Blog Archive — Page 21

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  • A Farewell to Marmablues

    May 1998, half a lifetime ago. It was my 13th birthday, and my parents – no doubt annoyed by four years of me messing with the family computer – bought me my own. It had a 333MHz processor, 32 glorious megabytes of RAM, and most exciting of all, a 56k dial-up modem.

    With Microsoft Word as my co-pilot and under the ever-watchful phone-bill-monitoring eyes of my parents, I discovered the delights of owning my own website. It had it all, oh yes. Giant background images, a different one for each page. Animated GIFs. Background MIDIs. Frames, <blink> and <marquee>. Web rings to click through, and Tripod’s banner ads inserted at the top of every page. It was called “The Mad Marmablue Web Portal”, and it was exactly as horrendous as you are imagining.

    A few years later, a chronic lack of smallprint-reading led me to buy it a ‘free’ domain name, only to receive a scary-looking invoice a month later. In the end my parents sent the domain reseller a letter explaining that I was a dumb-ass kid who shouldn’t be trusted on the internet, and that was that. But at the age of seventeen, in possession of a Switch debit card, I found a web host who would set me up with a domain and 100MB of space for £20 a year. “marmablue.co.uk” was born.

    Today, it died.

    I shouldn’t feel sentimental about jettisoning an old unused domain, particularly not one that harks back to the late-90s animated GIF horror of the Mad Marmablue Web Portal. But it was a part of my youth, the place where for the first time I could put something and anyone could see it. It was where I took my first steps with HTML – by ripping off other websites, naturally – and in time, it was where I first learned JavaScript, PHP and SQL too.

    I will miss it. But if I sit very still, and very quietly, I can still hear that horrible 8-bit MIDI rendition of the RoboCop theme tune. So maybe I won’t miss it all that much.

  • The Atheist's Sense of Wonder

    I’ve no idea why this thought should crop up now, but I recall being asked several times by religious folk why I would choose not to believe in a god. Often their question is something like “Why believe that everything you see around you was created by random chance, when it would be so much more wonderful to think that someone created it all just for us?”

    I disagree completely.

    Isn’t it more wonderful to think that at some point, billions of years ago, everything we know was just an unimaginably tiny, unimaginably hot and dense energy field? That within seconds, it coalesced into quarks and leptons and other stranger things, that those quarks became protons and neutrons, then on into hydrogen and helium atoms?

    Isn’t it more wonderful that a simple force like gravity drew those atoms together into huge balls of gas, so hot and dense that they ignited and became shining beacons visible from the far end of the universe? And that they eventually exploded, scattering heavy atoms far and wide? And that those atoms – oxygen, carbon, iron, even as heavy as uranium – gathered around another newly-forming star, clumping together into big balls of rock, one of which happened to be in just the right place around just the right kind of star to sustain liquid water on its surface?

    Isn’t it more wonderful that after a billion years of volcanism, asteroid impacts and boiling, toxic atmospheres, somewhere in that water, a bunch of molecules lined up in a pattern on the surface of some clay and became the first proteins? That these chemicals strung themselves together in molecules so complex they could contain the code for their own reproduction? That they became so much more complex still that they could encode the information to generate a cell, a microscopic blob with a membrane that means it can keep conditions inside itself different from those outside?

    Isn’t it more wonderful that over millions or billions of years, they developed gills so that they could extract oxygen from the water, and gain their energy from that rather than directly from the sun? That after yet another unimaginably long time, some of them went on to develop legs that would allow them to colonise the land?

    Isn’t it more wonderful that millions of years ago the Earth was ruled by giant lizards, and that that isn’t just the plot of a science fiction movie but the real history of our planet?

    Isn’t it more wonderful that 14 billion years after the first quarks formed, we stand here today? For all that we are vulnerable, disease-ridden, selfish and fond of killing each other, we alone have the medical knowledge to understand ourselves, and we alone have brains advanced enough to contemplate themselves. We alone understand biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics. We alone have telescopes to study distant stars, and we alone have built spaceships that we have thrown out beyond our solar system into the cosmos beyond.

    And is it not more wonderful still that we may not be alone in the universe, that amongst the billions of stars and maybe trillions of planets, there could be other creatures like us – or even that the universe could be swarming with life; great civilisations spanning the distant galaxies.

