Blogs

More on generic domains, and poli-spam

There has been some discussion of the generic domain proposal on slashdot (alas mostly incorrect because they didn't read the underlying essays.) The posting here was also posted on
CircleID
a DNS discussion site, and there are multiple comments.

As noted, my blog entry was primarily a summary of views related to the proposal of yet another generic TLD. Mistakenly I gave the .yahoo example making some people think I was proposing just giving TLDs to big companies, which is the exact opposite of the proposal. Those who wish to comment should see actual proposal to break up ICANN to see where I'm coming from.

Additional not on Political Spam: John Gilmore wondered if it might be unconstitutional to limit the number of E-mails each candidate got to send to the voters in their district. I doubt that's true, but it turns out it's not needed. If voters have easy opt-out links and an opt-out web site, candidates that overwhelm voters with messages would quickly be unsubscribed to, losing their chance to get their message out closer to the election.

It's also not necessary to provide email for ballot propositions. They are not really in need of campaign finance reform in the same way. Those who donate to a proposition do so only to help it win. They may have ulterior motives for that, but they are not doing it to get influence with a candidate later on other issues, which is the CFR problem.

Otherwise doing ballot propositions seems harder, since it is hard to see who would be the "official" opponent (though election books seem to do something here.) Everybody deserves a say, but open mail lists clearly would not work.

New mobile domain another bad idea

You may have seen a new proposal for a "mobile" top-level domain name for use by something called "mobile users" whatever they are. (The domain will not actually be named .mobile, rumours are they are hoping for a coveted one-letter TLD like .m "to make it easier to type on a mobile phone.)

Centuries ago, as trademark law began its evolution, we learned one pretty strong rule about building rules for a name system for commerce, and even for non-commerce.

Nobody should be given ownership of generic terms. Nobody should have ownership rights in a generic word like "apple" -- not Apple Computer, not Apple Records, not the Washington State Apple Growers, not a man named John Apple.

Rather, generics must be shared. Ownership rights can accrue to them only in specific contexts that are not generic. Because the word "Apple" has no generic meaning when it comes to computers, we allow a company to get rights in that name when applied to computers. A different company has those rights when it applies to records. More than this, different parties could own the same term with the same context in two different cities. There is probably a "China Delight" restaurant in your town.

We hammered out the rules to manage such naming systems literally over centuries, with many laws and zillions of court cases.

Then, when DNS came along we (and I include myself since I endorsed it at the time) threw it all away. We said, when it came to naming on the internet, we would create generic top level domains, and let people own generic names within them.

Thus, "com" for commerce has within it "drugstore.com." Centuries of law establshed nobody could own the generic word "drugstore" but when it comes to names used on the internet, we reversed that. No wonder that company paid near a million for that domain as I recall, and at the record, the inflated number of 7.5 million was paid for business.com

The old TLDs have that mistake built into them. On the internet, we are the only EFF organization because we were first. Nobody else can be that.

The new TLDs continue that trend. Be it .museum, which allows one body to control the generic word museum, or a new proposal for .mobile.

Because of this, people fight over the names, pay huge sums, sue and insist only one name is right for them.

I maintain that the only way to get a competitive innovative space is to slowly get rid of the generics and allow a competitive space of branded TLDs for resale. .yahoo, .dunn, .yellowpages, .google, .wipo, and a hundred other branded resellers competing on on even footing to create value in their brand and win customers with innovative designs, better service, lower prices and all the usual things. I presume .wipo would offer trademark holders powerful protections within their domain. Let them. Perhaps .braddomains would, when you bought a domain, give you every possible typo and homonym for your domain so people who hear it on the radio won't get it wrong typing it in. Perhaps .centraal (former, non-generic name of the now defunct "RealNames" company) would follow their keyword rules. I know .frankston would offer permanent numeric IDs to all. Let them all innovate, let them all compete.

