Brad Templeton is Chairman Emeritus of the EFF, Singularity U computing chair, 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.

RIP Jim Butterfield

In 1978, after finally saving up enough money, I got myself a Commodore PET computer. I became immersed in it, and soon was programming all sorts of things, and learning assembler to make things go really fast. I soon discovered the Toronto Pet User’s Group, which grew over time to be perhaps the most prominent Commodore group in the world.

A big reason for that was the group’s star attraction, a middle aged man with a great deep speaking voice and a talent for writing and explaining computers to newcomers. That man was Jim Butterfield. His talks at meetings were the highlight for many members, and he did both beginner’s talks and fairly high level ones. Jim had been working on reverse engineering the OS (really BIOS) of the PET, and one of my early cute hacks was a very simple loop that copied the computer’s “zero page” onto the screen at every vertical refresh (ie. 60 times/second.) The PET had characters for all 256 bytes, so this was like a live window into the computer’s guts, even beyond das blinkenlights found on mainframes. You could play with the computer and actually watch everything change before you. For his reverse engineering goals, Jim loved the little program and promoted it and we became friends.

Later, Jim would be hired to write the manuals for some of my software projects, including my set of programming tools known as POWER. I’m sure his name on the manual helped sell the product as much as mine did. He was the Commodore world’s rockstar and father figure at the same time. We were only in occasional touch after I left Toronto and then Canada, but the incredible longevity of Pet and C64 hacking has kept his name in people’s minds. He had a sense of humour, charm and love that is rarely found in a technical guru.

Cancer finally got him on June 29th. There’s a bit more at the TPUG page.

You can see this rather embarrassing advertisement that was published to sell software written by myself, Jim and fellow Mississauga software author Steve Punter with a picture of the 3 of us dressed as football players.

Should we allow relative's DNA matching to prove innocence?

Earlier I wrote about the ability to find you from a DNA sample by noting it’s a near match with one of your relatives. This is a concern because it means that if relatives of yours enter the DNA databases, voluntarily or otherwise, it effectively means you’re in them too.

On a recent 60 minutes on the topic, they told the story of Darryl Hunt, who had been jailed for rape and murder. It wasn’t clear to me why, but this was done even though his blood type did not match the rapist’s DNA. Even after DNA testing improved and the non-match was better confirmed, he was still kept in jail, because he was believed to be the murderer, if not the rapist, ie. an accomplice.

Later, they did a DNA search on the rapist’s DNA and found his brother in the database, who had been entered due to a minor parole violation. So they interviewed the brothers of the near-match and found Willard Brown, who turned out to be the rapist. Once they could see he was not an associate of the rapist, Hunt was freed after 19 years of false imprisonment.

The piece also told the story of another rapist, who had raped scores of women and stolen their shoes as souvenirs, but had become a cold case. He was caught because his sister was in a DNA database due to a DUI.

Now much of our privacy law is based on having your own private data not seized and used against you without probable cause. It’s easy to answer the case of the shoe rapist. There are a wide variety of superior surveillance tools we could allow the police to use, and they would help them catch criminals, and in many cases thus prevent those criminals from committing future crimes. But we don’t give the police those tools, deliberately, because we don’t want a world where the government has such immense surveillance power. And a large part of that goal is protecting the innocent. Our rules that allow criminals to walk free when police do improver evidence gathering and surveillance to catch them are there in part to keep the police from use of those powers on the innocent.

But the innocent man who was freed presents a more interesting challenge. Can we help him, without enabling 1984? In considering this question, I asked, “What if we allowed DNA near matches to be used only when they would prove innocence?” Of course, in Hunt’s case, and many others, the innocence is proven by finding the real guilty party.

So what if, in such cases, it was ruled that while they might find the guilty party, they could not prosecute him or her? And further, that any other evidence learned as a result was considered Fruit of the poisonous tree? That’s a pretty tough rule to follow, since once the police know who the real perpetrator is, this will inspire them to find other sorts of evidence that they would not have thought to look for before, and they will find ways to argue that these were discovered independently. It might be necessary to put on a stronger standard, and just give immunity to the real perpetrator if sufficient time has passed since the crime to declare the case to be cold.

Setting out the right doctrine would be difficult. But if it frees innocents, might it be worth it?

