that it's perfectly fine to use tools to get around the parts of your job that you've already mastered, so that you can focus on more interesting, higher-level challenges, but a lot of modern software development provides tools that let you jump over that mastery from the start, which means you have no idea how it actually works. To make up an example, you might use a framework to read and write data from a database once you know how that works, because that's stock-standard boilerplate code you don't need to rewrite every time. However, if you use that code from the beginning, you'll never know how to connect to a database without it.

The problem is that you can't keep tools from people who don't know how to use them. You can't force a carpenter to use a hand saw until he understands it enough to graduate to a power saw. This goes doubly true in software. The tools don't care who uses them or what their skill level would be without the tool. The only thing you can do is challenge yourself. Start from scratch in everything and build up your own set of tools and frameworks over a career instead of picking up the biggest, baddest set of power tools from the start and demolishing a house by accident. That has to be self-enforced, though. If you couldn't have built it on your own, don't use it yet.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - You can't make people earn shortcuts, is my point.
PPS - Once they're open, they're open to everyone. That's kind of the point of software.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Parking ticket diversions

Can a fake parking ticket save you from a real one? That is, if a parking inspector sees a ticket - any ticket - on your car, would they just ignore you? I doubt anyone would tell you. To find out, you'd have to park illegally and put a fake ticket on your own windscreen, then watch a parking inspector walk by your car.

The difficulty with this type of decoy would be that the inspector needs to be fresh on his shift when he encounters your car (so he can assume the ticket was placed by someone else legitimately) or needs to forget that he didn't do it himself. It's probably not a foolproof plan, then, but might work just well enough for some habitual bad parkers to be worth it.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - My best guess is that you can still get more tickets if you've already got one.
PPS - So, in that sense, it's absolutely no help at all.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

So I'm doing NaNoWriMo again this year, as I have the past 3 years. Last year I finished, as I did the year before that, so I thought I had this thing down pat. Maybe not. I'm falling behind. As in previous years, my process has been to write like mad on the train to and from work and, as with previous years, there have been a few snags here and there. Some days are faster than others. When I have no pauses between words and it just flows easily, I write up to 1500 words each way on the train, which can make for a very productive day. That can happen maybe once per month. Most days I get a bit over half my quota done each way. I've got some time next week that I can use on my own to catch up, but catching up is not the way I want to go. Right now I'm at 24,007 words, and I should be up to 28,333 today. That's getting to be a big hill to climb.

The story itself isn't coming together the way I'd like. My characters lack agency. They're not making the story go, the story is making them go, and I have to keep making the story make them go, which gets boring for me. I have no idea how to get them where they need to go, so perhaps I need to switch gears, develop some character and figure out how they can work the quest instead of being worked over by it. Maybe that will work.

I'm using Scrivener this year, which I bought on discount from a previous year's voucher. It's pretty good, but I could be using it better. I have notes for myself for next year.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I don't really know if I'll make it this year.
PPS - Maybe I'll learn something from the journey, though.

Monday, 17 November 2014

How Netflix could affect Australian streaming entertainment for the better

It seems Netflix is gearing up for an Australian launch, perhaps at the beginning of 2015. This sounds like really good news for Australia, and it is, but it might not be quite what we were hoping for.

The Netflix name in the USA is associated with cheap streaming content for a very low, flat monthly fee. The closest thing we have so far in Australia is Quickflix, who favour a slightly different "Pay-N-Play-N-Pay" model where you pay a relatively cheap monthly fee for streaming access, then (typically) pay several dollars extra for each TV show episode or movie you want to watch. The other major player in this space is Foxtel, who now charge $25 per month for their basic package and offer similar content to your defunct local DVD rental place, but on their schedule, plus Game of Thrones.

Quickflix, so far, has a pretty disappointing range of titles. Movies are typically only available to "rent" for streaming as long as they are new-release DVDs and it's a pretty safe bet that the obscure old TV show you desperately want to watch isn't on there. Foxtel behaves about the same, when you think about it.

There are two ways Netflix could bring some much-needed disruption into this space. One, a vast library of content currently unavailable in any way, shape or form to Australians. Existing dinosaurian regional distribution deals mean this probably won't happen, because they were signed by crusty old rich white dudes to whom "internet" is that weird noise their grandkids keep making. The second possible disruption is price. If I were to guess, I'd say Netflix is likely to cost a flat fee of $15 per month in Australia because suck it, Australia, what are you gonna do, cry about it? If they aren't charging extra fees for the exact same content as Quickflix, that will pretty much force Quickflix to drop their streaming rental fees, too, or else lose all their customers. However, if Netflix are forced by distribution agreements to charge extra fees for new movie streaming, and they don't get extra content, there's very little reason to prefer them over Quickflix. We'll just have to wait and see, I guess.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This is not the first we've heard news of Netflix Australia.
PPS - There are perpetual rumours.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Monthly challenges for 2015

