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.

Squicky memory erasure story with propofol

I have written a few times before about versed, the memory drug and the ethical and metaphysical questions that surround it. I was pointed today to a story from Time about propofol, which like the Men in Black neuralizer pen, can erase the last few minutes of your memory from before you are injected with it. This is different from Versed, which stops you from recording memories after you take it.

Both raise interesting questions about unethical use. Propofol knocks you out, so it’s perhaps of only limited use in interrogation, but I wonder whether more specific drugs might exist in secret (or come along with time) to just zap the memory. (I would have to learn more about how it acts to consider if that’s possible.)

Both bring up thoughts of the difference between our firmware and our RAM. Our real-time thoughts and very short term memories seem to exist in a very ephemeral form, perhaps even as electrical signals. Similar to RAM — turn off the computer and the RAM is erased, but the hard disk is fine. People who flatline or go through serious trauma often wake up with no memory of the accident itself, because they lost this RAM. They were “rebooted” from more permanent encodings of their mind and personality — wirings of neurons or glia etc. How often does this reboot occur? We typically don’t recall the act of falling asleep, or even events or words from just before falling asleep, though the amnesia isn’t nearly so long as that of people who flatline.

These drugs most trigger something similar to this reboot. While under Versed, I had conversations. I have no recollection of after the drug was injected, however. It is as if there was a version of me which became a “fork.” What he did and said was destined to vanish, my brain rebooting to the state before the drug. Had this other me been aware of it, I might have thought that this instance of me was doomed to a sort of death. How would you feel if you knew that what you did today would be erased, and tomorrow your body — not the you of the moment — would wake up with the same memories and personality as you woke up with earlier today? Of course many SF writers have considered this as well as some philosophers. It’s just interesting to see drugs making the question more real than it has been before.

SETI and AI

The SETI institute has a podcast called “Are we alone?”

I was interviewed for it at the Singularity Summit, this can be found in their when machines rule episode. If you just want to hear me, I start at 32:50 after a long intro explaining the Fermi paradox.

No "get out of jail free" card for the phone companies

I only post a modest number of EFF news items here, because I know that if you want to see them all, you should be reading some of the EFF blogs such as deeplinks or or action alerts or EFFector or others.

However, something remarkable is happening. As you may know, we filed suit against AT&T because we have evidence they allowed the government to engage in a massive spying program within the US without warrants or other proper legal authority. Special secret rooms were installed in San Francisco and other locations, rooms under the control of the NSA, and massive data pipes with all internet traffic and more were forked and fed into these NSA rooms. We want to get to the bottom of this, and punish the phone companies if they violated the very explicit laws which were set up after watergate to stop the President from doing this exact sort of thing. Congress told the phone companies that Nixon showed us we can’t trust the President all the time, and so they have a duty to protect their customers as well, even if the President tells them not to.

But as our lawsuit has progressed, forces are pushing Congress to not just enable this spying, but to grant a retroactive amnesty on the phone companies that violated the law. In one sense I am glad our lawsuit has scared them so much — you know you are on to something when they try to get congress to pass retroactive laws to stop your lawsuits — but the enormity of such action boggles my mind.

The phone companies and White House are pushing for a “get out of jail free” card for their past activity. Whatever you think about the need for such massive surveillance, retroactive immunities are something else entirely. Allowing such immunities will let the President tell people, “Don’t worry whether this is illegal or not. As you can see, I can make it legal.” Congress might give him the proof he needs to back up such claims. It doesn’t matter that he won’t be able to “make it legal” every time he promises it. The fact that he did it this time is still going to get more people to feel at less risk in joining illegal conspiracies. It undermines the rule of law.

The American people need to convince their Senators and House members not to do this. If your rep has already decided they like the surveillance program — even if you have decided you like it — they must realize this get out of jail free card is a horrible idea.

You can use our action alert system to find your rep and their phone numbers, and give them a call. Calls matter the most. See if your reps are on the right committees and talk to them about it.

The house was ready to pass a bill without immunity and pro-immunity forces scuttled it and are pushing to get it added. Call House Members

The Senate Intelligence community passed a bill with Telco immunity in it. The Judiciary committe is now looking at it. Call Senate Members

Converting vinyl to digital, watch the tone arm

After going through the VHS to digital process, which I lamented earlier I started wondering about the state of digitizing old vinyl albums and tapes is.

There are a few turntable/cd-writer combinations out there, but like most people today, I’m interested in the convenience of compressed digital audio which means I don’t want to burn to CDs at all, and nor would I want to burn to 70 minute CDs I have to change all the time just so I can compress later. But all this means I am probably not looking for audiophile quality, or I wouldn’t be making MP3s at all. (I might be making FLACs or sampling at a high rate, I suppose.)

What I would want is convenience and low price. Because if I have to spend $500 I probably would be better off buying my favourite 500 tracks at online music stores, which is much more convenient. (And of course, there is the argument over whether I should have to re-buy music I already own, but that’s another story. Some in the RIAA don’t even think I should be able to digitize my vinyl.)

For around $100 you can also get a “USB turntable.” I don’t have one yet, but the low end ones are very simple — a basic turntable with a USB sound chip in it. They just have you record into Audacity. Nothing very fancy. But I feel this is missing something.