We're nowhere near this system, but I didn't just make up the idea of not owning generics. I think centuries of experience shows it is the best way to go. I wrote this today in response to the .mobile proposal, but you can also find much more on the ideas in my site of DNS essays including this plan to break up ICANN, and essays on generics and also the goals we have for a domain system

Political Spam == Campaign Finance Reform?

I’ve maintained for some time that while most spam is commercial, whether something is spam is not dependent on it being commercial. Charity spam, religious spam and political spam are just as bothersome as Viagra spam.

However, fellow EFFer Larry Lessig challenged me on this by asking whether we might want to allow political spam. Spam is super-cheap to send (that’s one reason it’s a problem) but as a very cheap form of advertising it could be an equalizer when it comes to campaign expenses, since a candidate would low-funding could spam almost as well as one with boatloads of special interest money. That’s unlike TV advertising, where the better funded candidate wins the game.

I have to admit that the current way elections are funded and political influence is bought and sold is a much more important problem than spam, so this is a question worth looking at.

Of course, it would be stupid for a politician to spam, even though they have exempted themselves from the spam laws. Spam generates such ill will (appropriately too) that I think a spam campaign from a candidate would backfire. Plus, I really don’t like the idea of regulating spam based on what it says — If it says one thing it’s banned, if it says another it’s OK.

But is there a germ of something worthwhile in here? What if the election officials managed the mailing list and voters had to be on it, for example.  read more »

On Nader running and third parties

I've been reading a number of pieces, both before and after, on the evil of Ralph Nader running for office. The arguments for the harm that could come to Nader's cause if
he "spoils" the election are possibly quite valid. I doubt Nader is
unaware of them; perhaps is he more aware of them than anybody.

But I continue to find great dismay in those who tell him not to
run. Perhaps it is my perspective as a non-citizen of this fine
country, since in my country, and many others, strong third parties
are common, and it is common for them to change the outcome of
an election.

The argument to Nader seems to say, "You should not run because you
might make a difference." In this case a difference other than the
one he wants to make.

But with this philosophy, that third voices may only be heard in
U.S. politics when hearing them won't actually make a difference, the
U.S. will never hear more than 2 voices, and indeed 2 similar voices.
(There was a nice paper on Dave's mailing list not too long ago which
demonstrated how a 2 party system pushes both candidates to the middle.)

Exercise your political will, you tell Nader, only when it can make
no difference. If you ever get popular enough to actually alter the course of
an election, back off.  read more »

Undefeatable commercial elimination

I've written elsewhere about the doom of the TV commercial, and as you may know, we represented Replay TV owners in their fight to not be declared lawbreakers for skipping commercials..

Commercial skipping tools have existed for some time, my old VCR has a complex automatic commercial advance. DVR makers have been scared against doing it for a while it seems.

However, an algorithm exists that makes it a fight they can't win. While networks can try to fool automated commercial skipping algorithms, they can't fool large numbers of live people.

One could build a commercial skip (or general "boring parts skipper") in PVRs by having the first party to watch a show be required to manually fast forward over the boring parts. As more and more people do this, patterns will emerge. Combined with automated algorithms looking for the usual (fades to black, standard time periods, changes in sound patterns) it would be possible to get a very accurate measure of where the commercials and other boring parts in a show are. So accurate you could even delete them from disk, though there isn't a great need to do that.

Of course, you would need to use only people without a reputation for dishonesty. If one person's skippings don't match the others, or they do this a lot, don't use them. You could also do collaborative filtering techniques, to see people who skip what you do, or who even pause to watch certain ads (like movie trailers) as you do.

This could apply to not just shows with commercials, but other shows with boring parts. Pauses in sporting events. Boring speeches in award shows and political press conferences. Sharing your skipping with people of similar tastes could cause on-the-fly personal edits of shows ready within an hour or two of airing.

Sometimes you would want to watch first and you become the editor. Most of the time you would just be the beneficiary. If you don't like the editing one group of people are doing, you could switch to another.