I would love to spend each month in 2015 on a different month-long challenge. The thing is, I only know of a few, they're all clustered towards the end of the year and they don't provide much of a challenge for me, as such. See, I could do something called "Dry July" or "Ocsober" except that I already don't drink, so that's pretty much life as usual for me. There's "Movember", too, which is just strategic non-shaving, so that's also not a huge challenge. I've done NaNoWriMo for the past four years and plan to keep doing that, so that's just one item on the list. What are some more I could do?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I think January will be running every day.
PPS - I have a list I will be picking from, as the month-by-month mood takes me.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Grooms should get involved in wedding planning

It surprises me to hear uninvolved many grooms-to-be are in the planning of their own weddings. Personally, I wouldn't want to enter into a lifelong partnership in such a passive mode. I would also be a bit concerned if my bride was fine with this, since it means she would have very little interest in my opinions or preferences.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I was involved in the planning of my own wedding.
PPS - It just makes sense that way.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Angry positivity

Hostility always breeds a hostile response. I see this sometimes in otherwise positive places. Instead of "solar power is great", we get "solar power is great, and anyone who says otherwise is a BIG F***ING LIAR WHO CAN ROT IN HELL." Things like that.

My point is, if you find your "positive attitude" contains a bit of "f*** you", then things might be going off the rails a bit. Maybe take a step back, remove the hostility and just present the positive without the attack.

It's a very angry type of attitude. I realise it's coming from a place of frustration, but it really strikes me as unnecessary. Unless you find other people who are angry-excited about the same things you are, you're not going to win anyone over to your cause that way.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If your "positivity" can't be expressed without hostility, then I don't think you know what positivity is.
PPS - Or you're a very angry person and should seek counselling.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Guerilla office maintenance

I tend to harbour plans for guerilla office maintenance. For example, the bathrooms at my current place of work feature too few paper towels for a typical day and one bin that is too small for the towels that are used. I figure I could buy a large-ish plastic bin and just leave it there myself, fixing the problem and creating a better work atmosphere for myself and others. I also note that there is far too little cutlery to go around at lunchtime, and I wonder how to get around that problem, too - probably by buying forks and teaspoons in bulk.

To date, I have not enacted any of my plans in any workplace. It's not the money. It's more the expectation that I'll get a "concerned" email saying "Some time last week, a mysterious extra bin appeared in the men's bathrooms on level 8. Security were called, the building evacuated and the plastic bin destroyed with extreme prejudice. It turned out to be just a bin, but this incident illustrates the need for vigilant employee security blah blah blah". Basically, I don't trust that upper management encourages this kind of pseudo-nesting behaviour.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I just see a problem with an easy solution and I want to help.
PPS - The best I've done is carry in extra paper towels from the kitchen.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Computer speech production vs recognition

I wondered here (or maybe I never posted it) about why the early computer scientists and science fiction authors believed that speech recognition would be easy for computers, but speech production would be difficult. A lot of sci-fi has robots and computers taking in verbal commands from humans and producing text in response, when it turns out that the exact opposite difficulty curve was encountered. If you give a computer some text, you can get a passable vocal representation of it easily enough, but recognising speech took a lot longer to get to that same point.

I think now I have some insight into why that misconception may have gained traction. I am currently (well, not this very second, but during this time in my life) watching my nephew develop the twin powers of speech and comprehension of the English language. It is clear that he understands a lot more words than he is capable of producing. He can point to his nose, eyes, head, knees, belly and so on in response to questions, but he can't say all of those words yet, or at least not clearly. He takes in whole sentences and produces one or two word responses which are a little slurred or clipped off. Speech is really hard, but recognition is coming along.

And that, I thought to myself, must be what they believed in those days. A computer is like a child, they thought. We teach it things and it responds as we have taught it. Children learn speech recognition first, before they can produce it well, so that's probably what will happen to computers, too.

The thing is, a computer is really nothing like a brain. We've lived with that metaphor for so long that we often get mad at our technology as if it were trying to thwart us. In many ways, though, a computer is the opposite of a brain. That's why we built them that way. It's why they became such useful tools: because they do things in ways our brains cannot. At their best, computers complement our abilities, and we both become better for it. So if you find yourself thinking about your computer or phone in brain terms, turn it around and think the opposite, as best you can.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Assuming "the opposite" is clear.
PPS - Which it might not be.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Office peer security

Recognising official uniforms as opposed to fake ones is a big problem for security. If you walk confidently into some official location in an official-looking uniform, it is very likely nobody will look twice at you. How do you guard against that? How do you guard against fake IDs in an office building where there are guests coming and going from all areas at all times and you will only ever recognise a handful of faces? Really, the only thing you can do is to encourage an office culture where absolutely everyone spends their time stopping each other and demanding to see ID, and then calling into a central place to verify, because the ID could be fake. That's going to take a lot of time, and if you're doing it properly, lunchtime in the break room is going to be a nightmare. I pass at least a dozen strangers at lunchtime every weekday, and it would take far longer than my lunch break to stop them and call in all their ID. That's what would be needed, however, to provide true peer-to-peer security checks. Oh, and you don't get to stop doing that once you know and recognise people, either, because you don't know if they have been fired but kept their ID since you saw them last time, even if that was the same day.

