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Better forms of Will-Call (phone and photo)

Most of us have had to stand in a long will-call line to pick up tickets. We probably even paid a ticket “service fee” for the privilege. Some places are helping by having online printable tickets with a bar code. However, that requires that they have networked bar code readers at the gate which can detect things like duplicate bar codes, and people seem to rather have giant lines and many staff rather than get such machines.

Can we do it better?

Well, for starters, it would be nice if tickets could be sent not as a printable bar code, but as a message to my cell phone. Perhaps a text message with coded string, which I could then display to a camera which does OCR of it. Same as a bar code, but I can actually get it while I am on the road and don’t have a printer. And I’m less likely to forget it.

Or let’s go a bit further and have a downloadable ticket application on the phone. The ticket application would use bluetooth and a deliberately short range reader. I would go up to the reader, and push a button on the cell phone, and it would talk over bluetooth with the ticket scanner and authenticate the use of my ticket. The scanner would then show a symbol or colour and my phone would show that symbol/colour to confirm to the gate staff that it was my phone that synced. (Otherwise it might have been the guy in line behind me.) The scanner would be just an ordinary laptop with bluetooth. You might be able to get away with just one (saving the need for networking) because it would be very fast. People would just walk by holding up their phones, and the gatekeeper would look at the screen of the laptop (hidden) and the screen of the phone, and as long as they matched wave through the number of people it shows on the laptop screen.

Alternately you could put the bluetooth antenna in a little faraday box to be sure it doesn’t talk to any other phone but the one in the box. Put phone in box, light goes on, take phone out and proceed.

Photo will-call

One reason many will-calls are slow is they ask you to show ID, often your photo-ID or the credit card used to purchase the item. But here’s an interesting idea. When I purchase the ticket online, let me offer an image file with a photo. It could be my photo, or it could be the photo of the person I am buying the tickets for. It could be 3 photos if any one of those 3 people can pick up the ticket. You do not need to provide your real name, just the photo. The will call system would then inkjet print the photos on the outside of the envelope containing your tickets.

You do need some form of name or code, so the agent can find the envelope, or type the name in the computer to see the records. When the agent gets the envelope, identification will be easy. Look at the photo on the envelope, and see if it’s the person at the ticket window. If so, hand it over, and you’re done! No need to get out cards or hand them back and forth.

A great company to implement this would be paypal. I could pay with paypal, not revealing my name (just an E-mail address) and paypal could have a photo stored, and forward it on to the ticket seller if I check the box to do this. The ticket seller never knows my name, just my picture. You may think it’s scary for people to get your picture, but in fact it’s scarier to give them your name. They can collect and share data with you under your name. Your picture is not very useful for this, at least not yet, and if you like you can use one of many different pictures each time — you can’t keep using different names if you need to show ID.

This could still be done with credit cards. Many credit cards offer a “virtual credit card number” system which will generate one-time card numbers for online transactions. They could set these up so you don’t have to offer a real name or address, just the photo. When picking up the item, all you need is your face.

This doesn’t work if it’s an over-21 venue, alas. They still want photo ID, but they only need to look at it, they don’t have to record the name.

It would be more interesting if one could design a system so that people can find their own ticket envelopes. The guard would let you into the room with the ticket envelopes, and let you find yours, and then you can leave by showing your face is on the envelope. The problem is, what if you also palmed somebody else’s envelope and then claimed yours, or said you couldn’t find yours? That needs a pretty watchful guard which doesn’t really save on staff as we’re hoping. It might be possible to have the tickets in a series of closed boxes. You know your box number (it was given to you, or you selected it in advance) so you get your box and bring it to the gate person, who opens it and pulls out your ticket for you, confirming your face. Then the box is closed and returned. Make opening the boxes very noisy.

I also thought that for Burning Man, which apparently had a will-call problem this year, you could just require all people fetching their ticket be naked. For those not willing, they could do regular will-call where the ticket agent finds the envelope. :-)

I’ve noted before that, absent the need of the TSA to know all our names, this is how boarding passes should work. You buy a ticket, provide a photo of the person who is to fly, and the gate agent just looks to see if the face on the screen is the person flying, no need to get out ID, or tell the airline your name.

