Brad Templeton is Chairman Emeritus of the EFF
, Singularity U
computing chair, software architect and internet entrepreneur, robotic car strategist, futurist lecturer, photographer and Burning Man artist.
This is an "ideas" blog rather than a "cool thing I saw today" blog. Many of the items are not topical. If you like what you read, I recommend you also browse back in the archives, starting with the best of blog section. It also has various "topic" and "tag" sections (see menu on right) and some are sub blogs like Robocars, photography and Going Green. Try my home page for more info and contact data.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2006-12-16 03:15.
I’ve spoken before about ZUI (Zero User Interface) and how often it’s the right interface.
One important system that often has too complex a UI is backup. Because of that, backups
often don’t get done. In particular offsite backups, which are the only way to deal with
fire and similar catastrophe.
Here’s a rough design for a ZUI offsite backup. The only UI at a basic level is just
installing and enabling it — and choosing a good password (that’s not quite zero UI but
it’s pretty limited.)
Once enabled, the backup system will query a central server to start looking for backup
buddies. It will be particularly interested in buddies on your same LAN (though it will
not consider them offsite.) It will also look for buddies on the same ISP or otherwise close
by, network-topology wise. For potential buddies, it will introduce the two of you and let
you do bandwidth tests to measure your bandwidth.
At night, the tool would wait for your machine and network to go quiet, and likewise the
buddy’s machines. It would then do incremental backups over the network. These would
be encrypted with secure keys. Those secure keys would in turn be stored on your own
machine (in the clear) and on a central server (encrypted by your password.)
The backup would be clever. It would identify files on your system which are common
around the network — ie. files of the OS and installed software packages — and know it
doesn’t have to back them up directly, it just has to record their presence and the
fact that they exist in many places. It only has to transfer your own created files.
Your backups are sent to two or more different buddies each, compressed. Regular checks
are done to see if the buddy is still around. If a buddy leaves the net, it quickly
will find other buddies to store data on. Alas, some files, like video, images and
music are already compressed, so this means twice as much storage is needed for backup
as the files took — though only for your own generated files. So you do have to
have a very big disk 3 times bigger than you need, because you must store data for
the buddies just as they are storing for you. But disk is getting very cheap.
(Another alternative is RAID-5 style. In RAID-5 style, you distribute each
file to 3 or more buddies, except in the RAID-5 parity system, so that any
one buddy can vanish and you can still recover the file. This means you
may be able to get away with much less excess disk space. There are also
redundant storage algorithms that let you tolerate the loss of 2 or even 3
of a larger pool of storers, at a much more modest cost than using double
All this is, as noted, automatic. You don’t have to do anything to make it happen,
and if it’s good at spotting quiet times on the system and network, you don’t even
notice it’s happening, except a lot more of your disk is used up storing data for
It is the automated nature that is so important. There have been other proposals
along these lines, such as MNET and some commercial network backup apps, but never an app you
just install, do quick setup and then forget about until you need to restore a
file. Only such an app will truly get used and work for the user.
Restore of individual files (if your system is still alive) is easy. You have
the keys on file, and can pull your file from the buddies and decrypt it with
Loss of a local disk is more work, but if you have multiple computers in
the household, the keys could be stored on other computers on the same
LAN (alas this does require UI to approve this) and then you can go to
another computer to get the keys to rebuild the lost disk. Indeed, using
local computers as buddies is a good idea due to speed, but they don’t
provide offsite backup. It would make sense for the system, at the cost of
more disk space, to do both same-LAN backup and offsite. Same-LAN for
hardware failures, offsite for building-burns-down failures.
In the event of a building-burns-down failure, you would have to go
to the central server, and decrypt your keys with that password. Then you can get your
keys and find your buddies and restore your files. Restore would not
be ZUI, because we need no motiviation to do restore. It is doing regular
backups we lack motivation for.
Of course, many people have huge files on disk. This is particularly true
if you do things like record video with MythTV or make giant photographs,
as I do. This may be too large for backup over the internet.
In this case, the right thing to do is to backup the smaller files first,
and have some UI. This UI would warn the user about this, and suggest
options. One option is to not back up things like recorded video. Another
is to rely only on local backup if it’s available. Finally, the system
should offer a manual backup of the large files, where you connect a
removable disk (USB disk for example) and transfer the largest files to
it. It is up to you to take that offsite on a regular basis if you can.
However, while this has a UI and physical tasks to do, if you don’t do
it it’s not the end of the world. Indeed, your large files may get
backed up, slowly, if there’s enough bandwidth.
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2006-12-13 23:17.
A new program has appeared at San Jose Airport, and a few other airports like Orlando. It’s called “Clear” and is largely the product of the private company Clear at flyclear.com. But something smells very wrong.
To get the Clear card, you hand over $99/year. The private company keeps 90% and the TSA gets the small remainder. You then have to provide a fingerprint, an iris scan and your SSN, among other things.
What do you get for this? You get to go to the front of the security line, past all the hoi polloi. But that’s it. Once at the front of the line, you still go through the security scan the same as anybody else. Which is, actually, the right thing to do since “trusted traveller” programs which actually let you bypass the security procedure are in fact bad for security compared to random screening.
But what doesn’t make sense is — why all the background checks and biometrics just to go to the head of the line? Why wouldn’t an ordinary photo ID card work? It doesn’t matter who you are. You could be Usama bin Ladin because all you did was not wait in line.
So what gives? Is this just an end run to get people more used to handing over fingerprints and other information as a natural consequence of flying? Is it a plan to change the program to one that lets the “clear” people actually avoid being x-rayed. As it stands, it certainly makes no sense.
