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.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2008-09-21 00:39.
A friend (Larry P.) suggested that the time was here for serious (ie. DSLR) cameras to undertake a design revolution. The old SLR design, with a mirror that flips up and must sit between the last lens element and the sensor, creates a lot of problems in designing the lens and camera systems. Yes, being able to view directly through the lens with your eye is a very useful thing. But at what cost?
We’re already seeing the disappearance of optical viewfinders, even rangefinders, from small consumer cameras, if only to save space. Few people were using them any more, since the screen display turns out to show a lot more, and is even better than the eye in low light.
Serious cameras aren’t seeking (too much) to save space. We want image quality most of all, and the tools to shoot good images. Looking through the viewfinder is one of those tools, but again, at what cost?
So a proposal is put forward that now that sensors are dropping in price — even full frame sensors — that each lens have its own sensor, and shutter, that is part of it. There would be a body which has a digital (and mounting) connection with the lens. The body would have display, processor, controls, battery and so on. It’s a pretty radical proposal. Let’s look at the advantages:
- There is much more freedom in lens design, and lenses can be smaller, less expensive (for the lens at least) and lighter.
- Each sensor can be custom fit to the lens and its image circle. Some lenses could have small sensors and some have large ones. You could work with both super large hi-res sensors on a 28-70mm zoom, and also carry a small, dense sensor which offers you a (higher noise) super-tele in a tiny package.
- Each sensor can be tuned to the flaws of a particular lens, ready to correct distortions and other problems. (This could be done with a protocol for communicating those distortions to the camera too, and we’re finally starting to see things like the 5D’s database of lens light fall-off.)
- You would not get dust on the sensor
- You could build special bodies and/or lens holders that could hold multiple lenses, as now there is only an electronic connection to each lens. As a result you could switch among lenses instantly!
- It might be possible to have standarization, so you could mix and match lenses from different vendors as you choose.
- Image stabilization designs could be done with both sensor and optics, whatever works best.
- The lens could be some modest distance from the “body.”
- Body design can also be liberated, as the mechanical linkage with the lens can be designed without the need for a light path.
There are some downsides
- Obviously, sensors are not yet so cheap that this isn’t a more expensive approach initially. But serious lenses are often more than $1,000 and this approach might not increase their cost by more than a few hundred dollars. For cheaper lenses, putting on a high quality sensor would not make sense, cost-wise.
- In turn, where now you might put a lot of money into your one sensor, here it must be spread.
- Today, if you get a new body with a new sensor, you now get the better sensor with all your lenses.
- You lose the TTL viewfinder and focusing screen.
- You need all new equipment, and probably want new mounting hardware too.
Sensors may not be cheap enough to do this today, but they are getting cheaper, and thanks to Moore’s law this will continue. We’ve pretty much got all the megapixels we want now, so the main focus will be in improving sensor quality and ISO speed. Until sensors get so cheap that we might buy several that we know will be obsolete in a few years, one approach would be to still have a mount, so that sensors on a lens can be change. However, this need not be a quick disconnect mount, it would be more intended so you could swap out the sensor on a lens.
And of course, there could be a “sensor” on the lens which is not a sensor, but rather a mount to go on a body with a sensor, as we have today. However, this would have to be a body without a flip-up mirror, as the focal planes of these lenses would be much closer to the last lens element than they can be with an SLR. And I could also see the potential of a super-fancy rangefinder, which uses its own lens, but is digitally tied to focus and other information from the real lens to give you a view identical to the main lens, though DOF preview and manual focus would still be best on the screen.
Aside from the option of better lens design (and thus better image quality for the money) the two most appealing features to me are the instant electronic lens switch, and the ability to use different size sensors. Much as I would like to, even if I wanted to pay $6,000 for one of those amazing super-tele fast lenses that sports photographers use, I would only carry it around rarely. On the other hand, I might very well carry a short 85mm lens with a small sensor of the sort found in P&S cameras that gave me the field of view of a 600mm lens with 10 megapixels. It’s going to get me photos I would not otherwise get because I’m just not going to carry a 600mm f/2.8 in my bag. Instant lens switch might also change your desires about what zooms you want, since one of the goals of a zoom is to switch focal lengths quickly, though another goal is to have fewer lenses in the bag. If not using a mount that holds multiple lenses, lens switch could still be a very quick unsnap/snap, with no caps to remove and no seal to make.
Of course, to do this would require a very high-bandwidth data/control/power bus that ideally was standardized over vendors and designed to be upwards compatible with the future, faster bus that might come along. There is already a Camera Link bus specification, but the technologies behind SATA-600 (also 6gb) or 10gig ethernet might make sense.
So I suspect that as sensors get cheap enough, we might see things move this way.
Wide angle lens
Let’s consider how this might help us produce a wide angle lens. Good wide angle lenses are expensive. It takes work and good design to keep them free from distortions, vignetting and to make them rectilinear with a flat focal plane. Flare is also always a problem, as is doing all this for a sensor that is far from the last element. And these things are hard to do for a big image circle, though smaller image circles require very short focal lengths.
A sensor-included wide-angle could select the right focal length and image circle to get the best price/performance at suitable low noise. The sensors’s pixels could sit in distorted rows to match the distortions of the lens — indeed, one could go all the way to a fish-eye lens and put a fish-eye sensor on it to make it rectilinear. (This could also be done in software with some loss of sharpness.) The sensors could be designed so that they are larger (or have larger covering lenses) at the corners, to perfectly account for vignetting. And of course, one could use the short-focus design common in view cameras that can’t be done in SLRs because the focal plane is so close to the last lens element.
