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Switching Blog to Drupal 7

I've been running this site on an ancient version of Drupal and decided to start the work of migration to something newer. Drupal 8 migration didn't work, but I have got 7 up and running, and will eventually get it to 8. Hopefully you won't see too much change other than the layout and styles. Leave notes in the comments on problems you find, but at least today I know there are a few things missing, like the topic menu and the recent comments list. I prefer a right sidebar but for now this theme is more set for a left one. The site slogan is missing too.

A cryptographic solution to securely aggregate allegations could make it easier to come forward

Nobody wants to be the first person to do or say a risky thing. One recent example of this is the revelations that a number of powerful figures, like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Bill Cosby, had a long pattern of sexual harassment and even assault, and many people were aware of it, but nobody came forward until much later.

People finally come forward when one brave person goes public, and then another, and finally people see they are not alone. They might be believed, and action might be done.

Eleven years ago, I proposed a system to test radical ideas, primarily aimed at voting in bodies like congress. The idea was to create a voting system where people could cast encrypted votes, with the voter's identity unrevealed. Once a majority of yes votes were cast, however, the fragments of the decoding key would assemble and the votes and the voter identities could be decoded.

This would allow, for example, a vote on issues where a majority of the members support something but few are willing to admit it. Once the total hit the majority, it would become a passed bill, with no fear in voting.

I still would like to see that happen, but I wonder if the approach could have more application. The cryptographic approach is doable when you have a fixed group of members voting who can even meet physically. It's much harder when you want to collect "votes" from the whole world.

You can easily build the system, though, if you have a well trusted agency. It must be extremely trusted, and even protected from court orders telling it to hand over its data. Let's discuss the logistics below, but first give a description of how it would work.

Say somebody wants to make an allegation, such as "I was raped by Bill Cosby" or "The Mayor insisted I pay a bribe" or "This bank cheated me." They would enter that allegation as some form of sworn legal statement, but additional details and their identity would be encrypted. Along with the allegation would be instructions, "Reveal my allegation once more than N people make the same allegation (at threshold N or less.)"

In effect, it would make saying "#metoo" have power, and even legal force. It also tries to balance the following important principles, which are very difficult to balance otherwise:

  1. Those wronged by the powerful must be able to get justice
  2. People are presumed innocent
  3. The accused have a right to confront the evidence against them and their accusers

How well this work would depend on various forms of how public the information is:

  • A cryptographic system would require less (or no) trusting individual entities or governments, but would make public the number of allegations entered. It would be incorruptible if designed well.
  • An agency system which publishes allegation counts and actual allegations when the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps allegation counts private until the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps everything private, and when the threshold is reached discloses the allegation only to authorities (police, boards of directors).

There are trade-offs as can be shown above. If allegations are public, that can tell other victims they are not alone. However, it can also be a tool in gaming the system.

The allegation must be binding, in that there will be consequences for making a false allegation once the allegations are disclosed, especially if the number of existing allegations is public. We do not want to create a power to make false anonymous allegations. If it were public that "3 people allege rape by person X" that would still create a lot of public shame and questions for X, which is fine if the allegations are true, but terrible if they are not. If X is not a rapist, for example, and the threshold is high, it will never be reached, and those making the allegations would know that. Our system of justice is based important principles of presumption of innocence, and a right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you.

Could states affect gerrymandering outside their state with conspiracy rules?

In puzzling over solutions to gerrymandering, I remain stymied by the following problems:

  • The people in power don't want to undo the gerrymandering that is putting them in power.
  • The courts want to stop gerrymandering but they only overturn rules, they try not to write new ones.
  • States could act, especially a few in concert, but what they do might be overturned by the courts

Arguments were heard this week in a lawsuit attempting to get the supreme court to stop gerrymandering. Courts have been ready to declare that a district is gerrymandered, but are reluctant to force states to adopt some rule on how they draw their districts. The concern is that there is no one best and most fair way to draw districts. You can tell when a district is unfair, but it's up to states to write the rules and the courts to rule on their constitutionality. The plaintiffs have a hope that the courts might rule that any districting is a disenfranchisement, and force states to allocate representatives based on a proportional system from a statewide popular vote.

I have wondered if states can find, on their own, the power to fix this. Many states have already written anti-gerrymandering rules for their own districts, but can they make those have extra-territorial effect.

One way is with an interstate compact. I outline a plan for this here. It has the problem that the counter-gerrymandering might be found illegal by the court. Remember the court is ready to say, "That's not a valid district shape" without saying a formula for what a valid district shape is. They just know it when they see it.