Note that it’s not paying to get to the front of the line that makes no sense, though it’s debatable why the government should be selling such privileges. It’s the pointless security check and privacy invasion. For some time United Airlines at their terminal in SFO has had a shorter security line for their frequent flyers. But it doesn’t require any special check on who you are. If you have status or a 1st class ticket, you’re in the short line.
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2006-12-13 00:54.
Normally I’m a general-purpose computing guy. I like that the computer that runs my TV with MythTV is a general purpose computer that does far more than a Tivo ever would. My main computer is normally on and ready for me to do a thousand things.
But there is value in specialty internet appliances, especially ones that can be very low power and small. But it doesn’t make sense to have a ton of those either.
I propose a generic internet appliance box. It would be based on the same small single-board computers which run linux that you find in the typical home router and many other small network appliances. It would ideally be so useful that it would be sold in vast quantities, either in its generic form or with minor repurposings.
Here’s what would be in level 1 of the box:
- A small, single-board linux computer with low power processor such as the ARM
- Similar RAM and flash to today’s small boxes, enough to run a modest linux.
- WiFi radio, usually to be a client — but presumably adaptable to make access points (in which case you need ethernet ports, so perhaps not.)
- USB port
- Infrared port for remote control or IR keyboard (optionally a USB add-on)
Optional features would include:
- Audio output with low-fi speaker
- Small LCD panel
- DVI output for flat panel display
- 3 or 4 buttons arranged next to the LCD panel
The USB port on the basic unit provides a handy way to configure the box. On a full PC, write a thumb-drive with the needed configuration (in particular WiFi encryption keys) and then move the thumb drive to the unit. Thumb drives can also provide a complete filesystem, software or can contain photo slide shows in the version with the video output. Thumb drives could in fact contain entire applications, so you insert one and it copies the app to the box’s flash to give it a personality.
Here are some useful applications:
- In many towns, you can see when a bus or train will arrive at your stop over the internet. Program the appliance with your stop and how long it takes to walk there after a warning. Press a button when you want to leave, and the box announces over the speaker a countdown of when to go to meet the transit perfectly.
- Email notifier
- MP3 output to stereo or digital speakers
- File server (USB connect to external drives — may require full ethernet.)
- VOIP phone system speakerphone/ringer/announcer
- Printer server for USB printers
- Household controller interface (X10, thermostat control, etc.)
Slap on the back of cheap flat panel display mounted on the wall, connected with video cable. Now offer a vast array of applications such as:
- Slide show
- Security video (low-res unless there is an mpeg decoder in the box.)
- Weather/News/Traffic updates
- With an infrared keyboard, be a complete terminal to other computer apps and a minimal web browser.
There are many more applications people can dream up. The idea is that one cheap box can do all these things, and since it could be made in serious quantities, it could end up cheaper than the slightly more specialized boxes, which themselves retail for well under $50 today. Indeed today’s USB printer servers turn out to be pretty close to this box.
The goal is to get these out and let people dream up the applications.
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2006-12-08 23:34.
Last week I wrote about linux’s problems with dependencies and upgrades and promised some suggestions this week.
There are a couple of ideas here to be stolen from (sacrilige) windows which could be a start here, though they aren’t my long term solution.
Microsoft takes a different approach to updates, which consists of
little patches and big service packs. The service packs integrate a lot
of changes, including major changes, into one upgrade. They are not
very frequent, and in some ways akin to the major distribution releases
of systems like Ubuntu (but not its parent Debian ), Fedora Core and
Installing a service pack is certainly not without risks, but
the very particular combination of new libraries and changed apps in
a service pack is extensively tested together, as is also the case for
a major revision of a linux distribution. Generally installing one of
these packs has been a safe procedure. Most windows programs also do not
use hand-edited configuration files for local changes, and so don’t suffer
from the upgrade problems associated with this particular technique nearly
as much. read more »
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2006-12-06 13:13.
There is a story that Ikonos is going to redirect a satellite to do a high-res shot of the area where CNet editor James Kim is missing in Oregon. That’s good, though sadly, too late, but they also report not knowing what to do with the data.
I frankly think that while satellite is good, for something like this, traditional aerial photography is far better, because it’s higher resolution, higher contrast, can be done under clouds, can be done at other than a directly overhead angle, is generally cheaper and on top of all this can possibly be done from existing searchplanes.
But what to do with such hi-res data? Load it into a geo-browsing system like Google Earth or Google Maps or Microsoft Live. Let volunteers anywhere in the world comb through the images and look for clues about the missing person or people. Ideally, allow the map to be annotated so that people don’t keep reporting the same clues or get tricked by the same mistakes. (In addition to annotation, you would want to track which areas had been searched the most, and offer people suggested search patterns that cover unsearched territory or special territory of interest.)
These techniques are too late for Kim, but the tools could be ready for the next missing person, so that a plane could be overflying an area on short notice, and the data processed and up within just minutes of upload and stitching.
Right now Google’s tools don’t have any facility for looking at shots from an angle, while Microsoft’s do but without the lovely interface of Keyhole/Google Earth. Angle shots can do things like see under some trees, which could be important. This would be a great public service for some company to do, and might actually make searches far faster and cheaper. Indeed, in time, people who are lost might learn that, if they can’t flash a mirror at a searchplane, they should find a spot with a view of the sky and build some sort of artificial glyph on the ground. If there were a standard glyph, algorithms could even be written to search for it in pictures. With high-res aerial photography the glyph need not be super large.