Robocars vs. PRT

Readers of this blog will know I used to talk a bit about Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) but have switched to a belief that it is now likely that robocars might fulfill the PRT vision before actual PRT can. To understand that, it is necessary to explore just why PRT has never really come about, in spite of being promoted, and possible for almost 40 years. The Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit has run since 1975, though it uses large vehicles and only has 5 stations, so it doesn’t realize the PRT vision of personal cars that go point to point in a network of stations. The ULTra system, with personal cars (which run on tires in a simple track) is being built at Heathrow airport.

I wrote an article on the reasons I have rejected classical, track-based PRT and then opened discussion on it in the Google transport-innovators group. The thread was quite vigourous. I had expected PRT fans to not welcome the concept, and to believe that robocars are still very distant science fiction, for indeed that is a valid objection.

I had not expected such a love of the general concept of shared transit that I would see people arguing that even if robocars were arriving soon, it would still be better to fill our streets with custom elevated guideways for a PRT system. Indeed, some advanced that we should not be building roads at all, that people would give up entirely on vehicle ownership in a PRT or robocar world and that providing garage to garage (or door to door) service was not necessary in the U.S. market, or could easily be done by just running PRT tracks to every house.

I understand the frustration in the PRT world. The ideas make a lot of sense, but no city will buy them. I contend that’s because municipal transit planners are highly averse to innovation. They are happy to buy 100 year old technology for their cities. They think farecards and web sites that can tell you when a bus will get to your stop are space-age innovations. Nobody wants to be the planner who bet on an untested technology that failed. That’s a career-ending risk. They would rather bet on old technology, and in spite of how well it is understood, see it go 100%, 200% or more over budget.

I predict that, once the technology becomes more real, robocars will win because they will be built bottom-up on a simple, already existing platform (roads) without any requirements to build infrastructure or run it. They will be bought by individuals, in particular by early adopters. Early adopters have money to burn on the latest hot new toys. They will happily waste it and buy the cooler model 8 months later. Cities don’t buy this way, they can’t. Cities buy technology that’s already obsolete before they even put it out for bid, and it’s very obsolete a decade later when it goes into operation.

Worse, transit requires monopolies. Either the city runs the transit as a monopoly, or it grants a franchise to a private company to build and run it. (That’s far more rare, since most transit runs with heavy subsidies in the USA.) Monopolies mean corruption (as they get large, they end up having more influence on the city officials than the customers do) and they mean monopoly-style customer service.

While robocars are still over a decade away, I fear that even though PRT could be built today, it will take it a decade to get over the marketing humps it has not managed to overcome in 40 years. By that time, robocars should be much closer to reality, and we’ll reach a point where even a transportation planner will realize the robocars will arrive soon enough to affect transit planning in the present.

Rather than being viewed as the enemy, robocars should be viewed as a way to realize the PRT vision without those deal-blocking new infrastructure requirements. But the PRT community is not yet ready to agree.

Read Robocars and PRT

Professional lenses with built in sensors

A friend (Larry P.) suggested that the time was here for serious (ie. DSLR) cameras to undertake a design revolution. The old SLR design, with a mirror that flips up and must sit between the last lens element and the sensor, creates a lot of problems in designing the lens and camera systems. Yes, being able to view directly through the lens with your eye is a very useful thing. But at what cost?

We’re already seeing the disappearance of optical viewfinders, even rangefinders, from small consumer cameras, if only to save space. Few people were using them any more, since the screen display turns out to show a lot more, and is even better than the eye in low light.

Serious cameras aren’t seeking (too much) to save space. We want image quality most of all, and the tools to shoot good images. Looking through the viewfinder is one of those tools, but again, at what cost?