Just as the VHS/DVD combo is able to make use of information like knowing the tape speed and length, detecting index marks and blank tape, so should our album recorder. It should have a simple sensor on the tone arm to see as it moves over the album (for example a disk on the axis of the arm with rings of very fine lines and an optical sensor.) It should be able to tell us when the album starts, when it ends, and also detect those 2-second long periods between tracks when the tone arm is suddenly moving inward much faster than it normally is. Because that’s a far better way to break the album into tracks than silence detection. (Of course, you can also use CDDB/Freedb to get track lengths, but they are never perfect so the use of this, net data and silence detection should get you perfect track splits.) It would also detect skips and repeats this way.  read more »

Do we need a time delay after password failures?

Most programs that ask for a password will put in a delay if you get it wrong. They do this to stop password crackers from quickly trying lots of passwords. The delay makes brute force attacks impossible, in theory.

But what does it really do? There are two situations. In one situation, you have some state on the party entering the password, such as IP address, or a shell session, or terminal. So you can slow them down later. For example, you could let a user have 3 or 4 quick tries at a password with no delay, and then put in a very long delay on the 5th, even if they close off the login session and open another one. Put all the delay at the end of the 4 tries (or at the start of the next 4) rather than between each try. It's all the same to a cracking program.

Alternately, you have no way to identify them, in which case rather than sit through a delay, they can just open another session. But you can put a delay on that other session or any other attempt to log into that user. Once again you don't have to make things slow for the user who just made a typo. And of course, typos are common since most programs don't show you what you're typing. (This turns out to be very frustrating when logging in from a mobile device where the keyboards are highly unreliable and you can't see what you are typing!)

Could we desalinate using desert evaporation

You may have heard about a technique which makes ice in an otherwise warm desert when the skies are clear at night. Dig a pit, insulate it (in olden days this was done with straw by Romans and other biblical folk) and expose it to the open, clear sky at night. During the day, cover it with reflective and insulating material. The open night sky is very cold, and energy will radiate out to it. In addition, in the low humidity, evaporation chills the water. It need not be a pit, it can be an insulated tube with high walls.

I haven't had a lot of luck finding articles about the numbers on this process, and I presume it's not particularly efficient. But I started asking, could you do it with seawater? Seawater freezes at a few degrees colder than fresh, but most importantly, the ice itself is fresh, and if extracted will have minimal salt. Ice of course floats on brine as it does on fresh water, and if the brine tank is deep enough, you won't increase the concentration of salt a great deal before you remove the ice and replace the brine (though a heat exchanger, of course.)

Most people are interested in the ice because it's cold, but it may be just as valuable because it's not brine, in areas of the world where fresh water is scarce but arid land and clear night skies are plentiful. In these areas, desalination is done with power-intensive means such as distillation and reverse osmosis, so this method need only be more efficient than these to work. The "cost" of this method, if it works, would be the insulated pits themselves, with plumbing, pumping the brine around from the sea, and mechanisms for covering the pits and extracting the ice. The infrastructure cost is high but the energy cost may be low, if we don't have to move the brine very far.

As for the ice, it could of course be sold as ice first, to be used for refrigeration, and then as irrigation water once melted. Or it could be melted in a heat exchanger with incoming brine to keep the brine pits ice-cold and working well. Then, after melting it could be used for irrigation or depending on circumstances, for washing or even drinking.

What I don't know is whether this even works OK on brine, and if it's so inefficient that you use an acre to only get a modest number of gallons, or that even the modest pumping and mechanical needs don't justify the water you get. Should it work, it could be very useful. After all, it seems we get a lot of wars caused by people fighting over water in the desert.

Write one word histories of the centuries

Listening recently to Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” I thought about expressing history in single words. One of my favourite conversation starters is to ask people who the most remembered person of the 20th century will be in the 25th. (For the 15th century, the clear winners are Columbus, Leonardo, and Gutenberg, with Columbus the stand-out in the Americas.) When I ask, people will pick names like Hitler or Einstein. Based on Columbus’ example, I think Neil Armstrong is a good contender, even though he can walk down the street today without being recognized.

So I came up with a challenge. Write the history of the 20th century in a single word as it will be perceived in centuries to come. In other words, “what’s from the century will be deemed most significant by the people of the future?” This is easier to do for centuries further past, because what people consider most important about the 20th century will depend on their own more recent history.

You’ll note that with a few exceptions, my words refer to science and technology, not politics, people, arts or philosophy. Because I feel these things affect the lives of the people far more. Wars may redraw borders and decide who is ascendant. History is written by the winners, but there is always a winner to write it. So you won’t see items most historians would list, like WW2, in my top 5.

20th Century

Computer

My first choice, both because computers are now the prime tool of all the other fields, as well as the controllers of almost all industry, and they will be much more. In fact, I believe the people of the future will be computers, or part computer, and thus consider this the most significant invention of the 20th century.

DNA

(Or “genomics” if you don’t think of DNA as a word.) We we rewrite who we are (if we don’t become computers) with this knowledge.