Update: It’s also noted the Kims had a cell phone, and were found because their phone briefly synced with a remote tower. They could have been found immediately if rescue crews had a small mini-cell base station (for all cell technologies) that could be mounted in a regular airplane and flown over the area. People might even know to turn on their cell phone if they are conserving power if they heard a plane. (In a car with a car charger, you can leave the phone on.) As soon as the plane gets within a few miles (range is very good for sky-based antenna) you could just call and ask “where are you?” or, in the sad case where they can’t answer, find it with signal strength or direction finding. There are plans to build cell stations to be flown over disaster areas, but this would be just a simple unit able to handle just one call. It could be a good application for software radio, which is able to receive on all bands at once with simple equipment, at a high cost in power. No problem on a plane.
Speaking of rescue, I should describe one of my father’s inventions from the 70s. He designed a very simple “sight” to be placed on a mirror. First you got a mirror (or piece of foil) and punched a hole in it you could look
through. In his fancy version, he had a tube connected to the mirror with wires, but it could be handheld. The tube itself had a smaller exit hole (like a washer glued to the end of a toilet paper cardboard tube.)
Anyway, you could look through the hole in your mirror, sight the searchplane through the washer in the cardboard tube and adust the mirror so the back of the washer is illumnated by the sunlight from the mirror. Thus you could be sure you were flashing sunlight at the plane on a regular basis. He tried to sell military on putting a folded mirror and sighting tube in soldier’s rescue kits. You could probably do something with your finger in a pinch though, just put your finger next to the plane and move the mirror so your finger lights up. Kim didn’t think of it, but taking one of the mirrors off his car would have been a good idea as he left on his trek.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2006-12-02 16:17.
We still see a lot of thermal printers out there, particularly for printing labels, receipts and the like. They are cheap, of course, though the paper costs extra so it's not always a long term win.
However, I am seeing them used for receipts that people may need to use some time later, and the problem is they fade. They definitely fade if you put them in a wallet or anywhere else that will be kept on your body. For my prepaid cell phone in Canada, for example, I need to buy the vouchers in advance so I can refill over the web before I travel back to Canada, and the most recent purchase came on thermal paper that is already faded partly and will be gone soon. I wrote down the number for protection, but it's just 3 weeks later.
So let's see a move away from thermal printers for receipts. They are OK for mailing labels which are very short lived, or places that will never see exposure to heat, or accidentally being left in the sun, but inkjets are so cheap now that there's not much excuse. (Though I realize inkjets have more moving parts.)
I also find for some reason that the thin thermal paper they use at Fry's for their receipts confuses the sheetfed scanner I use to scan receipts. It's not always sure there is paper in the scanner. I suppose that's mostly the scanner's fault, but it wouldn't happen if Fry's used a better paper or process.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2006-12-02 01:13.
We all spend far too much of our time doing sysadmin. I’m upgrading and it’s as usual far more work than it should be. I have a long term plan for this but right now I want to talk about one of Linux’s greatest flaws — the dependencies in the major distributions.
When Unix/Linux began, installing free software consisted of downloading it, getting it to compile on your machine, and then installing it, hopefully with its install scripts. This always works but much can go wrong. It’s also lots of work and it’s too disconnected a process. Linuxes, starting with Red Hat, moved to the idea of precompiled binary packages and a package manager. That later was developed into an automated system where you can just say, “I want package X” and it downloads and installs that program and everything else it needs to run with a single command. When it works, it “just works” which is great.
When you have a fresh, recent OS, that is. Because when packagers build packages, they usually do so on a recent machine, typically fully updated. And the package tools then decide the new package “depends” on the latest version of all the libraries and other tools it uses. You can’t install it without upgrading all the other tools, if you can do this at all.
This would make sense if the packages really depended on the very latest libraries. Sometimes they do, but more often they don’t. However, nobody wants to test extensively with old libraries, and serious developers don’t want to run old distributions, so this is what you get.
So as your system ages, if you don’t keep it fully up to date, you run into a serious problem. At first you will find that if you want to install some new software, or upgrade to the lastest version to get a fix, you also have to upgrade a lot of other stuff that you don’t know much about. Most of the time, this works. But sometimes the other upgrades are hard, or face a problem, one you don’t have time to deal with.
However, as your system ages more, it gets worse. Once you are no longer running the most recent distribution release, nobody is even compiling for your old release any more. If you need the latest release of a program you care about, in order to fix a bug or get a new feature, the package system will no longer help you. Running that new release or program requires a much more serious update of your computer, with major libraries and more — in many ways the entire system. And so you do that, but you need to be careful. This often goes wrong in one way or another, so you must only do it at a time when you would be OK not having your system for a day, and taking a day or more to work on things. No, it doesn’t usually take a day — but it might. And you have to be ready for that rare contingency. Just to get the latest version of a program you care about.
Compare this to Windows. By and large, most binary software packages for windows will install on very old versions of Windows. Quite often they will still run on Windows 95, long ago abandoned by Microsoft. Win98 is still supported. Of late, it has been more common to get packages that insist on 7 year old Windows 2000. It’s fairly rare to get something that insists on 5-year-old Windows XP, except from Microsoft itself, which wants everybody to need to buy upgrades.
Getting a new program for your 5 year old Linux is very unlikley. This is tolerated because Linux is free. There is no financial reason not to have the latest version of any package. Windows coders won’t make their program demand Windows XP because they don’t want to force you to buy a whole new OS just to run their program. Linux coders forget that the price of the OS is often a fairly small part of the cost of an upgrade.
Systems have gotten better at automatic upgrades over time, but still most people I know don’t trust them. Actively used systems acquire bit-rot over time, things start going wrong. If they’re really wrong you fix them, but after a while the legacy problems pile up. In many cases a fresh install is the best solution. Even though a fresh install means a lot of work recreating your old environment. Windows fresh installs are terrible, and only recently got better.
