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.

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.

Simple, cute symphony intro

You've all heard the famous "Nokia ringtone" many times (hard to describe in text, it's 10 notes, often satirized on Trigger-Happy-TV) and even the polyphonic version.

I suggest that a symphony orchestra, around warmup time, should suddenly play this song with their full glory and set of instruments. This would be funny on its own, but could then be followed by a very memorable, "please remember to turn off your cell phone now in preparation for the performance." It might actually get people to do it.

Fast, self-service store

We hate waiting in line at the cashier and stores don’t like paying cashiers so some have self-service cashiers which are still hard to use. So here’s an idea.

Provide shoppers who wish to self-serve a scanning wand, which is battery powered and attached by coiled cable to the shopping cart. In the shopping cart, have a number of shopping bags present and numbered. Paper bags which hold a square shape are better. Also have an open area or special bag.

As you pick up an item you scan it and put it in a bag. It would probably tell you which bag to put it in, though in some cases you could pick and tell it.

However, if the item is “unverifiable” then the scanner would indicate it should be put in the special bag.

An unverifiable item would be one whose weight can’t be reliably measured. That’s because the idea is to verify the main bags at check-out by weighing them. That weight should match the calculated weights for the items put in the bag, plus the weight of the bag of course. If the weight matches, the bag is just loaded back into your cart. If it doesn’t, the items are scanned by the cashier as they normally are today.

Sometimes, even in a bag that matches the weight, a random scan of a few items in the bag would be done. Along with a basic visual check every time. This is to stop people from gaming it, by finding expensive items (notably pills) that happen to in combination weigh close to what some cheap items weigh.

Items of very small weight would go in the unverifiable bag, along with the most expensive items (just so that clerks know that they should never see them in the self-checked bags on visual inspection). Items of large weight would not be put with items of tiny weight in the same bag. Bags would also be balanced by weight, and a smart system would know to put cold items together, and not to mix cleansers and food.

Variable weight items, like meat, usually already have their weight encoded in the barcode as they are priced by weight.

There already are self-checkouts, and they do use a weight check, but it’s one item at a time and they are a pain to use — so much so that I have seen people reject them with just a couple of items. I am guessing scan as you shop will seem to add almost no time. Of course you will need buttons on the scanner to remove items, and even to move them to other bags when it won’t hurt the measuring system.

Check-out will be with a cashier, but the cashier will simply place the bags on a scale, and if it beeps correct, put it back in your cart. They will do a quick visual scan (seeing the list of items and the order they were put in the bag on the screen) and if told to by the system, do a random item check. Sometimes they will even do a full re-scan of everything, but ideally this would be rare. Then they would hand check the specials bin, the way they check everything today. And then take your money. You should be through the cahsier in 1/2 to 1/3rd the time. A small number of cashiers would be open for those who wish to have everything personally rung up by the cashier.

Note as well that with this system you don’t need to bar code the individual products! It’s sufficient to have a bar code on the shelf tag, and to scan that, though of course people will get errors sometimes. The screen on the scanner would possibly show a picture of the item so you are sure you scanned the right shelf tag.

In the produce department, you would pick up vegetables, put them in a bag, and put them on the scale. It would show you the weight and price and also beam that to your scanner. Items priced by count would have to go in the specials bin unless they are all so close in weight that the scale can figure out the count based on the weight. I suspect this would work with most items in fact. (You would need to scan the shelf tag before heading to the counting-scale for these items.)

Of course it’s also possible that regular customers could just get dispensation to just put the bags on the scale and walk out (auto-billed to their credit card) but frankly I am not that in favour of systems (like the discount cards) which generate giant databases of everything you buy.

Stop the extension of the Patriot ACT

I don’t post most EFF news here, since the EFF has a news page and 2 blogs for that, but today I’m doing it twice because congress is voting tomorrow on renewal of the PATRIOT act. There was a lot of effort to reduce the bad stuff in the bill, efforts that seemed to be getting somewhere but were ignored.

Ok, do I have to tell you why this erosion of so many fundamental rights is a bad idea? At first, I thought the PATRIOT only came about because in the weeks after Sept 11, the country was acting in anger and shock. It did things it wouldn’t do with time to be calm and reasoned about it. And the PATRIOT act has resulted in huge waves of new surveillance as we’ve been seing in the past few weeks.

