Solving Selfish Merge, again

I’ve written a few times about the “Selfish Merge” problem. Recently, reading the new book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt, I came upon some new research that has changed and refined my thinking.

The selfish merge problem occurs when two lanes reduce to one. Typically, most people try to be “good” and merge early, and that leaves the right lane, which is ending, mostly vacant. So some people zoom ahead of everybody in the right lane, and then merge at the very end. This is selfish in the sense that butting into any line is selfish. Even if overall traffic flow is not reduced (and even if it is increased) the person butting in moves everybody back one slot so they can get ahead by many slots. This angers people and generates more counter-productive behaviour, including road rage, and attempts to straddle the lanes so that the selfish mergers can’t move up to the merge point.

In Traffic, Vanderbilt writes of surprising research that changed his mind, which showed that, in simulations, some merging forms provided up to 15% more traffic throughput than proper attempts at a zipper merge. In particular, a non-selfish merge fully using the vanishing lane worked better than the typical butt-in situation described at the top.

In this merge, which I’ll call the “slow and fair merge,” drivers are told to use both lanes up to the merge-point, and then to fairly “take their turn” at the merge point entering the continuing lane. Nobody is selfish here, in that nobody butts ahead of anybody else, but both lanes are fully utilized up to the merge point.

This problem is complex, I believe, because there is a switch-over point, which I call the “collapse” point. This is the point at which the merge flow becomes high enough that traffic collapses to “stop and go” mode, before and at the merge-point. Before that point, in lighter traffic, there is little doubt (for reasons you will see below) that the “cooperating fast zipper” merge results in the best traffic flow. In particular, there are traffic volumes where you could either have cooperating zipper or “slow and fair” but cooperating zipper would do a fair bit better. There are also traffic volumes where cooperating zipper just isn’t possible any more, and we will either have “slow and fair” (which has the best volume) or “selfish merge” which has a worse volume.

Real world experiments show different results from the theoretical. In particular, many drivers, used to the anarchic selfish-merge approach, don’t understand fair and slow, even when signs are explicit about it, and so they resist using both lanes and try to merge early. They also try to straddle, devolving to selfish merge. An experiment with digital signs which changed from advising drivers to zipper-merge in light traffic to advising “use both lanes” and “merge here, take your turn” in heavier traffic was disobeyed in fair and slow mode by too many drivers. The experiment ended before people could learn the system.  read more »

ARS Technica covers my Robocars articles

This week, as part of a 3-part series on the future of driving, ARS Technica has written a feature article derived from, and covering my series on Robocars. While it covers less than I do here, it does present it from a different perspective that you may find of interest.

Due to their large audience, there is also a stream of comments. Frankly, most indicate that the commenter has not read my underlying articles and my FAQ section, but one commenter did bring up something interesting that I have incorporated into my section on Freedom.

Their point was this: Today, the police use traffic laws as a way to diminish the rule of law. Everybody violates traffic laws regularly, so the police can always find an excuse to pull over a vehicle that they wish to pull over for other reasons. In essence, this ability has seriously eroded our privacy and freedom while we travel on the roads. Generally, robocars would never offer the police an excuse to detain any random driver. They would have to observe something inside the vehicle, perhaps, in order to have the probable cause needed to stop it. It would be more akin to being in your house. Of course, the police can often still find a way if they try hard enough, but this should make that task a great deal harder.

This does not mean that robocars still don’t present lots of privacy and freedom risks. We must work to avoid those. But this is an upside I hadn’t thought of.

There are also a lot of diggs on the Technica article, with their own comments, even more removed from my base articles, which never got too many diggs on their own.

If you didn’t see it, back a few months ago, the series was also featured on slashdot with a lively thread.

4-segment tripod where bottom segment screws in

I have tripods with both 3 segments and 4 segments. A 4-segment tripod has 3 clamps per leg, which means 9 of them to open and close in extending and collapsing the tripod. That’s a pain. Enough of one that you sometimes find yourself asking whether a shot is worth setting up the tripod. But even 3 segment tripods are only a bit better.

I have my 4-segment legs because I can pack the tripod down into a reasonably small suitcase. I do most shooting when I travel so this is actually my best carbon fiber tripod. But when I am out carrying the tripod, or more commonly carrying it in the car, it doesn’t need to be this short. Unfortunately, the tripod fully extended, with camera and pano mount on it, is too long to fit in most cars, so I have to collapse one set of legs. That’s not so hard but it’s still very long and unweildy with just one set collapsed.

Here’s a possible answer: A 4 segment tripod where the bottom two segments join not with an external clamp, but which screw or snap together to make a smooth double-length segment. You used to be able to get monopods like this. Of course, the threaded join is not very convenient, and is not adjustable. However, you could readily take it apart to pack the tripod in a suitcase. If it can be made strong enough, a snap-together join would be best, with some recessed buttons to push to pull the legs apart. Then takedown and setup could be quick enough that you would also use it to put the pod into a backpack.