Linux has been much better at the incremental upgrade, but even there fresh installs are called for from time to time. Debian and its children, in theory, should be able to just upgrade forever, but in practice only a few people are that lucky.
One of the big curses (one I hope to have a fix for) is the configuration file. Programs all have their configuration files. However, most software authors pre-load the configuration file with helpful comments and default configurations. The user, after installing, edits the configuration file to get things as they like, either by hand, or with a GUI in the program. When a new version of the program comes along, there is a new version of the “default” configuration file, with new comments, and new default configuration. Often it’s wrong to run your old version, or doing so will slowly build more bit-rot, so your version doesn’t operate as nicely as a fresh one. You have to go in and manually merge the two files.
Some of the better software packages have realized they must divide the configuration — and even the comments — made by the package author or the OS distribution editor from the local changes made by the user. Better programs have their configuration file “include” a normally empty local file, or even better all files in a local directory. This does not allow comments but it’s a start.
Unfortunately the programs that do this are few, and so any major upgrade can be scary. And unfortunately, the more you hold off on upgrading the scarier it will be. Most individual package upgrades go smoothly, most of the time. But if you leave it so you need to upgrade 200 packages at once, the odds of some problem that diverts you increase, and eventually they become close to 100%.
Ubuntu, which is probably my favourite distribution, has announced that their “Dapper Drake” distribution, from mid 2006, will be supported for desktop use for 3 years, and 5 years for server use. I presume that means they will keep compiling new packages to run on the older base of Dapper, and test all upgrades. This is great, but it’s thanks to the generousity of Mark Shuttleworth, who uses his internet wealth to be a fabulous sugar daddy to the Linux and Ubuntu movements. Already the next release is out, “Edgy” and it’s newer and better than Dapper, but with half the support promise. It will be interesting to see what people choose.
When it comes to hardware, Linux is even worse. Each driver works with precisely one kernel it is compiled for. Woe onto you once you decide to support some non-standard hardware in your Linux box that needs a special driver. Compiling a new driver isn’t hard once, until you realize you must do it all again any time you would like to slightly upgrade your kernel. Most users simply don’t upgrade their kernels unless they face a screaming need, like fixing a major bug, or buying some new hardware. Linux kernels come out every couple of weeks for the eager, but few are so eager.
As I get older, I find I don’t have the time to compile everything from source, or to sysadmin every piece of software I want to use. I think there are solutions to some of these problems, and a simple first one will be talked about in the next installment, namely an analog of Service Packs
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2006-11-30 20:56.
Parking at airports seems a terrible waste — expensive parking and your car sits doing nothing. I first started thinking about the various Car Share companies (City CarShare, ZipCar, FlexCar — effectively membership based hourly car rentals which include gas/insurance and need no human staff) and why one can’t use them from the airport. Of course, airports are full of rental car companies, which is a competitive problem, and parking space there is at a premium.
Right now the CarShare services tend to require round-trip rentals, but for airports the right idea would be one-way rentals — one member drives the car to the airport, and ideally very shortly another member drives the car out of the airport. In an ideal situation, coordinated by cell phone, the 2nd member is waiting at the curb, and you would just hand off the car once it confirms their membership for you. (Members use a code or carry a key fob.) Since you would know in advance before you entered the airport whether somebody is ready, you would know whether to go to short term parking or the curb — or a planned long-term parking lot with a bit more advance notice so you allocate the extra time for that.
Of course the 2nd member might not want to go to the location you got the car from, which creates the one-way rental problem that carshares seem to need to avoid. Perhaps better balancing algorithms could work, or at worst case, the car might have to wait until somebody from your local depot wants to go there. That’s wasteful, though. However, I think this could be made to work as long as the member base is big enough that some member is going in and out of the airport.
I started thinking about something grander though, namely being willing to rent your own private car out to bonded members of a true car sharing service. This is tougher to do but easier to make efficient. The hard part is bonding reliability on the part of all concerned.
Read on for more thinking on it… read more »
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2006-11-28 14:27.
There’s a great tragedy going on in the Sudan, and not much is being done about it. Among the people trying to get out the message are hollywood celebrities. I am not faulting them for doing that, but I have a suggestion that is right up their alley.
Which is to make a movie to tell the story, a true movie that is, hopefully a moving as a Schinder’s List or the Pianist. Put the story in front of the first world audience.
And, I suggest with a sad dose of cynicism, do it with whitebread american actors. Not that African actors can’t do a great job and make a moving film like Hotel Rwanda. I just have a feeling that first world audiences would be more affected if they saw it happening to people like them, rather than people who live in a tiny poor muslim villages in a remote desert. The skin colour is only part of what seems to have distanced this story to the point that little is being done. We may have to never again believe that people will keep the vow of never again.
So change the setting a bit and the people, but keep the story and the atrocities, and perhaps it can have the same effect that seeing a Schindler’s list can have on white euro descended Jews and non-Jews. And the Hollywood folks would be doing exactly what they are best at.
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2006-11-24 20:06.
I’m pleased to see that more of my photography is getting licenced for ads and web sites these days. I like the job that this PDA ad does with my 360 degree view of Shanghai People’s Square. Of course I can’t read the text very well.
By the way, I learned the hard way how valuable the feature I proposed earlier for digital cameras — where they would notice if they’ve been set in an unusual state after a long gap between sessions — while on my trip this month to Edmonton, and one of my favourite spots on the planet — the rocky mountains in Banff and Jasper. Just before the trip I had put the camera into the “small” image size mode because I was shooting some stuff for eBay, and you really don’t need 8 megapixel shots for that. Alas, I left it there, and this is one of those mode switches which is not at all obvious. You won’t notice it unless you pay careful attention to the tiny “s” on the LCD panel, or if you download the photos. Alas, on my 4gb card I can go a long way without downloading, so a full days shots, including a lovely snow dusted Lake Louise were shot in small size, high compression.
