Brad Templeton is an EFF director, Singularity U faculty, software architect and internet entrepreneur, robotic car strategist, futurist lecturer, hobby photographer and Burning Man artist.

This is an "ideas" blog rather than a "cool thing I saw today" blog. Many of the items are not topical. If you like what you read, I recommend you also browse back in the archives, starting with the best of blog section. It also has various "topic" and "tag" sections (see menu on right) and some are sub blogs like Robocars, photography and Going Green. Try my home page for more info and contact data.

Guide for remote video participants in a group meeting with Skype

Having a group videoconference, or participating by video in a group meeting (where several people are in a meeting room, and one or more others are coming in via video) is quite useful. It’s much better than the traditional audio conference call on a fancy speakerphone. The audio is much better and the video makes a big difference to how engaged the remote parties are in the meeting.

There are many tools, but right now I recommend Skype, which can handle around 5 remote parties if you buy a one-day premium subscription or monthly. In theory it does 10 but they recommend 5, which means the meeting room and 4 others. Only one party (the meeting room account, typically) needs to have the premium subscription. The instructions for the meeting room are slightly more complex — this is a guide for the remote parties calling in. I also recommend Google Hangout, which handles 10 smoothly.

The advice below is definitely ordered. Even if you just do the first few it helps a bunch.

  • Upgrade to the latest Skype, at least version 5 is needed
  • Know the conference master’s account and have it on your contacts list
  • Get a headset
  • Get a headset
  • Mute your audio when not speaking, and definitely if you ignored the headset bit
  • Have a nice webcam and avoid having the light come from behind you
  • Use Windows over Mac, and your machine with the most CPU power
  • Make sure you can see the chat window so you can do IMs without disrupting the meeting

There’s a bunch of stuff here. It’s worth doing because you will be much more engaged in the meeting. You will know who is speaking and see what’s going on. Your voice will be clear and loud. You’ll be able to interrupt and engage in dynamic conversation. You’ll be in the meeting and not just an audience. You need to do the extra work because the people who physically went don’t want to put up with too much to make it easier for those phoning it in.

Upgrade to your latest Skype

The multi party video works only with version 5 for Mac or Windows. If you have a lower version, or you are on Linux (curse you, Skype) you will only come in by audio. That’s still better than coming in by a phone bridge. If you have Skype just go to the Help menu and tell it to check for upgrades (File menu on the Mac.) Hate to say it, but if you have a choice, use a Windows computer. Skype develops first on Windows and the other versions always lag behind. Some useful features are only on Windows.

So before the meeting, be sure to upgrade, and get to know the new UI if you have not seen it before — Skype changed their UI a bunch from 4 to 5.

Become a “contact” with the conference master.

Make sure you are buddies (contacts) with the premium account that will be the master for the conference. That doesn’t have to be the meeting room, but it usually is. (Optionally you can add other participants to your list.) You will normally get an E-mail with the ID, or perhaps a contact invite. You can also search on Skype for most users.

Get a headset and get good audio. Really.

Skype does a very good job of speakerphone and echo cancellation in two-way calls. But it’s still much better if you have a headset, or failing that, headphones and a mic. The meeting room has no choice but to use speakerphone mode, which is an even bigger reason for you to get the headphones.

When you have a headset, or at least headphones and a clip-on mic or directional table mic near your mouth:

  • The sound doesn’t go out your speakers and right into the mic. That means Skype does not have to echo-cancel so much. When it echo cancels it makes it harder to talk while somebody else is talking. With the headset you can be more two-way, and that gives you more presence at the meeting.
  • Your mouth is close to the mic, so the mic adjusts its level down, and all background noise in your environment is thus not amplified nearly as much.
  • If you use the mic in your laptop, it really hears keyclicks, mouse click and even the fan too well. In fact, you dare not type without muting your mic first.

Do not use a bluetooth headset — they limit you to phone quality if you use the microphone. Hi-fi bluetooth headphones plus an independent mic will work fine.

You might want to test your audio by calling somebody, or calling the “Skype Test Call” address that goes into every Skype contact list by default.

Mute your sound if you go away, or type, or are just listening for a while

The high quality audio of computer calls is really valuable. It helps everybody understand everybody, and makes it much clearer who is speaking. This comes with an ironic curse — it picks up all sorts of background sounds that regular telephones don’t transmit. You would be amazed what it picks up. Mouse clicks. Keyboard clicks. Grunts. Eating. People in the next room. Planes flying by. (It does less of this if you use a headset and manual volume setting.)

If you are going to be sitting back and listening, mute your own microphone while doing this. If you leave your computer definitely mute. If you leave to take a phone call, it’s even more important. I’ve been in calls where the person leaves their PC and we hear them eating, or on a phone call or talking to somebody else where they are, having forgotten to mute. And there can be no way to tell them to fix it because they took their headphones off. Skype has a microphone icon you can click on to mute your mic. It’s red when muted.

If you ignore all this advice and are using the microphone built into your laptop you must not type or move your computer around without muting first. Frankly it’s good to mute to type even with you have that headset, but mandatory if you don’t.

Extra credit if you have a headset: Go into the audio properties and set a manual level for your mic at your normal speaking voice. Then it won’t try to turn up the gain when you are not talking.

Next, consider your lighting

Nothing improves the quality of a webcam image more than decent lighting. Try to set things up so there isn’t a bright light or window in the background behind you, and ideally have a light shining on you from behind and above your monitor. This is worth more than the fanciest webcam. Be wary with laptops, since the webcam pointing up at you often catches ceiling lights.

A nice webcam does not hurt

While the webcam in your laptop will work, and do OK with good lighting, you can do a lot better. The laptop cam is usually low on the desk and looks up your nose. Higher end webcams do much better in bad lighting situations. The Logitech quickcams that Skype rates as “HQ” really are better than the others. You might want to get one if you are doing video calls frequently.

By the way, when the call starts, be sure to make it a video call, or if you are called, “accept with video.” Or you can click on the video button to start your video up.

Possibly turn off your video at certain times

Great as the multi party video is, the more people who use it, the more CPU and bandwidth everybody needs. So if you are just sitting back and not being super active, consider clicking on the “My Video” button to turn off your own video during those periods. Of course if you are going to do some extensive speaking be sure to turn it on again — it’s relatively fast and easy to turn on and off. In practice, unless everybody has fast machines, you don’t want to go above much more than 5 videos, so some people should remain invisible (but still getting HQ audio and seeing the meeting room.)

Optional: Cute video tricks

In Windows, you can turn on the “Dynamic View” and Skype will make the person (or people) who is speaking larger on your window. Handy if you have a big call which makes the individual videos small. Full screen mode (but leave chat visible) is also a good idea unless you want to surf and read e-mail during the meeting. Be warned — we can see you doing that. And your keyboard clicks come through so you may want to mute.

Instead of dynamic view (which jumps around) you can also just click on which video you want to be big. In many cases the best idea is to just click on the meeting room video, which you want to be big because there are many people, and the single-head videos are fine staying small.

Not sending video? Be sure to set a picture in your Skype profile. Others will see this picture highlighted when you talk and know it’s you talking. Even if you are sending video this is a good idea as video sometimes fails.

When problems occur — have chat open

You may get disconnected. The latest Skype tries automatic callback if it was not an explicit disconnect. If you call back the conference master, they have to be careful that they accept your call into the conference, because it’s unfortunately easy for them to just accept it like call-waiting, and put the whole conference room on hold. (This is a bad design, I think.)

Be sure to display Skype’s chat window and be ready for chats and IMs about problems. That way conference problems can be fixed without disturbing the whole meeting. But be sure to mute before you type. The chat window usually goes away in full screen mode, unfortunately, but if you hear little bleeps you don’t understand, it could be you are getting chat.

