No, I don't want to participate in a customer satisfaction survey every time

It seems that with more and more of the online transactions I engage in — and sometimes even when I don’t buy anything — I will get a request to participate in a customer satisfaction survey. Not just some of the time in some cases, but with every purchase. I’m also seeing it on web sites — sometimes just for visiting a web site I will get a request to do a survey, either while reading, or upon clicking on a link away from the site.

On the surface this may seem like the company is showing they care. But in reality it is just the marketing group’s thirst for numbers both to actually improve things and to give them something to do. But there’s a problem with doing it all the time, or most of the time.

First, it doesn’t scale. I do a lot of transactions, and in the future I will do even more. I can’t possibly fill out a survey on each, and I certainly don’t want to. As such I find the requests an annoyance, almost spam. And I bet a lot of other people do.

And that actually means that if you ask too much, you now will get a self-selected subset of people who either have lots of free time, or who have something pointed to say (ie. they got a bad experience, or perhaps rarely a very good one.) So your survey becomes valueless as data collection the more people you ask to do it, or rather the more refusals you get. Oddly, you will get more useful results asking fewer people.

Sort of. Because if other people keep asking everybody, it creates the same burn-out and even a survey that is only requested from 1 user out of 1000 will still see high rejection and self-selection. There is no answer but for everybody to truly only survey a tiny random subset of the transactions, and offer a real reward (not some bogus coupon) to get participation.

I also get phone surveys today from companies I have actually done business with. I ask them, “Do you have this survey on the web?” So far, they always say no, so I say, “I won’t do it on the phone, sorry. If you had it on the web I might have.” I’m lying a bit, in that the probability is still low I would do it, but it’s a lot higher. I can do a web survey in 1/10th the time it takes to get quizzed on the phone, and my time is valuable. Telling me I need to do it on the phone instead of the web says the company doesn’t care about my time, and so I won’t do it and the company loses points.

Sadly, I don’t see companies learning these lessons, unless they hire better stats people to manage their surveys.

Also, I don’t want a reminder from everybody I buy from on eBay to leave feedback. In fact, remind me twice and I’ll leave negative feedback if I’m in a bad mood. I prefer to leave feedback in bulk, that way every transaction isn’t really multiple transactions. Much better if ebay sends me a reminder once a month to leave feedback for those I didn’t report on, and takes me right to the bulk feedback page.

Panoramas of Burning Man 2009

I have put up a gallery of panoramas for Burning Man 2009. This year I went with the new Canon 5D Mark II, which has remarkable low-light shooting capabilities. As such, I generated a number of interesting new night panoramas in addition to the giant ones of the day.

In particular, you will want to check out the panorama of the crowd around the burn, as seen from the Esplanade, and the night scene around the Temple, and a twilight shot.

Below you see a shot of the Gothic Raygun Rocket, not because it is the best of the panoramas, but because it is one of the shortest and thus fits in the blog!

Some of these are still in progress. Check back for more results, particularly in the HDR department. The regular sized photos will also be processed and available in the future.

Finally, I have gone back and rebuilt the web pages for the last 5 years of panoramas at a higher resolution and with better scaling. So you may want to look at them again to see more detail. A few are also up as gigapans including one super high-res 2009 shot in a zoomable viewer.

Events: Randall Monroe (xkcd) tonight in SF, Singularity Summit Oct 3-4 in NYC

Two events I will be at…

Tonight, at 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco, we at EFF will be hosting a reading by Randall Monroe, creator of the popular nerd comic “xkcd.” There is a regular ticket ($30) and a VIP reception ticket ($100) and just a few are still available. Payments are contributions to the EFF.

In two weeks, on Oct 3-4, I will be speaking on the future of robot cars at the Singularity Summit in New York City. Lots of other good speakers on the podium too.

See you there…

Burning Man Exodus, Part II

Two years ago, I discussed solutions for Burning Man Exodus. The problem: Get 45,000 people off the playa in 2 days, 95% of them taking a single highway south which goes through a small town which has a chokepoint capacity of about 450 cars/hour. Quite often wait times to get onto the road are 4 hours or more, though this year things were smoother (perhaps due to a lower attendance) and the number of people with 4 hour waits was lower. In a bad year, we might imagine that 25,000 people wait an average of 3 hours, or 75,000 person hours, almost 40 man-years of human labour.

Some judge my prior solution, with appointments, as too complex. Let’s try something which is perhaps simpler, at least at its base, though I have also thought up some complexities that may have value.

When you are ready to leave, drive to the gate. There, as was tried in 2,000, you would be directed into a waiting lot, shaped with cones at the front. The lot would have perhaps 20 rows of 10 cars (around 150 vehicles as there are so many trailers and RVs.) The lot would have a big number displayed. There you would park. You would then have three options:

  1. Stay in the lot and party with the other people in the lot, or sit in your car. This is in fact what you would do in the current situation, except there you start your engine and go forward 30 feet every minute. Share leftover food. Give donations to DPW crew. Have a good time.
  2. Go to the exodus station near the parking lots. Get a padded envelope and write your address on it, and your plate number, DL number and car description. Put your spare set of keys in the envelope. Get on your bike, or walk back to the city, and have a good time there. Listen to Exodus Radio. They will give reports on when your lot is going to move, in particular a 30 minute warning. When you get it, go back, pick up your keys and get ready.
  3. Volunteer to help with city cleanup. Do that by driving to the premium section of the waiting lot. Park there, wait a bit, and then get on a bus which takes you somewhere to do an hour shift of clean-up. You moop check the playa, clean, take down infrastructure, or spend an hour doing Exodus work which you trained for earlier. At the end of your shift, you are free to take a bus back to the lot, or wait in the city with friends. Listen to Exodus Radio. They will call your premium lot. It will be called well before the regular lot. Ideally give an hour, gain an hour! Get there and be ready.

When your lot is called, the Exodus worker pulls back the cones and the lanes stream out, non-stop (but still 10mph) off the playa. The road does not have to be lengthened to hold more cars. At the blacktop entrance, an Exodus worker with a temporary traffic light has it set to a green left arrow except when other traffic is coming, when it’s red. You turn without hesitation (people do that on green arrows, but slow down for flag workers.) Off you go.


