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

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

Shipping redirection and order editing

All the shipping companies today support very nice package tracking with web interfaces that let you see your package move through all the depots. Some day they might even send you an alert when it’s half an hour before delivery.

However, more than a few times I’ve wished for something else — package redirection, either at the behest of the recipient or the shipper. I talked earlier about my Addresscrow system, which would let you change your alias to mean different addresses as you move around, but this is more than that.

For example, when there is a problem (buy.com screwed up on a 2-day shipping order and sent it ground, so I won’t get it for Christmas) they often tell you to refuse the shipment. That’s your easiest way of returning a product that arrives too late. Why not let me, or failing that the shipper, do that via the net? Or let the shipper convert the in-transit item from ground to 1-day or 2-day when it’s clear that it won’t arrive in the right place or at the right time? Yes, I realize that Fedex Ground was an entirely different company from Fedex air, but they do meet from time to time, and at worst case one could redirect a package to the nearest shipping office for the alternate service to be scanned and re-coded.

Ideally though one would just change the meaning of the barcode, and the next routing station would spit it down a different channel.

To make this even better, internet retailers should really do a better job of not finalizing orders until they are truly shipped. Often I’ve made a purchase at an internet retailer, and after paying been shown a special offer, or at least a link to “continue shopping.” Indeed, when I do change my mind, or realize I want to add something to the order, it’s tough. In many cases you must cancel the entire order and re-enter it all. Some let you cancel individual non-shipped items. A few will let you add an item but that’s very rare.

It should all be done just-in-time now. In the old days, you could just phone the place and they would amend the order sitting in the warehouse because they were in contact. Today that personal contact is gone but the computers should be able to do it. Yes, it might cost extra but as long as it costs less than doing a whole new order, it makes sense.

Underwatergate: How many E-mails tapped?

A lot of new developments in the warrantless wiretap scandal. A FISA judge has resigned in disgust. A Reagan-appointed former DoJ official calls the President a clear and present danger. And the NSA admits they have on rare occasions tapped entirely domestic phone calls, because sometimes people calling to or from international cell phones while those phones are in the USA would see the traffic go overseas and come back again. I have made such calls to Europeans and Australians visiting the USA.

So they can’t spot those calls as domestic and thus are performing surveillance on them. But what about E-mail? With E-mail, it’s a great deal harder to identify where the parties are, and what citizenship they hold. In some cases, almost impossible.

And more to the point, E-mails between two U.S. persons will quite often go through international servers. Unlike phones, where it’s expensive, anybody who travels outside the USA for long enough to warrant an E-mail address out there can easily keep it and many do. There’s not even a big reason for multinational ISPs to avoid routing messages to servers in Canada or other places. I maintain aliases on my own domain for all my family, for example, though most of them are not in the same country as the server. I am not alone.

Further, it’s likely that the order of surveillance they have done on E-mail is vastly greater than on phones. For the NSA, monitoring of all unencrypted E-mail — all of it — would be only a modest amount of work. We used to joke in the old days about putting NSA traps in our messages, see this thread from 21 years ago on the topic, and many others if you search for it. If enough people put those in messages, it would overload the systems, we mused.

Back then we were mostly kidding around. Today we have reason to be scared. And it’s time to put opportunistic crypto into E-mail as I detailed years ago, by default. (Since then, some projects to do this have popped up — One from Simson Garfinkel and another from PGP. MS Outlook also does it, but with an untenable user interface.

Scandal name: Underwatergate

Seeing as this scandal seems to be revolving around the tapping, without warrants, of signals over the undersea telecom cables, I propose we call it Underwatergate.

What the NSA is doing with warrantless searches

It’s long, but I can strongly recommend the transcript of today’s press briefing on the NSA warrentless wiretaps. It’s rare to see the NSA speak about this topic.

One can read a fair bit between the lines. The reporters were really on the ball here, far more than one usually sees.