    But an omnipotent MacGuffin that made the Earth just for us? That’s not all that great.

  • October's End

    How quickly this October has come and gone! Barely a memory ago, it was summer, and we took the train home along the beach in the sunshine. But before long jumpers came out of the cupboard, then coats, then hats. Suddenly the ground is frosty of a morning, I wake up in darkness, and I return home in darkness. The house is empty and cold, and Hallowe’en looms.

    If the past is anything to go by, the next month will bring vacant, lonely feelings, feelings of disconnection from the world. I’ll write, but never finish anything I start. And November will pass in a blur, much October has before it.

    But then it will be December, a more homely month. The house will be warm again, and light, and will smell of casserole and mince pies.

    I never did get on with November.

  • Alarm Apps, and the Lulz that can be had

    I am in the middle of creating an Android app that’s a kind of super alarm clock. (God forbid I should have less than six projects on the go at once.) In the run-up to your chosen alarm time, it pulls down various feeds from the internet so that it can wake you with news, weather and traffic information. A typical wake-up message might be:

    Good morning Ian! It’s 6:15am on Wednesday the 27th of October. The weather today will be foreboding mist, with highs of 10 degrees and a wind speed of 14 miles per hour. In the news today: Nick Clegg has been revealed to be a ficticious creation of the Guardian newspaper. A man has shot a large deer, and apparently this is news. And, The dead are rising, everybody stay indoors. Latest traffic updates: A338 Bournemouth - One lane closed northbound due to an earlier accident. A35 Bere Regis - Subject to roadblocks due to high zombie threat, find alternative routes.

    There’s just one problem, as pointed out by @TheHiddenPaw – that all of that text is going to get read out by the Android text-to-speech engine, and thus you’ll wake up to the sound of the news being read by a Dalek.

    Ideally we’d like the voice to sound human, but that’s all-but impossible with current text-to-speech technology. And short of a news source providing freely-accessible audio streams with time-based metadata (BBC News karaoke anyone?), there’s no sensible way of chopping up actual news, weather and travel reports to push out as an alarm.

    If you’re a fan of sensible software and sane ideas, you might want to stop reading now, because my thoughts then diverged somewhat.

    First of those thoughts was “hey, I wonder if you could pay someone on Mechanical Turk to read it for you?”. Now that costs money, so it would be the world’s first alarm clock with subscription fees. On the other hand it would probably be the world’s first alarm clock which had its functionality outsourced to India. Maybe that’s the future, or something.

    The next thought was “since it’s only a few pence they’d lose out on, there’s not really any way to avoid people recording completely fake stuff, or recording complete silence so you oversleep.”

    My third and final thought was “oh boy, lulz can be had here”, after which I was declared legally brain-dead for actually thinking the word ‘lulz’.

    What if we embrace people’s ability to record whatever the hell they like, and keep a whole database of whatever audio we get, and pick from it randomly as an alarm tone?

    This is AlarmRoulette.

    (Thanks to @HolyHaddock for the name that sums it up perfectly.)

    Through your phone or on the web, anyone can anonymously record 30 seconds of whatever audio they feel like recording. Then, every morning, a random clip gets chosen by each user’s phone to be used as an alarm.

    The possibilities are endless, and endlessly horrifying. One morning you could get woken by some soothing Mozart, and the next by Aphex Twin. On Wednesday you could hear an inspiring and encouraging message about how wonderful you are, and on Thursday you could get woken up by someone giving a running commentary of 2 Girls 1 Cup.

    I can’t decide if this is the best, or the worst, thing ever. Maybe it’s both.

  • Alright Government, Hands Off Our Internet

    And that is an ‘our’ that does not extend to those inside Westminster, because with a few notable exceptions, MPs have shown an almost complete lack of understanding of the internet and how it works.

    Guess what’s back from the dead? Our old friend, the Intercept Modernisation Plan.

    Between this crazy “log everything” scheme (in the name of combatting terrorism, naturally) and the barely-debated Digital Economy Act, the previous Labour government’s approach to technology and the internet was at best misguided. And though I’m generally left-leaning, I found some promise in the Tories’ and the Lib Dems’ pro-freedom, anti-surveillance agenda.

    This makes it all the more sad that the new government has gone against its coalition agreement and chosen to resurrect the Intercept Modernisation Plan as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. (Hey, at least I got my submarines.)