As noted, it seems a good idea that people who want to leave the lot leave a set of keys. Not their only set — it is foolish to bring only one set to the playa anyway, and if you read the instructions you knew this. This allows exodus workers to easily move vehicles for people who don’t return, and there will be some. Even so the lots should be designed so it’s not hard to get around them. If the first lane has a spare lane to the other direction that works. It does require somebody to hand back the keys. If you read the instructions, they will say to bring photos of yourself (and alternate drivers.) Tape that photo to the key envelope and it makes it very quick and easy for the key wrangler to hand you the right keys. Don’t bring a photo and they must confirm a DL number, which they won’t have time to do if time is short — so get there in plenty of time.

If you don’t get there in time to get your keys, you can wait, or you can pay $10 (or whatever it costs) and the BM Org will mail you the keys after the event. Of course with rental vehicles this is not an option, so be there early.

However, it may also be simpler to not do the key system, and tow people who don’t show up, and charge them a fat fee for that. Or tow those who don’t leave a key. People might leave a fake key, which would result in a tow and an even larger fine, perhaps. As such I am not wedded to the key desk idea and it may be simpler to first see if no-shows are a big problem. No-shows can be punished in lots of ways if they signed a contract before leaving.

There is an issue for people who do volunteer work and then head for the city. They need to have left keys before the volunteer shift, or return to the lot to leave them, or not leave them and risk a tow.


Volunteers would get a leader who directs them what they will be doing. A common task will be doing a playa walk/MOOP sweep. The leader will listen to Exodus Radio and know if things move quickly and the volunteers must return. Normally, however, volunteer shifts would be taken only when the line is very long, much longer than a volunteer shift. People can of course offer to do more than one shift when the line is long but in that case they should bring their own portable radio, just as people who leave the lot should bring one or be near one. The shift leaders could also have a radio on loud enough for all to hear, hopefully the DJ will be doing something fun between exodus lot announcements.

As noted, one of the things people can volunteer for is exodus work itself. The offer of early exodus in exchange for an hour of exodus work assures there can never be a shortage of workers as long as there is a base of workers that does it without that reward. You’re helping the people ahead of you in line get out earlier. However, regular (non-leaving) volunteers are needed for when the line is short and first bunches up, and for when it shortens again.

To do exodus work you would have to attend training in advance, and be certified as able to do it. Probably done in SF, but possibly on-playa. Some other volunteer jobs (such as cleanup crew leader) would require some training and approval.

Staff needed are

  • An exodus DJ (in a tower overlooking the line and the lots) with assistant or two who are controlling the whole operation.
  • Flag worker controlling the traffic light at the blacktop. Possibly others in Gerlach.
  • 2 crews of 1-2 workers directing cars into the lot currently filling up. They also prepare the lot, replacing the exit cones and possibly moving no-show cars to the side. May have a golf cart.
  • 1-2 workers diverting cars from the main exit lane merge (the “fallopian tubes”) to the staging lots when needed. A cop would be very handy here.
  • 1 worker to remove the cones at the lot being emptied and wave cars out of it. (The Exodus DJ is also telling those people to get going.) When only one lane is left, this person moves to the next lot. Worker probably has a scooter or golf cart.
  • 1-2 workers to man the key desk.


The police come in huge numbers and spend a lot of time on victimless crimes. Managing traffic is a a great way to make really effective use of their police powers. Police can be there to deal with people who ignore signs, bypass or cut out of lots, or who leave their car without doing a key drop or contract.

How to start the lots

It is an interesting problem how to start the lots close to the city. Initially the volume is low and people exit directly, and will tend to go in multiple lanes without a lot of work, eager as faster vehicles will be to pass slow ones. Eventually they will bunch up at the forced merge, and then the bunch up will spread backwards, traffic-jam style. However, this is taking place three miles from the city, at least 15 minutes drive at 10mph. There is a magic amount of back-up at which point you should start holding cars, and then a point at which you should release a lot full of them. Fortunately any short gaps you put in the stream are not wasted as they are re-smoothed on the blacktop before Gerlach-Empire, which is believed to be the primary choke point. However, it will take experience to learn the exact right times, so the first year will not do as well as later years. Data has been kept on car counts from the past, presumably broken down by hour, which could help.

So what would it cost to allow pre-existing conditions?

There is a number that should not be horribly hard to calculate by the actuaries of the health insurance companies. In fact, it’s a number that they have surely already calculated. What would alternate health insurance systems cost?

A lot of confusion in the health debate concerns two views the public has of health insurance. On the one hand, it’s insurance. Which means that of course insurers would not cover things like most pre-existing conditions. Insurance is normally only sold to cover unknown risk in every other field. If your neighbours regularly shoot flaming arrows onto your house, you will not get fire insurance to cover that, except at an extreme price. Viewed purely as insurance, it is silly to ask insurance companies to cover these things. Or to cover known and voluntary expenses, like preventative care, or birth control pills and the like. (Rather, an insurance company should decide to raise your prices if you don’t take preventative care, or allocate funds for the ordinary costs of planned events, because they don’t want to cover choices, just risks.)

However, we also seek social goals for the health insurance system. So we put rules on health insurance companies of all sorts. And now the USA is considering a very broad change — “cover everybody, and don’t ding them for pre-existing conditions.”

From a purely business standpoint, if you don’t have pre-existing conditions, you don’t want your insurance company to cover them. While your company may not be a mutual one, in a free market all should be not too far off the range of such a plan. Everything your company covers that is expensive and not going to happen to you raises your premiums. If you are a healthy-living, healthy person, you want to insure with a company that covers only such people’s unexpected illnesses, as this will give you the lowest premiums by a wide margin.

