brad's blog

Serial vs. Browsed, Reader-Friendly vs. Writer-Friendly

Online discussion and collaboration tools are old now, dating back almost 40 years to PLATO, 30 years for mailing lists, 25 years for BBSs and USENET. Yet somehow I don’t feel we’ve got it right yet, and in fact may be going in some wrong directions.

I beleive there are two central dichotomies that make the problem hard to solve.

The first is the distinction between “serial” material which is meant to be read as a stream (though perhaps referenced later) and “browsable” information meant to be read in a somewhat more random order.

E-mail, USENET, RSS feeds and message boards are largely serial. Blogs and web boards are attempts to be serial in a browsed medium, which the web largely is. Wikis are on the browseable side of the spectrum, though of course they contain serial aspects, like the ability to e-mail lists of recently changed pages. (Twitter is a somewhat interesting medium as it is serial but contains so much you simply sample the stream rather than read all of it.)

The second dichotomy is between reader-friendly and writer-friendly. Writer-friendly systems put as few burdens on the writer as possible in order to encourage participation. Reader friendly systems try to make it as easy as possible for a reader to get what she’s looking for out of the system. One of the central quests has been for automated software tools that let the writer not do much work but still let the reader get what they want. A search engine is an example of such a technology.

A professional publication will be highly reader-friendly. If you have a million readers, it’s worth every possible effort on the writer or publisher’s part to make it better for them, especially if they are your source of income. Writers will take the time to write well, organize, categorize and put in links to releated resources. They will create sidebars to deal with other topics or provide introductions to readers not as familiar with the subject matter.

Wikis are writer friendly. Anybody can just go in and edit any page any way they want. No other bounds (at least in the software) exist to encourage people to put material in the Wiki.

While I know the value of browsing, I think serial presentations are more reader-friendly, or at least can be. I don’t have to go looking for what’s new for me if the serial stream is decently managed. But this is not a universal rule.

What is missing, however, is the right marriage of the serial and the browsable. For discussions, and for breaking news, we want a serial presentation. We don’t want to go to a newspaper web site and figure out for ourselves what stories we already saw, or what parts of the stories we already know. We would like the system to know what’s new for us. At the same time, serial streams (including blogs) leave behind worthwhile trails that are meant to be browsed or searched later. But we don’t tend to fill our serial streams with things to help in that department, like links. Nor do we even have mechanisms in mailing lists or USENET to easily update items from the past that will be read by newcomers (either serially or through browsing.)

The marriage, when we find it, will allow people to have productive discussions online, like in a mailing list, but leave behind a useful information resource, with the tangents removed to tagged to be easily avoided, the useful and popular information highlighted, the past cleaned up and edited (though with the truth available.) Perhaps a marriage of Wiki techniques and newsgroups.

It should be able to balance reader and writer friendliness depending on how many there are of each. For example, a system with 10,000 readers and one writer should push the writer to do more, since if 2 minutes work by the writer can save a second for 10,000 people it’s a good trade-off. However, in small systems with few readers you want to encourage participation and not put demands on writers. Ideally you have a quest for fancy tools to get the most of both where you can have it.

I know people want this marriage. People are excited about products like GMail which let them get a better grasp of all the E-mail conversations they participate in. But there is so much more that has to be done. I don’t have the answer right now, but I want to encourage debate and innovation on the topic.

Update: I have added thoughts about how some media are “sampled” (you only dip into them from time to time and see what’s current) and some are subscribed (you read it all, or at least scan it all most of the time) in thinking about Twitter.

More commercial elimination

In the 80s, as VCRs were becoming popular, I saw an interesting product that acted as a commercial eliminator for those who wanted to tape classic, black and white movies that were often on late at night.

The product simply detected when the signal went colour, and would trigger the pause button on your VCR. (In early VCRs this was not even infrared.) The commercials were colour, the movie was B&W and so you got a commercial free movie recorded.

In watching HDTV movies recently, I had the thought you could now reverse this process. The movies are in hi-def, widescreen, but most of the commercials are in regular def, 4:3 ratio. So a commercial eliminator could pull the trick of deleting the old (rather than the new) on these shows. Of course this trick won't last forever. As HDTV grows more of the commercials will move that way. It's even easier to justify if it sells product.

