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.

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 »

News: Burning Man burns on Monday

Update: I now have a whole Burning Man area on the blog!

I’ve not been blogging of late because I’m at Burning Man, and while normally I don’t report breaking news in this blog, we just witnessed a strange event. Through accident or arson, the Man was set alight this evening shortly after totality began in the eclipse of the moon.

The man was not loaded with explosives or fireworks as he is before his planned burn, so it was a more sedate affair, and soon fire crews arrived to “save the man” — something we have been asking for in mock protests for years. They did put him out, and he still stands, a bit worse for wear.

I managed to get some photos of the burn….

Efforts to save the man…

The injured man, missing a hand and burnt, under the eclipsed moon…

Coming up: Burning Man, Singularity Summit, Foresight Vision Weekend

Here are three events coming up that I will be involved with.

Burning Man of course starts next weekend and consumes much of my time. While I’m not doing any bold new art project this year, maintaining my 3 main ones is plenty of work, as is the foolishly taken on job of village organizer and power grid coordinator. I must admit I often look back fondly on my first Burning Man, where we just arrived and were effectively spectators. But you only get to do that once.

Right after Burning Man, the Singularity Institute is hosting a Singularity Summit — a futurist conference with a good rack of speakers. Last year they did it as a free event at Stanford and got a giant crowd (because it was free there were no-shows, however, making it sad that some were turned away.) This year there is a small fee, and it’s at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

On the first weekend of November, we at the Foresight Institute will host our 2007 Vision Weekend doing half of it in “unconference” style — much more ad-hoc. It will be at Yahoo HQ in Sunnyvale, thanks to their generous sponsorship. More details on that to come.

Blog has been moved to a new server -- notes on shopping for hosting

As I noted earlier, my web site got hacked. As a result, I decided to leave my old hosting company, PowerVPS.com, and find a new host. While another VPS would probably have managed, I know a woman in San Jose who runs a hosting company, simpli.biz, who offered me a good deal on a fast dedicated server. I’ll grow into it, and in the meantime you should see much greater performance from my site.

I will make some final commentary on PowerVPS. I left for a variety of reasons, and they were certainly not 100% bad.

  • They were on the other coast, so my ping times to them were 80ms or so. This was no fun for ssh and would have made running things on them impractical. I was surprised that most of the virtual hosting companies with good reputations and prices were not on the west coast.
  • At first I looked for hosting in Canada. This was not simply because I was a Canadian. I thought it might be good to get hosting (in Vancouver) that was not subject to U.S. law. Not because I intend to break U.S. law, but being at the EFF we’ve been fighting some of these laws and it would be good to be on another level. And I’m Canadian. However, all the hosting offerings in Canada I tried that matched my parameters were much more expensive.
  • VPSs are in general a great idea. However, it’s hard to make them swap. That means each VPS duplicates in RAM a copy of apache and mysql and the rest, which is wasteful. Dedicated servers, which swap, allow the big programs that have a lot of pages which are rarely used to swap them out to disk, while the active programs get use of all of the ram. You can’t overdo this, but it’s pretty handy. One VPS provider, Iron Mountain, does what I have been advocating — gives users access to a virtualized MySQL server on a fast machine, so you don’t have to run your own. Doing this is rare.
  • They would not support Ubuntu, only Centos. I am running Ubuntu on almost all my machines. I really like the idea that I can just duplicate efforts onto my hosting server, with now learning how to do things in a different distro. And that I can compile stuff at home and just move it to the web host. CentOS is the most popular distro in the hosting world, and people have done a lot of fancy things for it (control panels, automated installs etc.) and I understand why a company will decide to only support one distro. But that just means I go to a company that picked the distro I want.
  • PowerVPS screwed up when most of their customers got hacked. The hack wasn’t their fault, as far as I know, but once they realized so many of their customers were compromised, they should have E-mailed all of us immediately. Because they didn’t, I only noticed the attack when they broke some of my scripts. My site redirected unsuspecting users to a frame which might have infected them, which I regret. I should have been told about this as soon as possible.
  • The kicker: When I told them I wanted to replace my server after the hack, they said I had two options. I could back up the server (many gigs of data) and they would erase it and give me a new one with a fresh Centos 4. Then I could restore the files and rebuild everything, being down during the period I did this. Or I could buy a new server, transfer, and then move the DNS or the IP as desired. They would not temporarily give me the 2nd server, and then delete the old when I was ready. They said too many people took too long, and freaked out if deleted. Being forced to buy a new server simply sent me on a shopping trip. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why send your customers on a shopping trip?
  • Another sin: When I went shopping, I looked at the list of special coupon offers various competitors offered. There I saw PowerVPS selling the same server I was paying $85 for for 30% off, lifetime discount. Be very careful when you offer new customers a much better price than existing customers get. I hate it, and I will leave you for it.