Here's another idea -- possibly unconstitutional as well, but it may be improved with refinement.

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Robocar-only highways are not quite so nice an idea as expected

Recently Madrona Ventures, in partnership with Craig Mundie (former Microsoft CTO) released a white paper proposing an autonomous vehicle corridor between Seattle and Vancouver on I-5 and BC Highway 99. While there are some useful ideas in it, the basic concept contains some misconceptions about both traffic management, infrastructure planning, and robocars.

Carpool lanes are hard

The proposal starts with a call for allowing robocars in the carpool lanes, and then moving to having a robocar only lane. Eventually it moves to more lanes being robocar only, and finally the whole highway. Generally I have (mostly) avoided too much talk of the all-robocar road because there are so many barriers to this that it remains very far in the future. This proposal wants to make it happen sooner, which is not necessarily bad, but it sure is difficult.

Carpool lanes are poorly understood, even by some transportation planners. For optimum traffic flow, you want to keep every lane at near capacity, but not over it. If you have a carpool lane at half-capacity, you have a serious waste of resources, because the vast majority (around 90%) of the carpools are "natural carpools" that would exist regardless of the lane perk. They are things like couples or parents with children. A half-empty carpool lane makes traffic worse for everybody but the carpoolers, for whom the trip does improve.

That's why carpool lanes will often let in electric cars, and why "high occupancy toll" lanes let in solo drivers willing to pay a price. In particular with the HOT lane, you can set the price so you get just enough cars in the carpool lane to make it efficient, but no more.

(It is not, of course, this simple, as sometimes carpool lanes jam up because people are scared of driving next to slow moving regular lanes, and merging is problematic. Putting a barrier in helps sometimes but can also hurt. An all-robocar lane would avoid these problems, and that is a big plus.)

Letting robocars into the carpool lane can be a good idea, if you have room. If you have to push electric cars out, that may not be the best public goal, but it is a decision a highway authority could make. (If the robocars are electric, which many will be, it's OK.)

The transition, however, from "robocars allowed" to "robocars only" for the lane is very difficult. Because you do indeed have a decent number of carpools (even if only 10% are induced) you have to kick them out at some point to grow robocar capacity. You can't have a switch day without causing more traffic congestion for some time after it. If you are willing to build a whole new lane (as is normal for carpool creation) you can do it, but only by wasting a lot of the new lane at first.

Robocar packing

Many are attracted to the idea that robocars can follow more closely behind another vehicle if they have faster reaction times. They also have the dream that the cars will be talking to one another, so they can form platoons that follow even more closely.) The inter car communication (V2V) creates too much computer security risk to be likely, though some still dream of a magic solution which will make it safe to have 1500kg robots exchanging complex messages with every car they randomly encounter on the road. Slightly closer following is still possible without it.

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GM accepts all liability in robocars, and other news

General Motors announced this week that they would "take full responsibility" if a crash takes place during an autonomous driving trip. This follows a pledge to do the same made some time ago by Daimler, Google and Volvo and possibly others.

What's interesting is that they don't add the caveat "if the system is at fault." Of course, if the system is not at fault, they can get payment from the other driver, and so it's still OK to tell the passenger or owner that GM takes responsibility.

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My 4-camera 4K eclipse video and about traffic from the Eclipse

The Eclipse of 2017 caused dire traffic warnings, even from myself. Since a total eclipse is the most amazing thing you will see, and one was coming to a rich country where almost everybody owns a car, and hundreds of millions live within a day's drive -- I wondered how we would not have horrendous traffic. (You can see my main Eclipse report and gallery here or see all my Eclipse articles.)

Also look out below for a new 4K video I made from having 4 different video cameras running around the eclipse. I have started you 3 minutes in for the short-attention-span world, but you might also enjoy the 3 minutes leading up as the excitement builds. Even on an HD display, be sure to click through to Youtube to watch it full screen.

As described, the 4 cameras are two 4K cell phones facing forward and back, plus an HD video from a 1200mm superzoom camera and snippets of 4K video and stills from the main telescope and Sony A7rII.

The big places for predicted bad traffic were central Oregon, because it was the place with the best weather that was closest to everybody from Seattle to Los Angeles, and areas of South Carolina which were closest for the whole eastern seaboard. At a popular Eclipse site, they had a detailed analysis of potential traffic but in many cases, it was quite wrong.

