Brad Templeton is an EFF director, Singularity U faculty, software architect and internet entrepreneur, robotic car strategist, futurist lecturer, hobby photographer and Burning Man artist.

This is an "ideas" blog rather than a "cool thing I saw today" blog. Many of the items are not topical. If you like what you read, I recommend you also browse back in the archives, starting with the best of blog section. It also has various "topic" and "tag" sections (see menu on right) and some are sub blogs like Robocars, photography and Going Green. Try my home page for more info and contact data.

Burning Man 2005 Panoramas

Hot on the heels of the regular photos the gallery of 2005 Burning Man Panoramas is now up. This year, I got to borrow a cherry picker at sunset on Friday for some interesting perspectives. The long ones are around 3400 by 52000 at full res (180 megapixels) and even the ones on the web are larger than before. Use F11 to put your browser into full screen mode.

This year I switched most of my generation to Panorama Factory, which in its latest verions has allowed fine control of the blending zone, so I can finally use it to deal with moving people in scenes.

Here’s a view of the temple, mostly because it has the narrowest thumbnail.

On the refutation of Metcalfe's law

Recently IEEE Spectrum published a paper on a refutation of Metcalfe’s law — an observation (not really a law) by Bob Metcalfe — that the “value” of a network incrased with the square of the number of people/nodes on it. I was asked to be a referee for this paper, and while they addressed some of my comments, I don’t think they addressed the principle one, so I am posting my comments here now.

My main contention is that in many cases the value of a network actually starts declining after a while and becomes inversely proportional to the number of people on it. That’s because noise (such as flamage and spam) and unmanageable signal (too many serious messages) rises with the size and eventually reaches a level where the cost of dealing with it surpasses the value of the network. I’m thinking mailing lists in particular here.

You can read my referee’s comments on Metcalfe’s law though note that these comments were written on the original article, before some corrections were made.

How only Google can pull off pay-to-perform ads

Bruce Schneier today compliments Google on trying out pay-to-perform ads as a means around click-fraud, but worries that this is risky because you become a partner with the advertiser. If their product doesn’t sell, you don’t make money.

And that’s a reasonable fear for any small site accepting pay-to-perform ads. If the product isn’t very good, you aren’t going to get a cut of much. Many affiliate programs really perform poorly for the site, though a few rare ones do well.

However, Google has a way around this. While the first step on Google’s path to success was to make a search engine that gave better results, how they did advertising was just as important. At a time when everybody was desperate for web advertising, and sites were willing to accept annoying flash animations, pop-ups and pop-unders and even adware, Google introduced ads that were purely text. In addition, they had the audacity, it seemed, to insist that pay-per-click bidding advertisers provide popular ads people would actually click through. If people are not clicking on your ad, Google stops running it. They even do this if there are not other ads to place on the page. They had the guts to say, “We’ll sell pay per click, but if your ad isn’t good, we won’t run it.” Nobody was turning down business then, and few are now.

Sites of course don’t want to be paid per click, or a cut of sales. They want a CPM, and that’s about all they want, as long as the ads are otherwise a good match for the site. Per-click costs and percentages are just a means to figuring out a CPM. Advertisers don’t want to pay CPMs, they want to pay for results, like clicks or sales.

Google found a great way to combine the two. They offered pay per click, but they insisted that the clicks generate enough CPM to keep them happy.

The same will apply here. They will offer pay for performance, but those ads will be competing with bidders who are bidding pay-per-click. Google will run, as it always has, the type of ad that gets the highest results. If you bid pay per performance, and the PPCs are bidding higher, your ad won’t run. And even if there are not higher PPCs, if your ad isn’t working and convering into sales and generating revenue for Google, I suspect they will just not run it. They can afford to do this, they are Google.

And so they will get the best of both worlds again. Advertisers who can come up with products that can sell through ads will pay for actual sales, and love how they can calculate how well it does for them. Google will continue to get good CPMs, which is what they care about, and what Adsense partners (including myself) care about. And they will have eliminated clickfraud at least on these types of ads. Once again they stay on top.

