Blogs

Many new panoramas of Alberta, Banff, Jasper and Rockies

I’ve been remiss in updating my panoramas, so I just did some work on the site and put up a new page full of Alberta panoramas, as well as some others I will point to shortly.

The Alberta rockies are among the most scenic mountains in the world. Many have called the Icefields Parkway, which goes between Banff and Jasper national parks, the most scenic drive in the world. I’ve taken it several times in both summer and winter and it is not to be missed. I have a wide variety of regular photos I need to sort and put up as well from various trips.

This image is of Moraine Lake, which is close to the famous Lake Louise. All the lakes of these parks glow in incredible colours of teal, blue and green due to glacial silt. In winter they are frozen and the colour is less pronounced, but the mountains are more snow-capped, so it’s hard to say which is the best season. (This photo is available as a jigsaw puzzle from Ratzenberger.)

Enjoy the Panoramics of Alberta. And I recommend you book your own trip up to Calgary or Edmonton to do the drive yourself. I think you’ll find this to be among my best galleries of panoramas.

I also recently rebuilt and improved my shot of Ginza-5-Chome, Tokyo’s most famous street corner. While it was handheld I have been able to remove almost all the ghosts with new software.

A Posix (universal API) for package management

As part of my series on the horrors of modern system administration and upgrading, let me propose the need for a universal API, over all operating systems, for accessing data from, and some control of the package management system.

There have been many efforts in the past to standardize programming APIs within all the unix-like operating systems, some of them extending into MS Windows, such as Posix. Posix is a bit small to write very complex programs fully portably but it’s a start. Any such API can make your portability easier if it can’t make it trivial the way it’s supposed to.

But there has been little effort to standardize the next level, machine administration and configuration. Today a large part of that is done with the package manager. Indeed, the package manager is the soul (and curse) of most major OS distributions. One of the biggest answers to “what’s the difference between debian and Fedora” is “dpkg and apt, vs. rpm and yum.” (Yes you can, and I do, use apt with rpm.)

Now the truth is that from a user perspective, these package managers don’t actually look very different. They all install and remove packages by name, perform upgrades, handle dependencies etc. Add-ons like apt and GUI package managers help users search and auto-install all dependencies. To the user, the most common requests are to find and install a package, and to upgrade it or the system.  read more »

Miles for charity

Many people accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles they will never use. Some of the airlines allow you to donate miles to a very limited set of charities. I can see why they limit it — they would much rather have you not use the miles than have the charity use them. Though it’s possible that while the donor does not get any tax credit for donated miles, the airline does.

However, it should be possible for a clever web philanthropist to set up a system to allow people to donate miles to any charity they wish. This is not a violation of the terms of service on flyer miles, which only forbid trading them for some valuable consideration, in particular money.

The site would allow charities to register and donors to promise miles to the charities. A charity could then look at its balance, and go to the airline’s web site before they book travel to see if the flight they want can be purchased with miles. If so, they would enter the exact itinerary into the web site, and a suitable donor would be mailed the itinerary and passenger’s name. They would make the booking, and send the details back to the charity. (Several donors could be mailed, the first to claim would do the booking.) In a few situations, the available seats would vanish before the donor could do the booking, in which case the charity would need to try another airline or paid seat.

Donors could specify what they would donate, whether they are willing to buy upgrades or business class tickets (probably not) and so on.

Now it turns out that while the donor can’t accept money for the miles, the charity might be able to. Oftentimes non-profit representatives travel for things like speaking engagements where the host has a travel budget. Some hosts would probably be happy to cover something other than airfare, such as other travel expenses, or a speaking honorarium with the money. In this case, the charity would actually gain real money for the donation, a win for all — except the airline. But in the case of the airline, we are talking about revenue it would have lost if the donor had used the miles for a flight for themselves or an associate. So the real question is whether the airline can be indignant about having miles that would have gone unused suddenly find a useful home.

Now it’s true the booking interfaces on the airline sites are not great, but they are improving. And some employee of the non-profit would need to have an account, possibly even one with enough miles, just to test what flights are available. But this will be true in many cases.

Would the airlines try to stop it? I doubt it, because this would never be that big, and they would be seen as pretty nasty going after something that benefits charities.