Database of login procedures of all the gatewayed free hotspots

For various reasons, a wide variety of otherwise free wifi hotspots require you to go through a login screen. (This is also common of course with for-pay hotspots where you must enter an account or room number.)

These login screens sometimes exist to control how many people access the hotspot. Sometimes they are just there to make sure the user knows who is providing the hotspot so as to be thankful. Often they are there to get you to click agreement to a set of terms and conditions for use (which most people just ignore but click on anyway.) Whatever reason they are there, they create problems. For example, they block non-browser oriented devices, like wifi phones, from using the hotspots. They also interfere with non-browser applications that want to use the network before the user has gone through the procedure with the browser.

Since we’re not going to make them go away, can we improve things? There have been suggestions in the past for standardizing the login protocols, so that devices like wifi phones can still get in, as long as there is no typing or little typing. One could even standardize delivery of a short message or logo from the hotspot provider so you know who has provided the free service. Clicking agreement to terms remains a problem on such issues. I don’t know how far those efforts have gotten, but I hope they do well.

Until then however, it might make sense to build a giant database of hotspots along with information on how to log into them. In most cases it involves doing a web fetch and then posting a form with a box checked and possibly some text in a box. There are really only so many different classes of login system. The database could map from SSIDs (for non-default SSIDs) or even MAC addresses. Laptops could easily store a large MAC based database, while phones and PDAs would have more trouble. However there are techniques, using hash tables and bitmaps designed for spell checking, which can compress these tables, since false hits on unknowns are not a problem.

Better still would be a way to “fingerprint” the login pages, since again there are only so many basic types. Then just store a set of scripts to calculate the fingerprints and scripts to fill out the forms.

When a laptop user — anywhere — using this system encountered a hotspot whose login page did not match any fingerprint (or which matched but failed to login) the software could capture the attempted session and fire off an E-mail (to be sent later, when connected) to the people maintaining the scripts. This team, perhaps paid, perhaps volunteer, could quickly develop scripts so that the next person to use that hotspot gets automatic login. Of course this doesn’t help at a new conference hotspot where all the conference goers can’t update their lists until they get on, but that’s only the first time.

Now one problem is that these scripts would automate the checking of “I agree to the terms” buttons. And that does raise some interesting issues. First, over whether the user truly agreed. Next, over whether the script provider is liable for violations. And third, whether the hotspot owners will feel the need to make their login unscriptable (for example using CAPTCHAs or worse) to prevent people doing auto-logon. I mean they tried to make it hard to log on for some reason, we suppose.

Standardization would help here. Perhaps somebody could draw up a contract with the basic terms found in almost all these terms of service (no spam, prohibitions on various illegal uses) and users could agree to that (on behalf of all hotspots) and they would be satisfied. The scripts could be programmed to be able to extract the terms and offer the user the chance to see them. On a wifi phone, the phone could extract the terms and E-mail them to the phone’s owner (the phone would be configured with that E-mail) over SMTP over TLS (don’t want to reveal the E-mail address to sniffers) so the user has a copy and can at least review them later.

Of course, not having hotspot owners afraid of liability would be nice, too.

Instead of hold music, natural sounds?

We all hate waiting on hold, and we shouldn’t have to. But companies don’t do a lot to make it easier, do they?

Most people, I presume, when at their desks, put the hold music on speakerphone, and turn it low. The worst hold musics are ones where a human voice breaks in every 30 seconds or so to remind us that “all agents are busy” or tries to convince us to go to the web site or buy something else. These are the worst because we have to perk up and listen to the human voice to make sure it’s not the agent finally getting to us.

Some places offer silence, which is OK, though it makes us suspicious after a while that we might not actually be on hold any more. A good solution there would be to respond to any touch tones the user types with a “Yes, we’re still holding. Press 1 for music or we’ll continue with silence.” Some insert a beep every so often, but that also distracts.

The best ones put a distinctive sound (ideally loud) when you’re about to be connected to the agent, so you can listen for just that.

One thing I’ve not seen is the use of natural sounds instead of music. By that I mean those tapes people use to relax — waves rolling in, babbling brooks, woodland sounds. These are good because we seem to have a natural ability to hear them without noticing them. If we focus on them, we know they are there, but otherwise we edit them out. And no royalties for the musicans, either.