Exercise bike that makes you exercise

Everybody knows one of the big problems with exercise machines is they end up as clothesracks. I've seen this literally happen. A lot of people put their machine in front of the TV to make them use it, for a while we even had no couch.

Here's an invention to create an exercise machine you'll really use, if you watch TV. The machine, or a device attached to it, would be programmed to constantly broadcast a recorded infrared signal trained from your remote. This code would be one that would interfere with watching TV. For example, volume-mute or channel-up, or a digit. Whatever you want to train it to. (Off doesn't work as that also turns the TV on.)

However, once you get on the machine and start using it, it stops sending this code, and you can watch TV. Once you have done your exercise quota, it would stop sending the muck-up code until you are next due to exercise, whatever your schedule is.

To stop you from just covering the transmitter with clothing (remember the clothesrack?) it would also need to have a receiver some distance away which gets upset and chirps annoyingly if it can't see the regular ping from the transmitter.

Others in the house not on a regimen could enter a code on the remote to temporarily disable the system when they want to watch. If 2 or more people had a regimen, they would have to enter which person they were to activate their disabling code. That gets a bit messy but it can be done.  read more »

Fantasy a risk in moviemaking?

At the Oscars last night (which were pretty boring, with one nice joke featuring Billy Crystal camcordering a new movie) Peter Jackson thanked the Studios for having the courage to back a big fantasy epic like the Lord of the Rings.

But a look at IMDB's list of all-time movie revenues reveals something else. Of the top 25 grossing movies of all time, how many were science fiction and fantasy?

23 of them. Only Titanic (at #1) and Forrest Gump were not. So with that record, how hard should it have been to pitch the generally regarded top fantasy book in history (not counting the Bible) for big box office. Yes, the prior two animated productions had been poor performers, but with modern moviemaking techniques, and skilled people, this was not a risky proposition.

(Yes, the list is in current dollars, which heavily biases towards recent films. Even the constant dollar list is heavily loaded with fantasy and science fiction.)

And the next 25 are heavily loaded that way too.

Down with P2P software that isn't P2P

No surprise that after the RIAA started filing lawsuits against people they allege were distributing lots of copyrighted files, a movement has sprung up to build filesharing networks where the user hosting data can't be traced so easily.

Today, on Kazaa, all they need to do is try to find a file, look at what a user is sharing and try to download it. That gives them the IP address of the party in question.

The suits will push people into systems that don't make that information easily available. One common design being pushed involves removing the peer to peer aspect that made these systems so efficient and capable of distributing files. Namely the connections are no longer direct, the data flows between one or more intermediaries.

In this case, they can request a file but the data will come from an intermediary. Since that intermediary won't log what they pass on (they are just a router) you would have to have a live wiretap on the intermediary to find where the data came from, and that may be another intermediary. You would need live wiretaps on half the net to actually track somebody. The intermediaries have no idea what data they are routing, and are no more guilty of copyright infringement than UUNET is for owning routers.

But this is of course terribly inefficient, especially since the intermediaries are mostly at network endpoints.

There are designs which protect the privacy of users, but don't let the RIAA sue the hosting system. One was the Mojo Nation project, which died, but has spun off technologies like HiveCache and MNet.

In Mojo Nation, files were broken up into many blocks, with some redundancy. For example a file might have 8 different component blocks, any 4 of which can resassemble the file. Those 8 blocks would themselves be replicated all over the net. You could find out what IP sent you a block, but the owner of that IP address would not have any idea what was in it, it's just an encrypted black box to them, so they are not liable. At best you could order them to delete the block after showing that it's part of a copyrighted file using a DMCA takedown. But it's not practical to do.

At least it's P2P. It's sad that the RIAA's crusade will cause people to modify P2P networks into non-P2P, and gain the RIAA nothing.

Big Brother Tivo

Each year when Tivo reminds people they gather anonymized viewing data on Tivo usage by reporting superbowl stats, a debate arises. A common view is that it's OK because they go to a lot of work (which indeed they do) to strip the data of the identity of the user.