The other way you would spot this is the camera shows you how many shots you have left. My 4gb card shows 999 when it starts even in large mode. But after shooting for a short while it eventually starts counting down. I only noticed I was in small mode when the 999 didn’t start counting down with hundreds of shots.
So this is definitely a case where the camera should notice it’s been days since I shot, and warn me I’m shooting with this unusual setting. I will still get quite serviceable web photos from that day, but not the wall sized prints I love.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2006-11-20 01:27.
It’s always reported how low US voter turnout is in midterm elections. 2006, at about 40%, seems pretty poor, though it was higher than 2002.
However the statistic I would like to see is “Voter turnout in districts where there is an important, hotly contested race.” This is the number we might want to monitor from year to year.
Virginia, it turns out, which had the Webb-Allen “Macaca” race, had the highest voter turnout in its history. You wouldn’t think that after hearing about the low turnout of a typical mid-term. Of course it will also go down as the first time a major U.S. politician was taken down due to blogs, the web and YouTube. Since it was so close, almost any factor can be given credit for Allen’s loss.
It is not surprising that when there is no contested race, that turnout is low. The U.S. for various bizarre reasons, has most incumbents always safe in their seats. This switch of 30 or so seats in the house and 6 in the senate is considered a major upheaval, nigh a revolution, by Americans. With seats so safe, there is no suprise there is little incentive in voting. U.S. ballots are very complex compared to many countries, and there are often long voting lines, and you don’t get official time off to vote.
Contrast that to Canada, where a public upset with the Conservative party’s introduction of the visible Goods and Services Tax (a 7% VAT) took the party from having a majority of parliament to having TWO seats. 2, as in 1 plus 1. There’s no such safety zone for incumbents, no cry for term limits in much of the rest of the world. There, if the public gets upset it throws the bums out, or drops them back to a minority position due to the fact that there are more than 2 parties.
I hope one of the major statistical agencies starts tracking voter turnout modulated by how motivated the voters are in particular districts. Of course voter turnout is the final metric of how motivated they were, but there are other, earlier indicators in most cases.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2006-11-19 14:11.
Ok, this is a silly idea, but it would make a great baby shower gift. Crib sheets — which is to say sheets to go on a baby’s bed — printed with small notes on your favourite subjects of choice — math, physics, history, as you would need for taking an exam. And who knows, maybe you can pretend if the baby sleeps surrounded by Maxwell’s equations she’ll become a genius.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2006-11-19 00:58.
I’m not a gamer. I wrote video games 25 years ago but stopped when game creation became more about sizzle (graphics) than steak (strategy.) But the story of the release of the Playstation 3 is a fascinating one. Sony couldn’t make enough, so to get them, people camped out in front of stores, or in some cases camped out just to get a certificate saying they could buy one when they arrived. But word got out that people would pay a lot for them on eBay. The units cost about $600, depending on what model you got, but people were bidding thousands of dollars even in advance, for those who had received certificates from stores.
It was amusing to read the coverage of the launch at Sony’s own Sonystyle store in San Francisco. There the press got bored as they asked people in line why they were lining up to get a PS3. The answer most commonly seemed to be not a love of gaming, but to flip the box for a profit.
And flip they did. There were several tens of thousands of eBay auctions for PS3s, and prices were astounding. About 20,000 auctions closed. Another 25,000 are still running at this time. Some auctions concluded for ridiculous numbers like $110,000 for 4 of them, or a more “reasonable” $20,000 for 5. Single auctions reached as high as $25,000, though in many of these cases, it’s bad news for the seller because the high bidders are people with zero eBay reputation who obviously won’t complete the transaction. In other cases serious sellers will try to claim their bid was a typo. There are some auctions with serious multiple bidders that got to 3 and 4 thousand dollars, but by mid-day today they were all running about $2,000, and they started dropping very quickly. As I watched in a few minutes they fell from $1,500 to going below a thousand. Still plenty of profit for those willing to brave the lines.
It’s interesting to consider what the best strategy for a seller is. It’s hard to predict what form a frenzy like this will take, and when the best price will come. The problem is eBay has a minimum 1 day for the auction, so you must guess the peak 1 day in advance. Since many buyers were keen to see the auction listing showing that the person had the unit in hand, ready to ship, the possible strategy of listing the item before going to get it bore some risks. Some showed scans of their pre-purchase.
The most successful sellers were probably those who picked a clever “buy it now” price which was taken during the early frenzy by people who did not realize how much the price would drop. All the highest auctions (including those with fake buyers) were buy-it-now results. Of course, it’s mostly luck in guessing what the right price was. I presume the buy-it-now/best-offer feature (new on eBay) might have done well for some sellers.
However, those who got a bogus buyer are punished heavily. They can re-list, but must wait a day to sell by auction, and will have lost a bunch of money in that day. If they can find the buyer they might be able to sue. If they are smart, they would re-list with a near-market buy-it-now to catch the market while it’s hot.
Real losers are those who placed a reserve on their auctions, or a high starting bid price. In many cases their auctions will close with no succesful bidder, and they’ll sell for less later. Using a reserve or high starting bid makes no sense when you have such a high-demand item. Those paranoid about losing money should have at most started bidding at their purchase price. I can’t think of any reason for a reserve price auction in this case — or in most other cases, for that matter. Other than with experimental rare products, they are just annoying.
Particularly sad was one auction where the seller claimed to be a struggling single mom who had kids that lucked out and got spots in line, along with pictures of the kids holding the boxes. She set a too-high starting price, and will have to re-list.