My hold music is Jazz recordings my mother made during her singing career. She loves it when I put her on hold!

Of course, long hold periods simply should not be. Some systems let you enter your number to be called back when the agent is ready, but people are afraid of those because if they happen to be on the phone or busy, they will lose their coveted place in line. Some day this will no longer be the case.

How to get a subsidy on any phone (even an iPhone)

This idea came to me via Al Chang. I’m shopping for a new smartphone, and I have been dismayed at how hard it is to get just what I want and not pay a huge fee for it. Right now I’m leaning towards the new HTC Mogul, in part because the Sprint SERO offer is just too good to pass up.

However, in the GSM world, one thing that’s frustrating is that carriers only provide a limited number of phones, and in some cases, such as the Nokia E62, they actually rip useful features out of the phones before offering them. (The E61 has Wifi, the E62 removes it!) But the subsidy, which can be $200 to $300 is also too rich to pass up if you’re signing up for new service. If they are going to force you into a 2 year contract — which they do for anything, even just a change of plan — you are foolish not to take this subsidy.

So here’s Al’s plan. Go out and buy the phone you want, unlocked (or locked to the carrier you plan to use) from whatever source you like, including cell dealers, Amazon, Dell or eBay.

Next go to your carrier’s web site and find the most subsidized phone they sell which works with the plan you intend to use. Find the most subsidized phone by looking at the subsidy price, and comparing it to the typical “completed auction” price on eBay for a no-contract (locked or unlocked) phone. It is often the case, by the way, that there are eBay sellers who will sell you phones that cost $200 after subsidy in the carrier’s store for $1 because they kick back to you the kickback they get from the carrier for selling you a fancy phone on a fancy plan. (I have not tried these sellers but they generally have top reputations and lots of happy comments from phone buyers so I presume it works. It does not, however, work with SERO.)  read more »

Burning Man 2006 Gallery

It’s way late, but I finally put captions on my gallery of regular-aspect photos from Burning Man 2006.

Some time ago I put together the 2006 Panoramas but just never got around to doing the regulars. There are many fun ones here, an particular novel are the ones of the burn taken from above it on a boomlift.

I also did another aerial survey, but that remains unfinished. Way too much processing to do, and Google did a decent one in google maps. I did put up a few such photos there.

Enjoy the 2006 Burning Man Photos.

The dark ages of lost data are over

For much of history, we’ve used removable media for backup. We’ve used tapes of various types, floppy disks, disk cartridges, and burnable optical disks. We take the removable media and keep a copy offsite if we’re good, but otherwise they sit for a few decades until they can’t be read, either because they degraded or we can’t find a reader for the medium any more.

But I now declare this era over. Disk drives are so cheap — 25 cents/gb and falling, that it no longer makes sense to do backups to anything but hard disks. We may use external USB drives that are removable, but at this point our backups are not offline, they are online. Thanks to the internet, I even do offsite backup to live storage. I sync up over the internet at night, and if I get too many changes (like after an OS install, or a new crop of photos) I write the changes to a removable hard disk and carry it over to the offsite hard disk.

Of course, these hard drives will fail, perhaps even faster than CD-roms or floppies. But the key factor is that the storage is online rather than offline, and each new disk is 2 to 3 times larger than the one it replaced. What this means is that as we change out our disks, we just copy our old online archives to our new online disk. By constantly moving the data to newer and newer media — and storing it redundantly with online, offsite backup, the data are protected from the death that removable media eventually suffer. So long as disks keep getting bigger and cheaper, we won’t lose anything, except by beng lazy. And soon, our systems will get more automated at this, so it’s hard to set up a computer that isn’t backed up online and remotely. We may still lose things because we lose encryption keys, but it won’t be for media.

Thus, oddly, the period of the latter part of the 20th century will be a sort of “dark ages” to future data archaeologists. Those disks will be lost. The media may be around, but you will have to do a lot of work to recover them — manual work. However, data from the early 21st onward will be there unless it was actively deleted or encrypted.

Of course this has good and bad consequences. Good for historians. Perhaps not so good for privacy.