Now as I say, it was not all bad. Their support was good, and during the recent episode where I was on the digg.com homepage, they temporarily upgraded my VPS capacity — which is one of the prime things a VPS can do that a dedicated server can’t. I liked those things but the above mistakes lost a customer.

Let me know if you encounter any problems with the server move.

Updated note: After you change a server’s IP, all users should switch to a new IP after the “time to live” on the past lookup expires, which in my case was set to about 3 hours. However, turns out many people have broken (or deliberately broken) software that retains stale records for much longer. The leading culprit right now are web spiders, including googlebot, which continue to hit the old address. Actual users doing so are rare. For E-mail, a previous move found that spammers continued to use the old addresses for months after the fact. They presumably kept DNS lookup data on their CD-ROMs, or didn’t want to be subject to attempts to use DNS to block them, or had some other reason.

New list of document classifications

It was an interesting experience watching our team argue before the U.S. District Court of Appeals that the EFF’s lawsuit against AT&T for helping the NSA spy on conversations without warrants should be dismissed because it impinges on state secrets. While the judges probed both sides, I read some signs from their grilling of the U.S. Government’s lawyer that they really have some concern over the important issues. They appear to realize that we can’t leave such programs completely without judicial oversight just because an NSA official declares them to be state secrets.

As one judge said, “are we supposed to bow down” before such declarations?

Anyway, this inspired me to make up a new list of all the different classifications for secret information:

  1. Unclassified (Ordinary documents)
  2. Sensitive (to delay FOIA)
  3. Double Super Secret (For Time Magazine Only)
  4. Treated as Top Secret (Non-secret document from Vice President’s Office)
  5. Leakable (Identity of covert agents married to those causing political trouble)
  6. Secret
  7. Top Secret
  8. SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information)
  9. Embarrassing (Highest possible classification)

Wanted -- better tools to fill out, sign forms

I get forms to fill out and sign in electronic form all the time now. Often they come as PDFs or word documents, every so often by fax, and more and more rarely on paper. My handwriting is terrible and of course I no longer have a working typewriter. But none of the various tools I have seen for the job have had a nice easy workflow.

Now some PDFs are built as forms, and in Acrobat and a few other programs you can fill out the form fairly nicely. However, it’s actually fairly rare for people to build their PDFs as fillable forms. When they do, the basic Acrobat tools generate a form which free Acrobat reader will let you fill out — but bars you from saving the form you filled it out. You can only print it! Adobe charges more, on a per form basis, to make savable forms. However, some other readers, like Foxit Reader, will let you save what you fill into forms, even if the creator didn’t pay Adobe.

You still can’t sign such forms in electronic fashion, however. And as noted, many forms of all types aren’t enabled this way. Forms that come as Microsoft Word documents can be filled out in MS Word or the free Open Office writer or abiword. And you can even insert a graphic of a signature, which gets you closer to the target.

Often however, you are relegated to taking a fax, scanned paper document or PDF converted to bitmap, and editing it in a bitmap editor. Unfortunately the major bitmap editors, like Photoshop or GIMP, tend to be aimed entirely at fancy text and they are dreadful and entering a lot of text on a form. They don’t even make it so easy as quickly clicking and typing.

I encountered a commercial package named “Form Pilot” which is for Windows only but appears to run on WINE. It’s better than the graphics editors, and it does let you click and type easily. However, it has some distance to go. Here’s what I want:

  • Be smart and identify the white spaces on the form, and notably the lines or boxes. Figure a good type size if the default isn’t right.
  • When I click in one of those boxes, or above a line, automatically put me at a nice position above the line for typing. This is not a hard problem, hardly even OCR, just finding borders and lines. Let me use a different click if I want to do precise manual positioning.
  • When I hit TAB or some similar key, advance to the next such box or line in the form.
  • If I type too much in a box, do an automating shrinking of the text so that it fits.
  • Of course, let me go back and edit my text, and save the document with the text as a different layer so I can go back and change things.

Signing

Now the interesting issue of signing. For this, I would want to scan in a sheet of paper which I have placed many signatures on, and have it isolate and store them as a library of signatures.