The central Oregon spine around the tiny town of Madras did get really bad traffic, as in reports of 4 to 6 hours to get out. That was not unexpected, since the area does not have very many roads, and is close to Washington and relatively close to California. At the same time, a lot of traffic diverted to the Salem area, which got a nice clear sky forecast. It has an interstate and many other roads. Planning ahead, Madras was the best choice because the weather is much more unpredictable west of the Cascades. But once the forecast became clear, many people from Seattle, Portland and California should have shifted to the more populated areas with the larger roads.

I decided, since it was only 2 hours more driving to Weiser (on the Oregon/Idaho border) but much less traffic, to go to the Snake River valley. It was the right choice -- there was almost no traffic leaving Weiser. In fact, Weiser did not get overwhelmed with people as had been expected, disappointing the businesses. Many thought that a large fraction of Boise would have tried to get up to that area, but they didn't. We actually wandered a bit and ended up over the river in a school field in Annex, Oregon.

There was no problem finding space, even for free.

This is a pattern we've seen many times now -- dire predictions of terrible traffic, then almost nothing. It turns out the predictions work too well. The famous Carmageddon in Los Angeles never materialized -- even with a major link cut, traffic was lighter than normal.

This is, in turn a tragedy. It seems a lot of people did not go see the eclipse because they were scared of bad traffic. What a great shame.

4K Video

At my sight I had 4 cameras recording video. I set up two cell phones, both able to do 4K, looking at our group from in front and behind. The one behind I put in portrait mode, almost capturing the sun, to show that view, while the one in front showed us looking at the eclipse and also the shadow approaching on the hills.

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Why aren't homes sold in second price auctions?

Newspapers reported a house sold in my town this week for almost $800,000 over asking, which is to say the buyers bid $2.5M for a house listed at $1.69M. Now the prices are already crazy but this takes the cake. The buyers had lost a few auctions before by not overbidding enough, and wanted to make sure they got this house, even though it is not that remarkable a place.

To make video-meetings work, force people to stay engaged

Our videoconferencing tools have been getting better, but meetings with remote video participants still don't work very well. One problem is poor use of the technology (such as a lack of headsets) which I outlined in my guide to room based video meetings. These can be worked on and the tech keeps improving.

The other big area for improvement is the discipline of the people in the meeting. The big challenge in typical meetings is that some of the participants are 2nd class. This is obvious when you have a meeting room with multiple local people and some remote users. It can also happen when people have differing levels of technology. In an ideal meeting, everybody in the meeting is on the same footing as far as their presence and ability to communicate.

We break this rule often. It is quite common to have remote attendees turn off sending video, or mute their audio, for example, making them be more like a TV audience than members of the meeting. It makes sense because it saves bandwidth, and people don't like being watched. We also tolerate having some people present just on the phone, while others are there in person and others are on low and high quality video systems.

If you hope for a good meeting, you also want to express that the main value of the conferencing system is to let people attend without travel. It is not there to let them attend without the same effort and engagement they would put into a meeting they did travel to. The things I describe may seem minor, and they may veto features of great convenience, but those features are actually bugs and disrupt meetings more than people realize.

Here are some principles to get around this:

No meeting room

In an ideal video meeting, everybody is on their own personal video station. There is no meeting room. This means that even if several of the attendees are in the same building, they don't go to a room, they stay at their desks and join the meeting just like any other remote.

This is obviously hard to do if the majority of participants are in the building, but it can be worth it. It also means you don't need room-based videoconferencing systems, which are expensive and don't work well. But if only 2 or 3 of the participants are in the same place, definitely consider having no meeting room. The big benefit is that when everybody has their own microphone, everybody hears everybody really well.

Today you can't have people in the same room using their own computer because they hear the other people both via their headset and through the air. Perhaps some day a smart videoconferencing system will understand that some people are in the same room (you can tell because some sounds do get into the microphones) and adjust. It would allow those who still want a physical meeting room to get the great audio and video that comes from everybody using a computer. Those in the room together would still be 1st class participants, but remotes would not be that badly off.

Headsets at all times

We have gotten seduced by how well some voip systems handle speakerphone mode in one on one conversations. Don't be fooled. They don't do group meetings well at all. They seem like they do, but quickly you realize that now everybody hears all the random noises from the location of a speakerphone user. They do things like step away from their desks to eat, chat or take a phone call, and everybody hears it. Keyboards and mice clickety-clack. Sirens go by. It's easy to ignore this in a one on one call, but it disrupts a meeting.

