Brad Templeton is Chairman Emeritus of the EFF, Singularity U founding computing faculty, software architect and internet entrepreneur, robotic car strategist, futurist lecturer, photographer and Burning Man artist.

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

In Edmonton

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.

Brad's principle of customer service

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.

On forging boarding passes

You’ve seen the flap recently because a student, to demonstrate the fairly well discussed airport security flaw involving the ease forgeability of boarding passes, created a web site where you could easily create a fake Northwest boarding pass. Congressman Markey even called for the student’s arrest, then apologized, but in the meantime the FBI raided his house and took his stuff.

As noted, this flaw has been discussed for some time. I certainly saw it the first time I was able to print my own boarding pass. However, it’s not really limited to print-at-home boarding passes, and it’s a shame the likely reaction to this will be to disable that highly convenient service. Airline issued boarding passes are just thicker paper. I don’t see it being particularly difficult with modern colour printers — which are able to pull off passable money given the right paper — to produce good airline printed boarding passes.

It’s possible the reaction to this will be to simpy add a gate ID check for people with home printed boarding passes, which will at least retain those passes without slowing down the boarding process even more, but it doesn’t actually fix the problem.

The current system of easy to forge boarding passes, combined with ID check at TSA security and boarding pass check at the gate, has the following flaws:

  • You can, as noted, fly if you are on the no-fly list with no problems. If I were named David Nelson I would consider it.
  • You can bypass the selectee system, where they print SSSS on your boarding pass to mark you for “full service” searching. (I’ve been told an additional stamp is placed on your boarding pass after the search, you need to forge this too.)
  • You can transfer your ticket to another person without telling the airline or paying them. You also earn flyer miles even though somebody else got on the plane
  • It allows people to enter the gate area who aren’t actually flying. This is not a big security risk, but it slows down the security line. You don’t want to miss your flight because people slowed down the line to meet their friends at the gate.

Some airports have the TSA ID-checker put a a stamp on the boarding pass. However, this is also not particularly difficult to forge. Just have somebody go through once to get today’s stamp, have them come back out and now you can forge it.

The simplest answer is to have ID check at the gate. This slows boarding, however, which is bad enough as it is. The hard answer is to have unforgeable boarding passes or an unforgeable stamp or non-removable sticker at TSA.

Probably the best solution is that the TSA station be equipped with an electronic boarding pass reader which can read the barcodes on all types of boarding passes, which themselves must be cryptographically secure. Then the name printed on the pass becomes unimportant, except so you can tell yours from your companion’s. The scanner would scan the pass, and display the name of the passenger on the screen, which could then be compared to the ID.

Sadly, I fear this suggestion would go further, and the full panopticon-enabled system would display the photo of the passenger on the screen — no need to show your ID at all.

Though mind you, if we didn’t have the no-fly-list concept, one could actually develop a more privacy enhancing system with photos. When you bought your ticket, if you didn’t care about FF miles, you would provide a photo of the passenger, not their name or anything else about them. The photo would be tied to the boarding record. To go through security or board the aircraft, you would present the boarding pass number or bar-code, and TSA, gate and luggage check agents would see your photo, and pass you through. The photo confirms that the person pictured has a valid ticket. This meets most of the goals of the current system, except for these:

  • It doesn’t allow a no-fly-list. But the no-fly-list is bad security. Only random screening is good security
  • It doesn’t allow gathering marketing data on passengers. But the frequent flyer system does.
  • It doesn’t allow the airline to generate a list of dead passengers in the event of a crash.

As noted, the marketing data goal is met by the FF program. It would be possible, by the way to build a fairly private FF program where you don’t give your name or address for the program. You just create an FF account online, and get a password, and you can place a picture in it and associate it with flights. You can then redeem flights from it, all online. But I doubt the airlines will rush to do this, they love selling data about you.

The dead-passenger problem can be solved to some degree. They would have, after all, pictures of all the passengers so they could be identified by people who know them. In a pinch, identity could also be escrowed, with the escrow agency requiring proof of the death of the passenger before revealing their identity. That’s pretty complex.

