Brad Templeton is Chairman Emeritus of the EFF, Singularity U founding computing faculty, software architect and internet entrepreneur, robotic car strategist, futurist lecturer, 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.

Laptops could get smart while power supplies stay stupid

If you have read my articles on power you know I yearn for the days when we get smart power so we have have universal supplies that power everything. This hit home when we got a new Thinkpad Z61 model, which uses a new power adapter which provides 20 volts at 4.5 amps and uses a new, quite rare power tip which is 8mm in diameter. For almost a decade, thinkpads used 16.5 volts and used a fairly standard 5.5mm plug. It go so that some companies standardized on Thinkpads and put cheap 16 volt TP power supplies in all the conference rooms, allowing employees to just bring their laptops in with no hassle.

Lenovo pissed off their customers with this move. I have perhaps 5 older power supplies, including one each at two desks, one that stays in the laptop bag for travel, one downstairs and one running an older ThinkPad. They are no good to me on the new computer.

Lenovo says they knew this would annoy people, and did it because they needed more power in their laptops, but could not increase the current in the older plug. I’m not quite sure why they need more power — the newer processors are actually lower wattage — but they did.

Here’s something they could have done to make it better.  read more »

The impact of Peer to Peer on ISPs

I’m a director of BitTorrent Inc. (though not speaking for it) and so the recent debate about P2P applications and ISPs has been interesting to me. Comcast has tried to block off BitTorrent traffic by detecting it and severing certain P2P connections by forging TCP reset packets. Some want net neutrality legislation to stop such nasty activity, others want to embrace it. Brett Glass, who runs a wireless ISP, has become a vocal public opponent of P2P.

Some base their opposition on the fact that since BitTorrent is the best software for publishing large files, it does get used by copyright infringers a fair bit. But some just don’t like the concept at all. Let’s examine the issues.

A broadband connection consists of an upstream and downstream section. In the beginning, this was always symmetric, you had the same capacity up as down. Even today, big customers like universities and companies buy things like T-1 lines that give 1.5 megabits in each direction. ISPs almost always buy equal sized pipes to and from their peers.

With aDSL, the single phone wire is multiplexed so that you get much less upstream than downstream. A common circuit will give 1.5mbps down and say 256kb up — a 6 to 1 ratio. Because cable systems weren’t designed for 2 way data, they have it worse. They can give a lot down, but they share the upstream over a large block of customers under the existing DOCSIS system. They also will offer upstream on near the 6 to 1 ratio but unlike the DSL companies, there isn’t a fixed line there.  read more »

Whose call is it to say what's legal?

As many of you will know, it’s been a tumultuous week in President Bush’s battle to get congress to retroactively nullify our lawsuit against AT&T over the illegal wiretaps our witnesses have testified to. The President convinced the Senate to pass a bill with retroactive immunity for the phone companies — an immunity against not just this but all sorts of other illegal activities that have been confirmed but not explained by administration officials. But the House stood firm, and for now has refused. A battle is looming as the two bills must be reconciled. I encourage you to contact your members of congress soon to tell them you don’t want immunity.

And here, I’m going to outline in a slightly different way, why.

I’ve talked about the rule of law, and the problems with retroactive get out of jail free cards that “make it legal.” But let’s go back to when these programs started, and ask some important questions about the nature of democracy and its checks and balances.

The White House decided it wanted a new type of wiretap, and that it wouldn’t, or most probably couldn’t get a warrant from the special court convened just to deal with foreign intelligence wiretaps. They have their reasoning as to why this is legal, which we don’t agree with, but even assuming they believe it themselves, there is no denying by anybody — phone company employees, administration officials, members of congress or FISA judges — that these wiretaps were treading on new, untested ground. Wiretaps of course are an automatic red flag, because they involve the 4th amendment, and in just about every circumstance, everybody agrees they need a warrant as governed by the 4th amendment. Any wiretap without a warrant is enough to start some fine legal argument.

In the USA, the government is designed with a system of checks and balances. This is most important when the bill of rights is being affected, as it is here. The system is designed so that no one branch is allowed to interfere with rights on its own. The other branches get some oversight, they have a say.

So when the NSA came to the phone companies, asking for a new type of wiretap with no warrant, the phone companies had to decide what to do about it. The law tells them to say no, and exacts financial penalties if they don’t say no to an illegal request. The law is supposed to be simple and to not ask for too much judgment on the part of the private sector. In this situation, with a new type of wiretap being requested, the important question is who makes the call? Who should decide if the debatable orders are really legal or not?

There are two main choices. Phone company executives or federal judges. If, as the law requires, the phone company says “come back with a warrant” this puts the question of whether the program is legal in the hands of a judge. The phone company is saying, “this is not our call to make — let’s ask the right judge.”

If the administration says, “No, we say it’s legal, we will not be asking a judge, are you going to do this anyway?” then we’re putting the call in the hands of phone company executives.

That’s what happened. The phone companies made the decision. The law told them to kick it back to the judge, but the White House, it says, assured them the program was legal. And now that lawsuits like ours are trying to ask a different federal judge if the program was legal, the Senate has passed this retroactive immunity. This immunity does a lot of bad things, but among them it says that “it was right for the phone companies to be making the call.” That the pledges of the administration that the program was legal were enough. We’ve even be told we should thank the phone companies for being patriots.

But it must be understood. Even if you feel this program was necessary for the security of the nation, and was undertaking by patriots, this was not the only decision the phone company made. We’re not suing them because they felt they had a patriotic duty to help wiretap al Qaeda. We’re suing them because they took the decidedly non-patriotic step of abandoning the checks and balances that keep us free by not insisting on going to either a judge or congress or both.