    Let’s rehash some old arguments:

    1. Überdatabases are expensive. Even if the effort of maintaining them is farmed out to ISPs rather than central government (and it will), the cost will be enormous. The ISPs will protest, and if they end up having to pass that cost on to their customers, we will protest too. It’s your Orwellian plot, if you’re going to introduce it, at least have the decency to pay for it.

    2. Who has access? That our ISPs can, to some extent, log our communications is something we sign up to in our service agreements. Who could ask for these logs under the Intercept Modernisation Plan? Police with a reasonable suspicion, fair enough – it’s no different from the circumstances under which they could get a search warrant for your house. But when it’s all digital, how do we ensure that ‘reasonable suspicion’ is never abused? And who else is allowed access? Government departments? Civil servants? Schools? Hospitals? None of this is rigidly defined, and it needs to be.

    3. Data Mining is Evil. Can the police, or whoever, request only specific data from specific times, or can they request all your data? All of several people’s data? At what point does it stop being a proper investigation and start being data mining for ‘crime prediction’?

    4. Ph34r t3h haxx0rz! The more data you put in one place, the more interesting a target it is. And in the real world, enough civil servants leave confidential material on trains already – they’re sure to download some of this data to a memory stick and lose it somewhere.

    5. Signal-to-Noise Ratio. This is the internet. According to one estimate, 97% of e-mail traffic is spam. And most of the rest must be from Zynga. How much of our Twitter bullshit and LiveJournal angst are you going to read? How much crap are you going to go through to find the super-secret terrorist plans, and at what point does applying Bayesian analysis to our web traffic start to fall under the “Data Mining is Evil” heading (protip: really quickly).

    6. Terrorists are Smarter than You. And so am I. So are most 14-year-old kids. We know all about SSL, PGP, proxies, VPN tunnelling, TOR, IPREDator, darknets and all the rest. And god forbid the terrorists do their business in real life, in a basement somewhere, rather than on Facebook. Because if they do (spoilers: they do), this whole plan is a giant money-pit that robs us of our privacy and achieves nothing.

    So Cameron, Clegg et al, please just let this one die. It was a bad plan to begin with, that’s why you promised not to do it. And before you come up with the next plan to foil online terrorist collaboration, please learn what how the internet works and what is and isn’t sensible to do to it.

    Learn Internet

    For anyone who’d like to sign another petition against the Intercept Modernisation Plan, the Open Rights Group campaign is here.

  • For the Discerning Lady or Gentleman, SuccessWhale version 1.1

    The sudden proliferation of peoples’ syndicated tweets from sources such as Foursquare and Fallen London annoys me far more than it should. Any more sensible old grouch would pick up his pipe, don slippers and write a strongly-worded letter to the local newspaper about how this ‘checking in’ business is corrupting society.

    Instead, I made my Twitter client block them. Also, you can now do it too!

    SuccessWhale users will now see a link at the top-right of the interface called ‘Manage Banned Phrases’. Clicking it will take you to a page where you can specify a semicolon-separated list of things you don’t want to see, such as “4sq.com;fallenlondon.com;bieber”. Once confirmed, any tweets in any timeline that are sucky enough to contain one of these phrases will be hidden from your view.

    Twitter: now 12% less full of shite!

    An extra feature has been rolled into this release, which is the ‘Reply All’ button. It looks like this: It only appears where two or more people are having a conversation (three or more if you’re included too). Clicking on it starts a reply to everyone mentioned, not just the tweet’s originator. So if @Alice is talking to @Bob, and you click ‘Reply All’ on one of her tweets, your entry box will then read “@Alice @Bob”.

    So that’s version 1.1. Share and enjoy!

    SuccessWhale is a free, open, multi-platform web-based Twitter client. It’s hosted at SuccessWhale.com, and you can find out more about SuccessWhale here. It’s GPL-licenced, so you can download yourself a copy too if you want one.

  • Game Idea Spam Time!

    One of the games I remember liking from what I was shocked to discover was 11 years ago was Warzone 2100. It’s actually one of the rare examples of an Abandonware game that’s been taken and updated on by a loyal community – over a decade since it was first released, they’re working on version 3.0. (You can download it from here, completely free.)