Another bad strategy was to do a long multi-day listing.
It’s possible the rarity of these items will grow, as people discover they just can’t get one for their kids for Christmas, but I doubt it.
The other big question this raises is this: Could Sony have released the machine differently? Sony obviously left millions on the table here, about 30 to 40 million I would guess. That’s tolerable for Sony, and they might have decided to give it up for the publicity that surrounds a buying craze. But I have to wonder, would they not have been better served to conduct their own auctions, perhaps a giant dutch auction, for the units, with some allocated at list price by lottery or for those willing to wait in line so that it doesn’t seem so elitist. (As if any poor person is going to buy a PS3 and keep it if they can make a fast thousand in any event.)
Some retailers took advantage of demand by requiring customers to buy several games with the box, presumably Sony approved that. With no control from Sony all the retailers would be trying to capture all this money themselves, which they could easily have done — selling on eBay directly if need be.
I predict in the future we will see a hot Christmas item sold through something like a dutch auction, since being the first to do that would generate a lot of publicity. Dutch auctions are otherwise not nearly so exciting. When Google went public through one, the enemies of dutch auctions worked to make sure people thought it was boring, causing Google to leave quite a bit of money on the table, but far less than they would have left had they used traditional underwriters.
On a side note — if you shop on eBay, I recommend the mozilla/firefox/iceweasel plugin “Shortship” which fixes one of eBay’s most annoying bugs. It lets you see the total of price plus shipping, and sort by it, at least within one ebay display page.
Submitted by brad on Fri, 2006-11-17 16:43.
Differential pricing occurs when a company attempts to charge different prices to two different customers for what is essentially the same product. One place we all encounter it a lot is air travel, where it seems no two passengers paid the same price for their tickets on any given flight. You also see it in things like one of my phones, which has 4 line buttons but only 2 work — I must pay $30 for a code to enable the other 2 buttons.
The public tends to hate differential pricing, though in truth we should only hate it when it makes us pay more. Clearly some of the time we’re paying less than we might pay if differential pricing were not possible or illegal.
So even if differential pricing is neutral, one can rail if it punishes/overcharges the wrong thing. There might be a better way to get at the vendor’s goal of charging each customer the most they will tolerate — hopefully subject to competition. Competition makes differential pricing complex, as it’s only stable if all competitors use roughly the same strategy.
In air travel, the prevailing wisdom has been that business travellers will tolerate higher ticket prices than vacation travellers, and so most of the very complex pricing rules in that field are based on that philosophy. Business travellers don’t want to stay over weekends, they like to change their flights, they want to fly a combination of one-way trips and they want to book flights at short notice. (They also like to fly business class.) All these things cost a lot more in the current regime.
Because of this, almost all the travel industry has put a giant surcharge on flexibility. It makes sense that it might cost a bit more — it’s much easier to schedule your airline or hotel if people will book well in advance and keep to their booking — but it seems as though the surcharge has gotten immense, where flexible travel can cost 2 to 4 times what rigidly scheduled travel costs.
Missing the last flight of the day can be wallet-breaking. Indeed, there are many arguments that since an empty seat or hotel room is largely wasted, vendors might be encouraged to provide cheaper tickets to those coming in at the last minute, rather than the most expensive. (And sometimes they do. In the old days flying standby was the cheapest way to fly, suitable only for students or the poor. There are vendors that sell cheap last minute trips.)
Vendors have shied away from selling cheap last-minute travel because they don’t want customers to find it reliable enough to depend on. But otherwise it makes a lot of sense.
So my “Solve this” problem is to come up with schemes that still charge people as much as they will tolerate, but don’t punish travel flexiblity as much.
One idea is to come up with negative features for cheap tickets that flexible, non-business travellers will tolerate but serious business travellers and wealthy travellers will not. For example, tickets might come with a significant (perhaps 10-20%) chance of being bumped, ideally with sufficient advance notice by cell phone that you don’t waste time going to the airport. For example, the airline might sell a cheap ticket but effectively treat the seat as available for sale again to a higher-paying passenger if they should come along. You might learn the morning of your trip that somebody else bought your seat, and that you’ll be going on a different flight or even the next day. They would put a cap on how much they could delay you, and that cap might change the price of your ticket.
For a person with a flexible work schedule (like a consultant) or the retired, they might well not care much about exactly what day they get back home. They might like the option to visit a place until they feel like returning, with the ability to get a ticket then, but the risk that it might not be possible for a day or two more. Few business travellers would buy such a ticket.
Such tickets would be of most value to those with flexible accomodations, who are staying with friends and family, for example, or in flexible hotels. Rental cars tend to be fairly flexible.
Of course, if you’re willing to be bumped right at the airport, that should given you an even cheaper ticket, but that’s quite a burden. And with today’s ubiquitous cell phones and computer systems there’s little reason not to inform people well in advance.
This technique could even provide cheaper first-class. You might buy a ticket at a lower price, a bit above coach, that gets you a first class seat half the time but half the time puts you in coach because somebody willing to pay the real price of first class bought a ticket. (To some extent, the upgrade system, where upgrades are released at boarding time based on how many showed up for first class, does something like this.)
Any other ideas how airlines could provide cheaper flexible tickets without eating into their business flyer market? If only one airline tries a new idea, you get an interesting pattern where everybody who likes the new fare rules switches over to that airline in the competitive market, and the idea is forced to spread.
Added note: In order to maintain most of their differential pricing schemes today, airlines need and want the photo-ID requirement for flying. If tickets (including tickets to half a return trip) could be easily resold on the web to anybody, they could not use the systems they currently use. However, the system I suggest, which requires the passenger be willing to be bumped, inhibits resale without requiring any type of ID. A business traveller might well buy a cheap ticket at the last minute from somebody who bought earlier, but they are going to be less willing to buy a ticket with unacceptable delay risks associated with it.
