Blogs

End the redirect wrapper on links

A lot of sites, most notably search engines like Google, like to rewrite all the links on their pages. So search for this page and instead of http://ideas.4brad.com, the link Google gives you is http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=short-string&url=http%3A%2F%2Fideas.4brad.com%2F&ei=med-string&usg=huge-string&bvm=short-string or similar. (I have redacted the actual codes.)

What’s happening is that when you click on the link, you really go to Google. Google records what you clicked on and other parameters related to the search so they can study just how people use their search engine, what they click on and when. It’s a reasonable thing for them to want to study, though a potential privacy invasion.

Because each click goes through Google, your clicks are slowed down. Because Google has such huge resources, and is almost never down, you usually don’t notice it, though even with Google you will see the delay on slow links, like mobile GPRS and Edge connections. It also means you can’t easily cut and paste links from search results.

Other sites are not as good. They sometimes noticeably slow own your click. Worse, they sometimes break it. For example, on my phone, when I click on links in LinkedIn messages, as well as Facebook ones, which are also redirected, it doesn’t work if I’m not currently logged in to those sites. Due to some bad code, it also wants to send the link to the mobile apps of these sites, which is not what I want. (The one for LinkedIn is particularly broken, as it doesn’t seem to know where the app is, and sends me to the Play store to install it even though it is already installed.)

In other words, these links break the web from time to time. They can also interfere with spiders. On the plus side, they can be set to protect your privacy by hiding data in the REFERER field from the target web site. For sites that have been identified ad malicious, they can provide a warning.

To fix this, sites can change all their links to be javascript. The link can be a real target, and associated onClick javascript can also send a web hit back to the server with the logging info.

A better solution would be to push use of the “ping” attribute in the HTML spec, and allow links to have both an href to the target, and another URL which gets invoked when the link is clicked. In the background, this would not slow down your click, or break it. Browsers could also elect to block it, which the sites might not like but is good for users. Links to malicious sites could be treated differently if that’s part of the service. There would also be no need to fake the status window when moving the mouse over the link, as must be done with redirects.

Let’s say no to all these redirects.

Satoshi, is now the time to consider donating lots of bitcoin to charity?

I don’t know who the person or people are who, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, created the Bitcoin system. The creator(s) want to keep their privacy, and given the ideology behind Bitcoin, that’s not too surprising.

There can only be 21 million bitcoins. It is commonly speculated that Satoshi did much of the early mining, and owns between 1 million and 1.5 million unspent bitcoins. Today, thanks in part to a speculative bubble, bitcoins are selling for $800, and have been north of $1,000. In other words, Satoshi has near a billion dollars worth of bitcoin. Many feel that this is not an unreasonable thing, that a great reward should go to Satoshi for creating such a useful system.

For Satoshi, the problem is that it’s very difficult to spend more than a small portion of this block, possibly ever. Bitcoin addresses are generally anonymous, but all transactions are public. Things are a bit different for the first million bitcoins, which went only to the earliest adopters. People know those addresses, and the ones that remain unspent are commonly believed to be Satoshi’s. If Satoshi starts spending them in any serious volume, it will be noticed and will be news.

The fate of Bitcoin

Whether Bitcoin becomes a stable currency in the future or not, today few would deny it is not stable, and undergoing speculative bubbles. Some think that because nothing backs the value of bitcoins, it will never become stable, but others are optimistic. Regardless of that, today the value of a bitcoin is fragile. The news that “Satoshi is selling his bitcoins!” would trigger panic selling, and that’s bad news in any bubble.

If Satoshi could sell, it is hard to work out exactly when the time to sell would be. Bitcoin has several possible long term fates:

  1. It could become the world’s dominant form of money. If it replaced all of the “M1” money supply in the world (cash and very liquid deposits) a bitcoin could be worth $1 million each!
  2. It could compete with other currencies (digital and fiat) for that role. If it captured 1% of world money supply, it might be $10,000 a coin. While there is a limit on the number of bitcoins, the limit on the number of cryptocurrencies is unknown, and as bitcoin prices and fees increase, competition is to be expected.
  3. It could be replaced by one or more successors of superior design, with some ability to exchange during a modest window, and then drifting down to minimal value
  4. It could collapse entirely and quickly in the face of government opposition, competition and other factors during its bubble phase.

My personal prediction is #3 — that several successor currencies will arise which fix issues with Bitcoin, with exchange possible for a while. However, just as bitcoins had their sudden rushes and bubbles, so will this exchange rate, and as momentum moves into this currency it could move very fast. Unlike exchanges that trade bitcoins for dollars, inter-cryptocurrency exchanges will be fast (though the settlement times of the currencies will slow things down.) It could be even worse if the word got out that “Satoshi is trading his coins for [Foo]Coin” as that could cause complete collapse of Bitcoin.

Perhaps he could move some coins through randomizing services that scramble the identity association, but moving the early coins to such a system would be seen as selling them.  read more »

Surprising math on Obamacare levels: Go for the Bronze!

Recently I learned from health.net, the insurer which did my individual plan, that they were canceling it. I’m one of those who lost his health plan with the switch to the ACA (Obamacare) plans, so I need to shop in the healthcare marketplace and will likely end up paying more.

What surprised me when I went to the marketplace was the math of the plans. For those who don’t know, there are 4 main classes of plans (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) which are roughly the same for all insurers. There is also a 5th, “Catastrophic” plan available to under-30s and hardship cases, which is cheaper and covers even less than Bronze. Low income people get a great subsidized price in the marketplace, but people with decent incomes get no subsidy.

The 4 plans are designed so that for the average patient, they will end up paying 60% (Bronze), 70% (Silver), 80% (Gold) or 90% (Platinum) of health care costs, with the patient, on average, bearing the rest. All plans come with a “Maximum out of pocket” (MOOP) that is at most $6,350 for all plans but $4,000 (or less) for the Platinum.

Here’s some analysis based on California prices and plans. The other states can vary a fair bit. Insurance is much cheaper in some regions, and there are plans that use moderately different formulae. In every state the MOOP is no more than $6,350 and the actuarial percentages are the same.

As you might expect, the Platinum costs a lot more than the Bronze. But at my age, in my early 50s, I was surprised how much more. I decided to plug in numbers for Blue Cross, which is actually slightly cheaper than many of the other plans. I actually have little information with which to compare the companies. This is quite odd — my health insurance is going to be by biggest annual expenditure after my mortgage. More than my car — but there’s tons of information to help you choose a car. (Consumer Reports does have a comparison article on the major insurance companies before the ACA for their subscribers.)

The Platinum plan costs $350/month extra over Bronze, $4200/year. Almost as much as the MOOP. So I decided to build a spreadsheet that would show me what I would end up paying on each plan in total — premiums plus my personal outlays. Here is the sheet for me in my early 50s:

The X axis is how much your health care actually cost, ie. what your providers were paid. The Y axis is how much you had to pay. The green line is unity, with your payout equal to the cost, as might happen in theory if you were uninsured. In theory, because in reality uninsured people pay a “list price” that is several times the cost that insurance companies negotiate. Also in theory because those uninsured must pay a tax penalty.

All the plans go up at one rate until they first hit your deductibles (Bronze/Silver) and then at a slower rate until you hit your MOOP. After the MOOP they are a flat line almost no matter what your health spending does. The Silver plan is the most complex. It has a $250 drug deductible and a $2000 general deductible and the usual $6,350 MOOP. In reality, these slopes will not be smooth lines. For example, on the silver plan if you are mostly doing doctor visits and labs, you do copays, not the deductible. If you hit something else, like MRI scans or hospitalization, you pay out the full cost until you hit the deductible. So each person’s slope will be different, but these slopes are meant to represent an estimate for average patients.

