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Burning Man preparation rush

It’s amazing how much preparation is required for Burning Man. Or at least if you are crazy like me and plan to spend 11 days there, have 4 art projects, manage a new camp and still survive.

Unlike most trips you have to pack for, there is a paranoia about Burning Man packing that makes us overdo it. There are no stores, so if anything breaks or is missing, and you need it, you’re going to do without. If it’s so important that you must have it, it’s probably 5 hours of travel (if you can even move your vehicle) to Reno and back. Only basics are available in Gerlach. Sometimes you can find on-playa nice people who can help but there is no system for that, so you can’t depend on it. So you start taking a lot of stuff just in case. And as the deadline approaches you toss in stuff you don’t really need, just in case. Stuff you already packed and forgot.

Then after you inventory you realize you need to buy some things. Shopping for obscure things in the real world is very time consuming, but at this point online shopping isn’t available. If you can’t get it, you’re stuck, though since we started having internet, it’s been possible to get friends who are coming up later to help you. One year we helped a friend who find by Reno that she had left her tickets in San Francisco. With a rush of people helping, we got them to her in 5 hours.

Every year at this time we ask “is it worth it?” but by the end, we’re ready to do it all over again, and are making new plans.

This year I will be driving an art car. The car was built by two friends I met at Burning Man. Unfortunately, one of them lost a battle with cancer, and his wife is not ready to return, so I inherited the car. It’s pretty amazing, and gets comments everywhere it goes.

I will be at 3:45 and Esplanade, with the photo wall, American Dream Automated ATM Machine, Phone Booth and Art Car. Drop by if you’re there.

Being the greatest athlete ever

NBC has had just a touch of coverage of Michael Phelps and his 8 gold medals, which in breaking Mark Spitz’s 7 from 1972 has him declared the greatest Olympic athlete, or even athlete of all time. And there’s no doubt he’s one of the greatest swimmers of all time and this is an incredible accomplishment. Couch potato that I am, I can hardly criticise him.

(We are of course watching the Olympics in HDTV using MythTV, but fast-forwarding over the major bulk of it. Endless beach volleyball, commercials and boring events whiz by. I can’t imagine watching without such a box. I would probably spend more time, which they would like, but be less satisfied and see fewer of the events I wish to.)

Phelps got 8 Gold but 3 of them were relays. He certainly contributed to those relays, may well have made the difference for the U.S. team and allowed it to win a gold it would not have won without him. So it seems fair to add them, no?

No. The problem is you can’t win relay gold unless you are lucky enough to be a citizen of one of a few powerhouse swimming nations, in particular the USA and Australia, along with a few others. Almost no matter how brilliant you are, if you don’t compete for one of these countries, you have no chance at those medals. So only a subset of the world’s population even gets to compete for the chance to win 7 or 8 medals at the games. This applies to almost all team medals, be they relay or otherwise. Perhaps the truly determined can emigrate to a contending country. A pretty tall order.

Phelps one 5 individual golds, and that is also the record, though it is shared by 3 others. He has more golds than anybody, though other athletes have more total medals.

Of course, swimming is one of the special sports in which there are enough similar events that it is possible to attain a total like this. There are many sports that don’t even have 7 events a single person could compete in. (They may have more events but they will be divided by sex, or weight class.)

Shooting has potential for a star. It used to even be mixed (men and women) until they split it. It has 9 male events, and one could in theory be master of them all.

Track and Field has 47 events split over men and women. However, it is so specialized in how muscles are trained that nobody expects sprinters to compete in long events or vice versa. Often the best sprinter does well in Long Jump or Triple Jump, allowing the potential of a giant medal run for somebody able to go from 100m to 400m in range. In theory there are 8 individual events 400m or shorter.

And there are a few other places. But the point is that to do what Phelps (or Spitz) did, you have to be in a small subset of sports, and be from a small set of countries. There have been truly “cross sport” athletes at the Olympics but in today’s world of specialized training, it’s rare. If anybody managed to win multiple golds over different sports and beat this record, then the title of greatest Olympian would be very deserving. One place I could see some crossover is between high-diving and Trampoline. While a new event, Trampoline seems to be like doing 20 vaults or high dives in a row. And not that it wasn’t exciting to watch him race.

More Burning Man packing…

Want a lossless jpeg editor

Photographers constantly debate about jpeg. Should they shoot in RAW or JPEG, for example. RAW preserves everything, but is much harder and bulkier to work with, so you will see serious pro photographers, who you think would always vote for the “never throw away” logic of RAW, tell you they work mostly in JPEG. I’m one of them. I use raw only for shots with high dynamic range, like night photography, and often shoot RAW+JPEG to work with the JPEGs and pull the RAWs if you need it.

