Blogs

Crash-avoiding cars

I’ve written before about automatic self-driving cars, both their risks (overregulation due to fear of their use by terrorists) and possible driving forces (oil companies excited by people taking longer trips) and more.

Generally, except for a few specialized applications (such as the automatic parking lot) such cars, if they are to be used where people or cars that may not under network control are present, must start with a basic ability to avoid accidents. In a vigourous debate with friend Charles Merriam last night, the question came up about where the value will lie. Charles is a big proponent of worrying first about crash-avoiding cars.

Right now we all pay from $250 to $500 per year, and often much more, for insurance to cover the risk of accidents. Of course, that’s just the financial cost, and financial proxies for suffering, so the real value we would put on an accident resistent car might be much higher. Perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 over the life of the car.

That seems like a highly lucrative market on its own. While the self-driving car has many other long term merits (because you can do other work while moving, and you don’t have to park it, and it can appear on demand as a taxi for you) we should be very close to financially justifying the accident-avoiding car today…  read more »

How to deal with illegal, classified operations?

The AP reports that the DoJ is going to investigate the Underwatergate "leak" to the New York Times. Many of course wish they would investigate the program instead, but since the AG was involved in it, that's difficult.

But this puts forward the complex problem of how to deal with, and stop, illegal classified programs. Because they are classified, they lack many of the checks and balances that exist for other government operations. Indeed, it is suspected that many programs get classified entirely or in part in order to avoid scrutiny.

In theory, one does not have to obey an illegal order. But in practice it takes a lot of guys to defy one. And it's hard to be certain an order is illegal when your superiors and their lawyers are insisting it is.

Senator Rockefeller is one of the people elected to provide oversight over intelligence activities, and he was told about the NSA spying. He was also told he could not consult with the advisors he needed on technical and legal issues to make proper judgements. This is an unacceptable situation. There must be checks and balances.

I don't like secret courts, but they are better than having no courts at all. There should be a secret court with auditing power over all secret activities of the government. Anybody should be able to file a complaint with this court that the government is engaging in illegal secret activities. The identity of the whistleblower must be fully protected, as well. The court should have full power to investigate any and all classified and secret programs to find out if they are engaging in illegal activity. And it should have full power and duty to punish illegal activity by anybody, including the President. (Judgements against the President and other top officials would be subject to appeal by the Supreme Court.)

Furthermore, when the court finds wrongdoing, details of this wrongdoing should be declassified as soon as possible and as much as possible. Even at risk to national security. That's because illegal covert activities by the government are a greater risk to the security of the people and the nation than most disclosures are.

How much auditing of secret programs does the GAO get to do? Can its role be expanded? This seems more a judicial idea than a congressional one but there's no reason that auditing of illegal secret activity should not go on in all branches, of all branches.

Absent such a process, the leak to the New York Times is the only answer. The whistleblowers who revealed this program did the right thing for the nation, and should be rewarded, not punished.

MMORPG for Seniors and Shut-ins

I was visiting a senior citizen today who rarely leaves her house due to lack of mobility. Like many her age, she is not connected to the net, nor interested in it. Which makes the following idea a challenge.

Could we design a really engaging game/online community for seniors? Especially those who have had to give up much of their old community because of infirmity? They don’t want to slay monsters like in Evercrack or Warcraft. They won’t build objects like in Second Life.

It must be a killer app — so compelling that they are willing to learn a bit about computers in order to get it. For some seniors, they killer app has been emails and photos from grandchildren.

The game would have to be aimed at the fantasies that seniors have, and it must also be deliberately aimed at the computer novice with less desire to learn new technology than average. (Not that there aren’t seniors with full ability to learn new tech — many of them are already online.)

Thus it would not necessarily require the hottest new graphics cards or fastest net connection. It might try to avoid typing or require fast reaction times. It might use audio for socializing, and focus on the topics most dear to these players. (I jokingly wonder if avatars should be surrounded by pictures of grandkids.) Obviously research is needed to see what they want to play about, and how to deliver it.

There are also questions of levels of ability. Some people become mentally infirm with age and their skills and desires are limited. But is there nothing in the way of interactive community entertainment we can offer them?

Giftwrapping Robot

Here’s a festive idea for a robotics company — a giftwrapping robot, able to take a standard, not particularly fragile rectangular box and perfectly giftwrap it.