Getting rid of winner-takes-all in the electoral college could backfire badly

A new organization named Equal Votes is pushing to make a supreme court case to undo the electoral college. They hope to use a precedent set in the famous "Bush v. Gore" 2000 election case, which strengthened the application of the equal protection clause to election law. They want to show that the "Winner takes all" approach that 48 states use to hand out electoral college votes is a violation of the idea of one person one vote. States would then not be able to use it.

It's an interesting idea, but I have grave concerns that it might backfire, and badly. Worst case, it could guarantee a Republican President into the indefinite future. Hopefully not, but that's a bad result, even if you're Republican leaning.

My friend Larry Lessig is supporting this, and I don't doubt the theory that it might win. The idea is that since a state could assign its electors in proportion to how its citizens voted, it is depriving them of their rights by not doing so. If you are in a safe state and not in the dominant party, your vote is useless and effectively counts for nothing.

It is far from certain that this logic can win. Winner takes all is of course the norm in democracies. The country only gets one President even though almost half the country didn't want him. States only get one governor. In California, where state legislators are elected by districts and some Republicans get seats, the reality is that the Democrats get complete power, not partial power. And in the current congress, it takes defections or filibusters to stop complete rule by the Republicans (even though, due to gerrymandering, they got fewer votes than the Democrats in the house.)

Voting by gerrymandered district

And this is where we get the first big risk. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, don't do winner takes all. They follow what seems a very sensible plan at first. A state's electoral college delegation is equal to the number of congressional representatives they have: House members plus two. These states select two electors based on statewide vote, and then select the other electors based on the vote in each district. Just like members of congress, the electors represent their "districts."

There is a risk that if the court held that winner-takes-all is invalid, they might not rule that the established district based system is invalid. Equal Votes will ask for that, but they might not get it. If they don't get it, then some states, in particular the gerrymandered states, may decide to follow the Maine system. And being gerrymandered like this, they are likely to return a slate of electors that is not too different from their congressional delegation -- a heavily skewed delegation. Even if many other states use a different system (like the proportional allocation Equal Votes wants) the result would be a college very much like congress. And that's a GOP college.

Why? Because of operation Redmap. This insidious, I would say evil, cheat on the electoral rules was done by Karl Rove and the RNC in 2010. They poured millions into a carefully selected number of unsafe Democrat statehouse seats around the country, enough to swing those statehouses to the GOP. Then they used that power to redraw the districts in those states in a gerrymandered way to favour the GOP. Not just in the congressional elections, but in future statehouse elections, cementing the power indefinitely. It will need a major anti-GOP swing, or supreme court ruling, to fix it.

China could be poised to dominate car manufacturing thanks to robocars

The robocar revolution has the potential to assist China in dominating vehicle manufacturing. That's the bad news -- unless you are a Chinese manufacturer. The better news is that manufacturing is only part of the car industry, and it's getting smaller.

  • China has the largest car manufacturing industry, and is strong in electric cars
  • Brand of the manufacturer is almost irrelevant in taxi service
  • Reliability of the taxi is much less relevant
  • US tech companies need manufacturing partners
  • The money in ground transport is in service, not cars

Today, Chinese brands are not sold in any numbers in the USA, or almost anywhere outside of China, but China is already the largest car manufacturing country in the world. Chinese brands have no cachet (even in China, it seems) and western and Korean/Japanese brands are strong. How might that change?

Car brand is very important for people buying a car to own. In fact, the nameplate is the top source of value in a modern car sale. The difference is that we will be moving from people buying cars to own towards people buying rides.

When you order "Uber Select" (Uber's nicer-car offering) you don't care if what shows up is a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. You don't even car if its a Hyundai Genesis, their brand-new attempt at making a luxury marquee. You are only going to ride in it for 15 minutes. It has to be comfortable, smooth and look nice, but rarely does the logo on the outside matter.

It's the Uber brand that matters (though not as much, as most people would find no difference between an UberSelect and a Lyft Premiere as far as the vehicles are concerned. And you might not even care if it's a Great Wall Wey (a Chinese luxury car you've never heard of) that picks you up if it looks nice and gives a reliable ride.

Of course, today the top makers like Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Audi, Acura, Infiniti and others are known not just for luxury, but for quality. They make well engineered, reliable cars in a way the Chinese are not quite ready to do.