(Disclaimer: I am a consultant to Google, and am in their Adsense program. If you aren’t in it, there is a link in the right-hand bar you can use to join that program. I get a pay for performance credit if you do. Unlike Google’s PPC ads, where Adsense members are forbidden by contract from encouraging people to click on the ads, there is no need for such strictures against pay for performance ads, in fact there’s evey reason to encourage it.)

Remaining neutral on network neutrality -- it's the monopoly, stupid

People ask me about the EFF endorsing some of the network neutrality laws proposed in congress. I, and the EFF are big supporters of an open, neutral end-to-end network design. It’s the right way to build the internet, and has given us much of what we have. So why haven’t I endorsed coding it into law?

If you’ve followed closely, you’ve seen very different opinions from EFF board members. Dave Farber has been one of the biggest (non-business) opponents of the laws. Larry Lessig has been a major supporter. Both smart men with a good understanding of the issues.

I haven’t supported the laws personally because I’m very wary of encoding rules of internet operation into law. Just about every other time we’ve seen this attempted, it’s ended badly. And that’s even without considering the telephone companies’ tremendous experience and success in lobbying and manipulation of the law. They’re much, much better at it than any of the other players involved, and their track record is to win. Not every time, but most of it. Remember the past neutrality rules that forced them to resell their copper to CLECs so their could be competition in the DSL space? That ended well, didn’t it?

Read on…  read more »

PayPal should partner with UPS and other shippers

You’ve seen me write before of a proposal I call addresscrow to promote privacy when items are shipped to you. Today I’ll propose something more modest, with non-privacy applications.

I would like PayPal, and other payment systems (Visa/MC/Google Checkout) to partner with the shipping companies such as UPS that ship the products bought with these payment systems.

They would produce a very primative escrow, so that payment to the seller was transferred upon delivery confirmation by the shipper. If there is no delivery, the money is not transferred, and is eventually refunded. When you sign for the package (or if you have delivery without signature, when it’s dropped off) that’s when the money would be paid to the vendor. You, on the other hand, would pay the money immediately, and the seller would be notified you had paid and the money was waiting pending receipt. The payment company would get to hold the money for a few days, and make some money on the float, if desired, to pay for this service.

Of course, sellers could ship you a lump of coal and you would still pay for it by signing for it. However, this is a somewhat more overt fraud that, like all fraud, must be dealt with in other ways. This system would instead help eliminate delays in shipping, since vendors would be highly motivated to get things shipped and delivered, and it would eliminate any communications problems standing in the way of getting the order processed. There is nothing much in it for the vendor, of course, other than a means to make customers feel more comfortable about paying up front. But making customers feel more comfortable is no small thing.

Extended, the data from this could go into reptuation systems like eBay’s feedback, so that it could report for buyers how promptly they paid, and for sellers how promptly they shipped or delivered. (The database would know both when an item was shipped and when it was received.) eBay has resisted the very obvious idea of having feedback show successful PayPal payment, so I doubt they will rush to do this either.

Burning Man 2005 Photos plus Aerial shots

I’ve gotten way behind on putting up my photographs, and I realized I had never put my Burning Man 2005 shots up. We’re already planning for 2006.

So I got them up this weekend. Of particular interest to burners this year will be the aerial survey I did of the city, over 200 close-up photos of just about every camp in the city from the sky.

And yes, I shot plenty of panoramas, and I have built most of them, but still don’t have the panorama page up.

So take a visit to my 2005 Burning Man Photos.

A super-compact global power adapter

Those who travel on trips through many countries face the problem of how to plug in their laptops and gear. Many stores sell collections of adapters, but they are often bulky, and having multiple adapters for multiple gear can be really bulky. (Usually you get one adapter and then use a 3-way splitter or cord for your type of plug.)

Today, however, almost all my travel gear is 2-prong, not 3-prong. It’s mostly my laptop and various chargers for cameras, phones etc. And all of it runs on every voltage and hz found in the world.

