brad's blog

Will 3 tech trends change where we live?

I suspect that some time this decade we will see 3 tech trends converge which might make a big difference in the utility of remote real estate, land that currently remains undeveloped because it is so remote.

The first is already here, the internet. Many people can now use the internet to work from anywhere, and both long-range wireless broadband and satellite let you get the internet anywhere. That can give you data, video and phone service as well as the conduit for work.

It also gives you shopping, thanks to the commitment of the shipping companies to deliver to any address, even remote ones. Now you don't need much locally -- just your groceries and urgent needs. Everywhere now has a giant bookstore and a giant everything-else store if you can get UPS.

The second trend is cheaper remote power. Possibly solar, but perhaps sooner the fuel cell, to give quiet, clean and cheap electricity anywhere you can get propane delivered. We're not there yet but some products are already on the market. If not there are other improving forms of off-grid power.

The next is the return of cheaper general aviation, allowing people to own planes so they can live far from cities and get to them quickly. This is the only trend to see a recent reversal, as 9/11 has put general burdens on aviation. Today the money you save on the cost of a home, comparing a remote location to a big city, can easily buy that plane.

Some things are still harder, including schooling and of course an active social life. But for a component of society that wanted to live remotely but could not make it workable, this may be about to change. Suddenly that remote hilltop with the fabulous view that was undeveloped because it was off-grid and too remote for the good life may get a house on it. We may see a lot of this.

Some new terms to throw out

I like to make up terms. Here are some more for your use or enjoyment.

Re-fried
Returned to Fry's Electronics and re-shrinkwrapped. "Don't buy that one, it's been re-fried!"

Nerd Trolling
For women who want a geeky guy, dressing up to the 9s and going out on Friday night to the computer store, then standing in front of the hard drives muttering about whether you should get SATA, IDE or SCSI. The guys there alone Friday night are single, smart and probably well off or gainfully employed. Much better odds than the bars.

Post-Futurism
Modern, post-modern and futurist are not enough. If you're into the Singularity, worry about Gray Goo and copying uploaded human minds, you're a post-futurist.

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 »

Don't call it a hole, call it a window

In talking of computer security, we often use the term "hole" to refer to a security flaw. We also say vulnerability or exploit.

Instead of calling it a hole, I suggest calling it a "window." As in "Somebody found a window into ssh" or "They got in through a window left open in Sendmail."

The plural is left as an exercise to the reader.

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 »

More on plane loading

In thinking about plane loading again, where I suggested they paint the rows in reverse order on the carpet where people line up to board, it occurs to me that in reverse order by row may not be the most efficient boarding order.

When each person gets to their seat, they tend to stop there to put away luggage, blocking other people in their row or further back. If they block the people in their row they make them block the people in the next row and so on, which is not efficient.

The most efficient order might be to do all the windows first (starting with the rear), then the middles and then the aisles. (Modify as appopriate for widebody aircraft.)

This way everybody does the luggage loading in parallel, as nobody is stopping them, then another column moves in. The first-row window passengers might block the last row middles for a short time but it would be minimal.

However...  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 »

Official Candidate Picker

I recently tried one of those online surveys that tries to tell you which candidate is actually most in line with your policy beliefs. These are fun, but subject to bias.

In keeping with my New Democracy category, I started wondering if there was a way to make this process official, and unbiased. It's an interesting process because often these surveys surprise the voter, who, based on campaign ads or peer pressure don't realize they are highly in agreement with a smaller-party platform.

Here's one suggestion for a way to make it non-biased. Each registered candidate could submit a policy statement that they think differentiates themselves from the other candidates. After all are submitted, they would be revealed and the other candidates would decide how they themselves want to be scored by the proposition. (The submitting candidate would be classed as strongly agreeing.) You don't want to put in a motherhood proposition that everybody agrees with as it won't differentiate you from others.