But do they have to? If your expensive BMW breaks down, you have to get it towed, arrange its repair and get a rental car. You're pretty angry at BMW when it does, and you paid a lot for that car to avoid that experience, and usually you do. If a car in a robotaxi fleet breaks down, you're very unlikely to even know it happened. Very rarely, a car like that might break down when you are riding in it. It would pull to the side of the road and have already summoned a replacement car. Within 2-3 minutes a new vehicle will pull up and take you on your way while the company sends a tow truck to deal with the broken car.

Of course, if it broke down while on its way to you, might might not even know it. But even the breakdown while driving will be barely worth mentioning to friends, it just didn't inconvenience you very much at all.

While the BMW will surely break down less than the Great Wall (at least for now) it also costs a great deal more. That might be worth it to avoid that owner's breakdown scenario, but it's not for a fleet breakdown. For a fleet manager, it's just a question of whether vehicle downtime cost is more or less than the extra cost of more robust engineering, with a small factor for customer inconvenience.

The Shanghai motor show is a trip -- huge and full of brands westerners have never heard of

To top things off, I predict robocars will have fewer breakdowns. They will always been monitoring themselves, and will come loaded with sensors. They will always get proper maintenance, taking themselves to maintenance depots when it is needed. They will test all systems like brakes, steering, tires, engines and more every day or every hour when running vacant. They will never let anything get too hot or vibrate too much. Both the BMW and the cheap car will do that.

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What every AirBNB needs

I wrote earlier about tips for hotels and AirBNBs naming things like desk space, amenities, good illumination and more, but let me add some things I would like to see in every unit (and listing) for AirBNB hosts, not all of which apply to hotels.

Universal power strips

So many places don't have enough plugs for the modern electronics-laden technomad. So get some power strips. In particular, get the ones that have universal sockets which take US, Euro, UK and Aus/China plugs. Yes, I bring adapters but it's always nice to have some extra plugs. Put one of these power strips by the bed (especially if the plugs by the bed are occupied by lamps and other things.) Put one by the desk space -- you do have desk space, right?

Select your main photo well

What is the most important feature of your unit? Most of the time it's the view or the location, though also high on the list are its internal quality (fancy and new vs. older and plain,) the living space or the kitchen. But while everybody wants a place with a nice kitchen, living room and bed, few are shopping primarily on that.

Pick the most important feature and make it your main photo. Possibly combine two photos for that main photo. However, if you choose to show the view, make it a realistic photo or include one after. If you show the location by showing a nearby sight, put text in the photo saying "Near to this" or similar.

When I shop for properties, that main photo should grab me. If I'm looking for a view, that's probably what you want to show me. On the other hand, while location is important to me, AirBNB is already showing me that. Having a picture of the famous local landmark is pointless, unless you can see it out your window.

Realistic photos

It is important that your photos be realistic. Many are tempted to photograph things to make them look bigger than they are, or to hide something. Don't do it. People will be disappointed and leave you bad reviews, which is worse than an unflattering photo. Yes, your "competitors" are using misleading photos but in the end they will pay for that.

This is particularly true when photographing the view. Don't take a small view only visible if you lean out on the terrace and crop it to make it seem like the view from the property. If your view is only from the terrace, use a wide angle to make it clear you're standing on that. If the view is inside, take some photos inside of the window, showing what you will see walking around the room that has the view. Photos of rooms should not be super wide angle (that makes the room look bigger than it is) but photos of the view often should be.

If you include photos of nearby things, like the town's main tourist site to show that you are near it, mark these photos as "Not from the home, 200m away" or similar.

You should show your "view" even if you have no view. People should know if the unit looks out on a courtyard or back street, and what it looks like. You may be surprised -- even a quiet back street may be exotic to the tourist.

When shooting inside including the windows and view, use a camera with an "HDR" mode (most phones do this now) or get some HDR software so your photo can show the inside and outside at the same time. And seriously, no crappy, blurry photos. I know you're not a professional photographer but today's devices make it easy to get a good shot if you hold reasonably still. You're trying to make serious money -- borrow a friend or their camera if you have to.

Throw in photos of the amenities I describe below, if you have them, to let people know they are there.

If you rent your place for longer-term tenants, consider a photo of a floor plan, if you have one, or sketch one if you can. When renting for more than a week, this is very handy.