However, what you would have when put together is a 2-segment tripod, because the lower pair of segments, with no bumpy clamp, could feed up into the upper two segments when both of those are extended. In other words, you would have a nice tripod you could quickly reduce to half its length and back with just 3 clamps. A reasonable length for carrying and a very easy length to put into a car trunk or back seat.

You would not, however, be able to make the tripod any shorter than half-length without undoing the bottom join. Then you could get the tripod down to 1/4 length for low shots and for placing on tables and stone walls if half-length was just too high. That use is rare enough that I could handle that, especially if it’s just snaps.

The same approach could apply to your center column, or you could have just a 1/4 length center column, which is fine for most applications, since you don’t want to extend the column unless you have to, normally.

Note that the top join would be normal, so you would have 2 clamps per leg, and one hard-join. You don’t want a hard join at the top because presumably that will thin the inner diameter of the pole if you want it strong, stopping the lower segment from telescoping inside.

The 3rd segment (2nd from the ground) into which the bottom segment snaps, could also possibly have a spike or small foot coming out the center, which goes into a hole in the bottom segment. Or a place to attach such a foot. This would allow you to also configure a shorter, 3-segment standard tripod when you don’t want to snap in the lowest segment.

Upcoming: Burning Man Decompression, ENIAC Talk, Convergence, eComm

Some upcoming events I will be involved in:

Burning Man Decompression, Sunday Oct 12

As I have for the past several years, I will show off my newest giant photographs of Burning Man at the “decompression” party, which takes place from noon to midnight on Sunday, Oct 12 (this coming Sunday) on Indiana St. south of Mariposa in San Francisco.

While decompression won’t get you to understand what Burning Man truly is, it’s the closest you’ll come while staying in the city. Come by, I will be easy to find with the giant photo wall. Come in “playa wear,” which means anything out of the ordinary, to get in for only $10.

Meet Jean Bartik, one of the world’s first programmers

The world’s first software team was a group of six women recruited to program the ENIAC. Jean Bartik was one of those six, and is giving a talk at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on October 22 at 7pm. Prior to the talk, I am helping with a special VIP reception where you can meet Bartik, and see clips of a documentary-in-progress being done about the six earliest programmers. The producer is my friend Kathy Kleiman who needs financial contributions to complete the documentary. Unfortunately 3 of the women are now gone, but video interviews were made with them for this documentary.

If you would like to attend the VIP reception, send me a note.

Convergence conference on the Future

Foresight Institute, of which I am a director, is one of the organizations sponsoring Convergence 08 a futurist gathering with both scheduled debates on issues in AI, synthetic biology and longevity. Then there’s an unconference component where the attendees make the program. I’ll deliver my robot car talk, with video. This takes place the weekend of November 15, and Foresight Institute Senior Associates are also all invited.

On a side note, while I won’t be there as I will be at Alternative Party in Finland, on Oct 25, Futurists can also attend (at a higher price) this year’s Singularity Summit in San Jose.


Further in the calendar, check out eComm a conference on emerging telephony. This conference took up the mantle from the O’Reilly conference on the same topic, and now takes the mantle of the recently deceased VON conference. To find out what’s happening in VoIP and not-plain-old-telephone-service, check it out in early March of 09. I’ll be speaking on the EFF’s battle with AT&T over wiretapping and what it means for the new generation of telephony.

Where does the Ford MyKey lead?

Ford is making a new car-limiting system called MyKey standard in future models. This allows the car owner to enable various limits and permissions on the keys they give to their teen-agers. Limits included in the current system include an 80 mph speed limit, a 40% volume limit on the stereo, never-ending seatbelt reminders, earlier low-fuel warnings, audio speed alerts and inability to disable various safety systems.

My reaction is of course mixed. If you own something, it is reasonable for you to be able to constrain its use by people you lend it to. At the same time it is easy to see this literal paternalism turn into social paternalism. While it’s always been possible to build cars that, for example, can’t go over the speed limit, it’s always been seen as a “non-starter” with the public. The more cars that are out there which have governors on them, the more used to the idea people will get. (“Valet” keys that can’t go over 25mph or open the trunk have been common for some time.)

This is going to be one of the big questions on the path to Robocars — will they be able to violate traffic laws at the command of their owners? I have an essay on that coming up for the future, where I will also ask how much sense traffic laws make in a robocar world.

The Ford key limits speed to 80mph to allow the teen to pass on the highway. Of course on some highways here you could not go in the fast lane with that governor on, which probably suits the parents just fine. What they probably want would be more a limit on average speed, allowing the teen to, for short periods, burst to the full power of the car if it’s needed, but not from a standing start, and of course with advanced warning when the car has gone too fast too long to give a chance to safely slow down.

