Submitted by brad on Sun, 2007-04-15 16:45.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2007-04-13 19:48.
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.
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2007-04-12 00:49.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2007-04-11 15:26.
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.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2007-04-09 14:43.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2007-04-07 23:54.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2007-04-05 22:58.
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.
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2007-04-05 00:06.
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.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2007-04-02 17:41.
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.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2007-03-31 14:42.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2007-03-29 22:32.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2007-03-25 13:56.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2007-03-23 15:00.
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 »
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2007-03-22 01:34.
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.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2007-03-17 19:33.
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.
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2007-03-16 19:00.
Apparently freeconference.com is now sending notes to its customers (one of whom forwarded an example to me) because Sprint, Cingular, Qwest and some others finally got around to blocking calls to their numbers. They pitch it as the big companies trying to block their free service so the giants can sell expensive services, and are trying to whip up support by suggesting this is akin to a network neutrality violation.
In fact, it’s an example of the big guys actually doing something right, and fixing a loophole caused by bizarre legacy telco regulation. The number you called for freeconference, and many other services, were served by telcos in rural areas such as Iowa. The phone regulations are set up so that when you make a long distance call on the PSTN, the long distance company pays the remote local phone company to complete the call. Usually that fee is about half a cent per minute in cities, and even free for cell phones. (Frankly, it should always be zero, and this should be paid for as part of my local phone fee, but that’s another story.) In Iowa, however, in order to, in theory, help pay the costs of being a phone company that has to send the call out to a lonely Iowa farmhouse, the rural telcos get to charge as much as 6 cents or more per minute to complete the call. read more »
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2007-03-16 14:24.
It’s nice to have a headset on your desk telephone, for handsfree conversations. A number of phones have a headset jack, either of the submini plug used by cell phones, or using a phone handset jack. Many companies buy headset units that plug into the handset line to provide a headset, some of them are even wireless.
But bluetooth headsets today are cheap, standardized and have a competitive market. And they are of course wireless. Many people already have them for their cell phone. I have seen a very small number of desk phones support having a bluetooth headset, and that shouldn’t be al that expensive, but it’s rare and only on high-end phones.
Here’s the idea: Put bluetooth headset support into the PBX. Bluetooth headsets can’t dial, they can effectively only go on-hook and off-hook with a single button. You would associate (in the PBX) your bluetooth headset with your desk phone. A bluetooth master would be not too far from your desk, and tied into the PBX, or into a PC that talks to the PBX. When your BT headset was in range of this master, it would be tied to ith with Bluetooth. (You would have to do an actual bluetooth pairing in advance. In addition, many people have bluetooth headsets normally linked to their cell phone, and call attempts from the headset go to the cell phone. The system would have to switch that over to the PBX.) read more »
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2007-03-13 18:35.
When I watch the boundless energy of young children, and their parents’ frustration over it, I wonder how high-tech will alter how children are raised in the next few decades. Of course already TV, and now computers play a large role, and it seems very few toys don’t talk or move on their own.
But I’ve also realized that children, both from a sense of play and due to youthful simplicity, will tolerate some technologies far before adults will. For example, making an AI to pass the Turing Test for children may be much, much simpler than making one that can fool an adult. As such, we may start to see simple AIs meant for interacting with, occupying the minds of and educating children long before we find them usable as adults.
Another technology that young children might well tolerate sooner is virtual reality. We might hate the cartoonish graphics and un-natural interfaces of today’s VRs but children don’t know the interfaces aren’t natural — they will learn any interface — and they love cartoon worlds. read more »
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2007-03-12 19:08.
I've ranted before about just how hard it has become to configure and administer computers. And there are services where you can hire sysadmins to help you, primarily aimed at novice users.
But we advanced users often need help today, too. Mostly when we run into problems we go to message boards, or do web searches and find advice on what to do. And once we get good on a package we can generally fix problems with it in no time.
I would love a service where I can trade my skill with some packages for help from others on other packages. There are some packages I know well, and could probably install for you or fix for you in a jiffy. Somebody else can do the same favour for me. In both cases we would explain what we did so the other person learned.
All of this would take place remotely, with VNC or ssh. Of course, this opens up a big question about trust. A reputation system would be a big start, but might not be enough. Of course you would want a complete log of all files changed, and how they were changed -- this service might apply more to just editing scripts and not compiling new binaries. Best of all, you could arrange to have a virtualized version of your machine around for the helper to use. After examining the differences you could apply to them to your real machine. Though in the end, you still need reputations so that people wanting to hack machines would not get into the system. They might have to be vetted as much as any outside consultant you would hire for money.
There seems a real efficiency to be had if this could be made to work. How often have you pounded for hours on something that a person skilled with the particular software could fix in minutes? How often could you do the same for others? Indeed, in many cases the person helping you might well be one of the developers of a system, who also would be learning about user problems. (Admittedly those developers would quickly earn enough credit to not have to maintain any other part of their system.)
The real tool would be truly secure operating systems where you can trust a stranger to work on one component.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2007-03-11 19:51.
Lots of people love model airplanes, and I bet they would love to simulate dogfights. They can't fire actual projectiles, as that would be dangerous, expensive, unworkable due to the weight and actually damage planes.
It should be possible to set up a system for dogfights using light, however. One way would be to have planes mount lasers that send out a coded pulse with a bit of dispersion, and have the other planes mount receivers with diffusers to pick up light from a lot of directions. It might be better to go in reverse, the way many shooting games do -- the planes broadcast a coded pulse from some bright LED in a specific colour and the "gun" is just a narrow sight that tries to pick up these pulses. When the gun gets one, it sends it down to the coordinator on the ground, and that tells the target plane it's been hit (possibly forcing it to leave the airspace after some number of hits, or impair the flying controls, etc.)
Of course you need authenticated equipment. If people provide their own it's too easy to cheat, and one could also just make a gun that has no barrel instead of a wide one, or have one on the ground. So some honour might be required here.
It would of course be hard to do, with no cockpit view. Some larger model planes can carry small video cameras for a more realistic dogfight of that sort, but I suspect people could figure something out. The gun could have sensors for the pulses that are wider than the actual "direct hit" sensor, allowing them to tell you when you're getting close, and even showing a screen on a laptop that is not a camera view from the plane but at least a view of how close you are to the target.