The surprising thing about this chart is that the Bronze plan is pretty clearly superior. Only for a small region of costs does your outlay exceed the other plans, and never by much. However, in the most likely region for most people (modest health care) or the danger zone (lots of health care) it is quite a bit cheaper. The catastrophic plan, if you can get your hands on it over 30, is even better. It almost never does worse than the other plans.

I will note that the zone where Bronze is not the winner is around the $8,400 average cost of health care in the USA. However, what I really want to learn is the median cost, a statistic that is not readily available, or even better the median cost or distribution of costs at each age cohort. The actuaries obviously know this, and I would like pointers to a source.

Premiums are tax deductible for the self-employed, as are large medical expenses for all, but the outlays above premiums can also come from a Health Savings Account (HSA) which is a special IRA-like instrument. You put in up to around $3K each year tax-free, and can pay the costs above from it. (You also don’t pay tax on appreciation of the account, and can draw out the money post-retirement at a decent rate.)

The chart suggests the Bronze plan is the clear winner unless you know you will be in the $6K to $10K zone where it’s a modest loser. It seems to beat the Platinum all the time (at least in this simplified model) but might have minor competition from the Silver. The Gold is essentially always worse than the Silver.

If we move to age 60, now the win for Bronze is very clear. At age 60, the $5500 extra premium for Platinum almost exceeds the MOOP on the Bronze — the Bronze will always be cheaper. This makes no sense, and seems to be a result of the fact that the MOOP remains the same no matter how old you are (and is also the same for B/S/G/Cat.) Perhaps varying deductibles and the MOOP over time would have made more variety.

Here the Gold is clearly a loser to the Silver if you were thinking about it. Nobody in this age group should buy the Gold plan but I doubt the sites will say that. Platinum is almost as clearly a loss.

Thinking about money every time you use health care

With the choice for the older person so obvious, this opens up another question, namely one of psychology. The rational thing to do is to buy the Bronze plan. But with its $5,000 deductible, you will find yourself paying out of pocket for almost all your health care except in years you need major treatments and hospitalizations.  read more »

Michigan to build fake-downtown robocar test site

I’m working on a new long article about advice to governments on how they should react to and encourage the development of robocars.

An interesting plan announced today has something I had not thought of: Michigan is funding the development of a fake downtown to act as a test track for robocar development. The 32 acre site will be at the University of Michigan, and is expected to open soon — in time for the September ITS World Congress.

Part of the problem with my advice to governments is that my main recommendation is to get out of the way. To not try too hard both to help and to regulate, because even those of us trying to build the vehicles don’t have a certain handle on the eventual form of the technology.

A test track is a great idea, though. Test tracks are hugely expensive to make, entirely outside of the means of small entrepreneurs. They immediately resolve most safety concerns for people just starting out — every team has had small runaway issues at the very start. Once past that, they can be shared, in fact having multiple vehicles running the track can be a bonus rather than a problem.

Big car companies all have their own test tracks, but these are mostly real tracks, not urban streets. Several companies have built pre-programmed robotic cars which drive in specific patterns to test ADAS systems and robocars. The DARPA Urban Challenge was run on an fake set of urban streets on an old military base, so this idea goes back to the dawn of the modern field. (Old military bases are popular for this — Mythbusters used a California one for their test of blind and drunk driving.)

This track will probably bring teams to Michigan, which is what they want. Detroit is in trouble, and it knows it. Robocars are going to upend the car industry. Incumbent players are going to fall, and new players are going to rise, and that could be very bad news for Detroit.

My home province of Ontario is facing the same problem, to a lesser degree. A lot of the Ontario economy is in cars as well, and so they’ve started a plan to introduce testing legislation. I don’t think this is the right plan — testing is already legal with a good supervising driver in most jurisdictions, though I have not yet examined the Ontario code. Ontario has one big advantage over Michigan, though, in that it is also a high-tech centre. Right now the car companies in Detroit are finding it very difficult to convince high-tech stars to come move to Detroit, in spite of being able to offer high pay and the fact that you can literally get a mansion for the price of the downpayment on a nice San Francisco condo. Toronto doesn’t have the same problem — in fact it’s one of the most desired places to live for Canadians, and for people from all over the world. Ontario’s combination of high-tech and big automotive might end up doing well.

At least in Ontario, everybody will be motivated to solve the snow problem sooner than the California companies are.

Please, NBC, let us choose our audio for the Olympics, especially the opening

The Olympics are coming up, and I have a request for you, NBC Sports. It’s the 21st century, and media technologies have changed a lot. It’s not just the old TV of the 1900s.

Every year, you broadcast the opening ceremony, which is always huge, expensive and spectacular. But your judgment is that we need running commentary, even when music is playing or especially poignant moments are playing out. OK, I get that, perhaps a majority of the audience wants and needs that commentary. Another part of the audience would rather see the ceremony as is, with minimal commentary.

This being the 21st century, you don’t have to choose only one. Almost every TV out there now supports both multiple audio channels — either via the SAP channel (where it still exists) or more likely through the multiple audio channels of digital TV. In addition, they all support multiple channels of captions, too.

So please give us the audio without your announcers on one of the alternate audio channels. Give us their commentary on a caption channel, so if we want to read it without interfering with the music, we can read it.

If you like, do a channel where the commentary is only on the left channel. Clever viewers can then mix the commentary at whatever volume they like using the balance control. Sure, you lose stereo, but this is much more valuable.

I know you might take this as an insult. You work hard on your coverage and hire good people to do it. And so do it — but give your viewers the choice when the live audio track is an important part of the event, as it is for the opening and closing ceremonies, medal ceremonies and a few other events.

Do you agree with me? Possibly share your opinion with nbcolympicsfeedback@nbcuni.com.

Electric cars as peak grid power? Not small ones, but perhaps the Tesla

An article in the LA Times suggests an idea I’ve seen frequently — use electric car batteries to meet peak power demand on the grid. After all, you have a car, and it’s plugged in, and it has a big battery, so instead of just charging it, have it send juice back to the grid when it most needs it.

The reason this is attractive is that a large part of the cost of the grid is building it to handle the peak load. Most of the capital cost is for that, and fuel costs are based on the real, variable load. Softening the peak is very valuable to the power company — to the point that power companies give rebates and credits to people who do things that will soften that peak.

This is also one of the virtues of solar. It tends to provide power during the day, which is always when the peak is. However, solar peaks at noon, while the demand peak is the hottest part of the day, which tends to be later in the afternoon. The big peak tends to be around 4-6pm when it’s hot, and people have started turning on things in their houses to get ready for dinner. On the spot markets power costs the most then.

Contrast that with the night. Because nuclear plants and some big coal plants aren’t easy to dial back, then sometimes even produce more power than is being used, and they end up discarding the power into giant resistors. That makes power at night cheap.

I’ve never seen it done, but there could even be merit in the idea of mounting fixed solar panels pointing west, so that they catch less power in the morning but do better in the later afternoon when the price of electricity is highest. I presume this doesn’t happen because net metering home owners don’t get access to the “true” spot power price which would justify this. If they are lucky they do get time-of-day metering so they sell power at a high price in the day and buy it cheap in the evening, but some don’t even get that. The harsh reality is that most grids were not built to have a lot of generation at the edges, and power companies are pushing back on net metering and grid-ties that feed back too much power. Indeed, for cost reasons here in California, people should size their solar systems to not quite meet needs, and buy the rest at the cheap “tier 1” price, rather than try to sell back.