Officials in the three branches take a solemn oath to defend the constitution. Phone company executives, as high minded or patriotic as they might be, don’t. So the law was written to tell them it is not their call whether a wiretap is legal, and to tell them there are heavy penalties if they try to make that decision. Those who desire immunity may think they are trying to rescue patriots, but instead they will be rewarding the destruction of proper checks and balances. And that’s not patriotic at all.

Some have argued that there was a tremendous urgency to this program, and this required the phone companies to act quickly and arrange the warrantless wiretaps. While I disagree, I can imagine how people might think that for the first week or two after the requests come in. But this wasn’t a week or two. This has gone on since 2001. There was over half a decade of time in which to consult with judges, congress or both about the legitimacy of the wiretaps. It’s not that they didn’t know — one company, Qwest, refused them at their own peril. If you argued for immunity for the actions of that first week or two, I could understand the nature of your argument. But beyond that, it’s very hard to see. For this is immunity not just for illegal wiretapping. This is immunity for not standing by the law and saying “let’s ask a judge.” For years, and years. Why we would want to grant immunity for that I just can’t understand, no matter how patriotic the goals. This system of freedom, with checks and balances, is the very core of what patriots are supposed to be defending.

Where are the savoury chocolate/cocoa dishes?

I’ve read studies that say that “chocolate” is the world’s favourite flavour. That’s not too surprising. Coming from central America after the Spanish conquest, the candy at least quickly was adopted all over Europe and to a lesser degree elsewhere. So did many other new world ingredients, such as corn, beans, squash, chiles, potatoes, vanilla, tomatoes, peanuts and many others. And we’ve seen many of these become common, and even essential ingredients in many overseas cuisines. (I often wonder what Italian meals were like before pasta came from China and tomatoes from the americas!)

But oddly, the tastiest and most complex of the ingredients never got exported in any significant way for savoury cooking. You can find excellent cocao based mole sauces in Mexican and southwest cuisine, but this is to be expected, as the ingredients come from there. Those dishes are centuries old. And if they didn’t exist one might conclude that chocolate only works as a sweet. But it doesn’t. So why did the talented chefs of Europe, India, China, Japan and other places never develop a popular dish with this ingredient, when they did so much with the other new ingredients? I say popular because there certainly are dishes, but they are by and large obscure. Just about every culture has a range of well known potato and tomato dishes, for example.

I’ll presume it’s different. But modern fusion chefs, with fancy tools, knowledge of chemistry and the world’s ingredients should be able to do it. Not just come up with dishes, but come up with something both tasty and simple enough to spread as a popular choice. Though for now we won’t feel too bad having to limit ourselves to French hot chocolate and Belgian truffles.

Rental car that personalizes to you

Rental car companies are often owned by car manufacturers and are their biggest customers. As cars get more and more computerized, how about making rental cars that know how to personalize to the customer?

When Hertz assigns me a car, they could load into its computer things like the dimensions of my body, so that the seat and mirrors are already set for me (simply remembered from the last time I rented such a car, for example.) If I have a co-driver, a switch would set them for her. The handsfree unit would be paired in advance with my bluetooth phone.

The prep crew would have made sure there was a charger for our cell phones and other mobile devices in the car, at least for the major charger types such as USB and mini-USB, which should become standard on car dashes soon anyway. Perhaps there could even be a docking cradle.

The radio stations should be set to how I set them the last time I was in the rental town. If this is unknown, stations of the formats I like should be on the buttons I use. (Button 1 for NPR/CBC, Button 2 for Jazz, Button 3 for Rock, Button 4 for Classical, Button 5 for Traffic etc.) Or if satellite radio is used, settings for that could be preserved all over the world.

Any other car settings should be remembered and re-loaded for me.

All cars will have a GPS soon of course, but it should also be a bluetooth one that will transmit to my laptop or PDA if I want that. While I don’t want the company keeping a log of where I drive, it would be nice if I could specify destinations I plan to visit on the rental car web site when I reserve the car, and these would be pre-loaded into the GPS. And perhaps it could also be trained to my voice. For cars with a keycode entry, the code could be “my” keycode.

In other words, every possible thing you can easily customize about your own car should be available for loading into a rental car, to make it seem more like your car. And, of course, if you already drive such a car, it could very well be your car. (Though in the USA, because the rental car companies have these close relationships with Ford, GM and the like, don’t expect that if you drive an imported car.)

Is it that much time to set up a car when you rent it? Not really. But this is just something nice for the future. Regular readers will know I predict that as cars drive themselves, we will far more routinely use hired vehicles, and this sort of “make it mine” technology will become more important then.

I'll pay a lot for the ultimate tourist's mobile device

Fast internet access at home has spoiled me. Like Manfred Macx in Tourist I feel like I’ve lost my glasses when I’m a tourist. I get annoyed that I can’t quickly and easily get at all the information that’s out there.

I would gladly rent the ultimate tourist mobile device. A large GPS equipped PDA (and also a cell phone for tourists roaming from other countries or from CDMA vs. GSM) that has everything. Every database that can be had on geo-data for the region I’m walking. It has mobile data service of course but also just pre-caches the region I’m in.

Not just the maps and the lists of tourist-related items like restaurants. I want reviews of those restaurants and ratings and even the menus, so I can easily ask “Where’s a the best place in the $15/plate range near here” and similar questions. I don’t just want every hotel in a town (not just the ones in the popular databases) I want their recently updated price offers. And with the data connection, I want something like Wotif for the hotels tied into the computer reservation networks.

I don’t just want to know where the museum is, I want all of its literature. I want its internal map, with all of the placards translated into my language. Indeed, I want just about everything I need to read in a geolocation translated into my language.

And I want opinions on everything, from travel writers, tourists and locals. I want every single major travel book on the area loaded and ready and searchable. (Because I will be searching I want this to be bigger than a typical PDA/phone and have a moderately usable keyboard, or a really big touchscreen keyboard.)