Hard truth is, some problems in Skype are best solved by stopping and restarting video, or sometimes having a person leave and re-enter the call. Or sometimes even restarting the whole call.

If you are on an ordinary phone

People on phones can join the call. The call manager will tell you one of these methods:

  • The call manager will have a Skype-in number. Just call it.
  • The call manager may have created a traditional conference dial-in number. Call that and do the rigmarole.
  • It is often easiest if the conference manager calls you — if so, make sure they have your numbers. Landlines are better, of course, and vastly less expensive than mobiles outside North America.

In the Meeting room

The situation in the meeting room is different. There you must use speakers with the volume up, and a microphone. Try to put them on the table, particularly the microphone. A quality webcam is much more important here, and the webcam should be up high, at the height of a standing person looking down at the table, so it can see everybody. If you use a laptop on the table the view is dreadful and people block those sitting further down the table. Consider getting USB speakers so you can have two speakers (internal and USB) and configure Skype to send call audio out the USB speakers (which you set loud) but have all other sounds (including Skype call tones) go out the internal audio and speakers which you set down low. Otherwise with the volume way up any PC sounds will drive people nuts.

Special advice for the conference master in the meeting room can be found in the guide for running the meeting room in a videoconference and a discussion of the issues and future features can be found at this article on group meeting video calls.

Review of standalone wand scanner

Back at the start of this blog, in 2004, I described a product I wanted to see, which I called the Paperless Home Scanner. Of late, several companies have been making products like this (not necessarily because of this blog of course) and so I finally picked one up to see how things pan out.

Because I’m cheap, I was able to pick up an asian made scanner sold under many brand names for only $38 on eBay. This scanner sometimes called the Handyscan or PS-4100 or similar numbers, can also be found on amazon for much more.

The product I described is a portable sheetfed scanner which runs on batteries and does not need to be connected to a computer because it just writes to a flash card. This particular scanner isn’t that because it’s a hand scanner you swipe over your documents. For many years I have used a Visioneer Strobe, which is a slow sheetfed unit that has to be connected to a Windows computer. I found that having to turn the computer on and loading the right software and selecting the directory to scan was a burden. (You don’t strictly have to do that but strangely you seem motivated to do so.) The older scanner was not very fast, and suffered a variety of problems, being unable to scan thermal paper receipts (they are so thin it gets confused) and having problems with even slight skew on the documents.

I was interested in the hand-scanner approach because I presumed there had been vast improvements using the laser surface scanning found in mice. I figured a new scanner could do very good registration even if you were uneven in your wanding. Here are some of my observations:  read more »

  • While it does a better job of making an undistorted scan than older hand scanners, it is still far from perfect, and any twists or catches can distort the scan, though not that much. Enough that you wouldn’t use it to print a copy, but fine for records archiving.
  • It’s exactly 8.5” wide. Since it’s hard to be exactly straight on any scan, that’s an annoyance as you will often drift slightly from a page. A scanner for letter paper should really be about 9” wide. I’ll gladly pay the extra for that.
  • Even today with Moore’s law it’s too slow scanning colour. Often the red light comes on that you are scanning too fast in colour. In B&W it is rare but still can happen. Frankly, by this time we should be able to make things fast and sensitive enough to allow scanning as fast as anybody is likely to do it.
  • While it is nice a small (and thus good for travel,) for use in the home, I would prefer it be a bit wider so I can get it on to the paper and scan the whole page with no risk of catching on the paper. And yes, there is always a risk of it catching.
  • It also catches on bends and folds in the paper, and so ideally you are holding the paper with one hand somehow and swiping with the other, but of course that is not really easy to do if scanning the whole page.
  • This particular scanner resets every time it turns off. And it resets to colour-300dpi. I wish it just remembered my settings.
  • In spite of what it said, it does not appear to have a monochrome setting, such as bitmap-600dpi or even 300dpi. That turns out to be fine, and even what you want, for records archiving. Sure, why throw away information in this era of cheap storage, I agree. On the other hand if it allows scanning-super-fast it may be worth it. A trick might be to start in grayscale and get levels, and then switch to bitmap/threshold
  • One huge difference with swipe scanners is they don’t know where the edges of the paper are. You can scan on a black background and have software crop and straighten, but feeding scanners do that for you because they know where those edges are. Again, having a bit of the background there is fine for archiving bills etc.
  • Overall, I do now realize that not having a view of what I scanned is more of burden than I thought. Particularly if you are thinking of disposing of the document after scanning. Did you get a good scan or not? Though it would add a lot to the cost and size, I now wonder if a very small display screen might be in order.
  • Instead of a display screen, one alternative might be bluetooth, and send the scan image to your smartphone or computer directly. Not required, so you can still scan at-will, but if you have your device with you, you can get a review screen and perhaps some more advanced UI.
  • Indeed, the bluetooth approach would save you the trouble of having to transfer the files, or of having a flash card. (A modest number of megs of internal flash would probably do the job of storing until you can get near the computer.)
  • While it does plug into USB (to read the flash card) that would be a pain if you wanted to scan to screen. Bluetooth is better.

Hand swipe vs. motor fed

Turn-key Democracy

Around the world, revolution has been brewing, and new governments are arising. So often, though, attempts to bring democracy to nations not used to it fail. I don’t know how to solve that problem, but I think it might be possible to make these transitions a bit easier, with a bit of modern experience and technology.

What these aspiring new governments and nations could use is a ready-made, and eventually time tested set of principles, procedures, services and people to take the steps to freedom. One that comes with a history, and with the respect of the world, as well as the ability to win the support of the people. I am not the first to suggest this, and there have been projects to prepare draft constitutions for new countries. George Soros has funded one, and one of its constitutions is being considered in Egypt, or so I have heard.

Eventually, I hope that a basic interim constitution could be created which not only is well crafted, but wins the advance support of the global community. This is to say that major nations, or bodies like the U.N. say, “If you follow these principles, really follow them, then your new government will get the recognition of the world as the legitimate new government”. This is particularly important with a revolution, or a civil war as we are seeing in Libya. Big nations are coming to the aid of those under attack. But we don’t know what sort of government they will create.

Today we assume that a people should self-determine their own constitution, to match their own culture. That is a valid goal, and a constitution just have the support of the vast majority of a people. But the people must also interact with the world, and the government must gain recognition. There are many lessons to be learned from the outside world, including lessons about what not to put in a constitution, even though it matches the local culture. Most new nations still find themselves wracked with sectarian, tribal and geographic divisions, and in this situation, impartial advice and even pressure can be valuable down the road.

Temporary constitution

I believe that each new country needs first an immediate, temporary, minimalist constitution. This constitution would define a transitional government, and put strong time limits on how long it can exist. This constitution would establish the process for creation of the permanent constitution, but also put limits on what can’t go in it without a major supermajority vote. Right after a revolution, a new nation may have a huge, but temporary sense of unity and devotion to principle. That devotion will fade as various factions arise and pressure is applied.

The temporary constitution should be minimalist, as should be the government. It should have strong principles of transparency and accountability, because in turbulent times there is often rampant corruption and theft.

It should also, ideally, bring in principles and bodies of law almost word-for-word from other countries. While this is temporary, it provides an immediate body of precedent, and a large body of experts already trained in that nation’s law. It isn’t that simple of course, since some laws are not meant to be enforced if it is known they are temporary, otherwise people will exploit the expiration.

Possibly the temporary constitution would define an executive with broader power than the permanent one. There may not be the bureaucracy in place to do anything else. It could be that those who serve at the high levels of the transitional government will be barred from standing in elections for some number of years, to assure they really are just there to serve in the transition, and not become new autocrats. This may also be a useful way to make use of the services of the middle echelons of the old regime, who may be the only ones who know how to keep some things running.