This might be a viable product for online stores that offer giftwrapping options, but I think one decent market would be malls at Christmastime. Aside from making money charging for wrapping, it would be an attraction (expecially in Japan where they love gifts) that brought in shoppers. I suppose some might worry it could deprive the charities that sometimes do giftwrapping in malls of a fundraising opportunity.

The robot would presumably grab the gift by its sides, and spin it or the paper roll to place a perfectly cut ring of paper around it with adhesive dabbed in the right places by a robot arm. The trickier part would be arms to fold the end folds.

Do you sense the fact that I just spent a lot of time wrapping? Due to the fear of customs and the TSA, I wrap my presents after I arrive in Toronto. The TSA did indeed open my box of gifts and one gift inside, providing the gift of TSA inspection tape for my nephew.

Shipping redirection and order editing

All the shipping companies today support very nice package tracking with web interfaces that let you see your package move through all the depots. Some day they might even send you an alert when it’s half an hour before delivery.

However, more than a few times I’ve wished for something else — package redirection, either at the behest of the recipient or the shipper. I talked earlier about my Addresscrow system, which would let you change your alias to mean different addresses as you move around, but this is more than that.

For example, when there is a problem (buy.com screwed up on a 2-day shipping order and sent it ground, so I won’t get it for Christmas) they often tell you to refuse the shipment. That’s your easiest way of returning a product that arrives too late. Why not let me, or failing that the shipper, do that via the net? Or let the shipper convert the in-transit item from ground to 1-day or 2-day when it’s clear that it won’t arrive in the right place or at the right time? Yes, I realize that Fedex Ground was an entirely different company from Fedex air, but they do meet from time to time, and at worst case one could redirect a package to the nearest shipping office for the alternate service to be scanned and re-coded.

Ideally though one would just change the meaning of the barcode, and the next routing station would spit it down a different channel.

To make this even better, internet retailers should really do a better job of not finalizing orders until they are truly shipped. Often I’ve made a purchase at an internet retailer, and after paying been shown a special offer, or at least a link to “continue shopping.” Indeed, when I do change my mind, or realize I want to add something to the order, it’s tough. In many cases you must cancel the entire order and re-enter it all. Some let you cancel individual non-shipped items. A few will let you add an item but that’s very rare.

It should all be done just-in-time now. In the old days, you could just phone the place and they would amend the order sitting in the warehouse because they were in contact. Today that personal contact is gone but the computers should be able to do it. Yes, it might cost extra but as long as it costs less than doing a whole new order, it makes sense.

Underwatergate: How many E-mails tapped?

A lot of new developments in the warrantless wiretap scandal. A FISA judge has resigned in disgust. A Reagan-appointed former DoJ official calls the President a clear and present danger. And the NSA admits they have on rare occasions tapped entirely domestic phone calls, because sometimes people calling to or from international cell phones while those phones are in the USA would see the traffic go overseas and come back again. I have made such calls to Europeans and Australians visiting the USA.

So they can’t spot those calls as domestic and thus are performing surveillance on them. But what about E-mail? With E-mail, it’s a great deal harder to identify where the parties are, and what citizenship they hold. In some cases, almost impossible.

And more to the point, E-mails between two U.S. persons will quite often go through international servers. Unlike phones, where it’s expensive, anybody who travels outside the USA for long enough to warrant an E-mail address out there can easily keep it and many do. There’s not even a big reason for multinational ISPs to avoid routing messages to servers in Canada or other places. I maintain aliases on my own domain for all my family, for example, though most of them are not in the same country as the server. I am not alone.

Further, it’s likely that the order of surveillance they have done on E-mail is vastly greater than on phones. For the NSA, monitoring of all unencrypted E-mail — all of it — would be only a modest amount of work. We used to joke in the old days about putting NSA traps in our messages, see this thread from 21 years ago on the topic, and many others if you search for it. If enough people put those in messages, it would overload the systems, we mused.

Back then we were mostly kidding around. Today we have reason to be scared. And it’s time to put opportunistic crypto into E-mail as I detailed years ago, by default. (Since then, some projects to do this have popped up — One from Simson Garfinkel and another from PGP. MS Outlook also does it, but with an untenable user interface.

Scandal name: Underwatergate

Seeing as this scandal seems to be revolving around the tapping, without warrants, of signals over the undersea telecom cables, I propose we call it Underwatergate.

What the NSA is doing with warrantless searches

It’s long, but I can strongly recommend the transcript of today’s press briefing on the NSA warrentless wiretaps. It’s rare to see the NSA speak about this topic.