I want it to have a decent camera, both in case I forget to bring mine with me, but for something grander. I want to be able to photograph any sign, any menu, and have it upload the photo to a system that OCRs the text and translates it for me. This is no longer science fiction — decent camera based OCR is available, and while translation software still has its hiccups it’s starting to get decent. In fact, as this gets better, the need for a database of signs at locations becomes less. Of course it should also be able to let locals type messages for me on it which it translates.

It should be trainable to my voice as well, so I can enter text with speech recognition instead of typing. Both for using the device, and saying things that are translated for locals, either to the screen or output from today’s quality text to speech systems. This will get better as the translation software gets better. In some cases, the processing may be done in the cloud to save battery on my device. But as I’ve noted the normal portability requirements on this device are not the same as for my everyday PDA. I don’t mind if this is big and a bit heavy, sized more like a Kindle than an iPhone.

It should be able to take me on walking and driving tours, of course.

And finally, at additional cost, it should connect me to a person, via voice or IM, who can help me. That can be a travel agent to book me a room of course, but it can also be a local expert — somebody who perhaps even works sometimes as a tourist guide. Earlier I wrote of the ability to call a local expert where people with local expertise would register, and when they were online, they could receive calls, billed by the minute. Your device would know where you were, and might well connect you with somebody living one street over who speaks your language and can tell you things you want to know about the area.

Now some of the things I have described are expensive, though as such a device became popular the economies of scale kick in for popular tourist areas. But I’m imagining tourists paying $20 to $30 a day for such a device. Rented 2/3 of the year, that’s $5,000 to $7,000 of revenue in a single year — enough to pay for the things I describe — every travel guide, every database, high volume data service and more. And I want the real thing, not the advertising-biased false information found in typical tourist guides or the “I’m afraid to be critical of anything” information generated by local tourist bureaus.

Why would I pay so much? Travel costs for a party of tourists are an order of magnitude higher than this. I think it would be a rare day that such a device didn’t save you more than this by finding you better food at a better price, savings on hotels and more. And it would save you time. If you are paying $200 to $400/day to travel, including your airfare, your hours are precious. You want to spend them seeing the best things for your taste — not wondering where things are. Saving you an hour of futzing pays for the device.

With scale, it could come down under $10/day, making it crazy not to get it. In fact, locals would start to want some of these databases.

Of course, UI is paramount. You must not have to spend the time you save trying to figure out the UI of the device. That is non-trivial, but doable for a budget like this.

Put my PIN into the phone number

When you call to get your voice mail, even from your cell phone, it typically asks for a PIN. There's a reason for that -- there is no authentication on Caller ID, and anybody can forge it. So if you don't require a PIN, and the voice mail let you in directly, anybody could listen to your voice mail or hack it in other ways. (The phone companies could of course authenticate Caller ID within their own networks, but this must be harder than it sounds because they don't.) Some services don't bother with a PIN if they identify the caller ID because the odds of somebody trying to hack it are low. In some cases that's because the hacking party would need to know what services a person uses.

Setting caller ID is actually pretty useful. I have coded into my PBX to call my cell phone voice mail using the caller ID of my cell phone, so I have a speed dial on my desk phone that calls my Sprint voice mail. I do still have to enter the PIN.

So here's the idea. Get a bank of phone number, 10,000 of them, for voice mail dial-in. This can be a bank in some rural area code that still has entire exchanges free. Getting an entire exchange is not trivial but turns out to be not that expensive if you can justify it. Then let a user with a PIN put that PIN into the last 4 digits of the phone number. They would call that special number, and only that number, to pick up their voice mail (or use whatever service.) If somebody called other numbers in the block using their caller-ID, this would be a sign of an attack, and too many attempts would turn on a switch so that any call to any number in the block now requires some identification. (This is a minor DOS attack but not too bad of one if you can still remember a different ID code.)

This done you can put your magic, PIN-embedded number into your speed dial and just use that for instant access to voice mail or other services.

Of course the rural number will look like long distance, but that's no issue to your own phone company. Indeed, if you only want this for use by phone companies for internal calls, we could devote an entire virtual area code -- but you could not call these numbers from another phone. All companies could share the area code because it would not actually exist. (Of course, authenticating their own caller-ID is easier, this is just a kludge to do it with existing tools.)

A block in the 866/877/888 band of toll-free numbers would be nice too but these are harder to come by.

Detecting bad photos in camera and after

As I’ve noted, with digital cameras we all take tons of photos, and the next task is to isolate out the winners. I’ve outlined better workflow for this and there are still more improvements we need in photo management software, but one task both cameras and photo management software could make easier is eliminating the plain bad shots.

I’ve always wanted the camera to have a display mode that immediately shows, at 1:1, the most contrasty (sharpest) section of a photo I have taken. If I look at that, and see it’s blurry then I know the whole photo is blurry, whether it be from camera shake or bad focus. If it’s sharp but not the thing I wanted to emphasize, I may realize the autofocus found the wrong thing. (My newest camera shows in the review pane what autofocus points it used, which is handy.)

Indeed, if a camera finds that there is no section of the photo which is sharp, it might even display or sound a warning. Yes, sometimes I will take shots of fuzzy clouds where this will be normal. I can handle the false warning then. It might be so dark I can’t get a good shot and will also ignore the warning, but other times it might tell me to shoot that one again.

(Nikon cameras have a feature where they take 3 shots and keep the sharpest of them. That’s handy, but I still want to know if the sharpest of them is still no good.)

The camera could go further. With more sensitive accelerometers, it could actually calculate how much the camera rotated while the shutter was open, and since it also knows the focal length, it could calculate the amount of motion blur there will be in the shot. Again, it could warn you when it’s too much, and tag this acceleration data in the EXIF fields of the file. Yes, sometimes one takes a tracking shot where you pan on a moving object and deliberately blur the background. In theory the detection of sharp objects in the field would reveal this, but in any event you can also just ignore the warning here.