It seems if you’re willing to break the rules on rigidity of plugs, one could make a very small adapter by using independent pins, perhaps with a flexible rubber strip handle between them to keep them together and make it safer, but still allowing the pins to bend and have different spacing.

If you do this, there are really just a few types of pins you need. Thin blades, thick blades, thin round pins and in a few places fat round pins. The blades come at different angles — parallel in North America, slanted in Australia, colinear for thick blades in UK. With pins it’s more a question of spacing than angles. A single plug with a way to adjust the spacing could also work. (Israel has a strange pin I haven’t used, I don’t know if other pins or blades could be adapted to it.)

Generally this would not be suitable for plugging a wall-wart into a wall, you would want to plug in a short extension cord with multiple sockets of “your” type. And it might be hard to sell a product like this due to safety standards, since they don’t want to trust the user to know what they are doing, know that they are only plugging in equipment that takes any voltage and doesn’t care what pin is live and which is neutral, doesn’t need ground and doesn’t draw lots of current in any event. But it would be very compact.

Credit card companies, give us a fake "verifiable" address

When you buy stuff with a credit card online these days, they always want your address, because they will plug it into their credit card verification system, even if they are not shipping you a physical product.

I’m trying to give my physical address out less and less these days, and would in the long term love something like the addresscrow system I proposed.

However, as an interim, it might be nice to formalize a “fake” credit card billing address, authorized by the credit card company, that you can give when placing orders that will not be shipped to your physical address.

You can already do this, in that credit card verification systems tend to focus only on your street number and zip code, and rarely on your phone number, so you can make up a fake address based on this. If you live at 124 Elm St. 60609, you can usually get credit card verification with “124 Fake St. Chicago, IL 60609” choosing a street name that doesn’t exist so the post office will discard that mail. (Though often post offices try to be “good” and will get mail to you even if the street name is wrong. I guess you could try 124 DoNotDeliver St. to give them the hint.)

If it became official, the post offices could better learn what to do. There are arguments for and against letting the biller realize the address is fake. Good billers would accept this and not add it to mailing lists. Bad billers might refuse to let you enter the address.

The War Tapes

Got to preview a powerful and interesting movie last night, The War Tapes. The producers, one of whom I met, gave quality video cameras to various members of a National Guard company doing a tour of duty in Iraq. The goal was to show the war from the soldier’s POV. It’s graphic at times, and puts forward a variety of views (though I doubt it will make many people decide to favour the war more) and well worth a watch. It opens in San Francisco and Oakland this weekend, later in other places.

Versed for couple's counselling

I’ve been away because I had to have my gall bladder removed, thanks to a gallstone the size of a small moon. Unfortunately they had to do it “old school” rather than laproscopically, which means the recovery is so much more fun.

The immersion into the hospitalization system (first time in the US) will generate some blog posts, but today let me add thoughts on one element that surprised me. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote speculating on the use of Versed for torture. I still wonder about that, and now I have a direct experience. Though I was not told about it, the anesthesiologist included one of the amnesia-inducing drugs into the pre-op “calm you down” sedation coctail. I remember him doing that injection, and getting a bit flushed from that, but it’s blank after that. No memory of any discussion after, of being wheeled to the operating room and receiving the actual injection to make me unconscious for the procedure. Those events never laid down.

(When I asked the surgeon about not being told I would receive this drug, she at least had a sense of humour and said, “How do you know you weren’t told?” Indeed, I don’t know that. And to pile on the irony, I brought the movie “Momento” to the hospital, and watched it during my recovery.)

It is disturbing to have a memory deliberately erased. We’ve all lost memories, found periods in which we can’t recollect anything about particular event or stretch, but this is different.

Still, it got me wondering about bizarre uses to which this might be put. I already speculated on torture and sinister uses. And we know about the use for date-rape which is highly disturbing. I wondered about its application to deep dark secrets.