Nanotechnology

This is a tricky one. It was conceived in the 20th century (in the 50s in fact!) but not implemented within it. So perhaps it belongs in another century, but it may as well become the foundation of all manufacturing, and of ourselves.

Nuclear

In the 20th century we came to understand much lower levels of physics, but we’re not done. But if nuclear weapons destroy the world, this will make the cut.

19th Century — Electricity

From our 21st century viewpoint we can see how much that altered the world, along with the things that came from it, like telegraphs, phones, radios and even computers.

Other contenders: Industry, Germs and Evolution

18th Century — America

My one political event. The free constitutional democracy would change the world. We know that today. In 1805 people would have thought this a crazy one to put on the list. Other contenders, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and Vaccines.

17th Century — Science

The scientific method traces back to ancient days, and owes much to some earlier figures like Roger Bacon, but it was in this century that it truly flowered. The other contender: Steam

16th Century — Conquest

Perhaps this is biased by being in the Americas, but this was the century of world exploration and conquest, mostly by European powers. Other contenders: Astronomy

15th Century — Firearms

In particular the Arquebus and Rifle. The musket would come later. The firearm set the stage for all wars to come. Another big contender, Gutenberg’s press.

What are your contenders for these centuries and others?

Stop assuming I have just one E-mail address

I may be on the extreme, but I use hundreds of different E-mail addresses. Since I have whole domains where every address forwards to me (or to my spam filters) I actually have an uncountable number of addresses, but I also have a very large number of real ones I use. That’s because I generate a new address for every web site I enter an E-mail address on. It lets me know who sells or loses my address, and lets me cut off or add filtering to mail from any party. (By the way, most companies are very good, and really don’t sell your E-mail.)

As I said, I’m on the extreme, but lots of people have at least a handful of addresses. They have personal ones and work ones. They have addresses given by ISPs, and ones from gmail, hotmail and the like. But I regularly run into sites that assume that you have only one.

One of the worst behaviours is when I mail customer service. That mail comes from my current “private” address. It’s an unfiltered address that only goes out in E-mails to people I mail, and so replies always work. But they usually write back “You must send mail from the E-mail address in our records.” Even when I have told them my account number or other such information. And in fact, even when I tell them what the E-mail address is, they insist it be in the “From” line.

With most E-mail clients, I can indeed put any address in the From line I want, including yours or any of mine. So this is a pointless form of security. Their software has been written to key off this, and won’t let their agents identify the user another way. Unfortunately some mail agents that I use on the road don’t make it easy to enter an arbitrary From, so this is a pain.

Another problem is contact databases and social networks. LinkedIn likes you to know the E-mail address of somebody you are contacting in advance. But which one did they use with LinkedIn? And which one have I used? The address I have registered with some of these sites is not the one you use to mail me, so I can direct that mail. So if you use their systems to check for people in your contact list, you won’t find me, and I may not find you. Not that there’s an easily solution to this, but they haven’t even really tried.

Now as I said, I create these emails on the fly, and from reading them, I can tell what site they are for. But that doesn’t mean I can remember what I created after the fact. Sadly, many sites are also demanding you log in using “your E-mail address” rather than a userid that you pick. While this assures that IDs are unique, it’s also not hard to come up with a unique ID to use that’s not an E-mail and can be the same over all the sites you wish it to be. Sometimes to log in or do certain functions, I have to remember what E-mail I generated for them. (If I can get them to mail me something, I can solve that.)

Of course, many of them will mail me my password. Which is hugely, terribly wrong. No site should be able to E-mail you your password, because that means they are storing it. They should at best be able to reset your password and send you an E-mail which will let you log in and create a new password. While you should keep unique passwords for sites where real damage can be done (like banks) most people keep common passwords for sites where compromise of your “account” is not particularly bothersome. But if sites store it, it means they all are getting access to all the rest, if they wish to, or if they are compromised. I wrote this blog post to give people something to point at when sites expect you to have just one E-mail. I probably need another to point sites at when they are storing my password and will mail it to me. (Especially ones that say they dare not send you messages by E-mail because it is not secure, but which will send you your password by E-mail.)

A finder of old friends

The growing social network systems, notably Facebook and LinkedIn, have become better and better places to find old friends. And we're also seeing people search engines, such as zabasearch and the new spock.com to look through databases. If you're determined, you can find many folks.

Facebook lets users develop applications, but one I have in mind would not work as a developed app, since it requires access to people who have not installed the app. Right now on Facebook, you can type in a name and see all the people with that name (and variants) as well as their picture. You see their networks which sometimes tells you where they live, what school they went to and perhaps where they work. In theory you can't see anything else, including useful stuff like their age. You can, however, see their list of friends in most cases.

Often you will find many people with the same name, and this will only get worse as the systems get bigger. If a name is common it can make the search very difficult. Facebook uses an algorithm to put your likely hit near the top (it seems to be people with things in common with you, like locations, hometowns, etc.) which is a very good idea, but even so, you can still be in the dark, especially if the picture thumbnail makes it hard to see the face, or it's been 20 years.

You don't learn things like their age or hometown directly, which would be a privacy violation. You can often guess it by looking at the list of friends -- if they have only young friends still in school, they are probably young. If many of their friends are older, they probably are too. If many of their friends are from a town, they probably lived in that town or still do.