Talk about the flights of stairs

Many AirBNB users are older and don't want a unit where they have to walk up 4 flights of stairs, or even 1 in the case of those with a mobility problem. AirBNB lets you say "elevator in building." which is good, but it should really be "Elevator in Building OR unit is on ground floor" -- and I think that people should actually check that box for ground floor units until AirBNB fixes that. Of course be clear in the listing on that, or on how many floors the guest will need to climb, and whether there will be assist for luggage.

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Computational photography will turn the photo world upside-down

The camera industry is about to come crashing down thanks to the rise of computational photography.

Many have predicted this for some time, and even wondered why it hasn't happened. While many people take most of their photos with their cell phones, at this point, if you want to do serious photography, in spite of what it says on giant Apple billboards, you carry a dedicated camera, and the more you want from that camera, the bigger the lens on the front of it is.

That's because of some basic physics. No matter how big your sensor is, the bigger the lens, the more light that will come in for each pixel. That means less noise, more ability to get enough light in dark situations, faster shutter speeds for moving subjects and more.

For serious photographers, it also means making artistic use of what some might consider a defect of larger lenses -- only a narrow range of distances is in focus. "Shallow depth of field" lets photographers isolate and highlight their subjects, and give depth and dimensionality to photos that need it.

So why is it all about to change?

Traditional photography has always been about capturing a single frame. A frozen moment in time. The more light you gather, the better you can do that. But that's not the way the eye works. Our eyes are constantly scanning a dynamic scene in real time, assembling our image of the world in our brains. We combine information captured at different times to get more out of a scene than our eyes as cameras can extract in a single "frame" (if they had frames.)

Computational photography adds smart digital algorithms not just to single frames, but to quickly shot sequences of them, or frames from multiple different lenses. It uses those to learn more about the image than any one frame or lens could pull out.

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New NHTSA Robocar regulations are a major, but positive, reversal

NHTSA released their latest draft robocar regulations just a week after the U.S. House passed a new regulatory regime and the senate started working on its own. The proposed regulations preempt state regulation of vehicle design, and allow companies to apply for high volume exemptions from the standards that exist for human-driven cars.

It's clear that the new approach will be quite different from the Obama-era one, much more hands-off. There are not a lot of things to like about the Trump administration but this could be one of them. The prior regulations reached 116 pages with much detail, though they were mostly listed as "voluntary." I wrote a long critique of the regulations in a 4 part series which can be found in my NHTSA tag. They seem to have paid attention to that commentary and the similar commentary of others.

At 26 pages, the new report is much more modest, and actually says very little. Indeed, I could sum it up as follows:

  • Do the stuff you're already doing
  • Pay attention to where and when your car can drive and document that
  • Document your processes internally and for the public
  • Go to the existing standards bodies (SAE, ISO etc.) for guidance
  • Create a standard data format for your incident logs
  • Don't forget all the work on crash avoidance, survival and post-crash safety in modern cars that we worked very hard on
  • Plans for how states and the feds will work together on regulating this

Goals vs. Approaches

The document does a better job at understanding the difference between goals -- public goods that it is the government's role to promote -- and approaches to those goals, which should be entirely the province of industry.

The new document is much more explicit that the 12 "safety design elements" are voluntary. I continue to believe that there is a risk they may not be truly voluntary, as there will be great pressure to conform with them, and possible increased liability for those who don't, but the new document tries to avoid that, and its requests are much milder.

The document understands the important realization that developers in this space will be creating new paths to safety and establishing new and different concepts of best practices. Existing standards have value, but they can at best encode conventional wisdom. Robocars will not be created using conventional wisdom. The new document takes the approach of more likely recommending that the existing standards be considered, which is a reasonable plan.

A lightweight regulatory philosophy

My own analysis is guided by a lightweight regulatory approach which has been the norm until now. The government's role is to determine important public goals and interests, and to use regulations and enforcement when, and only when, it becomes clear that industry can't be trusted to meet these goals on its own.

In particular, the government should very rarely regulate how something should be done, and focus instead on what needs to happen as the end result, and why. In the past, all automotive safety technologies were developed by vendors and deployed, sometimes for decades, before they were regulated. When they were regulated, it was more along the lines of "All cars should now have anti-lock brakes." Only with the more mature technologies have the regulations had to go into detail on how to build them.

Worthwhile public goals include safety, of course, and the promotion of innovation. We want to encourage both competition and cooperation in the right places. We want to protect consumer rights and privacy. (The prior regulations proposed a mandatory sharing of incident data which is watered down greatly in these new regulations.)