When I wish to apply a signature, have it pick a random one. In addition, have it make some minor modifications to the signature. Modifications could include removing or adding a pixel here or there along the lines, or adjusting the aspect ratio of the signature slightly. Change the colour of the ink or thickness. There are many modifications which could generate thousands of unique signature forms. If you run out, scan another sheet.

Then make a log of the document I signed and the parameters of the signature that was added, and record that. All this is to assure the user that people who get the document can’t take the signature and copy it again to use on a different document and claim you signed it. You’ll have a log, if you want it, of just what documents were signed. Even without the log you can have assurance of uniqueness and can refute fake signatures easily.

(Refuting forged signatures is actually pretty easy on electronic documents.)

When done, let me save the document or print it, or hook up with a service so that I can easily fax it. The result should be a process of receiving a document or form, filling it out and signing it and sending it back (by fax or email of course) that’s even easier than the original method on paper.

I was surprised, by the way, at how bad all the free bitmap painters I tried were at typing. Gimp and Krita are poor. xpaint and kolourpaint seemed to have the easiest flow even though they are much older and primitive in UI. If you know of programs that do this well, let me know.

RC Blimp for mine exploration

As workers search for trapped miners in Utah, having drilled a 9” hole down to what is hoped to be their area, they plan to use things like sound and detecting CO2 and O2 in the atmosphere to find the miners.

It occurs to me that it should be possible to fit one of those inflatable radio controlled blimps down such a small tube, inflating it after it gets to the bottom. There are models that support small video cameras (and LED lights would not be too hard) especially in the denser air at the bottom of a mine. You would send down a radio relay station as well, and if things were really fancy, a way for the blimp to be told to dock for recharge or exchange of battery packs. (Small butane motors might also provide better power for weight.)

It’s also possible that power could be provided by paying out a wire, if it could generate enough thrust to drag that wire. There is a high risk the wire could get caught except on smooth floors, though. One might imagine paying out wire as far as one can go, and then disconnecting, fully charged, for a modest time on internal power. These blimps are cheap, you could send down several. They could easily sail over debris a ground based robot could not handle, though they could not crawl through small holes without deflating.

Another option would be an enclosed fan hovering robot. Such a robot would be able to go through smaller holes, though it’s hard to imagine remote pilots good enough to send them through such channels with only a video camera to see by. In the future, we may well have hovering robots able to use sonar to keep themselves stable and away from obstacles. They would go on ground when they could, then use bursts of hover to get over obstacles. But the blimp is something that could certainly work in ordinary mine channels today, though only for a limited battery life.

My world's oldest "blog" is 20 years old tomorrow (Aug 7, 2007)

Twenty years ago Tuesday, I created the newsgroup rec.humor.funny as a moderated place for posting the funniest jokes on the net, as chosen by the editor. In light of that anniversary, I have written up a bit of history of the creation of RHF. From there you can also find links to pieces I wrote earlier about the attempt to ban RHF and how RHF led to my creation of ClariNet.

One reason people may pay a bit more attention to this anniversary is I think that RHF, with its associated web site has a claim at being the world’s longest still-running “blog.” Of course, there is much debate about the origins of blogging, and there are various contenders based on what definition you put to the word.

I provide more detailed examination of those definitional questions and the other contenders on a page about the world’s oldest blog. In short, I contend that a blog is something that is:

  • Serial (a series of publications over time)
  • Done with a personal editorial voice (rather than being news reporting)
  • On the world wide web

While most agree with that last point (since personal journals, published diaries and columns existed long before computers) many forget that when Tim Berners-Lee defined what the web was, he was very explicit about including the many media and protocols he was tying together with HTML and HTTP, including USENET, Gopher, E-mail and the rest. So the web dates back well before HTML, and so does the weblog.

I personally point to mod.ber, a short-lived moderated newsgroup from 1983 as the first blog. It was clearly the boing-boing of its day. But it doesn’t exist, so RHF may get to claim the title.

As you will know if you have followed RHF, while I continue to publish it and provide the software and systems, I only edited it for the first 5 or so years. After that Maddi Hausmann took over, and in 1995, Jim Griffith took the reigns to this day. He, however, is ready to retire shortly and we’re looking for a replacement — a note will be posted in RHF and here with more details after the anniversary.

As you’ll see in the histories, the decision to start RHF changed my life in sweeping ways. It was one of those junctures that Clarence from “It’s a wonderful life” could change if he wanted to show me a different path.