So do what you can to stop it. Our Action Center will help you contact your representatives to give them the message. Plus you can read the bill and commentary on it on the EFF web site.

We’ve been saying these things for so long you may be getting tired of it. But every time we strip away rights, make society a little bit more scared — each time we live in fear — I think that’s exactly what terrorists want. Like the name says, their goal is to sew fear and terror in hope of getting their way. Sure, people were angry when this law was first passed, but there is no excuse today. Take action yourself. Donation to organizations like the EFF and others if you don’t have time to take all the action you think you should, but do have the money. It’s as simple as that.

Blogger's rights campaign from EFF

At the EFF, we’re announcing today a membership drive around our various efforts for blogger’s rights.

In the EFF blogs in my blogroll, you will have read this year about our legal guide for bloggers, and the various free speech cases we’ve done protecting publishing rights online, anonymity and assuring reporter’s privilege for online journalists.

If you have a blog, we encourage you to promote our campaign and add one of our buttons on your blog. The bloggers who bring in the most members get some goodies, but the real reward is in defending freedom of the modern press. Those bloggers who put up the button can get a membership of their own at a discounted rate too. They can see this page for more details on that.



Two styles of vitamin and supplement pills

Today there's more evidence we should be taking more and more supplements, but they often come in giant pills that are uncomfortable to take. At the same time, easy to take chewable vitamin pills are also on the market.

So I propose: Divide up all the vitamins and minerals and supplements wanted in a daily regimen. Make a chewable pill that contains all the ones that can go in a chewable pill (ie. don't taste bad, and will maintain proper cohesion.) Then take the ones that can't go in that chewable, and bundle just them in a hopefully smaller, coated pill to swallow.

Australia photo-log now available

Earlier I posted about my panoramas of Australia. Now I have put up the large gallery of regular spect photos from the trip. We began with a short visit to Melbourne, then drove the Great Ocean Road , ending in Adelaide. From there we flew to Darwin in the top end to visit Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park.

Then it was on to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, and finally ending in Syndey for the AUUG conference. We took almost 3000 photos — the galleries contain the best 250 or so, along with captions and some stories. It’s freshly up, and may need a bit of proofing and refinement, but feel free to enjoy. Thanks again to my hosts and other great folks from Australia.

Visit the Photos of Australia.

At right: Saltie Crocodile catches a meal at sunrise in the outback.

WSIS and the splitting of the root

There’s talk that in the battle between the USA and Europe over control of ICANN, which may come to a head at the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, people will seriously consider “splitting the root” of DNS.

I’ve written a fair bit about how DNS works and how the true power over how names get looked up actually resides with hundreds of thousands of individual site administrators. However, there is a natural monopoly in the root. All those site admins really have to all do the same thing, or you get a lot of problems, which takes away most of that power.

Still, this is an interesting power struggle. If a large group of admins decided to switch to a new DNS root, different from ICANN, they could. The cooperation of Microsoft, which includes the default root list for IIS, and Paul Vixie, who puts that list in BIND, would play a large part in that as well.

In fact, many times in the past people have split the root by creating alternate, “superset” roots which mirror the existing .com/.org/.net/etc. and add new top level domains. Some of these have been “innocent” efforts frustrated at how slowly ICANN had created new TLDs, but in truth all of them have also been landgrabs, hoping to get ownership of more generic terms, furthering the mistake that was made with .com. ICANN is also furthering the mistake, just more slowly. (The mistake is ignoring what trademark law has known for centuries — you don’t grant ownership rights in ordinary generic terms.)

All of these superset attempts have also failed. I don’t think I have ever seen anybody promote a URL using one of the alternate root TLDs, or give me an email address from an alternate root TLD. I consider that failure.

This is, of course, what creates the natural monopoly. Few people are interested in setting it up so that two different people looking for a domain get different results. That applies to the fact that most people get an error for www.drug.shop (in the new.net alternate TLDs) and a few get the registrant’s site, but it applies even moreso to the idea that Americans would get one answer for foo.com and Europeans a different one.

Because of this, Larry Lessig recently suggested he wasn’t worried about a root split because there would be such strong pressure to keep them consistent.

The difficulty is, what’s the point of creating your own root if you can’t actually make it any different from the original? The whole point of wanting control is to have your way when there is a dispute, and to have your way does not mean just doing it the same as everybody else lest we get inconsistent results.

