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High quality videoconferencing restaurant

It's always dangerous to predict that soon we will all videoconference, but the technology really is getting better (See the Marconi ViPr, for example.) And bandwidth is getting cheaper. The Marconi system wants 8 megabits bidirectional -- the secret being not to do very fancy compression to instead push for really low latency and hi resolution -- but this is getting to be more affordable.

Here's a possible application. Nice restaurants making tables for a remote virtual dinner date. A table for one facing a screen, connected with another such table in another city. Get together for dinner with distant friends. Of course, one would also like to do it for larger groups but as the Marconi project shows, that requires losing too much resolution (at least for now) to get an acceptable experience.

Another barrier -- you want a lifesize screen here, but a bigger screen means a larger difference from the other's eyes and the camera, and that just looks wrong. The low latency requirement stops us from playing cute tricks, like having two cameras left and right and trying to calculate an eye that's looking at you. This is hard to do though some day we might solve it.

For an added touch the restaurants, if they share a menu, might even offer you a taste of the dish the other person ordered. Here, try this, it's delicious. Hokey, but who knows? Harder of course to provide physical contact, though there have been attempts to build gloves for virtual handsakes and in the extreme there is teledildonics.

Of course the system (without the teledildonics) would also be popular for business lunches. Of course there are lots of videoconferencing centers trying to sell their services for business meetings, but we have a certain attraction to meeting for lunch for a one one one or 2 on 2. It might make work what we haven't done before.

On the other hand, I think we should work to eliminate the speakerphone from the audio conference call. It's never great. Just give everybody in the room a bluetooth earbud or headset, and headsets for anybody joining remotely. Good audio, full duplex, ability to interrupt. Forget the echo cancelling and tinny acoustics.

Viagra spam

Thought of the day...

Spam is there to teach us just how many different ways there are to spell Viagra.

Changing the letters on phone keys

When SIP was designed for internet telephony, the feeling was to get rid of the phone number and replace it with IDs with the form of email addresses. E-mail addresses are of course easier to remember and read, though as a downside they tie your address to a domain, which is fine if it's yours, but silly if it's your service provider's.

However, to much surprise, handsets with numeric keypads not only continue to dominate the phone, but their use is growing. So much that complex "texting" systems have been designed and come with phones to let people enter text messages with the keypad.

In addition, popular IP phones feature not full keyboards, but traditional keypads, even though they have room. Mobile phones largely won't have keyboards for size constraints. As a result, IP phone users are using services like Free World Dialup and SipPhone so they can have phone numbers again, the thing we wanted rid of.

There is another ancient system involving phone numbers based on the letters Bell put on the keypad. Starting with Pennsylviana-6-5000, and moving to numbers like 1-800-FLOWERS.

Of course there are other answers to dialing -- menus, speech interfaces and so on. But if dialpads are with us for a while longer, does it make sense to rethink the system of finding words to spell out phone numbers?

If we use the existing system (with perhaps some minor mods) we could get a wide selection of spellable words by having longer numbers. No reason you can't have multiple numbers -- a "normal" 7 (or 10) digit number and then a longer number that is easier to remember but harder to key because it's longer. Thus I could probably have "BRADTEMPLETON" 2723-836753866 as a phone number, as well as my regular 7 digit number for use in systems that can't handle long numbers. Cell phones of course can easily have the length of numbers extended, but even ordinary phones can do this easily with a * or # code.

Of course the spell a word system has name collisions, so not everybody can get their preferred choice of name, but everybody can have an easy to remember string, I would venture. (Like with domain names.)  read more »

Hand Iraq to Sheikh Hamad of Qatar

Of course the Iraqis have not enjoyed having an American Military Governor, but are they ready now for a U.S. pullout? Here's an alternative.

The most remarkable man I have read about in the Arab world is Sheikh Hamad, the Emir of Qatar. How about giving him temporary power with a later handoff date to an Iraqi parliament. There's not a lot of coverage about him on the Web, but consider the following.

His family has been an absolute monarchy for a century. In 1995, however, he deposed his father in a family-supported takeover to become the new young Emir.