Miles could also be used for hotel stays and other travel items.

Renting out eBay feedback to first-time sellers

An eBay reputation is important if you’re going to sell there. Research shows it adds a decent amount to the price, and it’s very difficult to sell at all with just a few feedbacks. Usually sellers will buy a few items first to get a decent feedback — sometimes even scam items sold just for feedback. Because savvy buyers insist on selling feedback, it’s harder, and sometimes sellers will also sell bogus items just for feedback as a seller. eBay has considered offering a feedback score based on the dollar volume of positive and negative transactions but has not yet done this. Some plugins will do that.

One thing I recommend to low feedback sellers it to offer to reverse the “normal” payment system. If the seller has little feedback and the buyer has much better feedback, the seller should send the item without payment, and the buyer pay on receipt. Many people find this foreign but in fact it makes perfect sense. In real stores you don’t pay until you get the item, and many big reputation merchants allow payment on credit for known buyers. Another idea is to offer to pay for escrow. This costs money, but will make it back in higher sale prices.

However, here’s a new idea. Allow high-reputation sellers to “lease out” feedback, effectively acting as a co-signer. This means they vouch for the brand new seller. If the new seller gets a negative feedback on the transaction, it goes on both the new seller’s feedback and the guarantor’s. Positive feedback goes on the seller and possibly into a special bucket on the guarantor’s. The guarantor would also get to be involved in any disputes.

Seems risky, and because of that, guarantors would only do this for people they trusted well, or who paid them a juicy bond, which is the whole point of the idea. Guarantors would probably use bonds to issue refunds to badly treated customers to avoid a negative, though you want to be careful about blackmail risks. It’s possible the breakdown of true and as-guarantor negatives might be visible on a guarantor if you look deep, but the idea is the guarantor should be strongly motivated to keep the new seller in line.

With lendable reputation, new sellers could start pleasing customers and competing from day one.

Why do most online discussion packages suck so badly?

Yesterday I attended the online community session of Web2Open, a barcamp-like meeting going on within Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Expo. (The Expo has a huge number of attendees, it’s doing very well.)

I put forward a number of questions I’ve been considering for later posts, but one I want to make here is this: Where has the innovation been in online discussion software? Why are most message boards and blog comment systems so hard to use?

I know this is true because huge numbers of people are still using USENET, and not just for downloading binaries. USENET hasn’t seen much technical innovation since the 80s. As such, it’s aging, but it shouldn’t be simply aging, it should have been superseded long ago. We’ve gone through a period of tremendous online innovation in the last few decades, unlike any in history. Other old systems, like the Well, continue to exist and even keep paying customers in spite of minimal innovation. This is like gopher beating Firefox, or a CD Walkman being superior in some ways to an iPod. It’s crazy. (The users aren’t crazy, it’s the fact that their choice is right that’s crazy.)  read more »

Virtual Machine Image library at EC2

The use of virtual machines is getting very popular in the web hosting world. Particularly exciting to many people is Amazon.com’s EC2 — which means Elastic Compute Cloud. It’s a large pool of virtual machines that you can rent by the hour. I know people planning on basing whole companies on this system, because they can build an application that scales up by adding more virtual machines on demand. It’s decently priced and a lot cheaper than building it yourself in most cases.

In many ways, something like EC2 would be great for all those web sites which deal with the “slashdot” effect. I hope to see web hosters, servers and web applications just naturally allow scaling through the addition of extra machines. This typically means either some round-robin-DNS, or a master server that does redirects to a pool of servers, or a master cache that processes the data from a pool of servers, or a few other methods. Dealing with persistent state that can’t be kept in cookies requires a shared database among all the servers, which may make the database the limiting factor. Rumours suggest Amazon will release an SQL interface to their internal storage system which presumably is highly scalable, solving that problem.

As noted, this would be great for small to medium web sites. They can mostly run on a single server, but if they ever see a giant burst of traffic, for example by being linked to from a highly popular site, they can in minutes bring up extra servers to share the load. I’ve suggested this approach for the Battlestar Galactica Wiki I’ve been using — normally their load is modest, but while the show is on, each week, predictably, they get such a huge load of traffic when the show actually airs that they have to lock the wiki down. They have tried to solve this the old fashioned way — buying bigger servers — but that’s a waste when they really just need one day a week, 22 weeks a year, of high capacity.