Imported, sometimes remote, jurists

If there is some standardization to the system of laws, the new country can import the services of impartial foreign jurists. Some will volunteer and come. Some will come for pay, even though the payment might be deferred until the new country is on its feet. And some might serve remotely, over videoconferencing. Modern telepresence tools might encourage volunteers (or deferred payment workers) to take some time to help a new country get on its feat, providing justice, auditing and oversight.  read more »

Holding an election over SMS

In 2004, I described a system that would allow secure voting over an insecure internet and PC. Of late, I have been pondering the question of how to build a “turn-key democracy kit” — a suite of tools and services that could be used by a newly born democracy to smoothly create a new state. We’ve seen a surprising number of new states and revolutions in the last few years, and I expect we’ll see more.

One likely goal after any revolution is to quickly hold some sort of meaningful election so that it’s clear the new regime has popular support and is not just another autocracy replacing the old one. You don’t have time to elect a full government (and may not want to due to passions) but at some point you need some sort of government that is accountable to the people to oversee the transition to a stable democracy.

This may create a need for a quick, cheap, simple and reliable election. Even though I am generally quite opposed to the use of voting machines, particularly voting machines which only record results in digital form, there are a number of advantages to digital voting over cell phones and PCs in a new country, at least in a country that has a digital or mobile phone infrastructure established enough so that everybody, even if they don’t have a phone, knows someone who has one.

Consider:

  • In a new country, fresh out of autocracy, powerful forces will oppose the election. They will often try to prevent it or block voters.
  • A common technique is intimidation, scaring people away from voting with threats of violence around polling places.
  • The attacks against digital voting systems tend to require both sophistication and advanced planning.
  • For a revolutionary election, the digital voting systems may well be brought in and operated by disinterested foreign parties, backed by the U.N. or other agencies.
  • An electronic system is also immune to problems like boxes of ballots disappearing or being stuffed or altered.

It may be judged that the risks of corruption of a digital or partially digital election may be less than the risks of a traditional polling place election in a volatile area. It may also be hard to build and operate trustable polling places in remote locations, and do it quickly.

The big issue I see is maintaining secret ballot. It is difficult to protect secret ballot with remote voting, and much easier in polling-station voting. If secret ballot is not adequately protected, forces could use intimidation to make sure people vote the right way, or in some cases to buy votes. I am not sure I have a really good solution to this and welcome input; this is an idea in the making.  read more »

Japan, and nuclear disasters

The images from Japan are shocking and depressing, and what seemed at first an example of the difference between a 1st and 3rd world earthquake has produced a 5 figure death toll. But the nerd and engineer in me has to wonder about some of the things I’ve seen.

Youtube disaster?

While there has been some remarkable footage, some of it in HD, I was surprised at how underdocumented things were, considering Japan’s reputation as the most camera-carrying nation of the world — and the place where all the best cameras come from. I had expected this would be the “Youtube disaster” where sites like YouTube would fill with direct observer HD videos from every town, but the most of what was uploaded there in the first few days was stuff copied from the TV (in fact, due to DRM, often camcorders pointed at TVs.) Of course, the TV networks were getting videos from private individuals, but we saw the same dramatic videos over and over again, particularly the one from destroyed village of Miyako where the water swept boats and cars over the seawall and under a bridge.

Yes, there was a lot of individual reporting, but I expected a ton, an unprecedented amount, and I expected to see it online first, not on the news first.

Cell phone shutdown

Japan is also one of the world’s most connected countries, with phones for all. Not a lot has emerged about the lost of cell phone service. Some reports suggest some areas of the network were switched into texting-only mode for civilians to leave capacity for emergency workers. Other reports say that landlines were often up when cell lines were down. The world still awaits Klein Gilhousen’s plan to allow cell phones to text peer to peer which I reported on in 2005.

Nuclear plant worst case

The public is now fully aware of many of the issues with nuclear reactors which require active stabilization using external electricity. A lot had to happen to get to the pump shutdown:

  • The reactors themselves were auto-shutdown after the earthquake. Wise, though in theory the subsequent problems would not have happened if one reactor had remained up and powering the plant.
  • The quake or tsunami shut off the external power. A week later it’s still not up. It seems that restoring it should have been a top priority for TEPCO. Was the line so destroyed or did they not prioritize this?
  • The backup generators were damanged by the tsunami, all 19 of them. I have to admit, most people would think having 19 backup generators is a very nice amount of backup. But this teaches that if you have lots of backups, you have to think about what might affect all of them. 1 backup generator or 100, they all would have failed if unable to withstand the wave
  • The batteries supposedly lasted for 8 hours. This does not seem unreasonable. But they either did not realize that they had to get something else going in the 8 hours, or expected other power. Their procedure manuals should have had a “what to do if you have only 8 hours of battery left” contingency, but I can believe they didn’t because it seemed so unlikely.
  • That said, I believe the best backup plan has a fallback that involves emergency-level external resources. In particular, I have heard of no talk of sending a ship with a few hundred meters of cable to the docks there, one of which appears to be under 100m from reactor #1 and presumably the internal power grid. Many ships have big generators onboard or can deliver them.
  • Failing that, a plan for helicopter delivery of a generator and fuel in case all other channels are out.
  • Apparently they did bring in a backup generator by truck, but it was incompatible, and they are still without power.
  • It’s a hard question to consider whether they should have restarted a reactor while on batteries. There would not be enough time for a full post-quake, post-tsunami inspection of the reactor. On the other hand, they clearly didn’t realize just how bad it was to lose all power, and/or probably presumed they would get power before too long.
  • Everybody has now figured out the problem with spent fuel storage without containment in a zone where the chamber might crack and drain. Had nobody worried about that before? Most reactors don’t store all their spent fuel this way, but some do, and I have to presume work is underway to address this.

Robots

Japanese skill in robotics is world-leading. I’ve seen examples of some of that going on, but I’m surprised that they haven’t moved just about every type of robot that might be useful in the nuclear situation to near the nuclear plant. If they should ever have a situation where they must evacuate the plant again, as they did on Wednesday, it could be useful to have robots there, even if only to act as remote cameras to see what is happening in the reactors or control rooms.

There are also remote manipulator robots, and I am surprised no media organization has managed to get some sort of camera robot in the plant to report. Of course, keeping the robot powered is an issue. Few robots are actually able to hook themselves up to power easily, but a number of the telepresence robots can do that.

Many of the “work in danger zone” robots have been built for military applications, and the Japanese don’t have that military need so perhaps they are not so common in Japan. But they do have stair climbers, telepresence and basic manipulators. Even if the robots can do very little it would make the public feel better to know that something is there.

The Chernobyl cleanup was in part done by remote control bulldozers that the Russians made.

Future of Nuclear Power

The reactor failure is causing much public examination of nuclear power. This disaster does show just how bad the older designs are, but makes us question why companies were running them when it’s been known for decades that those designs were a poor idea. Obviously investors will not be keen on saying, “Oh, we made mistakes back then, let’s write off the billions.”

There is also an argument that a technology can’t develop without going through a phase where it is less well understood and designs are not as safe as can be. Would we have developed newer, safer designs if nobody had been able to build the older ones?

I have been seeing tons of ads on CNN by the coal, gas and oil industries about how wonderful their technology is. In spite of the fact that there have been quite a large number of deaths from these technologies, and tons of pollution, and now the fear of greenhouse gases.

According to one agency in Europe, I found a quote that the world’s nuclear plants had generated 64.6 trillion kwh in the period up to 2009, or 6.4 x 10^16 watt-hours. A watt-hour of coal produces about a gram of CO2. A watt-hour from the coal and gas plants at the US average is less than that, let’s call it 0.7 grams/watt-hour more than nuclear (there is some CO2 output from the full lifecycle nuclear industry.) Correcting from original where I had used euro-billion = 10^12 which can’t be right.

That’s about 4 * 10^16 grams of CO2 not put into the air by the nuclear industry. I’m looking for figures to see what that means, but one that I found says that the whole atmosphere of the planet has 2.7 x 10^18 grams of CO2 in it.