It’s not out of the question that such a lens/sensor could even be cheaper than a high quality lens able to put a great image on a 36mm full-frame sensor, and take better photos.
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2008-09-17 12:16.
As a Canadian, and one of libertarian bent, I hope I have a better perspective on the two parties in the USA. What I see does not bode well for the Democrats. I think they understand the Republican side poorly, worse than the Republicans understand them. And, over the last two elections, they have shown little willingness to learn about it.
I think George W. Bush is the worst president in living memory, perhaps the worst ever, and that this was clear by 2004. Yet more democrats voted for Bush than republicans voted for Kerry. Why was that? Many republicans also reported holding their noses and voting for Bush — they knew he was a bad President but couldn’t stomach Kerry. Why was that?
Something that played a larger role than people think was attitude. I may get a bias because I hang around with democrats more, but they exude an attitude of complete derision. It is not that Bush doesn’t deserve derision; it’s just that it is a terrible marketing strategy. “You haven’t just supported the wrong candidate, you’re a complete idiot because you’ve supported a stupid candidate, one whom anybody with any brains can see is a complete fool.” This approach doesn’t win votes. Quite the reverse, I think it causes the other side to close ranks and distrust the messenger. Nobody believes themselves to be a fool. If somebody tells you what a fool you’ve been you don’t say “oh my, what was I thinking?” You say “screw you, asshole.” And you don’t listen further.
People change their minds when evidence comes in through their own lens. Over time, more conservatives have turned on Bush and documented the problems, and his approval rating is extremely low, even among former supporters.
Now, as a practitioner of comedy, I fully feel and understand the temptation to engage in ridicule. There is great political comedy, but there really are two broad classes of it. One class is mean, and really only works on the already converted. It just offends the rest and causes them to ignore its message. The much better class of political comedy is not so bitter and can work on at least independents. We don’t get enough of that. Political comedy should be used, but with care.
(Indeed, with care it is one of the most powerful tools. I remember how Reagan, asked about his age, used the line “I refuse to let my opponent’s youth and inexperience be an issue in this election” and the age issue rarely troubled him again.)
Election-winning comedy must be able to stick in the minds of all voters, and it must not be bitter to do that. For example, when Guliani over-used 9/11 in speeches, and comedians satirized this, it played a large part in sinking him, which he didn’t understand. But it’s a joke his people can get and not find vicious.
Democrats need to do two things if they want to win:
- Keep the attacks civil and less extreme. Consult with good comedians to stay on the right side of the line. Encourage the troops not to be bitter no matter how tempting.
- Hire wise former (or mercenary) republicans and learn from them how to sell the message to conservatives and independents. Listen to them.
As I said, we’re coming off a Republican administration that the public knows was horrible for the country. Even the conservatives know that. Changing power in the White House should have been a true slam dunk. Making the conservatives close ranks by insulting them rather than talking to them in their own language is the way to undo the slam dunk.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-09-15 17:29.
The law is full of defaults, as it is supposed to be. Some are in statutes, some are the result of many years of history of common law. They define the duties that people have in many ordinary transactions.
But today, as I’m sure you have noticed, everywhere you go are declarations eliminating those defaults. Have you parked your car at a pay lot without getting a ticket or receipt that tells you that you are only being rented space, and the lot has no liability if your car is trashed, or that there is no bailment? Have you installed software without having it disclaim any warranties of fitness, or making you waive every liability they can think of? Have you gone into a stadium without some large set of terms on the back of your ticket?
In many areas, in almost all transactions where they can, large (and even medium) organizations work to assure they are not governed by the default law, and that any liability or duty they can be rid of, is made rid of. The default terms only apply — assuming the various adhesion contracts they present are enforceable — to small players who don’t know enough to make such a disclaimer, or who could not afford the legal advice to draft one. By and large, the default liabilities end up only applying to the small-scale operator, and the ignorant.
Surely this is not the intent of the law! And in some cases laws are modified to control what can be waived. But I am not necessarily against giving people the right to redefine the terms of their relationships away from the default. I am pointing out there is a problem when everybody who knows enough to care is trying to get away from the default. In that case the default is not doing what was intended, or even the opposite of it, which is often to protect the consumer.
I propose that part of the legal system include a body which studies the ways in which default law is modified by both explicit, and more importantly, implicit contracts or declarations of modification. As soon as it is judged that this is happening most of the time, the default law should be tuned. It should be tuned so that most of the time a special contract is not needed, or can be made far more simple. Or, in more extreme cases, it should be tuned so that certain modifications are not possible via implicit contract, and sometimes not even possible through explicit but non-negotiable contract. (And in the most extreme cases, possibly not modifiable even with negotiated contract, but I am not in favour of this.)
This might seem to strip people of rights, but it would be rights they had already lost with all big players. There is a cost in trying to get a contract of adhesion, and if done properly, such changes should eliminate the need for them in most cases. One might believe the public would now need to be notified of how their default rights have changed — and they should — but in fact one thing that would be studied would be how many of the public were aware of their rights and actually benefited from their rights. A right that nobody ever benefits from and which just causes an extra contract may not be that useful a right.
And it raises the bar on people who want to bend even further from the norm. If a new norm is defined the safe thing is just to use it, not to try to have to add another contract. One might not take this burden just for one clause.