There’s no good way to solve the no-fly-list problem unless you have credible face recognition software. Even that wouldn’t work because it’s not hard to modify a photo to screw up what the face recognition software is looking for but still have it look like you. But frankly the no-fly-list is bad security and it’s not a bug that it doesn’t work in this system.

Smarter power when the supply changes

In furtherance of my prior ideas on smart power, I wanted to add another one — the concept of backup power.

As I wrote before, I want power plugs and jacks to be smart, so they can negotiate how much power the device needs and how much the supply can provide, and then deliver it.

However, sometimes, what the supply can provide changes. The most obvious example is a grid power failure. It would not be hard, in the event of a grid power failure, to have a smaller, low capacity backup system in place, possibly just from batteries. In the event of failure of the main power, the backup system would send messages to indicate just how much power it can deliver. Heavy power devices would just shut off, but might ask for a few milliwatts to maintain internal state. (Ie. your microwave oven clock would not need an internal battery to retain the time of day and its memory.) Lower power devices might be given their full power, or they might even offer a set of power modes they could switch to, and the main supply could decide how much power to give to each device.

Of course, devices not speaking this protocol, would just shut off. But things like emergency lights need not be their own system — though there are reasons from still having that in a number of cases, since one emergency might involve the power system being destroyed. However, battery backup units could easily be distributed around a building.

In effect, one could have a master UPS, for example, that keeps your clocks, small DC devices and even computers running in a power failure, but shuts down ovens and incandescent bulbs and the like, or puts devices into power-saving modes.

We could go much further than this, and consider a real-time power availability negotiation, when we have a power supply or a wire with a current limit. For example, a device might normally draw 100mw, but want to burst to 5w on occasion. If it has absolutely zero control over the bursts, we may have to give it a full 5w power supply at all times. However, it might be able to control the burst, and ask the power source if it can please have 5w. The source could then accept that and provide the power, or perhaps indicate the power may be available later. The source might even ask other devices if they could briefly reduce their own power usage to provide capacity to the bursting device.

For example, a computer that only uses a lot of power when it’s in heavy CPU utilization might well be convinced to briefly pause a high-intensity non-interactive task to free up power for something else. In return, it could ask for more power when it needs it. A clothes-dryer or oven our furnace or other such items could readily take short pauses in their high power drain activities — anything that uses a cycle rather than 100% on can do this.

This is also useful for items with motors. A classic problem in electrical design is that things like motors and incandescent lightbulbs draw a real spike of high current when they first turn on. This requires fuses and circuit breakers to be “slow blow” because the current is often briefly more than the circuit should sustain. Smart devices could arrange to “load balance” their peaks. You would know that the air conditioner compressor would simply never start at the same time as the fridge or a light bulb, resulting in safer circuits even though they have lower ratings. Not that overprovisioning for safety is necessarily a bad thing.

This also would be useful in alternative energy, where the amount of power available changes during the day.

Of course, this also applies to when the price of power changes during the day, which is one application we already see in the world. Many power buyers have time-based pricing of their power, and have timers to move when they use the power. In many cases whole companies agree their power can be cut off during brown-outs in order to get a cheaper price when it’s on. With smart power and real-time management, this could happen on a device by device basis.

These ideas also make sense in power over ethernet (which is rapidly dropping in price) which is one of the 1st generation smart power technologies. There the amount of power you can draw over the thin wires is very low, and management like this can make sense.

No long telomeres for you

In the 90s, when I had more money, I did some angel investing. One of the companies I invested in, Sierra Sciences was started by an old friend and business associate, Dan Fylstra, who had also founded Personal Software/VisiCorp, the company that sold VisiCalc.

Sierra Sciences was also founded by Bill Andrews, who had done important work on Telomeres at Geron. Together, we hoped to follow promising leads on now to safely lengthen the telomere.

Telomeres are strands on the end of chromosomes. Each time a chromosome is duplicated, they shorten, acting like a decremating “counter.” After so many duplications (50 to 60) the telomere is too short and the cell can’t divide. That gives a fresh gamete 2^50 cells to produce, which is a ton, but of course we are the result of highly specialized duplication so it turns out to not be enough. Telomeres are in part a defence against cancer. If a cancer forms, and starts duplicatating like crazy, it hits the limit of the telomere and stops — unless it has found a way to generate Telomerase, the enzyme that resets the counter. We need that enzyme in order to make babies, and certain types of immune cells and IIRC marrow, but in most of our cells it is repressed, in order to stop cancer.