The number I would like to see is what difference those 10^16 grams of CO2 have made to the total PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is to say, how much did those nuclear plants retard global warming according to accepted climate models. Anybody have info?

To solve the world’s energy needs, while we eventually would like to develop economical solar plants, biofuels that don’t use cropland, geothermal, fusion and other sources, right now it seems that there is no choice but to build lots more nuclear if we want to stop burning so much coal. Other choices are coming but are not assured yet. If this disaster scares the public away from newer reactor designs which go to a safe state without active support or human intervention, I think that would be a mistake.

I hope that Japan is able to recover as quickly as possible, and that more of the missing are found alive. Someday something like this is going to happen here in the Bay Area — though probably not a 9.0, but possibly an 8 — and it won’t be pretty.

Erin go Brad -- registering Irish citizenship

It’s St. Paddy’s day but I can celebrate a little harder this time. Two days ago, I got my notice of entry into Ireland’s Foreign Birth Registry, declaring me an Irish citizen. I’m able to do that because I have 3 Irish grandparents (2 born in Ireland.) Irish law declares that anybody born to somebody born in Ireland is automatically Irish. That made my father, whose parents were both born there, an Irish citizen even though he never got a passport. Because my father was an Irish citizen (not born on the Island) that also gives me the right to claim it, though I had to do the paperwork, it is not automatic. If I had children after this, they could also claim it, but if I had any before this registration, they would not.

I decided to do this for a few reasons. First, it will allow me to live, work and travel freely in Ireland or anywhere else in the E.U. The passport control lines for Canadians are not usually that long, but it’s nicer to not be quizzed. But in the last few years, I have encountered several situations where it would have been very useful to have a 2nd passport:

  • On a trip to Russia, I discovered there was a visa war between Canada and Russia, and Russia was making Canadians wait 21 days for a Visa while the rest of the world waited 6 or less. I had to change a flight over that and barely made my conference. It would have been handy to use an Irish passport then. (Update: Possibly not. Russia and others require you to use the passport which allows residence, and you must apply where you live. So my Irish documents are no good at the San Francisco consulate as I don’t live there using the Irish passport.)
  • Getting stamps in your passport for Israel or its border stations means some other countries won’t let you in. Israelis will stamp a piece of paper for you but resent it, and you can lose it. A 2nd passport is a nice solution. (For frequent visitors, I believe Canada and the USA both offer a 2nd passport valid only for travel to Israel.)
  • Described earlier, last year I lost my passport in Berlin. While I got tremendous service in passport replacement, this was only because my mother was in hospital. Otherwise I would have been stuck, unable to travel. With 2 passports, you can keep them in two places, carry one and leave one in the hotel safe etc. While Canada does have an emergency temporary passport, some countries only offer you a travel document to get you home, and you must cancel any other travel on your trip.
  • On entry to Zimbabwe, I found they charged Canadians $75 per entry, while most other nations paid $30 for 1 and $45 for two. Canada is charging Zimbabweans $75 so they reciprocate. Stupid External Affairs, I bet far more Canadians go to Zimbabwe than the other way around
  • On entry to Zambia, it was $50 to transit for most countries but free/no-visa for the Irish. I got my passport 1 week after this, sigh. Ireland has a visa abolition deal.
  • Argentina charges a $150 “reciprocity fee” to US and Canadian passports, good for 10 years. Free for Irish, though. Yay!

All great reasons to have two passports. I don’t have that yet, though. (Update: I got it in June) Even though I presume that the vast majority of those who do the Irish foreign birth registry immediately want a passport, it doesn’t work that way. After a 21 month wait, I have my FBR certificate, which I now must mail back to the same consulate that sent it, along with several of the same documents I used in getting the FBR like my original birth certificate. While it makes huge sense to do them together, it doesn’t work that way.  read more »

ICANN prepares to auction off the English language

ICANN is meeting in San Francisco this week. And they’re getting closer to finally implementing a plan they have had in the works for some time to issue new TLDs, particularly generic top level domains.

Their heart is in the right place, because Verisign’s monopoly on “.com” — which has become the de facto only space where everybody wants a domain name, if they can get it — was a terrible mistake that needs to be corrected. We need to do something about this, but the plan of letting other companies get generic TLDs which are ordinary English words, with domains like “.sport” and “.music” (as well as .ibm and .microsoft) is a great mistake.

I have an odd ambivalence. This plan will either fail (as the others like .travel, .biz, .museum etc appear to have) or it will succeed at perpetuating the mistake. Strangely it is the trademark lawyers who know the answer to this. In trademark law, it was wisely ruled centuries ago that nobody gets ownership of generic terms. But some parties will offer the $185,000 fee to own .music precisely because they hope it will give them a monopoly on naming of music related internet sites. Like all monopolies these TLDs will charge excessive fees and give poor customer service. They’ll also get to subdivide the monopoly selling domains like rock.music or classical.music. And while .music will compete with .com, the new TLDs will largely not compete with one another — ie. nobody will be debating whether to go with .music or .sport, and so we won’t get the competition we truly need.

I’ve argued this before, but I have just prepared two new essays in my DNS sub-site:

Since I don’t like either of the two main consequences, what do I propose? Well for years I have suggested we should instead have truly competitive TLDs which can compete on everything — price, policies, service, priority and more. They should each start on an equal footing so they are equal competitors. That means not giving any one a generic name that has an intrinsic value like “.music.” People will seek out the .music domain not because the .music company is good or has good prices, they will seek it out because they want to name a site related to music, and that’s not a market.

Instead I propose that new TLDs be what trademark people call “coined terms” which are made up words with no intrinsic meaning. Examples from the past include names like Kodak, Xerox and Google. Today, almost every new .com site has to make up a coined term because all the generics are taken. If the TLDs are coined terms, then the owners must build the value in them by the sweat of their brow (or with mone) rather than getting a feudal lordship over an existing space. That means they can all compete for the business of people registering domains, and competition is what’s good for the market and the users.

Sadly the .com monopoly remains (along with the few other generic TLDs.) The answer there is to announce a phase out. All .com sites with generic meanings should get new names in the new system, but after a year or two they’ll get redirect as long as they want to pay. (Their new registrar will manage this and set the price.) All http requests, in particular would get an HTTP Redirect Permanent (301) so the browser shows the new name. E-mail MX would be provided but all sent email would use the new name. All old links and addresses would still work forever, but users would switch advertising and everything else to the new names at a reasonable pace. Yes, people who invested lots of money in trying to own words like “drugstore.com” lose some of that value, but it’s value they should never have been sold in the first place. (Companies with unique strings like microsoft.com could avoid the switch, but not non-unique ones like apple.com or ibm.com)

Check out the essays for the real details. Of course, at this point the forces of the “stakeholders” at ICANN are so powerful that I am tilting at windmills. They will go ahead even though it’s the wrong answer. And once done, it will be as hard to undo as .com is. But the right answer should still be proclaimed.

The "Forgetful Broker" is needed for Data Deposit Box

For some time I’ve been advocating a concept I call the Data Deposit Box as an architecture for providing social networking and personal data based applications in a distributed way that tries to find a happy medium between the old PC (your data live on your machine) and the modern cloud (your data live on 3rd party corporate machines) approach. The basic concept is to have a piece of cloud that you legally own (a data deposit box) where your data lives, and code from applications comes and runs on your box, but displays to your browser directly. This is partly about privacy, but mostly about interoperability and control.

This concept depends on the idea of publishing and subscribing to feeds from your friends (and other sources.) Your friends are updating data about themselves, and you might want to see it — ie. things like the Facebook wall, or Twitter feed. Feeds themselves would go through brokers just for the sake of efficiency, but would be encrypted so the brokers can’t actually read them.