However, I digress. What I really want to talk about is using such systems to get access to all sorts of platforms. As I’ve noted before, linux is a huge mishmash of platforms. There are many revisions of Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE, Debian, Gentoo and many others out there. Not just the current release, but all the past releases, in both stable, testing and unstable branches. On top of that there are many versions of the BSD variants.  read more »

Transit clock for local shops and cafes

In many cities, the transit systems have GPS data on the vehicles to allow exact prediction of when trains and buses will arrive at stops. This is quite handy if you live near a transit line, and people are working on better mobile interfaces for them, but it's still a lot harder to use them at a remote location.

It would be nice to have a small internet appliance for shops, cafes and other hangouts that are short walks from transit stops. The appliance would be programmed with the typical walking time to the stop, and of course which stop to track. It would then display, on a small screen when a vehicle was coming, and how much time you had before you could walk easily, and then before you could run and make the train or bus.

Failing the live GPS data it could just work on schedules. It might make a low-key but audible noise as well. It need not have its own screen, if the place has a TV already it could do an overlay on that, though flat panel screens are now only about $100.

Some transit lines have placed expensive outdoor "next bus" signs on their stops and shelters for these systems, which is great, but in fact it might make more sense to put an appliance like this behind a local shop window, where it doesn't need to be outdoor rated, and pay the shopowner or local homeowner.

To turn this into a moneymaker, it could be combined with a system to sell transit tickets (presumably through the cash register.) This is a win for the transit system, since transit lines without controlled stations waste a lot of time as the driver collects change and tickets as people get on. People with a pre-paid, pre-timestamped ticket can get on quickly and don't need a transfer. This even works for systems with distance based pricing. I have often wondered why you don't see more selling of transit tickets at the shops around stops in order to save this delay. SF Muni went to "proof of purchase" instead of driver collected tickets so they could put ticket machines at busy stops to save the driver time, but they aren't everywhere.

For a cafe, it's a nice thing to do for customers, and even makes them more willing to stay, safe in the knowledge they can get their vehicle efficiently. A taxi-summoning function could also be added (press a button on the box to call a taxi) which could, in theory, also predict when the taxi will arrive since many of them have GPS networks now.

Backwards airplane middle seats

It’s annoying (and vidicating at the same time) when you see somebody else developing an idea you’re working on, and today I saw one such idea announced in Europe.

Last year while flying I mused about how sitting in a row makes us bump up against one another at the point we are all widest — the elbows and butts. We are not rectangles, so there are roomier ways to pack us. I toyed with a number of ideas.

First I considered staggering the rows slightly, either by angling them back or front a bit, or simply having the middle seats be about 6” behind the aisle and window seats. Then our elbows would not overlap, but it would make the “corridor” (if you can call it that) to the window seat have some narrow corners, and would suffer some of the problems I will outline below.

Then I realized it might make sense to just reverse the middle seat. All the middle seats in a section could face backwards, and we would then have more space because wide parts would mesh with narrow parts. Somebody else has also worked up the same idea and has even got some prototypes and drawings, which are better than the ones I had worked up to show here. However, I will outline some of the issues I came up with in my experiments — mostly done with household chairs laid out in experimental patterns.  read more »

A new sub-blog about Battlestar Galactica

I’ve been participating in online discussions about my favourite TV show, Battlestar Galactica, so I have collected a number of my selected postings about the show, along with some new ones, into a sub-blog on this web site.

If you are a fan of the site I invite you to subscribe to my Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog.

It has its own RSS feed as well. You can also find it in the menu for this site. The show is now on a 9 month break before Season 4, so postings should become scarce after a while, but I still have a number in my queue to add. Theories will range from the well-grounded to the invented, but I hope it will help you enjoy the show.

Local Depot

In yesterday’s article on future shopping I outlined a concept I called a local depot. I want to expand more on that concept. The basic idea is web shopping from an urban warehouse complex with fast delivery not to your home, but to a depot within walking distance of your home, where you can pick up items on your own schedule that you bought at big-box store prices within hours. A nearby store that, with a short delay, has everything, cheap.