So a proposal is put forward that now that sensors are dropping in price — even full frame sensors — that each lens have its own sensor, and shutter, that is part of it. There would be a body which has a digital (and mounting) connection with the lens. The body would have display, processor, controls, battery and so on. It’s a pretty radical proposal. Let’s look at the advantages:

  • There is much more freedom in lens design, and lenses can be smaller, less expensive (for the lens at least) and lighter.
  • Each sensor can be custom fit to the lens and its image circle. Some lenses could have small sensors and some have large ones. You could work with both super large hi-res sensors on a 28-70mm zoom, and also carry a small, dense sensor which offers you a (higher noise) super-tele in a tiny package.
  • Each sensor can be tuned to the flaws of a particular lens, ready to correct distortions and other problems. (This could be done with a protocol for communicating those distortions to the camera too, and we’re finally starting to see things like the 5D’s database of lens light fall-off.)
  • You would not get dust on the sensor
  • You could build special bodies and/or lens holders that could hold multiple lenses, as now there is only an electronic connection to each lens. As a result you could switch among lenses instantly!
  • It might be possible to have standarization, so you could mix and match lenses from different vendors as you choose.
  • Image stabilization designs could be done with both sensor and optics, whatever works best.
  • The lens could be some modest distance from the “body.”
  • Body design can also be liberated, as the mechanical linkage with the lens can be designed without the need for a light path.

There are some downsides

  • Obviously, sensors are not yet so cheap that this isn’t a more expensive approach initially. But serious lenses are often more than $1,000 and this approach might not increase their cost by more than a few hundred dollars. For cheaper lenses, putting on a high quality sensor would not make sense, cost-wise.
  • In turn, where now you might put a lot of money into your one sensor, here it must be spread.
  • Today, if you get a new body with a new sensor, you now get the better sensor with all your lenses.
  • You lose the TTL viewfinder and focusing screen.
  • You need all new equipment, and probably want new mounting hardware too.

Sensors may not be cheap enough to do this today, but they are getting cheaper, and thanks to Moore’s law this will continue. We’ve pretty much got all the megapixels we want now, so the main focus will be in improving sensor quality and ISO speed. Until sensors get so cheap that we might buy several that we know will be obsolete in a few years, one approach would be to still have a mount, so that sensors on a lens can be change. However, this need not be a quick disconnect mount, it would be more intended so you could swap out the sensor on a lens.

And of course, there could be a “sensor” on the lens which is not a sensor, but rather a mount to go on a body with a sensor, as we have today. However, this would have to be a body without a flip-up mirror, as the focal planes of these lenses would be much closer to the last lens element than they can be with an SLR. And I could also see the potential of a super-fancy rangefinder, which uses its own lens, but is digitally tied to focus and other information from the real lens to give you a view identical to the main lens, though DOF preview and manual focus would still be best on the screen.

Aside from the option of better lens design (and thus better image quality for the money) the two most appealing features to me are the instant electronic lens switch, and the ability to use different size sensors. Much as I would like to, even if I wanted to pay $6,000 for one of those amazing super-tele fast lenses that sports photographers use, I would only carry it around rarely. On the other hand, I might very well carry a short 85mm lens with a small sensor of the sort found in P&S cameras that gave me the field of view of a 600mm lens with 10 megapixels. It’s going to get me photos I would not otherwise get because I’m just not going to carry a 600mm f/2.8 in my bag. Instant lens switch might also change your desires about what zooms you want, since one of the goals of a zoom is to switch focal lengths quickly, though another goal is to have fewer lenses in the bag. If not using a mount that holds multiple lenses, lens switch could still be a very quick unsnap/snap, with no caps to remove and no seal to make.

Of course, to do this would require a very high-bandwidth data/control/power bus that ideally was standardized over vendors and designed to be upwards compatible with the future, faster bus that might come along. There is already a Camera Link bus specification, but the technologies behind SATA-600 (also 6gb) or 10gig ethernet might make sense.

So I suspect that as sensors get cheap enough, we might see things move this way.

Wide angle lens

Let’s consider how this might help us produce a wide angle lens. Good wide angle lenses are expensive. It takes work and good design to keep them free from distortions, vignetting and to make them rectilinear with a flat focal plane. Flare is also always a problem, as is doing all this for a sensor that is far from the last element. And these things are hard to do for a big image circle, though smaller image circles require very short focal lengths.

A sensor-included wide-angle could select the right focal length and image circle to get the best price/performance at suitable low noise. The sensors’s pixels could sit in distorted rows to match the distortions of the lens — indeed, one could go all the way to a fish-eye lens and put a fish-eye sensor on it to make it rectilinear. (This could also be done in software with some loss of sharpness.) The sensors could be designed so that they are larger (or have larger covering lenses) at the corners, to perfectly account for vignetting. And of course, one could use the short-focus design common in view cameras that can’t be done in SLRs because the focal plane is so close to the last lens element.