Most solar panels are erected facing due south, tilted to the latitude which maximizes total kwh, but peaks at noon. Actually, most are mounted on a section of the roof that is closest to south. If you have to choose between SE and SW, it might be that SW is best, at least for the grid. (Sadly, a number of solar panels are mounted on the front of houses, even if that points north! People are more keen on looking good than doing good. I hope that’s rarer than I’ve been told.)

Anyway, back to the cars

There are a few issues with using the batteries in the car for the peak load.

  1. The peak time is unfortunately a very popular time for driving. People either want to drive in the late afternoon — it is called the rush hour for a reason — or they plan to drive soon and want their car’s battery to be full to meet their driving needs. They don’t want to find their car half-empty at 6pm because it sold power to the grid. A study of car usage patterns detailed the numbers.
  2. The batteries in cars are expensive. Charging and discharging the battery uses up its lifetime. We don’t know how long car batteries are going to last but a typical estimate is around 150,000 miles, or about 40,000 lifetime kwh. If it’s the 22kwh pack in the LEAF (which costs $12K or so today) that’s 27 cents/kwh lifetime. Plus the cost of the electricity that went in to be resold. The peak price ranges from 25-30 cents/kwh in the west but hits as much as 48 cents in New York. So it could be profitable in New York, but barely so. Big, heavy lead batteries are more cost effective.

There are some factors, though, which could change this:

  • Battery packs will get cheaper, and their lifetimes will increase. That will drop the cost of putting a kwh into and out of a battery.
  • Cars like the Tesla model S have huge batteries, far more than they actually need. This, it turns out is quite wasteful, since you buy a lot of battery and rarely use it. If you know you don’t plan a 200 mile trip, you might be tolerant that your long-range car is half-empty at 6pm, and happy to sell that excess capacity. You already paid for the capacity, after all to give you that long-trip freedom. You will still shorten the battery life, but you’ll be paid for that.
  • Weather forecasts are getting quite accurate, so demand can be predicted and this managed better.
  • The car can also be a backup in the event of grid power outages. There, the 35 cent/kwh price (and loss of driving ability) are minor compared to the burden of having no power in your home.

Calling all cars!

Now, as you might expect on this blog, robocars are also game changers here. The inverters and equipment to feed power back to the grid are expensive, so most people won’t have them. But if the robocars have a means to plug in, they can bring the power to where it’s needed. A power company, seeing a brownout coming, could send out an alert on the net. “Calling all cars” — if you have spare capacity, we’ll buy it at the following rate. Please drive to the nearest two-way intertie and plug in soon. While ideally some sort of automatic connection would be possible, this could even be a charging lot with human staff who plug in the cars as they arrive and unplug them when they have to leave.

Such charging lots might well exist for cars that need charges at night or other non-peak times. Due to cost, cars will strongly wish to avoid charging at peak cost times. This puts them to use then. Inductive charging also works (at a loss of about 10%) and robotic plug-in is actually quite doable — there are already robotic gasoline filling stations out there. A robocar charging lot could be dense-pack, valet style, so not take a lot of land. But it would take megawatts — but that’s OK. The robots don’t care how convenient it is, so put it next to the transformer station.

The Valley of Danger -- medium speed roads for robocars

With last week’s commercial release of the Navia, I thought I would release a new essay on the challenges of driving robocars at different speeds.

As the Navia shows, you can be safe if you’re slow. And several car company “traffic jam assist” products say the same thing. On the other end, we see demos taking place at highway speeds. But what about the middle range — decent speeds on urban streets?

Turns out that’s one of the harder problems, and so there is a “valley” in the chart which makes safe operation harder in that zone.

So read my more detailed essay on these challenges: The Valley of Danger for Robocars

Induct's "Navia" officially for sale for $250,000

A significant milestone was announced this week. Induct has moved their “Navia” vehicle into commercial production, and is now taking orders, though at $250,000 you may not grab your wallet.

This is the first commercial robocar. Their page of videos will let you see it in operation in European pedestrian zones. It operates unmanned, can be summoned and picks up passengers. It is limited to a route and stops programmed into it.

The “catch” is that it stays safe by going only 20km/h, where it is much harder for it to harm things. It’s aimed at the campus shuttle market, rather than going on public roads, but it drives on ordinary pavement, not requiring special infrastructure, since it localizes using a prepared laser map of the route.

Now 20km/h (12mph) is not very fast, though suitable for a campus shuttle. This slow speed and limited territory may make some skeptical that this is an important development, but it is.

  1. This is a real product, ready to deploy with civilians, without its own dedicated track or modified infrastructure.
  2. The price point is actually quite justifiable to people who operate shuttles today, as a shuttle with human driver can cost this much in 1.5 years or less of operation.
  3. It smashes the concept of the NHTSA and SAE “Levels” which have unmanned operation as the ultimate level after a series of steps. The Navia is at the final level already, just over a constrained area and at low speed. If people imagined the levels were a roadmap of predicted progress, that was incorrect.
  4. Real deployment is teaching us important things. For example, Navia found that once in operation, teen-agers would deliberately throw themselves in front of the vehicle to test it. Pretty stupid, but a reminder of what can happen.

The low speed does make it much easier to make the vehicle safe. But now it become much easier to show that over time, the safe speed can rise as the technology gets better and better. (To a limit — see my article on the dangers at different speeds.)

The route limitation has two elements. The first is that they want to keep it only in safe locations, which makes sense for an early release. It also avoids legal issues. The second is simpler — they are using a map based approach, so they can only drive somewhere that has been mapped. Mapping means driving a scanner over the route and building a map of all the details, and then typically having humans confirm the map. This is the same way that the cars from Google and almost all other vendors do it when they are doing complex things that go beyond following lane markers on a highway. As such it is not that big a barrier. While building new infrastructure is hugely expensive, mapping it is much more modest in comparison, though non-trivial. Covering the whole world would take time, but it becomes possible to quickly add routes and destinations.

I single out the Navia because of its ability to drive without requiring any changes to the roads or extra infrastructure. Previous shuttle-style systems like the ULTra PRT at Heathow (which I rode a couple of months ago), the Masdar PRT and earlier Cybercar projects all required a dedicated guideway or fenced-off ground track to run. While the Navia is being kept to private property for safety and legal reasons, there is no technical reason it could not operate in public spaces, which moves it from PRT into Robocar territory.

The Navia is very much designed to be a shuttle. It is open-air and doesn’t really have seats, just padded bars to lean against. There is no steering wheel or other traditional control. This belies that common expectation of the first vehicles looking just like traditional cars.

Félicitations, Induct.

CES Robocar News

CES has become a big show for announcing car technology. I’m not there this year due to other engagements, but here’s some of what has been in the news.

Most impressive is probably BMW’s prototype 2 and 6 series vehicles, which have features both for existing drivers and for future self-operation. The video below shows a BMW 235i doing a slalom around cones on its own, and then drifting on wet pavement. BMW claims their active assist will help you in both understeer and oversteer situations. That feature wil be in trials in 2015. Here’s an older article on BMW efforts.

Earlier I wrote about Ford’s plan for the C-Max which positions its solar panel under a concentrator which remains more a concept gimmick but is still interesting.

There’s been a raft of “connected car” announcements, by which we mean cars using the mobile network to provide apps and related features. The biggest news is a new consortium planning to use Android as a platform for connected infotainment in cars, called the Open Automotive Alliance. It has GM, Audi, Honda, and Hyundai involved, and of course Google. It may be bad news for QNX, which for now is the remaining shining star in RIM/Blackberry’s portfolio, as QNX has a strong position as the infotainment OS in a number of cars. (Having gone to school at UW long ago, I am friends with all the founders of these companies.)