Particularly interesting notes include:

  • General Hayden of the NSA describes many reasons why they don’t use the FISA court, citing mostly “efficiency”
  • Reporters ask if they are listening for the word “bomb” — The AG says there is no blanket surveillance
  • The general states that the “physics” of the intercepts require one end be outside the USA

Independently, Senator Rockefeller’s letter where he wrote that he felt he needed “technical” advice to understand the issues, and that it reminded him of Poindexter’s TIA is very telling.

The efficiency claim is a smokescreen. They would not have taken this level of legal risk, no matter how much they feel what they did was legal, just to gain a little efficiency. It’s clear to me that they are telling the truth when they say they could not use the FISA court — they are performing surveillance that the FISA court would not authorize for them.

The question is, what? The AG says it is not “blanket” but clearly there is some fancy computerized surveillance going on here, something secret, beyond Carnivore. I can readily believe that all sorts of fancy broad surveillance could take place and not be considered “blanket” by the AG. (The AG actually says, “The President has not authorized blanket surveillance of communications here in the United states.”) I certainly hope he has not authorized that. But has he authorized it on all communications coming in and out of the USA?

Or something less, like computer search of all E-mails or phone calls to or from entire towns or nations? Perhaps speaker recognition to look for certain people’s voices on all international calls, no matter what number they use? Perhaps looking for all arabic calls, and then doing blanket surveillance on them?

So much is possible, and all of this would not be authorized by the FISA court.

They knew they would get in legal trouble, so it’s also possible the intercepts, which the General says are on the international cables, are even placed outside the USA, either with or without the permission of foreign governments. (In extremes, they send submarines down to make taps.) Taps outside the USA are not under the rules of the wiretap act, though the 4th amendment still applies to US persons.

Spooky stuff. More to come.

P.S. If you have not been following it, it has now come out that the New York Times sat on this story for over a year, since before the 2004 election, whose outcome might have changed based on this news.

Major chains agree to end "war on white people"

Major retail chains Target, Wal-Mart and others announced today they will end the so-called war on white people that had resulted in most stores posting signs welcoming “shoppers” or “customers” instead of “white patrons”, even though white people represented a considerable majority of their business.

“I’m white, and I’m here shopping for gifts for my white friends, and I’m offended that the store has been pressured into making some generic greeting that doesn’t reflect me.” said William O’ Reilly, a concerned caucasian shopper. “If they’re not going to welcome me and my race, I am going to take my business somewhere else.”

O’Reilly’s complaint, echoed by dozens, perhaps scores of other shoppers, has led the chains to alter their policies. Signs declaring “Look good with today’s colors” will be replaced next year with “Look good in colors designed for white skin.” The “Happy holidays” sign, recently changed to “Merry Christmas” will be further changed to “Merry Christmas for White America” to reflect the ethnicity and religion of 80% of the shoppers in the stores.

Glacier National Park / Montana Panoramas

In the summer we did a road trip in the northwest, up to Calgary, through Banff in the summer and then to Oregon Country Fair. The photojournal is not yet ready, but I have prepared some of the panos. First, here is the Montana section, which means the Going to the Sun road through Glacier National Park. Truly one of the world’s great roads, I’m afraid the panos don’t do it justice.

Support our goddamned piece of paper ribbon

Ok, so this story is almost surely just an unconfirmed rumour, but the graphic I designed below still makes a nice ribbon.

Can I get a dishwasher with soft edges?

I don't know how many times I've gotten a scrape or cut from hitting a dishwasher door, while it's down, with my leg. It's very annoying how the sides are always sharp. They don't make the seal, that's on the front, so there's no reason these sides couldn't be soft, or even hard rubber that won't cut you. Perhaps some dishwashers I haven't owned do this, but I have yet to get one!

Smarter headsets, smarter headset jacks

Millions now use PCs for VoIP and online audio chat, and you soon realize the quality is vastly better if everybody uses a headset.

But there’s a problem on PCs. If you plug in headphones, it usually disables the regular speakers, often in hardware. So if you leave a headset connected, the system can’t play a ring sound when somebody calls you.