The scenario is this. You have a couple. One or both of them volunteer for an amnesia inducing drug. Then, you pour out your heart, with all the deep dark secrets you’ve been hiding, kinky fantasies you’ve been begging for, and wait for the reaction. If your own memory is not going to store, you make notes on the reactions. When you’re done, you know what secrets you can tell, and which would be relationship-destroying or particularly hurtful. Of course, the tested party needs to cooperate, and not say, “Oh, I had better pretend to not be bothered by that so that this horrible thing does not become lost to me” and and better not be a good actor. Or couples who are in the “both want to break up but are not admitting it for the sake of the other one” state could discover it and talk it out — though one could also make a computer program to solve that problem.

To be tricky, my companion in the pre-op room could have decided to tell me things there without my being aware I had received the drug — it is quite common now in sedation coctails — in which case I would not have thought to fake my reactions. Technically, though I trust her, I can not be sure via my own memory that she did not.

These drugs are currently Schedule IV, so they don’t see such non-medical use, but one can imagine other bizarre uses. For example, confidential job interviews. Consider applying for a job to work on a confidential project at a company. They might give you an NDA, or they might give you Versed and tell you the whole deal, knowing you won’t be talking about it. Or truly “embargoed” releases to the media, or trials of secret products before a focus group. And these aren’t as scary as the suggestions of use in torture or policework I already made. Certainly when it comes to any official use, we need a law requiring that any administration of such drugs be paired with complete videotaping of the entire episode and secure storage and authentication of the videotape — if we allow such use at all. (Unfortunately we are probably going to see use whether we permit it or not.)

There could be medical uses. For example, say you have the cliche’d incurable, non-communicable fatal disease and some number of months to live. You could be told, and given the choice about when you should be told in a way you’ll remember it. It’s like creating test versions of yourself to try new and dangerous ideas and report back if the real you should absorb them.

Now I should note that there are barriers to the ideas I worry about above. The drugs are not 100%. You can’t be sure they will block the long term storage of memory. And they also sedate you, put you in a calmer, non-natural mental state so they might not really be too useful in job interviews and other circumstances. (Even for torture, they might make you more able to tolerate the non-damaging torture they would want to do to you, just as they help you tolerate surgical squicks.)

But the drugs are going to get better, if they haven’t already in secret labs. There are documents of experimentation with amnesiac drugs in intelligence contexts back to Viet Nam. Who knows what the black labs have discovered? We are going to have to get used to a world where memory is more fungible, and we call can be temporarily the character from Momento.

The history of privacy

In recent times, we’ve seen a lot of debate about eroding the 4th amendment protections against surveillance in the interests of stopping terrorists and other criminals.

It’s gotten so prevalent that it seems the debate has become only about how much to weaken the 4th. Nobody ever suggests the other direction, strengthening it.

Let’s dip back into historical perspective, and think of the late 18th century, when it was written. In those days surveillance was a simple thing to understand. It required human beings who were physically present to watch you, or search your house. The closest thing to remote surveillance was the idea of opening somebody’s mail while in transit.

More importantly, it didn’t scale. To watch 100 people you needed 100 teams. You could watch the town square but otherwise large scale surveillance simply wasn’t physically possible.

And yet, even with this limited set of things to worry about, the signers of the bill of rights felt they had plenty to fear. If you could describe today’s techniques of surveillance to them — where we can observe people from a distance, plant bugs in their homes, see them through walls, detect sounds from windows and read electronic emissions; where we can listen to a person by keying in a number at our desk, and where, most shockingly of all, through computers observe the activities of effectively everybody — they would have gasped in shock.

Their reaction would not have been to say, “We had not realized there would be all these new useful tools of surveillance. We had better open up exceptions in the 4th to be sure they can be used effectively.” I think they would have instead worked to strengthen the 4th to prevent these new tools.

After all, they were revolutionaries. Had the King been able to data-mine the call records of colonial America, no doubt he would have discovered all those seditious founding fathers and rounded them up quickly.

So I ask, as the surveillance tools become stronger, doesn’t it make sense that the protection from them should become stronger, to retain balance? Society can still benefit from better police technology by making it more precise, rather than more broad. This is not saying give up what technology can do to protect us from crime, but rather to channel it in the right direction.