So you may end up sending a blind E-mail saying, "Are you the Fred Jones who went to Valley High?" But if the number of matches are too high that doesn't work either.

What would be nice would be a way to specify you are looking for a person with a given name, and to provide other data like their age and perhaps school. Then, all the people who match that would get a notification with the brief query. This would not be a full blown e-mail, they would just see a notice that somebody is looking for "the Fred Jones born around 1965 who went to Comdex." and if they were that Jones they could follow-up on it (or ignore) and if they weren't they would not see it again and could block seeing any further notes like this.

However, the real gold would come if the query could be stored, so that every new Fred Jones who joins sees that, and perhaps finds people already waiting to reconnect.

Key here is that while it would be a privacy violation to let me search for "The Fred Jones born around 1965" because multiple queries would let you pull out the person's age (which they have hidden from strangers or even friends) it is not so much a problem to present the searches to the people and let them decide if they want to respond.

You tune it so you would hopefully be less bothered by these queries than you would be the direct "are you the..." queries you would get. Of course, the more tuning information both parties give, the fewer people to get a notice. In fact, you could require the searcher to come up with something that only notifies fewer than some set number of people. So if there are 300 Fred Jones, you can't bug them all, but you could make the query of the 10 who are closest in age to a given year, for example. There are ways to game this a bit to search for private info, but it's harder, and users who respond can be notified about what they will be confirming by responding.

The "search for new users matching a name" query could be a Facebook app, but the above could not be, unless it were an app only for those who want enough to be found this way that they install it. But the main goal is to find people who don't realize they are being looked for.

LinkedIn is better at qualified queries, but doesn't let you email the people who match, except for money.

Bluetooth necklaces

More and more people are walking around Borg-ified with bluetooth earpieces. It's convenient, and a good idea when driving, but otherwise looks goofy and also wears on the ear. I've been a big seeker of headset devices that are wireless, but meant to be only put on while talking, and thus very easy to put on and remove. Self-contained bluetooth devices, with the battery in them, tend to be hard to put on. Nothing I have seen is as easy to put on (or as bulky) as a typical headphone headband.

I thought of something you could quickly clip onto your glasses but the weight will tilt them. It should be possible to build bluetooth eyeglass frames with thick over-ear sections with the battery, slightly thick arms (ideally not too dorky) for the electronics and a microphone hidden in the bridge (though it might pick up breathing a bit too much.)

Another idea is a microphone in a necklace, but just the microphone. It's a good place to get sound and it's far from the speakers which is good. One could imagine a permanently worn necklace/pendant and them another piece which is put on the ear or head for calls. Some vendors are selling "bluetooth pendant" headphones which have earbuds which plug into a pendant worn on the neck today.

My necklace could work with a 2nd wireless part (meaning two batteries) that comes from the pocket or snaps onto the pendant itself. Or a combination eyeglass frames with speaker and pendant with microphone. Of course, no phone is able to understand talking to two devices for the mic and speakers as yet, and while that could be fixed in the future, this system would need one of the devices to talk to the other and combine the signals for the phone, which is wasteful but doable.

Another way around that would be a retractable earbud or other earpiece that pulls out of the pendant and retracts back into it. Or this could be something that hangs on glasses.

Of course the pendant could also vibrate for calls, and show you the caller-ID. These pendants could be designed by fashion designers as jewelry, and not look so borgish. Some models might be super thing and be designed to be worn unobtrusively under the shirt (but still in range of good sound) for people who don't want it to be so obvious. They could be pulled out of the shirt for calls if need be for superior voice.

And please, no bright blinking LED just to tell me you're alive!

DVD recorders, so much potential, but not delivered

I decided to digitize a lot of my old video tapes. Since I have many video capture cards in my MythTV system, I started by plugging my old VCR into that and recording. Turned out that there’s not really good standalone capture software for Linux, so I ended up using MythTV itself, which is not very well designed for this. But it worked OK. However, I then foolishly decided to clean the VCR heads, pulled out my old head cleaner, put methanol in it and — destroyed the heads. It was time for a replacement VCR, something that’s pretty rare in the stores.

What is popular now are combo VHS/DVD players and for not much more (on eBay at least) VHS/DVD-recorder combos. These combos all feature the ability to copy from a VHS tape to a DVD. Of course, with just a remote control you can’t get nearly the flexibility that a computerized capture system can give you, but you do get a big convenience feature — the same system is controlling the VCR and the DVD burning, and can start and stop the VCR, detect index marks on the tape, detect end of tape, tape speed and many other things. They all try to give you a “one touch copy” or almost that, so you can just insert the tape, a disk and have it do the work.  read more »

Three fantastic Burning Man stories

You non-burner blog readers are probably sick of the flood of Burning Man stuff this time of year, but I need to tell a few remarkable stories from the Playa this year about how sometimes, it all works out in amazing ways.  read more »

Lucky she's not in the morgue

I was quite surprised to read in the coverage of the arrest of Star Simpson at Boston Airport for having a handmade shirt with LEDs that lit up in a star pattern (to match her name) that State Police Maj. Scott Pare said “She’s lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue.”