It’s possible that a group of nations might try to wrest control in order to do nothing at first, but eventually create a superset of TLDs which would, for the first time, be a success. That might work, since if all the nations of the world except the USA were to go to a new root set, it would be hard for the private individuals in the USA who control name servers not to follow. But then the new group would no doubt attempt at some point to issue policies for the existing top-level-domains and country code domains.  read more »

99 cents for a rerun with commercials?

I was amused to hear folks on PRI’s Marketplace radio program say that 99 cents for a rerun on the video iPod was a good price. Turns out that 99 cents includes commercials in that rerun, because people polled said they would rather pay 99 cents with commercials intead of $1.50 without them.

As I have written before, the public sure is misjuding this. TV CPMs are about $10, or 1 cent per ad shown to a viewer. So in a half hour program, with about 15 ads, the network and everybody below them would have made about 15 cents to show it to you. 30 cents for an hour long show. At full resolution too, and the ability to record it without DRM to watch later. Yes, Apple gets a cut, is it that huge?

So 99 cents is no deal, though they are actually sacrificing more to cut the price 50 cents and include ads, unless they can target the ads better and thus get more revenue from them. Will you be able to fast forward on the downloaded shows?

My main lament has been about what a bad deal TV advertising is. You get $1.20 worth of programming to watch a full hour of pure advertising. Way below minimum wage.

I want to see TV available for download, but I think instead of this system should give us shows at a similar cost to the advertising based one (plus a retail markup) at better resolution to boot.

Boot-oriented disk defragmenter

Everybody is annoyed at how long it takes computers to boot. Some use hibernate mode to save a copy of the system in a booted state, which is one approach. Booting procedures have also gotten better about running stuff in parallel.

How about watching a system as it boots, and noting what disk blocks are read to boot it. Then save that map for the disk defragmenter or other disk organizer and have it try to rearrange the files needed at boot so they are all contiguous
and close together. This should reduce the role of I/O as a boot bottleneck. Many disks today can read 50 megabytes in a second, and most OSs only need to access a few 100MB in order to boot, and they have the ram to only need to read files once.

Initial gallery of Panoramas of Australia up on the web

I took a lot of photos in Australia, including of course, many panoramas. I’ve assembled some of the best panoramas.

Harbour

You can see them in this gallery: Panoramas of Australia

As always, these are tiny reductions. Most of these can be printed to 8 to 12 feet long and still be sharp when you get up close to them. Prints are $10 per square foot. The regular aspect photos are still being tagged for galleries, as are several other recent trips I’ve been behind on. Enjoy

Car rental companies: Rent me a cooler and road trip kit

After we picked up our rental car in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, the blasting heat told us we would like a cooler full of drinks on our 3 day road trip through the outback. So we stopped at a Woolworths and picked up one of those terrible foam coolers, ice and some drinks. There was no bar code on the cooler so we wasted what seemed like 10 minutes in the checkout because the clerk wasn't authorized to ring up an item as general merchandise. (Hint to stores: I know you're scared of your cashiers stealing from you but this is ridiculous.)

It seemed to me that with a sizeable number of the renters in Darwin going off on outback road trips, who among them wouldn't want a cooler. So the rental company should offer a cooler pre-loaded with ice, and even perhaps some drinks. They would of course overprice this, but as long as it's not more than buying a decent cooler, people would go for it over those cheap ones, that can't keep ice long and run a risk of leaking into the nice rental cars in any event. There's other stuff that could go into the road-trip kit, ranging from walkie-talkies to umbrellas to snacks, too.

Retail carbon credits for the car driver

You may have heard of the idea of pollution credit trading. I’ve been pointed to two firms that are selling CO2 credits on the retail level for individuals, to offset the output from driving a car, heating a house etc.

I’ll get into the details on how it works a bit below, but if you have a car like mine that is putting out 5 metric tons of CO2 each year, you can for a low price (about $50, which includes a whopping markup) pay a factory somewhere to cut their own output by 5 tons, meaning that net, you are causing zero emissions. Which means you are reducing total emissions by a lot more than you would by switching to a Prius, and you are doing it at a vastly lower cost. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive a Prius, it just means this is a lot more effective.)

Normally pollution credits are traded only by the big boys, trading contracts with hundreds or thousands of tonnes of emissions. The retail firms are letting small players get in the game.