Jobs warns knockoff iPhone "lacks many key features"

Steve Jobs of Apple Computer warned today that a rumoured cheap Chinese iPhone knockoff making its way toward America is an inferior product which lacks many of the important features of the iPhone. “It may look a bit like an iPhone, but when consumers discover all the great iPhone features that are missing from it, we think they’ll still line up at Apple Stores for the genuine article,” said Jobs in a released statement. Designed by software nerds, the knockoff, dubbed the “myPhone” by fans, has not yet been confirmed.

Apple released a list of features reported to be missing from the “myPhone.”

  • The iPhone has special software that assures you will always use the trusted AT&T cellular network. Lacking this software, the myPhone accepts any SIM card from any random network. Users may find themselves connected to a network that doesn’t have the reputation for service, trust and protecting the privacy of customers that AT&T has. Or its data speed which is almost double what we’re used to with dialup.
  • With the myPhone, users may be stuck without 2 years of guaranteed AT&T service and won’t get their price locked in for 2 years. AT&T’s EDGE network is so good “you won’t find yourself able to quit.”
  • The iPhone is configured to assure you the latest iTunes experience. The myPhone might function before you have installed the latest iTunes and registered your phone with it. Indeed, the myPhone lacks the protections that block it from being used without registering it with or reporting back to anybody, depriving the user of customer service and upsell opportunities.
  • The iPhone has special software that assures all applications run on the iPhone have been approved by Apple, which protects the user from viruses and tools that may make the user violate their licence agreements. The myPhone will run any application, from any developer, opening up the user to all sorts of risks.
  • The iPhone protects users from dangerous Flash and Java applications which may compromise their device and confuse the user experience.
  • myPhones don’t forbid VoIP software that may cause the user to accidentally make calls over wireless internet connections instead of the AT&T network. Quality on the internet is unpredictable, as is the price, which can range down to zero, causing great pricing uncertainty. With the iPhone, you always know what calls cost when in the USA.
  • The iPhone saves the user from receiving distracting instant messages over popular IM services, adding calm to your day.
  • Music and videos in the iPhone are protected by Apple FairPlay brand DRM. On the myPhone, which lacks the important DRM functionality, music can be freely copied to other devices the user owns, putting the user at risk of infringing copyrights.
  • The iPhone assures users will only play media files in approved formats, and not risky open source formats.
  • The iPhone protects the user from setting a song in their device as a ringtone, saving those around him from annoyance and protecting the user from violating music copyrights and performance rights.
  • The iPhone bluetooth functions have careful security management. Users are protected from using bluetooth to exchange files with other users (such files are risky) or accidentally printing or communicating with your computer. Bluetooth is only used for headsets and headphones as was intended. The myPhone lacks these important protections.
  • The iPhone only uses its internal flash drive. The user is protected against hard drives, which have moving parts and can put data at risk.
  • The myPhone battery has a removable door over it, which can get lost, or allow the battery to fall out or be stolen. The iPhone’s battery is solidly protected. Users are also assured they will use only Apple certified batteries and not subject to the risk of aftermarket batteries, which may explode, killing the user.
  • The iPhone is for sale only in the USA and primarily for use there. This encourages users to stay home in America which is good for the economy and their own peace of mind.
  • The iPhone, unlike the myPhone and all other cell phones, sells at a very solid markup for Apple, assuring Apple executives and stockholders will be happy, and the company will be around to support the iPhone for years to come. The myPhone, it is rumoured, will be purchasable in a wide variety of stores, confusing the buyer with too much choice, price wars and depriving them of the special experience of an Apple or AT&T store.
  • As a result, the myPhone lacks the Apple brand “coolness” which is built into the iPhone and every other Apple product. “Nobody’s going to have to spend days in line for a myPhone,” said Jobs. “You won’t have people thrusting them in your face all week to show you how cool they are.” Many iPhone users report their experience waiting in line was great fun, and that they met all sorts of new people.

MyPhones are predicted to sell for $350 without contract, $150 with a 2 year contract to the provider of your choice.  read more »

Lolspeare

Another silly lolcat

Based on the common lolcat message, “I’m in ur base, killing ur d00ds.”

