Best Of Blog

New computer enabled legislative body

One of my interests is "new democracy" -- concepts of governance that could only exist due to the revelution in the technologies of organization that computers have brought. (I feel that one way to view the purpose of government is as a technology of organization.)

Imagine a legislative house of 100 members composed as follows. Each voter would be able to declare their support (vote) for one delegate. After the voting, the top 100 delegates become the members of the house. The #1 delegate would get no more than just under 2% of the vote, down around #100 we probably see somebody getting perhaps half a percent.

This house represents minority opinion. Almost any serious minority group can put together enough support to get a delegate, as it only takes between .5% and .9% of the vote. (1% gaurantees a delegate but in practice you would not need that much.) Parties with large support would just get more delegates. So there would always be some libertarians, some greens, along with the more mainstream groups.

The trick is that you could change your vote frequently. If your delegate did things you don't like, you could switch to another. This would not cause the upheaval that frequent elections cause today, because all the change would be at the lower end. Candidate #101 would one day replace Candidate #100. To prevent chaos at the bottom, candidates would get some minimum term before replacement, unless they dropped really low.

Without secret ballot this would be easy to do. Each person would have their named delegate on file, and could go and change it when they wish. There would never be (or rarely be) general elections.

With secret ballot it's harder...  read more »

Condo network for tech-nomads

Later I will blog my observations on an attempt to do a 2 week working trip to Toronto, but before I do let me throw out and idea to make technomadism easier.

A network of condos, of similar value (with some exceptions) in the most interesting cities of the world. The condos would be "standardized" to include the following:

  • A set of dressers with special removable drawers on rails. The drawers can be removed, lidded and slotted into a special packing crate for easy shipping.
  • Special bookshelves also easily moved. Some would contain your mobile books and papers, others ones that go to storage on shorter trips.
  • A standardized set of appliances, pots, pans, cutlery etc. as well as spices and a list of other dry ingredients to be kept in supply.
  • Of course a high speed internet connection, wireless and wired
  • A PVR modified to have a quick-remove hard drive as well as other home theatre and stereo equipment. Media server on network to play MP3s etc.
  • One or two office rooms with large monitor and keyboard, basic printer.
  • A nice collection of tools
  • VoIP phone equipment ready to handle your permanent number plus a local number for you.
  • A local cell phone account available for those from other countries.
  • A wiki with information on the neighbourhood and city. Best nearby restaurants, stores, places to get things cheap as well as links to the more standard tourist sites.
  • LCD or plasma panels to show photographs and other art.
  • E-mail access to the natives and former tennants to ask questions not answered in the Wiki
  • Of course, furniture.

The goal is a nearly painless move. Crate up your personal stuff (clothes and other special items) and any special tools and equipment you like. Slot the hard drive out of the PVR. Pack up your computer. It all goes in crates to send ground, you pack enough to live on in your suitcase since you will get there sooner.

(You'll find some similarities of goals in this to my earlier Ship of modern nomads concept.)

This way you can go to a new place with no fuss and minimal settling time, and work and live there. You will have what you need and access for how to find the things only natives know about. Your phone numbers and other access remain the same.

Members would buy into the system and get their "home" condo, plus pay extra for their share of common costs and the few spare condos needed to make the system work. Then they could move to an open condo in their class or lower (or higher for a fee) for fairly low moving costs.

Would people buy into this? Not those who have to put down roots, but those who want to see the world.  read more »

Viagra spam

Thought of the day...

Spam is there to teach us just how many different ways there are to spell Viagra.

Term for people blabbering on cell phones

You have all seen them standing on sidewalks, talking loudly to nobody, waving their arms. Too well dressed to be crazy homeless folks -- then you notice the earbud, and know they are on a cell phone. We need a term for these people and this phenomenon.

Some ideas:

  • Cellchotic (and Cellchosis)

  • Schizophonia (And the afflicted are Schizophonics)
  • Celliloquists (not as derogatory)

Your ideas?