I find this a remarkable statement for a police officer to be saying about a bright teen-age girl. That we have come to the point where the Major can say something like this and expect everybody to nod in agreement. Had the police shot a bright and innocent teen-age girl, it would be tragic, but the regret on the part of the police would also have been great.

Those who do security have come to the conclusion that airports are really, really, special, so special that you can shoot girls who are not following procedure when they come to pick somebody up. The procedure in this case is a new rule about “improvised electronic devices” — namely homebrew electronics vs. something you bought at Radio Shack. You can’t bring them on the plane any more, and you can get shot for carrying them in the terminal. I have one myself, a hand-constructed power supply I need to convert the voltage from my laptop battery (which they let me bring on because it’s “standard”) and other equipment I have. I am going to have to put some logos on it to make it look official.

I have some understanding of the desire to secure the cockpits of planes so that suicide pilots can’t take control and use them as weapons. And there’s been a lot of hard work done on that. But for some reason we’ve also concluded that the non-secure areas of the airport are special, rather than being just like any other crowded place (like train stations, stadia, offices, restaurants and so on.)

Whatever they might say about what you can bring on the plane, now you can’t even have it going to pick somebody up at the airport. Simpson reportedly wore her shirt all the time around Campus, and just happened to have it on while going to the airport. She’s called crazy for bringing a “device like that” to the airport. This is the same town of course that shut itself down over LED ads for Cartoon Network that a score of other towns blithely ignored. Is this the guilt over having been the airport of choice for 9/11 terrorists?

The phrase “the terrorists have already won” is overused, but that they’ve gotten us to talk about shooting smart, innocent teen-age girls without blinking does seem to be quite a victory for them.

Burning Man Panoramas for 2007

I have generated several of my panoramas for this year’s Burning Man.

This year featured a double rainbow, and of course much of the week with no man on his pedestal.

The Burning Man Arson and the growth of Burning Man

As you know, I took photos of the burning man arson and put them up very quickly, so we did not yet know it was arson, or the reason.

Like most people, even before knowing it was arson was shock. Would this cancel the Saturday burn? Even to the jaded, the burn remains the climax of the event. It is the one time the whole city gets together and has a common experience. (This year the Crude Awakenings burn also did that.) My photos last year are Burning Man’s only “group portrait” I would expect. It has, however, become very much a spectator rather than participatory event. The days of volunteers helping to raise the man are long gone.

The burn has also become overdone, under the burden of having to be the climax of an already extravagant week. Each year they feel they have to outdo prior years, and that’s a slope that can’t be maintained. New burners (virgins) would be impressed by any level of burn, I think, so I presume they do it for themselves and a perception of impressing the old-timers. Still, it was disturbing to think the climax of the event would be removed, and good when it was clear the fire was not so bad as to stop a restoration or rebuilding.

But then I was surprised to see how positive the reaction was. Aside from the team that had their work destroyed (and would now have to give up several days of their event to rebuild) I would even judge the overall perception of the arson to be quite positive. Addis claims it was done with care to assure nobody was under the Man. Having had my own art vandalized (not nearly this badly) at Burning Man, I know how deeply that wounds. So I can’t approve of how it was done. But there was a large amount of support for what it meant. (Reportedly even from Larry Harvey.) In fact, since I didn’t talk to the rebuilding crew, I can’t say I met more than a handful of people who expressed any particular disapproval (or even non-approval) of it. And that surprised me, at first.  read more »

Make gasoline $6/gallon, give everybody $2,000

Burning gasoline is ruining the world. It accounts for 40% of greenhouse emissions, and a large percentage of other nasty emissions including the particulate matter that kills millions each year. Getting it has driven the world to wars. When you burn it, you pollute my air, hurting me, and you owe me something for it, which is a reason that gasoline taxes make sense even in a libertarian context.

So while gas should be taxed to $5 or $6/gallon, the public won’t stand for it. So here’s an alternate idea. Tax gasoline up to $6/gallon in a revenue neutral way. That is to say, figure out how much tax revenue that raises per adult. Americans consume 140 billion gallons/year, so a $3 tax raises 420 billion (before consumption drops.) There are about 200 million adults, so this works out to just over $2,000 per adult. As such, each person (regardless of how much oil they burned) would receive a $2,000 tax credit — a refundable credit payable even if they owe no taxes.

Update: The core idea here came from an earlier comment on this blog, which I forgot about (See comments below for references.)

For people who ride transit or walk or otherwise don’t use cars, this turns into a $2,000 windfall, offset by an increase in the cost of taxis and transit. In theory, for the average gasoline user, it works out to a wash — pay about $2,000 more per year for your gasoline, but get a $2,000 tax refund. At most it’s an enforced savings program.

For heavy gasoline burners — those taking very long commutes, those electing to buy Hummers and Suburbans — it means paying lots more, and subsidizing those who don’t. Those who buy a Prius would be well rewarded, as would those who switch to transit or anything more fuel efficient.