So time to rethink the design of the headset jacks, and the headsets themselves. Instead of disabling the main speakers, the presence of a plug in the jack should just be a software signal. Both the jack, and the speakers/speaker jack should be independent software-selectable outputs in the sound driver. Plugging in a headset should just change the default output. VoIP software, however, should be aware of this and know to send call audio to the headset, and ringing sounds to the speakers.

However, it could be even smarter than this. It might change its mind if it knows you are at the computer, or at least change the volume of the ringing on the speakers if you are at the computer. And make it louder if you haven’t touched the computer in a while.

Beyond that, we could make headsets smarter. They should be able to easily know if you have them on, due to tension in the headband or ear-strap. Earbuds could use a small temperature sensor to know if they are on. This could also effect where we direct sounds. Of course, this involves either a new headset jack, or perhaps more cleverly, a small and inaudible data protocol (or even something as simple as a click protocol) over the existing plugs. Many cell phones use a non-standard headset jack to include extra wires for button signals (such as to answer the phone. This should be formalized.

Of course, with bluetooth headsets and USB headsets, you have the potential for all sorts of additional communication with no change to the jack. A bluetooth headset should be able to tell, via temperature and pressure, if it is on the ear or not. It can even tell quite readily if you’re speaking or have spoken recently. Though I doubt most of the world is ready to wear their bluetooth headset all the time, though I do see people doing this more and more.

The fourth Wednesday is the best weekday to have your event

I just got an invitation to a new event series that I was told would take place on the First Tuesday of the month. However, I already go to two different dinners that take place on the First Tuesday, and I suspect that was no accident. For social events, people use the weekends, and for other events people prefer the weekdays. They have a psychological desire for the first week of the month.

So I ran a quick set of yahoo queries to find out how many hits there were on the web for "first monday" and similar strings. I figured that would tell when the most events do occur, and help people pick a day that is likely to have the least conflicts.

The results are below:  read more »

How Prius drivers are gross polluters and other lessons of carbon credits

I’ve been thinking more about environmental economics since I blogged about retail carbon credits. I was surprised about how cheap (some would say unrealisticly cheap) wholesale credits are — about $2.20 per tonne of CO2. (Update: This price keeps changing. The U.S. price is clearly out of whack down to just 25 cents per tonne in 2009. The European price has declined too, from $20/tonne when I wrote this to $14/tonne in fall 2009.)

Today, many of my friends have bought a car like the Toyota Prius, feeling they are doing their bit to help the environment by burning less gas. The Prius costs around $3,000-$6,000 more than a comparable old-style engine car (in part because high demand keeps the price high), and the savings on gasoline don’t justify it on a financial basis unless you do nothing but drive all day. So the main reason to buy it is to help the environment and to make a statement before your peer group. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 32mpg instead of 23mpg costs about $5,000 more than the regular Camry.)

Problem is, there’s an argument that you’re hurting the environment, counterintuitive as that sounds. And no, it’s not just the unanswered questions about recycling the fancy batteries in the Prius when they fade, where fairly positive results have been returned so far. Read on…  read more »

Addrescrow -- privacy for physical address and much more

This is an idea from several years go I’ve never written up fully, but it’s one of my favourites.

We’ve seen lots of pushes for online identity management — Microsoft Passport, Liberty Alliance and more. But what I want is for the online world to help me manage my physical identity. That’s much more valuable.

I propose a service I call “addrescrow” which holds and protects your physical address. It will give that address to any delivery company you specify when they have something to deliver, but has limits on how else it will give away info from you. It can also play a role in billing and online identity.

You would get one or more special ID names you could use in place of your address (and perhaps your name and everything else) when ordering stuff or otherwise giving an address. If my ID was “Brad Ideas” then somebody would be able to send a letter, fedex or UPS to me addressed simply to “Brad Ideas” and it would get to me, wherever I was.

(Read on…)  read more »

Death Valley Panoramas with wildflowers

I have been quite behind in processing my photo galleries and panoramics.