The win will be cars that don’t try to be too smart, and let the phones do most of the work. My phone is just a few months old, while my car is ten years old, and this ratio is not that uncommon. Put the smarts where the innovation is moving fastest, because even if you don’t, they wild end up there eventually by consumer demand.

Audi is demonstrating their A7 with new self-drive features at CES. It even has Nevada plate number 046 for Autonomous vehicle testing — people are wondering who all these plates have gone to. Google only took a few, Continental took some, and Audi took some around 007. While nobody does primary testing in Nevada, everybody doing test demos at CES needs these plates.

Bosch is running a full “driverless car experience” in their booth and some panels during the show. The panel is happening in just 15 minutes as I write this.

Delphi is also doing a demo of all their driver assist tech. This is mostly aimed at driver monitoring, which is seen as important for the transition to full robocar operation where lots of driver intervention is required.

Induct is showing off the Navia in a track — I write more details about how it is now for sale. Though it’s not quite “consumer” electronics.

No, we don't want much more Fedex and UPS on Dec 24

A big story this Christmas was a huge surge in the use of rush shipping in the last 2 days before Christmas. Huge numbers of people signed up for Amazon Prime, and other merchants started discounting 2 day and overnight shipping to get those last minute sales. In turn, a lot of stuff didn’t get delivered on time, making angry customers and offers of apology discounts from merchants. This was characterized as a “first world problem” by many outside the game, of course.

When I shop, I am usually travelling outside the US and so I have to get stuff even before the 24th, and I’ve had stuff I left to the last day not delivered several times, so I know to avoid doing it. Some packages are not going to make it, and this should be expected — even desired.

While it makes sense to increase the infrastructure a bit as online shopping grows in popularity, you don’t want to go nuts at Christmas. If you need to build your infrastructure to handle every Christmas gift, you have to build it too big, and you pay for that through higher prices the rest of the year. Shippers need to figure out their real capacity, and everybody needs to plan based on it.

The failure this season was not a failure of the delivery system. Rather it was a failure of either the shippers to tell the merchants what their capacity was, and/or a failure of the merchants to communicate to customers that too much was being shipped and not everybody could be promised Dec 24 delivery.

The obvious way to fix this is first to have the shippers get a solid handle on their capacity for the various types of shipping to the various destinations. They can also identify the bottlenecks and widen them a modest amount.

The next thing is for the merchants to know just how much shipping they can buy. There can either be a live spot market — so the merchant web sites just stop offering the delivery promise when the capacity is reached, or merchants could even attempt to pre-contract for capacity, paying for it whether they need it or not (or reselling it if they know they won’t need it.) Merchants should be building their own forecasts about available capacity and querying shippers for updates on just how much more is left. Capacity isn’t a fixed thing — it depends on the size of packages and where they are going and many other things — but this is a problem computers can handle.

Finally, the shippers and the merchants can start increasing the price of the rush shipping so that demand and supply match. This can be based on accurate forecasts, or just live data. As Dec 23rd wears on, the price of next-day shipping will keep going up and up so only the serious buy it. Of course, this might reveal just how keen some people are to get items, and justify having more capacity in years to come. Indeed, as the price goes up, it may make sense for Amazon to say, “Listen, we’re just going to buy this for you at your local Wal-Mart, it will be waiting for you there.” Wal-Mart surely won’t mind that.

There are also some tricks to increase capacity. For example, most people would probably tolerate having to pick up items at a retail location — FedEx and UPS and the USPS of course have tons of those — especially if it is the only option or offers a serious discount over surge priced home delivery. (This is not as good for sending gifts to remote locations.) Temporarily contracted depots could also be used. You want to streamline these depots, as lots of people will be coming in, so you want some nice system where people bring in a bar code and everything is optimized to get them out the door with the right package quickly.

All of this will push people to shop and ship a little earlier, smoothing out the rush, and avoiding having to design the system for one peak day. I have always found it remarkable that most stores and malls have giant parking lots (back in the brick and mortar world) which are only filled in December. It’s such a waste — but something robocars will fix in the future.

Delivery to the wrong address

I had a missed delivery myself this year. In this case it was on December 14th because I went home early, and I had the gifts arriving 2 days before I left. But oddly, I got the note that the package had been delivered at 6pm — but it wasn’t. Both UPS and Amazon had very little set up to handle this. Amazon’s system insists you wait at least a day to complain about this, which was no help to me. I could have used that day to replace the items if I were sure it wasn’t coming.

After I left, the package showed up on my porch on Sunday. UPS does not operate Sunday so it seems pretty likely they had left the package with a neighbour who was perhaps away for a few days. I presume the neighbour eventually came and dropped off the package but they left no note. (Of course I wish they had done it right away — replacing the gifts in Canada cost me a bunch extra.)

Amazon had already given a refund — fairly good service there — and so I just had UPS return the package as undelivered which costs me nothing, so that all worked out, except the scramble and the extra cost of replacing the items.

I don’t know how often this happens — it’s in the Amazon FAQ so it must be often enough — but there are some obvious fixes. The UPS driver’s wand, which scans the package on delivery, should record more data, including any location from a GPS in the wand or the truck, but perhaps more easily the MACs and signal strengths of any WIFI nodes visible when the package was scanned.

That information would have both allowed UPS to say, “OK, that’s odd, this doesn’t match where the package should be going” right when it was scanned, or it would have allowed me to figure out where it went and get it right away.

You’re probably wondering, didn’t I just imagine it was stolen? I did consider that possible, though in my safe neighbourhood it doesn’t appear to be a real danger. Somebody following UPS trucks at Christmas time to steal gifts would be very Grinchey, not to say it doesn’t happen. In safe neighbourhoods, UPS and Fedex routinely just leave packages at the door. Not actually signed for, I presume they just eat the loss the rare times they are stolen, or perhaps the merchant does. It’s small enough shrinkage that the system handles it.

Ford's solar charging robocar design

One of the silly ideas I see often is the solar powered car. In 2011, I wrote an article about the solar powered robocar which explained some of the reasons why the idea is anti-green, and how robocars might help.

I was interested to see a concept from Ford for a solar charging station for a robocar which goes further than my idea.

In the Ford proposal, there is a special garage with sun exposure and a giant Fresnel lens, which can focus light on a solar panel on the car parked in the garage, effectively a solar concentrator based PV system. The trick is that the car is able to move during the day, so as the sun moves (or rather the Earth and the garage turn with respect to the sun) the car adjusts to put the panel in the beam of the Fresnel lens. They predict they could get 21 miles of range in six hours of sunlight. That’s a bit over 5kwh, meaning the panel must generate just under a kw during those 6 hours.

Normally 1kw of solar panel is quite large, and the roof of the garage is large to make this happen. The downside is this would make the panels really, really hot, which reduces their efficiency and frankly, could be dangerously hot and also wear out the panels and roof quickly. (We would need to see what temperature parameters they plan for.)

In the end, this system still falls into the pitfalls that make a green solar powered car a contradiction in terms. To be green, you must use all the power panels generate. When this car is not in the garage, its panel will produce minimal output, since as it moves about its day it will park in shade or at the wrong angle to the sun, and the panels will be horizontal. The only way to properly exploit panels is to have them at the very least facing south in a permanently sunny spot, tilted to the latitude (or sun-tracking) and combined with the grid, so every single joule they generate is put to use.