The consequences of this would be:

  • A giant and popular win for non-drivers, and for transit systems, which would get many more passengers to offset their increased costs.
  • Everybody would file a tax return now, even those making little or no money. This would cost the IRS more, but they would probably love it for making everybody file. Not filing would become remarkably suspicious. This is both good and bad, of course.
  • There would probably be some identity theft to try to steal the refunds, this would need to be watched for.
  • It creates a major issue for illegal immigrants. Those who want to cause them trouble would like it for this, as these immigrants would now pay large fees for gas but have no means to get the refund, unless they file tax returns, which of course they are scared to do — and they have no SSNs.
  • Fuel efficient technologies would become very popular and competitive, and the market would immediately start sorting out winners.
  • Fuel consumption would drop, reducing the amount of the credit — or requiring an increase in the tax.
  • Poor people with very long commutes could face serious problems, possibly forcing them to change jobs or homes, or try to carpool.
  • People would drive into Canada and Mexico to get tanks of gas. There would also be a black market in gas smuggled from those countries.

This could be applied to all fuel use, including power plants and factories. In that case many products would increase in price, all offset by the credit.

Aside from the immigrant problem, it is also important to note how bad governments are at restraint, and there would be much temptation to not make the tax revenue neutral, and just make it a tax increase.

Would voters vote for this? Well, designed properly, if we assume that 50% of the gas is used by fewer than 50% of the people, then this is a win for more than 50% of the people, probably more than 70%. And of the top 30% of gasoline users, many of them would intellectually agree with it though it costs them more money. If people realized they would pay less, not more, under the tax, this could win voter support.

This could also be done on a state by state basis in some states. However, it would create problems on the state borders. Border gas stations would die, and need compensation. There would be a lot of smuggling from the other states. More people would risk using purple gas, as well. Enforcing is tough without some draconian system we wouldn’t like so much. It thus would be possible only in states that have few people living on their borders, mostly western rural states. California is not out of the question. It has no large cities on state borders, but does have some decent sized towns.

The positives of this idea are many, as are the negatives. But those positives are pretty valuable. In particular, this system would drive the market to work hard at producing technologies that really reduce fuel consumption, resulting in perhaps the biggest benefits of all.

More on selfish merge and jams

I wrote earlier this week about selfish merging and traffic jams and this prompted some to ask if the selfish merge is really selfish. Update: There is more and new thinking in this later post on selfish merge being not so selfish.

There are two forms in which it is selfish. At its most basic, it is barging into line. A series of cars is traveling the road, and one car, who is behind all the others, waits for them to merge out of the vanishing lane, then zooms ahead of all of them, and get somebody up front to let them in where the merge has made things stop-and-go. 100 people behind the merger are delayed 5 seconds each, and he gains 500 seconds compared to joining the back of the line. That’s if you presume it’s a zero sum situation.

However, I believe it is worse than zero-sum, for a couple of reasons. A typical highway lane can handle 2,000 cars/hour, but only about 1,000 if traffic slows to a crawl. Cars that merge while traffic is still flowing are less likely to cause the collapse than those who attempt to merge from a stopped position at the end of the vanishing lane. It starts when somebody slows to let them in, or they barge in forcing somebody to brake.

Now if two lanes able to carry 2,000 cars/hour merge to one, we can only have smooth flow if there are in fact only 1,000 cars per hour (or fewer, since heavy merging reduces capacity to about 1,500 cars/hour) in each lane. If input is within the output capacity of the continuing lane, we can do fine. However, if slowing to stop and go reduces the chokepoint to 1,000 cars per hour, we can only handle 500/cars/hour/lane or the jam backs up for a long distance. Once input exceeds the output capacity we must take more dramatic steps to stop a long traffic jam.

This is the theory that supports metering lights on highways. As long as the highway flows at good speed, its capacity is high and sufficient for the traffic. If it gets a burst of high-demand, it collapses into a traffic jam. Thus, for people waiting at metering lights, while they are annoyed at waiting, in fact because everybody is being metered they will get there faster than if they don’t wait. For the car at the “tipping point” it can be the case that if they wait, they will join a smooth traffic flow, but if they rush into traffic, they will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and slows everybody, including themselves.

My proposal is similar to metering lights, except for a merge. Merging reduces lane capacity as cars must increase spacing to allow safe merging. Or they must stop entirely in a jam. If demand starts to exceed capacity, my proposal is to prohibit merging well down the highway. The cars in the continuing lane zoom through without merging using the full capacity of the lane. However, from time to time they must stop (creating a waiting line) to let the cars in the vanishing lane through, also at full speed without merging. The volume of cars through the chokepoint is what matters here, and if we can increase that to 2,000 cars/hour instead of 1,000 cars/hour, we will have a far shorter jam when there is no choice but to have a jam (ie. more than 2,000 cars/hour coming in.) And by encouraging cars to merge early, we can avoid a jam when we have less than 1,500 cars/hour coming in. When we have something in between, we introduce a hopefully short single pause but maintain a little under 2,000 in output capacity. We would need experimentation to learn what the output capacity is with metered stopping.

Burning Man's Green Man theme failed -- what about the American Dream?