I have just now put up the gallery of panoramics from the Death Valley Wildflowers trip from March of 2005. Interesting scenery, and when you get close enough lots of fields of flowers. Of course, on most of them the flowers are so tiny that they are resolved well only when the panos are seen printed at full resolution, not when shrunk for a computer screen.

I have also done up a new layout for the panorama pages, and the thumbnails are now 1200 wide intead of 800 wide. I am hoping that most people have a 1280x1024 screen by now, if not a 1600x1200. (Everybody would have 1600 if they were still buying CRTs as CRTs that large are down to $100 it seems. LCD panels at such a res are $450 at least.)

See the Death Valley Spring Flowers Panoramas 2005

Cool Walls

On the wall now near desks are plates with power and ethernet (and phone until VoIP takes over.) I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t add another jack — air, and plumb our walls with pipes to move air for cooling electronic devices.

This idea started by reading about a guy who attached a plastic vent hose from the output of his PC fan to a hole he cut in his wall. This directs much of the heat and some of the noise into the wall and up to the attic.

I started wondering, shouldn’t we deliberately plumb our houses to cool our devices? And even more, our office buildings? And can we put the blowers at the other end of the pipes, to move the noise away from our devices? How much would we save on air conditioning?

Read on…  read more »

Internet TV, I'm waiting for you

I’m an earlier adopter with my mythTV box and fast connection. But I’m really keen to see the move to getting TV shows over IP. Cable’s bulk pricing just isn’t doing it for me any more.

I get many shows now via broadcast digital TV, and while I think this is a giant waste of spectrum, while it’s there I will certainly use it. So I’ve started examining just how much I get from my cable. Of course your tastes will vary, but I find I’m starting to care about only 3 or 4 channels. And since I’m paying $45/month plus tax for expanded basic cable from Comcast, that’s a great deal of money per channel. Those channels would be wise to start becoming available over the net, because we early adopters will pay nice prices compared to what the cable companies are paying.

The key is that with the MythTV or other DVR, you stop channel surfing. You pick the programs you like, and it records all of them and you don’t watch random shows. (Except for Tivo-style “suggestions.”)

Even though you limit your TV to just a subset of shows, you quickly are surprised to change the “500 channels and nothing on” problem into “just a few shows and always something good ready to watch.” Surfing and deliberate watching are just that different.

So the shows on cable I’m watching are the Daily Show (and somtimes a few other Comedy Central programs), some SF shows on the Sci-Fi Channel, and Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. Then, during certain events, I will go to the 24 hour news channels, the only things I ever find myself watching live. (Read on…) Now news, as it turns out, is the one thing that makes sense to be broadcast. It’s the only thing (along with its cousin, sports) we all want to watch the moment it’s produced. For the rest the delayed gratification of TV over IP, or even DVD rental through the mail, is just fine.

And indeed, the SF shows and Mythbusters will all appear on DVD 1-2 years after airing. The Daily Show is making itself available via the non-linux streaming media formats in reduced resolution, so it’s not quite ready for me, and it, as a form of news, needs to get to me right away. (The Daily show is on over the air TV in Canada.)

The TV shows on DVD are much better quality than analog broadcast, and of course inherently commercial free. They’re not HD yet, though. And the pointless delay, even though they get more money from people who buy or even rent DVDs than they do from advertisers at broadcast time. There is a 24 hour news channel made by ABC available over the air here.

The point is, if I could get my Daily Show in good quality and a format I can play on my system, I think I would be ready to drop my cable. The rest of my non-network watching would be on DVDs and the other brave shows willing to deliver to me this way, at a fair price — $1/hour for two adults, commercial free, if I buy in bulk. That would leave me without CNN, though the web is mostly substituting for that now, breaking news even faster than it does.

Of course there are people who watch shows from large numbers of channels who love the big bundling. They will hate this idea. But I expect most DVR users are seeing the number of non-network channels they watch drop, and the economics are changing.