Because the tools are going to get even better and “better.” The balance is going to continue to shift until there’s very little of the original design left.

High-speed cooling for the kitchen with flexible brine packs

Everybody who has used a microwave oven has wished at times for a "microwave fridge" that could cool things quickly. Of course the process is very different.

The fastest way to cool things, however, is to get lots of surface contact with a very cold fluid that will absorb and coduct lots of heat. And indeed, drop a drink can into ice-water, which is of course at 0 degrees centigrade (32F) and it will cool reasonably quickly.

Far faster is to drop it into icy brine water. Saltwater (brine) freezes much coooler. A 23% (by mass) brine doesn't freeze until -21C or -6 degrees farenheit. (In fact, 0 on that scale was in part derived from the freezing point of common brine, I believe.) A cooler full of salty icewater will cool drink cans much faster -- just a minute in fact, and this is well known. But it gets salt water on things, and can't be used to cool non-sealed things.

I propose packages of 23% brine in extremely soft and flexible (even at freezer temperatures) plastic packs. Perhaps moderate amounts of 1" or 2" spheres, not tautly inflated, so they can be squished and will conform to objects. The covering must be as conductive as you can reasonably get it, while staying flexible and not too fragile. Ideally dishwasher safe too...

Put them in the freezer, and then when you want to cool just about anything, pack them around it in a box. Get lots of surface area contact. Most freezers are supposed to be kept below 0F (-18C). They could even be placed on top of messy foods, if the container is easy to clean, and as noted, possibly could be dishwashable with modern ingredients. If you just slot a drink can or bottle into them, you would not need to clean them.

There are some risks. These packs could actually frostburn skin fairly quickly, I think. Small plastic pick-up handles/tabs would make sense for moving them by hand, or gloves or tongs could be used. Of course brine is not going to be toxic so puncture would generate nothing worse than a salty mess.

Brine is used in ice-cream making and other cooling applications already. For maximum cooling, a simple device with cold 23% brine, a conductive surface and some means to circulate the brine to generate convection would be in order.

There are some salts, such as Magnesium Chloride and Ca2Cl which stay liquid at much cooler temperatures. Those could be used in a tiny mini-cooler which takes them down to seriously cold temperatures. Then items to be flash-cooled could be inserted among the chilly pillows. Of course, expect frozen condensate if there is water around.

You can test this plan out yourself with solid zipper freezer bags. Take 750ml water and about 230g NaCl salt to make your brine. You don't have to get it exactly right, your freezer is probably not at -6F.

Rental no-talking lasers at events

Ok, this isn’t entirely serious but…

Just got back from a concert by Andrea Bocelli, which was 75% italian opera and then the last 25% his pop stuff. Curiously the conductor told the audience when they switched about how he was getting to the pop stuff we had been patiently waiting for and the audience applauds and laughs. If it’s really that way, it’s interesting to wonder if they still make more money doing mostly opera because opera commands more money because of implied lesser demand. (Expensive seats ran to $275 and that was a fair bit of the floor.)

Anyway, perhaps it was the different type of audience for Bocelli, but there was some talking, and people holding up cell phone cameras to take pictures, with the odd digital camera flash. It was a bit strange, mind you to see a crowd of people in fancy dress clothes and 3” heels at the hockey arena, eating nachos from the concession stands and watching opera.

Because in my mind you should not even have to think about shushing people at a classical concert. (I don’t think you should have to at a movie either, but that battle’s long lost.)

So the non-serious suggestion for all sorts of venues. Give people (with a $5 deposit) a portable laser that projects a small no talking symbol. Perhaps the word “TALK” with a circle and line, something you can do in the small resolution of laser pointers. When somebody talks (or does the cell phone thing which is distracting now just for the super-bright backlight) you beam the laser on them somewhere they will see. Ideally lots of people do it.

Of course, if people did this it would be distracting it itself, defeating the purpose. It only works if it is temporary, and people learn the lesson, and you don’t have to do it again. A digital follow-spot that identifies bright lights and sounds would also work. Pea-shooters might be better but how will people know what the message is?