They’ve known how to turn on telomerase and make immortal cell lines for a while, but this would increase the risk of cancer. The trick is to lengthen them just a bit. This would, in theory, give you some of the healing ability of a baby. Old people’s skin wounds heal very slowly because their cells are all divided out — they can’t produce endless new cells quickly.

A study a few years ago showed that people with naturally longer telomeres (just a bit longer) live about 4 years longer on average than those with shorter ones. That’s a big difference, and we hoped even a larger effect could be generated. We identified the sites that repress telomerase and found antagonists for the chemicals binding those sites.

But, after several years and a lot of money, have not yet found a drug to make the magic happen. The major investors have decided not to go forward. The company is for sale. While the investors won’t make much, if anything from it, I hope it is bought not just for the lab equipment but by somebody interested in carrying on the research. Most of the investors not only knew that anti-aging drugs would be very lucrative, they sort of hoped to be on the customer list someday.

It generated some interesting issues. Getting approval for such drugs would be a hard slog. It was debated that an animal drug be developed, as people would pay a lot for longer lived pets and racehorses. I was scared of this, knowing that humans would take the animal drug in desperation — with possible scary results due to lack of testing and refinement. The other hope was for a topical skin cream that really made skin be younger, not just look younger. This would be medically valuable and of course sell a lot for cosmetic applications. But it’s not to be for now.

Wanna buy a biotech company cheap? Check out the web site.

Wire-crawling robot that lays optical fiber

In thinking about how to reduce the cost of bringing fiber to everybody (particulaly for block-area-networks built by neighbours) I have started wondering if we could build a robot that is able to traverse utility poles by crawling along wires — either power, phone or cable-TV wires. The robot would unspool fiber optic cable behind it and deploy wire-ties to keep it attached. Human beings would still have to eventually climb the poles and install taps or junctions and secure these items, but their job would be much easier.

Robots that can crawl along cables already exist. The hard part is traversing the poles. Now it turns out finding live electric wires is something that’s very easy for a robot to do. They stick out like a live wire in the EM spectrum. The poles of course have insulators, junctions, tie downs and other obstacles. Crossing them may be hard in certain cases (in which case a human would have to help, either by tele-operation, or by climbing the pole.) It may be possible to have a very small robot that is able to follow the current (easy to tell the lines to the houses from the main lines) and cross a pole like a bug and then, once safely on the other side, pulls the larger robot with a small tether. Again, it won’t always work but if you can get it to work enough of the time, you can install fiber with far less time and labour than the manual approach. Fiber of course can be tied to power lies because it is non-conductive material, though it’s even better if you can run it along phone or cable lines.

Not that any of these companies will want to give permission to competitors. And you want to pull multiple fibers, not so much for the bandwidth — we can do terabits in a single fiber if we want to — but for the backup when one fiber breaks.

If the robots get good enough, they could even string fiber into rural areas, following long chains of power or phone lines with just a single human assistant. Of course overhead wires are going to be more prone to breakage, but with these robots, repairs could be fast and cheap.

There are already robots out there which can crawl storm sewers to install fiber. This is another alternative, though that’s good too. Indeed, a robot that can even crawl real sewage lines to put in fiber which comes out your household stack is not out of the question, if it’s in a strong enough casing.

Time for RSS and the aggregators to understand small changes

Over 15 years ago I proposed that USENET support the concept of “replacing” an article (which would mean updating it in place, so people who had already read it would not see it again) in addition to superseding an article, which presented the article as new to those who read it before, but not in both versions to those who hadn’t. Never did get that into the standard, but now it’s time to beg for it in USENET’s successor, RSS and cousins.

I’m tired of the fact that my blog reader offers only two choices — see no updates to articles, or see the articles as new when they are updated. Often the updates are trivial — even things like fixing typos — and I should not see them again. Sometimes they are serious additions or even corrections, and people who read the old one should see them.

Because feed readers aren’t smart about this, it not only means annoying minor updates, but also people are hesitant to make minor corrections because they don’t want to make everybody see the article again.