Of course, it is important to examine the real change the contracts are making in the real results, and not just what they say. The big parties must be showing regular and uniform success in waiving liabilities (or whatever) in order to get a change in the true default law. That’s important, because courts often rule clauses in such contracts to be unenforceable, and further when there is an imbalance of negotiating power, as there usually is here, the courts will side heavily with the party who didn’t write the contract. I’m talking about situations where courts have regularly ruled, for some time, that putting a clause on a ticket will make it enforced, and that effectively every ticket gets that clause.
This is not easy. Implicit contracts, and click-to-agree contracts, are making big changes in how the law works, and the law doesn’t understand these changes very well yet. My goal is not to strip everybody of their rights once an industry decides to do it, but to find a way to make the law and its modifications easier to understand.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-09-08 22:34.
In my previous post, I noted that I had not done many night panoramas of Burning Man. I thought I should outline just why they are such a challenge.
To shoot at night, you need a time exposure, typically a second or more. You can capture lights and fires with far less, but if you want to capture the things illuminated by those lights and fires, you need a long exposure. Having both the light source and the illuminated subject in a shot is like shooting into the sun. There are a few things you can do to get away with a shorter exposure, but they don’t work well for this sort of work.
- You can bump the ISO on your camera. If you do that, you make the picture more noisy. This ruins it when you try the next technique…
- You can apply curves in photoshop to brighten the shadows but not brighten the highlights, which tend to be much brighter than the shadows, because they are the light sources themselves. But if you used high ISO, you will immediately highlight the noise. You can’t do both.
- You can be tricky about how you do your curves. I recommend first using colour range select to mask out the actual light sources and areas near them (highly feathered) and then do your curves so you are not brightening the area right next to the lights at all.
- You can use a fast lens, wide open. But if you do this, you will get a shallow depth of field, meaning that if the foreground is in focus, the background is blurry, or vice versa. Problem is, for panoramas, trying to capture a large sweeping area, shallow depth of field is not a good idea. My daytime panos are shot at f/8 or f/11.
So you’re stuck with a long exposure. Right away that’s going to cause a problem with moving things, notably people and vehicles. There is simply nothing you can do about this with a long exposure, unless you can command the world to stop.
- I like to shoot panoramas from up towers, to capture the whole city. But towers at Burning Man are rarely built super-stable. They are usually scaffolding. If other people get on them, they wobble. That ruins almost any length of exposure.
- Over the years, the only really stable platforms have been the man, when he was a pyramid, and the Black Rock Refinery of 2002. Other platforms would be stable if I could get them to myself, but that’s hard at Burning Man.
- A boomlift can be good if you get it to yourself. But nobody on the boomlift can even shift their weight while the shutter is open.
- In the dark, it’s easier to make mistakes, like leaving autofocus on. Or if you are doing manual focus, it’s much harder to do it. The autofocus often doesn’t work, and your eyes may not have something good to focus on either.
- If what you are shooting is lit by fire, then the lighting is going to change form one frame to the next!
Now it gets worse. Since a full panorama like I take uses 36 shots, to get a perfect pano, every single one of them must be good. And that’s not going to happen. So you tend to take each shot 2 or 3 times, and hope that one of them works out. Problem is, the longer you wait between moves of the camera, the more likely something in the scene is going to move between frames, causing a blending problem.
You can check on the camera screen if the shot came out, but that’s very time consuming and just makes the moving car problem even worse. I have wished for some time that cameras had a review mode that was “Show me a full 1:1 pixel zoom of the region of the photo with the highest contrast and sharpest edges.” If that region is blurry, you know your photo is blurry. If that region is not your subject, you know you had bad focus. A button to cycle through the sharpest edges in the photo would help confirm this.
Some Nikon cameras had a mode to do this automatically — take 3 photos, and save the one with the least blur. I wish that mode appeared on my cameras.
So all in all, it’s a wonder they work at all sometimes. This year I had high hopes, because one crew built an 11 floor tower out of giant steel I-beams. But it wobbled a great deal at the top with all the constant traffic. It didn’t wobble as much on lower floors, but sadly at night they put up a giant screen and projected rather uninteresting photos onto it. The combination of the screen, and the projector light shining right at you, made photos from the stable levels impossible.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-09-08 15:52.
Back from Burning Man and still dusty, here are five large panoramas to give you a sense of it.
This year was great fun as always, this time in our own small Esplanade camp, rather than with Camp I Am. The main downside this year was the horrible playa conditions — think dust, including drifts that made it very difficult to bicycle in most places, and even my new art car was difficult to ride in a number of places, especially deep playa. It also meant whiteout dust storms on Monday, Saturday (delaying the burn) and Sunday. Nothing too bad but certainly frightening for newbies.
I’ll post more observations later, but here are a few for now:
- An art car is great, and the car I inherited generated praise everywhere we went. Felt a little guilty taking it sometimes, but you can’t explain to everybody that you didn’t build it.
- Next time, I’ll bring 3 spare air filters, though I don’t think it will be this dusty again. A snorkel on the air intake might also help. Plus, I think I would like to convert to battery power for the lights, though that will be a major operation.
- With the big red ATM sign I bought, the ATM got a lot more traffic and we handed out almost all the playa money.
- The phone, as usual, worked poorly for the first few days because the network never seems to work out in the outer city for some time. But it got some pretty giant lines, and heartwarming stories. We need to make a logbook.
- The photo wall is getting too big. It documented 9 years this time (I removed 2001 since the photo is not that remarkable) and shrunk many others. I need to take a new approach, or get help building it, or both.