As noted, I've read Tivo's reports and talked to Tivo's programmers, and they did work hard to try to keep the data secure and anonymised.

So why worry? A number of principles are at stake. Privacy is an
unusual issue. You only care about privacy invasions _after_ your
privacy is violated. To avoid invasions some people have to be a
little paranoid, and justifiably argue against building the infrastructure
of a massive surveillance system, even if the people who build it
have good intentions. They might not always run it.

This is not simply an Orwellian fear of the TV watching you (though that
does play a part.) Recently, Studios sued SonicBlue over the Replay TV,
a competitor to Tivo. To gather data, they sought a court order for
Replay to modify their code to monitor their users to gather data for
the court. Replay doesn't do even the anonymous monitoring Tivo does.
There was great outcry, and the order was reversed. Sadly, that's a
lesson that will cause the next such order to be done in secret.

And unfortunately, Tivo has done 90% of the work needed to allow such
an order to be easy. Yes, they anonymize the data, but they do it
by choice, not natural law. They can undo that choice, either because
they change their minds, or a court or police agency changes their minds
for them.

How paranoid is it to be worried about something that is not just
hypothetical, but has already taken place at least once?  read more »

Can RSA "blocker tag" really work?

RSA today announced a version of Ron Rivest's blocker tag which is a supposed defence against unwanted RFID scans.

The tag, explained simply, answers affirmatively to an entire subsection of the RFID space, so that any scanner looking for a tag in that space always hears a yes (or gives up) and thus can't find a tag in that space.

(RFID scanners, if you didn't know, find tags by doing a binary descent of their code number, asking "Anybody here start with 1? Yes? Ok, anybody start with 10? No? How about 11? Yes? Anybody start with 110?" and so on.)

This would work with existing scanners, but it doesn't seem very secure to me.
All they would need would be a scanner that could tell the difference between two tags answering and one answering. On the left side of the tree, it might hear both the blocker tag and real tags. On the right side, only the blocker tag. If it can tell the difference it can still descend the tree and read your tag.

A very smart blocker tag that knows not to answer when the specific tags it is blocking will answer could defeat this, but that's a much more expensive tag, effecitively an active device. And even this could be defeated by a reader with more than one antenna or any directionaility to its antenna to let it know the answers it got came from two different sources.

What this means is the ordinary reader won't be able to scan the tags on your clothes as you walk into a building, but one designed for that purpose could do so. So we'll have snooping for the rich, but not for the public. Though at least you could detect when this has been done to you, if you had an active tag looking for this. But what could you do about it?

Car dock for my MP3 player

I like to use our Rio Karma MP3 player in the car, but it's not nearly as good as it could be. So here are some jottings on what an ideal car dock would do for the player.

  • Power and charge the player, of course
  • Offer various options for sending audio to the car, including a built-in quality FM transmitter, a port for a special Cassette sized interface (more below) and various cables for car stereos that have an accessory jack (as mine has for a trunk CD-changer) or plain audio inputs.
  • A wireless remote control to stick on the wheel (not needed if other remote control methods can work.)
  • A microphone.
  • To get really fancy, an 802.11 interface to allow it to sync up with computers inside the house while in the driveway. Though strictly, this would be even better inside the player, not in the dock.

The microphone would perform several roles. One, it would detect the ambient sound level in the car, and boost the music volume as the car gets noisier. No more super-loud when you start the car either.

Secondly, it would listen for the sound of the music the player is playing. It would try to tell if it was playing, so it could detect when the stereo is turned off or switched to something else, or when the car is turned off (if the loss of power from the accessory jack doesn't already reveal this.) When the sound stops (even if this takes 5 seconds to confirm) just pause the music back in time when the sound was first detected to stop. One could then from time to time send out pulses of the forthcoming audio, and if it hears them, treat that as a resumption of play.  read more »

Being able to disable RFIDs isn't enough

Many people, trying to address concerns about the privacy implications of RFID tags have indicated that it can just become the norm, or even a requirement, to "burn" out the RFID tags in purchased products as they are sold.