This is a fabulous idea, in theory at least, and also a great, if sneaky gift idea. After all, if you buy the gift of not polluting for your loved one all they get is a bumper sticker and a good feeling. At least it’s better than giving to The Human Fund in their name.

Here’s the catch. I went and priced the credits, and while www.certifiedcleancar.com wanted $50 to credit my car, the actual price of credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange is about $2.16 per tonne of CO2, or about $8 for my actual output as they calculated it. One expects some markup, of course, and even some profit for the company selling the retail credits, but this is nuts. I called the other company, Terrapass and got reasonably frank answers. First of all, they claim they invest more in wind power and other truly non-polluting forms of energy more than they just buy carbon credits. Secondly, this is still a small volume thing, and most of the costs are not the credits, but the $20,000 or so to become a member of the exchange, or so I was told. And of course, in small volumes, administrative costs can swamp the real costs.

Another outfit I found is carbonfund.org which is non-profit and cheaper. In some sense since people buy these out of guilt rather than compulsion (they were meant to be forced on polluters to give money to non polluters and make a market) non-profit might make sense, but they are also supposed to be a real market.

Still, if I pay $50, I would love for my $50 to mostly go to reducing pollution, not mostly to administration. Usually when exchanges are expensive there are members who will trade for you at much more modest markups. The folks at Terrapass said they were not yet profitable at the current prices.

And it is such a good idea. Read below for more on pollution credits.  read more »

Tagging, then and now

Yesterday I visited Tag Camp an impromptu weekend conference on tagging in the spirit of Foo Camp and the Bar Camp I wrote about earlier. User-applied tagging has become all the rage on sites like fickr and del.icio.us. I was pleased when one person at the conference saw my name and said, “hey you started all this.”

Well I didn’t really. Tagging is of course an ancient concept, espcially for personal use. And it’s been done formally by professionals like librarians in card catalogs and online databases.

However, back in 1983, in one of my many forays into fixing USENET’s newsgroup system, I drafted an RFC of sorts around the idea of a tag (or keyword) based USENET. I called it K News, or Keyword based News, and posted the KNews URFC

As today, people were of mixed opinions about tagging. You can see some of the discussion via Google Groups. It never went very far, but a standard “Keywords” header was added to the the USENET standard. Some used it but there was no critical mass. I wrote the newsclip filtering language which was able to filter on the tags. And for 18 years we have been tagging posts in rec.humor.funny with tags ranging from how funny the joke is, to whom it might be offensive to and so on. I don’t know how many people really use the tags to filter the group (it’s low volume) but I used them to build the web site for the newsgroup (which is of course netfunny.com.

Now, as noted tagging is the hot topic in online community and publishing. I lost faith in the concept, deciding users could not self-tag well enough. However, today the net is so big that even though users indeed do not self-tag well, you get enough people who do tag in ways you like to get useful stuff.

Of course, many of the people excited about tagging are in that state because they see it as a means to find even more cool stuff on the web. I’ve been moving to the camp that wants to find less stuff, higher quality stuff. There’s already too much good stuff to read, too much good stuff I have to discard. I can’t even read the blogs of my friends let alone all the truly interesting folks I don’t know. I hope that tags might help us along that path somehow, though it’s not the area of research right now.

But I thought a pointer to the history might be of use.

Free incoming vs. pools of cellular minutes

As noted, in Australia, I picked up a SIM at the airport for my unlocked phone. Australia, like Europe and most other places outside North America, uses a system where incoming calls to cell phones are paid by the caller, and are free to the mobile owner. As you may know, in North America and a small number of other countries, the mobile owner pays for airtime on incoming calls, and they look like ordinary landline calls to the caller.

In fact, in North America, there’s no easy way for an ordinary consumer to even know a number is a mobile, since you can port landline numbers to cell phones. In Australia, cell phones have their own state-code, so you know when you are calling them, and with a bit of memorizing, you also know which mobile company they belong to, which turns out to be important — because many mobile companies offer cheap or free calling between two phones on the same carrier (in both systems.) Some mobile companies have cross deals and offer cheap/free calling to any other mobile phone.

The cost to call these caller-pays phones is quite high, anywhere from 20 to 30 cents per minute. In fact, today, these caller-pays cell phones are the most expensive phones in the developed world to call. From here in California, using VoIP, I can call Australian land lines for 2 cents/minute, while it’s 22 cents/minute to call a mobile.