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2006-11-15 15:07.
I’ve written before about one of the greatest flaws in the modern political system is the immense need of candidates to raise money (largely for TV ads) which makes them beholden to contributors, combined with the enhanced ability incumbents have at raising that money. Talk to any member of congress and they will tell you they start work raising money the day after the election.
Last year I proposed one radical idea, a special legitimizing of political spam done through the elections office. That will take some time as it requires a governmental change. So other factors are coming forward.
In some states and nations, efforts are already underway to have the government finance elections. The Presidential campaign fund that you contribute to whether you check the box on the tax return or not is one effort in this direction.
I propose that the operators of the big, advertising-supported web sites, in particular sites like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Myspace and the like join together to create a program to give free web advertising to registered candidates on a fair basis. This could be done by simply providing unsold inventory, which is close to free, or it could be real valuable inventory including credits for targetted ads.
Of course, not everybody reads the web all day, so this only reaches one segment of the population, but it reaches a lot. The main goal is to reduce the need, in the minds of candidates, to raise a lot of money for TV ads. They won’t stop entirey, but it might get scaled back.
Such a system would allow users the option of setting a cookie to provide preferences for the political ads they see. While each candidate would get one free shot, voters could opt-out of ads for specific candidates or races. (In some cases the geography-matcher would get it wrong and they would change the district the system think they are in.) They could also tone down the amount of advertising, or opt in or out of certain styles (flash, animated, text, video.)
It would be up to candidates to tune their message, and not overdo things or annoy voters, pushing them to opt out.
There can’t be too much opting out though, because the goal here is to deliver the same thing that candidates rely on TV for — pushing their message at voters who have not gone seeking it. If we don’t provide that, we’ll never cut the dependency on TV and other intrusive ads.
Allowing these ads to be intrusive seems wrong, but the real thing to do is consider the competition, and what its thirst for money does to society. Thanks to the internet, we’ve reduced the price of advertising by an order of magnitude. If the price of advertising is what corrupts the political system, it seems we should have a shot of fixing the problem.
Ads would be served by the special consortium managing the opt-out system, not the candidate, in order to protect privacy. So if you click on an ad for a candidate, the first landing page is not hosted by the candidate, but may have links to their site.
A system would have to be devised to allocate “importance” to elections. Ie. how many ads do the candidates for President get vs. those for state comptroller.
One risk is that the IRS or other forces might try to declare this program a political contribution by the web sites. If applied fairly to all candidates, we’ll need a ruling that states it is not a contribution. This is needed, because otherwise sites will balk at the idea of running free ads for candidates they dispise.
If the system got powerful enough, it could even make a bolder claim. It could only allow the free advertising to candidates who agree to spending limits in other media. On one hand this is just what most campaign finance reform programs do to avoid the 1st amendment. On the other hand, it may seem like an antitrust violation — deliberately giving stuff away not just to kill the “competition” but actually forbidding the candidates from spending too much with the competition.
This need not be limited to the web of course. Other media could join in, though the ones that already make a ton of money from political advertising (TV, radio) are not so likely to join.
This won’t solve the whole problem, but it could make a dent, and even a dent is pretty important in a problem as major as this.
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2006-11-15 00:37.
I go to many conferences, and most of them seem to want to give me a nice canvas bag, and often a shirt as well. Truth is though, I now have a stack of about 20 bags in my closet. I’ve used some of the bags, typically the backpacks, but when I have so many other bags I don’t feel a strong motivation to walk around with a briefcase or laptop bag with a giant sponsor’s logo on it, or worse, a collection of 10 logos. No matter how nice the bag is. In addition, even if I got logo-free bags I have no need for 20 of them, but I can’t really give away logo covered bags as gifts.
Which means the sponsor wasted their money. And I think this is common, for while I sometimes see people carrying a sponsor bag outside the confines of a conference, it’s pretty rare compared to the number given out. You want me to be your billboard, I want more than a bag for it.
Might some sponsors take the plunge and make a bag with the sponsor’s logo inside the bag? Or perhaps if on the outside, in a more subtle way. This seems stupid at first, but a bag I actually use, which at least reminds me of the company when I use it, is better than a bag that stays stacked in a closet. (Of course, logo-inside bags would be given away more, which may not accomplish much.) Perhaps the sponsors should go in for designer bags, and turn their logos into desirable designer logos?
If your name is Versace, you can get people to pay to carry your advertising, but sorry, not if your name is AT&T. I hope you can get over it. And while a bag is useful for carrying stuff home from the conferences and even storing literature, truth is you can use a $1 bag for that, not a $15 one. We really have to hunt to find better conference giveaways than bags, at least at conferences whose attendees all attend other fancy conferences.
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2006-11-14 16:10.
It does get hard to be a privacy advocate when it’s easy to think of interesting apps that make use of tracking infrastructure. Here’s one.
How often have you wanted to talk to somebody in a car next to you on the road? Consider a system where people could register their licence plate(s) with their cell phone account. Then, if they had done this, you could call a special number on your own cell phone, and enter the numeric part of their licence plate.
If both you, and the other car were close by (for example in the same cell, but often the cell companies have much closer tracking information) and both of you were moving, it could then complete the call to the other car. The other car might get to screen the call (ie. you would have to enter the reason for the call and they would hear, “Will you accept a call from about .”)
Sounds like a good product for the cell companies, able to generate minutes. Easy enough to do if both people use the same cell company, lots more work between two different companies where a protocol would be needed. Would be easier to do with texting but you don’t want people texting in cars.