Speaking of which, why don’t more cell phones dim the backlight when they are in a dark room? It would save power. (Though I know people now use these as flashlights of a sort.)

EBay: Sniping good or bad or just a change of balance?

Ebayers are familiar with what is called bid “sniping.” That’s placing your one, real bid, just a few seconds before auction close. People sometimes do it manually, more often they use auto-bidding software which performs the function. If you know your true max value, it makes sense.

However, it generates a lot of controversy and anger. This is for two reasons. First, there are many people on eBay who like to play the auction as a game over time, bidding, being out bid and rebidding. They either don’t want to enter a true-max bid, or can’t figure out what that value really is. They are often outbid by a sniper, and feel very frustrated, because given the time they feel they would have bid higher and taken the auction.

This feeling is vastly strengthened by the way eBay treats bids. The actual buyer pays not the price they entered, but the price entered by the 2nd place bidder, plus an increment. This makes the 2nd place buyer think she lost the auction by just the increment, but in fact that’s rarely likely to be true. But it still generates great frustration.

The only important question about bid sniping is, does it benefit the buyers who use it? If it lets them take an auction at a lower price, because a non-sniper doesn’t get in the high bid they were actually willing to make, then indeed it benefits the buyer, and makes the seller (and interestingly, eBay, slightly less.)

There are many ways to write the rules of an auction. They all tend to benefit either the buyer or the seller by some factor. A few have benefits for both, and a few benefit only the auction house. Most are a mix. In most auction houses, like eBay, the auction house takes a cut of the sale, and so anything that makes sellers get higher prices makes more money on such auctions for the auction house.

Read on…  read more »

The 17 Ontario terrorists, are they terrorists?

Of course I am disturbed to see that some of these apparently twisted men come from my home town of Mississauga, but I’m also bothered by the continuing expansion of the term terrorism.

To my mind, terrorism has always involved attacking ordinary innocents for the purpose of sewing terror to some polictical end. Attacking military targets, such as the Pentagon or the USS Cole, or Marine bases is not terrorism (though you can argue that the victims on the plane used in that attack on the Pentagon qualify it as terrorist, but sadly from their perspective, they more correctly fit the definition of what we euphamistically call “collateral damage.”)

Those arrested in Ontario, it was revealed, planned to attack Parliament and take the Prime Minister and others there hostage, demanding they pull troops from Afghanistan. While I make no excuse for their plans or actions, I can’t see attacking the very people who ordered the troops in as terrorism. (Though holding them hostage is.) You could call it treason (because many were Canadians or naturalized Canadians and had in the latter case taken an oath not to do this which they would have betrayed.) You could call it guerilla warfare if you accept them as legitimate guerrilla soldiers of that nation. You could call it insurrection. You could just call it conspiracy towards kidnapping and attempted murder. All of these crimes can offer Canada’s maximum penalty. (Which, by the way, is life in prison.)

But if this is terrorism, what isn’t? As noted, we’ve seen attacks such as that on the Cole, or Marine bases or the Pentagon called terrorist. Is the only thing that’s not terrorist sending in a ship with a flag on it full of uniformed fighters? Or lobbing a missile at a tall building with the major radio transmission towers on it, which is the first thing the U.S. does in its wars?

I should note that the definition of terrorism in the law they are charged under does not distinguish civilian from military targets. It just requires things like attacks causing serious bodily harm or death for politicial, religious or ideological purposes.

Update based on comments: As noted above kidnapping is not considered a valid tool of war. The rules of war require all captured enemy to be treated as POWs. As such, the hostage-taking part of the plan is legitimately classified as terrorist. While the leaders, including the civilian leaders at the top who issue orders to troops in my opinion count as valid military enemies in war, the role of assassination in war has always been controversial. It is however, perhaps the archetypical move of an insurrection.