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NTSB Tesla Crash report (New NHTSA regs to come)

The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has released a preliminary report on the fatal Tesla crash with the full report expected later this week. The report is much less favourable to autopilots than their earlier evaluation.

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Planning for hurricanes and other disasters with robocars

How will robocars fare in a disaster, like Harvey in Houston, Irma, or the tsunamis in Japan or Indonesia, or a big Earthquake, or a fire, or 9/11, or a war?

These are very complex questions, and certainly most teams developing cars have not spent a lot of time on solutions to them at present. Indeed, I expect that these will not be solved issues until after the first significant pilot projects are deployed, because as long as robocars are a small fraction of the car population, they will not have that much effect on how things go. Some people who have given up car ownership for robocars -- not that many in the early days -- will possibly find themselves hunting for transportation the way other people who don't own cars do today.

It's a different story when, perhaps a decade from now, we get significant numbers of people who don't own cars and rely on robocar transportation. That means people who don't have any cars, not the larger number of people who have dropped from 2 cars to 1 thanks to robocar services.

I addressed a few of these questions before regarding Tsunamis and Earthquakes.

A few key questions should be addressed:

  1. How will the car fleets deal with massively increased demand during evacuations and flight during an emergency?
  2. How will the cars deal with shutdown and overload of the mobile data networks, if it happens?
  3. How will cars deal with things like floods, storms, earthquakes and more which block roads or make travel unsafe on certain roads?

Most of these issues revolve around fleets. Privately owned robocars will tend to have steering wheels and be usable as regular cars, and so only improve the situation. If they encounter unsafe roads, they will ask their passengers for guidance, or full driving. (However, in a few decades, their passengers may no longer be very capable at driving but the car will handle the hard parts and leave them just to provide video-game style directions.)

Increased demand

An immediately positive thing is the potential ability for private robocars to, once they have taken their owners to safety, drive back into the evacuation zone as temporary fleet cars, and fetch other people, starting with those selected by the car's owner, but also members of the public needing assistance. This should dramatically increase the ability of the car fleet to get people moved.

Nonetheless, it is often noted that in a robocar taxi world, there don't need to be nearly as many cars in a city as we have today. With ideal efficiency, there would be exactly enough seats to handle the annual peak, but few more. We might drop to just 1/4 of the cars, and we might also have many of them be only 1 or 2 seater cars. There will be far fewer SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans and other large cars, because we don't really need nearly as many as we have today.

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Talk Thursday in Silicon Valley: Everything you know on Robocars is wrong

For those in Silicon Valley, I will be giving a talk at the monthly autonomous vehicle enthusiast meetup. Some time ago I did my general talk, but this one will get into the meat on some of the big myths and issues. With luck we'll get some good debate going.

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Private Big Brothers are arriving

For many decades I've had an ongoing debate with my friend David Brin over the ideas in his book The Transparent Society where he ponders what happens when cameras and surveillance technology become so cheap it's impossible to stop them from being everywhere.

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Photo gallery from 2017 total solar eclipse

I was just outside Weiser Idaho, a small town on the Snake river, for the 2017 Eclipse, which was an excellent, if short, spectacle which reawakened U.S. interests in total eclipses. They are, as I wrote earlier, the most spectacular natural phenomenon you can see on the Earth, but due to their random pattern it's been a long time since one has covered so much of the world's richest country.

For me, it was my sixth total eclipse, but the first I could drive to. I began this journey in Mexico in 1991, with the super-eclipse of that year, which also was the last to visit the United States (it was visible on the big island of Hawai`i.) Since then I have flown around the world to the Curacao area, to the Black Sea, to the Marshall Islands (more photos) and French Polynesia to see other total eclipses. And I will continue to do so starting with 2 years from now in Argentina.

See the gallery

I recommend before you read that you enjoy my Gallery of 2017 Eclipse Photos in HD resolution. When going through them I recommend you click the "i" button so you can read the descriptions; they do not show in the slide show.

HDR from main camera

Why it's impossible (today) to photograph

I did not photograph my first eclipse (nor should anybody) but every photographer, seeing such a spectacle, hopes to capture it. We can't, because in addition to being the most spectacular natural event, it's also the one with the greatest dynamic range. In one small field you have brilliant jets of fire coming off the sun, its hot inner atmosphere, its giant glowing outer atmosphere and a dimly lit dark sky in which you can see stars. And then there is the unlit side of the moon which appears to be the blackest thing you have ever seen. While you can capture all these light values with a big bracket, no display device can come close to showing that 24 stop range. Only the human eye and visual system can perceive it.

