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.

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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.

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.

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.)

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Glue on preprinted vinyl sheets for conference bags

I wrote before about how the fancy bags they give away at conferences very rarely get used. I have a stack in the closet, and I'm not going to use them as my bag with sponsor logos plastered all over them. The people who attend such conferences aren't the sort who want to carry your advertising everywhere, or scream out "I'm so cheap I'm using a sponsored bag." And you can't give them to friends as gifts, even if they are nice bags. So I suggested that they put logos on the inside but of course that doesn't yet happen.

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Can I take a photo of your business card?

I'm not sure why, but beaming business cards between PDAs never caught on as much as I would have liked. Of course Palm and Wince PDAs don't speak the same beaming language (of course) and I never saw it much in Windows anyway.

With my new fancy scanner, I can scan a stack of 60 business cards in a minute, so it's not going to take me long to do the physical scanning. Business card scanning has been around for a while, but it still presents challenges.

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Rotating digital picture frame

Digital Picture Frames are finally coming down to tolerable prices and decent resolutions. We are about to give my mother one that's 1024x768 and 15" on the diagonal. In part that's because I never got around to building one out of a laptop though I still think a linux distro that turned an old laptop into a digital PF would be a great idea because the ability to do wireless networking to subscribe to flickr and other feeds is the waiting killer app for these frames.

Christmas Penguins

A card from Ty. (My brother, the comic book artist, if you didn't know.)

I guess in the linux community it is slightly more acceptable.

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The logical outcome of Spock

This week, like many, I have gotten a bunch of invites to join people's trust networks on the people-search/social networking site called "Spock." Now normally I have started to mostly ignore new invites from social networking services. There are far too many, and I can't possibly maintain accounts on them all, so a new site will have to get very, very, very compelling before I will join it.

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They're trying an act of congress to stop us suing AT&T

Update: Harry Reid has delayed the bill until 2008. Let's hope we can keep the immunity out when it returns again next year. Let your senators know.

Usually, when you start a legal action, you consider the merits and go ahead when you have a good case. If your case is just, you should win.

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A credit card that won't let you shop at bad merchants

Here's an idea for a way to bring reputation based shopping to the brick and mortar world.

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Pass the turing test by using a second language

I was intrigued by this report of a russian chatbot fooling men into thinking it was a woman who was hot for them. The chatbot seduces men, and gets them to give personal information that can be used in identity theft. The story is scant on details, but I was wondering why this was taking place in Russia and not in richer places. As reported, this was considered a partial passing of the Turing Test.

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Nice short piece in Computerworld

Computerworld has been nice enough to include me in their series on unsung innovators of the net. I should point out that I try to downplay the dot thing -- to me it's an amusing anecdote of having participated in the right mailing lists at the right time. I remain much more interested in whatever I will do next!

Don't E-mail me my password

All over the net, a huge number of sites offer you the option of E-mailing you your password if you have forgotten it. While this seems to make sense, it is actually a dreadful security policy, and if you see it, you should complain and point them to this article or others to get them to stop. As an alternate, they should at most offer to E-mail you a new, randomly chosen temporary password, which you can use to log in and set a more memorable password.

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