If you do work with JPEG, you still want to avoid editing with jpeg — loading, changing and recompressing. Most people go to TIFF at that point, or PNG, because for the few photos you will actually work on, the space issue is minor, and TIFF can be used in almost all software that uses JPEG.

There are a variety of tools that will do a lossless rotate of a JPEG. If you have a JPEG that was shot in portrait mode, they will rotate the picture and create a new jpeg without loss of information. That’s because JPEG compression breaks your photo up into little 8x8 blocks and loses data within those blocks. However, you can rotate those blocks at no loss in a picture which, like most, has dimensions that are multiples of 8.

Still, sometimes there is a temptation to do other edits on a file you have in jpeg, such as crops, touch-ups with the clone or healing tool and such. To assist that, a photo editor could support mostly-lossless jpeg editing. If, when saving a picture back, any particular 8x8 block of pixels has not changed since the original, write it back exactly as it was. For bonus points, handle rotating of such blocks, too. For other blocks, you must recompress, though you could arrange to always recompress at a quality level which will provide minimal loss.

Strictly, this would require crops to be on block boundaries. I think people might tolerate that. Alternately, one could do a special crop which creates an image with a small white or black border to allow the crop lines to be anywhere. If the user insists on cropping out those, the crop will no longer be lossless, and they should switch to tiff or png.

This requires a photo editor that is aware of the jpeg structure behind a photo, so it may not be trivial. But it would be handy.

Extensible sockets for wrench set

Ok, this is something I have to believe somebody else has thought of, but I haven’t seen it, so I thought I would ask readers if they have, and if not, to put it forward.

Everybody has a socket wrench set. The wrench heads tend to come with a square hole in the top, typically 1/2” or 3/8” square, into which the square drive from the ratchet inserts. There are sometimes spring-locks to keep it in place.

However, when you have a nut that’s going on a long bolt, you can’t use a standard socket as the bolt won’t fit inside. So you need to get a “deep socket” head, which may be able to handle the long bolt. Yes, you shouldn’t have such long bolts, and perhaps should saw off the end, but in reality this happens in places where that’s not easy or worthwhile. You can’t have just a deep socket set, because that’s bigger and heavier to carry around, and may not fit in various confined spaces.

The problem is that the drive is a solid square pin inside the wrench head. If the drive were able to grasp the wrench head from the outside, like a standard nut, then you could have an “extender” which could make any of your sockets a deep socket. To do this, the top of the wrench head would not be round, as it typically is, but hexagonal. In fact, your “extender” could simply be another, larger wrench from the set which fits around this hex head. Or you could have a small number of extenders in various sizes, and in extreme cases, multiple extenders. The extenders might do well to also have spring locks like the current drives do, to hold elements in place for you.

One could also have a thin hex shell embedded in the socket, the way lockable lug-nuts do, but that would not be as strong. Of course, one could try to do a whole new type of driver which is hollow, but the existing drivers are so well standardized now (there are not even metric versions) that I doubt it would get much adoption.

While we’re on this topic, here’s another idea. Organizing socket wrenches in a case is a pain. They often fall out and it’s hard to put them all back in the right place. I’ve seen colour coded sockets (fairly good) and laser etched numbers that are easier to read, and cases that try to bind the wrenches so they won’t fall out as easily. Realizing that the outside does not have to be round, I wonder if we could have patterns at the nut-end of the wrench that make it easy to slot how they go into their case. Perhaps just a couple of bumps or notches, so that no wrench can go in the wrong slot, even a slot for the wrench that is just a bit bigger.

Fans are in for a surprise

I was recently at the World Science Fiction Convention (see another blog post) and attended a panel on BSG. It was a very disappointing panel, with two participants of no great qualifications, and a moderator who mistakenly felt what everybody wanted was to hear the two panelists debate the merits of 1970s BSG compared to modern BSG. Not that this isn’t an interesting thing to talk about, but the fact that there was an older, cheesier source is about the least important thing about this show.

However, at the end of the session, I got up and asked the crowd for views on various controversies. Did they feel that this was in the far future and that Earth was the homeworld, for example? Even after seeing the ruined Earth, still only a few felt that. Did they think the Final Five were thousands of years old — only 2 out of a room of 50.

Of course, if I were more humble I would take that as a sign to reconsider my strong expectations that these things are true. But since my suppositions have proven decently good at predicting the direction of the show, I take it another way — the fans are in for a big shock. These were serious SF readers, a cut above your average fan, and they have not picked up on the clues relating to this. (Discussion after indicated that it wasn’t that they had seen the clues and disagreed, but rather had not picked up on them.) Moore has hid his secrets really well.

I wonder if even the actors had not clued into these elements, since many people inside the production have written about how shocking the ending will be, but how satisfying.