Some day though, they will make reasonable display devices that can do this, but even then it will be tough. For the eclipse covers just a few degrees of sky, but in reality it's a full 360 experience, with eerie light in all directions and the temporary light of twilight in every direction. Still, we try.

In the future, when there is a retinal resolution VR headset with 24 bits of HDR light level ability, we might be able to show people an eclipse without going to one. Though you should still go.

Moment of 3rd contact

That's why these photographs are so different. Every exposure reveals a different aspect of the eclipse. Short exposures show the prominences and the "chromosphere" -- the inner atmosphere of the sun visible only at the start and end of the eclipse. Longer exposures reveal more of the giant corona. The fingers of the outer corona involve 2 or 4 second exposures! The most interesting parts happen at 2nd and 3rd contact (the start and end) and also have many aspects. About 1/60th of a second shows the amazing diamond ring by letting the tiny sliver of sun blow out the sensor to make the diamond, as it does to the eye.

Time to rename the partial eclipse

One thing that saddens and frustrates me is that all of this is only visible in a band less than 100 miles wide where the eclipse is total. Outside that, for thousands of miles, one can see (with eye protection) a "partial eclipse." They both get called an eclipse but the difference is night and day. Yet I think the naming makes people not understand the difference. They think a "90% partial eclipse" is perhaps 90% as interesting as a total eclipse. Nothing could be more wrong. There are really three different things:

  1. The total eclipse, the most amazing thing you will ever see.
  2. The >98% partial eclipse (and annular eclipse) which are definitely an interesting event, but still just a tiny shadow of what a total eclipse is.
  3. The ordinary partial eclipse, which is a fun and educational curiosity.

I constantly meet people who think they saw "the eclipse" when to me and all others who have seen one, only the total eclipse is the eclipse. While the 98% partial is interesting, nobody should ever see that, because if you are that close to the band of totality, you would be nuts not to make the effort to go that extra distance. In a total eclipse, you see all that the partial has to offer, and even a few partial effects not seen except at 99.9%

A wider angle HDR with deep corona

As such, I propose we rename the partial eclipse, calling it something like a "grazing transit of the moon." An eclipse technically is a transit of the moon over the sun, but my main goal is to use a different term for the partial and total so that people don't get confused. To tell people in the partial zone "you saw a transit, hope it was interesting" while telling people in the total zone, "You saw a solar eclipse, wasn't that the most amazing thing you've ever seen?"

Automating the photography

This was the first eclipse I have ever driven to, and because of that, I went a bit overboard, able to bring all sorts of gear. I had to stop myself and scale back, but I still brought 2 telescopes, 4 cameras, one long lens, 5 tripods and more.

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Whoops, UA you could sure do a lot better with long delays and cancels

Last night, as they were towing our plane from the gate in Miami there was a very unusual bump -- turns out they put the tow bar on wrong and damaged the landing gear. It became clear in time that we would not fly that night (FA timeout loomed.) I've seen this a lot, so I was on the phone immediately to book another flight, but I would still need a hotel voucher for the night, as would most other folks on the flight, even if they took the same flight the next day after the repair.

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E-mail is more secure than we think, we should use it

E-mail is facing a decline. This is something I lament, and I plan to write more about that general problem, but today I want to point out something that is true, but usually not recognized. Namely that E-mail today is often secure in transit, and we can make better use of that and improve it.

The right way to secure any messaging service is end-to-end. That means that only the endpoints -- ie. your mail client -- have the keys and encrypt or decrypt the message. It's impossible, if the crypto works, for anybody along the path, including the operators of the mail servers as well as the pipes, to decode anything but the target address of your message.

We could have built an end-to-end secure E-mail system. I even proposed just how to do it over a decade ago and I still think we should do what I proposed and more. But we didn't.

Along the way, though, we have mostly secured the individual links an E-mail follows. Most mail servers use encrypted SMTP over TLS when exchanging mail. The major web-mail programs like Gmail use encrypted HTTPS web sessions for reading it. The IMAP and POP servers generally support encrypted connections with clients. My own server supports only IMAPS and never IMAP or POP, and there are others like that.

What this means is that if I send a message to you on Gmail, while my SMTP proxy and Google can read that message, nobody tapping the wire can. Governments and possibly attackers can get into those servers and read that E-mail, but it's not an easy thing to do. This is not perfect, but it's actually pretty useful, and could be more useful.

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