It’s not out of the question that such a lens/sensor could even be cheaper than a high quality lens able to put a great image on a 36mm full-frame sensor, and take better photos.

Democrats must learn how to speak to more conservative voters

As a Canadian, and one of libertarian bent, I hope I have a better perspective on the two parties in the USA. What I see does not bode well for the Democrats. I think they understand the Republican side poorly, worse than the Republicans understand them. And, over the last two elections, they have shown little willingness to learn about it.

I think George W. Bush is the worst president in living memory, perhaps the worst ever, and that this was clear by 2004. Yet more democrats voted for Bush than republicans voted for Kerry. Why was that? Many republicans also reported holding their noses and voting for Bush — they knew he was a bad President but couldn’t stomach Kerry. Why was that?

Something that played a larger role than people think was attitude. I may get a bias because I hang around with democrats more, but they exude an attitude of complete derision. It is not that Bush doesn’t deserve derision; it’s just that it is a terrible marketing strategy. “You haven’t just supported the wrong candidate, you’re a complete idiot because you’ve supported a stupid candidate, one whom anybody with any brains can see is a complete fool.” This approach doesn’t win votes. Quite the reverse, I think it causes the other side to close ranks and distrust the messenger. Nobody believes themselves to be a fool. If somebody tells you what a fool you’ve been you don’t say “oh my, what was I thinking?” You say “screw you, asshole.” And you don’t listen further.

People change their minds when evidence comes in through their own lens. Over time, more conservatives have turned on Bush and documented the problems, and his approval rating is extremely low, even among former supporters.

Now, as a practitioner of comedy, I fully feel and understand the temptation to engage in ridicule. There is great political comedy, but there really are two broad classes of it. One class is mean, and really only works on the already converted. It just offends the rest and causes them to ignore its message. The much better class of political comedy is not so bitter and can work on at least independents. We don’t get enough of that. Political comedy should be used, but with care.

(Indeed, with care it is one of the most powerful tools. I remember how Reagan, asked about his age, used the line “I refuse to let my opponent’s youth and inexperience be an issue in this election” and the age issue rarely troubled him again.)

Election-winning comedy must be able to stick in the minds of all voters, and it must not be bitter to do that. For example, when Guliani over-used 9/11 in speeches, and comedians satirized this, it played a large part in sinking him, which he didn’t understand. But it’s a joke his people can get and not find vicious.

Democrats need to do two things if they want to win:

  • Keep the attacks civil and less extreme. Consult with good comedians to stay on the right side of the line. Encourage the troops not to be bitter no matter how tempting.
  • Hire wise former (or mercenary) republicans and learn from them how to sell the message to conservatives and independents. Listen to them.

As I said, we’re coming off a Republican administration that the public knows was horrible for the country. Even the conservatives know that. Changing power in the White House should have been a true slam dunk. Making the conservatives close ranks by insulting them rather than talking to them in their own language is the way to undo the slam dunk.

The center for science in the interests of guys

I have invented a fictional scientific institute, funded by men, that keeps producing studies which, at least on the surface, seem to be good news for guys.

Here’s a summary of some of the research:

What to do when the default law is only for suckers

The law is full of defaults, as it is supposed to be. Some are in statutes, some are the result of many years of history of common law. They define the duties that people have in many ordinary transactions.

But today, as I’m sure you have noticed, everywhere you go are declarations eliminating those defaults. Have you parked your car at a pay lot without getting a ticket or receipt that tells you that you are only being rented space, and the lot has no liability if your car is trashed, or that there is no bailment? Have you installed software without having it disclaim any warranties of fitness, or making you waive every liability they can think of? Have you gone into a stadium without some large set of terms on the back of your ticket?

In many areas, in almost all transactions where they can, large (and even medium) organizations work to assure they are not governed by the default law, and that any liability or duty they can be rid of, is made rid of. The default terms only apply — assuming the various adhesion contracts they present are enforceable — to small players who don’t know enough to make such a disclaimer, or who could not afford the legal advice to draft one. By and large, the default liabilities end up only applying to the small-scale operator, and the ignorant.