However, several things are changing the game. First of all, taxes are paying for highly inefficient emergency room care for the uninsured, and society is paying other costs for a sick populace, including the spread of disease. Next, insurance companies have discovered that if the application process is complex enough, then it becomes possible to find a flaw in the application of many patients who make expensive claims, and thus deny them coverage. Generally you don’t want to insure with a company that would do this: while your premiums will be lower, it is too hard to predict if this might happen to you. The more complex the policy rules, the more impossible it is to predict. However, it is hard to discover this in advance when buying a policy, and hard to shop on.

But when an insurance company decides on a set of rules, it does so under the guidance of its actuaries. They tell the officers, “If you avoid covering X, it will save us $Y” and they tell it with high accuracy. It is their job.

As such, these actuaries should already know the cost of a system where a company must take any client at a premium decided by some fairly simple factors (age being the prime one) compared to a system where they can exclude or surcharge people who have higher risks of claims. Indeed, one might argue that while clearly older people have a higher risk of claims, that is not their fault, and even this should not be used. Every factor a company uses to deny or surcharge coverage is something that reduces its costs (and thus its premiums) or they would not bother doing it.

On the other hand, elimination of such factors of discrimination would reduce costs in selling policies and enforcing policies, though not enough to make up for it, or they would already do it, at least in a competitive market. (It’s not, since any company that took all comers at the same price would quickly be out of business as it would get only the rejects of other companies.)

Single payer systems give us some suggestion on what this costs, but since they all cost less than the current U.S. system it is hard to get guidance. They get these savings for various reasons that people argue about, but not all of them translate into the U.S. system.

There is still a conundrum in a “sell to everybody” system. Insurance plans will still compete on how good the care they will buy is. What doctors can you go to? HMO or PPO? What procedures will they pay for, what limits will they have? The problem is this: If I’m really sick, it is very cost effective for me to go out and buy a very premium plan, with the best doctors and the highest limits. Unlike a random person, I know I am going to use them. It’s like letting people increase the coverage on their fire insurance after their house is on fire. If people can change their insurance company after they get sick then high-end policies will not work. This leaves us back at trying to define pre-existing conditions, and for example allowing people only to switch to an equivalent-payout plan for those conditions, while changing the quality of the plan on unknown risks. This means you need to buy high-end insurance when you are young, which most people don’t. And it means companies still have an incentive to declare things as pre-existing conditions to cap their costs. (Though at least it would not be possible for them to deny all coverage to such customers, just limit it.)

Some would argue that this problem is really just a progressive tax — the health plans favoured by the wealthy end up costing 3 times what they normally would while poorer health plans are actually cheaper than they should be. But it should put pressure on all the plans up the chain, as many poor people can’t afford a $5,000/month premium plan no matter that it gives them $50,000/month in benefits, but the very wealthy still can. So they will then switch to the $2,000/month plan the upper-middle class prefer, and go broke paying for it, but stay alive.

Or let’s consider a new insurance plan, the “well person’s insurance” which covers your ordinary medical costs, and emergencies, but has a lifetime cap of $5,000 on chronic or slow-to-treat conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. You can do very well on this coverage, until you get cancer. Then you leave the old policy and sign up for premium coverage that includes it, which can’t be denied in spite of your diagnosis.

This may suggest that single-payer may be the only plan which works if you want to cover everybody. But single-payer (under which I lived for 30 years in Canada) is not without its issues. Almost all insurance companies ration care, including single payer ones, but in single payer you don’t get a choice on how much there will be.

However, it would be good if the actuaries would tell us the numbers here. Just what will the various options truly cost and what premiums will they generate? Of course, the actuaries have a self-interest or at least an employer’s interest in reporting these numbers, so it may be hard to get the truth, but the truth is at least out there.

Damn it, I didn't mean to power you on.

Yes, any system which is going to engage in some long activity which will freeze up the system for more than a few seconds should offer a way to cancel, abort or undo it. You would think designers would know that by now.

My latest peeve is cell phones and other smart devices which are complex enough to “boot.” now. In many cases if you want to see if they are on or not, you touch the power button — and if they were not on, they start their 30 to 60 second boot process. Which you must wait through so that you can then turn them off again. On some devices there is still a physical power button (and on many laptops you can fake one by holding down the soft power button for 4 seconds) but that’s not a great solution. Sure, at some point the booting device reaches a state where it can’t easily abort the boot as it is writing state, but this usually takes at least several seconds if not much longer to reach, so you should be able to abort right away.

Are Frequent Flyer Mile credit cards a good idea?

I just decided to cancel my AAdvantage credit card for a 1% cashback card with no annual fee. Many people have the frequent flyer cards so let’s consider the math on them. They typically come with a high annual fee (around $80) while other cards have no fee and other rewards.

Let’s say you spend $25,000 per year on the card, which is enough for 25,000 miles or one domestic flight on the typical airline. With a typical cashback card you get 1% back though some cards give 2% or even 4% back on certain classes of purchases. I have an Amex from Costco that gives 3% on gasoline and 2% on travel expenses, but Amex is not as accepted as Visa or MC.

  • Your cash cost for the 25K miles is $250 plus the $80 annual fee = $320
  • There are varying taxes and fees on award tickets, as low as $8 but sometimes much higher
  • If you are booking less than 3 weeks in advance, fees of $50 to $100 will apply
  • Finding available award seats can be quite difficult, the supply is far lower than for cash seats in most cases. There are also blackouts.
  • You will not receive miles for your trip. A typical cross-country return is 5,000 miles, of $50 at the 1% rate, $80-$100 at the rate airlines claim
  • Most people use miles long after they earn them, and in fact have a large balance. So a time discount should apply. Miles sitting in accounts earn no interest, cash does.

As such the free trip is harder to get and costs $400 to $500. But that is not far from (and sometimes more than) the cash price of a ticket. But cash is of course a much more flexible thing — you can use it for anything, not just airline tickets. There are a raft of cards out there now which tout “miles on any airline” and what they really give you is a 1% cashback that is only good on airlines. General 1% cashback is much better.

There is an argument that upgrades do much better. Upgrading with miles can be cheaper than upgrading with cash, since the cash price of business class seats is very high. However, as you learn if you are not a top elite flyer, upgrades are quite hard to get. Others are ahead of you in line. AA also instituted a cash co-pay on upgrades making them more expensive than before when done with miles.