P-Day is already past?

I recently spoke to Gordon Bell about the Digital Life Bits project he's doing at Microsoft Research, digitizing his entire life. I'm seeing more and more evidence that a prediction I made several years ago for "P-Day" may already have come true.

The prediction was this. We don't have the AI level technology today to perform ubiquitous automatic surveillance of our society, and that's a good thing. However, we have developed the technology to start recording everything. The cameras are already in lots of places (with their number growing) and storage has become cheap enough to keep all those recordings forever, and eventually to put them online.

Today we can't do anything so bold as perform facial recognition on all those images to track people. But that won't always be true. In the future we'll build such technology thanks to Moore's law (see the prior post!)

But this technology will be able to do more than find people in the cameras of the future. Thanks to recording it will be able to track people into the past. Audio and image records will become records of people. Data trails not possible to correlate today will be correlated in the future. The complete computerized tracking of your life is being done already, but the computation to write it down awaits future computing power.

P-Day is the day your privacy went away but you didn't yet know it. Thanks to other people digitizing their lives, it may have already happened to you. What touristed public space today is not constantly being camcordered or digitally photographed?

Walter Jon Williams recently explored this question in his Hugo nominated story The Green Leapord Plague. I've known him for many years, having published his story "Prayers on the Wind" in my 1993 Hugo & Nebula Anthology and highly recommend his work.

New law on semiconductor growth

In 1965, Gordon Moore of intel published a paper suggesting that the number of transistors on a chip would double every year. Later, it was revised to suggest a number of 18 months, which became true in part due to marketing pressure to meet the law.

Recently, Intel revised the law to set the time at two years.

So this suggests a new law, that the time period in Moore's Law doubles about every 40 years.

New word: Spamigation

Spamigation: The abuse of bulk legal action. Filing lawsuits in bulk (as in the RIAA filesharing lawsuits or DirecTV smartcard lawsuits) without taking care to assure all defendants are actually at fault. As such, some defendants are bound to be entirely innocent, but this doesn't matter because you don't really plan to take any to trial.

Can also be used for threats of legislation, when sending out cease and desist and other threatening letters is bulk, because it's easier to bulk threaten than to research. Possible alternate spelling: Spammigation.

Privacy issues in GMail and other webmail

Most people have heard about the various debates around Google's new GMail service. I wear many hats, both as a friend and consultant to Google and as chairman of the EFF. There have been some tinfoil-hat flaps but there are also some genuine privacy concerns brought about by people moving their life online and into the hands of even a well-meaning third party.

Check out the Essay on privacy issues in GMail and webmail. I welcome your comments in the blog.

The ideal airline

I wrote recently on better boarding strategies. Let me talk about what I really want in efficiency from an airline. Well, it seems we are stymied on getting what we really want, something as easy as a train, due to 9/11 oversecurity, but let's see what we can do.

This airline, at least here in California airports, doesn't use a giant air terminal. Instead, the airport is just the airstrips with a big parking lot running all along the side. (Could still do that at many of today's airports backsides.)

The trip begins as I drive off to the airport. I punch the airline's number on my cell phone. They take the caller-id and check me in, then text message me an electronic boarding pass. (I can also do this from a more advanced device or web browser of course.)

I drive into the parking lot and park right at the "gate." I mean 100 feet from the waiting plane. I grab my bag, hand my keys to the parking valet. I flash my cell phone's screen with the text message in front of their scanner which confirms my boarding pass. I go through the security scan, and into the small structure to sit in the chair with my boarding number on it. I access the free wi-fi.

Not long after, boarding is called, and we stand up from the chairs and walk up the stairs to the plane. (No jetways, at least here in California, though you could have them.) The front and back of the plane are used, everybody gets on in just a few minutes.