I'll get to why that doesn't work in a moment, but first some background. RFID tags are cheap passive radio devices planned to go into most consumer products, replacing the bar-code. A reader can, within certain range of the tags, read the serial numbers of all tags in the area. Every tag has a unique number, so it makes a great bar-code for inventory control.

Soon your body will be covered with RFID tags everywhere you go. In your clothes, boots, watch, wallet, glasses, ID-badges, credit-cards etc. Scanners may show up everywhere. This provides the potential to put them on city streets, doorways, airports, train stations and so on, and, once you have scanned a person once, to track everybody's movements everywhere. Pretty 1984.

Here's the rub. We're going to want some of these tags. Not just to return products to the store. Today the readers are expensive, but soon they will be cheap, and we'll want to have something we can use to find our keys, wallet, glasses, watch or other losables. To let us know what's in our closets, on our bookshelves. We'll love it. So we won't burn out the IDs.

The only answer I have thought of (I don't think Rivest's jammer will work) is more expensive RFIDs that can be modified instead of burned out, so that they will no longer respond to any scanner, just to our personal one. So they work for us, not for others.

Even with this the IDs in credit cards, access cards and such will need to work in more scanners. How will we turn them off?

Challenge/Response, good or bad

I've just put up a new essay on my web site on whether challenge/response anti-spam systems are good or bad

As some may know, I've been running such a system longer than anybody, having written one in 1997. I wrote a white paper on best practices for such systems that some have found useful.

However, I also see a lot of complaints about C/R systems. Most of those complaints are about the new crop of C/R systems, many of which have annoying bugs. Because some of the concerns are real, however, I felt it was time for an article on those issues for a well-behaved C/R system.

Note that even my own system, in spite of being better behaved that most newer systems, does not meet all my own best practices, though it would if I were writing it again.

Limit children's hours of TV viewing

Generally, I'm the last person to suggest we use technology to control people's lives and what they view. However, it's also the duty of parents to help teach their children how and when to use the media. Most commonly today you see things like the V-chip, which let parents block their unskilled children from seeing shows with certain "ratings."

A far more useful concept, I think, would be a device which limits the amount of time children can spend watching the TV. What they watch in that context can be mostly up to them, and if they understand the concept of a time budget, it will probably improve not just how much they watch but what they watch.

A PVR like the Tivo, or in particular, the DirecTivo, is the ideal platform for doing this. Children would get their own remotes, or a code to enter on the master remote to start using their weekly budget of TV hours. Once the budget was used up, they could not watch TV for a while. With a PVR, this would not block them from seeing a highly desired show, but it would delay it.

If two children wanted to watch the same show they could both enter their code to halve the amount of TV credit used, encouraging sharing and (minimal) socialization. Siblings would pretty quickly develop a market, trading TV hours like prison cigarettes with one another for real-world things, even money. This need not be discouraged. Random TV surfing would be discouraged, and commercial viewing strongly discouraged.

Adults would have to take the burden of having to enter their own code for unmetered viewing, a price they would pay to cut down their kid's TV hours.

Of course there are also some privacy considerations to consider.  read more »

Open Source voting machines

As I noted earlier, there are all sorts of risks with remote voting over the internet, even if I suggest a way to make it doable. However, this is different from the question of voting machines. Like the folks at Verified Voting I believe that a voter-verifiable paper ballot is the simplest way to make computerized voting more secure. And I like voting machines because they can improve access and even make preferential ballot possible down the road.

But I look at the huge cost we are paying for voting machines. I propose breaking the voting machine process into two steps. The first is the ballot preparation machine. It helps the voter generate their ballot, and then prints it out on paper, in a human readable form that is also machine readable. You need lots of those.