Standardize computer access in hotels, and vnc everywhere

Hotels are now commonly sporting flat widescreen TVs, usually LCD HDTVs at the 720p resolution, which is 1280 x 720 or similar. Some of these TVs have VGA ports or HDMI (DVI) ports, or they have HDTV analog component video (which is found on some laptops but not too many.) While 720p resolution is not as good as the screens on many laptops, it makes a world of difference on a PDA. As our phone/PDA devices become more like the iPhone, it would be very interesting to see hotels guarantee that their room offers the combination of:

  • A bluetooth keyboard (with USB and mini-USB as a backup)
  • A similar optical mouse
  • A means to get video into the HDTV
  • Of course, wireless internet
  • Our dreamed of universal DC power jack (or possibly inductive charging.)

Tiny devices like the iPhone won’t sport VGA or even component video out 7 pin connectors, though they might do HDMI. It’s also not out of the question to go a step further and do a remote screen protocol like VNC over the wireless ethernet or bluetooth.

This would engender a world where you carry a tiny device like the iPhone, which is all touchscreen for when you are using it in the mobile environment. However, when you sit down in your hotel room (or a few other places) you could use it like a full computer with a full screen and keyboard. (There are also quite compact real-key bluetooth keyboards and mice which travelers could also bring. Indeed, since the iPhone depends on a multitouch interface, an ordinary mouse might not be enough for it, but you could always use its screen for such pointing, effectively using the device as the touchpad.)

Such stations need not simply be in hotels. Smaller displays (which are now quite cheap) could also be present at workstations on conference tables or meeting rooms, or even for rent in public. Of course rental PCs in public are very common at internet cafes and airport kiosks, but using our own device is more tuned to our needs and more secure (though using a rented keyboard presents security risks.)

One could even imagine stations like these randomly scattered around cities behind walls. Many retailers today are putting HDTV flat panels in their windows instead of signs, and this will become a more popular trend. Imagine being able to borrow (for free or for a rental fee) such screens for a short time to do a serious round of web surfing on your portable device with high resolution, and local wifi bandwidth. Such a screen could not provide you with a keyboard or mouse easily, but the surfing experience would be much better than the typical mobile device surfing experience, even the iPhone model of seeing a blurry, full-size web page and using multitouch to zoom in on the relevant parts. Using a protocol like vnc could provide a good surfing experience for pedestrians.

Cars are also more commonly becoming equipped with screens, and they are another place we like to do mobile surfing. While the car’s computer should let you surf directly, there is merit in being able to use that screen as a temporary large screen for one’s mobile device.

Until we either get really good VR glasses or bright tiny projectors, screen size is going to be an issue in mobile devices. A world full of larger screens that can be grabbed for a few minutes use may be a good answer.

iPhone eBay Frenzy

Earlier I wrote about the frenzy buying Plastation 3s on eBay and lessons from it. There’s a smaller scale frenzy going on now about the iPhone, which doesn’t go on sale until 6pm today. With the PS3, many stores pre-sold them, and others lined up. In theory Apple/AT&T are not pre-selling, and limiting people to 2 units, though many eBay sellers are claiming otherwise.

The going price for people who claim they have one, either for some unstated reason, or because they are first in line at some store, is about $1100, almost twice the cost. A tidy profit for those who wait in line, time their auction well and have a good enough eBay reputation to get people to believe them. Quite a number of such auctions have closed at such prices with “buy it now.” If you live in a town without a frenzy and line it might do you well to go down to pick up two iPods. Bring your laptop with wireless access to update your eBay auction. None of the auctions I have seen have gone so far as to show a picture of the seller waiting in line to prove it.

eBay has put down some hard terms on iPhone sellers and pre-sellers. It says it does not allow pre-sales, but seems to be allowing those sellers who claim they can guarantee a phone. It requires a picture of the actual item in hand, with a non-photoshopped sign in the picture with the seller’s eBay name. A number of items show a stock photo with an obviously photoshopped tag. In spite of the publicised limit of 2, a number of people claim they have 4 or more.

It seems Apple may have deliberately tried to discourage this by releasing at 6pm on Friday, too late to get to Fedex in most places. Thus all most sellers can offer is getting the phone Monday, which is much less appealing, since that leaves a long window to learn that there are plenty more available Monday, and loses the all-important bragging rights of having an iPhone at weekend social events. Had they released it just a few hours earlier, I think sales like this would have been far more lucrative. (While Apple would not want to leave money on the table, it’s possible high eBay prices would add to the hype and be in their interest.)