    The reason I’m mentioning it today is for its vehicle construction mechanic. Rather than simply building a Light Tank or a Heavy Tank and so on, each vehicle came in a number of bits – body, tracks, turret, and so on. You researched each item individually, then you could build vehicles with whatever bits you’d researched.

    For some reason this idea has been weighing heavily on my brain over the last few days, so I’ve sketched out some ideas for a game that I’m half tempted to write.

    It would be sort of like a naval version of Warzone, only 2D with a limited playing field, and probably rather simplistic graphics (especially if I’m building it on my own, since I can’t draw for toffee). There aren’t any buildings apart from a single base for each player which builds your ships, and you lose if your base is destroyed. In order to defend it, you build ships from blueprints you have researched.

    Each ship is composed of four bits:

    • Hull – affects how much armour (health) the ship has.  More armour, roughly speaking, makes a ship heavier and also take longer to build.
    • Engine – engines provide thrust, which along with the hull’s weight, affects its speed.
    • Radar – affects the range of the ship’s weapons.
    • Weapon – deals damage to other ships.  Weapons have a power (damage per shot) and a fire rate.

    Ships can shoot at other ships (submarines are a possibility too) and if they get close enough, the enemy base.  They can be moved around the playing field, and will automatically fire on any enemy ship within range.

    Here’s the rest of my thought processes (and doodles) in Awful Handwriting form:

    My big question is, if I were to make this – and have the patience to finish making it, which is a rare thing indeed – for what platform should I be making it?

    • For the Desktop is the easiest option.  I could code it comfortably with tools I’m used to.  But it’d be yet another crappy downloadable game that no-one would keep around.
    • For Phones would give it a more interesting market, though the UI would need some work on anything less than an iPad or Galaxy Tab.  Also, CBA developing for Apple stuff.
    • For the Web is probably the best way to get people playing.  But it’s probably not doable in HTML5+JavaScript, I can’t afford Adobe Flash, and I can’t write a Java applet because it’s not 1995.

    Does anyone out there in internetland have any thoughts on which format they’d like to see a game like this in?  (And while you’re there, do please wade in with any other suggestions, rants, reasons why the whole idea is flawed, etc…)!

  • Cold War II: Once More with Botnets

    In a press conference at the RSA Conference yesterday, Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, suggested that the principles of “cyber-war” could be influenced by those of nuclear deterrence.

    “An attack on the US or its allies with a nuclear weapon would be responded to with overwhelming force. …countries should be able to respond to cyberattacks ‘with overwhelming force’.” [ZDNet]

    In my humble opinion, this ranks pretty high up there on the list of Worst Ideas Ever.

    Nuclear deterrents are reasonably easy to secure (so long as you’re not Pakistan). A nuclear warhead is a giant chunk of metal, too big to carry, stuck in a silo or an Air Force base or a submarine under the Arctic circle – no-one’s going to make off with that. You can be sure that if a nuclear strike happens, it is launched by a nation state with a target chosen by that state.

    Not so the cyber-WMD. While we can assume that for now, government agencies probably have the best tech around for launching and countering network-based attacks, what the government has today, a 13-year-old script kiddie will have tomorrow. Whatever form these defensive online weapons take, they’re just software. They can be stolen, hundreds of thousands of copies fitting in a spy’s pocket. They can be reverse-engineered, manipulated in the wild, copied and spread around. They can be placed to guard a network from which an attack on US online interests is launched, pitting one bit of software against the other until no bystanders are left.

    To say nothing of the fact that most sustained attacks originate from botnets, leaving the government the choice of going after the central control servers, leaving the bots themselves to carry on, or nuking some of their own citizens off the internet. Add to that the complication of using this technology against foreign citizens, and it becomes an unholy mess.

    No, I believe cyber defence should learn from immunology, not nuclear deterrence. Do the minimum possible to fix the problem, because sooner or later, something will attack you that’s immune to your fix. If you’ve deployed your H-bomb and it hasn’t killed everything – and in the online world, it never will – the next thing that hits you will be H-bomb proof. And then you’re screwed.

  • The Next Step for Ambient Data

    In one of my previous posts, “In Which I Bemoan the Tech Level in the Navy”, I discussed the possibility of layering radar and targeting data as a heads-up display (HUD) over a ship’s Bridge windows – not necessarily to speed up reaction time as a fighter pilot requires, but just to remove the layer of separation between data and reality.