- The theme went off OK, if anything the response was too wussy. Lots of flags, and while there was protest art it was not at all edgy or shocking as one might have expected. Most people stayed away from the theme, by and large. Not a failure like the Green Man but not a grand success like the Floating World.
- Next year’s theme, Evolution, looks more promising.
- While there are lots of quiet spaces, I never seem to find them. I left Camp I Am in part because most of what was left of art there was going to involve loud music (live, and good quality, but still loud) and that’s not compatible with my phone. Instead we got Entheon (which promised no music dome) playing very loud music in their non-dome right behind us, and Bomb Squad’s mobile music platform stayed at home more nights than it left. Sigh.
In the panorama collection this year are two rather interesting ones. One is a shot of the temple burn. Because I am in the crowd, the view behind me shows the clear faces of the people watching. Solemn, still, some crying. It says a lot.
Another shot, my largest single panorama to date, is a shot of the whole city, up close, from the tower of Babel. The tower 11 stories tall, all-steel construction, in the deep playa. The highest viewpoint built to date. Even with the steel beams, it was not stable enough for a photo at night at the top, and they blocked the ability to take photos from lower levels with a screen.
Update: I’ve added one of the temple.
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2008-08-21 19:14.
It’s amazing how much preparation is required for Burning Man. Or at least if you are crazy like me and plan to spend 11 days there, have 4 art projects, manage a new camp and still survive.
Unlike most trips you have to pack for, there is a paranoia about Burning Man packing that makes us overdo it. There are no stores, so if anything breaks or is missing, and you need it, you’re going to do without. If it’s so important that you must have it, it’s probably 5 hours of travel (if you can even move your vehicle) to Reno and back. Only basics are available in Gerlach. Sometimes you can find on-playa nice people who can help but there is no system for that, so you can’t depend on it. So you start taking a lot of stuff just in case. And as the deadline approaches you toss in stuff you don’t really need, just in case. Stuff you already packed and forgot.
Then after you inventory you realize you need to buy some things. Shopping for obscure things in the real world is very time consuming, but at this point online shopping isn’t available. If you can’t get it, you’re stuck, though since we started having internet, it’s been possible to get friends who are coming up later to help you. One year we helped a friend who find by Reno that she had left her tickets in San Francisco. With a rush of people helping, we got them to her in 5 hours.
Every year at this time we ask “is it worth it?” but by the end, we’re ready to do it all over again, and are making new plans.
This year I will be driving an art car. The car was built by two friends I met at Burning Man. Unfortunately, one of them lost a battle with cancer, and his wife is not ready to return, so I inherited the car. It’s pretty amazing, and gets comments everywhere it goes.
I will be at 3:45 and Esplanade, with the photo wall, American Dream Automated ATM Machine, Phone Booth and Art Car. Drop by if you’re there.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-08-18 21:22.
NBC has had just a touch of coverage of Michael Phelps and his 8 gold medals, which in breaking Mark Spitz’s 7 from 1972 has him declared the greatest Olympic athlete, or even athlete of all time. And there’s no doubt he’s one of the greatest swimmers of all time and this is an incredible accomplishment. Couch potato that I am, I can hardly criticise him.
(We are of course watching the Olympics in HDTV using MythTV, but fast-forwarding over the major bulk of it. Endless beach volleyball, commercials and boring events whiz by. I can’t imagine watching without such a box. I would probably spend more time, which they would like, but be less satisfied and see fewer of the events I wish to.)
Phelps got 8 Gold but 3 of them were relays. He certainly contributed to those relays, may well have made the difference for the U.S. team and allowed it to win a gold it would not have won without him. So it seems fair to add them, no?
No. The problem is you can’t win relay gold unless you are lucky enough to be a citizen of one of a few powerhouse swimming nations, in particular the USA and Australia, along with a few others. Almost no matter how brilliant you are, if you don’t compete for one of these countries, you have no chance at those medals. So only a subset of the world’s population even gets to compete for the chance to win 7 or 8 medals at the games. This applies to almost all team medals, be they relay or otherwise. Perhaps the truly determined can emigrate to a contending country. A pretty tall order.
Phelps one 5 individual golds, and that is also the record, though it is shared by 3 others. He has more golds than anybody, though other athletes have more total medals.
Of course, swimming is one of the special sports in which there are enough similar events that it is possible to attain a total like this. There are many sports that don’t even have 7 events a single person could compete in. (They may have more events but they will be divided by sex, or weight class.)
Shooting has potential for a star. It used to even be mixed (men and women) until they split it. It has 9 male events, and one could in theory be master of them all.
Track and Field has 47 events split over men and women. However, it is so specialized in how muscles are trained that nobody expects sprinters to compete in long events or vice versa. Often the best sprinter does well in Long Jump or Triple Jump, allowing the potential of a giant medal run for somebody able to go from 100m to 400m in range. In theory there are 8 individual events 400m or shorter.
And there are a few other places. But the point is that to do what Phelps (or Spitz) did, you have to be in a small subset of sports, and be from a small set of countries. There have been truly “cross sport” athletes at the Olympics but in today’s world of specialized training, it’s rare. If anybody managed to win multiple golds over different sports and beat this record, then the title of greatest Olympian would be very deserving. One place I could see some crossover is between high-diving and Trampoline. While a new event, Trampoline seems to be like doing 20 vaults or high dives in a row. And not that it wasn’t exciting to watch him race.
More Burning Man packing…
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-08-18 15:26.