There is a need for brokers which do see the data in certain cases, and in fact there’s a need that some types of data are never shown to your friends.

Crush

One classic example is the early social networking application the “crush” detector. In this app you get to declare a crush on a friend, but this is only revealed when both people have a mutual crush. Clearly you can’t just be sending your crush status to your friends. You need a 3rd party who gets the status of both of you, and only alerts you when the crush is mutual. (In some cases applications like this can be designed to work without the broker knowing your data through the process known as blinding (cryptography).)  read more »

Time for the fourth screen -- the always on wall computer

In media today, it’s common to talk about three screens: Desktop, mobile and TV. Many people watch TV on the first two now, and tools like Google TV and the old WebTV try to bring interactive, internet style content to the TV. People like to call the desktop the “lean forward” screen where you use a keyboard and have lots of interactivity, while the TV is the “lean back” couch-potato screen. The tablet is also distinguishing itself a bit from the small screen normally found in mobile.

More and more people also find great value in having an always-on screen where they can go to quickly ask questions or do tasks like E-mail.

I forecast we will soon see the development of a “fourth screen” which is a mostly-always-on wall panel meant to be used with almost no interaction at all. It’s not a thing to stare at like the TV (though it could turn into one) nor a thing to do interactive web sessions on. The goal is to have minimal UI and be a little bit psychic about what to show.

One could start by showing stuff that’s always of use. The current weather forecast, for example, and selected unusual headlines. Whether each member of the household has new mail, and if it makes sense from a privacy standpoint, possibly summaries of that mail. Likewise the most recent status from feeds on twitter or Facebook or other streams. One could easily fill a screen with these things so you need a particularly good filter to find what’s relevant. Upcoming calendar events (with warnings) also make sense.

Some things would show only when important. For example, when getting ready to go out, I almost always want to see the traffic map. Or rather, I want to see it if it has traffic jams on it, no need to show it when it’s green — if it’s not showing I know all is good. I may not need to see the weather if it’s forecast sunny either. Or if it’s raining right now. But if it’s clear now and going to rain later I want to see that. Many city transit systems have a site that tracks when the next bus or train will come to my stop — I want to see that, and perhaps at morning commute time even get an audio alert if something unusual is up or if I need to leave right now to catch the street car. A view from the security camera at the door should only show if somebody is at the door.

There are so many things I want to see that we will need some UI for the less popular ones. But it should be a simple UI, with no need to find a remote (though if I have a remote — any remote — it should be able to use it.) Speech commands would be good to temporarily see other screens and modes. A webcam (and eventually Kinect style sensor) for gestural UI would be nice, letting me swipe or wave to get other screens.  read more »

Google car demo, Toyota Vision and mind-driving

A few recent Robocar updates for you:

Google took its car down to the TED conference in Long Beach and did a few demo drives for people. In this mashable story you can catch some videos, inside and outside, of the car driving around a cone-based course on top of a parking lot near TED.

Toyota recently released a video with a vision of future transportation, including lots of self-driving cars in a city of the future. This short animated video has trucks in platoons and call-on-demand cars that come to your location and drive you around the city, or let you disengage and self-drive outside the automatic lane. In Toyota’s city there are special lanes which have guide markers and also inductive powering of the electric cars. While the powering may be valuable, I believe that the special infrastructure vision is an old one, and there are already several demonstrations of driving on existing roads without modification.

Once such demonstration comes from the “Made in Germany” team which certainly likes to come up with demos to attract attention. In this case they combined a headband that reads EEG/EMG signals with the controls of their robocar for what they call Brain Driver. The car does most of the driving, but signals from the headband can be used to tell it to go left or right at intersections, or accelerate and brake. My general experience of such EEG headbands has indicated that getting 5 unambiguous signals like that quickly is a tough job from pure EEG, so I am curious if they added some EMG (muscle) to it.

The brain driver is just a demo, but it does show one interesting technology, which is the ability for robocar technology to allow a vehicle to be driven through a very, very simple user interface — ie. just a few buttons or a joystick. I suspect that for people so disabled that they can only communicate via EEG — that’s majorly disabled — it will be better to wait for a full robocar technology that doesn’t require any human input for the driving part.

(Disclaimer: Google is a consulting client of mine.)

Ride-sharing apps instead of Bus Rapid Transit?

You may have heard of Bus Rapid Transit — a system to give a bus line a private or semi-private right-of-way, along with bus stops that are more akin to stations than bus shelters (with ticket-taking machines and loading platforms for multiple doors.) The idea is to make bus transit competitive with light-rail (LRT) in terms of speed and convenience. Aside from getting caught in slow traffic, buses also are slow to board. BRT is hoped to be vastly less expensive than light rail — which is not hard because LRT (which means light capacity rail, not lightweight rail) has gotten up to $80 to $100M per mile. When BRT runs down the middle of regular roads, it gets signal timing assistance to help it have fewer stops. It’s the “hot new thing” in transit. Some cities even give it bits of underground or elevated ROW (the Boston Silver Line) and others just want to wall off the center of a road to make an express bus corridor. Sometimes BRT gets its own highway lane or shares a special carpool lane.

At the same time just about anybody who has looked at transit and the internet has noticed that as the buses go down the street, they travel with tons of cars carrying only one person and lots of empty seats. Many have wondered, “how could we use those empty private car seats to carry the transit load?” There are a number of ride-sharing and carpooling apps on web sites and on smartphones, but success has been modest. Drivers tend to not want to take the time to declare their route, and if money is offered, it’s usually not enough to counter the inconvenience. Some apps are based on social networks so friends can give rides to friends — great when it works but not something you can easily do on demand.

But one place I’ve seen a lot of success at this is the casual carpooling system found in a number of cities. Here it’s very popular to cross the Oakland-SF Bay Bridge, which has a $6 toll to cross into SF. It used to be free for 3-person carpools, now it’s $2.50, but the carpools also get a faster lane for access to the highly congested bridge both going in and out of SF.

Almost all the casual carpool pickup spots coming in are at BART (subway) stations, which are both easy for everybody to get to, and which allow those who can’t get a carpool to just take the train. There is some irony that it means that the carpools mostly take people who would have ridden BART trains, not people who would have driven, the official purpose of carpool subsidies. In the reverse direction the carpools are far fewer with no toll to be saved, but you do get a better onramp.

People drive the casual carpools because they get something big for for it — saving over $1,000/year, and hopefully a shorter line to the bridge. This is the key factor to success in ride share. The riders are saving a similar amount of money in BART tickets, even more if they skipped driving.

Let’s consider what would happen if you put in the dedicated lane for BRT, but instead of buses created an internet mediated carpooling system. Drivers could enter the dedicated lane only if:

  • They declared their exit in advance to the app on their phone, and it’s far enough away to be useful to riders.
  • They agree to pick up riders that their phone commands them to.
  • They optionally get a background check that they pay for so they can be bonded in some way to do this. (Only the score of the background check is recorded, not the details.)

Riders would declare their own need for a ride, and to what location, on their own phones, or on screens mounted at “stops” (or possibly in nearby businesses like coffee shops.) When a rider is matched to a car, the rider will be informed and get to see the approach of their ride on the map, as well as a picture of the car and plate number. The driver will be signaled and told by voice command where to go and who to pick up. I suggest calling this Carpool-Rapid-Transit or CRT.  read more »

Watson, game 2

Not much new to report after the second game of the Watson Jeopardy Challenge. I’ve added a few updates to yesterday’s post on Watson and the result was as expected, though Watson struggled a lot more in this game than in the prior round, deciding not to answer many questions due to low confidence and making a few mistakes. In a few cases it was saved by not buzzing fast enough even though it had over 50% confidence, as it would have answered slightly wrong.