Background: Burning Man is an astounding annual gathering in the remote Black Rock Desert of Nevada where up to 50,000 people create a temporary city for a week, which then vanishes. The city is devoted to art, creativity and radical self-expression. Since 1996, each year has had an “art theme” which provides inspiration for about a third of the art created that year, as well as the central Man. Burnin Man also has a strong non-commercial ethos you can learn about in other locations. In 2007, the theme was “The Green Man” which referred in people’s minds both to the folk nature spirit by that name, and also to environmentalism. The 2007 theme included a quasi-commercial pavilion around the Man, with exhibits ranging from a Tesla with the logos removed to demonstrations of algae production. Some of the themes succeed and some fare less well. Below was my review of the failings of the theme that year.

I have to judge the recent Burning Man theme “The Green Man” and the associated “pavilion” a failure. I don’t think this is particularly damning — something like Burning Man should be trying new ideas, and some should do better than others, and if none fail it means no risks are being taken. However, it’s worth examining the reasons for it.

The burning man organizers, who I count as friends (so don’t take this too hard if you’re reading,) took a lot of flack for even the quasi-commercialization found in the pavilion beneath the man. While the companies didn’t pay to be there, and could not put their names or logos on the exhibits, it could not avoid looking like a cross between commercial exhibits and, to be frank, bad science fair. It could not be avoided that people were coming to Burning Man for commercial reasons, that some people (aside from staff) were coming there as part of their jobs and being given center stage for it. In an event so devoted to non-commercial expression, there was no way this could not be seen as an incursion. And alas, the exhibits were not particularly interesting, somewhat heavy-handed and very sparsely attended. Due to the arson, the area was only open on Monday and Friday, and yet it had few people in it on Friday. In the past, the stuff around the Man has been a constant throng of activity week-long.

When I saw it, I could not help but say, “All that controversy and trouble for this?” Demonstration of interesting new technology is not a bad thing, but I think it has to be more natural, such as at the Alternative Energy Zone village, or implicit in an art car driving by showing off the technology for an artistic reason.

There was other, non-official commercialization as well. One Esplanade dome, rather than covering up the corporate logo as people have been encouraged to do, proudly declared it self to be “(Dome company)’s Earthdome.” This dome company, which I am not naming, did a number of promotional moves, trying to showcase their domes. They even asked one of the larger domes to be smaller so they could be the biggest! For the first time, I also had a Bayer rep (or so he claimed) hand me a packet of a Bayer stomach remedy after I ate some food being given away on the street. I have heard this has happened for several years.

I wrote early on in the year about how it was very difficult to have a green event because over 95% of the footprint of the event is involved in just getting there. Going solar or biodiesel (as we did) is just in the noise. Carpooling was the only way to be truly green at Burning Man, and there was a little of that, but not too much.

The theme of the Green Man was only taken as a “nature” theme by a few, and as an environmentalist theme by most. Little of the non-funded theme art pieces left much impression on me. And it seemed that the problem with environmentalist art is that it is likely to be “negative” art that is protesting something, rather than positive art exalting something. I have no problem with protest art, it is a vital form of art, but you don’t want the theme to be expressed overwhelmingly in one direction.

In addition, within a community like Burning Man, there is somewhat of an orthodoxy about environmentalism, and this made the art very unlikely to challenge that orthodoxy. Who was going to put up art that spoke to the folly of certain elements of the green movement. Instead, all the art could do was support the motherhood issues of environmentalism. The only controversy came from the event’s inherent ungreen nature — the irony of an art piece about oil worship burning huge amounts of fuel for our entertainment. Otherwise the theme could just as well have been “motherhood.”

There were, of course, impressive pieces, including in the protest art, like Crude Awakenings with its giant fireball. (Alas I missed my chance to take a panorama from the top as it opened late, had long lines and I didn’t think to use my photographer’s “juice” to get past the lines until too late.) Deeper in the playa, the most popular piece was Homouroboros, a strobe zoetrope featuring chimp-like proto-humans being fed an apple by a snake. (Last year everybody called Euchronia “the waffle”, and this year everybody called this piece “the monkeys” even though, lacking tails, they were not monkeys.)

Funding Art

As noted, the best pieces were funded. But this creates a problem of its own. The more that the most notable art on the playa is funded, the more it becomes a corporate exhibit. While the art budget is a small part of the ticket price, it gives the impression that people are buying tickets and this funds the art they will see, curated through a single channel. In the past, Burning Man art curation has been at most a gentle and remote assistance, but it is at risk of being a controlling force which decides, even if with the best of intentions and the highest impartiality, what the most noticed art will be. There is a danger of becoming an art show.

This is a tough problem. The increase in art funding came in part because people were generally disappointed by the level and quality of art in 2004. The Borg2 pushed for independent funding, voted by participants, and lots of it. Borg1 responded by providing even more art funding. We want to see a playa filled with impressive art, but the more we fund it the more it becomes a disneyland of funded artists and spectators. There may be no good solution.

The American Dream

The new theme “The American Dream” (and patriotism) is evoking strong reactions. I think it will produce better, more provocative work than the Green Man. There is a danger of orthodoxy here. As a counterculture, Burning Man inherently represents non-mainstream visions o f the American Dream. Will many artists represent more traditional images of patriotism and the American dream other than to skewer them? I have called Burning Man “the most American thing there is” because it represents the freedom that the USA has. Only the USA, it seems, would engender Burning Man. The ability to be free to do an event like Burning Man, with generally minimal interference, is a great expression of the American Dream.