Clearly, we need a checkbox in updates to say if the update is minor or major. More than a checkbox, the composition software should be able to look at the update, and guess a good default. If you add a whole paragraph, it’s major. If you change the spelling of a word, it’s minor. In addition to providing a good guess for the author, it can also store in the RSS feed a tag attempting to quantify the change in terms of how many words were changed. This way feed readers can be told, “Show me only if the author manually marked the change as major, or if it’s more than 20 words” or whatever the user likes.

Wikis have had the idea of a minor change checkbox for a while, it’s time for blogs to have it too.

Of course, perhaps better would be a specific type of update or new post that preserves thread structure, so that a post with an update is a child of a parent. Which means it is seen with the parent by those who have not yet seen the parent, but as an update on its on for those who did see it. For those who skipped the parent (if we know they skipped) the update also need not be shown.

Redesign airline seat backs & pockets for cleanliness, utility

I recently read how airline cabins are getting more and more grotty of late. This is due to having fewer cleaning staff on hand, shorter turnaround times for cleaning, and passengers now bringing aboard more of their own food. This got me thinking on how we might improve the airline seatback.

First of all, to help keep things cleaner, it would be nice if we could divide the stuff the airline puts into the pocket from our own stuff. I would like the airline to put in less stuff — we really don’t need a skymall and inflight magazine at every seat, those can be fetched like the other magazines. The safety card, airsick bag and headpones (if present) could be put in a small plastic pouch that goes in the seat pocket, making it clear what’s yours and what’s the airlines. This makes it easier for you to clean out your stuff, including garbage, or for the airline cleaning crews to identify what’s permanent in the pocket and quickly toss the rest.

But there are some more dramatic improvements we could make here. Many years ago, I adapted one of those book holding stands meant for tables with a book light and velcro straps to hang it on the seat in front of me. (Back then velcro on the seat top was common.) This allowed me to hang my book on the seat in front of me, which I found made for much more comfortable reading. I find reading paperbacks on the plane requires contortion to get the book in good light, or simple arm-tiring labour to hold the book up. My back of seat mount was great, and the airlines could either provide those, or provide a “mounting point” into which a passenger-brought unit could be mounted. The mounting point could be where the tray locks, or on the back of the tray.

The mounting point also could be useful for the design of special laptop holders. Using a laptop in narrow-pitch coach seats is a pain, and a serious pain if the person in front of you wants to recline. In some cases you can’t use your computer unless you recline too. Some laptops are better designed for this, moving their screen hinge inward, at the cost of reducing wrist rest space.

For many people, airline use is one of the most important functions of their laptop, so a little special equipment or redesign could make some sense. In this case, a mounting point on the seat could hold a laptop mount, which would put the screen on the seatback at a comfortable eye level. Should the person forward recline, you would want to be able to adjust the mount to keep the screen at the right angle. For laptops that can’t flip their screen, the keyboard etc. would just hang below, unused.

Instead, you would connect a remote keyboard/mouse device, which could then sit on your lap or the tray for comfortable use. And you would even have some room for papers on the tray. (This requires the mounting point to be above the tray.)

The airline could ideally provide or rent this small keyboard/mouse station, RFI insulated. In fact the arline one need not be so small, it could be full sized. Or stations in the airport (like the flight DVD rental folks) could rent the laptop mount and keyboard/pointer for drop off at the next airport. You want this because it defeats the purpose of having a small laptop to have to carry on a keyboard almost as big as the laptop.

Of course, laptops could be designed not only to hook into the mount, but have a detatchable keyboard/mouse unit so you don’t have to carry anything extra. Makes the laptop a bit bigger of course, but not much. Be nice if you could use bluetooth. Right now in theory bluetooth is not allowed but it’s in a safe band so it should not be a real problem.

This would still be useful in Economy Plus, even though there you don’t have the space crunch problem. A nice keyboard and an eye-height screen is how we like it on the desk. In Biz class, the seat in front might be too far away.