I counted the strangers I saw in the office over 4 hours before lunch. It was about 30. If I spend 2 minutes checking on each one, that's an hour out of every 4, or 20% of my time. An entire workday per week just checking IDs. At that point, considering that we're asking everyone to spend 20% of their time checking IDs, it is far more worthwhile to hire several security guards to check ID for everyone as they come and go from the lifts.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's funny what becomes feasible when you actually count the cost of asking employees to do it in their "spare time".
PPS - Because, really, there is no spare time.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Spoilers as plot points

What's the statute of limitations on spoilers? Obviously if you're personally talking to someone who hates spoilers and has yet to experience the surprise or twist that you could spoil, you don't do so (unless maybe you're evil), but what about public disclosure? In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon spoils a Harry Potter book for Leonard, who had not read it yet, and of course it's a big deal for Leonard, but what about for the viewers? If it's plausible that Leonard hadn't read the book yet, then it's possible it's true for some viewers, too, and the spoiler for Leonard would have been a spoiler for that part of the audience. Now, the book in question, The Half-Blood Prince, was first published in 2005, being 8 years before the TV episode, and the movie of the book was released in 2009, 4 years before. Is that enough time to say "if you haven't seen or read it yet, too bad"? Should there have been a spoiler warning at the start of the episode? There's probably a time beyond which you can't expect the whole world to keep the surprise for you, but how long is that, exactly?

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The episode would have been difficult to pull off without the actual spoiler, though.
PPS - Unless they made up a fake fictional franchise, which they don't generally do on that show.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Thing of the week is just a beginning

It's funny how many TV shows start out on "thing of the week" episodes that are relatively self-contained, but then they discover the overarching story that becomes their true focus. Supernatural started with monster of the week, but moved on to an ongoing story about the brothers' relationship against a background of angels and demons. The X-Files moved on from mystery of the week to the Mulder and Scully relationship against a huge government/alien conspiracy. Psych, even though they kept the case of the week format most of the time, explored several relationships, both friendly, family and romantic, as the main focus after a few seasons. Fringe moved on from weird-of-the-week to a battle between alternate realities. You get the idea. Thing of the week is just where the writers start, but eventually they find their real story.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - It's hard to see where you'll end up when you start.
PPS - I imagine it's a good feeling for those writers when they find their way.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Non-disruptive protests aren't protests

I don't think you can really have a designated protest zone where protest disruption is minimised. If a protest is completely non-disruptive and draws no attention because it was pre-corralled away from the press and from anyone whose attention might matter, then it might as well not happen. It's a tree falling in the woods. It is a protest in name only, de-fanged and technically still extant, but utterly without point.

The G20 summit is happening in Brisbane soon. There will be protests, because some people see the G20 as a colossal waste of time and money where big government officials get together and talk about how great they are and how to screw over the dirty little poor nations some more. Ahem. Anyway, they know there will be protests. These protests will be placed inside fenced-off areas specially designated for protesting, far away from anyone who could matter and with an assigned police negotiator to keep them under control. That's not a protest. That's camping in the city, and it means nothing. If you've been pre-handled as a protester, if you have to give advance notice that you will be protesting, filling out forms in triplicate and returning them to the relevant authorities, you're not protesting any more. You're registering a formal complaint within a system that will file it away and ignore it completely as much as possible, even though you might be present in some capacity. It's a farce.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The best you can hope to do is raise awareness.
PPS - Not in the people that matter, though. Just everyone else who never gets near them.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Jeeves is my new Belvedere

I've gotten kind of excited about a very simple program I've written recently, called Jeeves. It's a replacement for a program I got from Lifehacker that was called Belvedere (so I kept up the butler naming scheme). Basically, Belvedere is able to monitor folders on your hard drive, watching for certain conditions (such as files last modified before a certain date) and take actions in response, such as moving them to the recycle bin. I find it very useful for keeping my Downloads folder clean by setting it to watch for files older than a fortnight.

What bothered me was that Belvedere couldn't look for empty folders and remove those. I've tried various approaches to the problem, including writing a simple C# program to find and delete empty folders. That path started leading me to write a replacement for Belvedere, with configurable Trigger items and Actions to take in response. This turned out to be a very tricky and complicated way to operate, involving passing values back and forth in a generalised and highly flexible way, figuring out how to save and load rules and generally getting very messy. I abandoned the project for a long while.

Recently, I hit on the idea that maybe Python would be a better fit for the functionality, but I still couldn't figure out how to save and load the rules to be run by the generalised rule engine.

Then it hit me. Why do I need a generalised rule engine at all? If my goal is to run arbitrary actions in response to arbitrary conditions, then I should just write scripts to do what I want directly. Suddenly Jeeves, instead of being a complex, extensible file and folder monitoring rules engine, became a lean set of a few helper methods. Now my scripts are machine-specific simple Python programs that consist of statements like:


That's a Jeeves rule that deletes any empty folders under the temp folder. It's such an easy kind of rule for me to write that I hardly need to think about it. It also neatly sidesteps all of the problems I was having with the C# version. I schedule this file with the Windows Task Scheduler, and it works brilliantly. Belvedere, unfortunately, you're fired. I have Jeeves now.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I recognise that this system isn't good for non-programmers.
PPS - Since it's just for me, that is not an issue.