If you spend less than $25K per year on the card, the math gets even worse. At $12.5K per year, you gave up at least $460 to $550 for your free ticket, and when the tickets are available on miles, the cash fare is often lower. If you spend much more a year, the cost may make some sense.

A common trick for people who have mileage cards is to pick up group checks at restaurants and have everybody pay you cash. However, the cards that give 3% cashback at restaurants like the Amex are much better for this.

RV daisy chain power grid

After every RV trip (I’m back from Burning Man) I think of more I want RVs to do. This year, as we have for many years, we built a power distribution system with a master generator rather than having each RV run its own noisy, smelly and inefficient generator. However, this is expensive and a lot of work for a small group, it is cheap and a lot of work for a larger group.

There’s been a revolution in small generator design of late thanks to the declining cost of inverters and other power conversion. A modern quality generator feeds the output of its windings to circuits to step up and step down the voltage to produce the required power. The output power is cleaner and more stable, and the generator is spun at different RPMs based on the power load, making it quieter and more efficient. With many models, you can also combine the internal output of two generators to produce a higher power generator.

RVs have come with expensive old-style generators that are quieter than cheap ones, and which produce better power, but today they are moving to inverter generators. With an inverter generator, it’s also possible to draw on the RV batteries for power surges (such as starting an AC or microwave) beyond what the generator can do.

I’m interested in the potential for smarter power, so what I would like to see is a way for a group of RVs with new generation power systems to plug together. In this way, they could all make use of the power in the other vehicles, and in most cases only a fraction of the generators would need to be running to provide power to all. (For example, at night, only one generator could power a whole cluster. In the day, with ACs running, several would need to run, but it would be very unlikely to have to run all, or even 75% of them.)  read more »

RV water tank should have UV disinfector

RVs all have a fresh water tank. When you rent one, they will often tell you not to drink that water. That’s because the tanks are being filled up in all sorts of random places, out of the control of the rental company, and while it’s probably safe, they don’t want to promise it, nor disinfect the tank every rental.

I recently got a small “pen” which you put in a cup of water and it shines a UV light for 30 seconds to kill any nasties in the water. While I have not tried to test it on infected water, I presume that it works.

So it seems it makes sense to me to install this sort of UV tube in the fresh water tank of RVs. Run it from time to time, and particularly after a fill, and be sure the water is clean. Indeed, with an appropriate filter, and a 2nd pump, such an RV could happily fill its water tank from clear lakes and streams, allowing longer dry camping which should have a market. Though of course the gray/black water tanks still will get full, but outside showers and drinking do not fill those tanks. A urination-only toilet could also be done if near a stream or lake.

On worldcon and convention design

The Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Montreal was enjoyable. Like all worldcons, which are run by fans rather than professional convention staff, it had its issues, but nothing too drastic. Our worst experience actually came from the Delta hotel, which I’ll describe below.

For the past few decades, Worldcons have been held in convention centers. They attract from 4,000 to 7,000 people and are generally felt to not fit in any ordinary hotel outside Las Vegas. (They don’t go to Las Vegas both because there is no large fan base there to run it, and the Las Vegas Hotels, unlike those in most towns, have no incentive to offer a cut-rate deal on a summer weekend.)

Because they are always held where deals are to be had on hotels and convention space, it is not uncommon for them to get the entire convention center or a large portion of it. This turns out to be a temptation which most cons succumb to, but should not. The Montreal convention was huge and cavernous. It had little of the intimacy a mostly social event should have. Use of the entire convention center meant long walks and robbed the convention of a social center — a single place through which you could expect people to flow, so you would see your friends, join up for hallway conversations and gather people to go for meals.

This is one of those cases where less can be more. You should not take more space than you need. The convention should be as initimate as it can be without becoming crowded. That may mean deliberately not taking function space.

A social center is vital to a good convention. Unfortunately when there are hotels in multiple directions from the convention center so that people use different exits, it is hard for the crowd to figure one out. At the Montreal convention (Anticipation) the closest thing to such a center was near the registration desk, but it never really worked. At other conventions, anywhere on the path to the primary entrance works. Sometimes it is the lobby and bar of the HQ hotel, but this was not the case here.

When the social center will not be obvious, the convention should try to find the best one, and put up a sign saying it is the congregation point. In some convention centers, meeting rooms will be on a different floor from other function space, and so it may be necessary to have two meeting points, one for in-between sessions, and the other for general time.

The social center/meeting point is the one thing it can make sense to use some space on. Expect a good fraction of the con to congregate there in break times. Let them form groups of conversation (there should be sound absorbing walls) but still be able to see and find other people in the space.

A good thing to make a meeting point work is to put up the schedule there, ideally in a dynamic way. This can be computer screens showing the titles of the upcoming sessions, or even human changed cards saying this. Anticipation used a giant schedule on the wall, which is also OK. The other methods allow descriptions to go up with the names. Anticipation did a roundly disliked “pocket” program printed on tabloid sized paper, with two pages usually needed to cover a whole day. Nobody had a pocket it could fit in. In addition, there were many changes to the schedule and the online version was not updated. Again, this is a volunteer effort, so I expect some glitches like this to happen, they are par for the course.  read more »

Photos should be tagged for alternate aspect ratios

Today, fewer and fewer photos are printed. We usually see them on screen. And more and more commonly, we see them on a widescreen monitor. 16:9 screens are quite common as are 16:10. You can hardly find a 4:3 screen any more, though that is the aspect ratio of most P&S cameras. Most SLRs are 3:2, which still doesn’t fit on the widescreen monitor.

So there should be a standard tag to put in photos saying, “It’s OK to crop this photo to fill aspect ratio X:Y.” Then display programs could know to do this, instead of putting black bars at the center. Since all photos exceed the resolution of the screen by a large margin these days, there is no loss of detail to do this, in fact there is probably a gain.