In some ways it bears a resemblance to the failed company Webvan. Webvan did home delivery and initially presented itself as a grocery store. I think it failed in part because groceries are still not something people feel ready to buy online, and in part for being too early. Home delivery, because people like — or in many cases need — to be home for it may actually be inferior to delivery to a depot within walking distance where items can be picked up on a flexible schedule.

Webvan’s long term plan did involve, I was told, setting up giant warehouse centers with many suppliers, not just Webvan itself. In such a system the various online suppliers sit in a giant warehouse area, and a network of conveyor belts runs through all the warehouses and to the loading dock. Barcodes on the packages direct them to the right delivery truck. Each vendor simply has to put delivery code sticker on the item, and place it on the conveyor belt. It would then, in my vision, go onto a truck that within 1 to 2 hours would deliver all the packages to the right neighbourhood local depot.  read more »

Urban retail neighbourhood of the future

Towns lament the coming of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. Their cut-rate competition changes the nature of shopping and shopping neighbourhoods. To stop it, towns sometimes block the arrival of such stores. Now web competition is changing the landscape even more. But our shopping areas are still “designed” with the old thinking in mind. Some of them are being “redesigned” the hard way by market forces. Can we get what we really want?

We must realize that it isn’t Wal-Mart who closes down the mom’n’pop store. It’s the ordinary people, who used to shop at it and switch to Wal-Mart who close it down. They have a choice, and indeed in some areas such stores survive.  read more »

An airliner mesh network over the oceans

A friend (Larry P.) once suggested to me that he thought you could build a rural mobile phone much cheaper than Iridium network by putting nodes in all the airliners flying over the country. The airliners have power, and have line of sight to ground stations, and to a circle of about 200 miles radius around them. That’s pretty big (125,000 square miles) and in fact most locations will be within sight of an airliner most of the time. Indeed, the airlines already would like to have high speed data links to their planes to sell to the passengers, and relaying to people on the ground makes sense. It would not be a 100% on network, but that’s OK for many users. Phones would be able to warn about outages with plenty of advance notice to handle conversations, and indeed based on live computerized data from the air traffic control system, phones could even display a list of the times they would be connected.

I was thinking more about this in the context of InMarSat, which provides satellite services to ships and planes in the deep ocean. It uses geosynchronous satellites and auto-aiming dishes, but is quite expensive. Few people launch satellites to have footprints over the ocean.

Airliners fly so often these days, spaced often just 40 miles apart along the oceanic routes. It should be possible with modern technology to produce a mesh network that transmits data from plane to plane using line of sight. Two planes should in theory be able to get line of sight at 30,000 feet if they are up to 400 nautical miles apart. The planes could provide data and voice service for passengers at a reasonable price, and also could relay for ships at sea and even remote locations.

One can also use lower bands that can go further, since there is no spectrum competition over the the open ocean, but I suspect planes don’t spend too much time more than 400 miles from any other airliner (or 200 miles from any land station.) In the high bands many megabits of data bandwidth are available, and in theory spectrum allocation is not an issue when out of sight of land, so even hundreds of megabits would be possible. (We would of course not transmit on any band actually in use out there, and could even make a cognitive radio system which detects other users and avoids those bands.) An airline could offer just this service, or at a higher price switch to satellite in the few dead zones — which again, it should be able to predict with some accuracy. Aiming should be easy, since the aircraft all transmit their GPS coordinates regularly on transponder frequencies and can also do so in the data network. In fact, you would be able to know where a new mesh partner will be approaching, and where to point, before you could ever detect it with an omnidirectional antenna. And people could be given enough bandwidth for real internet, including voice. (Though that still means they should perhaps go to a phone lounge to have long conversations.)

Of course, I often find transoceanic flights one of the rare times I get work done without the distraction of the internet, so this could also be a terrible idea.

Some technical notes: Jim Thompson points out that doppler effects make this particularly challenging, which is an issue. I believe that since we know the exact vector of ourselves and the other aircraft, and we have many more bands at our disposal, this should be a tractable problem.