There is a minor win for solar on a vehicle, which is when you are driving, the energy is never stored, and thus battery weight can be slightly lowered and there are no storage or transmission losses. However, unless you are going to make something like the cars that compete in the solar races, this doesn’t make up for the waste of having panels whose output is mostly unused. Toyota figured out a good use for a panel on the Prius — it runs the ventilation fan, whose demand matches the sunlight and heat of the day. Every joule of that panel is used, and keeping the car cool saves on AC when driving. Had the panel fed into the hybrid battery, its output would be thrown away most of the time when the battery was not low.

As I noted in my earlier article, robocars could make better use of solar panels because they could arrange to always store themselves in the sun, pointed in the right direction, and could even go find connection stations to feed their power back to the grid if the batteries were not low. (You need some robotic ability to connect to the charging station without a human, and ideally without the 10% loss of inductive coupling but even that is tolerable.)

In that world, you could put up Fresnel or other concentrating charging stations which cars could seek out to make the best use of their panels. However, these cars are now consigned to never being garaged or parking in the shade, which is not really what we’re looking for.

This does have the advantage of not needing to plug in, though inductive charging stations are also something robocars would move themselves to. If the vehicles are used off-grid, this would be somewhat more valuable even if on-grid the panels (concentrated or not) should just feed that grid.

There’s another downside to the heat of this system. In the summer at least, you then have to spend a fair bit of energy cooling the car down. The extra energy gained from sitting in the sun might be lost in cooling if the wait was modest. A cooling fan is a good idea while in the sun.

In other News

Michigan has passed its law regulating the testing of robocars there. It’s being touted as a way to “save jobs” by preventing the flight of automaking innovation to other locations. It’s going to be a tall order. The Detroit car companies are opening labs in silicon valley, in part because it’s very difficult to recruit the very best people to come live in Detroit, no matter how cheap the housing is — and you can have a mansion in Detroit for the price of a shack in San Francisco. If Michigan wants to retain its car dominance, it will need to do even more.

Several announcements planned for CES. Delphi will be showing off their latest work, which is more ADAS related. Bosch will be showing off their prototype cars, and presumably Audi and others will return.

Results from the Ann Arbor V2V test bed are expected soon. The original plan was for the DoT to propose regulations demanding V2V in all new cars in 2013. They missed that deadline, of course, but many expect something very soon. Results of this testbed are expected to be crucial. I predict the results will be lukewarm when viewed through the robocar lens — which is to say, the V2V systems will only have been found able to prevent a tiny number of incidents which could not also be detected with advanced sensors directly on the cars. They may not publish that number, as there are incentives to make the test report as a success.

Having secure open wifi (Death to wifi login part 2)

In part 1 I outlined the many problems caused by wifi login pages that hijack your browser (“captive portals”) and how to improve things.

Today I want to discuss the sad state of having security in WIFI in most of the setups used today.

Almost all open WIFI networks are simply “in the clear.” That means, however you got on, your traffic is readable by anybody, and can be interfered with as well, since random users near you can inject fake packets or pretend to be the access point. Any security you have on such a network depends on securing your outdoing connections. The most secure way to do this is to have a VPN (virtual private network) and many corporations run these and insist their employees use them. VPNs do several things:

  • Encrypt your traffic
  • Send all the traffic through the same proxy, so sniffers can’t even see who else you are talking to
  • Put you on the “inside” of corporate networks, behind firewalls. (This has its own risks.)

VPNs have downsides. They are hard to set up. If you are not using a corporate VPN, and want a decent one, you typically have to pay a 3rd party provider at least $50/year. If your VPN router is not in the same geographic region as you are, all your traffic is sent to somewhere remote first, adding latency and in some cases reducing bandwidth. Doing voice or video calls over a VPN can be quite impractical — some VPNs are all TCP without the UDP needed for that, and extra latency is always a killer. Also, there is the risk your VPN provider could be snooping on you — it actually can make it much easier to snoop on you (by tapping the outbound pipe of your VPN provider) than to follow you everywhere to tap where you are.

If you don’t have a VPN, you want to try to use encrypted protocols for all you do. At a minimum, if you use POP/IMAP E-mail, it should be configured to only get and receive mail over TLS encrypted channels. In fact, my own IMAP server doesn’t even accept connections in the clear to make sure nobody is tempted to use one. For your web traffic, use sites in https mode as much as possible, and use EFF’s plugin https everywhere to make your browser switch to https wherever it can.  read more »

The failure of the pan-tilt camera in video calls

This year, we stayed with Kathryn’s family for the holidays, so I attended dinner in my own mother’s home via Skype. Once again, the technology was frustrating. And it need not be.

There were many things that can be better. For those of us who Skype regularly, we don’t understand that there is still hassle for those not used to it. Setting up a good videoconferencing setup is still work. As I have found is always the case in a group-to-solos videoconference, the group folks do not care nearly as much about the conference as the remote solos, so a fundamental rule of design here is that if the remotes can do something, they should be the ones doing it, since they care the most. If there is to be UI, leave the UI to the remotes (who are sitting at computers and care) and not to the meeting room locals. Many systems get this exactly backwards — they imagine the meeting room is the “master” and thus has the complex UI.

In this family setting, however, the clearest problem for me is that no camera can show the whole room. It’s like sitting at the table unable to move your head, with blinders on. You can’t really be part of the group. You also have to be away from the table so everybody there can see you, since screens are only visible over a limited viewing angle.

One clear answer to this is the pan/tilt camera, which is to say a webcam with servo motors that allow it to look around. This technology is very cheap — you’ll find pan/tilt IP security cameras online for $30 or less, and there are even some low priced Chinese made pan/tilt webcams out there — I just picked another up for $20. I also have the Logitech Orbit AF. This was once a top of the line HD webcam, and still is very good, but Logitech no longer makes it. Logitech also makes the BCC950 — a $200 conference room pan/tilt webcam which has extremely good HD quality and a built-in hardware compressor for 1080p video that is superb with Skype. We have one of these, and it advertises “remote control” but in fact all that means is there is an infrared remote the people in the room can use to steer the camera. In our meetings, nobody ever uses this remote for the reason I specify above — the people in the room aren’t the motivated ones.

This is compounded by the fact that the old method — audio conference speakerphones — have a reasonably well understood UI. Dial the conference bridge, enter a code, and let the remotes handle their own calling in. Anything more complex than that gets pushback — no matter how much better it is.  read more »

Gift guide update -- virtual goods and the world of billionaires

I’ve made some updates to my Better to Give than Receive Gift Guide for Christmas Eve.

In particular, to help understand the philosophy of the guide (which forbids cash and gift cards, among other things) I propose you imagine the world where you, and all those who you would give gifts to are billionaires. The reality is the money amount of gifts between adults is normally a blip in the annual budget, so reality is not too far from this hypothetical.

In this world of billionaires it’s immediately clear why you would not give cash, or gift cards, or easily ordered generic gifts, as the gift guide advises. They contain nothing of you, just your money. In a world where the money is unimportant, nothing is left.

The second new topic to discuss is virtual gifts, which can’t be given in the physical world. This includes coupons for services, and the growing market of codes for electronic goods like music, apps, e-books, software and the like.

The temptation to give these is strong. Frankly, if you felt moved to give me a book, I would not want you to give me the physical book. My shelves are overflowing. Nor a physical CD, in spite of the ability to personally give it.

This pulls us in two directions. One would be to say that these goods have now become not much more than gift cards, and as such they should be highly discouraged as gifts. Find something else.