For those will full flash cards, such detection could help in removing turkeys when you have to delete.

Until our cameras can do this, our photo management software could help. As noted, the first task in photo management is to divide the photos into groups. I divide into 5 groups myself — bad shots, boring shots, average shots, winners and super-winners. Winners go into the slideshow for the particular shooting trip, super winners will go into a “best of the year” category.

The photo management software could scan over the photos, and find ones that are blurry. It could then let me do a quick scan over them, either as large thumbnails, or perhaps again showing me at 1:1 zoom the highest contrast crop. I could quickly pull out any pictures I still want and relegate the others to the bad photo pile, or even delete them. The same could apply for images that are obviously overexposed and underexposed. Again, I will still scan to see if there is anything to save, and in the case of the underexposed, I can do the scan in a mode where a compensation is done to brighten them to see what can be recovered. But after that, I don’t want them in the way of my real workflow, to find the winners.

Automatic retracting pen

I put pens in my pockets. However, sometimes I put them in without caps, or I put in retractable pens without retracting them to keep the tip inside.

The result, as all who do this know, is from time to time a pen leaks out and ruins a pair of pants, sometimes more than that. It’s expensive, and hard to solve. Since the earliest days the badge of the nerd has been the shirt pocket protector, but I put them in my pants. You could try tyvek pocket liners, I suppose, but it’s hard to see how to easily add them.

I wonder if we couldn’t come up with designs for retractable pens where there is some timed decay to the extension of the tip, so that it automatically returns to being inside after a modest time, perhaps half an hour to an hour. It could either just return at a very slow pace with the spring pushing back against something firm enough to keep the tip in place, or something that slowly bends and releases the ratchet. The latter is better because of course the tip must be firmly held for writing, we don’t want to be able to push it back in with the pressure of writing.

The time to return might well be fairly short. Today I find that I only use pens for short bursts of writing. I do all serious writing on a keyboard. I will pull a pen out to make quick notes and then I am done. While it might be annoying from time to time, I could even imagine it clicking back after just a couple of minutes. Of course many pens would not do this — which is a problem, because one will still be regularly picking up other pens, as one often does. But you could still reduce the number of times pen accidents happen if you bought mostly pens like this for yourself.

Electronics getting as cheap as they are these days, this could also be done instead with a sensor. Clicking the pen to extend the tip stores energy in the spring and might store it elsewhere, so that after a couple of minutes it beeps if it hasn’t been reset.

Sellers need not be so upset about eBay's changes

eBay has announced sellers will no longer be able to leave negative feedback for buyers. This remarkably simple change has caused a lot of consternation. Sellers are upset. Should they be?

While it seems to be an even-steven sort of thing, what is the purpose of feedback for buyers, other than noting if they pay promptly? (eBay will still allow sellers to mark non-paying buyers.) Sellers say they need it to have the power to give negative feedback to buyers who are too demanding, who complain about things that were clearly stated in listings and so on. But what it means in reality is the ability to give revenge feedback as a way to stop buyers from leaving negatives. The vast bulk of sellers don’t leave feedback first, even after the buyer has discharged 99% of his duties just fine.

Fear of revenge feedback was hurting the eBay system. It stopped a lot of justly deserved negative feedback. Buyers came to know this, and know that a seller with a 96% positive rating is actually a poor seller in many cases. Whatever happens on the new system, buyers will also come to notice it. Sellers will get more negatives but they will all get more negatives. What matters is your percentile more than your percentage. In fact, good sellers may get a better chance to stand out in the revenge free world, because they will get fewer negatives than the bad sellers who were avoiding negatives by threat of revenge.

As such, the only sellers who should be that afraid are ones who think they will get more negatives than average.

To help, eBay should consider showing feedback scores before and after the change as well as total. By not counting feedback that’s over a year old they will effectively be doing that within a year, of course.

There were many options for elimination of revenge feedback. This one was one of the simplest, which is perhaps why eBay went for it. I would tweak a bit, and also take a look at a buyer’s profile and how often they leave negative feedback as a fraction of transactions. In effect, make a negative from a buyer who leaves lots and lots of negatives count less than one who never leaves negatives. Put simply, you could give a buyer some number, like 10 negatives per 100 transactions. If they do more than that, their negatives are reduced, so that if they do 20 negatives, each one only counts as a half. That’s more complex but helps sellers avoid worrying about very pesky buyers.

Feedback on buyers was always a bit dubious. After all, while you can cancel bids, it’s hard to pick your winner based on their feedback level. If your winner has a lousy buyer reptutation, there is not normally much you can do — just sit and hope for funds.

If eBay wants to get really bold, they could go a step further and make feedback mandatory for all buyers. (ie. your account gets disabled if you have too many feedbacks not left older than 40 days.) This would make feedback numbers much more trustable by other buyers, though the lack of fear of revenge should do most of this. eBay doesn’t want to go too far. It likes high reputations, they grease the wheels of commerce that eBay feeds on.

One thing potentially lost here is something that never seemed to happen anyway. I always felt that if the seller had very low reputation (few transactions) and the buyer had a strong positive reputation, then the order of who goes first should change. Ie. the seller should ship before payment, and the buyer pay after receipt and satisfaction. But nobody ever goes for that and they will do so less often. A nice idea might be that if a seller offers this, this opens up the buyer to getting negative feedback again, and the seller would not offer it to buyers with bad feedback.

A plane that goes on a train

As I noted, at DLD Lufthansa had a contest (which I won) for suggestions on how to innovate to compete with trains. They set the time horizon out 15 years, which really means a lot is possible, so while I mostly threw in ideas from this blog which are short term, I put in some longer term ones too.