One can read a fair bit between the lines. The reporters were really on the ball here, far more than one usually sees.

Particularly interesting notes include:

  • General Hayden of the NSA describes many reasons why they don’t use the FISA court, citing mostly “efficiency”
  • Reporters ask if they are listening for the word “bomb” — The AG says there is no blanket surveillance
  • The general states that the “physics” of the intercepts require one end be outside the USA

Independently, Senator Rockefeller’s letter where he wrote that he felt he needed “technical” advice to understand the issues, and that it reminded him of Poindexter’s TIA is very telling.

The efficiency claim is a smokescreen. They would not have taken this level of legal risk, no matter how much they feel what they did was legal, just to gain a little efficiency. It’s clear to me that they are telling the truth when they say they could not use the FISA court — they are performing surveillance that the FISA court would not authorize for them.

The question is, what? The AG says it is not “blanket” but clearly there is some fancy computerized surveillance going on here, something secret, beyond Carnivore. I can readily believe that all sorts of fancy broad surveillance could take place and not be considered “blanket” by the AG. (The AG actually says, “The President has not authorized blanket surveillance of communications here in the United states.”) I certainly hope he has not authorized that. But has he authorized it on all communications coming in and out of the USA?

Or something less, like computer search of all E-mails or phone calls to or from entire towns or nations? Perhaps speaker recognition to look for certain people’s voices on all international calls, no matter what number they use? Perhaps looking for all arabic calls, and then doing blanket surveillance on them?

So much is possible, and all of this would not be authorized by the FISA court.

They knew they would get in legal trouble, so it’s also possible the intercepts, which the General says are on the international cables, are even placed outside the USA, either with or without the permission of foreign governments. (In extremes, they send submarines down to make taps.) Taps outside the USA are not under the rules of the wiretap act, though the 4th amendment still applies to US persons.

Spooky stuff. More to come.

P.S. If you have not been following it, it has now come out that the New York Times sat on this story for over a year, since before the 2004 election, whose outcome might have changed based on this news.

Major chains agree to end "war on white people"

Major retail chains Target, Wal-Mart and others announced today they will end the so-called war on white people that had resulted in most stores posting signs welcoming “shoppers” or “customers” instead of “white patrons”, even though white people represented a considerable majority of their business.

“I’m white, and I’m here shopping for gifts for my white friends, and I’m offended that the store has been pressured into making some generic greeting that doesn’t reflect me.” said William O’ Reilly, a concerned caucasian shopper. “If they’re not going to welcome me and my race, I am going to take my business somewhere else.”

O’Reilly’s complaint, echoed by dozens, perhaps scores of other shoppers, has led the chains to alter their policies. Signs declaring “Look good with today’s colors” will be replaced next year with “Look good in colors designed for white skin.” The “Happy holidays” sign, recently changed to “Merry Christmas” will be further changed to “Merry Christmas for White America” to reflect the ethnicity and religion of 80% of the shoppers in the stores.

Glacier National Park / Montana Panoramas

In the summer we did a road trip in the northwest, up to Calgary, through Banff in the summer and then to Oregon Country Fair. The photojournal is not yet ready, but I have prepared some of the panos. First, here is the Montana section, which means the Going to the Sun road through Glacier National Park. Truly one of the world’s great roads, I’m afraid the panos don’t do it justice.

Support our goddamned piece of paper ribbon

Ok, so this story is almost surely just an unconfirmed rumour, but the graphic I designed below still makes a nice ribbon.

Can I get a dishwasher with soft edges?

I don't know how many times I've gotten a scrape or cut from hitting a dishwasher door, while it's down, with my leg. It's very annoying how the sides are always sharp. They don't make the seal, that's on the front, so there's no reason these sides couldn't be soft, or even hard rubber that won't cut you. Perhaps some dishwashers I haven't owned do this, but I have yet to get one!

Smarter headsets, smarter headset jacks

Millions now use PCs for VoIP and online audio chat, and you soon realize the quality is vastly better if everybody uses a headset.

But there’s a problem on PCs. If you plug in headphones, it usually disables the regular speakers, often in hardware. So if you leave a headset connected, the system can’t play a ring sound when somebody calls you.

So time to rethink the design of the headset jacks, and the headsets themselves. Instead of disabling the main speakers, the presence of a plug in the jack should just be a software signal. Both the jack, and the speakers/speaker jack should be independent software-selectable outputs in the sound driver. Plugging in a headset should just change the default output. VoIP software, however, should be aware of this and know to send call audio to the headset, and ringing sounds to the speakers.