Alternately, among the “manufactured” goods, books, music and their ilk can be a good way to express yourself in a gift, so long as you are giving them a book you recommend rather than a book you think they’ll like. As such, it’s important that what you give be a specific code only for that particular item. Not anything like an iTunes gift card. You’re not giving them money, you’re giving your care and consideration in picking something that signifies your relationship.

The makers of virtual goods perhaps should work hard at making them easier to give in a meaningful way. Some do provide a nice page with graphics and a custom message to be printed and given. For remote recipients, it’s much less practical to be physical like this. It would be nice if there were easy mechanisms to give virtual items directly to the accounts and devices of people without entering a long code. For security reasons you want them to confirm acceptance, and you want to have some actual token of exchange, but otherwise the ideal experience would be to give them a card that says, “I put this book on your e-reader” and a quick photo of the card (perhaps with QR code) imports it. A code which works with all readers, ideally — though they don’t all have cameras.

Canada to stop urban mail home delivery, but fails to abolish snail-mail

Here in Canada, a hot political issue (other than disgust with Rob Ford) is the recent plan by Canada Post to stop home delivery in cities. My initial reaction was, “Wow, I wish we could get that in the USA!” but it turns out all they are doing is making people go to neighbourhood mailboxes to get their mail. For many years, people in new developments have had to do this — they install a big giant mailbox out on the street, and you get a key to get your mail. You normally don’t walk further than the end of your block. However, this will save a lot of work — and eliminate a lot of jobs, which also has people upset.

But let me go back to my original reaction — I want to see home letter delivery abolished.

Why? All I, and most other people get by mail are:

  • Junk mail (the vast bulk of the mail.)
  • One or two magazines
  • Bills and communications from companies that refuse to switch to all-electronic communication
  • Official notices (from governments who refuse to switch to all-electronic communication)
  • Cheques from companies who refuse to do direct deposit (see note below.)
  • Parcels (lots of these, though many more from UPS/Fedex/etc.)
  • A tiny and dwindling number of personal cards and letters. Perhaps 2-3 personal xmas cards.

The abolition of general mail delivery would force all those parties who refuse to do electronic communication to switch to it. The concept of an official e-mail address would arise. We would also need to see a better e-cheque service, something priced like a cheque (ie. not paypal which takes 2% or more) and as easy to use (ACH is not there yet.) This would force it into existing if you could not mail a cheque.

A replacement for registered mail would need to arise — that is what is needed for legal service. Putting that into e-mail is doable though challenging, as it requires adding money to e-mail, because you want people to have to pay to use it so that you don’t get it all the time.

And of course, parcel service would continue. And people who really want to send a letter could send it via parcel service, but not for sub-dollar first class mail prices.

Magazines would have to go all-electronic. Some may not see the world ready for that, but I think the time is very near. Today, one can make cheap large tablets in the 14 to 17 inch size that would be great for magazines. They would be too heavy to handhold (though possibly if they had no batteries and used a small cord they could be light enough for that) but they could easily be held on laps and tables and replace the magazine.

Few would mourn the death of junk mail, though it might lead to more spam in e-mail boxes until that’s under control. Senders of junk mail (notably politicians) might mourn it.

So the only sad thing would be the loss of the dwindling supply of personal letters. People getting married could use the parcel companies or go electronic. Thank-you notes would go electronic, making Miss Manners spin in her grave, but spin she eventually will. Truth is, the parcel companies would probably start up a basic letter service priced higher than 1st class mail but less than their most basic parcel. The more addresses you can share the cost of a truck on, the better — until the deliverbots arrive, at least. This is not easy, though. The postal service got to use the economies of delivering several letters a day to your house, and this could pay for a person to walk the street with a bag full, while the parcel companies use trucks.

We all know this day is coming. The question is, can we do better if we force it, and shut down letter delivery sooner rather than later?

Death to the Wifi login page (part 1)

It’s the bane of the wanderer. A large fraction of open Wifi access points don’t connect you to the internet, but instead want you to login somehow. They do this by redirecting (hijacking) any attempt to fetch a web page to a login or terms page, where you either have to enter credentials, or just click to say you agree to the terms of service. A few make you watch an ad. It’s sometimes called a captive portal.

I’m going to contend that these hijack screens are breaking a lot of things, and probably not doing anybody — including portal owners — any good.

The terms of service generally get you to declare you will be a good actor. You won’t spam or do anything illegal. You won’t download pirated content or join torrents of such content. You waive rights to sue the portal. Sometimes you have to pay money or show you are a hotel guest or have an access card.

These screens are a huge inconvenience, and often worse than that. All sorts of things go wrong when they are in place:

  • Until you do the login with the browser, your other apps, like e-Mail, don’t work though it looks like internet is there.
  • With devices that don’t have keyboards, like Google Glass, you can’t use the network at all!
  • Some redirect you from the link you wanted, and don’t pass you on to that link when you are logged in, you have to type it in again.
  • If you go to a secure URL (https) some of them attempt an insecure redirect and cause browser security warnings. They look like a hijack because they are a hijack! This trains people to be more tolerant of browser security warnings, and breaks tools that try to improve your security and stop more malicious hijacks properly.
  • Some for “security” block the remembering of credentials, making it hard to login every time.
  • Really bad ones time-out quickly, and make you repeat the login process every time you suspend your laptop, and worse, every time you turn off and turn on your phone — making the network almost unusable. Almost all require re-login one or two times a day — still very annoying.
  • Every so often the login systems are broken on mobile browsers, locking out those devices.

A lot of headaches. And one can perhaps understand the need for this when you must pay for the network or only authorized users are allowed in, though WPA passwords are much better for that because they need only one-time setup and also offer security on the wireless connection.

With all this pain, the question the world needs to answer is, “is it worth it?” What is the value of this hijack and “I agree” terms page? Nobody reads the terms, and people who connect, and would ignore the terms to spam or do other bad things, will happily agree to them and ignore them, and they will do so anonymously leaving no way to punish them for violating the terms. This is not to say that certain entities have not desired to actually find users of open Wifi networks and try to enforce terms on them, but this is extremely rare and almost certainly not desirable to most access point operators.

There are thus just a few remaining purposes for the hijack screen.

Charging money

If you want to charge money, you might need a login screen. I don’t deny the right of a provider to ask for money, but there are different ways to do it. There are a variety of aggregator networks (Such as Boingo and FON) which will handle billing. They have already installed an app on the user’s device which allows it to authenticate and handle billing (mostly) seamlessly for the user. The very common skype application is one of these, and people pay from their skype credit accounts. Of course, you may not like Skype’s rates or the cut it takes, so this may not be enough.

You might also want to consider why you are charging the money. If bandwidth is very expensive, I can see it, but it’s not been uncommon to find some sites like cafes saying they charge — I kid you not — because the whole system including the charging gateway — is expensive to run. A cheap free gateway would have been much more affordable. Many operators decide that it’s worth it to offer it free, since it draws people in to restaurants, cafes and hotels. Cheap hotels usually give free Wifi — only expensive hotels put on fat charges.

It could be that your real goal is just to get attention…

Letting them know who provided the Wifi

I’ve seen a number of gateways that primarily seem to exist just to let you know who provided the gateway. Very rarely (I’ve mostly seen this at airports) they will make you watch a short ad to get your free access. They break a lot of stuff to do this. The SSID name is another way to tell them, though of course it’s not nearly as satisfactory.