One was the equivalent of “multi modal transport.” To do this, you would build new short-haul planes which consisted of an empty shell, like the cargo planes you have seen where the nose hinges up, and cargo modules are slid in on rails. This would be combine with “passenger modules” which can slide into the shell, and which can also slide into a special rail car. There might be one module on a plane, though it is also possible to have several.

Passengers would board a train normally at the train station. Then, as the train moved to the airport, they could move to the passenger module car. They would place their luggage onto a belt to put it down low into the luggage module (under the passenger module) or be assisted by a porter. They would enter the passenger module, stow their carry-ons and otherwise get ready in their seat. By the time the train got to the airport, all passengers would be in their seats, belted and ready.

The train would split up into different cars if there were several flights on it, and each would move to a terminus where the plane-shell was waiting. Yet to be invented technology would laser-align the train and the parked shell in advance, and then the passenger module would slip into the aircraft hull on special rails. Connecting passengers could board the train at the airport before it moves to the hull, and their bags could be loaded into the bottom the standard way. (Though this is for short-haul flights, so there may not be connecting passengers.) An automated system would connect power, data and air venting on the passenger modules. Water/sewage would be self-contained and processed at the train station. Catering would probably be handled there too.

The nose would come down, the pilots board via their own door and takeoff would begin shortly.  read more »

German Ideas

I’m back from my German trip, which included the DLD conference and a bit of touring in Austria and Bavaria. DLD was a good crowd of people and speakers, though the programming was a bit of a mishmash. I’ll have some nice photos up soon.

One highlight was winning Lufthansa’s contest for innovative ideas to help aviation compete with trains. I mostly offered ideas you may have seen on this blog before, and a couple of new ones, but one of them was good enough to win their very nice prize, 2 business class tickets anywhere Lufthansa flies. I suspect I’ll return to Africa with these as that’s pricey to get to, even in coach. Of course I was helped by the fact that most conference attendees did not notice the contest/forum, and I had few competitors.

This was my 3rd trip to Germany (if you don’t count changing planes) but the first serious one as an adult. So some of these observations will be old but I felt it worth writing them down.

General observations:

  • Note to self: Go back and do more travel in Europe when the Euro was 80 cents, not $1.47. It does put a lot of sticker shock on the prices of things.
  • In particular, over $7 for gasoline, and they take it in stride. They use a lot more transit all over Europe of course, and drive a lot more tiny cars that are much better on fuel. I rented a Toyota Yaris, which actually was quite suitable except climbing some hills in the Alps. They need to start selling more cars like it in the USA, if just for parking.
  • Why do Europeans make good bread so reliably? In the USA, bad bread is just too easy to find.
  • The food in Tirol is great, a nice mix of Italian and Germanic. Surprised this hasn’t spread out more into the world. Tirol used to be Italian, now it’s Austrian.
  • We found a tremendous deal for SIM cards for our phones at the Schleker drugstores for For 15 euros we got 2 SIM cards, each loaded with 10 euros of airtime, and best of all 1/cent minute for on-network calls for the first 30 days. For us all we wanted was 10 days and thus they were like almost free walkie-talkies. Of course, higher prices while in Austria so nothing’s perfect but this rate was hard to beat. Unfortunately all instructions, menus etc. were in German.
  • OK, Salzberg, I get it that Mozart was born in your town. Really.
  • Pizza seems to be the top fast food of Bavaria and Tirol, with Donner Kebabs a close second. Now close to Italy you would think that made sense until you realize that Pizza itself, while Italian in heritage, was developed in the USA. (Not that Italians don’t know how to make it well, of course.)

Good ideas:

  • An old idea, but that Autobahn works. People keep to the right, and don’t block traffic that wants to go faster out of some sense of knowing what the right speed for others is. Lower accident rate, people going much faster.
  • Lufthansa has a very simple SMS check-in (for German Residents only) but you still need to get a card at the airport.
  • Boarding in Frankfurt, they had a sealed waiting area, and you had your boarding pass/passport scanned when you entered the waiting area, not when trying to get on the plane. As a result, loading the 777 was super fast, they just wanted to make sure you were in the rows they called. They did not allow Premier members to board early — but I think that’s the right thing to do anyways.
  • Stay in German Gasthausen and Pensions rather than fancier hotels. Cheaper and better experience.
  • For even cheaper calling if you don’t have a local SIM card, hunt for wireless and use Skype or VoIP from your laptop.
  • The pedestrian plaza at MUC airport to walk to the trains from the terminal is quite nice. Nice pedestrian spaces are not so common in U.S. airports which are all about getting people from cars to planes.
  • Deutches Museum, which we intended to spend more time in, but instead must return to again.
  • It’s fun to see how totally vanished the borders have become. I wonder if some day the disused border stations might be rented out as gas stations or convenience stores. Even the Swiss-Austrian border is just a wave through, no questions, no showing of ID. Meanwhile, the Canada-US border grows tighter, with passport demands and probably fingerprints some day.
  • Taking the side-roads when the Autobahn in Austria wants to go through a 20km tunnel. What views! Some of the tunnels don’t seem to bypass anything, they must be there to keep snow off the roads and highway noise away from the rural settings. Pretty expensive way to do that, though.