In just a few years since then he has:


  • Spread democracy in much of his country, with an elected legislature and elected local officials.
  • Given the vote to women, and enabled many freedoms for them, including freedom of dress. Education for girls is mandatory, women make up the majority of students in the national university. However, his people are Wahabi style conservatives, and there is still much repression of women, by our standards.
  • Disbanded his government's information ministry, and funded, with a hands-off no-censorship approach, Al-Jazeera and other free press.
  • Invested heavily in education for the Qatari, giving grants to U.S. universities like Cornell to get them to build branch campuses in Qatar.

Now he's still a monarch, and has kept a lot of power, and it's not all sweetness and light by any stretch, but the above record is one I find remarkable. Absolute rulers voluntarily giving their people the vote is rare in history. And of course it's easier when you have billions of oil revenue and you get to take your cut.

Of course Qatar is a strong U.S. ally now (though he refused Powell's requests that he muzzle Al-Jazeera during the war) and has some resentment in the Arab world for that role. But if I can imagine any Arab leader who might be trusted to take the temporary reigns of a country, and be trusted to try to reform it in the best interests of the people and then be trusted to leave, his record makes him top my list. He is Sunni, which may be an issue for the Iraqi majority.

Of course, my knowledge of him is sketchy. You don't find a lot on the web. I would like to know more. But if he has the potential to solve the problem (though he might well not want the job) he should be looked at.

Trains that decouple and recouple

I've often wondered why, when you have an electric train line that has a terminus as the main destination, you can't give everybody an express train.

To do this, imagine for the commute home, a 5 car train starts downtown. It leaves and expresses a few stops down the line. (A local car leaves after to handle the stops close to downtown.) When it gets to point one, with sufficient warnings and many safeguards, it decouples, and the rear car brakes to stop at the first of its stations.

Passengers get off (and on as well, see below) and the car, which has its own power coupler, takes off to drop folks off at the next few stations. The main train releases another car after that which handles the next few stations.

This has been thought of before, but next the hard part, something needing more modern technology. After the drop-off car has completed its local run, it would attempt to rejoin the next express train, allowing local passengers who got on it to get on an express, then move to the car that will eventually decouple to go to their stop. With the right timing this could go on all day.

Not that this is easy...  read more »

Iraqi Prison Scandal Joke

I have finally realized why this White House is so concerned over the Iraqi Prison abuse scandal.

They fear they have been caught doing something really serious -- lying about sex.

(Of course, they may point out that what the prisoners were forced to do was not sexual relations according to the prior administration.)

Native games for native casinos?

Whenever I see a First Nation's (That's the Canadian politically corect term for Indians) Casino, I have a cynical thought along the lines of "ah, the great Indian tradition of video poker."

So here's a good idea for folks in the gambling machine industry: Track down some traditional native games that can be turned into gambling games on machines. Make machines to play them.

Sure, nobody plays these games any more, not even the Indians. But while everybody understands the financial attraction of the tribes using their special sovereignty to make a bundle with casinos, I suspect many would jump at the chance to offer a game with even limited origins in their own traditions.

At first, gamblers would be confused at new games, but they are remarkably adept at learning, especially with a little marketing. In particular, just provide better odds to introduce the games. Games like "Bowl and Dice" which are random, could easily be converted to slot-machine style games.

Of course this is a heavily regulated industry so a random person can't just enter it on a whim, so I cast this idea out for those already in that business.

Term for people blabbering on cell phones

You have all seen them standing on sidewalks, talking loudly to nobody, waving their arms. Too well dressed to be crazy homeless folks -- then you notice the earbud, and know they are on a cell phone. We need a term for these people and this phenomenon.

Some ideas:

  • Cellchotic (and Cellchosis)

  • Schizophonia (And the afflicted are Schizophonics)
  • Celliloquists (not as derogatory)

Your ideas?

I join board of Foresight Institute

I have accepted an invitation to join the Board of Directors for the Foresight Institute for Nanotechnology.

Foresight was created by Chris Peterson and Eric Drexler, author of "Engines of Creation" to act as advocate and watchdog in the field of molecular nanotechnology, of which Eric can claim to be the modern father. I've been a senior associate of the institute for some years and spoken at their conference. I will MC the conference coming up next weekend.

While I put most of my focus right now into issues of computer technology, software, civil rights and the internet, if you ask me what the true "next big thing" is, it's in nanotech, so I'm very pleased to be part of Foresight.