Surely this is not the intent of the law! And in some cases laws are modified to control what can be waived. But I am not necessarily against giving people the right to redefine the terms of their relationships away from the default. I am pointing out there is a problem when everybody who knows enough to care is trying to get away from the default. In that case the default is not doing what was intended, or even the opposite of it, which is often to protect the consumer.

I propose that part of the legal system include a body which studies the ways in which default law is modified by both explicit, and more importantly, implicit contracts or declarations of modification. As soon as it is judged that this is happening most of the time, the default law should be tuned. It should be tuned so that most of the time a special contract is not needed, or can be made far more simple. Or, in more extreme cases, it should be tuned so that certain modifications are not possible via implicit contract, and sometimes not even possible through explicit but non-negotiable contract. (And in the most extreme cases, possibly not modifiable even with negotiated contract, but I am not in favour of this.)

This might seem to strip people of rights, but it would be rights they had already lost with all big players. There is a cost in trying to get a contract of adhesion, and if done properly, such changes should eliminate the need for them in most cases. One might believe the public would now need to be notified of how their default rights have changed — and they should — but in fact one thing that would be studied would be how many of the public were aware of their rights and actually benefited from their rights. A right that nobody ever benefits from and which just causes an extra contract may not be that useful a right.

And it raises the bar on people who want to bend even further from the norm. If a new norm is defined the safe thing is just to use it, not to try to have to add another contract. One might not take this burden just for one clause.

Of course, it is important to examine the real change the contracts are making in the real results, and not just what they say. The big parties must be showing regular and uniform success in waiving liabilities (or whatever) in order to get a change in the true default law. That’s important, because courts often rule clauses in such contracts to be unenforceable, and further when there is an imbalance of negotiating power, as there usually is here, the courts will side heavily with the party who didn’t write the contract. I’m talking about situations where courts have regularly ruled, for some time, that putting a clause on a ticket will make it enforced, and that effectively every ticket gets that clause.

This is not easy. Implicit contracts, and click-to-agree contracts, are making big changes in how the law works, and the law doesn’t understand these changes very well yet. My goal is not to strip everybody of their rights once an industry decides to do it, but to find a way to make the law and its modifications easier to understand.

Why night panos are such a challenge

In my previous post, I noted that I had not done many night panoramas of Burning Man. I thought I should outline just why they are such a challenge.

To shoot at night, you need a time exposure, typically a second or more. You can capture lights and fires with far less, but if you want to capture the things illuminated by those lights and fires, you need a long exposure. Having both the light source and the illuminated subject in a shot is like shooting into the sun. There are a few things you can do to get away with a shorter exposure, but they don’t work well for this sort of work.

  1. You can bump the ISO on your camera. If you do that, you make the picture more noisy. This ruins it when you try the next technique…
  2. You can apply curves in photoshop to brighten the shadows but not brighten the highlights, which tend to be much brighter than the shadows, because they are the light sources themselves. But if you used high ISO, you will immediately highlight the noise. You can’t do both.
  3. You can be tricky about how you do your curves. I recommend first using colour range select to mask out the actual light sources and areas near them (highly feathered) and then do your curves so you are not brightening the area right next to the lights at all.
  4. You can use a fast lens, wide open. But if you do this, you will get a shallow depth of field, meaning that if the foreground is in focus, the background is blurry, or vice versa. Problem is, for panoramas, trying to capture a large sweeping area, shallow depth of field is not a good idea. My daytime panos are shot at f/8 or f/11.

So you’re stuck with a long exposure. Right away that’s going to cause a problem with moving things, notably people and vehicles. There is simply nothing you can do about this with a long exposure, unless you can command the world to stop.

  • I like to shoot panoramas from up towers, to capture the whole city. But towers at Burning Man are rarely built super-stable. They are usually scaffolding. If other people get on them, they wobble. That ruins almost any length of exposure.
  • Over the years, the only really stable platforms have been the man, when he was a pyramid, and the Black Rock Refinery of 2002. Other platforms would be stable if I could get them to myself, but that’s hard at Burning Man.
  • A boomlift can be good if you get it to yourself. But nobody on the boomlift can even shift their weight while the shutter is open.
  • In the dark, it’s easier to make mistakes, like leaving autofocus on. Or if you are doing manual focus, it’s much harder to do it. The autofocus often doesn’t work, and your eyes may not have something good to focus on either.
  • If what you are shooting is lit by fire, then the lighting is going to change form one frame to the next!