Ideas that may not be so good:

  • Almost all the toilets we used had their tank (and yes, at least some had a tank) mounted in the wall. Germans don’t seem to want to see the tank. Not sure how you fix it when it goes bad, though. Like Australians, some had 2 buttons (one for #1 and one for #2) or a way to stop the flush for a lesser flush. Perhaps I am confused and all were just on 3/4” pipe and had no tank, but some seemed to.
  • One downside of the local hotels: German beds, which involve two twins next to each other, and two independent integrated sheet/blankets. Really annoying for a couple sleeping together, hard to tuck in, easy to create air gaps. Easy for cleaning but that’s about it.
  • Most of the old towns had complex regulations about who could drive in and when. As such, it could not be expressed in international road signs, making it very confusing for tourists — and these old towns are the main tourist targets — who come in cars. Bring a good translation guide to try to understand where you can stop or park! I’m not demanding everybody speak English, of course, but in tourist areas a special effort is worthwhile.
  • Car rental is very expensive and has not reached the computerized ease of use seen from things like Hertz #1 Club where you just walk up and your car is waiting, keys in it. Of course it is a much less car oriented place, but there are still lots of cars. Unlike almost everything else, rental car companies advertise rates without taxes.
  • Germans for some time have been huge consumers of bottled mineral water, usually fizzy. I don’t like this myself, and in fact I don’t even like the bottled still waters which are the only alternatives a lot of the time. It’s not just the fact that it’s $8 for a bottle at most restaurants: bottled water is very un-green which you would think the birthplace of the Green party would understand. But when I asked for tap water they always looked at me strangely, and in one case even refused to serve it to me! Attempts to explain the ecological point always resulted in “that’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
  • Like many other countries, a hotel room for 2 is much more than a room for 1. Which is, I guess, good for the single traveller and bad for the couple. Of course, one main reason is that almost always a room comes with a fairly nice breakfast. Some hotels list their double price, some list a per-person price for a double making it harder to compare.

A new social networking villain -- NotchUp

A couple of weeks ago many wrote about the mistakes of spock which made us call them the “evil spock” for the way they had you mass mail your friends by fooling you into thinking they were already users of Spock.

The newest company to make a similar mistake is called NotchUp. I am loathe to discuss their business, because this means they get publicity for being bad actors, but it involves companies paying candidates for the chance to interview them rather than just giving all the fees to the headhunters. (Something that could only work in a boom market, I expect.) But in this case, some of the fees go to the headhunters, of course, and in a particularly nasty turn, 10% of them go to the “friend” who “invited” you to sign up.

When I get a bunch of invites for something brand new in a short period, it’s either something really hot, or something fishy. In this case it’s the latter. And one person suggests they didn’t authorize NotchUp to email their entire linked-in contact list so there may be something really fishy.

Here are some of the mistakes:

  • The offering of affiliate fees to spam your friends, effectively an Amway style marketing system, has been pernicious for some time. While this should be strongly discouraged, I am not calling for its total prohibition, but it should never be secret. Every such message should contain a note explaining the financial incentive.
  • The ad comes with your friend’s name on it, but the reply address is a dummy “invite@notchup” which I presume doesn’t work. Any site that does this sort of mailing should put in the friend’s real e-mail, so I can complain to them.
  • The ad comes as a combined HTML and plain text message. Which would be good except the plain text part is just “Go read the HTML part.” Seriously. Boy is that evil.
  • The site contains no “contact us” information for users who have issues. Their FAQ is all about signing up.
  • The site has no “opt out” to stop my friends from doing these mass mailings to me. These are not particularly useful, because I have many email addresses and in fact whole domains that come to me, but they are better than nothing.
  • It may have some of these things if I sign up. Of course as somebody who wants to opt-out, I hardly want to create an account just to do that. A few other sites have had this flaw. (I have no idea if you can opt out by signing up, I presume it does give you the ability to at least not get mailings because you have already been fished by your friend.)

Whether their headhunting model sounds interesting or not, the company’s practices seem slimy enough that I would wait for a nicer competitor to come along if you want to get headhunted this way.

Securing home computer networks

Bruce Schneier has made a fuss by writing about how he leaves his wireless internet open. As a well regarded security expect, how can he do this. You’ll see many arguments for and against in his posting. I’ll expand on one of mine.

Part of Bruce’s argument is one I express different. I sometimes say “Firewalls are a hoax.” They are the wrong choice for security, but we sell them as a good choice. Oddly, however, this very fact does make them a valid choice. I will explain the contradiction.

Firewalls, I should say, are a form of network security — creating an internal network which is “trusted” and protected from the outside world. In an obscure way, encrypting your wireless net is in this class of security. Note that the “firewall” programs that run on PCs are not network firewalls so they are generally not in this class of security, though they are called Firewalls.

The right way to do things, in the ideal world, is to secure each PC, and to have that PC encrypt its traffic end-to-end with all the sites it communicates with. If you do this, you have almost no need for firewalls or encryption on the network. This is important because in many cases, the idea that your internal network is trustable is a dangerous one. That’s because many networks are populated with insecure consumer computers which frequently get infected with malware (viruses, trojans etc.) They can get infected because they are laptops that visit exposed networks they are not secured well enough for — because you thought you could get away with less on the home net — or because their owner is tricked into downloading malware, or going to a web site that exploits a browser bug, etc.

Once a local computer is infected, your trusted local net betrays you, as the malware now gets to take advantage of all that trust.

We don’t live in that ideal world. The same insecurity these consumer computers (and yes, I mean Windows but other OSs are not immune) have makes them unsuitable for general exposure. The firewall industry gets to sell firewalls because the workstations are so insecure.

In the real world, virus/trojan attacks are the most common. Up to 30% of PCs are “botted” — taken over by malware and acting as zombies under the control of some distant master. A significant number are just plain compromised in other ways, though botting seems the most popular motive today for taking control of systems. The volume of attacks coming in via outsiders sniffing or connecting to your wireless network is insignificant in comparison, I think research would show.

And sadly, while we would like all web traffic to be HTTPS and all E-mail to be secured over TLS, this is just not an option. Most web servers don’t over encrypted versions, and even the ones that do get rarely used because the UI was not set up correctly for it. (Ideally, http should have been designed so that you don’t have to put your encryption desires into the URL — https vs. http — so that it could be negotiated for each connection. Even then, it would be hard to do this though identity certificates could make it happen.)