I should also note that Foresight is seeking a new executive director to manage the operations of the institute and take a leadership role in the future of nanotechnology. Contact me if this could be the job for you -- but please, plain-text ASCII resumes only, no word processor files.

Google is the new Microsoft

No, I don't mean Google is the new overly aggressive, cut-throat monopoly on the block. What I mean is that with the IPO hype and dominant brand in search, Google is the new #1 on the block, and that's going to have a price.

People here in Silicon Valley hate Microsoft, it's almost a given. And they don't just hate Microsoft because it's done bad things -- though it has. They also hate it, on principle, because it's #1. Just as I described in one of my first posts that much of the world hates the USA because it is so big. Rational or otherwise, it's a natural impulse.

Google will be distrusted and feared more than it deserves as long as it is at the top. And of course, it won't be a perfect company. Not only do all companies make mistakes, but Google has announced how it wants to take lots of risks and make lots of big bets, assuring it will also make lots of big mistakes. Not just technical and business mistakes, but social ones.

The reaction to GMail, which I wrote about earlier, is yet another taste of this. There are issues in GMail that need addressing. But our generally reasonable colleagues at EPIC have reacted to it way too strongly and quickly for a not yet released product.

Of course, many would say they dream of the day they are so big that people distrust them on principle. They would love to have such problems. And in that thought lies Google's potential salvation from this problem. They can embrace the irrationality as one of the costs of being big. Yes, it adds to the cost of doing business, but the great thing about being #1 is you can afford it. Realize that the other guys wish they could get so much negative publicity.

This doesn't mean you can't be bold, though it does make it harder. But that can be a challenge rather than a barrier. And it can make the company a better company. Google is a better company at not-being-evil® than Microsoft, and that will stand it in good stead, but they will find it's not enough. The #1 company has to not only not be evil. It has to be good.

What would we do with 802.11 in our car

I wrote some time ago of how I would like a car's MP3 player/computer to have 802.11, so that when it parks in my driveway, it notices it is home and syncs up new data and music.

That would be great, of course, but it seems there should be other things you would do with it. Networking with the car next to you on the road seems like a cool idea but I'm having trouble dreaming up applications. Listening to the music in the next car seems cute but probably would be boring after a while. Being able to talk to the driver of the next car seems like a nice social game (and it hardly needs 802.11) and might just result in road-rage.

If common, I could see it for dating, since people seem to attach a strong romantic image to making eye contact with an attractive person in another car. There was even a dating service I read about long ago which gave you bumper stickers so you could contact somebody if you felt sparks. The personals have a section for this.

You might be able to create longer mesh networks, to share traffic info or the sort of things you used to share on CB if there are enough cars, but this would be highly unreliable, and any application here might be better served by broadcast data that goes over longer ranges. (We are already seeing broadcast traffic data services, though they will never warn about speed traps, I suspect.)

And of course, if you can connect back to the internet that's highly useful, but again this would be highly intermittent connectivity. 802.11 isn't really set up for short-burst connectivity though one could create a protocol that was, good enough to fetch live audio etc. But this ends up being just another microcell network -- what can we get car to car?

So -- all sorts of cute little applications but nothing really compelling in my view. But since we will get wireless networking in our cars for the carport sync, I invite readers to dream up some apps.

P-Day is already past?

I recently spoke to Gordon Bell about the Digital Life Bits project he's doing at Microsoft Research, digitizing his entire life. I'm seeing more and more evidence that a prediction I made several years ago for "P-Day" may already have come true.

The prediction was this. We don't have the AI level technology today to perform ubiquitous automatic surveillance of our society, and that's a good thing. However, we have developed the technology to start recording everything. The cameras are already in lots of places (with their number growing) and storage has become cheap enough to keep all those recordings forever, and eventually to put them online.

Today we can't do anything so bold as perform facial recognition on all those images to track people. But that won't always be true. In the future we'll build such technology thanks to Moore's law (see the prior post!)

But this technology will be able to do more than find people in the cameras of the future. Thanks to recording it will be able to track people into the past. Audio and image records will become records of people. Data trails not possible to correlate today will be correlated in the future. The complete computerized tracking of your life is being done already, but the computation to write it down awaits future computing power.