I guess I should not be too surprised at this. After Tigh and the rest were revealed as Cylons, many informed fans raved for months that it must be a trick, that they just think they are Cylons. In spite of the way they added “and we have been from the start” to the script to stop such speculation, it was rampant. I still run into people who think it’s a trick, even after getting to the ruined Earth and having D’Anna reveal she saw Tigh and the others in the temple. I still regularly see people insist that this is all taking place in the past or present. So congratulations, Mr. Moore, you are going to shock them. I hope that, even if I’m right about the core mysteries, he still manages to surprise and impress me as well.

Or of course, he may just show I was totally wrong. :-)

What is hard science fiction?

I’ve just returned from Denver and the World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon) where I spoke on issues such as privacy, DRM and creating new intelligent beings. However, I also attended a session on “hard” science fiction, and have some thoughts to relate from it.

Defining the sub-genres of SF, or any form of literature, is a constant topic for debate. No matter where you draw the lines, authors will work to bend them as well. Many people just give up and say “Science Fiction is what I point at when I say Science Fiction.”

Genres in the end are more about taste than anything else. They exist for readers to find fiction that is likely to match their tastes. Hard SF, broadly, is SF that takes extra care to follow the real rules of physics. It may include unknown science or technology but doesn’t include what those rules declare to be impossible. On the border of hard SF one also finds SF that does a few impossible things (most commonly faster-than-light starships) but otherwise sticks to the rules. As stories include more impossible and unlikely things, they travel down the path to fantasy, eventually arriving at a fully fantastic level where the world works in magical ways as the author found convenient.

Even in fantasy however, readers like to demand consistency. Once magical rules are set up, people like them to be followed.

In addition to Hard SF, softer SF and Fantasy, the “alternate history” genre has joined the pantheon, now often dubbed “speculative fiction.” All fiction deals with hypotheticals, but in speculative fiction, the “what if?” is asked about the world, not just the lives of some characters. This year, the Hugo award for best (ostensibly SF) novel of the year went to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union which is a very clear alternate history story. In it, the USA decides to accept Jews that Hitler is expelling from Europe, and gives them a temporary homeland around Sitka, Alaska. During the book, the lease on the homeland is expiring, and there is no Israel. It’s a very fine book, but I didn’t vote for it because I want to promote actual SF, not alternate history, with the award.

However, in considering why fans like alternate history, I realized something else. In mainstream literature, the cliche is that the purpose of literature is to “explore the human condition.” SF tends to expand that, to explore both the human condition and the nature of the technology and societies we create, as well as the universe itself. SF gets faulted by the mainstream literature community for exploring those latter topics at the expense of the more character oriented explorations that are the core of mainstream fiction. This is sometimes, but not always, a fair criticism.

Hard SF fans want their fiction to follow the rules of physics, which is to say, take place in what could be the real world. In a sense, that’s similar to the goal of mainstream fiction, even though normally hard SF and mainstream fiction are considered polar opposites in the genre spectrum. After all, mainstream fiction follows the rules of physics as well or better than the hardest SF. It follows them because the author isn’t trying to explore questions of science, technology and the universe, but it does follow them. Likewise, almost all alternate history also follows the laws of physics. It just tweaks some past event, not a past rule. As such it explores the “real world” as closely as SF does, and I suspect this is why it is considered a subgenre of fantasy and SF.

I admit to a taste for hard SF. Future hard SF is a form of futurism; an explanation of real possible futures for the world. It explores real issues. The best work in hard SF today comes (far too infrequently) from Vernor Vinge, including his recent hugo winning novel, Rainbows End. His most famous work, A Fire Upon the Deep, which I published in electronic form 15 years ago, is a curious beast. It includes one extremely unlikely element of setting — a galaxy where the rules of physics which govern the speed of computation vary with distance from the center of the galaxy. Some view that as fantastic, but its real purpose is to allow him to write about the very fascinating and important topic of computerized super-minds, who are so smart that they are as gods to us. Coining the term “applied theology” Vinge uses his setting to allow the superminds to exist in the same story as characters like us that we can relate to. Vinge feels that you can’t write an authentic story about superminds, and thus need to have human characters, and so uses this element some would view as fantastic. So I embrace this as hard SF, and for the purists, the novels suggest that the “zones” may be artificial.

The best hard SF thus explores the total human condition. Fantastic fiction can do this as well, but it must do it by allegory. In fantasy, we are not looking at the real world, but we usually are trying to say something about it. However, it is not always good to let the author pick and choose what’s real and what’s not about the world, since it is too easy to fall into the trap of speaking only about your made-up reality and not about the world.

Not that this is always bad. Exploring the “human condition” or reality is just one thing we ask of our fiction. We also always want a ripping good read. And that can occur in any genre.