Some quick updates from yesterday you will also find in the comments:

  • Toronto’s 2nd busiest airport, the small Island airport, has the official but rarely used name of Billy Bishop. Bishop was one of the top flying aces of WWI, not WWII. Watson’s answer is still not clear, but that it made mistakes like this is not surprising. That it made so few is surprising
  • You can buzz in as soon as Trebek stops speaking. If you buzz early, you can’t buzz again for 0.2 seconds. Watson gets an electronic signal when it is time to buzz, and then physically presses the button. The humans get a light, but they don’t bother looking at it, they try timing when Trebek will finish. I think this is a serious advantage for Watson.
  • This IBM Blog Post gives the details on the technical interface between Watson and the game.
  • Watson may have seemed confident with its large bet of $17,973. But in fact the bet was fixed in advance:
    • Had Jennings bet his whole purse (and got it right) he would have ended up with $41,200.
    • If Watson had lost his bet of 17,973, he would have ended up with $41,201 and bare victory.
    • Both got it right, and Jennings bet low, so it ended up being $77,147 to $24,000.
    • Jennings’ low bet was wise at it assured him of 2nd place and a $300K purse instead of $200K. Knowing he could not beat Watson unless Watson bet stupidly, he did the right thing.
    • Jennings still could have bet more and got 2nd, but there was no value to it, the purse is always $300K
    • If Watson had wanted to 2nd guess, it might have realized Jennings would do this and bet appropriately but that’s not something you can do more than once.
    • As you might expect, the team put a bunch of thought into the betting algorithm as that is one thing computers can do perfectly sometimes. I’ve often seen Jeopardy players lose from bad betting.
  • It still sure seemed like a program sponsored by IBM. But I think it would have been nice if the PI of DeepQA was allowed up on stage for the handshake.
  • I do wish they had programmed a bit of sense of humour into Watson. Fake, but fun.
  • Amusingly Watson got a category about computer keyboards and didn’t understand it.
  • Unlike the human players who will hit the buzzer before they have formed the answer in their minds, in hope that they know it, Watson does not hit unless it has computed a high confidence answer.
  • Watson would have bombed on visual or audio clues. The show has a rule allowing those to be removed from the game for a disabled player, these were applied!
  • A few of the questions had some interesting ironies based on what was going on. I wonder if that was deliberate or not. To be fair, I would think the question-writers would not be told what contest they were writing for.

Watson, come here, I want you

The computer scientist world is abuzz with the game show world over the showdown between IBM’s “Watson” question-answering system and the best human players to play the game Jeopardy. The first game has been shown, with a crushing victory by Watson (in spite of a tie after the first half of the game.)

Tomorrow’s outcome is not in doubt. IBM would not have declared itself ready for the contest without being confident it would win, and they wouldn’t be putting all the advertising out about the contest if they had lost. What’s interesting is how they did it and what else they will be able to do with it.

Dealing with a general question has long been one of the hard problems in AI research. Watson isn’t quite there yet but it’s managed a great deal with a combination of algorithmic parsing and understanding combined with machine learning based on prior Jeopardy games. That’s a must because Jeopardy “answers” (clues) are often written in obfuscated styles, with puns and many idioms, exactly the sorts of things most natural language systems have had a very hard time with.

Watson’s problem is almost all understanding the question. Looking up obscure facts is not nearly so hard if you have a copy of Wikipedia and other databases on hand, particularly one parsed with other state-of-the-art natural language systems, which is what I presume they have. In fact, one would predict that Watson would do the best on the hardest $2,000 questions because these are usually hard because they refer to obscure knowledge, not because it is harder to understand the question. I expect that an evaluation of its results may show that its performance on hard questions is not much worse than on easy ones. (The main thing that would make easy questions easier would be the large number of articles in its database confirming the answer, and presumably boosting its confidence in its answer.) However, my intuition may be wrong here, in that most of Watson’s problems came on the high-value questions.

It’s confidence is important. If it does not feel confident it doesn’t buzz in. And it has a serious advantage at buzzing in, since you can’t buzz in right away on this game, and if you’re an encyclopedia like the two human champions and Watson, buzzing in is a large part of the game. In fact, a fairer game, which Watson might not do as well at, would involve randomly choosing which of the players who buzz in in the first few tenths of a second gets to answer the question, eliminating any reaction time advantage. Watson gets the questions as text, which is also a bit unfair, unless it is given them one word a time at human reading speed. It could do OCR on the screen but chances are it would read faster than the humans. It’s confidence numbers and results are extremely impressive. One reason it doesn’t buzz in is that even with 3,000 cores it takes 2-6 seconds to answer a question.

Indeed a totally fair contest would not have buzzing in time competition at all, and just allow all players who buzz in to answer an get or lose points based on their answer. (Answers would need to be in parallel.)

Watson’s coders know by now that they probably should have coded it to receive wrong answers from other contestants. In one instance it repeated a wrong answer, and in another case it said “What is Leg?” after Jennings had incorrectly answered “What is missing an arm?” in a question about an Olympic athlete. The host declared that right, but the judges reversed that saying that it would be right if a human who was following up the wrong answer said it, but was a wrong answer without that context. This was edited out. Also edited out were 4 crashes by Watson that made the game take 4 hours instead of 30 minutes.

It did not happen in what aired so far, but in the trials, another error I saw Watson make was declining to answer a request to be more specific on an answer. Watson was programmed to give minimalist answers, which often the host will accept as correct, so why take a risk. If the host doesn’t think you said enough he asks for a more specific answer. Watson sometimes said “I can be no more specific.” From a pure gameplay standpoint, that’s like saying, “I admit I am wrong.” For points, one should say the best longer phrase containing the one-word answer, because it just might be right. Though it has a larger chance of looking really stupid — see below for thoughts on that.

The shows also contain total love-fest pieces about IBM which make me amazed that IBM is not listed as a sponsor for the shows, other than perhaps in the name “The IBM Challenge.” I am sure Jeopardy is getting great ratings (just having their two champs back would do that on its own but this will be even more) but I have to wonder if any other money is flowing.

Being an idiot savant

Watson doesn’t really understand the Jeopardy clues, at least not as a human does. Like so many AI breakthroughs, this result comes from figuring out another way to attack the problem different from the method humans use. As a result, Watson sometimes puts out answers that are nonsense “idiot” answers from a human perspective. They cut back a lot on this by only having it answer when it has 50% confidence or higher, and in fact for most of its answers it has very impressive confidence numbers. But sometimes it gives such an answer. To the consternation of the Watson team, it did this on the Final Jeopardy clue, where it answered “Toronto” in the category “U.S. Cities.”  read more »

Air New Zealand "Cuddle Class"

Some years ago I made the proposal that airlines sell half of a middle seat at half price or less so that two coach passengers could assure they would have an empty middle next to them.

I learned a while ago about one approach to this plan, a new “cuddle class” from Air New Zealand also known as the skycouch. It’s a row of 3 coach seats that folds down into a very narrow and short bed for two. The idea is that couples can book the whole row for 2.5x the cost of one seat, ie. the empty middle is being sold at a pretty reasonable half-price, or 1/4 price per person.

As I noted earlier, that alone would be worthwhile. Many people would gladly pay 25% more for an aisle or window with a guarantee that nobody was in the middle, and would get together with other solo voyagers to do this. Air New Zealand has for some time offered what it calls the “Twinseat” which is the ability to buy (for a fairly low price around $60) an assured empty adjacent seat “subject to availability.” This is something different — it’s simply saying that, if there are going to be empty middles on the plane anyway, the people who pay more at the gate will get those next to them. You can’t assure it on a flight unless you make sure you take a flight that won’t fill up.

This skycouch seat however has armrests that really go all the way up, and a footrest that comes up to make the whole thing a platform. Frankly, since 3 seats is only 4.5’ long and the bed is narrower than a twin bed, you need a couple that sleeps together very comfortably while spooning. While everybody likes doing that for a little while, it’s fewer who can do that for a whole night. One person could buy the whole row, I guess, but at 2.5x it starts to approach a nice business class seat, many of which now lie flat. (Mind you I’m picky enough that I don’t sleep that well in the business class flat seats, and I have yet to want to pay for the 1st class ones.)