Another alternative would be provision of flat panels in the seat backs, with a VGA/DVI jack. Of course many airlines already are putting flat panels there, but only at TV resolution. Bump to XGA or better and now laptop users could keep their laptop on the table and look at the seatback. Many laptops even have a dual screen mode, so you could get double the screen real estate. Indeed, this is even valuable with a plain VGA class display in the seatback as already found. A port for that screen is also handy for the many people who use their laptops to play DVDs, though for those you want a 720x480 resolution screen which I don’t yet see in seatbacks.

If course power at the seats is a big plus, and some airlines do this, though UAL does not yet provide it in coach. The power should be in the seatback, not the armrest, since the thing we want to power is usually on the tray table.

A snap-out, aimable book reading white LED on the seatback would also be very useful. Aside from being cheap and consuming less power, this more localized light is less likely to interfere with sleepers and movie watchers. And by being aimable, it makes reading the book much more comfortable.

Let’s get to it, airlines.

Will Battlestar Galactica 2.0 update the "descended from aliens" mistake?

I’m enjoying the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Unlike the original, which was cheezy space opera, this show is the best SF show on TV. Yes, I watched the original when I was 18. I knew it was terrible (and full of bad science) but in the 70s TV SF was extremely rare, and often even worse.

The original show began with Pactrick Macnee narrating an opening “There are those who believe that life here, began out there, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians…” They sought the lost tribe of Earth, and in a truly abyssmal sequel finally came to 1980 Earth, which was of course technologically backward compared to them and unable to help in their fight.

This idea was a common one in science fiction of the 20th century. It was frequent in written SF, and Star Trek twice took it up. In one 60s episode, the Enterprise met Sargon, who claimed to have sewn most of the humanoid races. Spock states this meshes with Vulcan history, but another character says that Humans appear to have evolved on Earth. A later episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation reverses this, and Picard follows clues left in DNA to discover the common ancestry of all the humanoids.

Back in the 60s and 70s, when Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek were written, you could get away with this plot. It had a romantic appeal. While there was tons of evidence, as even Star Trek of the 60s knew, that humans were from Earth, we had not come to the 90s and the DNA sequencer. Today we know we share 25% of our DNA with cabbages. We’re descended from a long line in the fossil record that goes back a billion years. If life on this planet was seeded from other planets, it was over a billion years ago. It certainly wasn’t during the lifetime of Humanity, and nor were all the animals also seeded here at the same time as we were unless the aliens who did it deliberately created a fake fossil record.

(Of course creationists try very hard to make the case that this could be true, but they don’t even remotely succeed. If you think they do have a point, you may want to stop reading. You can read on for more SF theory though.)  read more »

Cameras (Canon) -- handle reversion from specialty settings better

My Canon cameras have a variety of ways you can change their settings to certain specialty ones. You can set a manual white balance. You can set an exposure compensation for regular exposures or flash (to make it dimmer or brighter than the camera calculates it should be.) You can change various shooting parameters (saturation etc.) and how the images will be stored (raw or not, large/medium/small etc.) You can of course switch (this time with a physical dial) from manual exposure to various automatic and semi-automatic exposure modes. On the P&S cameras you can disable or enable flash with such settings. You can change shooting modes (single-shot, multi-shot.) You can turn on bracketing of various functions.

And let’s face it, I bet all of you who have such cameras have found yourself shooting by accident in a very wrong mode, not discovering it quite for some time. If you’re in a fast shooting mode, not looking at the screen, it can be easy to miss things like a manual white balance or even a small exposure compensations.

The camera already features an option to auto-revert on exposure bracketing, since they decided few would want to leave such a feature on full time. But auto bracketing isn’t dangerous, it just wastes a couple of shots that you can just delete later. And it’s also very obvious when it’s on. Of all the things to consider auto-revert for, this was the least necessary.

To my mind, the thing I would like auto-revert on most of all is manual white balancing. I recently was shooting fast an furious in a plane, and learned after lots of shots I still had the camera in an artificial light balance setting from the night before. The camera can do a good job here because it can usually tell what the temperature of the ambient light is, and can notice that the balance is probably wrong. In addition, it can tell that lots of time has passed since the white balance was set manually. It really should have a good idea if it’s out in daylight or indoors, if it’s night or day.