The Efficiency of Attention in Advertising

I’ve written before about the problems with TV advertising. Recently I’ve been thinking more about the efficiency of various methods of advertising — to the target, not to the advertiser. Almost all studies of advertising concern how effectively advertising turns into leads or sales, but rarely are the interests of the target of the ad considered directly.

I think that has to change, because we’re getting more tools to avoid advertising and getting more resistant. I refuse to watch TV with ads, because at $1.20 per hour of advertising watched, it’s a horrible bargain. I would rather pay if I could, and do indeed buy the DVDs in many cases, but mostly my MythTV skips the ads for me. The more able I am to do this, the more my desires as a target must be addressed.

Advertising isn’t totally valueless to the target. In fact, Google feels one big reason for their success is that they deliver ads you might actually care to look at. There are other forms of advertising with the same mantra out there, and they tend to do well, such as movie trailers and Superbowl ads.

Consider a video ad lasting 30 seconds, with a $10 CPM. That means the advertiser pays one cent per viewer of the ad. The viewer spends 30 seconds. On the other hand, a box with 3 or 4 Google ads, as you might see on this page, is typically scanned in well under a second. These ads also earn (as a group) about a $10 CPM though they are paid per click. Google doesn’t publish numbers, but let’s assume a $10 CPM and a 1% click-through on the box. It’s actually higher than this.

In the 30 seconds a TV ad takes, I can peruse perhaps 50 boxes, bars or banners of web ads. That will expose me to over 100 product offers that in theory match my interests, compared to 1 for the video ad. The video ad will of course be far more convincing as it is getting so much attention, but in terms of worthwhile products offered to me per second, it’s terrible.

It isn’t quite this simple though, since I will click on one ad every every minute spent looking at ads (not every minute on the web) and perhaps spend another minute looking in detail at what the ad had to offer. That particular, very well targeted site, gains the wealth of attention the video ad demands, but far more efficiently.

I think this area is worth of more study in the industry, and I think it’s a less understood reason why Google is getting rich, and old media are running scared. In the future, people will tolerate advertising less and less unless it is clearer to them what value they are getting for it. Simply being able to get free programming is not the value we’re looking for, or if it is, we want a better deal — more programming in exchange for our valuable attention. But we want more than that better deal. We want to be advertised to efficiently, in a way that considers our needs and value. The companies that get that will win, the dinosaurs will find themselves in the movie “The Sixth Sense” — dead people, who don’t know they’re dead.

Making instruments with the human voice

The human voice is a pretty versatile instrument, and many skilled vocalists have been able to do convincing imitations of other sounds, and we’ve all heard “human beat box” artists work with a microphone to do great sounds.

That got me thinking, could we train a choir to work together to sound like anything, starting with violins, and perhaps even a piano or more?

The idea would be to get some vocalists to make lots of sounds, both pure tones and more complex ones, and break them apart with spectrum analysis.   Do the same for the target sound — try to break it up into components that might be made by human vocal cords with appropriate spectrum analysis.

Then find a way to easily add the human sounds together to sound like the instrument.  Each singer might focus on one of the harmonics or other tonal qualities of the instrument.  Do it first in the computer, and then see if the people can do it together, without being distracted.  Then work on doing the attack and decay and other artifacts of the start and end of notes.

If it all worked, it would be a fun gag for a choir to suddenly sound like a piano or violin playing a popular piece.   Purer tones like a flute might be harder than complex tones.  Percussion is obviously possible though it might need some amplification.  Indeed, amplification to adjust the levels properly might help a lot but would be slightly more artificial than hearing this without any electronics.   Who knows, perhaps a choir could even sound like an orchestra playing the opening to Beethoven’s 5th, something everybody knows well.

What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?

My father was famously a preacher turned agnostic. We used to argue all the time about the difference between an agnostic and an athiest. I felt the difference was inconsequential, he felt it was important. And I’ve had the same argument with other proclaimed agnostics. I found an amusing way to sum up my view of it in one answer.

What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

The difference is the atheist says she’s an atheist, while the agnostic says she’s an agnostic.  read more »

Please release HD movies on regular DVDs

If you’ve looked around, you probably noticed a high-def DVD player, be it HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, is expensive. Expect to pay $500 or so unless you get one bundled with a game console where they are subsidized.