Photographers constantly debate about jpeg. Should they shoot in RAW or JPEG, for example. RAW preserves everything, but is much harder and bulkier to work with, so you will see serious pro photographers, who you think would always vote for the “never throw away” logic of RAW, tell you they work mostly in JPEG. I’m one of them. I use raw only for shots with high dynamic range, like night photography, and often shoot RAW+JPEG to work with the JPEGs and pull the RAWs if you need it.
If you do work with JPEG, you still want to avoid editing with jpeg — loading, changing and recompressing. Most people go to TIFF at that point, or PNG, because for the few photos you will actually work on, the space issue is minor, and TIFF can be used in almost all software that uses JPEG.
There are a variety of tools that will do a lossless rotate of a JPEG. If you have a JPEG that was shot in portrait mode, they will rotate the picture and create a new jpeg without loss of information. That’s because JPEG compression breaks your photo up into little 8x8 blocks and loses data within those blocks. However, you can rotate those blocks at no loss in a picture which, like most, has dimensions that are multiples of 8.
Still, sometimes there is a temptation to do other edits on a file you have in jpeg, such as crops, touch-ups with the clone or healing tool and such. To assist that, a photo editor could support mostly-lossless jpeg editing. If, when saving a picture back, any particular 8x8 block of pixels has not changed since the original, write it back exactly as it was. For bonus points, handle rotating of such blocks, too. For other blocks, you must recompress, though you could arrange to always recompress at a quality level which will provide minimal loss.
Strictly, this would require crops to be on block boundaries. I think people might tolerate that. Alternately, one could do a special crop which creates an image with a small white or black border to allow the crop lines to be anywhere. If the user insists on cropping out those, the crop will no longer be lossless, and they should switch to tiff or png.
This requires a photo editor that is aware of the jpeg structure behind a photo, so it may not be trivial. But it would be handy.
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2008-08-15 19:09.
Ok, this is something I have to believe somebody else has thought of, but I haven’t seen it, so I thought I would ask readers if they have, and if not, to put it forward.
Everybody has a socket wrench set. The wrench heads tend to come with a square hole in the top, typically 1/2” or 3/8” square, into which the square drive from the ratchet inserts. There are sometimes spring-locks to keep it in place.
However, when you have a nut that’s going on a long bolt, you can’t use a standard socket as the bolt won’t fit inside. So you need to get a “deep socket” head, which may be able to handle the long bolt. Yes, you shouldn’t have such long bolts, and perhaps should saw off the end, but in reality this happens in places where that’s not easy or worthwhile. You can’t have just a deep socket set, because that’s bigger and heavier to carry around, and may not fit in various confined spaces.
The problem is that the drive is a solid square pin inside the wrench head. If the drive were able to grasp the wrench head from the outside, like a standard nut, then you could have an “extender” which could make any of your sockets a deep socket. To do this, the top of the wrench head would not be round, as it typically is, but hexagonal. In fact, your “extender” could simply be another, larger wrench from the set which fits around this hex head. Or you could have a small number of extenders in various sizes, and in extreme cases, multiple extenders. The extenders might do well to also have spring locks like the current drives do, to hold elements in place for you.
One could also have a thin hex shell embedded in the socket, the way lockable lug-nuts do, but that would not be as strong. Of course, one could try to do a whole new type of driver which is hollow, but the existing drivers are so well standardized now (there are not even metric versions) that I doubt it would get much adoption.
While we’re on this topic, here’s another idea. Organizing socket wrenches in a case is a pain. They often fall out and it’s hard to put them all back in the right place. I’ve seen colour coded sockets (fairly good) and laser etched numbers that are easier to read, and cases that try to bind the wrenches so they won’t fall out as easily. Realizing that the outside does not have to be round, I wonder if we could have patterns at the nut-end of the wrench that make it easy to slot how they go into their case. Perhaps just a couple of bumps or notches, so that no wrench can go in the wrong slot, even a slot for the wrench that is just a bit bigger.
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2008-08-12 16:27.
I’ve just returned from Denver and the World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon) where I spoke on issues such as privacy, DRM and creating new intelligent beings. However, I also attended a session on “hard” science fiction, and have some thoughts to relate from it.
Defining the sub-genres of SF, or any form of literature, is a constant topic for debate. No matter where you draw the lines, authors will work to bend them as well. Many people just give up and say “Science Fiction is what I point at when I say Science Fiction.”
Genres in the end are more about taste than anything else. They exist for readers to find fiction that is likely to match their tastes. Hard SF, broadly, is SF that takes extra care to follow the real rules of physics. It may include unknown science or technology but doesn’t include what those rules declare to be impossible. On the border of hard SF one also finds SF that does a few impossible things (most commonly faster-than-light starships) but otherwise sticks to the rules. As stories include more impossible and unlikely things, they travel down the path to fantasy, eventually arriving at a fully fantastic level where the world works in magical ways as the author found convenient.
Even in fantasy however, readers like to demand consistency. Once magical rules are set up, people like them to be followed.
In addition to Hard SF, softer SF and Fantasy, the “alternate history” genre has joined the pantheon, now often dubbed “speculative fiction.” All fiction deals with hypotheticals, but in speculative fiction, the “what if?” is asked about the world, not just the lives of some characters. This year, the Hugo award for best (ostensibly SF) novel of the year went to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union which is a very clear alternate history story. In it, the USA decides to accept Jews that Hitler is expelling from Europe, and gives them a temporary homeland around Sitka, Alaska. During the book, the lease on the homeland is expiring, and there is no Israel. It’s a very fine book, but I didn’t vote for it because I want to promote actual SF, not alternate history, with the award.