We land at a similar airport. When I confirmed boarding, the rental car company (or taxi or shuttle) was informed. As I get off the plane, waiting in the parking zone is my rental car. The scanner in the car reads the text message with my rental code and it activates. I drive away. Or perhaps I take a taxi. Perhaps I indicated that I would be happy to share a cab to the convention center so the cab has a list of 2 people to wait for.

On the way back, again I pull up right at the small valet zone at the airplane's gate. The rental company takes the car and I walk on the plane. My boarding is sent to the parking valets, and when my plane arrives, my car is ready in the valet zone. Off I go.

Of course there are flaws...  read more »

New way of watching series TV

My blog's popular today, so let me expand on an older essay of mine I never blogged before, concerning my new style of watching TV, thanks in part to my Tivo hard disk recorder.

In the past series-based TV has made its money by the series getting fans which watch it every week. The fans watch the good episodes and they watch the bad. As long as they get enough good episodes (or very rarely, all-good) they continue to watch the show. Advertisers buy space based on the popularity of the show (though they pay based on the ratings it actually gets.)

With movies and books, we have some fandom (especially for a big series like Star Wars) but more commonly you choose your movie based on things you hear about a particular movie. You may be brought in by good marketing, but more often you wait and hear good things, and then you go.

I've started watching series TV the latter way. I have my Tivo record the series I am interested in. For many series, there are fan websites where the fans hold polls about how good the episode was, starting the very night of airing.

I look at the poll a few days later, and if the episode was a turkey, I delete it. If need be, I read the summary of plot details found on the fan web site. As a result, my TV series end up with nothing but good episodes. Some series are much more watchable if you remove the bad parts. Life is too short to watch bad TV.

You can read more at the bottom of my essay on the future of TV advertising or below in the blog...  read more »

American Express threatens me over joke on web site

On my rec.humor.funny web site, I maintain the newsgroup archives, including this 13 year old joke entitled American Expressway.

Today I got one of those bullying "cease and desist" letters from American Express's law firm, ordering me to take down the joke for trademark infringement. Here's the text of the cease and desist

Do these guys know who they are trying to bully? I guess not, here's my response to them:

You can "Screw More" with an American Express Lawyer

Do you know me?

I built a famous company with a famous name, and then satirists made fun of me by taking advantage of the constitutional protections afforded parody when it comes to trademark law?

That's why I retained Leydig, Voit & Mayer, Ltd, the "American Express Lawyers." Should you ever feel your reputation lost or stolen by free speech and satire, just one call gets LVM to write a threatening cease and desist letter -- usually on the same day -- citing all sorts of important sounding laws but ignoring the realities of parody. Most innocent web sites will cave in, not knowing their rights. LVM will pretend it has never read cases like L.L. Bean, Inc. v. High Society and dozens of others. There's no preset limit on the number of people you can threaten, so you can bully as much as you wish.  read more »

Telling good patents from bad

Many people feel there's a patent law crisis underway. The Patent office has been granting patents that either seem obvious, or aren't the sort of thing that should be patented. Some advance that software shouldn't be patentable at all, just as mathematics is not patentable.

I don't go that far, for reasons I will explain. But I have found a common thread in many of the bad patents which could be a litmus test for telling the bad from the good.

Patent law, as we know, requires inventions to be novel and not obvious to one skilled in the art.

But the patent office has taken too liberal a definition of novel. They are granting patents when the problem is novel, and the filer is the first to try to solve it. As such their answer to the new question is novel.

The better patents are ones that solve older problems.

Amazon was one of the earliest internet shopping operations. So of course they were among the first to look hard at the UI for that style of shopping, and thus were first to file an invention called one-click-buy. But one-click-buy was really just an obvious answer to a new problem. The same applies to XOR cursors, browser plug-ins, and streaming audio and video.

Some patents, however, are deserving. I remember seeing CS professors give lectures in the mid-70s about how Huffman coding was provably the be best form of data compression, even after Ziv and Lempel published their paper on their compression algorithms. They took a very old problem and came up with a new answer. Key management in cryptography was a 2000 year old problem, and Diffie, Hellman and Merkle came up with a bold new answer. (As did cryptographers at British intelligence, but I still don't think this makes this obvious.)