Reducing the amount of usage

There is a risk that fully open networks will get overused by guests, and often thanklessly, too. You may be afraid your neighbours will realize they don’t need to buy internet at all, and can just use your open network. Here, making it hard to use and broken is a feature, not a bug. If you have to go through the hijack every so often it’s a minor burden to cafe patrons but a bigger annoyance to overusing neighbours. Those neighbours can play tricks, like using programs that do automatic processing of hijack gateways, but not too many do. They can also change their MAC addresses to get past restrictions based on that. You can do MAC limiting without a hijack screen, and it’s a great way to do it, possibly saving the hijack for after they reach the limit, not using it at the start. Clever abusers can change their MACs, though again most people don’t.

Covering your ass

The large number of complex terms of service suggest that people believe, or have been told, that it is essential they keep themselves covered in case a user of open Wifi does something bad, such as spamming or violating copyrights or even nastier stuff. They figure that if they made them agree to a terms-of-service that forbade this, this absolves them of any responsibility for the bad actions, and even, just maybe, offers a way to go after the unwanted guest.

Turns out that there is much less need to cover your ass in this situation, at least in the USA. You aren’t liable for coypright infringement by your guests if you did not encourage it. Thanks to the DMCA and CDA rules, you are probably not liable for a lot of other stuff these unwanted guests might do.

I am interested to hear reports from anybody of how they used the fact that Wifi guests had to agree to terms of service to protect themselves in an actual legal action. I have not heard of any, and I suspect there are few. It would be a great shame to confirm that everybody is breaking their networks in hope of a protection that’s actually meaningless.

It is true that you can get in real world trouble for what your unwanted guests do. If they violate copyrights, you might be the one getting the nasty letter from the copyright holder. The fact that you are not actually liable may not be much comfort when you are faced with taking the time and cost to point that out. Often these lawsuits come with offers to settle for less than the cost of consulting a lawyer on the matter. Naturally, those interested in violating copyrights are unlikely to be all that worried that they clicked on a contract that promised they wouldn’t. This is just a risk of an open network.

Likewise, if they send spam over your network, you may find yourself on spam-blocking blacklists who don’t care that it wasn’t you who did the spamming. Those vigilante groups run by their own rules. Again, the contract isn’t much protection. You may instead want to look to technical measures, including throttling the use of certain ports or bandwidth limits on guests. (It is better if you can throttle rather than cut off, since your guests probably do need to send e-Mail, just not thousands of them.)

Towards a protocol of open guest WIFI

How could we do this better? In part two I talk about how to have a secure open WIFI and the problems in doing that. Part three will talk about how to make it easy to connect to any of these networks automatically.

Wind or solar to filter the pool

One of the biggest issues with wind and solar is that they are intermittent, and so either need storage or grid-tie to work. There really is no good storage, and generally storage-based systems are highly wasteful, throwing away most of the power you generate because you want to keep the storage near full. Grid-tie is the only green choice, but it’s expensive and requires expensive inverters and permits and more.

One solution to this to find work for your renewable energy source to do that fits well with its intermittent nature. Something that will take all the power you generate, but not mind if it comes and goes. Such loads are hard to find. One potential example is pumping water to filter a swimming pool. Its recommended to flow twice the volume of your pool every day in summer, which means around 10kwh of electricity with typical systems. Most people filter their pool using the same pump they use for vacuuming and pool maintenance, which is actually way more powerful than you need for filtering. They offer variable speed pumps, which use a low-power efficient speed for filtering and a high-power speed for vacuum and manual operations, and claim they save a lot.

For those who have a pool, the pump is using as much electricity as all their other appliances in some cases, and so it’s a win to make that greener. Unlike those appliances, the pool water can be filtered any time, as electricity is available, though you can’t let the pool go unfiltered for days, so it’s not perfect. For people who have time-of-use metering, they are wise if they only filter at night, and many do that.

The trick to perfect use of solar for pool pumping would be a smart, multi-speed pump able to run on both the DC from solar panels and the grid power. It would need to do the following:

  • When there is power from the solar panel, run as fast as you can on that power, filtering.
  • When you need high flow, switch to (or combine with) grid power for full power.
  • Track the amount of water filtered, as well as temperature, and when the sun did not provide enough power, run the pump at night off grid power to make up the difference.
  • For extra credit, have a sensor that detects how clear the water is, and adjust grid usage based on that, rather than just weather.

This system would make use of all the power from the panels. As a plus, you need more filtering in summer than you do in winter, which matches what panels do. However, you must not oversize your panels. They can’t be bigger than you need to do all your winter filtering on a series of sunny winter’s days, or you will be wasting their power then.

Key to this plan is that it’s easy to install. Put in the new pump and wire it up to panels. No inverters or electricians and perhaps not even any permits. It doesn’t feed power back to the grid or the house. This is key because panels are now getting very cheap (less than a dollar per watt) and as such installs and permits and other gear are more expensive than the panels.

There are some pool pumps with brushless DC motors sold for solar use. They are expensive and don’t do the smart tricks above, in particular using the grid to take up the slack. They depend instead on overprovisioned solar, or solar systems powering more than a pump.

For $700 you can also buy a floating solar pool filter. This is a nice trick because it’s self-contained, though it’s a rather large thing to float in your pool. It can’t handle the whole filtering load —in fact it only handles about 25% of the load of a typical pool and uses cartridge filters. As such, you still run the regular pump and filter on some schedule, you just run it a bit less.

I noted above that you can get variable speed pumps, and that these, it is claimed, us as little as 1/5th the energy of the full speed pumps for filtering. They cost 2-3x as much as basic one speed pumps, and as a result are not very common. This bodes poorly for the solar proposal here, because if customers aren’t willing to do the up-front investment to save energy for these pumps, few would do the added task of putting up a solar panel and plugging it into such a pump. Comparatively few, that is — solar nerds would love to do it.

As always, the best place to deploy panels to do this would be the sunny, coal-oriented regions like Arizona and New Mexico, where it turns out pools are pretty popular. Once again, the math says that if your goal is to use your money and time to make the world greener, it would be far better to get people in those places to install a system like this on their pools than for you to put panels on your house in California for anything. Putting panels up in California is something you do to feel good.

Wind

Another interesting alternative is wind. Pumping water with wind is perhaps the oldest wind technology out there. In this case, you might even be able to be like an old windmill, and be mechanical, by having the turbine drive a flexible shaft down to the ground to run the pump. Presumably some clever transmission would be needed to maintain filter pressure properly at all windspeeds. You could also do traditional electrical generation from the wind and power a pump like the one above.

Wind has its positives and negatives. Unlike solar, it does not have the natural higher capacity in the summer. It can be much more intermittent. Solar panels still do around 30% to 50% of their rated power on ordinary cloudy days (though this is quite variable based on the panels and local weather patterns) so there is pumping every day. Wind in most places comes and goes. At my house, the winds are high today but it would not generally be suitable as we go weeks without much wind. Wind also prefers a tower near the pool, which has many issues.

UK, Michigan & Sweden push robocars, Toyota doesn't -- and Amazon delivery drones

The past few weeks have been rife with governments deciding to throw support behind robocars.

I wrote earlier about the plan for pods in Milton Keynes, NW of London. The UK has also endowed a a £10m prize fund to build vehicles and for a town to adapt to them. This will be managed in part by the Oxford team which has built a self-driving Wildcat and Nissan LEAF.

In Michigan, they have been working on a new robocar law that may be the next one, and the University of Michigan has a plan to put a fleet of cars out by 2021. Ann Arbor is the site of the ITS V2V testbed, which will probably slow this effort down, but Michigan is keen on not having the auto industry taken away from it.

Volvo, while now a Chinese company, has had many efforts, including their Sartre convoy experiments. Now they have declared that they will have 100 cars on the road in Gothenberg in 2017. They will also build parking systems.