However, in considering why fans like alternate history, I realized something else. In mainstream literature, the cliche is that the purpose of literature is to “explore the human condition.” SF tends to expand that, to explore both the human condition and the nature of the technology and societies we create, as well as the universe itself.
SF gets faulted by the mainstream literature community for exploring those latter topics at the expense of the more character oriented explorations that are the core of mainstream fiction. This is sometimes, but not always, a fair criticism.
Hard SF fans want their fiction to follow the rules of physics, which is to say, take place in what could be the real world. In a sense, that’s similar to the goal of mainstream fiction, even though normally hard SF and mainstream fiction are considered polar opposites in the genre spectrum. After all, mainstream fiction follows the rules of physics as well or better than the hardest SF. It follows them because the author isn’t trying to explore questions of science, technology and the universe, but it does follow them. Likewise, almost all alternate history also follows the laws of physics. It just tweaks some past event, not a past rule. As such it explores the “real world” as closely as SF does, and I suspect this is why it is considered a subgenre of fantasy and SF.
I admit to a taste for hard SF. Future hard SF is a form of futurism; an explanation of real possible futures for the world. It explores real issues. The best work in hard SF today comes (far too infrequently) from Vernor Vinge, including his recent hugo winning novel, Rainbows End. His most famous work, A Fire Upon the Deep, which I published in electronic form 15 years ago, is a curious beast. It includes one extremely unlikely element of setting — a galaxy where the rules of physics which govern the speed of computation vary with distance from the center of the galaxy. Some view that as fantastic, but its real purpose is to allow him to write about the very fascinating and important topic of computerized super-minds, who are so smart that they are as gods to us. Coining the term “applied theology” Vinge uses his setting to allow the superminds to exist in the same story as characters like us that we can relate to. Vinge feels that you can’t write an authentic story about superminds, and thus need to have human characters, and so uses this element some would view as fantastic. So I embrace this as hard SF, and for the purists, the novels suggest that the “zones” may be artificial.
The best hard SF thus explores the total human condition. Fantastic fiction can do this as well, but it must do it by allegory. In fantasy, we are not looking at the real world, but we usually are trying to say something about it. However, it is not always good to let the author pick and choose what’s real and what’s not about the world, since it is too easy to fall into the trap of speaking only about your made-up reality and not about the world.
Not that this is always bad. Exploring the “human condition” or reality is just one thing we ask of our fiction. We also always want a ripping good read. And that can occur in any genre.
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2008-08-05 11:45.
You may not know it, but any cell phone — whether it has an account with a carrier or not — is able to call 911. You can leave one of your old phones (and a car charger) in your car if you just want a way to reach emergency services.
I propose an expansion of this idea. A special set of numbers, which, like 800 numbers are free to call because the called party pays for the airtime. These exist already of course, but I want to go further and have numbers where any phone, or at least any phone which works with a participating carrier, can call the number, billed to the receiver of the call.
Then people who can’t afford a cell phone could still use one, if they liked, to call certain businesses. The first one I’m thinking of are taxis. I’ve always thought cell-phone hail makes sense for taxis in today’s world (and it eliminates the need for a monopoly but one problem was not everybody has a cell phone. Even if the cab companies can’t afford the 50 cents they might pay for airtime, it could just be added to the fare, at least in a non monopoly rates world.
This could also enable a cell-phone-hailed jitney service that replaces low-usage transit bus lines. In much of the world, jitneys are popular and cheap. A new high-tech jitney could be much better than the bus, if everybody can get a phone with which to call it.
There are other companies who might participate. Travel companies such as hotels and airlines might allow these calls. Tourists visiting foreign countries might find it useful to reach such companies but they may not want to get a local cell phone or pay giant roaming rates — or might not have a cell at home that can roam, as CDMA customers realize in the GSM world.
If they could do it in low volume, parents might even participate, allowing their kids to use an old unregistered phone to call them (at high cost) but do nothing else. Of course cell companies might not want to allow this as they may feel they get more money pushing parents to buy phones, or at least prepaid phones, for the kids.
The phones would not be directly callable, but it might be handy if the system allowed the recipients of these target-paid calls to have a temporary number which can be used to call back a caller who has called recently. That’s a little more involved. This would be handy for 911 too. And of course, if this became common, more people would have a phone which could call 911 in an emergency. There are tons of old phones out there, and they are cheap.
Companies would have to coordinate. It would be nice if a cell800 customer didn’t have to negotiate with every carrier in town, and if they could use the same number on several carriers. Most of these old phones will be subsidy locked and only able to work with one carrier.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2008-08-02 14:35.
There’s a bit of an internet buzz this week around a video of a law lecture on why you should never, ever, ever, ever talk to the police. The video begins with the law professor and criminal defense attorney, who is a good speaker, making that case, and then a police detective, interesting but not quite as eloquent, agreeing with him and describing the various tricks the police use every day with people stupid enough to talk to them.
The case is very good. In our society of a zillion laws, you are always guilty of something, and he explains, even if you’re completely innocent, and you tell nothing but the truth, there are still a lot of ways you could end up in jail. Not that it happens every time, but the chance is high enough and the cost is so great that he advocates that you should never, ever talk to the police. (He doesn’t say this, but I presume he does not include when you are filing a complaint about a crime against you or are a witness in a crime against others, where the benefits may outweigh the risk.)