As before, I predict timing of auctions will be very important. At this point even a 1 day auction will close after 18 hours of iPhone sales, adding a lot of rish. The PS3 kept its high value for much of the Christmas season, but the iPhone, if not undersupplied, may drop to retail in as little as a day. A standard 1 week auction would be a big mistake. Frankly I think paying $1200 (or a $300 wait-in-line fee) is pretty silly.

The iPhone, by the way, seems like a cool generalized device. A handheld that has the basic I/O tools including GSM phone and is otherwise completely made of touchscreen seems a good general device for the future. Better with a small bluetooth keyboard. Whether this device will be “the one” remains to be seen, of course.

Update:  read more »

The 3D Street with HDTV

If you go to the cities of Asia, one thing I find striking is how much more three-dimensional their urban streets are. By this I mean that you will regularly find busy retail shops and services on the higher floors of ordinary buildings, and even in the basement. Even in our business areas, above the ground floor is usually offices at most, rarely depending on walk-by traffic. There it's commonplace. I remember being in Hong Kong and asking natives to pick a restaurant for lunch. It was not unknown to just get into an otherwise unmarked elevator and go down or up to a bustling floor or sub-ground level to find the food.

Here we really like to see things from the street. A stairway up is uninviting. People want to see inside a restaurant as they walk by, to see how it looks, how busy it is, and even what the other patrons look like. I don't know why the non-main level shops can do so well in places like Japan and China, it may just be a necessity due to the much higher urban density.

However, I have wondered if the recent drop in price for HDTV panels and cameras could make a change. Instead of a stairway with sign, imagine a closed circuit HDTV panel or two at the entrance, showing you a live view of what's up there. For a little extra money, the camera could pan. While I think a live camera is best, obviously some shops would prefer to run something more akin to an advertisement. In all cases, I would hope sound was kept to a minimum, and the screens should have a reliable light sensor and clock to know how bright to be so they are not distracting at night. Some places, such as bars and restaurants, might elect to also put their camera online as a webcam, so people can look from home to see if a restaurant is hopping or not.

(There might be some temptation to run recorded video of busy times, but I think that would annoy patrons more than it would win them, once they went up the stairs. Who wants to go to a restaurant that has to fake it?)

While this idea could start with traditional urban streets, where each building has its own stairway or elevator up to higher floors, one could imagine a neoclassical urban street which is really an urban strip mall managed as a unit. In such a building, each ground floor tenant would have to devote a section of their window to show the live view of their neighbour above. Though patrons would then have to head to the actual stair or elevator to get up to the second floor. It's hard to say whether it might make more sense to put the panels in a cluster by the stairs rather than with each ground level shop.

This principle could also apply to the mini-malls found in the basements of tall buildings. However, again I fear the screens going overboard and trying to be too flashy. I really think a "window" that lets you see a live scene you can't otherwise see is in the interests of all, while yet another square foot with ads is not.

Is robot delivery on the roadmap for self-driving cars?

Last week I talked briefly about self-driving delivery vehicles. I’ve become interested in what I’ll call the “roadmap” (pun intended) for the adoption of self-driving cars. Just how do we get there from here, taking the technology as a given? I’ve seen and thought of many proposals, and been ignoring the one that should stare us in the face — delivery. I say that because this is the application the DARPA grand challenge is actually aimed at. They want to move cargo without risks to soldiers. We mostly think of that as a path to the tech that will move people, but it may be the pathway.

Robot delivery vehicles have one giant advantage. They don’t have to be designed for passenger safety, and you don’t have to worry about that when trying to convince people to let them on the road. They also don’t care nearly as much about how fast they get there. Instead what we care about is whether they might hit people, cars or things, or get in the way of cars. If they hit things or hurt their cargo, that’s usually just an insurance matter. In fact, in most cases even if they hit cars, or cars hit them, that will just be an insurance matter.

A non-military cargo robot can be light and simple. It doesn’t need crumple zones or airbags. It might look more like a small electric trike, on bicycle wheels. (Indeed, the Blue Team has put a focus on making it work on 2 wheels, which could be even better.) It would be electric (able to drive itself to charging stations as needed) and mechanically, very cheap.