Low blogging the last while, been on the road. In Toronto now for Jerry's Retreat.

Ethernet card that is every PC I/O device

It would be nice to see (perhaps it already exists) an ethernet card for a PC that also looked, in hardware, like all the other standard PC hardware. In particular like a basic standard SVGA video card, like a soundblaster, like a keyboard and like a mouse.

But in fact, all writes to these devices would be sent out over the ethernet. Writes to the video memory, sounds send to the sound card and so on.

This would be very handy with the server crowd, no need for consoles, kvm switches or having to physically go to a server to do work on it. There are tools to provide virtual services after machines have booted (and of course unix/linux machines have always been completely remote controllable after boot, and even during boot via serial console.) And indeed, with this card you would throw in smarter virtual drivers for devices after the operating system had booted that made more efficient use of the ethernet, or supported different resolutions.

Include jumpers to read all motherboard LEDs while at it. If you wanted to get really cute, put a tiny microphone on the card fed into the sound-card portion, so you can listen to noises the drives make etc.

The card could of course do wake-on-lan to the motherboard and have the ability to power off the machine as well. A physical visit to a machine would never be needed except to physically change hardware.

Eventually this would all go onto a standard I/O chip and, like all these peripherals are today, come standard with the ethernet that's on every server motherboard already. Virtual USB systems already exist if you want that, and might be a simpler solution for keyboard, mouse and sound in any event since new motherboards and their BIOSes are now used to seing those things on USB.

The moon's tidal lock affected the growth of science

People who speculate about the growth of cultures have wondered if our moon (which is unusually large compared to the host planet, at least based on the limited set of planets we can see) played a big role in our societies. Did it make us more aware of the sky than people who evolved on a moonless world would be, or a world with a small moon? Did the tides have an unusual affect on us beyond ordinary solar tides?

One thought did occur to me recently. The moon's rotation period is tidally locked, meaning the moon rotates at the same period with which it revolves around the Earth, and so it always presents the same face to the Earth. From our viewpoint, it does not appear to rotate at all.

Because of that, and because it's big enough to see with the naked eye, the features of the moon were fixed and visible to all generations of humans. We created the concept of "the man in the moon."

If the moon did have a visible rotation (ie. it was not tidally locked) it would be obvious to us. It would be obvious, in particular, that it is a sphere, and not a disk pinned to the sky as it appears to be.

So ancient astronomers would have seen the moon was a sphere and probably would have figured out much earlier that the sun, the other planets, and most importantly of all, the Earth itself, were a sphere. Perhaps more importantly, it would even be obvious to the common person. And what might that have done for the evolution of our technology and society?

Surveys and actual polls differ widely

In Canada, polls leading up to the election all the way to yesterday showed the Liberal and Conservative parties neck and neck. Yesterday's poll had them effectively tied in popular vote with anybody's guess as to who might form a government, presumably a minority one.

Now real results are in, and while not complete we see this:

 Overall Election Results
Party Elected Leading Total Vote Share
LIB 127 11 138 37.43%
CON 85 8 93 29.36%
BQ 52 2 54 12.76%
NDP 17 5 22 15.15%
NA 1 0 1 .04%
OTH 0 0 0 5.26%
308 seats
A remarkable difference and clear victory for the Liberals. As noted, we have seen this before. Surveys measure only "what people who bother to talk to pollsters want to tell pollsters." In spite of their claims of small margins of error, they can be very, very wrong.

It's important to not just learn when not to trust polls, but also to ask why, even when we see this sort of error time and time again, we continue to trust polls. We grasp at any information, even what we know to be unreliable.

It causes huge events. I remember in the 80s the provincial Liberal party seeing polls that showed a comfortable majority, so they -- based on the polls -- called an election. And were soundly trounced. (In part, in Heisenberg style, because people were annoyed they called an election for no other reason than their good poll numbers.)

So the idea to promote here: We often hear complaints from the "ordinary" folks that they don't like having to take all that Math in school because it will not be relevant to their life.

One course that everybody should take, and which is relevant, is a course on how to understand statistics and the misuse of statistics. Even if they came out of it not know a chi-square from a hole in the ground, they might be able to tell when stats can't be trusted. One hopes.

Return of the digital picture frame

A couple of years ago, a series of digital picture frame products appeared. Some took memory cards. One plugged into a modem so grandma could get new grandchild pictures each day without doing things. But they were all super low resolution and high priced.