Again, if guilty, these men are evil and deserve the strongest punishment whether attacking parliament is terrorist or not. What’s important about this debate is that society is using the word terrorism to redefine our laws, and make laws that punish it more, and allow law enforcement infringements of civil rights in ways that would not be allowed against non-terrorist criminals. So we must make particular care in defining the term. In particular, I hope we can define the term in a way that our own actions, and past wartime actions we approve of, would not even resemble what we define as terrorism. Civilized governments and armies should never deliberately target innocents, which is why that’s the right place to draw the line. They do, however, engage in guerilla actions, are born of insurrections, and send spies and sabateurs and assassins. They do blow up buildings with military value whether civilians in or nearby will be killed in the process. If we include such actions as terrorist, we should deplore them just as much when nations do them.

Travel laptop for couples

We often travel as a couple, and of course both have the same e-mail and web addictions that all of you probably have. Indeed, these days if you don’t get to your e-mail and other stuff for a long period, it becomes unmanageable when you return. For this reason, we bring at least one, and often two laptops on trips.

When we bring one, it becomes a time-waster. Frankly, our goal is to spend as little time in our hotel room on the net as possible, but it’s still very useful not just for e-mail but also travel bookings and research, where to eat etc. When we have only one computer — or when we have two but the hotel only provides a connection for one — it means we have to spend much more time in the hotel room.

It would be nice to see a laptop adopted for couple’s use. In many cases, this could be just a little software. Many laptops already can go “dual head”, putting out a different screen on their VGA connector than goes to the built-in panel. So a USB keyboard and a super-thin laptop sized flat panel would be all you need, along with power for the panel. In the future, as more and more hotel rooms adopt HDTVs, one could use that instead of the display.

Of course desktop flat panels are bigger than laptops, this would need to be a modified version of the same panels put into laptops, which are readily available. A special connector for it, with power, would make this even better. The goal is something not much larger than a clipboard and mini-keyboard. It could even be put in an ultrathin laptop case (with no motherboard, drives or even battery.)

Now, as to software. In Linux, having two users on two screens is already pretty easy. It’s just a bit of configuration. I would hope the BSD based Mac is the same. Windows is more trouble, since it really doesn’t have as much of a concept of two desktops with two users logged in. (Indeed, I have wondered why we haven’t seen a push for dual-user desktop computers, since it’s not at all uncommon to see an home office with two computers in it for two members of the family, but for which both are used together only rarely.)

On Windows, you would probably need to just have one user logged in, and both people would be that user to Windows. However, you would have different instances of Firefox/Mozilla, for example, which can use different profiles so each person has their own browser settings and bookmarks, their own e-mail settings etc. It would be harder to have both people run their own MS Word, but it might be doable.

Some variants of the idea include making a “thin client” box that plugs into the main computer via USB or even talks bluetooth to it, and has its own power supply. It might do something as simple as VNC to a virtual screen on the main box. Or of course it could plug into ethernet but that’s often taken on the main box to talk to the hotel network if the hotel has a wired connection. (More often they have wireless now.) The thin client could also act as a hub to fix this.

If you want to bring two laptops, you can make things work by using internet connection sharing over wired or wireless ad-hoc network, though it’s much more work than it should be to set up. But my goal is to avoid the weight, size and price of a 2nd laptop, though price is not that big an issue because I am presuming one has other uses for it.

Sorry, SETI, ET not phoning

Yesterday I attended Seth Shostak’s standard talk about the work at the SETI institute. I know others from the institute such as Frank Drake and Jill Tarter who inspired the Jodi Foster character in the movie Contact. I wanted to see what was new. (Once, by the way, I went on an eclipse cruise where Drake and Tarter were passengers. On a dive boat, somebody talked about the movie Contact, so I told them that Tarter was on the ship, and she had inspired the character. The woman was amazed and asked, “You mean she met an extraterrestrial?”)

I have a lot of sympathy for this cause, for the search is important and the payoff extremely so. But I must report a serious lack of optimism. Read on to find out why…  read more »

Immigration Rant

As I watch the immigration debate, I remain astounded at the views expressed by various sides. I am an immigrant to the USA, of course (of the legal type) so naturally I have some sympathies with immigrants, but the inconsistency of some viewpoints bothers me.