One could apply this tag (or perhaps its converse, one saying, “please display the entirety of this photo without crop”) in a photo organizer program of course. It could also be applied by cameras. To do this, the camera might display a dim outline of a widescreen aspect ratio, so you can compose the shot to fit in that. Many people might decide to do this as the default, and push a button when they need the whole field of view and want to set a “don’t crop” flag. Of course you can fix this after the fact.

Should sensors just go widescreen? Probably not. The lens produces a circular image, so more square aspect ratios make sense. A widescreen sensor would be too narrow in portrait mode. In fact, there’s an argument that as sensors get cheaper, they should go circular and then the user can decide after the fact if they want landscape, portrait or some particular aspect ratio in either.

The simplest way to start this plan would be to add a “crop top/bottom to fit width” option to photo viewers. And to add a “flag this picture to not do that” command to the photo viewer. A quick run through the slideshow, tagging the few photos that can’t be expanded to fill the screen, would prepare the slideshow for showing to others, or it could be done right during the show.

In Montreal for Worldcon

I’m in Montreal for the next 5 days for the World Science Fiction convention. I already did 3 panels on Thursday, one more on Nanotech to do on Sunday. Great crowd of people here. Then it’s back to Burning Man preparation. Due to an error we got terrible placement in the city this year but I’m working on it.

Shortly I will post new thoughts on the nature of consciousness I had after talking to Peter Watts. Watts is the author of the novel Blindsight which I highly recommend.

Amazing eclipse at Enewetak, Marshall Islands

The total eclipse of the sun is the most visually stunning natural phenomenon there is. It leaves the other natural wonders like the Grand Canyon far behind. Through an amazing set of circumstances I got to see my 4th on Enewetak, an isolated atoll in the Marshall Islands. Enewetak was the site of 43 nuclear explosions including Mike, the first H-bomb (which erased one of the islands in the chain.)

The eclipse was astounding and we saw it clearly, other than one cloud which intruded for the first 30 seconds of our 5 minute and 40 second totality in otherwise generally clear skies. We were fortunate, as most of the eclipse path, which went over hundreds of millions of people, was clouded out in India and China. After leaving China the eclipse visited just a few islands, including Enewetak, and many of those were also clouded.

What makes the story even more dramatic is the effort to get there, and the fact that we only confirmed we were going 48 hours before the eclipse. We tracked the weather and found that only Enewetak had good cloud prospects and a long runway, but the runway there has not been maintained for several years, and hasn’t seen a jet for a long time. We left not knowing if we would be able to land there, but in the end all was glorious.

I have written up the story and included my first round of eclipse photos (my best to date) as well as photos of the islands and the nuke craters. I will be updating with new photos, including experiments in high-dynamic-range photography. An eclipse is so amazing in part because it covers a huge range of brightnesses — from prominences almost as hot as the sun, to the inner corona (solar atmosphere) brighter than the full moon to the streamers of the outer corona, and the stars and planets. No photograph has ever remotely done it justice, but I am working on that.

This eclipse had terror, drama, excitement and great beauty. The corona was more compact than it has been in the past, due to the strange minimum the sun has been going through, and there were few prominences, but the adventure getting there and the fantastic tropical setting made up for it.

Enjoy the story of the story of the jet trip to the 2009 Eclipse at Enewetak. You’ll be a bit jealous, but it was so great I can make no apologies.

Two wheeled robocars and the Twill

I have mostly written about 3 and 4 wheeled Robocars, even when the vehicles are narrow and light. Having 3 or 4 wheels of course means stability when stopped or slow, but I have also been concerned that even riding a 2 wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle requires a lot of rider participation. It is necessary to lean into turns. It’s disconcerting being the stoker on a tandem bicycle or the passenger on a motorcycle, compared to being a car passenger. You certainly don’t imagine yourself reading a book in such situations.

On the other hand 3/4 wheeled vehicles have their disadvantages. They must have a wide enough wheelbase to be stable because they can’t easiliy lean. In addition, for full stability you want to keep their center of gravity as low as you can. The extra width means a lot more drag, unless you have a design like the Aptera Motors entrant in the Progressive 100mpg X-prize, which puts the wheels out to the sides.

I recently met Chris Tacklind, who has a design-stage startup called Twill Tech. They have not produced a vehicle yet, but their concepts are quite interesting. Their planned vehicle, the Twill, has two wheels but uses computer control to allow it to stay stable when stopped. It does this by slight motions of the wheels, the same way that pro cyclists will do a track stand. They believe they can make a 2 wheeled electric motorcycle that can use this technique to stay stable when stopped, though it would need to extend extra legs when parked.

This is intended to be an enclosed vehicle, both for rider comfort and lower drag. The seat is very different from a motorcycle seat, in that you do not sit astride the vehicle, but in a chair similar to a spacecraft’s zero-G chair.

In addition, the vehicle is designed to have the rear wheel on a lever arm so that it can stand almost upright when stopped and then slope down low, with the rider reclined, at higher speeds. The reclined position is necessary for decent drag numbers at speed — the upright human creates a lot of the drag in a bicycle or motorcycle. However, the upright position when slow or stopped allows for much easier entry and exit of the vehicle. As everybody knows, really low cars are harder to get in and out of. Twill is not the first company to propose a vehicle which rises and lowers. For example the MIT CityCar plan proposes this so the vehicles can stack for parking. Even without stacking, such designs can park in a much smaller space.  read more »

Tales of the Michael Jackson lottery, eBay and security

I’ve been fascinated of late with the issue of eBay auctions of hot-hot items, like the playstation 3 and others. The story of the Michael Jackson memorial tickets is an interesting one.

17,000 tickets were given out as 8,500 pairs to winners chosen from 1.6 million online applications. Applicants had to give their name and address, and if they won, they further had to use or create a ticketmaster account to get their voucher. They then had to take the voucher to Dodger stadium in L.A. on Monday. (This was a dealbreaker even for honest winners from too far outside L.A. such as a Montreal flight attendant.) At the stadium, they had to present ID to show they were the winner, whereupon they were given 2 tickets (with random seat assignment) and two standard club security wristbands, one of which was affixed to their arm. They were told if the one on the arm was damaged in any way, they would not get into the memorial. The terms indicated the tickets were non-transferable.