The first step will be to convince people they can’t hit pedestrians. To do that, the creators will need to make an urban test track and fill it with swarms of the robots, and demonstrate that they can walk out into the swarm with no danger. Indeed, like a school of fish, it should be close to impossible to touch one even if you try. Likewise, skeptics should be able to get onto bicycles, motorcycles, cars and hummers and drive right through the schools of robots, unable to hit one if they try. After doing that for half an hour and getting tired, doubters will be ready to accept them on the roads.  read more »

The scarcity of Talent

At Supernova 2007, several of us engaged Andrew Keen over his controversial book "The Cult of the Amateur." I will admit to not yet having read the book. Reviews in the blogosphere are scathing, but of course the book is entirely critical of the blogosphere so that's not too unexpected.

However, one of the things Keen said he worries about is what he calls the "scarcity of talent." He believes the existing "professional" media system did a good enough job at encouraging, discovering and promoting the talent that's out there, and so the world doesn't get more than slush with all the new online media. The amount of talent he felt, was very roughly constant.

I presented one interesting counter to this concept. I am from Canada. As you probably know, we excel at Hockey. Per capita certainly, and often on an absolute scale, Canada will beat any other nation in Hockey. This is only in part because of the professional leagues. We all play hockey when we are young, and this has no formal organization. The result is more talented players arise. The same is true for the USA in Baseball but not in Soccer, and so on.

This suggest that however much one might view YouTube as a vaster wasteland of terrible video, the existence of things like YouTube will eventually generate more and better videographers, and the world will be richer for it, at least if the world wants videographers. One could argue this just takes them away from something else but I doubt that accounts for all of it.

Zapmeals for real?

At the recent Supernova 2007 conference, they did a session where startups presented, and to mix things up, at the end they told us that one of the companies was fake. Most people clued in, because the presentation had been funny, and had a few obvious business mistakes, but at the same time many commented that it was chosen well, because they would like it to exist. The fake company, ZapMeals claimed it would let you order delivered food from quality at-home chefs and caterers, with a reputation system that helped you choose them by quality. GPS-enabled delivery companies would show you where your meal was as it drove to your home.  read more »

Giant victory for E-mail privacy

For some time I’ve been warning about a growing danger to the 4th amendment. The 4th amendment protects our “persons, houses, papers and effects” but police and some courts have been interpreting this to mean that our private records kept in the hands of 3rd parties — such as E-mail on an ISP or webmail server — are not protected because they are not papers and not in our houses. Or more to the point, that we do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when we leave our private data in the hands of 3rd parties. They have been seizing E-mail without getting a warrant, using the lower standards of the Stored Communications Act.

Recently, we at the EFF got involved in a case challenging that, and argued in our amicus brief that this mail deserved full protection. We won a lower court round and are thrilled that today, the 6th circuit court of appeals has issued a ruling affirming the logic in our amicus and protecting E-mail. We hope and expect this to become the full law of the land, though for now, I might advise all E-mail service providers to move their servers to the 6th circuit (MI, OH, TN, KY) for full protection. It will save you money as you will be able to more simply deal with requests for customer E-mails.

You can read more details on the EFF page on Warshak v USA. Congrats to Kevin Bankston who did the work on the brief. (Amusingly, Google owes him a big debt today, and last week they were hassling him to provide a notarized driver’s license photo in order to get removed from their Street View!)

Mutliple candidate voting

Continuing our discussion of the goals of voting systems, today I want to write about ballots that let you vote for more than one candidate in the same race. Many people have seen Preferential voting where you rank the candidates in order of how much you like them. This is used in Australia, and many private elections such as for the Hugo Awards. The most widely known preferential ballot is Single Transferable Vote and its cousin the instant-runoff. Many election theorists, however view these as the worst possible system. I prefer the Condorcet method with the modification that the cases where it fails, it is declared a tie, or a second type of election is used to break the tie. While it has been demonstrated that all preferential ballots have failure modes where they choose somebody that seems illogical based on the voters’ true desires, this does not have to be true when a tie is possible.

Multiple candidate votes would provide a dramatic improvement in the US — they are already used in many other places. They would have entirely eliminated the question of minor candidates “splitting” or spoiling the vote. There would have been no question in Florida of 2000, with Al Gore defeating George W. Bush (and at least by the popular vote, some feel that Bill Clinton would have lost to George Bush the elder, and there’s strong evidence the electoral margin would have at least been smaller.) This is in fact what prevents them from being used — there is always somebody in power who is going to conclude they would have lost has there been a multi-candidate ballot in place. Such people will fight it harder than advocates push it.