If you needed an argument for encouraging immigration, you should have been with me at Agenda in the year 2000. Agenda is a high-priced computer/internet industry executive conference (I used to be one). In that year, it was filled with all the people who were building all the hot new companies and the people running some of the older ones. The very people who were being held up as the engine of economic creation in the USA. That boom wilted a little bit, but there was still a lot of real stuff underneath.

Some high level government official was speaking and immigration came up. Another person at the lunch asked all those in the crowd who were born outside the USA to raise their hands. I would guess at least 60% of us raised our hands. Everybody knows that immigrants built the USA. What some people seem to have lost is that this never stopped. It’s going on just as much today.

Being anti-immigrant reminds me of racism, to use an inflamatory term. Racism is the belief that the broad circumstances of a person’s ancestry affect their worth as a person, and should affect their rights in society. Anti-immigrant nationalism is actually stronger. I was born 20 miles from the U.S. border, to parents also born there (though they were born to immigrant parents from Europe.) What moral code says that those like me deserve less of such fundamental rights as the ability to work, freedom to travel, freedom to live on my land, or to vote for those that will govern us? How can a few miles difference in birthplace morally command such a difference?

It can’t. People are not inherently superior or more or less worthy of human rights based on their parentage or the accidents of their birth. The reasons for sealed borders are entirely pragmatic, ends-justify-the-means reasons. But few are willing to admit that. This has become more true as societies move to offering not just rights but welfare and social support systems to people who live within them. No country can provide welfare to the world, so nations decide to set up an arbitrary rule (birth and parentage) to control who can get in to receive it. I’m not saying these pragmatic arguments aren’t real, just that we should admit what they are. When people get on soapboxes and decry Indians taking jobs from Americans, they seem to be saying that Indians are less worthy than Americans. That there is a moral reason we should contract for labour from people with the same ancestry or birth situation as ourselves over those who don’t share that. There is no such moral reason.

Addendum: I also think every country should encourage as many foreign students as it can. As my privacy sparring partner (but still friend) David Brin puts it, they send their children to our country and get infused with our values and ideas, and come to know us as human beings, and then some go home to spread those ideas — and they pay for this privilege. Who could possibly be against that?

1999 2.0

So over the last 2 weeks I attended 4 nicely catered parties, starting with a dinner for O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conference and ending with one for the SuperNova conference.

By the last party I made up a badge that said “1999 2.0” — that was after the shrimp came out. Though to be fair, it was still cash bar, so we aren’t quite there yet. Though they also gave everybody a $50 gift card at an online content store (where I couldn’t find anything I wanted to spend the $50 on…)

VC funding of speculative deals is certainly up, though of course the IPO market has yet to repeat the boom. People are watching Vonage, which spammed me with E-mail, a paper letter and a voice mail to tell me I could participate in their stock offering (except the fine print says I can’t as I am not a U.S. citizen.)

Web 2.0 certainly seems replete with companies getting funding with little sign of how to build a sustainable business.

No more monitor out of scan range

It can be very frustrating when a PC decides to send a signal to a monitor that is outside its scan range. Yes, the systems try hard to avoid it, via things like plug and play EDID information on monitor specs, and reverting changes to monitor settings if you don’t confirm them after a few seconds, but sometimes it still happens. It happens after monitor swap, it happens if you don’t have a monitor turned on when you boot or if you have KVM switch that doesn’t talk about the monitor.

The result can be frustrating. If you know how to reboot your PC without seeing the screen you can try that but even that can fail.

So I suggest that monitors be a bit better about signals that are outside of their range. If the dot clock is too fast, for example, consider dividing it by two if the electronics can handle that, showing half the pixels. If there are too many scan lines, just show as many as you can. The bottom of the screen will be missing, but that’s better than no view at all. If the refresh frequency is too high (though usually that’s because the dot clock is too fast) you can skip every other frame, for a very flickering display, but at least not a blank one. Whatever you can do, you can save people from hitting the reset button.

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