Happy 20th Birthday rec.humor.funny.

Yipes, badwared...

A few weeks ago, my site got hacked. The attacker inserted an iframe pointing to a malware site into most of my html pages. That of course is bad, but the story doesn’t end there. (I should of course have upgraded my OS from the ancient one my hosting company gave years ago, but they don’t really support that, and feel an upgrade consists of rebuilding from scratch.)

I cleaned out the entire site and searched for any remnants of the bad link. Having done this I thought all was well. However, as it turns out while the ideas.4brad.com domain and other domains were clear, the 4brad.com domain, which I don’t use for anything, still had a web server on it, pointing at a different directory far from where I keep my own web sites. (I try to never put my stuff in system directories.)

Unfortunately google, for unknown reasons, looked at 4brad.com, even though there are no links to it anywhere on the web. And found the placeholder page, with hacked link in it. From there it declared the entire site, including ideas.4brad.com, to be a malware site. I think that’s a bug, since there were never any malware links on ideas.4brad.com pages — this is a drupal site, and while the hacker’s script attempts to modify PHP scripts, it did not do so correctly, and just broke them. Running linux, I didn’t see the malware hacks on the other sites where they made the changes, but found them soon enough and removed them for now.

Alas, that means for some time people have been directed away from this blog by google. It shows up in search results, but you can’t actually click on the results, and there are warnings that going to the site may harm your computer (you get these warnings even on non-windows computers, which is reasonable, I guess, if incorrect.) I’ve asked the site stopbadware.org, which Google teams with, to confirm the hacks are gone, and now I have to rush out to rebuild the site from a fresh install. Sigh.

Update: Google reacted to the cleanup of 4brad.com very quickly and no longer lists the domain as unsafe. I did file a review request with stopbadware.org — perhaps they are much faster than they let on.

I’m shopping for hosting. I think I will upgrade to dedicated hosting, even though virtualized hosting has its merits. As I wrote before it would be great if MySQL could be virtualized independently of the OS. The ideal marriage would be a virtualized linux with access to sharable, non-virtualized services like web serving and database. The trick is memory. A typical virtual host will have 16 copies of MySQL and 16 copies of Apache and 16 copies of PHP or similar running on it. Because virtual machines don’t truly understand how much memory they have, or see the paging of the underlying OS, they can’t manage memory as well. But their ability to burst in unused capacity is a big win.

Two year contract required

I’m a big fan of making money by selling services but a disturbing trend is the requirement that customers sign a one or two (or even three) year contract in order to sign up for a service. Such contracts will have a fat termination fee if you want to end the contract early.

This is almost universal for cell phones, and of course it makes some sense when they are selling/giving you a subsidized phone. They need to be sure you will stay with them long enough to make the subsidy (From $200 to $400 if you include dealer kickbacks) back. That’s not so hard, because with many people getting cell phone plans as high as $100/month, they make it back quickly.

However, cell phone companies notoriously require a new contract for just about any change in your calling plan, including simply switching to a new plan they just started offering that you like better. Usually that’s just a one year contract. This makes much less sense. Switching your plan doesn’t cost them anything much aside from a call to customer service. They just want to put you on that contract.

DSL ISPs (and not just the phone company ones) are also notorious here. Some need it to subsidize installation or equipment, but again it’s also done simply to change price plans. In many cases you will also see major discounts offered if you commit to a contract (or of course even better if you just pay 12 months at once.)

I understand the attraction of the company for contracts. They can predict and book revenue. Quantity discounts have always had their reasons.

But they may not realize a serious negative about the contracts. They are a barrier to getting customers. In particular, a demand for a contract (when there is no major subsidy) says to me we think that without a contract, we could lose you as a customer. We fear that, if not for the contract, you would leave us. And that immediately makes me think the same thing. “What is it that makes them think they can’t keep me just by providing good service at good prices?” They already won my business, which is the hardest part. Now all they have to do is keep me happy and they will be very likely to keep it.

This recently backfired for Verizon. I’ve been off contract with them for years, though I had often debated switching to a different plan. Every time they told me I would need to sign a one year contract, and get no subsidy for doing so. (For a 2 year contract, they would have subsidized a new phone, but I wasn’t ready to do that.) So when phones broke I often picked them up on eBay rather than take their 2 year subsidy.