Panels have come down a lot recently. I see wall mount 1280x1024 panels getting to about $350, wall mountable (though you need power.) That's a resolution I could handle.

How about throwing picture frame ability into these? Either the memory card slot as before, or perhaps 802.11? In the latter case, you could even tolerate not bothering with jpg decompression or much else on the panel, let the PC do it all over the network.

For a few extra bucks, however, a wireless, wall-mount, high-res flat panel display is something I can see people buying many of. Give them a full X server or mini-media server so you can stream mpeg video at them, and I could see a raft of applications as home display and control devices.

They could show you TV, your doorway security cam when the door rings, your caller-ID when the phone rings, weather, traffic, you name it, and be a digital picture frame when nothing else is going on.

Throw in an infrared receiver and they could work with remote controls.

Of course you could also make a mini box that has all this and a VGA output. They do make such boxes with TV output to be media servers connected to your TV and stereo. Has anybody seen one designed to mount flat on the wall behind a flat panel display?

All pointers suggest this product could be under $400 soon, then under $200 at which point you would see a lot of people buying one for each room. Right now 1280x1024 seems the hi-res sweet spot, though in fact 1280 x 854 or of course 1536x1024 to get a photographic aspect ratio woudl be even nicer.

Maybe not for grandma's baby pictures yet, but who knows? If grandma has DSL, you could buy her one of these, and a cheap wireless access point even though she doesn't have any other wireless equipment, and with proper security, let the pictures and display be controlled by you or a photo managing service.

Use the web to find parking

There's lots of privately owned parking out there, even around airports, but nor market for it. What about a web market?

Imagine, if you owned a parking space, you could file it in a database. People going somewhere hard or expensive to park would go to the web before the trip, enter the address, and get offered a spot near their target with a rate. This could also include commercial lots with spare space. If not at the web, you could call from your registered cell phone for a small extra fee while driving to your destination.

I see this particularly useful near the airport. You would be given a private spot a short cab ride from the airport. On the web, you would get printed directions to the spot from you and from the airport, and you would get a list of cab companies with pre-negotiated rates. You would phone one on your cell phone, or in a fancier system, the network would arrange it for you. Coming back you would just find any available cab -- faster and more direct than the off-airport parking lot shuttles.

When you got to your car you would call a number from your registered cell phone, and it would see the caller-ID and check you out of the spot, freeing it for somebody else and billing you.

The rate you pay the private lot owner might be lower the higher the cab fare is to keep the cost roughly flat. For many lot owners near airports (businesses, hotels) it's found money. They would get web access to the licence plates of the cars that should be in the spots, and could spot check to assure compliance.

Yes, it takes time to go to a web site before you leave your house, but you waste much more time hunting for parking in the tough areas.

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 »

PVR Video recording surfing

We all love our Tivo or other PVRs (though my mother just got the Scientific Atlanta 8000HD which does HDTV but otherwise has a terrible UI. It's hard to imagine this was designed after people saw the Tivo or Replay.)

After you use your PVR, you get a large library. Deliberately recorded programs, or in the case of the Tivo "suggestion" mode, programs recorded at random that are similar to shows you have asked to record.

You can browse them like a directory. And once you use the PVR a lot you stop surfing the live TV by and large. So I suggest adding a "surf" mode for the recorded shows. Ie. pretend they are a set of channels that are on now. You would start surfing by seeing the first show live (but with the overlay showing what it is.) You could hit up or down and move to other recorded shows. For surfing purposes, the shows would pause and recontinue where you left off during this surfing session. After a while this would be forgotten for the next surfing session if you liked.

You can already browse through the descriptions, but this mode would give a more familiar feel to looking at the shows. This would be better for the suggestions than the requested shows. For example, I have often got many episodes of a show I watch, in order, and I don't want to browse them and spoil what's ahead. I don't even want to read the descriptions in many cases.

Oh yea, speaking of which, who isn't annoyed at the long delay for channel changes on PVRs, satellite boxes and digital cable boxes. Many of these have dual tuners, so why not do this: If the other tuner is available, start pre-buffering the "next" expected channel in a channel surf, so you can show it instantly. There is a downside to this, which is sometimes you will guess wrong or not have the other tuner and thus have to do the regular slow channel change, and I know that studies show that inconsistent response time is more confusing to users than consistently bad response time. But I think they could come to understand it. Of course, as tuners become cheaper, just have enough that you can always do it.