While it would not solve every problem, I think if patent examiners asked, "How long has somebody been trying to solve the problem this invention solves?" and held off patents when the problem was novel, or at least applied more scrutiny, we would have a lot less problem with the patent system.

Many people simply say, "we should not allow patenting of software."

This has always bothered me. To me, software and hardware are the same thing, and the rest of the world is slowly realizing that. The virtual world is the real world, and having one law for that done in software and another for that done in hardware is a poor course to take.  read more »

Efficient airline passenger loading

Many know that Southwest Airlines has some of the best on-time records and plane turnaround times. Some of this comes from the fact that without reserved seating, people can board the planes more quickly.

It seems to me it should be possible to board planes quickly even with reserved seating. Here's how...

For a simple system, draw on the carpet a diagram of the largest plane that uses the gate. Except put the rear of the plane up by the door, with numbers counting down to the front. Have a 2nd area for 1st class if you need to keep them boardig at their convenience. This can be just a line with row numbers, and a marker that puts window seats near the line, aisles further away.

When boarding is called, passengers stand in the line for their row, and sorted internally as noted, so window seats go first. Then just empty the line into the plane. Being out of place in the line will be very obvious on the plane. If people line up over their row number, you'll never wait while people load their stuff to get to your row, unless you're late for the boarding call -- which few people are today due to crazy security rules.

You hae to decide if premium frequent flyers and "people needing extra time" should go first or not as they do now. My view is that the pre-boarding needs are minimal, and that even a slow child or senior will be better placed with their row than pre-boarding, but pre-board can still be allowed. I also think the frequent flyers would rather have a plane that boards and leaves quickly than get on first, except for one issue -- overhead storage. However, even if you let us get on first, doing this for the rest of the passengers still will streamline things.

You could also just print a series of numbers on the carpet. People would be given a card with their number and expected to stand by it, showing the card. The cards can have a clear colour code making it impossible to hide which group of 12 you are in. In this case, you can assign low numbers to 1st class, pre-boarders and frequent flyers, and just sequence up by seat otherwise. Again, zip on the plane almost as fast as leaving it. That means boarding closer to take-off, and faster turnaround, which is good for everybody.

Political Spam == Campaign Finance Reform?

I’ve maintained for some time that while most spam is commercial, whether something is spam is not dependent on it being commercial. Charity spam, religious spam and political spam are just as bothersome as Viagra spam.

However, fellow EFFer Larry Lessig challenged me on this by asking whether we might want to allow political spam. Spam is super-cheap to send (that’s one reason it’s a problem) but as a very cheap form of advertising it could be an equalizer when it comes to campaign expenses, since a candidate would low-funding could spam almost as well as one with boatloads of special interest money. That’s unlike TV advertising, where the better funded candidate wins the game.

I have to admit that the current way elections are funded and political influence is bought and sold is a much more important problem than spam, so this is a question worth looking at.

Of course, it would be stupid for a politician to spam, even though they have exempted themselves from the spam laws. Spam generates such ill will (appropriately too) that I think a spam campaign from a candidate would backfire. Plus, I really don’t like the idea of regulating spam based on what it says — If it says one thing it’s banned, if it says another it’s OK.

But is there a germ of something worthwhile in here? What if the election officials managed the mailing list and voters had to be on it, for example.  read more »

Exercise bike that makes you exercise

Everybody knows one of the big problems with exercise machines is they end up as clothesracks. I've seen this literally happen. A lot of people put their machine in front of the TV to make them use it, for a while we even had no couch.

Here's an invention to create an exercise machine you'll really use, if you watch TV. The machine, or a device attached to it, would be programmed to constantly broadcast a recorded infrared signal trained from your remote. This code would be one that would interfere with watching TV. For example, volume-mute or channel-up, or a digit. Whatever you want to train it to. (Off doesn't work as that also turns the TV on.)