After this we go another round, candidates can submit entries which either continue to differentiate them, or refine or rebut earlier proposals. You can go several rounds, though you don't want the survey to be super-long.

Then voters can take this survey and it will tell them how close they are to each candidate, on the whole and issue-by-issue.  read more »

Redeem transit tickets for Carpool lane permits

Carpool lanes exist to reward those who work to reduce congestion and pollution with a faster trip. I know that's good every time I look out my window and can't see the hills for the haze. Some areas allow zero-emission-vehicles (electric cars etc.) to also use carpool lanes with a solo driver, reducing pollution if not congestion.

Proposals have been made to also allow solo drivers of hybrid cars into the lanes, as well as solo drivers who simply pay a fat fee for a permit. Let me propose an interesting variant of these payment ideas.

Let people pay for part of their capool permit with used commuter train tickets. A person who rides the commuter train takes a car off the road just as much as a person who carpools. If used train tickets (for longer trips) could be credit for a carpool permit, this would encourage people to take the train "most days" but still use their car when it's called for. You could allow only redemption of your own ticket (such as a monthly pass) or any ticket, in which case a market would develop with people paying transit riders for their ticket stubs. This would effectively mean the solo drivers would subsidize the transit riders, even making their trips free. Which is part of what we want to have happen here.  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 »

Being a privacy nut

Those of us who opposed the TIA and other programs were recently branded as "privacy nuts" for doing so. Hiawatha Bray wrote that it was stupid to quash this sort of research just because it might lead to abuse.

Nonetheless, it is important to understand that this is exactly the role
of the privacy advocate.

Protecting privacy is one of the most difficult tasks in the civil rights
pantheon for several reasons. One is that people are rarely concerned about
privacy invasions until after they have taken place. The consequences of
privacy invasion are often subtle as well, even after the fact. The
simple fact that you know you are being watched alters your behaviour in
subtle ways, causes self-censorship of all sorts of speech and activities.

After all, who acts the same home at dinner with their mother than they
do out on their own at college for the first time away from her eye?

Thus it is important not only that the government not engage in general
surveillance. It must, like Ceasar's wife be _seen_ to not engage in
such activity. Anything that gives the public grounds to fear they
are under surveillance impinges on freedom. Even if the watchers are
well intentioned and well behaved and don't exceed their authority.

But of course, even though they may be well intentioned, countless
evidence shows they do exceed their authority, and not infrequently.

Thus we come to the next princple. That we must not build the
infrastructure of the police state. We must not make it be that the
action needed to have a real police state is to flip a switch or
change a policy. Perhaps the risk that the switch will actually be
flipped is one in 100 in your judgement. To me the cost of such a
state is so high we must not even let that level of risk go by.

Instead, let us always have those who would want a surveillance state
have to do both things -- change the policy and create the infrastructure.
Let us not do the hard work for them.

San Jose Bike Route Airport to Downtown

Pardon the local entry boring to those outside this valley.

San Jose is seeking something "distinctive" for the airport remodel. Let me suggest something I have not seen anywhere else, something that would say something about the area.

San Jose has a bike trail that, except for a short gap, runs along the Guadalupe River from the airport terminals to almost highway 280. The part along Airport Blvd is unpaved, the rest is paved and landscaped. Step one would be to complete this trail and pave the unpaved part. Until the gap can be filled in, create some clearly marked bike lanes. Also do a lane on San Carlos, Park or San Fernando to lead to the convention center and downtown hotels.

Next: Franchise or subsidize specialty one-way bike and electric scooter rentals at both ends. Have regular bikes with towable trailers or trikes, and have electric powered bikes and scooters (again with luggage capacity) for those unwilling to get in some exercise. Make the rental cheap, like a few dollars each way.