With paper ballot in hand, you walk over to the scanning machine, which is stage 2. This machine reads the standard-format paper ballot, does OCR on the human readable text and confirms the ballot is readable as the voter desires. It also counts it. The ballot is then placed in a locked ballot box.

The scanning machine will be expensive, and secured, and built by an audited vendor. However, you need only a small number of those. The voting stations, which you need many of, can mostly be cheap. In fact, they can be free.

That's because you would generate a voting program that runs on standard PC hardware. On slow standard PC hardware. Probably an open source program, meant to run on Linux, and audited and verified by the open source community. They would love this job.

Then you ask the public to donate their old, slower PCs. Give them a small tax deduction if needed, but frankly I think you would get so many machines you wouldn't even need that. You could even be strict on the hardware requirements. Wipe the bios and put in a fresh one, possibly put in a cheap hard disk with the voting system installed. Get donated laser printers. You don't have a lot of security concerns with these machines because there is not a lot they can do to bollux the election.  read more »

Solving the electoral tie problem

In 2000, the Florida Presidential election ended up in a tie. Many people get offended at that remark, because they don't think of elections as being compatible with ties, they insist that their candidate really won.

However, to scientists, you have a tie when the results differ by less than the margin of error. And I refer not simply to the margin of error from the problems in the voting machines, but a much more bizarre margin caused by political pressure to interpret the results in different ways.

This is a curse because if you get a close result, there will be tremendous political and financial captial spent to try to push the results one way or another by redefining the rules. It's an unstable situation, solved that time only by damaging the surpreme court by forcing it to make such partisan rulings.

How to avoid this? One of the causes of the problem is that almost all states decide to give all their electoral votes to the winner of their state, rather than apportioning them. One reason they do this is that it makes the state a bigger prize in the election, and so the candidate works harder to please the state. (This is the same factor, as they will also work like crazy in a tie to be the prevailing party.)

To solve this I propose a slightly different formula for allocating the electoral votes. I'll flesh it out with 2 candiates in a state with 50 votes and 10M voters.

If one candidate gets, say, 51% of the vote (5.1M votes or more) then give them all the electoral votes. This, as before, keeps the candidate very interested in winning the state and pleasing its voters. If a candidate gets under 49%, they get zero as before.

If they get between 49% and 51%, apportion the votes on the pro-rata portion of this region. For example, if both candidates get 50%, they split the votes, 25 each. If one candidate gets 4.92M votes and the other 5.08M, we see 5 votes for the first candidate and 45 for the 2nd.

What this means is that if, by recounting or re-interpeting, you can add 4,000 votes to your total, you win one whopping electoral vote.

So it's worth fighting and recounting a bit, but not going crazy, because you aren't going to change the results a lot no matter what you do.

Yes, this means Gore and Bush would have split Florida's votes and Gore won the presidency, but of course it could easily benefit the other side under different circumstances.  read more »

Eyes in the back of your head

Reading this NYT article about radar to cover car blind spots, which describes a system that will trigger lights in the rearview-mirror when cars are in the blind-spot, reminded me of an old idea I had some time ago I called “Eyes in the back of your head.”

The idea would be to wear a special collar while driving. This collar would contain small electrodes that could lightly stimulate the skin on the back of the neck. Perhaps just one row, but ideally a small 2-D image should be possible.

This would be connected to a camera, radar or sonar system pointing back from the vehicle. It would map where other vehicles are, and turn that into an image on the back of the neck.

Thus, as a car came up behind you and passed you, it would feel like something brushing the back of your neck on one side.

I was inspired to this by reading about a system for the blind that mapped a video camera image onto a 2000 pixel electrode map on the stomach. It was found that over time, the nerves would retrain and a sort of limited vision could develop. Might this have application in driving, or perhaps combat?  read more »

The peril in automatic cars

I hinted last week I would write about a peril from and to automatic cars, or actually any drive-by-wire cars.