And I’m not even asking for an auto-revert here. Rather, an error beep which also pops a message on the screen that the white balance may be wrong. And yes, for those who don’t want this feature they can disable it. However, what would be cool would be if the screen that pops up to warn about a possibly bad retained setting, would be the ability then and there to say, “Thanks, revert” or “Don’t warn me about this again” or “Don’t warn me about this until the next ‘session.’” The camera knows about ‘sessions’ because it sees pauses in shooting with the camera off, and as noted, changes from night to day, indoors to out.

Of course it would still keep shooting. For extra credit if it suspected something wrong, it could hold the image in RAW mode in its buffer memory, and if you ask to go to another setting that only changes the jpegs, it could actually redo the jpeg right.

Now of course, photographers often shoot in manual modes for a very good reason, and they are doing it because they don’t want the camera’s automatic settings. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be reminded if, after a longish bout with the camera off, they are shooting in a way that’s very different from what the camera wants. That can include exposure. I’ve often left the camera in manual and then forgotten about it until I saw the review screen. (Of course P&S users almost always look at the review screen, they don’t get this trouble.) Again, I want the camera to shoot when I tell it to, but to consider warning me if I turn warnings on that the image is totally overexposed or underexposed. At night it would take a more serious warning since in night shots there often no “right” exposure to compare with.

A smart camera could even notice when you aren’t looking at the review screen, because you are shooting so fast. But like I said, those who want the old way could always turn such warnings off.

Another option would be an explicit button to say, “I’m going to make a bunch of specialty settings now. Please warn me if I don’t revert them at the next session.” This could extend even to warning you that you turned off autofocus. Review screens don’t show minor focus errors, so it would be nice to be reminded of this.

(I actually think an even better warning would be one where the camera beeps if nothing in the shot is in focus, as is often the case here. The camera can easily tell if there are no high contrast edges in the shot. Yes, there are a few scenes that have nothing sharp in them, I don’t mind the odd beep on those.)

Location aware phone to call a local expert

People are always looking for location aware services for their mobile devices, including local info. But frankly the UIs on small mobile devices often are poor. When you are on a cell phone, voice to a smart person is the interface you often want.

So here’s a possible location aware service. Let people register as a “local expert” for various coordinates. That’s probably folks who live in a neighbourhood or know it very well. They would then, using a presence system on their own phone or computer, declare when they are available to take calls about that location.

Somebody sitting with a cell phone in a location could call a special 900-like number. Their phone could just transmit their location, or they would quickly say it to a human for entry. Then, their call would be routed to a local expert who is marked as available for calls. (In some cases it may simultaneously ring several experts of possible but unsure availability and give the call to whoever answers first.)

Then they could, for a fee (perhaps $1/minute?) ask the expert questions.

  • “Where’s the best Thai food?”
  • “How do I get transit to such and such location?”
  • “What’s a good Taxi company to call? Can you call me one?”
  • “Is there a shop around here that sells widgets?”
  • “Is this museum worth it?”
  • “What parts of the area are dangerous?”
  • “How much is real estate here?”

The expert would be expected to know how to answer questions about most of the restaurants, bars and shops. And they could also — so long as they disclosed any kickbacks very clearly — provide coupon codes to people that would rebate the cost of the call.

At the end of any call, the caller would stay on the line and be asked to rate the quality of the expert. They could also rate later. Experts would gain reputations for their skill, and the ones with the highest ratings would be given more calls, or be able to charge more.

Charging could be per minute, fixed-rate, or as noted, rebated with validation from a recommended merchant (though I would want to design a system so that advice is never biased by this.)

This could also be done by texting, which would be easier for experts to do, and probably be cheaper, but of course is slower for the mobile user. Many mobile users are getting pretty good at their texting. The experts would presumably be at computers with IM clients, but they could be at mobile phones as well.

To make this cheaper, one could arrange for trading minutes. Which is to say, if you put minutes into the system advising others, you can in turn use minutes getting advice when you need it. Some people might prefer to do this in a friendly way rather than charge or pay.

Experts could very well be just around the corner, physically, if they are being an expert on their local neighbourhood. It’s not out of the question they could then agree to help in person. In this case you would need to have some way to certify they’re not up to something nefarious. The fact that the call is logged and you know the home address of the expert in the database should be enough. The client might be up to something nefarious, but this seems a pretty low risk.