Now it gets worse. Since a full panorama like I take uses 36 shots, to get a perfect pano, every single one of them must be good. And that’s not going to happen. So you tend to take each shot 2 or 3 times, and hope that one of them works out. Problem is, the longer you wait between moves of the camera, the more likely something in the scene is going to move between frames, causing a blending problem.

You can check on the camera screen if the shot came out, but that’s very time consuming and just makes the moving car problem even worse. I have wished for some time that cameras had a review mode that was “Show me a full 1:1 pixel zoom of the region of the photo with the highest contrast and sharpest edges.” If that region is blurry, you know your photo is blurry. If that region is not your subject, you know you had bad focus. A button to cycle through the sharpest edges in the photo would help confirm this.

Some Nikon cameras had a mode to do this automatically — take 3 photos, and save the one with the least blur. I wish that mode appeared on my cameras.

So all in all, it’s a wonder they work at all sometimes. This year I had high hopes, because one crew built an 11 floor tower out of giant steel I-beams. But it wobbled a great deal at the top with all the constant traffic. It didn’t wobble as much on lower floors, but sadly at night they put up a giant screen and projected rather uninteresting photos onto it. The combination of the screen, and the projector light shining right at you, made photos from the stable levels impossible.

First six panoramas of Burning Man 2008

Back from Burning Man and still dusty, here are five large panoramas to give you a sense of it.

This year was great fun as always, this time in our own small Esplanade camp, rather than with Camp I Am. The main downside this year was the horrible playa conditions — think dust, including drifts that made it very difficult to bicycle in most places, and even my new art car was difficult to ride in a number of places, especially deep playa. It also meant whiteout dust storms on Monday, Saturday (delaying the burn) and Sunday. Nothing too bad but certainly frightening for newbies.

I’ll post more observations later, but here are a few for now:

  • An art car is great, and the car I inherited generated praise everywhere we went. Felt a little guilty taking it sometimes, but you can’t explain to everybody that you didn’t build it.
  • Next time, I’ll bring 3 spare air filters, though I don’t think it will be this dusty again. A snorkel on the air intake might also help. Plus, I think I would like to convert to battery power for the lights, though that will be a major operation.
  • With the big red ATM sign I bought, the ATM got a lot more traffic and we handed out almost all the playa money.
  • The phone, as usual, worked poorly for the first few days because the network never seems to work out in the outer city for some time. But it got some pretty giant lines, and heartwarming stories. We need to make a logbook.
  • The photo wall is getting too big. It documented 9 years this time (I removed 2001 since the photo is not that remarkable) and shrunk many others. I need to take a new approach, or get help building it, or both.
  • The theme went off OK, if anything the response was too wussy. Lots of flags, and while there was protest art it was not at all edgy or shocking as one might have expected. Most people stayed away from the theme, by and large. Not a failure like the Green Man but not a grand success like the Floating World.
  • Next year’s theme, Evolution, looks more promising.
  • While there are lots of quiet spaces, I never seem to find them. I left Camp I Am in part because most of what was left of art there was going to involve loud music (live, and good quality, but still loud) and that’s not compatible with my phone. Instead we got Entheon (which promised no music dome) playing very loud music in their non-dome right behind us, and Bomb Squad’s mobile music platform stayed at home more nights than it left. Sigh.

In the panorama collection this year are two rather interesting ones. One is a shot of the temple burn. Because I am in the crowd, the view behind me shows the clear faces of the people watching. Solemn, still, some crying. It says a lot.

Another shot, my largest single panorama to date, is a shot of the whole city, up close, from the tower of Babel. The tower 11 stories tall, all-steel construction, in the deep playa. The highest viewpoint built to date. Even with the steel beams, it was not stable enough for a photo at night at the top, and they blocked the ability to take photos from lower levels with a screen.

Update: I’ve added one of the temple.