Brave new world of Vasopressin gene therapy

Emory University scientists, taking one species of vole that is one of the extremely rare animals to be actually monogamous, found a gene to boost the effect of Vasopressin, one of the love hormones. Inserting this gene into other voles made them more socially monogamous.

I had heard of this before, and there has been science fiction about couples taking love drugs, but this story made me wonder about how people might try to alter the concept of marriage.

Imagine there was a gene therapy which would improve the chances that you would remain in love with the one you currently love. Might couples want to take it when getting married? (Or, more practically, after a few years of test marriage and before children are begun.)

And more to the point, if this became popular, might there arise pressure to do so, even for those who don't particuarly want it?

One can imagine injecting the virus to deliver the gene at the wedding, truly sealing the bonds of love. (It's unlikely that the romantic idea of transmitting the virus in the first marital kiss would be a good idea.)

But what if it starts coming down to "Honey, why won't you take the gene therapy? Don't you love me enough? I'll take it for you!"

How will we answer that?

New word: dot-zom

A dot-zom is a dot-com that's walking dead, still coasting on investor money, but no future in sight. The stage before a dot-gone.

Is Versed being used for torture?

Here’s my most disturbing idea yet. There are drugs which erase memory (or rather block the formation of memories while they are used.) It seems disturbingly probable to me that these might be being used for torture. Espcially considering the light of new memos giving the US the green light for torture.

If you don’t know of this class of drugs, you may have heard of “Roofies” the “date rape” drug which have been used to both make a victim pliable and also to make her forget the rape. There are stronger drugs, such as Versed, which are used in surgery.

The surgical use is quite disturbing. They want to perform a procedure on you while you will be somewhat conscious, but it is painful and upsetting and will leave mental scars — so they put you through the pain but block you from remembering it.

However, it must be obvious to those wishing to do torture that this could be applied here too. Apply the drug, then apply torture which leaves few permanent marks. The victim would awaken unaware they had been tortured or what they had confessed to. They could not testify later about their torture, they would not even know to.

It’s hard not to think that this would be a more “humane” form of torture, in the same way the surgical use of the drugs is humane. After all, you just want the information, why leave the victim with psychic scars, as there always are from torture. This is frightening because it might make the public much more accepting of torture. And on top of that, how will we ever find out if torture is going on? Only from the torturers themselves.

This is just the start of a trend. Tools like “brain fingerprinting” already exist which cause no pain but examine your brain to find out if you remember something you are being shown, or if it’s the first time you are seeing it. People have already suggested this is so benign as to be suitable for airport screening!

I predict we’ll see newer and “better” torture and interrogation techniques in the near future. Better brain scans. Polygraphs that actually work. More powerful drugs that affect not just memory but compliance. Perhaps eventually nanomachines that reach in and target brain centers to create compliance.

Some of these may already exist — though I think not too many or our intelligence communities would be doing a better job on terrorism than they are.

But they will exist. How will we as a society cope with them? We already seem willing to forget about the prohibitions on torture in the constitution and international law. We’ll pretend the prohibitions don’t even exist for these new forms.

The only way to avoid them will be to work soon for strong laws and eventually an explicit constitutional amendment protecting the right of privacy in our thoughts. And that will be a long time coming.

Update: More stories of Versed and other memory drugs in my new memory tag.

A new regime of radio regulation

Declan recently wrote an article about abolishing the FCC and selling off spectrum to private owners. It's an old idea, in fact too old, it was out of date even when the book he cites was published.

For starters, there is UWB -- ultrawideband technology that transmits on all frequences at once because it uses what would be viewed as noise pulses, rather than a band at all. The developers of the technology, when they first started telling the FCC about it, remarked that until they were told about it, the FCC would not have been able to detect that it was even _there_, let alone regulate it. They had to tell them it existed.

Owned spectrum would pretty much forbid UWB -- and any other future innovations that were similar.

Other new technologies eliminate interference in other ways, but having dynamic transmitter-receiver relationships that limit power and take advantage of the fact that radio waves don't actually interfere when they cross one another except at the receiving antenna unable to deal with the problem.