So we must surf the web in the open, or at best through an encrypted tunnel to a proxy that surfs in the open. So this does call for encrypting one’s wifi. However, again, the number of people sniffing private homes wifi is tiny in comparison to the other threats.

One of the factors supporting Bruce’s choice is that most security continues to have bad UI. The computer and security industries regularly vastly underestimate the importance of good UI. The hard truth is that good security with bad (hard to use) UI simply doesn’t get deployed very much unless you force it and force it hard. This suggests that lesser security with good UI can actually deliver more real world results than better security with bad UI.

For encrypting networks, the UI is poor. Different vendors use different passphrase algorithms to input keys. For many devices (phones, digital picture frames etc.) even entering a passphrase is difficult. We’re starting to see some better UI but it’s slow to deploy and for now it is no surprise that people want to leave their nets open, both for their own devices, and to give access to guests in their home or office.

To my mind the ideal UI is a device tries to connect to the network, and the AP or a computer flashes a light that says that one, and exactly one device is asking to join the net. You then push a button to confirm that device. Also good is the ability to allow arbitrary devices to connect in a secured channel but with no special ability to route packets to one another or into general devices. A full configuration has an internal net (with routing), guest devices that can’t route to the internal net or to other guests, and host devices which can be seen by guests but not the outside world.

Oddly, as I said at the start, the choices we make affect the value of the choices. Because NATs and firewalls provide some security, people (and vendors) allow the computers behind these NATs and firewalls to be insecure in a way they never would or could if the NATs and firewalls weren’t there. This in turn makes the NATs and firewalls worthwhile. And yes, random attacks from outside will always be more probable than attacks from the inside from compromised machines, and they will be more probable than attacks from neighbours. So it’s not as simple as we like. However, computers are going to roam more and more. My PDA has wifi and roams. It also has EVDO and some day those networks will open and need more endpoint security.

So is Bruce right or wrong? Both. The real world risk of what he’s doing isn’t great. It’s not zero, either. The real question is whether the UI penalties of an encrypted network are worse than the risk. And that decision varies from person to person. Better UI and protocol design could mostly eliminate the tradeoff, which is the real lesson.

Just when you thought it was safe to buy a blu-ray player

The last week saw some serious signs that Blu-Ray could win the high-def DVD war over HD-DVD. Many people have been waiting for somebody to win the war so that they don’t end up buying a player and a video collection in the format that loses. (Strangely, the few players that supported both formats tended to cost much more than two individual players.)

Now there’s a report that the new profile for Blu-ray will obsolete many old players. So even those who made the right bet and didn’t get a PS3 may be just as screwed.

Something amazes me that has amazed me since the days of the first Audio CD players in the 80s. The Audio CD redbook format was defined early, and it was a lot of work to get reasonable combined audio + data disks because of it. And long after burnable CDs became popular (and into DVDs) it’s been the case that many home players can’t read the disks at all until they are “finalized” and unable to take more data. There were many other problems. And that’s not itself the problem, as there will always be demands you don’t anticipate.

But it’s not as though these devices don’t have a readily available means by which to be given new programming. They have a drive in them, and it would have been easy to issue CDs or DVDs with signed new firmwares on them. Indeed, since the disks have always been vastly huge compared to the firmwares of the devices they played on, it’s usually been the case that a disk wishing to use a new format could probably include new firmware for every known player in a small part of the disk. That’s certainly true for blu-ray.

Now of course if a player doesn’t have enough memory or CPU or graphics power, you can’t update it to do things it simply isn’t capable of doing. But you should be able to always update it to understand at least the structure of new formats, and know what they can use and what they can’t. Of course, all updates must be signed by a highly protected manufacturers key, so that attackers can’t hack your firmware, and the user should have to confirm on their remote that they want to accept the update. And yes, if that key is compromised and people don’t insert a disk with a revocation command on it quickly enough, there can be trouble. But it’s better than having players that slow down progress in the business.

(And yes, I realize that many early CD players did not have rewritable firmware, since ROM was cheaper than EEPROM and flash didn’t come along for a while. But it would have been worth it, and there’s no excuse for not having safely flashable firmwware today in just about anything.)

And on another rant, I’ve always been amazed at the devices that do allow firmware flashing but don’t have a safety mechanism. There are many devices, some still made today, that can be turned into “bricks” if you flash buggy firmware, in that you can no longer flash new firmware. Every device should have, in unwritable storage, the most basic and well tested firmware reloader that can be invoked if the recently installed firmware has failed. Some devices have this but it’s taken a long time.

While I don’t really seek a game machine because it would suck up too much time, it may be time for a PS3 as a Blu-Ray player. They are not much more expensive than the standalone players, and of course do much more. If I wanted a game machine it would probably be a Wii. We found one this year for a gift for the nephews, but they got another one so I ended up selling it for a $100 profit on Craigslist, the prevailing market being what it was. Made an Egyptian boy very happy, as they are very hard to get over there.

Steps closer to more universal power supplies

I’ve written before about both the desire for universal dc power and more simply universal laptop power at meeting room desks.

Today I want to report we’re getting a lot closer. A new generation of cheap “buck and boost” ICs which can handle more serious wattages with good efficiency has come to the market. This means cheap DC to DC conversion, both increasing and decreasing voltages. More and more equipment is now able to take a serious range of input voltages, and also to generate them. Being able to use any voltage is important for battery powered devices, since batteries start out with a high voltage (higher than the one they are rated for) and drop over their time to around 2/3s of that before they are viewed as depleted. (With some batteries, heavy depletion can really hurt their life. Some are more able to handle it.)