However, it could be even smarter than this. It might change its mind if it knows you are at the computer, or at least change the volume of the ringing on the speakers if you are at the computer. And make it louder if you haven’t touched the computer in a while.

Beyond that, we could make headsets smarter. They should be able to easily know if you have them on, due to tension in the headband or ear-strap. Earbuds could use a small temperature sensor to know if they are on. This could also effect where we direct sounds. Of course, this involves either a new headset jack, or perhaps more cleverly, a small and inaudible data protocol (or even something as simple as a click protocol) over the existing plugs. Many cell phones use a non-standard headset jack to include extra wires for button signals (such as to answer the phone. This should be formalized.

Of course, with bluetooth headsets and USB headsets, you have the potential for all sorts of additional communication with no change to the jack. A bluetooth headset should be able to tell, via temperature and pressure, if it is on the ear or not. It can even tell quite readily if you’re speaking or have spoken recently. Though I doubt most of the world is ready to wear their bluetooth headset all the time, though I do see people doing this more and more.

The fourth Wednesday is the best weekday to have your event

I just got an invitation to a new event series that I was told would take place on the First Tuesday of the month. However, I already go to two different dinners that take place on the First Tuesday, and I suspect that was no accident. For social events, people use the weekends, and for other events people prefer the weekdays. They have a psychological desire for the first week of the month.

So I ran a quick set of yahoo queries to find out how many hits there were on the web for "first monday" and similar strings. I figured that would tell when the most events do occur, and help people pick a day that is likely to have the least conflicts.

The results are below:  read more »

How Prius drivers are gross polluters and other lessons of carbon credits

I’ve been thinking more about environmental economics since I blogged about retail carbon credits. I was surprised about how cheap (some would say unrealisticly cheap) wholesale credits are — about $2.20 per tonne of CO2. (Update: This price keeps changing. The U.S. price is clearly out of whack down to just 25 cents per tonne in 2009. The European price has declined too, from $20/tonne when I wrote this to $14/tonne in fall 2009.)

Today, many of my friends have bought a car like the Toyota Prius, feeling they are doing their bit to help the environment by burning less gas. The Prius costs around $3,000-$6,000 more than a comparable old-style engine car (in part because high demand keeps the price high), and the savings on gasoline don’t justify it on a financial basis unless you do nothing but drive all day. So the main reason to buy it is to help the environment and to make a statement before your peer group. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 32mpg instead of 23mpg costs about $5,000 more than the regular Camry.)

Problem is, there’s an argument that you’re hurting the environment, counterintuitive as that sounds. And no, it’s not just the unanswered questions about recycling the fancy batteries in the Prius when they fade, where fairly positive results have been returned so far. Read on…  read more »

Addrescrow -- privacy for physical address and much more

This is an idea from several years go I’ve never written up fully, but it’s one of my favourites.

We’ve seen lots of pushes for online identity management — Microsoft Passport, Liberty Alliance and more. But what I want is for the online world to help me manage my physical identity. That’s much more valuable.

I propose a service I call “addrescrow” which holds and protects your physical address. It will give that address to any delivery company you specify when they have something to deliver, but has limits on how else it will give away info from you. It can also play a role in billing and online identity.

You would get one or more special ID names you could use in place of your address (and perhaps your name and everything else) when ordering stuff or otherwise giving an address. If my ID was “Brad Ideas” then somebody would be able to send a letter, fedex or UPS to me addressed simply to “Brad Ideas” and it would get to me, wherever I was.

(Read on…)  read more »

Death Valley Panoramas with wildflowers

I have been quite behind in processing my photo galleries and panoramics.

I have just now put up the gallery of panoramics from the Death Valley Wildflowers trip from March of 2005. Interesting scenery, and when you get close enough lots of fields of flowers. Of course, on most of them the flowers are so tiny that they are resolved well only when the panos are seen printed at full resolution, not when shrunk for a computer screen.

I have also done up a new layout for the panorama pages, and the thumbnails are now 1200 wide intead of 800 wide. I am hoping that most people have a 1280x1024 screen by now, if not a 1600x1200. (Everybody would have 1600 if they were still buying CRTs as CRTs that large are down to $100 it seems. LCD panels at such a res are $450 at least.)

See the Death Valley Spring Flowers Panoramas 2005

Cool Walls

On the wall now near desks are plates with power and ethernet (and phone until VoIP takes over.) I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t add another jack — air, and plumb our walls with pipes to move air for cooling electronic devices.