Small party candidates want it because it gives them a chance to be heard. Voters who like them can safely express that preference without fear of “spoiling” the race among the frontrunners. Given that, small candidates can eventually become frontrunners. In the 2 party system, as we’ve seen, any time a minor candidate like Ralph Nader gets popular enough that he might actually make a difference, the result is cries of “Ralph, don’t run” and a dropping of support from those who fear that problem.  read more »

Selling ads on URLs

Recently, Lauren Weinstein posted a query for a way to bring a certain type of commentary on web sites to the web. In particular, he’s interested in giving people who are the subject of attack web sites, who may even have gotten court judgments against such web sites to inform people of the dispute by annotations that show up when they search in search engines.

I’m not sure this is a good idea for a number of reasons. I like the idea of being able to see 3rd party commentary on web sites (such as Third Voice and others have tried to do) and suspect the browser is a better place than the search engine for it. I don’t like putting any duty upon people who simply link to web sites (which is what search engines do) because the sites are bad. They may want to provide extra info on what they link to as a service to users, but that’s up to them and should be unless they are a monopoly.

In addition, putting messages with an agenda next to search results is what search engines do for a living. However, in that may be the answer.  read more »

Orwell could answer the cell phone driving question

From time to time I come up with ideas that are interesting but I can't advocate because they have overly negative consequences in other areas, like privacy. Nonetheless, they are worth talking about because we might find better ways to do them.

There is some controversy today over whether driving while talking on a cell phone is dangerous, and should be banned, or restricted to handsfree mode. It occurs to me that the data to answer that question is out there. Most cars today have a computer, and it records things like the time that airbags deploy, or even in some cases when you suddenly dropped in speed. (If not, it certainly could.) Your cell phone, and your cell company know when you're on the phone. Your phone knows if you are using the handsfree, though the company doesn't. Your phone and cell company also know (but usually don't record) when you're driving and suddenly stop moving for an extended period.

In other words, something with access to all that data (and a time delta for the car's clock) could quickly answer the question of what cell phone behaviours are more likely to cause accidents. It would get a few errors (such as if the driver borrows their passenger's phone) but would be remarkably comprehensive in providing an answer.

But to gather this data involves way too many scary things. We don't really want our cars or phone companies recording data which can be used against us. They could record things like if we speed, and where we go that we don't want others to know about, and who we're talking to at the time, and much more.

In our quest for learning from private data, we have often sought anonymization technologies that can somehow collect the data and disassociate it from the source. That turns out to be very hard to do, often near impossible, and the infrastructure built for this sort of collection can almost always be trivially repurposed for non-anonymous use; now all that is needed is to flick a switch.

Now I do expect that soon we will see, after a serious car accident, attempts to get at this data on a case by case basis. The insurance companies will ask for cell phone records at the time of the accident, or data from the phone itself. We're already going to lose that privacy once there is an accident, thought at least case by case invasions don't scale. Messy problem.

The price was right

The radio had a tribute to Bob Barker, who retires today after 35 years hosting The Price is Right. I always admired the genius of that show in making product placement an essential part of the show -- the show was about the advertisers and made the audience think about how much the product was worth and remember it. I'm surprised we didn't see more copycat game shows. There's plenty of product placement today, but it's largely gratuitous, not integral as this was. The fans on the radio said that while the show was gone, they could always watch reruns.

At first I laughed at this -- clearly you could not watch them too soon. But then I thought it might be amusing to see reruns from decades ago just because it would shock us as to how the prices of the items had changed. And then I thought you could recreate the show today, with modern people, and their puzzle would be figuring out the prices of items from the past. And this could be not simply the recent past -- there is no reason the game could not go back centuries, and puzzle the audience about history as well as commerce.

One could even invert the question. "I have here one gallon of gas. What year did it first hit 25 cents?" instead of "Here's a gallon of Gas. What did it cost in 1950?" Of course, the product placement opportunities are perhaps not nearly as good. Companies would not love to remind consumers how much more they charge for things today.

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