Now fortunately for the police, few people follow the advice. Lots of people talk to the police. Some 80% of cases, the detective declares, are won because of a confession by the suspect. Cops love it, and they will lie (and are permitted to lie) to make it happen if they can.
But since a rational person should never, ever, under any circumstances talk to the police, this prevents citizens from ever helping the police. And there are times when society, and law enforcement, would be better if citizens could help the police without fear.
What if there existed a means for the police to do a guaranteed off-the-record interview with a non-suspect? Instead of a Miranda warning, the police would inform you that:
“You are not a suspect, and nothing from this interview can be used against you in a court of law.”
First of all, could this work? I believe our laws of evidence are strong enough that actual quotes from the interview could not be used. To improve things, you could be allowed to record the interview, or the officer could record it but hand you the only copy, and swear it’s the only copy. It could be a digitally signed, authenticated copy, which can never be taken from you by warrant or subpoena, or used even if you lose it, perhaps until some years after your death.
However, clearly if the police learn something in the interview that makes them suspect you, they will try to find ways to “learn” that again through other, admissible means. And this could come back to bite you. While we could have a Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine which would forbid this, it is much harder to get full rigour about such doctrines. Is this fear enough to make it still always be the best advice to never speak to the police? Is there a way we could make it self to assist the police?
I will note that if we had a safe means to assist the police, it would sometimes “backfire” in the eyes of the public. There would be times when interviewees would (foolishly, but still successfully) say “nyah, nyah, I did it and you can’t get me” and the public would be faced with the usual confusion over people who are let free even when we know they are guilty. And indeed there would be times when the police learn things in such interviews and could have then found evidence, but are prohibited from, that get the public up in arms because some rapist, kidnapper, murderer or even terrorist goes free.
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2008-07-31 18:26.
I often rant here about the need for better universal power supply technology. And there is some progress. On a recent trip to Europe, I was astounded how much we took in the way of power supply gear. I am curious at what the record is for readers here. I suggested we have a contest at a recent gathering. I had six supplies, and did not win.
Here’s what the two of us had on the German trip in terms of devices. There were slightly fewer supplies, due to the fact several devices charged from USB, which could be generated by laptops or dedicated wall-warts.
- My laptop, with power supply. (Universal, able to run from plane, car or any voltage)
- Her laptop, with power supply.
- My unlocked GSM phone, which though mini-USB needs its dedicated charger, so that was brought
- My CDMA phone, functioning has a PDA, charges from mini-USB
- Her unlocked GSM phone, plus motorola charger
- Her CDMA Treo, as a PDA, with dedicated charger
- My Logger GPS, charges from mini-USB
- My old bluetooth GPS, because I had just bought the logger, charges from mini-USB
- My Canon EOS 40D, with plug in battery charger. 4 batteries.
- Her Canon mini camera, with different plug in battery charger. 2 batteries.
- Canon flash units, with NiMH AA batteries, with charger and power supply for charger.
- Special device, with 12v power supply.
- MP3 player and charger
- Bluetooth headset, charges from same Motorola charger. Today we would have two!
- External laptop battery for 12 hour flight, charges from laptop charger
- Electric shaver — did not bring charger as battery will last trip.
- 4 adapters for Euro plugs, and one 3-way extension cord. One adapter has USB power out!
- An additional USB wall-wart, for a total of 3 USB wall-warts, plus the computers.
- Cigarette lighter to USB adapter to power devices in car.
That’s the gear that will plug into a wall. There was more electronic gear, including USB memory sticks, flash cards, external wi-fi antennal, headsets and I’ve probably forgotten a few things. read more »
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2008-07-29 19:08.
There are a variety of tools out there to help recover stolen technological devices. They make the devices “phone home” to the security company, and if stolen, this can be used to find the laptop (based on IP traceroutes etc.) and get it back. Some of these tools work hard to hide on the machine, even claiming they will survive low level disk formats. Some reportedly get installed into the BIOS to survive a disk swap.
This has always been interesting to me, but it seems like something that could be used to track you against your will. I don’t know how all the different products work inside — they are deliberately obtuse about some parts of it — but here’s a design for one that you could perhaps trust with your privacy.
- When setting it up, you would create a passphrase. Write it down somewhere else, as you need it for recovery.
- Every so often, it will make a DNS request of a magic DNS server. In the request will be embedded a random number, and an encryption of the random number based on the passphrase.
- Without the passphrase, these requests mean nothing to the tracking company. They don’t know who made the request
- When your device is stolen, you give the tracking company your passphrase
- When a request comes in, the tracking company checks it using the passphrases of the devices that are currently reported stolen. If it matches, bingo.
- In a match, return a DNS answer that says, “You’re stolen. Do the stuff you should do.” That answer is of course also encrypted with the passphrase.
- At that point, the device can do complex traceroutes, take photos with its built in camera, record audio, you name it.
If there are a lot of stolen laptops in the database, the search could be sped up one of two ways:
- The random number isn’t random, it’s the date. The site can then pre-compute all the codes it is likely to get from stolen laptops that day. Changing the date on the computer won’t help, as that just means a little more CPU on that particular request.
- Include an 8 or 9 bit hash of the passphrase + date. That can reduce by a factor of 256 or 512 how many phrases you must try. This identifies you a bit but if the company has lots of customers you are fine.
Note that DNS requests tend to get through just about any firewall other than a firewall deliberately tuned to block sneaky DNS requests.
This system could be integrated into a BIOS or right into an ethernet card. However, since it is the high level OS that does DHCP etc. you need a bit of network layer cheating to do this right. I presume they already do that.