Immediately a lot of people, especially those not from California who won, tried to sell tickets on eBay and Craigslist. In fact, even before the lottery results, people were listing something more speculative, “If I win the lottery, you pay me and you’ll get my tickets.” (One could enter the lottery directly of course, but this would increase your chances as only one entry was allowed, in theory, per person.)

Both eBay and Craigslist had very strong policies against listing these tickets, and apparently had staff and software working regularly to remove listings. Listings on eBay were mostly disappearing quickly, though some persisted for unknown reasons. Craiglist listings also vanished quickly, though some sellers were clever enough to put their phone numbers in their listing titles. On Craigslist a deleted ad still shows up in the search summary for some time after the posting itself is gone.

There was a strong backlash by fans against the sellers. On both sites, ordinary users were regularly hitting the links to report inappropriate postings. In addition, a brand new phenomenon emerged on eBay — some users were deliberately placing 99 million dollar bids on any auction they found for tickets, eliminating any chance of further bidding. (See note) In that past that could earn you negative reputation, but eBay has removed negative reputation for buyers. In addition, it could earn you a mark as a non-paying buyer, but in this case, the seller is unable to file such a complaint because their auction of the non-tranferable ticket itself violates eBay’s terms.  read more »

A standard OS mini-daemon, saving power and memory

On every system we use today (except the iPhone) a lot of programs want to be daemons — background tasks that sit around to wait for events or perform certain regular operations. On Windows it seems things are the worst, which is why I wrote before about how Windows needs a master daemon. A master daemon is a single background process that uses a scripting language to perform most of the daemon functions that other programs are asking for. A master daemon will wait for events and fire off more full-fledged processes when they happen. Scripts would allow detection of connection on ports, updated software versions becoming available, input from the user and anything else that becomes popular.

(Unix always had a simple master daemon for internet port connections, called inetd, but today Linux systems tend to be full of always-running deamons.)

Background tasks make a system slow to start up, and take memory. This is becoming most noticed on our new, lower powered devices like smartphones. So much so that Apple made the dramatic decision to not allow applications to run in the background. No multitasking is allowed. This seriously restricts what the iPhone can do, but Apple feels the increase in performance is worth it. It is certainly true that on Windows Mobile (which actually made it hard to terminate a program once you started it running) very quickly bloats down and becomes unusable.

Background tasks are also sucking battery life on phones. On my phone it’s easy to leave Google maps running in the background by mistake, and then it will sit there constantly sucking down maps, using the network and quickly draining the battery. I have not tried all phones, but Windows Mobile on my HTC is a complete idiot about battery management. Once you start up the network connection you seem to have to manually take it down, and if you don’t you can forget about your battery life. Often is the time you’ll pull the phone out to find it warm and draining. I don’t know if the other multitasking phones, like the Android, Pre and others have this trouble.

The iPhone’s answer is too draconian. I think the answer lies in a good master daemon, where programs can provide scripts in a special language to get the program invoked on various events. Whatever is popular should be quickly added to the daemon if it’s not too large. (The daemon itself can be modular so it only keeps in ram what it really needs.)

In particular, the scripts should say how important quick response time is, and whether the woken code will want to use the network. Consider an e-mail program that wants to check for new e-mail every 10 minutes. (Ideally it should have IMAP push but that’s another story.)

The master daemon scheduler should realize the mail program doesn’t have to connect exactly every 10 minutes, though that is what a background task would do. It doesn’t mind if it’s off by even a few minutes. So if there are multiple programs that want to wake up and do something every so often, they can be scheduled to only be loaded one or two at a time, to conserve memory and CPU. So the e-mail program might wait a few minutes for something else to complete. In addition, since the e-Mail program wants to use the network, groups of programs that want to use the network could be executed in order (or even, if appropriate, at the same time) so that the phone ends up setting up a network connection (on session based networks) and doing all the network daemons, and then closing it down.

The master daemon could also centralize event notifications coming from the outside. Programs that want to be woken up for such events (such as incoming emails or IMs) could register to be woken up on various events on ports. If the wireless network doesn’t support that it might allow notifications to come in via SMS that a new task awaits. When this special SMS comes in, the network connection would be brought up, and the signalled task would run, along with other tasks that want to do a quick check of the network. As much of this logic should be in the daemon script, so that the full program is only woken up if that is truly needed.

The daemon would of course handle all local events (key presses, screen touches) and also events from other sensors, like the GPS (wake me up if we get near hear, or more than 100 meters from there, etc.) It would also detect gestures with the accelerometer. If the user shakes the phone or flips it in a certain way, a program might want to be woken up.

And of course, it should be tied to the existing daemon that handles incoming calls and SMSs. Apps should be able to (if given permission) take control of incoming communications, to improve what the regular phone does.

This system could give the illusion of a full multitasking phone without the weight of it. Yes, loading in an app upon an event might be slightly slower than having it sitting there in ram. But if there is spare ram, it would of course be cached there anyway. An ideal app would let itself be woken up in stages, with a small piece of code loading quickly to give instant UI response, and the real meat loading more slowly if need be.

While our devices are going to get faster, this is not a problem which will entirely go away. The limiting factors in a portable device are mostly based on power, including the power to keep the network radios on. And applications will keep getting bigger the faster our CPUs get and the bigger our memories get. So this approach may have more lifetime than you think.

Review of Downfall / Der Untergang

Last month I released a parody video for the film “Downfall” (known as Der Untergang in German.) Having purchased the movie, I also watched it of course, and here is my review. At least in my case, the existence of the parody brought some new sales for the film. There are “spoilers” of a sort in this review, but of course you already know how it ends, indeed as history you may know almost everything that happens in it, though unless you are a detailed student of these events you won’t know all of it.

The movie, which deals with Hitler’s last days in the bunker, is dark and depressing. And there is the challenge of making some of the nastiest villains of the 20th century be the protagonists. This caused controversy, because people don’t like seeing Hitler and his ilk humanized even in the slightest. Hitler in this film is in some ways as you might expect him. Crazy, brutal and nasty. He’s also shown being kind to some friends, to Eva, to his dog, his secretaries and a few others. He has to be human or the film becomes just caricature, and not much as a drama. Goebbels gets little humanity, and his wife, who has the most disturbing scene in the film, has a very twisted sort of humanity.