It’s nice to the see the innovation, though. I mean some airlines even have coach armrests that don’t go up all the way when reclined, and that’s a real pain for couples who want to relax together even in the old seating designs.

What would be more interesting, if less romantic, would be a way to have a portable platform that could be installed on top of this row to turn it into two bunkbeds. From a physical standpoint, you could have 4 slots for poles, some reinforcing straps to form X braces on the poles, and a board with inflatable mattress on the top, such boards packed somewhere compactly in the ceiling when not in use. The poles would have to go up and hold a net and bars to stop the top bunkmate from falling out. But the hard part would be making this strong enough to qualify as safe in an emergency landing, since an emergency might arise while these are still assembled, though they would all be dismantled well before landing and they would only be used on flights 10 hours and up. If there were a section of these you could help it along by having no recline in these seats so the seat backs are solid and able to support the upper berth.

In this case, you could have strangers happily paying 125% of the base ticket price for one of these bunks. Lot of work to set up and tear down, though. Probably need a weight limit in the upper bunk. If you can do it at all.

Definition of pixels for the world's biggest photos

I shoot lots of large panoramas, and the arrival of various cheaper robotic mounts to shoot them, such as the Gigapan Epic Pro and the Merlin/Skywatcher (which I have) has resulted in a bit of a “mine’s bigger than yours” contest to take the biggest photo. Some would argue that the stitched version of the Sloane Digital Sky survey, which has been rated at a trillion pixels, is the winner, but most of the competition has been on the ground.

Many of these photos have got special web sites to display them such as Paris 26 gigapixels, the rest are usually found at the Gigapan.org site where you can even view the gigapans sorted by size to see which ones claim to be the largest.

Most of these big ones are stitched with AutopanoPro, which is the software I use, or the Gigapan stitcher. The largest I have done so far is smaller, my 1.4 gigapixel shot of Burning Man 2010 which you will find on my page of my biggest panoramas which more commonly are in the 100mp to 500mp range.

The Paris one is pretty good, but some of the other contenders provide a misleading number, because as you zoom in, you find the panorama at its base is quite blurry. Some of these panoramas have even just been expanded with software interpolation, which is a complete cheat, and some have been shot at mixed focal length, where sections of the panorama are sharp but others are not. I myself have done this, for example in my Gigapixel San Francisco from the end of the Golden Gate I shot the city close up, but shot the sky and some of the water at 1/4 the resolution because there isn’t really any fine detail in the sky. I think this is partially acceptable, though having real landscape features not at full resolution should otherwise disqualify a panorama. However, the truth is that sections of sky perhaps should not count at all, and anybody can make their panorama larger by just including more sky all the way to the zenith if they choose to.

There is a difficult craft to making such large photos, and there are also aesthetic elements. To really count the pixels for the world’s largest photos, I think we should count “quality” pixels. As such, sky pixels are not generally quality pixels, and distant terrain lost in haze also does not provide quality pixels. The haze is not the technical fault of the photographer, but it is the artistic fault, at least if the goal is to provide a sharp photo to explore. You get rid of haze only through the hard work of being there at the right time, and in some cities you may never get a chance.

Some of the shots are done through less than ideal lenses, and many of them are done use tele-extenders. These extenders do get more detail but the truth is a 2x tele-extender does not provide 4 times as many quality pixels. A common lens today is a 400mm with a 2x extender to get 800mm. Fairly expensive, but a lot cheaper than a quality 800mm lens. I think using that big expensive glass should count for more in the race to the biggest, even though some might view it as unfair. (A lens that big and heavy costs a ton and also weighs a lot, making it harder to get a mount to hold it and to keep it stable.) One can get very long mirror “lens” setups that are inexpensive, but they don’t deliver the quality, and I don’t believe work done with them should score as high as work with higher quality lenses. (It may be the case that images from a long telescope, which tend to be poor, could be scaled down to match the quality of a shorter but more expensive lens, and this is how it should be done.)

Ideally we should seek an objective measure of this. I would propose:

  • There should be a sufficient number of high contrast edges in the image — sharp edges where the intensity goes from bright to dark in the space of just 1 or 2 pixels. If there are none of these, the image must be shrunk until there are.
  • The image can then be divided up into sections and the contrast range in each evaluated. If the segment is very low contrast, such as sky, it is not counted in the pixel count. Possibly each block will be given a score based on how sharp it is, so that background items which are hazy count for more than nothing, but not as much as good sharp sections.
  • I believe that to win a pano should not contain gross flaws. Examples of such flaws include stripes of brightness or shadow due to cloud movement, big stitching errors and checkerboard patterns due to bad overlap or stitching software. In general that means manual exposure rather than shots where the stitcher tries to fix mixed exposures unless it does it undetectably.

Some will argue with the last one in particular, since for some the goal is just to get as many useful pixels as possible for browsing around. Gigapixel panoramas after all are only good for zooming around in with a digital viewer. No monitor can display them and sometimes even printing them 12 feet high won’t show all their detail, and people rarely do that. (Though you can see my above San Francisco picture as the back wall of a bar in SF.) Still, I believe it should be a minimum bar than when you look at the picture at more normal sizes, or print it out a few feet in size, it still looks like an interesting, if extremely sharp, picture.

Ideally an objective formula can be produced for how much you have to shrink what is present to get a baseline. It’s very rare that any such panorama not contain a fair number of segments with high contrast edges and lines in them. For starters, one could just put in the requirement that the picture be shrunk until you have a frame that just about anybody would agree is sharp like an ordinary quality photo when viewed 1:1. Ideally lots of frames like that, all over the photo.

Under these criteria a number of the large shots on gigapan fall short. (Though not as short as you think. The gigapan.org zoom viewer lets you zoom in well past 1:1, so even sharp images are blurry when zoomed in fully. On my own site I set maximum zoom at 200%.)

These requirements are quite strict. Some of my own photos would have to be shrunk to meet these tests, but I believe the test should be hard.

Blind man drives, sort of, with a robocar

A release from the National Federation for the Blind reports a blind person driving and avoiding obstacles on the Daytona speedway. They used a car from the TORC team at Virginia Tech, one of the competitors in the Darpa Grand Challenges. In effect, the blind driver replaced the “drive by wire” component of a robocar with a more intelligent and thinking human also able to feel acceleration and make some judgements. As the laser and other sensors in the car detected obstacles and turns, the computer sent audio and vibratory signals to the driver to turn, speed up or slow down.

While this demo is pretty simple, it was part of a larger project the NFB has to encourage computer and robotic technologies to let the blind do what the sighted can do. In my robocar roadmap I outlined a number of bodies who might promote and lobby for robocar technology, in particular the blind, so it’s good to see that step underway. They did it as well in 2009 with a simpler dune buggy.

This car did not use the fancy and expensive 64 line Velodyne LIDAR sensor that has become the norm on most other working robocars. The Virginia Tech team (Victor Tango) was the only one of the 6 teams to complete the urban challenge not to use that LIDAR. The car shown isn’t nearly as decorated with sensors as Victor Tango was, at least from looking at it visually, indicating good improvements in their system.

Another pedal-powered monorail: Skyride

Last year I wrote about an interesting but simple pedal powered monorail/PRT system called Shweeb which had won a prize/investment from Google. Recent announcements show they are not alone in this concept. Scott Olson, the original developer of the Rollerblade, has founded a company called Skyride Technologies to build their own version of a pedal powered suspended monorail.

You will find much that is similar between the two concepts, though they were developed independently. I will have to give Skyride the nod of picking names, though. Skyride offers both pedaling and a rowing-machine style interface, the latter aimed both at the disabled and those seeking a different kind of workout.