In spite of all this, Toyota recently declared it is only building vehicles for research purposes, and has no desire to market such cars. Toyota had been a leader among the Japanese companies (until Nissan took over that role by building a research lab in silicon valley) but it’s surprising to see them drop out. Of course I predict they will regret that.

Amazon drone delivery

The big news this weekend was the announcement that Amazon.com wants to do drone delivery, accompanied with a concept video. This got everybody buzzing. I was interviewed for stories by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (paywall) as well as the New York Times because of my prior writings on deliverbots.

Some of you may remember I post I did early last year on drone defibrillator delivery and the efforts of our students at Singularity University to build Matternet for drone delivery in the developing world.

Drone delivery is interesting, though its big value will be in lightweight, urgent items like medicines. Ground vehicles will still win for cost and efficiency for most items. However, the drones can be much faster, and have options like delivering to places ground vehicles can’t reach — like your roof or your backyard. Deliverbots must get safe and legal on busy streets, drones have to figure out how to not hit one another (or people on the ground) in crowded airspace. The LIDARS that make ground vehicles practical have enough range for ground travel but poor range as flying sensors. Radar is good in the air but can have interference problems.

Getting a drone to land at any given address is a hard problem. There are trees, overhead wires, wind gusts and strange geometries. I suspect drone delivery will work best if the drop location has already been scanned and mapped. However, if there is a decent clearing, I could see it working by having the recipient put down a special marker (like a QR code) on the ground. GPS is not accurate enough to fly with but camera could pull out special markers.

One great marker would be your cell phone. Either with its “flash” LED pointed up and pulsing, or its screen, if the screen is bright enough. Go outside, put your phone down, have it guide the drone partway in with radio and GPS, and then have the drone’s camera follow the flashing light. If phones had better raw GPS access (they don’t — not yet) they could also provide differential GPS information to a drone to guide it in.

This works because with robot delivery, you never need to deliver to an address — you deliver to a person. Wherever that person is, or at least never when the person isn’t there, unless you want to. A robot delivery service will wait for a signal that you are home or one the way before delivering to your home, but might also deliver to you in whatever parking lot you are in, or your office. The robot won’t release the cargo unless it gets the ACK from your phone as you “sign” for it.

Multi-copter drones today don’t have a lot of capacity and range, but it’s improving. Liquid fuels for larger drones might help boost that. Fixed wing drones have much more capacity, but they need runways (or a skilled launcher) to take off. Some fixed-wing drones can land vertically if they have motors powerful enough to lower them down tail first though they tend to need something suitable to land on in such cases.

Robot delivery should make existing retailers, even big box ones like WalMart, scared of online retailers like Amazon. While a drone won’t replace WalMart on a trip where you plan to fill your shopping cart, it might well be very suitable for the things you buy from Walgreens.

International roaming, T-mobile and local SIMs

Back from 5 weeks of international travel, I continue to seek the best solution in my quest for reasonably priced data service when outside the USA.

Data has become a must for me when on the road. In spite of the fact that we all lived without it a decade ago, I find it very frustrating if it’s not available (or priced at $15,000 per gigabyte, which is the typical default roaming rate.) It’s how I find directions, food, tourist info and keep in touch with others.

For a while my normal practice, if in a country for more than a few days, has been to purchase a local SIM card, and of course to have an unlocked GSM phone. Usually local SIMs are now available with 500mb to 1gb of data for $10 to $20. There are various web sites that list the local data providers to help you choose. The best prices tend to come from the MVNOs — not the main incumbent carriers — but even the big carriers tend to have decent prepaid deals. These usually come with some voice minutes and texting. This is useful though I don’t do a lot of voice minutes when overseas due to time zones. I use them to reach local friends, book hotels, check restaurants, and with my companion. Annoyingly, though I have bought many of these SIMs, even for data, it’s not nearly as nice and easy as it should be. A large fraction of the time, something goes wrong.  read more »

The hassles of local SIMs

  • It can often be a pain to research and pick the right carrier, and then to find one of their stores, and get the purchase done. This was particularly true in the past, when selling a SIM to a random foreigner was not a common event at many stores. You have to go out of your way, and deal with people who don’t speak your language. Some providers put a store in the arrival area of the airport, which is great, though they tend to be the more expensive cards.
  • Until you get the new SIM, you are faced with very expensive roaming.
  • Research does matter. In England (where language is not a problem) some carriers give you your data bundle free when you put 10 pounds on the card, others charge you those 10 pounds, leaving you with no voice minutes.
  • Once you get the card, you often have to deal with web sites, menus and voice prompts not in your language. Setting up the voicemail is already a pain, and is far worse if you can’t understand the prompts.
  • Fixing odd problems is difficult in an unfamiliar system. My Orange card had a package of 500mb in it for 10 Euros, (great) but kept draining the money I put on it, leaving it unusable for making calls and texts, and though I can read and speak modest French, I was unable to find the cause.
  • There are always issues of prepaid cards for short use. If you put too much in the card, it’s wasted unless you are coming back soon. If you don’t put enough in, you have to run around buying and adding refills — again with prompts not in your language. Carriers would do well to let you add a lot to the card, and then refund it to you on request. This would make me put more in the card, and use the phone more, so it’s a win for them.
  • As noted, balances usually expire quickly, and cards often expire after 6 months or a year if not used. Though some cards are lasting longer.
  • In some countries, they won’t let you refill from a credit card, which means you must buy cards at local shops with cash, and always have a card handy — then throw away the spare cards when you leave, wasted.
  • You need to learn and give a new phone number to people. You may be able to forward your old number, but often that comes at a high cost. As a plus, you make it much cheaper for locals to call and text you, while making it more expensive for people back home to reach you (unless you forward and eat many times that cost.) You do get the “advantage” that incoming calls and texts are free.
  • Text messages generally do not forward, so you will not see those unless you keep 2 phones — and pay roaming.
  • Calls back home may or may not be quite expensive, but usually are much less than roaming rates on your home SIM.
  • If you move to a different country, you usually have to do it all over again — shop again, and have a new number. In Europe, where it is common to hop from country to country this becomes a real issue. Some prepaid plans allow tolerable voice roaming in other countries, though data roaming tends to still be expensive on prepaid, in spite of a European order to reduce it.
  • You are going to pay $10 to $20 plus your time for all this, and if all you want is to do a few voice minutes and some texts and keep your data usage to wifi, you might not come out ahead on a short trip.

T-Mobile’s new solution

More Robocar Updates and Press

Back from Budapest, tomorrow I head to Buenos Aires to talk cars and security to city officials. (I wondered if I am ending up touring the world in alphabetical order.)

In the meantime, some interesting tidbits and press:

  • One of the best articles about Google’s project in the New Yorker
  • I appear on APM’s “Marketplace Tech” for a short piece on robocars.
  • A new project in the Netherlands spearheaded by TNO & Delft. I visited with TNO early last year to talk to them about their driving simulators and working to convince them that they should focus on LIDAR and self-driving. They were skeptical about the effort back then!
  • More interest from government officials. Hearings in DC today, more progress towards passing a law in Michigan to enable Robocar testing, and a ride by the Japanese PM in several vehicles at the Toyko Motor Show. I also met with top Hungarian officials in Budapest, where a large fraction of their GDP comes from car manufacture. They need to bring the R&D to Hungary to exploit this technology, though. French President Hollande has also called for an initiative there. The jurisdictional competition I wondered about many years ago is getting ready to start humming.

Let’s see what I can tell the Argentinians. They have one of the poorer driving records in Latin America and kill 3 times as many people per 100,000 vehicles than the USA does.

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