(There are some intermediate alternatives. Dish Network has a $27/month package with the channels I want. Sadly, satellite systems don’t interface nearly as well with digital video recorders as analog cable does. Starchoice has a $20 CDN package but it has few of the classic cable channels, though it does provide The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, a couple of 24 hour news and lots of Canadian shows. About $18 USD after taxes.)

AAAS issues warning to Pat Robertson -- You have turned away from science

Washington, DC: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a stern warning today to Televangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson had recently condemned the citizens of Dover, PA to the wrath of God for not voting in a school board that would teach Intelligent Design in classes.

“We’d like to say to the good Reverend Robertson: if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to Science, you just rejected it from your life,” AAAS said on its daily television show broadcast from Washington, the 3.14159 Club.

“And don’t wonder why it hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. We’re not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just pushed science out of your life. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for its help because it might not be there,” they said. “In particular, you won’t have a phone to call the ambulance, and it won’t exist even if you could call it. And even if the doctor lived next door and you could call her, she would only bleed you and put smelly poultices on your forehead to balance your humours. And she would be a guy.”

“Actually, we’re just kidding,” the AAAS later corrected. “Science works whether you believe in it or not. That’s what’s really cool about it,” they said.

“What they said,” indicated Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in an independent statement.  read more »

Banks, let me enumerate the line items in my deposits, or let me deposit at home.

At my bank (Wells Fargo) and some others I have checked, the ATM lets you make a deposit with an envelope. You must key in the total amount being deposited, even if you put several cheques in the envelope. This in turn shows up as just one transaction in my statement, and in my download of my transactions to my computer.

That’s not what I want of course. I want to see the different deposits split out individually. The bank certainly splits them out in any event to send each cheque out to the bank that will honour it. Why not have me start the process. It might also assure more accurate addition of the amounts.

Of course, this would take a little more time at the ATM, but a lot less time than what I do now — put each cheque into a different envelope, and deposit them one at a time. Or at least put the cheques of different classes into different envelopes. Of course, if I planned ahead, I could enter them all into the accounting software before I go to the bank, and in that case need not enter the individual tallies. But you don’t always plan like this.

Does any bank’s ATM do this?

Of course even better would be to let me make my deposits at home, with my scanner. No, I’m not kidding. More and more, people are happy to get scans of their cancelled cheques back instead of the physical paper ones. The banks are moving to doing it all inter-bank with scans. So let the customer do it too. Of course, the system would scan the OCR digits with cheque number, account number and routing number and not let the same cheque be deposited twice. A live query could be made after you scan with the payer’s bank. And you would be required to hold on to the cheques you scan, since any one could be challenged, and if challenged you would have to bring the physical one down to the bank. And perhaps you would have to bring them all down eventually for final records.

And eventually of course I could duplicate paypal, by writing you a cheque and sending you a scan of it which you can then cash — in which case we should just go to full electronic money.

Naturally all of this would only be for well trusted regular customers, and the money would probably be on invisible hold in your bank account just like ATM deposits often are until the bank looks at them.

Museums, put your movies and A/V presentations on the web

More and more often when I tour a museum these days, I’ll see either a computer terminal with some interactive exhibit, or a video screen or cinema to play a movie.

All well and good, these media are sometimes the best way to present what the museum wants to present. On the other hand, since there is never enough time on a tourist’s schedule to see all the things you want to see, or even all the exhibits in a good museum, I often find myself saying, “Did I fly 5,000 miles to watch a video or browse a web application?” So I sometimes skip these videos and computers in order to spend times on things unique to the area.

Of course in many cases the videos and applications are unique to the museum, but only artificially, because the museum has chosen to do things that way. They could easily, and should, put these exhibits up on the web.

Depending on the role of the museum they might put them up for free, for the world to browse, or they might put them up for a fee. They would do this if they felt that people would stop coming to the museum because the materials were available free.