The earlier low-gas warning is just silly. The earlier you make a warning, the more you teach people to ignore it. If you have an early warning (subtle) and then a “this time we really mean it” warning most people will probably just use the second one. Many cars with digital fuel meters refuse to estimate fuel left below a certain amount, because they don’t want to be blamed for making you think you have more gas than you do. So they tell you nothing instead, which is silly.

What might make more sense would be the ability to make full use of speed, but the threat of reporting it to mom & dad if it’s over-used. (Such a product would be easy to add to existing cars, I wonder if anybody has made a product like that?) Ideally the product would warn the teen if they were getting close to the limit, to let them govern themselves, knowing that they would face a lecture and complete loss of car privileges if they go over the limitations.

On one hand, this is less paternalistic, because it does not constrain the vehicle and teaches the child to discipline themselves rather than making technology enforce the discipline. On the other hand, it is somewhat Orwellian, though the system need not report the particulars of the infringement, just the fact of it. Though we can certainly see parents wanting to know all the details.

Of course, we’ll see a lot more of that sort of surveillance asked for. Track-logs from the GPS in fact. Logging GPSs that can be hidden in cars cost only $80, and I am sure parents are buying them. (I have one, they are handy for geotagging photos.) We might also start seeing “smart” logging systems that measure speed infractions based on what road you are on. Ie. 80mph not near any highway is an infraction but on the highway it isn’t.

I doubt we’ll be able to stop this sort of governing or monitoring technology — so how can we bend it to protect freedom and privacy?

Debate moderators need to rehearse questions too

The worst thing about political debates occurs when the candidates break into their canned speeches, often repeating ones they had done before, and often when they have very little to do with the question that was asked. This happens because the candidates’ teams, in negotiating debate rules, want it to happen. They want a boring debate, because they know that while it’s hard (but not impossible) to win an election with a great debate performance, it is certainly easy to lose one with a bad one. So they avoid risks.

We won’t stop that, but some of the questions asked by Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer and those selected by Brokaw could have been much better. Better, in that they could have pushed the debate towards real answers and away from canned ones, just a little. With so many questions, it is obvious before the question is finished either what the candidate will say, or what they won’t say. There are questions you just know no candidate will answer. Some questions are better than others.

So I want the moderators to workshop the questions in advance, with a small, dedicated team of political reporters who have followed the campaigns. Each proposed question should be tried out before the reporters, who will then think of how the candidate is likely to dodge the question, or what canned speech they will give.

Eventually you get a set of questions where the reporters, who have seen the candidate speak for weeks, don’t know the answers in advance, or think the candidate might give a real answer to. Care must be taken not to bias the questions. But they should be real reporter’s questions. As I said, a good candidate can dodge anything, but you can make it more obvious when they dodge, and give them better chances not to dodge. And certainly not give them question that make you shout “there’s no way they would answer that one.”

Next, in my dreamworld, I would like to see some sort of punishment for dodging. In this case, I would give a balanced audience voting meters where they indicate “Did the candidate actually try to answer the question?” And up on the board, like a baseball score, would go a series of Y and Ns, or 1s and 0s, for each question. The candidate will “win” this score if the crowd felt they actually tried to answer the question. Obviously there is a risk that the judges would bias towards the candidate they like. Reporters, who are used to asking questions and know when they have gotten a dodge would be the best judges. I guess if I can dream, I can dream that, because the candidates would never agree to that. One of them would always fear it was going to be against their interests.

Which is why the question rehearsal is possible, since that’s something the candidates can’t control in setting out the rules. Most other good ideas their teams can stomp out.

Trip to Helsinki, Stockholm, St. Petersburg for Alternative Party

Coming up in a couple of weeks I will be speaking as a special guest at Alternative Party, a digital culture conference in Helsinki, Finland. I’ll be doing my main talk on October 25th plus an extra session on either the 24th or 26th depending on schedules.

After that I will head to do some touristing in Stockholm for a few days, then for my first trip to Russia to visit St. Petersburg on the 31st.

Have some recommendations in Stockholm or St. Petersburg area? Let me know. My hosts will take care of me in Finland.

Parking in the robocar world

I’ve added a new Robocars article, this time expanding on ideas about how parking works in the world of robocars. The main conclusion is that parking ceases to be an issue, even in fairly parking sparse cities, because robocars can do so many things to increase, and balance capaacity.

One new idea detailed (inspired by some comments in another post) is an approach for both valet parking and multi-row triple-parked street parking. This algorithm takes advantage of the fact that all the robocars in a row can be asked to move in concert, thus moving a “gap” left in any line to the right space in just a few seconds. Thus if there is just one gap per row, any car can leave the dense parking area in seconds, even from deep inside, as the other cars move to create a gap for that car to leave.

But there are many more ideas of how parking just should not be an issue in a robocar world. That is, until people realize that, and we start converting parking lots to other uses because we don’t need them. Eventually the market will find a balance.

Read Parking and Robocars.

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.

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.