P-Day is the day your privacy went away but you didn't yet know it. Thanks to other people digitizing their lives, it may have already happened to you. What touristed public space today is not constantly being camcordered or digitally photographed?

Walter Jon Williams recently explored this question in his Hugo nominated story The Green Leapord Plague. I've known him for many years, having published his story "Prayers on the Wind" in my 1993 Hugo & Nebula Anthology and highly recommend his work.

New law on semiconductor growth

In 1965, Gordon Moore of intel published a paper suggesting that the number of transistors on a chip would double every year. Later, it was revised to suggest a number of 18 months, which became true in part due to marketing pressure to meet the law.

Recently, Intel revised the law to set the time at two years.

So this suggests a new law, that the time period in Moore's Law doubles about every 40 years.

Friendscrow -- Key Escrow Among Friends

In thinking about the GMail encryption problem, I came to realize that for ordinary users liable to forget their passwords, it would not be suitable to tell them after such an event that all their email archives are forever lost. This means some sort of Key Escrow. Not the nasty kind done with the clipper chip, but one done voluntarily.

I came up with a system I call Friendscrow. (I suspect others have also thought of the same thing.) This is a ZUI (Zero User Interface) system, at least for normal operation.

Your key would be broken up into some number of fragments, say 20. The fragments would be arranged so that getting any 10 of them recovers the key, but getting fewer gets you no closer.

The system would search your mail logs to find your 20 most frequent correspondents in the system. (It has to be a big and popular system for this to take place, otherwise some UI is needed.) Most of these will be your friends, a few may be enmies. Techniques would be used to eliminate mailing lists, etc. If you want to add basic UI, you might scan and approve the list.

The key fragments are then distributed to the 20 close contacts. They will not know this has been done, the fragement will just be placed in their files, encrypted with their key.

If you lose your key (or when you die) you use your friends to get it back. You mail those you know to be your closest correspondents a special message. It says to them, "You may not know it, but you may have a fragment of my lost key. Go to the system and click on the link to help a friend recover a password."

The link explains that you should first confirm you are really talking to the friend through some other means than e-mail. Or confirm that they are dead. It will ask you to confirm they are not under duress. Then it will give you the fragment to hand over to the authorized person.

You should be able to find half the fragments, which would be enough to get back your key, and read your archives again.  read more »

McCain-Kerry Ticket

Many have seen talk of a proposed Kerry-McCain ticket, since they are longtime friends, and while McCain has been a loyal GOP member and endorsed the President, it's well know he is no real fan of Bush.

McCain has said he would not take the Democrat's VP nomination and no wonder. What's in it for him except a chance at the Vice Presidency? He would lose his Senate seat and probably never regain it. His old party would disown him and brand him a traitor. The Democrats would never nominate him for President when Kerry's term was over. Why trade Senator for a chance at VP and the end of your political career?

Another, much more radical suggestion comes to mind. McCain-Kerry. This seems like a ticket that would win. The only question is whether more Democrats would bolt from the movement by not voting, voting Nader or trying to run a backup Democrat (Edwards, Dean, etc.) than Republicans would switch to the bipartisan ticket of McCain & Kerry.

I think this ticket could win, and has the best chance of defeating Bush of any ticket that might happen. For those in the "Anybody but Bush in 2004" camp, this would be the reason to support it.

But would more ordinary democrats support it? The machinations required would be large but I believe workable. (Many delegates to the Dem Convention are already committed to vote for Kerry or another.)

McCain would have to agree to compromises, to agree to be a bipartisan President -- just Democratic enough to keep the Democrats on board, and Republican enough to win over the moderate Republicans under-thrilled with Bush, the ones he had supporting him against Bush last time. McCain is a man of principle, he would keep promises he made, I believe.

He would promise to do some Democrat items, and back off on Republican ones. (For example, abortion, supreme court appointments and a few other items.) He might even promise to resign at some point in his term, or only run one term.

McCain gets the brass ring -- he gets to be President, and get rid of Bush. That's worth risking your political career over. Kerry gets to be VP in a White House that promises to give a lot of duties to the VP, and he becomes the presumptive nominee for President after the McCain-Kerry administration is done.

The alternative is a 50% (probably less) chance of being President, and a 50% chance of 4 more years of GWB.