While we have only a limited idea of what Hitler was like at this time, I feel the movie actually still made him a madman caricature. The real Hitler must have been highly charismatic and charming. He inspired people to tremendous loyalty, and got them to do horrible things for him, including taking their own lives at the end as we’re shown several times. The Nazis who were recruited by Hitler in his early days all spoke warmly of his charm, but none of this comes through in the film. We don’t like to think of him that way.

The movie is told in large part from the viewpoint of Frau Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s private secretaries, who escaped the bunker and died a few years ago. The real Junge appears in the film, apologizing for how she just got caught up in the excitement of being Hitler’s secretary, and how she wished she never went down that road. Like all the people who were there, she says she was unaware of what was really going on. Considering she typed Hitler’s last testament, where he blames the Jews for the war, and other statements he dictated to her, it’s not something she could have been totally unaware of. Junge asks Eva Braun about Hitler’s brutality as a contrast to his nicer moods and she explains, “that’s when he’s being the Führer!” suggesting she compartmentalized the two men, lover and dictator, in two different ways.

During the movie the Soviets are bombing Berlin, and Hitler refuses surrender, in spite of urging from his generals and pleas for the civilians. Even Himmler, whose dastardly evil side is not shown in this film, is the “smart one” encouraging Hitler to leave Berlin, and who “betrays” Hitler in trying to negotiate a surrender. As in any war movie, when you see people being blown up by bombs and shot from their point of view, your instinct is to sympathise, and it’s easy to forget it is the allies who are doing the bombing, and the people dying are the ones who stuck with Hitler to the end. Some of them are “innocent,” including many of the citizens of Berlin, but many are not. Their loyalty may seem redeeming but they are giving that loyalty (and have reached a level of trust from Hitler) in a world where many in Germany wanted him out, where a number had been executed for plots to be rid of him.

A few Nazis get favourable treatment. Speer, for example. A scene from his memoirs, which is probably false, has Speer telling Hitler that he has disobeyed his “Nero” scorched Earth orders. This scene appears in Speer’s later memoirs but is denied in earlier ones, making it likely to be an invented memory. To give Speer credit, of course, he did disobey the orders, and he was the only top Nazi to own up, even partially, for what he did. Junge herself comes off as perfectly innocent and loyal. General Mohnke and SS Doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck (both of whom died moderately recently) get positive treatments.

The most disturbing scene involves Frau Goebbels executing her own children. There are conflicting stories on this, though the one piece of documentation, her last letter, makes it somewhat credible. Movie directors “like” such scenes, as they are incredibly chilling and nightmare-inducing. While Hitler was losing his grip on reality, the others were not, and these horrors are all a result of how much they embraced their bizarre ideology. Frau Goebbels could have sent her children to safety, she felt there was no point in them living in the world that was to come. Still, this scene will give you nightmares, along with a number of other gruesome suicides, even if you know in your mind that the people suiciding have done such incredibly nasty things.

But this is a part of history worth understanding. And it is worth trying to understand — though we may never do so — how human beings not as different from us as we would like to believe —could have been such monsters. The movie is well made, and powerful, if depressing and disturbing at the same time.

Design for a universal plug

I’ve written before about both the desire for universal dc power and more simply universal laptop power at meeting room desks. This week saw the announcement that all the companies selling cell phones in Europe will standardize on a single charging connector, based on micro-USB. (A large number of devices today use the now deprecated Mini-USB plug, and it was close to becoming a standard by default.) As most devices are including a USB plug for data, this is not a big leap, though it turned out a number of devices would not charge from other people’s chargers, either from stupidity or malice. (My Motorola RAZR will not charge from a generic USB charger or even an ordinary PC. It needs a special charger with the data pins shorted, or if it plugs into a PC, it insists on a dialog with the Motorola phone tools driver before it will accept a charge. Many suspect this was to just sell chargers and the software.) The new agreement is essentially just a vow to make sure everybody’s chargers work with everybody’s devices. It’s actually a win for the vendors who can now not bother to ship a charger with the phone, presuming you have one or will buy one. It is not required they have the plug — supplying an adapter is sufficient, as Apple is likely to do. Mp3 player vendors have not yet signed on.

USB isn’t a great choice since it only delivers 500ma at 5 volts officially, though many devices are putting 1 amp through it. That’s not enough to quickly charge or even power some devices. USB 3.0 officially raised the limit to 900ma, or 4.5 watts.

USB is a data connector with some power provided which has been suborned for charging and power. What about a design for a universal plug aimed at doing power, with data being the secondary goal? Not that it would suck at data, since it’s now pretty easy to feed a gigabit over 2 twisted pairs with cheap circuits. Let’s look at the constraints

Smart Power

The world’s new power connector should be smart. It should offer 5 volts at low current to start, to power the electronics that will negotiate how much voltage and current will actually go through the connector. It should also support dumb plugs, which offer only a resistance value on the data pins, with each resistance value specifying a commonly used voltage and current level.

Real current would never flow until connection (and ground if needed) has been assured. As such, there is minimal risk of arcing or electric shock through the plug. The source can offer the sorts of power it can deliver (AC, DC, what voltages, what currents) and the sink (power using device) can pick what it wants from that menu. Sinks should be liberal in what they take though (as they all have become of late) so they can be plugged into existing dumb outlets through simple adapters.

Style of pins

We want low current plugs to be small, and heavy current plugs to be big. I suggest a triangular pin shape, something like what is shown here. In this design, two main pins can only go in one way. The lower triangle is an optional ground — but see notes on grounding below.  read more »

Panoramas of Israel

Back in March, I took my first trip to the middle east, to attend Yossi Vardi’s “Kinnernet” unconference on the shores of lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. This is an invite-only conference and a great time, but being only 2 days long, it’s hard to justify 2 days of flying just to go to it. So I also conducted a tour of sites in Israel and a bit of Jordan.