This is worth doing just for the polution it would avoid with all those folks taking cabs. (Let's face it, people are not using the shuttle to the light rail much.) It would actually be faster in may cases than either of those methods, especially during rush hour. It would expose the visitor to something other than the highway trip. With San Jose's weather, it could operate well most of the year.  read more »

Support public/private in 802.11 access points

Almost everybody has a WiFi (802.11) access point these days. Some leave them open by accident, some deliberately, some turn on encryption or other security. Being open can be nice to neighbours and wanderers, though it can also be abused, and if you have insecure machines on the local NAT, it's risky.

I propose pushing home NAT/WiFi boxes to, by default, work in both open and closed modes. They would support two NAT networks, independent of one another. One network would be for inside. Connecting machines on the inside network would need the WEP encryption key, or in lesser-security mode, be on the approved MAC list. Machines without the authentication would go on the external, open network.

The two networks might have two different SSIDs if the box can broadcast both of them, or it might be easier to have one broadcast SSID and one non-broadcast one.

Traffic for the external network would be given low priority, so that internal network use is never slowed by external use.

In other words, other than ISP complaints, there would be no reason not to do this. It would be good for giving access to visitors to the home or office, and also mean free wireless almost everywhere in the world.

Foresight Conference

The weekend of May 14th, I will be attending (and MCing for part of) the Foresight Senior Associates Conference. This conference is always a lot of fun, with many at the edge (and beyond) ideas about nanotech, AI, anti-aging and other related topics. It's run by my friends Chris Peterson and Eric Drexler and their Foresight Institute. You may have read Eric's book "Engines of Creation."

They are offering readers of my blog a $200 discount on attending. To attend, you must be a senior associate, which requires a $250 annual donation, so the discount just about compensates for that. If you're into futurism, this is a fun place to be.

Accelerometer in Cell Phone for emergencies

In writing the previous entry, another idea came to me that I stuck at the end which is worthy of its own entry. Place an accelerometer in your cell phone that will detect a violent event, such as a car crash or bike crash. Similar to the detector already in the car that triggers the airbag.

Upon detection of the event, the phone would start beeping for about 30 seconds warning about the emergency. If there is no emergency, you would press any key to stop the call. Otherwise it could call 911.

However, it would need to be sure not to trigger an emergency just because you dropped the phone or threw it or went flying when you turned a corner in your car. However, if this can be arranged it could be a handy feature to sell as a cell phone extra.

Why don't cell phones have USB?

In line with earlier thoughts about univeral DC power, let me ask why cell phones haven't standardized on USB (or a mini-USB plug) as an interface?

USB provides power. Not as much as some chargers, but enough to get a decent rate to many phones. And it has data, which can be used for phone control and configuration, speakerphone and headset interfaces, address book sync, ringtone download, memory card download, data-modem connections to PCs and anything else, all with one standard plug.

Every cell store has a rack of scores of adapters, chargers and cables. Each time you get a new phone they want to sell you new accessories, I guess. We have a standard. Why don't we use it, or extend it enough to be used.

(I'll admit it's not a good headset interface due to USB's silly master-slave protocol, since to connect to the PC the phone would be a slave, and to connect to the headset it would be the master. But this can be worked around, and I'll tolerate an extra headset jack.)

See below for some interesting safety ideas...  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.

Offshore patient monitoring

As you might guess from the prior entry, somebody I know recently had an ICU visit. The hospital had to cut back staff, laying off nurses' aides and hiring some extra nurses, then making them do the former work of the nurses aides (changing sheets etc) because of regulations forcing them to have a higher ratio of patients to nurses. So, more nurses per patient but the nurses end up doing less actual nursing per patient because they are doing the work the aides did. Clever, no?

Anyway, to add fuel to the offshore outsourcing debate, I wondered how practical it would be to outsource patient watching. A trained nurse in a lower-income area, possibly on the other side of the world, would watch a patient via a live video feed and data feeds of all the instruments. If they see a problem, they would send an alert to a physically present nurse or doctor. They could see and talk to the patient, if the patient is responsive.