So which is better? Europeans argued that because incoming calls are free, people were less afraid to give out mobile numbers, and that spurred the faster deployment of cellular. But in the USA and Canada, people buy giant bundles of minutes that have gotten so cheap they tend to not care that much about the cost of the incoming calls or outgoing ones. When you do care, however (especially with some of the high per minute costs) the free-incoming argument is that you should not have to pay for a call you didn’t necessarily choose to have happen.

Since I was just there for a few weeks, I did not buy a plan with tons of minutes. So I definitely noticed my own sense about calling out vs. receiving. Most people don’t seem too bothered by calling a mobile. It depends on how much you notice phone costs. It is useful to know that you are calling a mobile, not simply for cost, but because you want to know if you’re interrupting somebody. However, that stands in the way of highly useful number portability.

(In my expected future where the phone number goes away, number portability becomes less important. Each person’s name/number might have a standard suffix for home, mobile, work, pager, fax etc.)

The arguments are present for both sides, but the big issue I see is that there is no competition in the cost of calls to mobiles. Even though the carriers are happily selling mobile to mobile minutes for near-free, the ability to bill the caller for incoming calls is a cash cow they have no incentive to reduce. As I indicated earlier, there were carriers advertising they would rebate customers some of the money paid in these heavy charges to landline callers. One could imagine a phone that is free, as long as you get enough incoming minutes to pay for your outgoing ones. Hardly fair.

Carriers might, in a more complex regime, be able to charge less to landline callers calling mobiles, but it’s hard to say if this would be a big competitive advantage, so has anybody done it? So what can bring the price down as the cost dwindles the way it has?

If you can’t tell that you’re calling a mobile (as in the USA) then the US model is really the only choice. You don’t want to see yourself dinged high fees for what you thought was a local call. The US model was that since I decided to have an expensive cell phone, the airtime was my problem. This model has lead to lots of competition on pricing for airtime in general. Now monthly plans with less than 300 minutes are rare, and they’re under 10 cents — well under in the larger plans, and often unlimited in off-peak periods.

Which system do you like better?

Button on cell phone to answer and play pre-recorded message

Of course, if you don't answer your cell phone it goes to voice mail and plays your pre-recorded message.

But what we need are phones which can answer and play a pre-recorded message for a short time. In particular a message of the form, "Hold on, I'm in a meeting and must keep silent. However, I'm walking out of the meeting right now while you hear this recording, and in a few seconds I'll be able to talk to you. Hold on... Still walking..."

This could be a special answer button on a phone (with the carrier doing nothing) or you could just press a number button (DTMF) or other button right after answer and the cell carrier could receive that and start playing the audio to the caller until you press another button or simply start speaking at full volume into the mic. This latter system would work with any phone, and you could choose from several options to play, including "Hold on, I'm actively driving" and so on.

At a recent conference they asked people not just to put phones on vibrate, but to turn them off unless you're a doctor-on-call. They declared that people getting up (and often briefly talking) was becoming too much of a disruption in meetings. A feature like this could be some of a stopgap.

It could also be implemented in a headset, particularly a bluetooth one, so you could use it with multiple phones.

Australia's Ideas

When I visit a foreign place, it’s interesting to note what everyday things are done differently there, what’s caught on and what hasn’t. (P.S. I now have my panoramas up.)

In Australia, almost every toilet has two flush buttons, one for a “half flush” (often really a 2/3) for #1 and a full flush for #2. This is presumably mandated by law, and one hopes it saves a lot of water. I’ve often thought that homes should install cheaper urinals to save water as well. In public toilets, all lower-end gent’s rooms have a stainless steel “wall” urinal which feels less private to people used to independent units. More disquieting are the ones with a grate in front of the wall that you stand on, so your “wee” flows under you. I’ve seen these wall urinals in many other places of course, not just Australia.

Almost every Aussie motel room has a toaster in it. No bread, just a toaster. The toast marketing board has done their job well in Australia, though some Aussies insisted it was for British tourists. And of course, always milk, meaning they often provide a fridge even in cheaper rooms. The minibar milk is free, too. Of course at 240v, the kettles are super-fast for that morning cuppa.

Urban hotels have that annoying “insert your room key” slot to turn on power and heating/AC in the room. I’ve seen that around Asia and other places as well. In some hotels one plug is still on with the card out so you can charge your computer. In others no plug is online, however everybody knows you can stick any plastic card in the slot, so you leave a card in to recharge your devices.