800 style numbers for unregistered cell phones

You may not know it, but any cell phone — whether it has an account with a carrier or not — is able to call 911. You can leave one of your old phones (and a car charger) in your car if you just want a way to reach emergency services.

I propose an expansion of this idea. A special set of numbers, which, like 800 numbers are free to call because the called party pays for the airtime. These exist already of course, but I want to go further and have numbers where any phone, or at least any phone which works with a participating carrier, can call the number, billed to the receiver of the call.

Then people who can’t afford a cell phone could still use one, if they liked, to call certain businesses. The first one I’m thinking of are taxis. I’ve always thought cell-phone hail makes sense for taxis in today’s world (and it eliminates the need for a monopoly but one problem was not everybody has a cell phone. Even if the cab companies can’t afford the 50 cents they might pay for airtime, it could just be added to the fare, at least in a non monopoly rates world.

This could also enable a cell-phone-hailed jitney service that replaces low-usage transit bus lines. In much of the world, jitneys are popular and cheap. A new high-tech jitney could be much better than the bus, if everybody can get a phone with which to call it.

There are other companies who might participate. Travel companies such as hotels and airlines might allow these calls. Tourists visiting foreign countries might find it useful to reach such companies but they may not want to get a local cell phone or pay giant roaming rates — or might not have a cell at home that can roam, as CDMA customers realize in the GSM world.

If they could do it in low volume, parents might even participate, allowing their kids to use an old unregistered phone to call them (at high cost) but do nothing else. Of course cell companies might not want to allow this as they may feel they get more money pushing parents to buy phones, or at least prepaid phones, for the kids.

The phones would not be directly callable, but it might be handy if the system allowed the recipients of these target-paid calls to have a temporary number which can be used to call back a caller who has called recently. That’s a little more involved. This would be handy for 911 too. And of course, if this became common, more people would have a phone which could call 911 in an emergency. There are tons of old phones out there, and they are cheap.

Companies would have to coordinate. It would be nice if a cell800 customer didn’t have to negotiate with every carrier in town, and if they could use the same number on several carriers. Most of these old phones will be subsidy locked and only able to work with one carrier.

Should we let people safely talk to the police?

There’s a bit of an internet buzz this week around a video of a law lecture on why you should never, ever, ever, ever talk to the police. The video begins with the law professor and criminal defense attorney, who is a good speaker, making that case, and then a police detective, interesting but not quite as eloquent, agreeing with him and describing the various tricks the police use every day with people stupid enough to talk to them.

The case is very good. In our society of a zillion laws, you are always guilty of something, and he explains, even if you’re completely innocent, and you tell nothing but the truth, there are still a lot of ways you could end up in jail. Not that it happens every time, but the chance is high enough and the cost is so great that he advocates that you should never, ever talk to the police. (He doesn’t say this, but I presume he does not include when you are filing a complaint about a crime against you or are a witness in a crime against others, where the benefits may outweigh the risk.)

Now fortunately for the police, few people follow the advice. Lots of people talk to the police. Some 80% of cases, the detective declares, are won because of a confession by the suspect. Cops love it, and they will lie (and are permitted to lie) to make it happen if they can.

But since a rational person should never, ever, under any circumstances talk to the police, this prevents citizens from ever helping the police. And there are times when society, and law enforcement, would be better if citizens could help the police without fear.

What if there existed a means for the police to do a guaranteed off-the-record interview with a non-suspect? Instead of a Miranda warning, the police would inform you that:

“You are not a suspect, and nothing from this interview can be used against you in a court of law.”

First of all, could this work? I believe our laws of evidence are strong enough that actual quotes from the interview could not be used. To improve things, you could be allowed to record the interview, or the officer could record it but hand you the only copy, and swear it’s the only copy. It could be a digitally signed, authenticated copy, which can never be taken from you by warrant or subpoena, or used even if you lose it, perhaps until some years after your death.

However, clearly if the police learn something in the interview that makes them suspect you, they will try to find ways to “learn” that again through other, admissible means. And this could come back to bite you. While we could have a Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine which would forbid this, it is much harder to get full rigour about such doctrines. Is this fear enough to make it still always be the best advice to never speak to the police? Is there a way we could make it self to assist the police?

I will note that if we had a safe means to assist the police, it would sometimes “backfire” in the eyes of the public. There would be times when interviewees would (foolishly, but still successfully) say “nyah, nyah, I did it and you can’t get me” and the public would be faced with the usual confusion over people who are let free even when we know they are guilty. And indeed there would be times when the police learn things in such interviews and could have then found evidence, but are prohibited from, that get the public up in arms because some rapist, kidnapper, murderer or even terrorist goes free.