Closed-circuit HDTV for cruise ship inside cabins

Inside cabins on cruise ships are somewhat depressing. Here's a plan to make them better. Equip them with flat-panel HDTV video screens. Then place HDTV cameras on the bow, stern and both sides. Tune the video panel to the camera that is pointed in the same direction to make a virtual porthole.

Why is this valuable? Well, aside from giving the passengers something to look at in high-res, a lot of seasickness comes from your eyes not telling you the same thing as the balance organs in your inner ear. It's why staring at the horizon is the right thing to do when feeling queasy. This simulated window (if aligned well with the camera) should provide some help with that.

Not having done tests I don't know if it will be necessary to have the camera be close to the screen or whether a camera amidships (not moving up and down so much) could work with a screen near the bow, or vice versa. The disparity might make things worse, and tests would be needed. One axis might work while another would not. It might also be possible to compensate for the difference by cropping the frame from a larger view, and introducing artificial motion to provide the level of horizon motion that would be seen from a window.

Of course, they could also add bright full-spectrum lights to the inside rooms (I assume some ships do) to make them more cheery.

Inside cabins sell for a lot less than outside ones, this could jack up their price. Of course the screen could also tune the other cameras, or indeed other closed circuit cameras showing public areas on the ship, or semi-public ones like the bridge during interesting times.

And, duh, they would be great for movies and other video entertainment. In fact the outside cabins might want them so they can see out the window to starboard and see forward as well! Making a few hundred extra per trip would easily pay for the flat panel displays in a short time.

How are pricepoints moving on HD cameras meant not for camcordering (with associated expensive compression) but closed-circuit work? I could see a market for this even in homes, with one's flat panel showing the view from the roof of your house, if it has a view.

Conference of the governors

Just got a new frame-capture, thanks to Burak KALAYCI, for my amusing page Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Ventura confer, which features a rare screen cap from the movie Predator. Strange days indeed.

New word: Spamigation

Spamigation: The abuse of bulk legal action. Filing lawsuits in bulk (as in the RIAA filesharing lawsuits or DirecTV smartcard lawsuits) without taking care to assure all defendants are actually at fault. As such, some defendants are bound to be entirely innocent, but this doesn't matter because you don't really plan to take any to trial.

Can also be used for threats of legislation, when sending out cease and desist and other threatening letters is bulk, because it's easier to bulk threaten than to research. Possible alternate spelling: Spammigation.

Privacy issues in GMail and other webmail

Most people have heard about the various debates around Google's new GMail service. I wear many hats, both as a friend and consultant to Google and as chairman of the EFF. There have been some tinfoil-hat flaps but there are also some genuine privacy concerns brought about by people moving their life online and into the hands of even a well-meaning third party.

Check out the Essay on privacy issues in GMail and webmail. I welcome your comments in the blog.

Will 3 tech trends change where we live?

I suspect that some time this decade we will see 3 tech trends converge which might make a big difference in the utility of remote real estate, land that currently remains undeveloped because it is so remote.

The first is already here, the internet. Many people can now use the internet to work from anywhere, and both long-range wireless broadband and satellite let you get the internet anywhere. That can give you data, video and phone service as well as the conduit for work.

It also gives you shopping, thanks to the commitment of the shipping companies to deliver to any address, even remote ones. Now you don't need much locally -- just your groceries and urgent needs. Everywhere now has a giant bookstore and a giant everything-else store if you can get UPS.

The second trend is cheaper remote power. Possibly solar, but perhaps sooner the fuel cell, to give quiet, clean and cheap electricity anywhere you can get propane delivered. We're not there yet but some products are already on the market. If not there are other improving forms of off-grid power.

The next is the return of cheaper general aviation, allowing people to own planes so they can live far from cities and get to them quickly. This is the only trend to see a recent reversal, as 9/11 has put general burdens on aviation. Today the money you save on the cost of a home, comparing a remote location to a big city, can easily buy that plane.

Some things are still harder, including schooling and of course an active social life. But for a component of society that wanted to live remotely but could not make it workable, this may be about to change. Suddenly that remote hilltop with the fabulous view that was undeveloped because it was off-grid and too remote for the good life may get a house on it. We may see a lot of this.

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