That peril is they become highly useful terrorist weapons. Today terrorists get kamikazis to drive ordinary cars to attack targets and checkpoints. It will be easy to modify a drive-by-wire car (including the self-parking cars already on the market) to be controlled by the cheap remote controls found on toy cars and planes today, and easy to mount a wireless camera (X10, the terrorist's tool!) as well.

A remote control car can be a weapon on its own, just to smash into things, but more nastily it can be loaded with explosives or poison or other nasty things. If drive-by-wire cars become commonplace (and they will) this will be possible.

I present a problem without good solution, and I also fear some of the solutions even more than the problem. For example, one of the big advantages of the automatic self-parking car which I described earlier is the car that drops you off and picks you up right at the door of where you're going. However, just as false anti-terrorist security has made it almost impossible to park or pick people up at some airports, they will move to ban all vechicles from going just where we want them to go.

They may also start demanding government overrides for the automatic cars, so police can take control of our vehicles on demand, bypassing even manual control. They will try to tightly regulate the technology (stifling it) and only allow blessed companies to work on it. As I said, a problem without obvious solution.

Fairer bathrooms

We've all seen public bathrooms where the women have a line snaking out into the hall, but we guys can just "whiz" in and out. We have sympathy (but not too much, see the joke)

Here's a good solution that will probably never fly because we're uptight. Two bathrooms: One small one with nothing but urinals for men, and another one with nothing but stalls to be shared among the sexes.

In effect, it would offer most of the building's entire pool of stalls to the women when they need it, instead of the 60% or so they get now.

Why not do this? Well, some women would prefer men not use their stalls, due to certain prejudicial (or justified) opinions they might hold about our collective restroom hygene. And women might also miss the private "just for women" chat and appearance adjustment space at the sink.

These concerns could be fixed one of two ways. Have men's and women's "ends" to the line of stalls, so only when it was full would women find themselves moving into the area we've used. And possibly have two private sink areas, since there is not as much contention there, and they take less space anyway.
I can credit the idea that the sexes want their private space.

Oh yeah, the toilets could have a little pin that pokes out when the flush lever is pulled that tips down the seat if it was left up. Does that make it better? :-)

Or are we just too uptight to do this? I know women who, facing the long line, waltz into the men's room. They obviously won't mind. I don't see men minding. It's sometimes means a longer wait for a stall, but it's fair.

So what about it, ladies? Would you prefer this arrangement?

Paperless Home

In my home I now have a "home computer", for a while in the kitchen, now in the living room. Of course I have had computers in my home since the 70s, but this one is different. It's an old cheap laptop I picked up, not powerful at all. What's different is how I use it.

I have connected a Visioneer sheetfed scanner to it. I can drop papers and business cards into it and it scans them. Then I drop them in a box. I have scans of all the receipets and other documents, but if for some reason I need the original I can see by date which ones were nearby and presumably find it quickly enough. A good idea might be to drop a coloured sheet in once a month.

This has inspired me to design a simple device which would be very cheap to build. It's a small sheetfed scanner like this one, which is the size of a 3-hole punch. It's battery powered so it can be stuck anywhere. It has no cables going into it, instead it has a memory card slot, such as compact flash.

When you scan, the data would just be written to the flash card. (Nicely this means the scans are fast.) A button or two on the scanner might set some basic options (like colour or gray, delete and rescan etc.) At most a small LCD panel would be all you get.

When the flash is full, you would take it to the computer, which would do all the real work. Scan and process the data. Convert grayscales to bitmaps at the right level as desired. OCR the text for searching and indexing. Detect orientation, tilt, business cards (by size) etc. all automatically.

And of course then let you view and organize your papers on the computer.

We've dreamed of a paperless office for some time but never gotten there (though we get a little closer all the time.) But can we get to a paperless home, or at least a lower-paper home? I find the paperwork and nitty-gritty of managing a home gets more frustrating with time and hope something can help it.

As noted, my design is extremely cheap. The scanner, a small controller and a flash interface is about all there is too it. Cheaper than the current scanners, which can be had well under $100. The flash card is the expensive part.  read more »

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