Could have used it last night, was tailing a friend on the road to her house, did not have her cell number but could see her plate.
As I’ve described the system it’s opt-in, nobody calls you unless you sign up for it and register a plate. However it could be made fairly safe to opt-in with a number of protections. As noted, the system could demand the cars are moving (cell network can see that) so that it can’t be used to reach your cell phone while you are not driving. You could have screening.
It should also have a reputation system. For example, if you call me, then after we disconnect I can leave a negative reputation comment on you. Get a few of these and you’re out of the system. This assures people don’t use it simply to express road rage at the next driver or other things that are largely annoying. On the other hand you can use it to tell people their blinker is blinking or their trunk is open. (Mind you, once you are aware of a problem you would want a function to tell callers you are aware of a driving problem and to press 2 if they are calling about something else.)
And sure, for those open to it, it would be used for flirting with the cutie who gave you the eye when you were both stopped at the light.
You can of course just stick your cell number on your bumper to do this, but it would not have the opt-out and reptuation systems. With today’s cheap phone numbers, however, you could get a special number that forwards to your cell and performs the screening/reputation/etc. but is not able to use the location awareness.
If the digits are not unambiguous (or, like me, you have a custom plate that’s all letters) the system would need to offer you the cars close to you that match.
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2006-11-08 20:59.
This weekend I experienced an air travel policy that I had not seen before and which I found quite shocking. I was flying on United Express (Skywest)’s flight from San Francisco to Calgary. As we waited for the early morning flight, they announced this “weather warn.” Visibility was poor in Calgary due to low clouds. Below 0.5 miles they plane would not be allowed to land there. They rated about a 1/3rd chance of this happening, 2/3 chance we would land normally.
The catch was this, if, when they got to Calgary, they found they could not land, they would divert to Great Falls, MT. After dropping the passengers in Great Falls, we would be entirely on our own, with no assistance at all with getting to Calgary via ground or air. (United Express and a few other airlines do sell tickets from Great Falls to Calgary, though all via fairly distant hubs like Denver, Salt Lake etc.) The important point about this is that the diversion is to an airport in a different country from the intended destination. This makes ground transportation particularly difficult, as car rental companies are disinclined to offer economical one-way rentals between countries — not to mention the 6 hour drive.
(Hertz will do it for about $320/day.)
I just checked and Greyhound will get you there in 1 day, 14 hours via Seattle and Vancouver. Amtrak doesn’t even go there.
Now the other passengers who had seen this before said that it usually works out, so we got on with a sense of adventure. But it would have been a big adventure had we been diverted, and just seemed to be a rather strange state for the airline to leave passengers. Yes, they did say that if we elected not to get on the flight, we could try a later one (with no assurance there would not be the same weather warning on that flight.) Most of the passengers got on, and we did land OK, but a few backed out.
Some international bureaucracy, they said, forbids them from landing at another Canadian airport, such as obvious choices like Edmonton, or even various smaller airports since this was a Canadair regional jet able to land at small airports. But just about anything would have been superior to Great Falls in the USA — some city with a means of getting to the destination. Indeed, the plane after landing in either GF or Calgary would have headed on to Chicago, which while far away, is at least a city one could find a flight to Calgary from, and from which United could certainly have arranged travel for the passengers.
I’m taking a wild guess that this bureaucracy is 9/11 related, but I could be wrong. But if it is, it’s another secret burden of that day.
(The likely result — passengers would probably have formed up in groups of 5 to rent Hertz cars and drive to Calgary. The cost — $320 plus $50 of gas — would have been tolerable shared among 5 people who would know one another much better by the end of the day. Of course we didn’t know this when making the decision.) There are also some slight cheaper but inconvenient tricks involving an in-Montana rental which drives to an Alberta town near the border, where one of the passengers rents a car there, and both cars drive to a Montana drop-off and then the Alberta car continues to Calgary. You would need a sense of adventure to do that.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2006-11-05 23:00.
I'm in Edmonton. Turns out to be the farthest north I've been on land (53 degrees 37 minutes at the peak) after another turn through the Icefields Parkway, surely one of the most scenic drives on the planet. My 4th time along it, though this time it was a whiteout. Speaking tomorrow at the CIPS ICE conference on privacy, nanotechnology and the future at 10:15.
Idea of the day. I joined Fairmont Hotels President's Club while at the Chateau Lake Louise because it gave me free internet. When I got to the Fairmont Jasper Lodge my laptop just worked with no login, and I was really impressed -- I figured they had recorded my MAC address as belonging to a member of their club, and were going to let me use it with no login. Alas, no, the Jasper lodge internet (only in main lobby) was free for all. But wouldn't that be great if all hotels did that? Do any of the paid wireless roaming networks do this? (I guess they might be afraid of MAC cloning.) It would also allow, with a simple interface, a way for devices like Wifi SIP phones to use networks that otherwise require a login.
Of course, as we all know, the more expensive the hotel, the more likely the internet is not only not included, it's way overpriced. At least Fairmont gave one way around this. Of course I gave them a unique E-mail address created just for them, so if they spam me I can quickly disable them. But once again I, like most of us, find myself giving up privacy for a few hotel perks.
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2006-11-02 00:08.
When I’m having a problem with a company, I try sometimes to remind them of a principle of customer service I worked out when I was running ClariNet. Namely that when a company screws up, it should more than fix the problem, even to the point of losing money (for a while) on that customer. The reason, in brief, is that this does more than make the customer happy with the transaction. It signals in the strongest possible way that the screw-up is a rare event, which makes the customer come back for more.
I have outlined it in this page on Brad’s principle of customer service.