When it came time to really want to change plans, their demand for a new contract made them the same as all their competitors, who will also demand a new contract. And thus there was no particular reason not to switch. They encouraged me to compare all the various offers, all of which require a new contract, and all of which can offer me a phone subsidy with a 2 year contract. And all of which can keep the number, thanks to hard-won number portability. Had they been willing to let me make changes without a contract, I would have had no incentive to go shopping around at the competition. There I learned about much better deals they had, and thus left Verizon.

Perhaps they think they need a contract to keep me from the competition. But truth is, that might work temporarily but it just delays things. When a contract expires, somebody is going to be ahead, be it the competition or be it them, and they just moved the switch in time and probably locked me into the competition for their efforts.

The best company in the business shouldn’t need a contract to hold me. If the competition is offering a snazzy new subsidized phone for a contract, then my no-contract company can certainly offer that. Or, ideally, just offer me a lower monthly rate if I bring my own phone, with no need for a contract — my choice.

Over time, the public might wake up to realize that the contract is much more expensive than the phone subsidy. A typical data phone requires a plan of $60 to $80 per month, and many are on plans of $100 or more. That’s a $2400 purchase at $100/month, all to get a $200 phone subsidy. Of course most customers plan to buy from somebody over the period, so it makes sense to take the subsidy if you aren’t likely to be changing all the time, which most of us aren’t. But I am curious why all the firms feel these contracts are really in their interest.

Update: I should point out that there are reasons to get warmer to a contract when getting a new phone. Typically there is a $200 subsidy on the phone, and sometimes much more. And quite commonly, the penalty for getting out of the contract is $200, and in fact my law reduces on a pro-rata basis as you move through the life of the contract. As such, there is no reason not to sign the contract if you want that brand-new phone. In addition, there are contract trading sites (where other people will take over your contract for less than the penalty price because they don’t need a phone) to get out even cheaper.

However, you don’t want a contract without this level of quid pro quo. A contract just to change plans is ridiculous. Some carriers are getting that message.

Real Estate thoughts

A friend asked for advice on selling real estate. I’m no expert, but I thought I would write up some of my thoughts in a blog post for everybody:

  • The national average commission is 5%, though agents always ask for 6%. Do you want to do worse than average?
  • Of course, home prices have soared far beyond inflation, but the realtor cut remains the same. This is the power of the realtor monopoly, which many have tried to break. Someday somebody will. I think Google could do it.
  • A good realtor will usually get you 6% more than you will get on your own, which is how they justify their price. But that doesn’t mean a realtor couldn’t get you that same bump for far less if the market were more competitive.
  • Except in hot seller’s markets, open houses are not to sell your house. They are so the agent (or one of their associates) can meet new buyers, and try to sell them any house, not just yours. In hot markets, houses really do sell via the open house. (Also see below.)
  • A great story. A broker calls his agents in for a meeting. He asks them, “You’re listing a house and you’ve gotten one of the buyers you represent interested in it. Who are you working for?”

    One agent says, “The seller is the one you have a contract with, work for him.

    Another agent says, “The buyer is the one who decides to make the offer. Work for her.”

    A third agent says, “Actually, the law in this state requires that you try as hard as you can to represent the interests of both.

    The broker listens and then growls at them, “You’re all wrong! You’re working for me!”

  • In other words, the agent is working at making a sale happen. I’ve never met a seller’s agent who would not quickly betray their seller to make a sale happen. By “betray their seller” I mean tell the prospective buyer information the seller would normally never reveal, such that they will take less. Some would argue (validly) in some cases that this is in the seller’s interest too.
  • More often than you think, houses end up selling to friends and neighbours. A friend just listed a house and ended up with competing bids from the neighbour 2 doors down and another a few more doors down. People often love the chance to get a bigger house in the same location — no need to reclocate kids, learn new area etc. You need a neighbourhood that people love of course.
  • Because of that, consider doing one week of basic “for sale by owner” marketing to let neighbours and friends know you are selling. You will get swarmed by realtors wanting your listing, which is OK if you want them to compete over you. Otherwise tell them you’ve already picked the broker you will list with if the FSBO doesn’t work
  • You may still want an agent to handle your FSBO. There are agencies that do all the non-marketing part of real estate transactions for much lower fees, or you can talk a traditional agent into do it for far less as well.
  • As an alternate, ask for a clause in your contract that says if the house sells to a neighbour or to somebody in your circle of friends, the commission is much less. In general the commission should be much less if your agent also represents the buyer, which would typically be the case here. Threaten to do FSBO (and give the agent nothing) if they won’t accept this clause.
  • Zillow is really cool and useful.