You can also run the DNS server yourself, if you are so inclined. It’s not that hard. But this system lets you trust a 3rd party as they learn nothing about you as long as they have lots of customers.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-07-21 11:35.
Last weekend I had a great trip to Wyoming, staying in Jackson for a bit and then into Yellowstone with a Cody side-trip.
As always, tons of photos and a new gallery of panoramic photos of the area. My last trip to Yellowstone featured poor weather and a very early (low quality) digital camera so I was pleased to photograph it again.
Check out my Gallery of Panoramas of Wyoming
One thing that was different: In the bookstores at both parks there were books on how to photograph the park. This was something quite new, and is an artifact of the great rebirth of photography that digital cameras have brought. Often when I enter an area I will ask the locals for the good photographic spots. These books answered those questions, and did more — told me when to visit the spots, or where to go at certain times of day. For example, the book told me I would get a rainbow at 9 am on upper Yellowstone falls from Uncle Tom point, and indeed I did. (It must be timed for summer.)
Everybody shoots Old Faithful — here’s the crowd around it at sunset:
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2008-07-17 17:36.
Last weekend I attended a small gathering in the Grand Tetons where Boone Pickens came to promote his new energy plan. The billionaire oilman is spending $56M of his own money per year on ads for this plan, and you will see them if you watch ads. Otherwise they are at his Pickens Plan web site.
Pickens’ thesis is that the most ruinous thing in energy is the 700 billion dollars per year the USA spends importing oil, a number destined to go up to a trillion. He thinks the price will continue to rise, simply because demand now exceeds supply, and that supply can’t be radically increased — ie. he believes in the Peak Oil thesis. He doesn’t seem to mind burning the fuel so much as importing it, which is giving trillions to other nations at U.S. expense. He is happy to support any domestic oil production, such as offshore, as good because it reduces the import numbers, but doesn’t think these are long term solutions.
His main goal is to get cars off of oil and onto domestic energy. He thinks the best way to do that is with LNG (liquid natural gas) or compressed natural gass cars. He says they have been far cheaper than gasoline for some time — half the cost — but that this was not enough to make people care enough to switch. Any new fuel has a chicken and egg problem when it comes to fueling infrastructure, something that Robocars solve, by the way.
To do that, he needs to take natural gas from the power grid. NG produces 20% of U.S. electricity. So he is promoting wind and solar. The wind in a high-wind corridor that runs up the center of the country, the solar in the sun-belt (the southwest and California.)
It’s an interesting plan, and he points out that whatever flaws you may find in it, at least it is a plan, something that’s been lacking for some time.
That said, some notes:
- Getting power from the wind belt is not easy. In spite of what you may think, there is no national power grid, and certainly no infrastructure to power the coasts from the middle. This would have to be built, and would be very expensive. Pickens admits this. New technology of high voltage DC transmission could help.
- I’m not sure that adding wind power would free up NG for cars. I think we would just use more electricity if you increase the supply. That’s what we do.
- Indeed, from a pollution standpoint, we would be far better to shut down coal plants when the wind/solar comes online, but we won’t, because it’s cheap. Only moving cars to NG (or electric or other domestic energy source) reduces oil imports.
- Pickens is buying a pretty old-school marketing campaign with his spare millions. We all thought he could have done it for far less with clever use of the internet and a more modest TV budget.
- The 700 million isn’t all bad, of course. The largest source of imported oil is Canada. Saudis are #2 and Mexico is #3. Venezuela is #4, though it recently switched from from a friendly ally to an unfriendly.
Still, it’s good that Pickens will get people talking about this. NG for cars is already a reasonably popular fleet fuel. New extraction technologies have opened up a lot of new sources of NG of late. Of course, burning NG still emits CO2, though not much else, once refined to more pure methane, it’s the cleanest fossil fuel.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-06-23 15:01.
This special chapter in my series of essays on Robocars describes a fictional week in the Robocar world, with many created examples of how people might use Robocars and how their lives might change.
If you haven’t been following my essay on Robocars, this may be a good alternate entry to it. In a succinct way, it plays out many of the technologies I think are possible, more about the what than the how and why.
A Week of Robocar Stories
This ends this week-long series of postings on the Robocar essays. Though I have some new sidebars
already written which I will introduce later. I realize this set of essays has been more longer than one typically sees in the short-attention-span blogosphere, but I think these ideas are among the more important and world-changing I’ve covered. I hope I’ll see more comments from the readers as you get more deeply into it.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-06-23 14:57.
You may have seen in earlier blog posts my discussion of the energy efficiency of U.S. transit. I started that investigation because as I learned how inefficient most transit systems are (due to light loads outside of rush hour,) I realized that ultralight electric cars, enabled by Robocars, are more efficient than any transit system. Who would take transit if a fast, comfortable, efficient vehicle will take you directly from A to B? This drives chapter eight, about:
The end of urban mass transit
(This one gets the people who think they love transit, rather than loving efficient transportation, in a tizzy.)
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-06-23 14:53.
For part seven of my series on Robocars, I now consider the adjunct technology I am calling Deliverbots — namely robot driven trucks and delivery vehicles, with no people inside. These turn out to have special consequences of their own. Read:
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2008-06-23 14:50.
For part six of my series on Robocars, consider:
When can robocars happen?
I discuss what predictions we can make about how long the Robocar future will take. While there are many technological challenges, the biggest barriers may be political, and even harder to predict.
We don’t seem to have the Jetson’s flying cars yet. What goes wrong with these predictions, and can we figure it out?