Is Google really saving money with PV installation?

Just on the heels of my prior post on the bad math often found around alternative energy, I see a Google Blog post on Google’s solar installation. It claims Google with save money with their 1.6 megawatt solar installation.

I would be very interested to see Google’s numbers — what are they paying for this PV system, and what do they pay the power company for their grid power? Did they get rebates on the PV install? Rebates can help a single customer save money but they do it at taxpayer expense which makes it a wash, other than as a means to try to increase the market for solar and bring down the price.

Now, I’m not in any way saying that it’s bad for Google to go solar. Large grid-tie solar arrays are quite green, with minimal emissions (only those from their manufacture, shipping and install) and so it’s good to have them, even if they are more expensive than non-green grid energy.

But I want to know, is my math bad, or is Google’s? If companies can really save money with a PV array they should be springing up like weeds.

Today I also read announcements of companies hoping to bring to market new solar panel technologies with thin films that are vastly cheaper than existing tech. When that happens, the panels really should sprout everwhere, and to very positive effect.

Update: The press releases say the system is 1.6MW, and provides 2.6 million khw/year for a saving of $393K per year (about 15 cents/kwh which is about right in California.) The press release also says the system will pay for itself in 7.5 years, which at 7% interest rate means its total cost was $2.2M. (Truth is Google is able to make far better than 7% with its money, I suspect.)

This means an astounding $1.38 per watt for installed solar. I’ve never heard of anything remotely like this. Even with a bad-math 0% interest rate, 7.5 year payoff is $1.84/watt so it’s not just bad math here. Even with the California rebates of $2.60/watt and 30% federal tax credit, it’s still amzingly cheap — and almost all the savings are coming from the taxpayer.

The release also suggests that 393K per year will result in 15 million saved over a 30 year lifespan. I can’t figure the math in this number. The bad-math 30*393 is under 12 million. The real saving over 30 years at 7% interest has a present value of 4.8 million. The future value, in 30 years time, of $393/year is well over 30M at 7%. You need an interest rate of 1.5% to have a FV near $15M. I suspose the risk-free-rate-above-inflation might correspond to this but it’s not typical in expressing these numbers.

So what are the real numbers?

More IVR improvements when sourced from web page

Last week I wrote about how the 800 number you get on the web page should be special and understand your context and how frustrating it is to get an 800 number from the Contact-Us page on a web site and then be taken through a series of menus that are a waste of time for somebody who was just at the web site.

While the best thing to do is to get an eCRM system which connects the user with a session fully informed about what they were doing on the web, that’s expensive. However, a few more thoughts have come to me.

a) Most IVRs for large companies offer the choice to use a different language, such as Spanish or French, which is good. But if I was on the web site I probably made a language choice there. So the “Contact Us” page in Spanish should give an 800 number that doesn’t bother to ask me, and the “Contact Us” page in English should probably be the same.

b) “Listen carefully because some of our options has changed” is one of the biggest lies out there. By if the Contact-Us page is going to lead the customer to an IVR, why not offer a page with a basic diagram of the IVR menus. Yes, I would like it to include the “path to an agent” sequence, and I know many companies don’t want to provide that in order to keep costs down. But at the very least you can tell me about the other choices that will be on the menu, and the fact that after I press 3 I’m going to be entering my account number followed by a pound sign.

And when the options do change, you can update the web site menus, and put a date on them so we can spot if they are old.

c) Ideally, track what I’ve been doing in my web session. Did I just book a flight? Did I just place an order? Did I just try to place an order and fail? Your web server knows this stuff. Now for some reason I’m phoning. Look at what I did and if you can’t offer me a custom 800 number just for that, at least spell out my likely path through the IVR. For example, “To amend this order in a way that can’t be done HERE, Call 1-800-xxx-yyy, press 3, wait for voice and enter your order number 123456 and then the pound sign.” (Yes, it should know my order number if I just placed an order.)

Stop the bad math on alternative energy

I think it’s important that we stop burning petrofuels or indeed any fuels and get energy from better sources.

But there’s a disturbing phenomenon I have seen from people who believe the same thing too much. They want to believe so much, they forget their math. (Or I may be being charitable. Some of them, trying too hard to sell an idea or a product, may be deliberately forgetting their math.)