This idea started by reading about a guy who attached a plastic vent hose from the output of his PC fan to a hole he cut in his wall. This directs much of the heat and some of the noise into the wall and up to the attic.

I started wondering, shouldn’t we deliberately plumb our houses to cool our devices? And even more, our office buildings? And can we put the blowers at the other end of the pipes, to move the noise away from our devices? How much would we save on air conditioning?

Read on…  read more »

Internet TV, I'm waiting for you

I’m an earlier adopter with my mythTV box and fast connection. But I’m really keen to see the move to getting TV shows over IP. Cable’s bulk pricing just isn’t doing it for me any more.

I get many shows now via broadcast digital TV, and while I think this is a giant waste of spectrum, while it’s there I will certainly use it. So I’ve started examining just how much I get from my cable. Of course your tastes will vary, but I find I’m starting to care about only 3 or 4 channels. And since I’m paying $45/month plus tax for expanded basic cable from Comcast, that’s a great deal of money per channel. Those channels would be wise to start becoming available over the net, because we early adopters will pay nice prices compared to what the cable companies are paying.

The key is that with the MythTV or other DVR, you stop channel surfing. You pick the programs you like, and it records all of them and you don’t watch random shows. (Except for Tivo-style “suggestions.”)

Even though you limit your TV to just a subset of shows, you quickly are surprised to change the “500 channels and nothing on” problem into “just a few shows and always something good ready to watch.” Surfing and deliberate watching are just that different.

So the shows on cable I’m watching are the Daily Show (and somtimes a few other Comedy Central programs), some SF shows on the Sci-Fi Channel, and Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. Then, during certain events, I will go to the 24 hour news channels, the only things I ever find myself watching live. (Read on…) Now news, as it turns out, is the one thing that makes sense to be broadcast. It’s the only thing (along with its cousin, sports) we all want to watch the moment it’s produced. For the rest the delayed gratification of TV over IP, or even DVD rental through the mail, is just fine.

And indeed, the SF shows and Mythbusters will all appear on DVD 1-2 years after airing. The Daily Show is making itself available via the non-linux streaming media formats in reduced resolution, so it’s not quite ready for me, and it, as a form of news, needs to get to me right away. (The Daily show is on over the air TV in Canada.)

The TV shows on DVD are much better quality than analog broadcast, and of course inherently commercial free. They’re not HD yet, though. And the pointless delay, even though they get more money from people who buy or even rent DVDs than they do from advertisers at broadcast time. There is a 24 hour news channel made by ABC available over the air here.

The point is, if I could get my Daily Show in good quality and a format I can play on my system, I think I would be ready to drop my cable. The rest of my non-network watching would be on DVDs and the other brave shows willing to deliver to me this way, at a fair price — $1/hour for two adults, commercial free, if I buy in bulk. That would leave me without CNN, though the web is mostly substituting for that now, breaking news even faster than it does.

Of course there are people who watch shows from large numbers of channels who love the big bundling. They will hate this idea. But I expect most DVR users are seeing the number of non-network channels they watch drop, and the economics are changing.

(There are some intermediate alternatives. Dish Network has a $27/month package with the channels I want. Sadly, satellite systems don’t interface nearly as well with digital video recorders as analog cable does. Starchoice has a $20 CDN package but it has few of the classic cable channels, though it does provide The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, a couple of 24 hour news and lots of Canadian shows. About $18 USD after taxes.)

AAAS issues warning to Pat Robertson -- You have turned away from science

Washington, DC: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a stern warning today to Televangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson had recently condemned the citizens of Dover, PA to the wrath of God for not voting in a school board that would teach Intelligent Design in classes.

“We’d like to say to the good Reverend Robertson: if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to Science, you just rejected it from your life,” AAAS said on its daily television show broadcast from Washington, the 3.14159 Club.

“And don’t wonder why it hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. We’re not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just pushed science out of your life. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for its help because it might not be there,” they said. “In particular, you won’t have a phone to call the ambulance, and it won’t exist even if you could call it. And even if the doctor lived next door and you could call her, she would only bleed you and put smelly poultices on your forehead to balance your humours. And she would be a guy.”

“Actually, we’re just kidding,” the AAAS later corrected. “Science works whether you believe in it or not. That’s what’s really cool about it,” they said.

“What they said,” indicated Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in an independent statement.  read more »

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