Since the bandwidth would be expensive for this, I imagine a lower-res video for real-time, though still good enough to see important things with remote pan and zoom control. However, on-demand they could jump up the bandwidth during an event. They would also be able to send a command to replay something they saw in full-resolution, with some delay.

To do this the local recorder would record the full resolution video, even HDTV, and keep it for an hour on a hard disk. It woudl transmit a lower-res version live. Since most hospital beds are static scenes this would compress well. Motion, instead of causing artifacts would just call for more bandwidth from the total pool. However, when the watcher says, "let me see the last 10 seconds" the patient's recorder would re-transmit it in full HDTV if necessary.

But the main point is the overseas workers might be so cost effective that you can have near full-time monitoring of a patient by a skilled professional. In many hospitals and nursing homes, the staff might visit only once every few hours, perhaps every 15 minutes at best. You can die in 15 minutes.

Of course it's spooky from a privacy standpoint to be watched all the time, this would not be for everybody. And better instrumentation that's non-intrusive and can detect emergency events quickly would be even better. Though nothing will do as well as a trained person right now. This might also allow more effective home care, though of course in that case it might be too long before an ambulence arrives if an emergency is seen on the monitor. And you had better hope your internet connection does not go down.

Still, there's a lot to say for home care, considering just how many people die or suffer greatly due to hospital-caught infections. As I noted earlier, they are the 4th leading cause of death.

Cheaper beds to move patients

A lot of patients sit in hospitals unable to move, and as such they develop tremendous bedsores and other problems. My grandmother lost a leg to this (and the resulting hospital-caught infection) many years ago. (Hospital-caught infection is the 4th largest cause of death in the USA, after heart disease, cancer and stroke.)

Today I saw one answer, a fancy bed that uses inflatable chambers in the bed to adjust the patient. Seems like a good plan, but the kicker is the bed costs $1000/day to rent. This bed is good in an ICU with a patient hooked up to tons of tubes and wires, but for the more stable stroke and paralysis patient, it seems there could be something much cheaper.

What about a U shaped bed with curved side walls that simply sits on a track with a geared motor that can rotate it left and right to flip a patient over? The U sides could be lowered by the hospital staff to remove the patient from the bed, though in fact the motor might also be able to turn the bed to roll the patient onto a gurney for transport.

Also handy would be cushions on a conveyer belt. Such patients, and I have known several, often move down the bed if the back is tilted up for them, and they have to be lifted and moved back up. This could also help. For many patients it could all be under their control, with safeguards of course to avoid going too far.

The value of being moved is well known, the problem is how to make it cheap enough so that all these patients can have it. Perhaps the inflatable concept can be made cheaper. Typical airbeds aren't that expensive and the principles are similar. Does being "medical grade" really jump the cost of the bed to $300,000?

How can the US have been a player in new Iraqi constitution?

The new constitution of Iraq says:

Article 7.

A) Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights cited in Chapter Two of this Law may be enacted during the transitional period. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.

This constitution was signed by Iraqis, but can anybody doubt that the USA played a large role in bringing it to be, a role beyond toppling the Saddam government?

How can this be legal. No agents of the USA are permitted to take actions respecting the establishment of any religion. The 1st amendment does not just say "In the united states." I would say that US agents must play no role in creating foreign governments which have established churches.

The Iraqis, on their own and soverign, may decide to have an official religion. But they are not on their own here. I have no doubt it was Iraqi desires which led to the introduction of this article, and that the US probably didn't want it.

But the US is required to not just not want it. They are constitutionally forbidden from playing any part in it, I would say. Besides, the whole point of the 1st amendement is it doesn't matter what even the majority of individuals want with regards to religion, they are not to be given their way. It doesn't just say "in the USA." No agents of congress, including the military, may engage in this.

Of course, all this means is somebody could sue in US court that the US government violated the 1st amendemnt. It's not clear what remedy could be granted them.

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