Another alternative would be to print an access code on your museum ticket, or issue you an access code ticket on requests. These access codes could be permanent, or bound to the first few IP addresses on which they are used, or work for only a few days after first use, if they need that level of access control. Then I would know that I could watch that movie later, when I have more free time, and devote more time to the physical exhibits that I came for.

Slow RAID for the home network

Hard disk drives these days are cheap. Too cheap, in that while we love paying 30 cents/GB, the reliability is getting pretty poor. Doing backups, especially automatic backups is a must, but what about RAID?

One of the problems with RAID, at least RAID-5 is that you need to have 3, and ideally 4 or 5 drives in a machine. That’s a lot of drives, a lot of power, a lot of heat, a lot of noise. And many machines only have two IDE controllers so they can barely do 3 drives and can’t readily do more even if they had the slots and power for them.

So I propose a software RAID-5, done over a LAN with 3 to 5 drives scattered over several machines on the LAN.

Slow as hell, of course, having to read and write your data out over the LAN even at 100mbits. Gigabit would obviously be better. But what is it we have that’s taking up all this disk space — it’s video, music and photos. Things which, if just being played back, don’t need to be accessed very fast. If you’re not editing video or music, in particular, you can handle having it on a very slow device. (Photos are a bigger issue, as they do sometimes need fast access when building thumbnails etc.)

This could even be done among neighbours over 802.11g, with suitable encryption. In theory.

Not that there aren’t some major issues to overcome. The machines must be on most of the time. (A single disk can be taken out of a RAID temporarily, and thus a single machine hosting one disk can be turned off or rebooted, but not for long periods.) If you lose access to two disks (or your LAN) you can’t get access to the data. And it’s going to use a lot of your network capacity, though gigabit networking is starting to get cheap. And the idea gets better…  read more »

Tivo announces exciting new "file copy" feature

(You might want to see Tivo’s actual press release about being able to move programs from a Tivo to an iPod.)

ALVISO, CA — NOV 21, 2005 — TiVo Inc. (NASDAQ: TIVO ), creator of and a leader in television services for digital video recorders, today announced an enhancement to it’s system which actually allows the copying of files from one computer device to another, at least if its one of their partner devices.

The enhancement will include exclusive capabilities such as TiVo auto-sync that will allow subscribers to choose if they want new recordings of their favorite programs easily transferred to their portable devices via their PC. Every morning the devices can be loaded with new programs recorded the night before. This is similar to syncing technology available for decades on most computers, including the linux system Tivo is based on, but now in a revolutionary new feature, Tivo has put it back in.

“Sure, computers have always had the ability to copy and sync files, and we had to take all that stuff out of the Linux OS we built the Tivo on” said Tom Rogers , CEO of TiVo . “By enhancing our TiVo ToGo feature, we’re putting that back in, for our two specific partner devices, making it easy for consumers to enjoy the TV shows they want to watch though only if they have an iPod or PSP —whenever and wherever they want, unless it violates our other restrictions.”

TiVo said it will begin testing the feature in the coming weeks with a select group of TiVo Series2â„¢ subscribers who own the Apple Video iPod or PSP devices. TiVo said it plans to make the feature available to its entire standalone TiVo Series2 subscriber base as early as the first quarter of next year.

Last year, TiVo stopped disabling file copying for all its Series2 subscribers and called it the TiVoToGo feature. The TiVoToGo feature reducing the blocking of the normal ability to transfer TV shows from their DVR to a laptop or PC over their home network. From the PC, subscribers can watch the shows, or transfer them to devices compatible with Microsoft Portable Media Center format. Today’s announcement adds support for the Apple iPod and Sony PSP, as well as the ability to specify Season Passâ„¢ recordings to conveniently transfer to the portable device via the PC overnight. File copying is still blocked for all other devices.

Subscribers will need to purchase certain low-cost software to facilitate this revolutionary concept of copying files. To discourage abuse or unlawful use of this feature, TiVo intends to employ “watermark” technologies on programs transferred to a portable device using the TiVo ToGo feature that would disable the normal ability to have privacy over what programs you watch.

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