Barry Bonds, please stop at 754

At this point it seems only people in San Francisco want to see Barry Bonds break Aaron’s all time home-run record of 755. He has 753 right now. In San Francisco, the crowds get on their feet every time he gets on deck, and that was even before he got on the cusp of the record. Outside SF, fans boo him, and it’s commonly believed that should he tie or break the record in Los Angeles or many other cities, he will get booed for doing it. In SF there is a willing suspension of disbelief. We know about the steroids and got over it, and now just want to see what sort of performance enhanced man can deliver.

Bonds is presumably off the steroids now, and his drop in performance shows it. Since he knows he can’t dare be caught with them, he probably will never take them again, and thus not be caught. There will only be the allegations of others.

My view is that the San Francisco Reality Distortion Field will fade, and nobody will speak of Bonds’ upcoming record with anything but cynicism. Record books will all put an asterisk next to it, and not like the one they sometimes put on Roger Maris’ record.

But Bonds still has a chance to show some class. People say he has none, so this is unlikely, but still possible. He should stop hitting home runs, one shy of the record. Or, if he really insists, after tying it. Nobody would doubt that he could have hit another 1 or 2 and broken the record, if not more. He might indeed play another season and break it by a wider margin, though he won’t have any more 70 HR seasons. The die hards will bitterly come to accept he was a user.

But this final act would get a very different reading in the history books, one of going out with some class.

Of course, there is the issue that the team might be screamingly upset. Normally, they would sue him for not fulfilling his very expensive contract. And he would have to retire this year, forgoing several million dollars, so this is not without cost. But fume as they might, I can’t imagine the team actually trying to sue him for a classy act. The PR cost would be far too high.

Update: Well, I guess he didn’t stop at 754, though he is holding off to get 756 at AT&T Park for the home fans. San Diego fans were nicer than I expected for the actual HR, though they booed most other times.

Forbid exploding to tan under the burning sun

Something light hearted. I purchased, some time ago, a small Li-Ion battery for external power for my laptop and other devices. These batteries are great, getting down near $100, weighing very little and, with 110 watt-hours, able to keep a laptop going all day at a conference or over most of a transoceanic flight.

This particular battery, made in China, contains one of the more amusing bad-english warnings on the label, though, particularly item #3.

Battery label

Google Mobile Maps with traffic

I’m quite impressed with Google’s mobile maps application for smartphones. It works nicely on the iPhone but is great on other phones too.

Among other things, it will display live traffic on your map. And I recently saw, when asking it for directions, that it told me that there would be “7 minutes of traffic delay” along my route. That’s great.

But they missed the obvious extension from that. Due to the delay, 101 is no longer my fastest route. They should use the traffic delay data to re-plot my route, and in this case, suggest 280. (Now it turns out that 280 is always better anyway, because aside from the fact it has less traffic, people drive at a higher average speed on it than 101, and the software doesn’t know that. Normally it’s a win except when it’s raining in the hills and not down by the shore.)

Now I’ve been wanting mapping and routing software to get a better understanding of real road speeds for a while. It could easily get that by taking GPS tracklogs from cabs, trucks and other vehicles willing to give them. It could know the real average speed of travel on every road, in every direction, at any given hour of the day. And then it could amend that with live traffic data. (Among other things, such data would quickly notice map errors, like one-way streets, missing streets, streets you can’t drive etc.)

Now to get really smart, the software should also have a formula for “aging” traffic congestion based on history and day of the week. For example, while there may be slow traffic on a stretch of highway at 6:30 pm, if I won’t get there until 7:30 it should be expected to speed up. As I get closer it can recalculate, though of course some alternate roads (like 101 vs. 280) must be chosen well in advance.

And hey, Google Mobile maps, while your at it, could you add bookmarks? For example, I would like to make a bookmark that generates my standard traffic view, and remember areas I need maps of frequently. And of course since traffic data can make them different, bookmark routes such as one’s standard commute. For this, it might make sense to let people bookmark the routes in full google maps, where you can drag the route to your taste, and save it for use in the mobile product, even comparing the route times under traffic. One could also have the device learn real data about how fast I drive on various routes, though for privacy reasons this should not be store unencrypted on servers. (We would not want our devices betraying us and getting us speeding tickets or liability in accidents due to speeding, so only averages rather than specific superlimit speeds should be stored.)

Also — there are other places in a PDA/phone with an address, most notably events in the calendar. It would be nice while looking at an event in the calendar (or to-do list) to be able to click “locate on the map.”

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