In Victoria and South Australia, there was a massive campaign on the highways against sleepy driving, with signs literally every few miles asking sleepy drivers to pull over, and free coffee for drivers at most roadside stops.

In the Northern Territory, you will often see “Road Trains” which are trucks trailing 3 trailers at once. Sounds hard to turn around… With a new railway in place from Darwin to Alice, this has probably cut back on these. Are they not legal in the USA for safety reasons? Seems more efficient. (Pictures to come.)

There seems to be less free wireless in urban Australia, though I didn’t actually wardrive much.

I’ll write more about this later, but I noticed that mobile phone packages there are all sold with a “cap” system. The mobile calling rate is very high — 40 to 80 cents/minute for local calls to landlines — but you typically end up buying $50 of airtime or more and getting $230 more “free”, at least that was the plan on Vodaphone, the SIM I bought. So if you only wanted a little airtime you paid through the nose, but if you used a lot, the price worked out OK. Like Europe, the caller pays for your airtime when they phone you, incoming calls to your cell are free. Some carriers are rebating some of the money paid by the caller back to the recipient. That will have interesting consequences.

Australia uses 240v (highest in the world) and all plugs must have a tiny switch on the socket (called a powerpoint, probably to the dismay of Microsoft) to disable it to avoid sparks when plugging things in and out. Other high-voltage countries also have the mini-switch. Their 2-prong plug, though now rarely used, is inherently polarized and different from everywhere else in the world except NZ. However, their new standards for grounded plugs with shielding against touching the live conductor produce giant bulky plugs and power cords. We could all use a smart power system like the universal DC (&AC) system I have propsed elsewhere in the blog. Australian switches are to us, upside-down, just like Australians.

And of course, Australia has the Timtam. However, the pleasure of that is countered by the their yukky favourite spread, Kraft Vegemite.

Updated Notes: A commenter asked about tipping. Indeed, at first you get “sticker shock” in Aussie restaurants. There you might easily see a main course at $30, but that’s really $22.50 and then the tax and tip are included so you can more properly treat it as $18 in California. Australians differed to me on whether you don’t tip at all, tip only with superb service, tip only in cheaper places or tip 5% on capable service. Cabs you don’t tip but round up to the nearest dollar. Australia wisely got rid of the penny several years ago.

As to which method is better? Well, optional tipping does give you the ability to control how much you pay for service, and do it after you’ve been able to judge it. On the surface that sounds good for the customer, but we also seem to like seeing the real price in advance. For example, I feel that visible taxes are better (as in Canada and USA) but the GST is always included in Australia now, by law, so you pay the price cited. The latter is more convenient, the former makes it more clear what’s going on.

Note that while I found Aussie servers and clerks to be exceptionally friendly, at several meals, including at very expensive places, I got decidedly slow service that would have rated a punative tip. Too anecdotal to come to a conclusion though.

More notes: Fish and chips are the Australian national meal, but they don’t serve them with vinegar as in the UK and Canada. No worries, mate, (The Australian national catchphrase) they’ll bring some.

They usually mistake a Canadian for an American. (Horror of horrors.) Can’t blame them, my own accent sounds like neither, but you can tell I’m from North America so it’s not an inappropriate guess.

Australian airport security was a breath of fresh air after so much travel in North America. “No worries, mate.” Check in with luggage recently increased to 30 minutes before takeoff. Keep your shoes on. One hour in advance for a flight from Cairns to Sydney which used the international terminal. (It’s a plane from Japan that continues on and the pax clear custons in Sydney so the domestic customers join an international flight with a special sticker which lets them bypass customs. Turns out to be a giant security hole — a foreign tourist could carry on or check a bag of contraband and the domestic passenger could take it through customs. I presume they have random checks to deter this.)

On the other hand domestic flights on Qantas allow only one checked bag (32kg) and one 7kg carry-on. A mess for the international traveller who came in possibly with 2 checked bags due to the 22kg limit of most airlines and a heavy carry-on. Fortuantely they only enforced the carry-on rule on me once and just let me split it into two bags.

Oh yeah, they got rid of the penny years ago. Very nice. Took me quite a while to notice I wasn’t getting any pennies in change.

More to come on Australia.

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