Israel is another one of the fascinating must-do countries for an English speaker, not simply for its immense history and impressive scenery, but because it is fascinating politically, and a large segment of the population speaks English. There are other countries which are interesting politically and culturally, but you will only get to speak to that segment of the population that has learned English.

Israel is a complex country and of course one can’t understand it on a visit, since many of the natives will admit to not understanding it. Most of the people I associated with, being high-tech internet people, seemed to be on the less aggressive side, if I can call them that; people opposed to the settlers, for example, and eager for land-for-peace or two-state solutions. During my trip Gaza was in turmoil and I did not visit it. I drove through West Bank areas a couple of times but only to get from A to B — though many Israelis expressed shock that I would be willing to do that. (On our way back from Jordan, on the outskirts of Jericho, we saw a lone Haredi, wearing black hat and black coat, hitch-hiking after dark on the side of the road. Our car was full, but our driver, who was not much afraid of the west bank, did agree that was a man of particular bravery of foolishness.)

The Israelis have come to accept, like fish in water, many things that to an outside seem shocking. Having two very different levels of rights for large sections of the population. Having your car, and then later your bag, searched as you do something as simple as visiting a shopping mall. The presence of soldiers with machine guns slung on their backs almost everywhere you look. Being on the bus that simply shuttles all day along a 400 foot trip between the Jordan and Israel border stations, and having to go through a 20 minute security inspection even though it’s been in view of the Israel station the whole time. Showing ID cards all the time.

The latter is of course not unexpected but disturbing. Israelis are taught more than anybody else in school about the dangers of a society with too much identity information on its people, and which requires them to carry and show papers. So they would have been the last to accept this, but they have. It shows how extreme their situation is more than some of the other less subtle signs. If more buildings fall in the USA, we’ll become more and more like Israel.

And yet the people, both Israelis and Arabs, are all intensely friendly and gregarious. (The same whether I would reveal my Jewish ancestry or not. I do not, however, look Jewish.) Famously brusque but still warm hearted.

The food is Israel is much better than I expected. It starts with the extremely fresh ingredients grown in the tropical climate. The falafel stands on the sides of the streets put anything elsewhere to shame, and I became addicted to the fresh squeezed juices also found everywhere.

In Jerusalem, around my hotel near King George and Jaffa, I experienced an amazing contrast. On Thursday night the streets were packed full of young people, starting their weekend. On Friday night, Shabbat was observed so strictly in that area that you could hear nothing but the chirping of birds and a few distant cars. In Tel Aviv, and among the high-tech crowd, Shabbat was hard to detect.

The old city of Jerusalem is a great trip, and the Muslim quarter, which is the most lively, is not nearly so dangerous or scary, even after hours, as Israelis described it to be. Along it is the “Stations of the Cross” route which gets Christians all excited, even though it’s clearly not the original route, which was not dotted with hundreds of Muslim-run souvenir shops. Seeing an internet cafe, I joked, “And here, at station 5.5, is where Jesus stopped to check his E-mail and twitter about how tired he was.” Jerusalem, and the rest of Israel, is packed full of Christians on “holy land” tours. A friend described it as like Houston, in that it was full of Texans.

I have a very large gallery of panoramas of Israel, along with a second page of panos and a still yet to be processed gallery of regular photos to come. Also to come is the 2-day trip into Jordan to see Petra. I’m particularly pleased with the first one that I show here, a 360 degree view of the western wall (wailing wall) male section just before Shabbat. Check out the full sized version.

The overengineering and non-deployment of SSL/TLS

I have written before about how overzealous design of cryptographic protocols often results in their non-use. Protocol engineers are trained to be thorough and complete. They rankle at leaving in vulnerabilities, even against the most extreme threats. But the perfect is often the enemy of the good. None of the various protocols to encrypt E-mail have ever reached even a modicum of success in the public space. It’s a very rare VoIP call (other than Skype) that is encrypted.

The two most successful encryption protocols in the public space are SSL/TLS (which provide the HTTPS system among other things) and Skype. At a level below that are some of the VPN applications and SSH.

TLS (the successor to SSL) is very widely deployed but still very rarely used. Only the most tiny fraction of web sessions are encrypted. Many sites don’t support it at all. Some will accept HTTPS but immediately push you back to HTTP. In most cases, sites will have you log in via HTTPS so your password is secure, and then send you back to unencrypted HTTP, where anybody on the wireless network can watch all your traffic. It’s a rare site that lets you conduct your entire series of web interactions entirely encrypted. This site fails in that regard. More common is the use of TLS for POP3 and IMAP sessions, both because it’s easy, there is only one TCP session, and the set of users who access the server is a small and controlled set. The same is true with VPNs — one session, and typically the users are all required by their employer to use the VPN, so it gets deployed. IPSec code exists in many systems, but is rarely used in stranger-to-stranger communications (or even friend-to-friend) due to the nightmares of key management.

TLS’s complexity makes sense for “sessions” but has problems when you use it for transactions, such as web hits. Transactions want to be short. They consist of a request, and a response, and perhaps an ACK. Adding extra back and forths to negotiate encryption can double or triple the network cost of the transactions.

Skype became a huge success at encrypting because it is done with ZUI — the user is not even aware of the crypto. It just happens. SSH takes an approach that is deliberately vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks on the first session in order to reduce the UI, and it has almost completely replaced unencrypted telnet among the command line crowd.

I write about this because now Google is finally doing an experiment to let people have their whole gmail session be encrypted with HTTPS. This is great news. But hidden in the great news is the fact that Google is evaluating the “cost” of doing this. There also may be some backlash if Google does this on web search, as it means that ordinary sites will stop getting to see the search query in the “Referer” field until they too switch to HTTPS and Google sends traffic to them over HTTPS. (That’s because, for security reasons, the HTTPS design says that if I made a query encrypted, I don’t want that query to be repeated in the clear when I follow a link to a non-encrypted site.) Many sites do a lot of log analysis to see what search terms are bringing in traffic, and may object when that goes away.  read more »

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