At present, the Skyride car is also open to the air, which has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to cooling, drag, and exposure to the elements. Skyride does not also seem to offer the “bumper” system in the wheel cartridge which Shweeb claims will allow vehicles to safely hit one another and then push one another in trains.

Both are confined to prototype tracks for now, though the Schweeb one is an amusement ride that is open to the public. Both have plans to solve the most important problem in turning this into a real transportation system for campuses or urban areas, namely a switch that lets the vehicle smoothly and safely change tracks. Switching has always been an issue in monorails — not that it can’t be solved, but it’s just a little harder than changing lanes in a car. Rail systems sometimes put the switching in the track (that’s what regular heavy rail does) but that’s not very practical if you are going to have very frequent small vehicles. You want in-vehicle switching but with no risk of derailing.

While this concept is interesting, and even more fun if they can prove it works and then add some automation, I am not sure it will ever become a really big space. Still, having 2 companies will not doubt spur a bit more innovation.

Working on Robocars at Google

As readers of this blog surely know, for several years I have been designing, writing and forecasting about the technology of self-driving “robocars” in the coming years. I’m pleased to announce that I have recently become a consultant to the robot car team working at Google.

Of course all that work will be done under NDA, and so until such time as Google makes more public announcements, I won’t be writing about what they or I are doing. I am very impressed by the team and their accomplishments, and to learn more I will point you to my blog post about their announcement and the article I added to my web site shortly after that announcement. It also means I probably won’t blog in any detail about certain areas of technology, in some cases not commenting on the work of other teams because of conflict of interest. However, as much as I enjoy writing and reporting on this technology, I would rather be building it.

My philosophical message about Robocars I have been saying for years, but it should be clear that I am simply consulting on the project, not setting its policies or acting as a spokesman.

My primary interest at Google is robocars, but many of you also know my long history in online civil rights and privacy, an area in which Google is often involved in both positive and negative ways. Indeed, while I was chairman of the EFF I felt there could be a conflict in working for a company which the EFF frequently has to either praise or criticise. I will be recusing myself from any EFF board decisions about Google, naturally.  read more »

My phone should know when I start a trip

Every day I get into my car and drive somewhere. My mobile phone has a lot of useful apps for travel, including maps with traffic and a lot more. And I am usually calling them up.

I believe that my phone should notice when I am driving off from somewhere, or about to, and automatically do some things for me. Of course, it could notice this if it ran the GPS all the time, but that’s expensive from a power standpoint, so there are other ways to identify this:

  • If the car has bluetooth, the phone usually associates with the car. That’s a dead giveaway, and can at least be a clue to start looking at the GPS.
  • Most of my haunts have wireless, and the phone associates with the wireless at my house and all the places I work. So it can notice when it disassociates and again start checking the GPS. To get smart, it might even notice the MAC addresses of wireless networks it can’t see inside the house, but which it does see outside or along my usual routes.
  • Of course moving out to the car involves jostling and walking in certain directions (it has a compass.)

Once it thinks it might be in the car, it should go to a mode where my “in the car” apps are easy to get to, in particular the live map of the location with the traffic displayed, or the screen for the nav system. Android has a “car mode” that tries to make it easy to access these apps, and it should enter that mode.

It should also now track me for a while to figure out which way I am going. Depending on which way I head and the time of day, it can probably guess which of my common routes I am going to take. For regular commuters, this should be a no-brainer. This is where I want it to be really smart: Instead of me having to call up the traffic, it should see that I am heading towards a given highway, and then check to see if there are traffic jams along my regular routes. If it sees one, Then it should beep to signal that, and if I turn it on, I should see that traffic jam. This way if I don’t hear it beep, I can feel comfortable that there is light traffic along the route I am taking. (Or that if there is traffic, it’s not traffic I can avoid with alternate routes.)

This is the way I want location based apps to work. I don’t want to have to transmit my location constantly to the cloud, and have the cloud figure out what to do at any given location. That’s privacy invading and uses up power and bandwidth. Instead the phone should have a daemon that detects location “events” that have been programmed into it, and then triggers programs when those events occur. Events include entering and leaving my house or places I work, driving certain roads and so on.

And yes, for tools like shopkick, they can even be entering stores I have registered. And as I blogged at the very beginning of this blog many years ago, we can even have an event for when we enter a store with a bad reputation. The phone can download a database of places and wireless and Bluetooth MACs that should trigger events, and as such the network doesn’t need to know my exact location to make things happen. But most importantly, I don’t want to have to know to ask if there is something important near me, I want the right important things to tell me when I get near them.

TVs should be universal, not remote controls

Like me, you probably have a dozen “universal” remote controls gathered over the years. With each new device and remote you go through a process to try to figure out special codes to enter into the remote to train it to operate your other devices. And it’s never very good, except perhaps in the expensive remotes with screens and macros.

The first universal remotes had to do this because they were made after the TVs and other devices, and had to control old ones. But the idea’s been around for decades, and I think we have it backwards. It’s not the remote that should work with any TV, it’s the TV that should work with any remote. I’m not even sure in most cases we need to have the remote come with the TV, though I know they like designing special magic buttons and layouts for each new remote.

It would be trivial for any TV or other device that displays video to figure out exactly what sort of remote you are pointing at it, and then figure out what to do with all its buttons. Since these devices now all have USB plugs and internet connections, they can even get their data updated. With the TV in a remote setting mode (which you must of course reach by the few keys on the TV) a few buttons from any remote should let the TV figure out what it’s seeing. If it can’t figure out the difference it can ask on the screen to push specific buttons until you you see a picture of your remote on the screen and confirm.

If it can’t figure it out, it can still program the codes from any device by remembering. This would let it prompt you “push the button you want to change the channel” and you would push it and it would know. You could also tweak any remotes. But most people would see the very simple interface of “press these keys and we’ll figure out which you have.” Also makes it easy to have more than one device of the same type. But in particular makes it easy to not have so many “modes” where you have to tell the remote you want to control the TV now, then the satellite box, then the stereo, then the dvd player. Instead just tell the TV “ignore the buttons I am about to press” (for example the volume buttons) and tell the stereo to obey them. Or program a button to do different things on different devices — not a macro where a smart remote sends all the codes needed to tell the TV and stereo to switch inputs while turning on the DVD player, but just each box responding in its own way.

For outlying cases, you could tell the user to program their universal remote for some well established old devices. Every universal remote there is can control a Sony TV for example. That makes it sure the TV will know a set of codes.

The TVs and other devices might as well recognize all the infrared keyboards out there while they are at it.

Of course, as TVs figure out how to do this, the remotes can change. They can become a bit more standardized, and instead of trying to figure everything out, they can be the dumb device and the AV equipment can be the smart device. It’s the AV equipment that has storage, a screen, audio and so much more.

You can also train devices to understand there are multiple remotes that belong to some people. For example, the adult remote can be different from the child’s remote, and only the adult remote can see the Playboy channel, and is kept private. The child’s remote can also be limited to a number of hours of TV as I first suggested six years ago at the birth of this blog.

You can even fix the annoying problem of most remote protocols — “on” and “off” are the same button. This makes it very hard to do things like macro control because you can’t be sure what that code can do. You can have a “turn everything off” button that really works (I presume some of the ones out there use hidden non-toggle codes when they can) or codes to do things like switch on the DVD if it’s not already on, switch video and audio inputs to it, and start playing — something many systems have tried to do but rarely done well.

There are a few things to tweak to make sure “IR blasters” work properly. (These are IR outputs found on DVRs which send commands to cable and satellite boxes to change their channel etc. They are a horrible kludge and the best way rid of them are the new protocols that connect the devices up to IP or the new IP over HDMI 1.4, or failing that the badly-done anynet.)

But the key point here is this: Remotes put the smarts in the wrong place.

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