With a simple buck converter chip, at a cost of about 10-15% of the energy, you get a constant voltage out to matter what the battery is putting out. This means more reliable power and also the ability to use the full capacity of the battery, if you need it and it won’t cause too much damage. These same chips are in universal laptop supplies. Most of these supplies use special magic tips which fit the device they are powering and also tell the supply what voltage and current it needs.  read more »

Off to Munich next week for DLD

End of next week I’ll be going to Munich/München for an interesting conference called DLD. Since the flight is so long and I haven’t been to Bavaria since I was a kid, I booked a few extra days around the conference, even though it’s not exactly the high season. I welcome comments from blog readers on stuff to do there, and in surrounding Bavaria — we’ll take some day trips to the Alps and maybe to Salzberg. I know there’s a great science and tech museum we’ll go to. What scenic winter drives and train rides are recommended and still passable in January?

Some things I’ve already noted:

The 4 day Germany Rail Pass is $376 for 2 people. Is that worth it, since there is a 27 Euro Bavarian one-day roundtrip fare after 9am?

I have 2 unlocked phones so I will want to get SIMs so we can get calls and also call one another. The MVNOs seem the best deals. One service, sold by the cafes, is 5 cents per minute on-network and for $4/month (ie. whole trip) you get unlimited on-network. 89 cents to USA, which is lower than most, but not nearly as low as blauworld, which offers 9 cents to the USA/Canada plus 15 cents connection charge, and 19 cents to German phones including the other blauworld phone making it not as good for finding one another. Of course Eurocents are 1.4 U.S. cents now. Since use will be limited, and incoming is paid for by the caller, the services that let you get a SIM with minimal balance for 10 Euros may be better than those which are 20 Euros ($28) with $10 credit. I’ll use SIP or Skype for calls back home of any duration, and I’ll have my wifi-enabled HTC Mogul, which as a CDMA phone won’t be able to do anything else, but it’s also my PDA.

Do I have any German readers? Let me hear your thoughts.

More automatic valet parking and self-driving tow vehicles.

I want to enhance two other ideas I have talked about. The first was the early adoption of self-driving cars for parking. As I noted, long before we will accept these cars on the road we’ll be willing to accept automatic parking technology in specially equipped parking lots that lets us get something that’s effectively valet parking.

I also wrote about teleoperation of drive-by-wire cars for valet parking as a way to get this even earlier.

Valet parking has a lot of advantages. (I often joke, “I want to be a Valet. They get all the best parking spots” when I see a Valet Parking Only sign.) We’ve given up to 60% of our real estate to cars, a lot of that to parking. It’s not just denser, though. It can make a lot of sense at transportation hubs like airports, where people are carrying things and want to drive right up close with their car and walk right in. This is particularly valuable in my concept of the minimalist airport, where you just drive your car up to the fence at the back of the airport and walk through a security gate at the fence right onto your plane, leaving a valet to move your car somewhere, since you can’t keep it at the gate.

But valet parking breaks down if you have to move the cars very far, because the longer it takes to do this, the fewer cars you can handle per valet, and if the flow is imbalanced, you also have to get valets back quickly even if there isn’t another car that needs to come back. Valet parking works best of all when you can predict the need for your car a few minutes in advance and signal it from your cell phone. (I stayed at a hotel once with nothing but valet parking. The rooms were far enough from the door, however, that if you called from your room phone, your car was often there when you got to the lobby.)

So I’m now imagining that as cars get more and more drive-by-wire features, that a standardized data connection be created (like a trailer hitch brake connection, but even more standard) so that it’s possible to plug in a “valet unit.” This means the cars would not have any extra costs, but the parking lots would be able to plug in units to assist in the automated moving of the cars.  read more »

Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn’t alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don’t cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can’t be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that’s needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need — boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don’t need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it’s much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline’s support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren’t good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It’s so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I’m talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.  read more »

Can't we have a lottery to decide who gets the first primary?

Legacy politics assured that Iowa and New Hampshire would get the lead in setting the political agenda of a Presidential race. If you can't please them, it's hard to get nominated. And now they protect this position as hard as they can. Florida tried to move and got slapped.

There is a better way. There should be a lottery, or simply a rotation, on who gets to go first each time. All parties in a state would have to agree, but I can't see why not, and really all you need is the Republicans and Democrats. Hold the lottery several years in advance.

Letting states or regions be equal is probably best. I originally thought you might allocate chances by state size but in fact you don't want big states first. Only states that want to participate, and have their event early would be in the pool. Any state could participate in a super Tuesday or other such later events without having to win the lottery. Iowa and New Hampshire would not be permitted to participate in the lottery for 50 years -- they've had their say!

A rotation might be even better, though it would have to initially be set by lottery. To make the rotation go faster, depending on how many states want the position, there could be a couple of "first" slots and 3 or 4 "second" slots allowing 5-6 states to be important each time. A rotation however has a problem when one state changes its mind and wants to join the early pool.

Of course, you might ask, why not actually have a deliberative process, where the states are carefully chosen to be more of a cross section of the general public? It sounds good, but little stops this now other than party cooperation, and it hasn't taken place. Of course the parties may well feel that Iowa or New Hampshire push their opponents in ways they want them pushed, but this should balance. And Iowa is certainly not representative -- as it is now popular to point out, a lot more people play World of Warcraft and live in urban condos than are family farmers. As it stands now the parties have to field candidates who won't piss off the Iowa or NH voter too much, and that's wrong, because it may be necessary for the right candidate to take stances against the interest of these minorities.

Update: It is suggested that some states, like California, are simply too huge to do an early primary, because candidates can't yet afford to campaign somewhere that big, nor can they get intimate with the public. I agree, and so possibly the largest states would have to bow out of the system. Or perhaps they could hold mini-primaries for just a small portion of the state if they win the lottery, and the rest of the state would vote later, on a Super-Tuesday or similar. This does mean for example that the Democratic primary might be in San Francisco, and the Republican one in Orange County, surveying very different voters. The regions could compete in the lottery rather than the state, assuming the state assigns delegates by geography.

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