Now they won’t follow this suggestion, but the reality is they didn’t need to make the move to these new DVD formats. Regular old DVD can actually handle pretty decent HDTV movies. Not as good as the new formats, but a lot better than plain DVD. I’ve seen videos with the latest codecs that pack a quite nice HD picture into 2.5 to 3 gigabytes for an hour. I’ve even seen it in less, down to 1.5 gigabytes (actually less that SD DVDs) at 720p 24 fps, though you do notice some problems. But it’s still way better than a standard DVD. Even so, a dual layer DVD can bring about 9 gb, and a double sided dual layer DVD gives you 18gb if you are willing to flip the disk over to get at special features or the 2nd half of a very long movie. Or of course just do 2-disk sets.

Now you might feel that the DVD industry would not want to make a new slew of regular DVD players with the fancier chips in them able to do these mp4 codecs when something clearly better is around the corner. And if they did do this, it would delay adoption of whatever high def DVD format they are backing in the format wars. But in fact, these disks could have been readily playable already, with no change, for the millions who watch DVDs on laptops and media center PCs. More than will have HD DVD or Blu-Ray for some time to come, even with the boost the Playstation 3 gives to Blu-Ray.  read more »

Upgrading: ask me few questions, and ask them together

One of my current peeves is just how much time we spend maintaining and upgrading computer operating systems, even as ordinary users. The workload for this is unacceptably high, though it’s not as though people are unaware of the problem.

Right now I’m updating one system to the beta of the new Ubuntu Feisty Fawn. (Ubuntu is the Linux distro I currently recommend.) They have done some work on building a single upgrader, which is good, but I was shocked to see an old problem resurface. In a 2 hour upgrade process, it asked me questions it didn’t need to ask me, and worse, it asked them at different times in the process.  read more »

Video virtual reunion

Videophones are still an early adopter thing, but I was imagining an interesting application for them — reunions. Recently a theatre company I was in had a reunion far away, and I couldn’t come, but I wanted somebody to bring in a laptop so we could run a SIP or Skype videophone there. It would not have given me a true sense of participation, but individuals I wanted to catch up on could have come to the video phone and chatted.

Most conferencing applications assume there is going to be one big meeting with everybody talking together. That’s useful, but I can see a use for something that facilitates a lot of parallel one-on-one or small group conversations, for something like a reunion. In fact, one might be able to do a decent reunion entirely on the internet, or mostly on it.  read more »

Hard work for Burning Man to be Green

This year’s theme for Burning Man is “the Green Man.” It represents a lot of things. For many it just is an inspiration for art centered on nature or the environment. Others are taking it as a signal to try to be better environmentally. That’s going to be a very tough road for a festival centered on building a temporary city far from everything and pyrotechnic art.

So I wrote up some thoughts on the challenges involved. The toughest problem is that transporting an entire city to the desert and then taking it back is a great personal and artistic endeavour, but not one that can be considered green. All efforts to reduce the pollution at the event are dwarfed by the fuel burned to get there. So what can be done?

Read about the problems of having a green man.

A made-up backstory for Battlestar Galactica

When I watch SF TV shows, I often try to imagine a backstory that might make the story even better and SF like. My current favourite show is Battlestar Galactica, which is one of those shows where a deep mystery is slowly revealed to the audience.

So based on my own thoughts, and other ideas inspired from newsgroups, I’ve jotted down a backstory to explain the results you see in the show. Of course, much of it probably won’t end up being true, but there are hints that some of it might.

In my Battlestar Galactica back-story I explain why

  • Why everybody — even the so-called humans — is a Cylon
  • Who the Final 5 are and what they are doing
  • Why all this has happened before and is happening again
  • How the Cylons were made, and where they got their biotech

Of course, ignore this if you don’t watch the show. It’s pure fanfic/speculation.

The show remains one of the great SF TV shows, though it has been bogging down of late. This timeline may be a plea to return the show to some good hard SF roots. Posthumanism and strife between humans and AIs are hot themes in modern SF, and BSG is most interesting if it’s set in our future with things to say about the relationship between man, machine and artificial biological intelligence.

Update: I have updated the article based on the season finale, which confirmed a number of my speculations though of course not all of them.

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