Selling off spectrum as a permanent property right forever carves the concept of "spectrum" into law, and that's simply a silly thing to do, knowing what we do now, and knowing what we might be capable of in the future.

Instead, how about a much simpler rule.

You should not broadcast in a way that interferes with other broadcasters.

or simply:

Though shalt not hog bandwidth.

With the following interesting interpretation. It doesn't matter who was there first. Rather, it is the duty of any transmitter to regularly take steps to avoid interfering with both those already doing radio in the area and those who might come along in the future.  read more »

Transit of Venus 2004

I took a trip to Toronto in part to see the very rare transit of Venus over the face of the Sun. I was lucky enough to get some great photos.

See my gallery of Venus Transit 2004 photos with notes.

Lovelock for nuclear power

Seeing the essay by James Lovelock, environmentalist pioneer and originator of the "Gaia hypothesis" that we must move to nuclear power to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, I thought the sentiment might be summed up as follows:

"Glow" is the new green.

Solar powered, wireless webcam

Everybody loves their webcams (though the surveillance aspects of some are to be worried about.)

What about a way to make them cheap and easy to put in cool places. Combine a webcam with a solar panel, 802.11 link and small bettery. The webcam charges the battery off the panel, and when there is enough charge to take a picture, it takes one and spits it out the wireless link. You don't need much of a battery or much of a solar panel, because the amount of power simply controls how often it can take a picture.

When the sunlight is bright, it's taking pictures frequently. When it's cloudy, they are less frequent. When it's dark, it's not taking them at all. (Though a unit with larger battery could do even this.)

These devices could easily be stuck on mountaintops, antenna towers, roofs etc. The only issue -- keeping the lens clean. Possibly a wiper (fired when blur is detected or manually) or occasional service. A little protection from the rain and wind for the lens of course.

And now that megapixel sensors are so cheap, why not produce a 1280x720 HDTV image, which people can stick on their new plasma screens on the walls, sampling images of the world?

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 »

Stirling Engine based hybrid car

I'm not the only one to have thought of this, but as yet no real work has been done. How about a hybrid car powered with a Stirling Engine? (Not spelled Sterling, btw.)

The Stirling is more efficient than the internal combustion or diesel engine, and it's also a lot quieter. Sounds great, but it's not good for cars because it can't rev up quickly and it takes about 5 minutes to get the engine hot enough to run well. We want our cars to start the minute we put the key in.

A hybrid design (with enough batteries for 10-20 miles) solves this. You can get all the acceleration you need from the electric motors, and you can start driving right away, while heating up the Stirling "boiler". Then it kicks in to provide the power to run the car for the long haul. If you know the trip is short, no need to fire up the Stirling until the battery gets low.

The Stirling can burn anything. Gasoline, kerosene, diesel, vegetable oil, hydrogen, even wood! Yes, you could, in theory, be stuck by the side of the road out of gas, then go out with an axe to chop trees and refuel your car.

Well, almost. You want high-temperature burning for the best efficiency, and this would pollute and probably dirty your nice clean boiler. Right now the engines are expensive to machine but I suspect that could change.

Copy Globe's "Reality Check"

I am on the road in Toronto, so not a lot of blogging, but let me point to an idea that should spread. The Toronto Globe and Mail has a regular feature called Reality Check, where they take claims by politicians and officials, especially ones in negative ads, and research them.

Of course, it's easy to politicise such a task, finding flaws only in the party you don't like, but with proper checks and balances to produce objective journalism, I think every newspaper should have this, and featured prominently. Yes, we see it in blogs and mailing lists, but usually with bias. We need it in newspapers.

Gas futures at the gas pump?

Commodities traders buy gasoline futures all the time. Could they work at the gas pump? Imagine a big gas chain willing to sell you future gas today. You would buy a coupon, good for 15 galons of gas in August, the month you plan a big family trip in the minivan. You're afraid the high prices in the future might hurt the trip, you can be protected against them. The futures might even cost less than gas at the pump today due to widespread belief that supplies will open up. In times of heavy fear they would cost less. You could even buy some of your gas years ahead (from a big chain you know will be around) and then sell them on eBay if you don't need them. Would you need a commodities licence to do so?

Would anybody buy them?

(Thanks to Kathryn for this idea.)

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