However, once you get on the machine and start using it, it stops sending this code, and you can watch TV. Once you have done your exercise quota, it would stop sending the muck-up code until you are next due to exercise, whatever your schedule is.

To stop you from just covering the transmitter with clothing (remember the clothesrack?) it would also need to have a receiver some distance away which gets upset and chirps annoyingly if it can't see the regular ping from the transmitter.

Others in the house not on a regimen could enter a code on the remote to temporarily disable the system when they want to watch. If 2 or more people had a regimen, they would have to enter which person they were to activate their disabling code. That gets a bit messy but it can be done.  read more »

Car dock for my MP3 player

I like to use our Rio Karma MP3 player in the car, but it's not nearly as good as it could be. So here are some jottings on what an ideal car dock would do for the player.

  • Power and charge the player, of course
  • Offer various options for sending audio to the car, including a built-in quality FM transmitter, a port for a special Cassette sized interface (more below) and various cables for car stereos that have an accessory jack (as mine has for a trunk CD-changer) or plain audio inputs.
  • A wireless remote control to stick on the wheel (not needed if other remote control methods can work.)
  • A microphone.
  • To get really fancy, an 802.11 interface to allow it to sync up with computers inside the house while in the driveway. Though strictly, this would be even better inside the player, not in the dock.

The microphone would perform several roles. One, it would detect the ambient sound level in the car, and boost the music volume as the car gets noisier. No more super-loud when you start the car either.

Secondly, it would listen for the sound of the music the player is playing. It would try to tell if it was playing, so it could detect when the stereo is turned off or switched to something else, or when the car is turned off (if the loss of power from the accessory jack doesn't already reveal this.) When the sound stops (even if this takes 5 seconds to confirm) just pause the music back in time when the sound was first detected to stop. One could then from time to time send out pulses of the forthcoming audio, and if it hears them, treat that as a resumption of play.  read more »

Limit children's hours of TV viewing

Generally, I'm the last person to suggest we use technology to control people's lives and what they view. However, it's also the duty of parents to help teach their children how and when to use the media. Most commonly today you see things like the V-chip, which let parents block their unskilled children from seeing shows with certain "ratings."

A far more useful concept, I think, would be a device which limits the amount of time children can spend watching the TV. What they watch in that context can be mostly up to them, and if they understand the concept of a time budget, it will probably improve not just how much they watch but what they watch.

A PVR like the Tivo, or in particular, the DirecTivo, is the ideal platform for doing this. Children would get their own remotes, or a code to enter on the master remote to start using their weekly budget of TV hours. Once the budget was used up, they could not watch TV for a while. With a PVR, this would not block them from seeing a highly desired show, but it would delay it.

If two children wanted to watch the same show they could both enter their code to halve the amount of TV credit used, encouraging sharing and (minimal) socialization. Siblings would pretty quickly develop a market, trading TV hours like prison cigarettes with one another for real-world things, even money. This need not be discouraged. Random TV surfing would be discouraged, and commercial viewing strongly discouraged.

Adults would have to take the burden of having to enter their own code for unmetered viewing, a price they would pay to cut down their kid's TV hours.

Of course there are also some privacy considerations to consider.  read more »

Open Source voting machines

As I noted earlier, there are all sorts of risks with remote voting over the internet, even if I suggest a way to make it doable. However, this is different from the question of voting machines. Like the folks at Verified Voting I believe that a voter-verifiable paper ballot is the simplest way to make computerized voting more secure. And I like voting machines because they can improve access and even make preferential ballot possible down the road.

But I look at the huge cost we are paying for voting machines. I propose breaking the voting machine process into two steps. The first is the ballot preparation machine. It helps the voter generate their ballot, and then prints it out on paper, in a human readable form that is also machine readable. You need lots of those.