    Whilst this level of Augmented Reality might not be catching on any time soon in the Navy, it’s starting to become popular in the civilian world (at least, the part of it that owns a smartphone). That’s great, but the problem is, where do we go from here?

    Imagine that, walking along a city street, you see some building or monument that you don’t recognise, but that interests you. What can you do, and what could you have done at various points in the past?

    Once upon a time, we had maps. On paper. Unbelievable, I know! So you see the building, and you go off to find a map. Not only is the data (the map) separated from reality conceptually (you have to refer to it on its own terms, by going and buying one) it also doesn’t look much like reality (just a 2D, symbolic view) and it’s also subject to what the map-makers thought was important. So if your building was just being built when the map was being drawn up, or the cartographers just didn’t find it that interesting, it might not be marked.

    Online mapping such as Google Maps improves things a little, particularly if your building has been snapped by El Goog’s all-seeing Street View cameras – you can get out your phone, virtually navigate to the building, and hopefully it might tell you what it is. Google Earth goes a step further in allowing locations to be freely tagged by users – rather than just one map-making company, you can now hope that one out of a thousand or a million users has found the building interesting enough to tag – much more likely. They may even have made a 3D model of it. But there’s still a separation between data and reality; you have to look at the real world, then your phone, then back again.

    The next step on the path to merging data into reality is AR – Augmented Reality. Layar, Wikitude and their kin do pretty much the same job – point your phone at a scene, and interesting things will be overlayed as points on it. Whether it’s one point per Wikipedia entry, per geo-tagged tweet, Flickr photo or hotel review, the data is inserted on top of reality so long as you view reality through your smartphone screen. Look at the building you’re interested in through Layar’s interface, and it’ll have a dot in front of it that will allow you to pull up information about it.

    That, of course, is fantastic. But where do we go from here? In order to make the data more ambient, more blended with reality, we’re eventually going to have to remove the smartphone from the equation. Even if seeing the world through a 3-inch screen becomes a normal way to behave in public, the things run out of batteries, don’t have great GPS chips, and besides, you might be busy using it for something else.

    My proto-novel Forgotten Children features brain-implanted microchips that bind onto neuronal pathways so as to obtain read/write access to the host’s visual cortex and short-term memory. That may be the end goal of this line of thought, but it’s entirely possible that it proves technologically impossible or socially unacceptable even thousands of years in the future.

    But that’s a crazy science fiction writer spaffing about the year eleventy-billion. With the rate of technological progress, we should be looking forward to the next transition to more ambient data within ten years. I wonder what form it will take – VR inserts in glasses? In contact lenses? Holographic projectors in wrist-computers? And of course, I wonder if I will have some small part in creating it.

  • i-Dosing is a Thing Now?

    So, not only does October’s edition of Wired UK suggest 4chan in its list of unusual places to make friends online – yup, that would indeed be an unusual place to look – but it seems to have decided to enlighten its readers on the wonders of i-Dosing too.

    Wait, what? i-Dosing is an actual thing now?

    For anyone unaware, “i-Dosing” is purportedly a technique whereby teenagers listen to music that emulates the effects of taking drugs. There are a number of websites that claim to offer such music, and I suppose it’s possible that they actually existed as some kind of weird internet non-entity before the Daily Mail went fucking crazy (more so than usual) in July of this year. I wouldn’t, however, be surprised if the Mail article was a ludicrous prank on the reactionary truth-averse newspaper, and the websites sprung up in the aftermath.

    (Somebody linked me to a couple of “i-Dosing” tracks back then. The first was a pretty minimalist early-Industrial kind of track, listenable but hardly trippy. The second was a poor mashup of early-2000s dance hits, which I turned off just for its abysmal production values.)

    So congratulations to whoever gave the story to the Mail, it’s pretty hilarious in an “oh god the media sucks” kind of way.

    To the i-Dosing kiddies, curse this new-fangled technology, grumble / pipe / slippers. What’s wrong with the good old two litres of Coke, some high-volume Prodigy and playing WipeOut 64 until it hurts to look away from the screen? (Or until your mum called you down for lunch, of course.)

    And Wired, seriously, i-Dosing is not a thing. At least your sidebar item wasn’t a Mail-esque “OH GOD YOUR KIDS ARE ON DRUGS” piece, but please, can we all let this story die now?