But I suspect more will focus on the traditional meanings of it — success, buying a home, coming from afar and building a new life — and more cynical versions — conquering the world, making everybody whitebread in a house with a picket fence. Patriotism, I fear will be viewed largely in the negative. The official theme tries to remind people this is not to be about flag-burning, but there is a danger this theme could produce a lot of art that’s negative, and in line with counterculture orthodoxy. (And yes, there are orthodoxies in counterculture.)

But there is the chance for more, and I welcome it.

Radio transmitter to solve selfish merge

I have written before about the selfish merge which is a tricky problem to solve. One lane vanishes, and the merge brings everybody to a standstill. Selfish drivers zoom up the vanishing lane to the very end and are let in by other drivers there, causing the backup. The selfish strategy is the fastest way through the blockage, yet causes the blockage.

My thinking on Burning Man Exodus made me wonder if we might have a robot signal drivers not with lights but with radio. At the merge point we would place a computer with a radio transmitter, and detectors to measure the speed of traffic in each lane. If traffic flowed at a good speed, it would do nothing. If traffic slowed, signs would light up saying “Tune to and Obey AM 1610. $500 fine for lane changing without clearance.”

The robot would be at the merge point, and also have traffic lights marked with lane numbers of names.

The radio robot would then move the lanes through the merge. The key is the robot can tell an entire lane to start moving slowly simultaneously, and to stop simultaneously, even over a longer distance. So it can command the left lane to start moving and the others to remain stopped and not to change lanes. When the left lane has emptied, it can command it to stop and the red light for that lane would go on (clearly visible at the merge point.) A camera could record anybody running the red light or changing lanes into that lane as it is emptying. As it is clearing, the radio voice can tell the next lane to prepare to move, and give it the green light and the verbal command to do so. Lower priority would be given to the lane that is vanishing and those stuck in it — they were supposed to do a nice zipper merge a mile back, and are only stuck in it because they didn’t do so. This means that zooming up in the vanishing lane becomes punished rather than rewarded, and as a result, this jam-clearing approach would be needed far less.

The system would have to be experimented with and tuned for the best results.

There is a problem that there has to be some point where the system starts, after which lane changes are forbidden. There is a risk that a jam could be created there rather than at the physical merge point, by people in the vanishing lane trying to get into to continuing lane. This is the parameter we would tune — how much punishment can we give the people who wait too long in the vanishing lane before they start creating a jam a bit further up the road? Perhaps no punishment is needed, just equal treatment.

Of course there are two types of merges. Some are temporary, due to construction. Others are permanent. I am primarily aiming at the temporary ones here though it’s possible that solutions could be found for permanent merge-jams. However, in permanent merges, drivers get to know the parameters and will try to game them. If we move where the merge is it’s hard not to simply move the jam.

There is also the question of the very few cars without radios, and those who can’t understand basic instructions in the languages given on the radio. (The instructions can be said in up to 3 languages, I would think.) Such drivers would have to just follow the other cars, which is doable, even if their reaction time will not be as quick. Drivers who can’t read the signs already face the risk of violating traffic laws, of course.

I also don’t know how much gain you get from everybody being able to stop and start at once on voice command. Obviously moving cars need wider spacing than stopped cars, so you can’t actually start everybody at once like a train. Still, I think it should be possible to drain a blockage faster with the combination of coordinated starting and nobody else being allowed to merge into the lane during the period.

It’s also possible the voice could tell cars in the vanishing lane to simultaneously enter the continuing lane once it has been cleared, but that requires a way to stop oncoming traffic from entering that lane during that process, and it’s easier if all equipment can be placed at the merge point.

Improving Exodus at Burning Man

I’ve created a new blog category “Burning Man” to track my posts on the event. I was using a simpler tag before.

Today I want to talk about the Burning Man Exodus problem, a problem you might find interesting even if you don’t come to Burning Man. This year, even at 8pm Monday there was a long line and a 2 hour wait to get off the playa. Normally by about 5pm there is no wait. With 45,000 or more this year, and I presume at least 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles, and various chokepoints limiting traffic to 450 cars/hour, how do you drain the playa when everybody wants to go Sunday and Monday. (In addition, with so many now leaving Sunday, it makes Monday less interesting driving some who could leave Monday to leave earlier.)

It has now been routine to see waits of 5 hours or more at the peak times. I believe a solution should be possible involving some sort of appointment system, where cars are given a set time to leave, and they leave then. If they want to go at a peak time, instead of waiting 5 hours in line, they spend 5 hours in the city, or doing more cleanup, instead of idling their car in a giant line. Not that the line doesn’t become a little bit of a party, but it’s still not like being in camp. And for my exodus on Monday night there as the worst dust storm ever for Exodus, you could not see the car in front of you, or the fence beside you.

However, a good system to hand out appointments is hard to design. First of all, we have a mostly volunteer crew, and they don’t have much law enforcement power to stop violators or ticket them. (More participation by the police in this, when the city truly needs them, instead of having them be there for pot busts that nobody wants would be a great thing.)

Here are some of the constraints:  read more »

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