With paper ballot in hand, you walk over to the scanning machine, which is stage 2. This machine reads the standard-format paper ballot, does OCR on the human readable text and confirms the ballot is readable as the voter desires. It also counts it. The ballot is then placed in a locked ballot box.

The scanning machine will be expensive, and secured, and built by an audited vendor. However, you need only a small number of those. The voting stations, which you need many of, can mostly be cheap. In fact, they can be free.

That's because you would generate a voting program that runs on standard PC hardware. On slow standard PC hardware. Probably an open source program, meant to run on Linux, and audited and verified by the open source community. They would love this job.

Then you ask the public to donate their old, slower PCs. Give them a small tax deduction if needed, but frankly I think you would get so many machines you wouldn't even need that. You could even be strict on the hardware requirements. Wipe the bios and put in a fresh one, possibly put in a cheap hard disk with the voting system installed. Get donated laser printers. You don't have a lot of security concerns with these machines because there is not a lot they can do to bollux the election.  read more »

Fairer bathrooms

We've all seen public bathrooms where the women have a line snaking out into the hall, but we guys can just "whiz" in and out. We have sympathy (but not too much, see the joke)

Here's a good solution that will probably never fly because we're uptight. Two bathrooms: One small one with nothing but urinals for men, and another one with nothing but stalls to be shared among the sexes.

In effect, it would offer most of the building's entire pool of stalls to the women when they need it, instead of the 60% or so they get now.

Why not do this? Well, some women would prefer men not use their stalls, due to certain prejudicial (or justified) opinions they might hold about our collective restroom hygene. And women might also miss the private "just for women" chat and appearance adjustment space at the sink.

These concerns could be fixed one of two ways. Have men's and women's "ends" to the line of stalls, so only when it was full would women find themselves moving into the area we've used. And possibly have two private sink areas, since there is not as much contention there, and they take less space anyway.
I can credit the idea that the sexes want their private space.

Oh yeah, the toilets could have a little pin that pokes out when the flush lever is pulled that tips down the seat if it was left up. Does that make it better? :-)

Or are we just too uptight to do this? I know women who, facing the long line, waltz into the men's room. They obviously won't mind. I don't see men minding. It's sometimes means a longer wait for a stall, but it's fair.

So what about it, ladies? Would you prefer this arrangement?

Paperless Home

In my home I now have a "home computer", for a while in the kitchen, now in the living room. Of course I have had computers in my home since the 70s, but this one is different. It's an old cheap laptop I picked up, not powerful at all. What's different is how I use it.

I have connected a Visioneer sheetfed scanner to it. I can drop papers and business cards into it and it scans them. Then I drop them in a box. I have scans of all the receipets and other documents, but if for some reason I need the original I can see by date which ones were nearby and presumably find it quickly enough. A good idea might be to drop a coloured sheet in once a month.

This has inspired me to design a simple device which would be very cheap to build. It's a small sheetfed scanner like this one, which is the size of a 3-hole punch. It's battery powered so it can be stuck anywhere. It has no cables going into it, instead it has a memory card slot, such as compact flash.

When you scan, the data would just be written to the flash card. (Nicely this means the scans are fast.) A button or two on the scanner might set some basic options (like colour or gray, delete and rescan etc.) At most a small LCD panel would be all you get.

When the flash is full, you would take it to the computer, which would do all the real work. Scan and process the data. Convert grayscales to bitmaps at the right level as desired. OCR the text for searching and indexing. Detect orientation, tilt, business cards (by size) etc. all automatically.

And of course then let you view and organize your papers on the computer.

We've dreamed of a paperless office for some time but never gotten there (though we get a little closer all the time.) But can we get to a paperless home, or at least a lower-paper home? I find the paperwork and nitty-gritty of managing a home gets more frustrating with time and hope something can help it.

As noted, my design is extremely cheap. The scanner, a small controller and a flash interface is about all there is too it. Cheaper than the current scanners, which can be had well under $100. The flash card is the expensive part.  read more »

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