I see this over and over again in articles about photovoltaic solar, wind and other forms of power. They suggest you could put in a PV panel array for $20,000, have it provide you with $1,000 worth of electicity per year and thus “pay for itself” in 20 years. Again and again I see people take a series of payments that happen over a long time and just divide the total by the monthly or annual amount.  read more »

On your web page, give a different customer service number that knows I've been to the web site

When you call most companies today, you get a complex “IVR” (menu with speech or touch-tone commands.) In many cases the IVR offers you a variety of customer service functions which can be done far more easily on the web site. And indeed, the prompts usually tell you to visit the web site to do such things.

However, have we all not shouted, “I am already at your damned web site, I would not be calling you to do those things!”

And they should know this. So if you’re on the web site, and you’ve done more than just click on the “Contact Us” tab, then when you finally do click on the tab asking for a phone number, you should not get the same phone number that is given to newcomers or printed in non-web locations.

You should get a special phone number that says, “This customer is already on the web site. Don’t bother offering things that can be done far more easily on the web site.”

Now I understand why they offer these things. Agents cost money and they want to divert customers to automated systems if at all possible. But If I’m already at the automated system, I am usually calling for just a few reasons. Perhaps I want web site support, but I probably need an agent to do something that’s hard or impossible to do on the web site. Why frustrate me?

Of course, even better is if you have an eCRM system that integrates the call center and the web experience. Many companies now have a click-to-call link on their page. Some even connect you with an agent who has your information already from the history on the web site, but this is annoyingly rare. All this stuff is expensive and involves buying new tools and fancy reprogramming. What I propose is pretty trivial — a much simpler menu gated by the phone number the person came in on. Any IVR can do that with a small amount of work.

Now I see one hole. The “Gets to an agent fast” number might of course be spread around, and people would want to use it for all their calls, defeating (to the company) the purpose of all those menus. But today, numbers are cheap. You can get a block of 100 numbers and change the magic one every day. Or, with a little bit of programming, really not that much, you can have the web site tell the true web-sourced callers “Dial extension xxxx when you get connected.” That’s a little fancier, requires the IVR be programmed to know about a changing extension, but again it’s not nearly so hard as buying a whole eCRM system.

I know that companies don’t want to frustrate their customers, they think the IVRs are saving them enough money to offset the frustration. But in this case, they are costing money, as the person wastes time listening to a pointles s IVR. Let’s stop it!

Require flat-panel displays on the backs of tall vehicles

Every driver of a regular car knows this frustration well. You’re behind a big SUV or Minivan and you can no longer see what’s happening ahead of you, the way you can with ordinary cars. This is not simply because the ordinary cars are shorter, it’s because you can see through the windows of the ordinary car — they are at your level.

Of course trucks have always blocked the way but in the past they were few in number. Now that half the cars on the road are tall, being blocked is becoming the norm. This is dangerous, since good driving requires tracking the cars in front of the one you are following, and reacting to their brake lights as well.

Now that flat planel displays are plumetting in price, I propose that any vehicle that can’t be easily seen through by a driver in a standard height car must put a flat screen display on the back, said display showing the view of a camera on the front of the vehicle ideally configured to act like a window would for a car at some modest distance behind the screen.

(A really clever display would track the distance of the car behind and zoom the view so it acts exactly like a window if it were big enough, or at least show what a big window would.)

I’m not talking HDTV here, though of course that would be nice and would become the norm a few years later. It might just be a 20” widescreen style display. For computers, these are dropping under $500 with HD resolution, and less with TV resolution. Admittedly car-mounted units would start off being more expensive in order to be rugged enough, though lots of people are putting small panels in their cars today.

It would of course need a very bright backlight for daytime, and an automatic adjustment of brightness for the night.

Quite a bit cheaper would be to just have the SUV/Minivans have the camera, and transmit the video over RF. The drivers of cars could be the ones to have to buy screens, in this case small dashboard screens which are cheaper than big ones and already exist in many cars for GPS. The big problem here is only receiving the signal of the car in front of you. You would need a protocol where cars that transmit also receive with highly directional antennas. Thus they would examine the direction of all signals they receive from other cameras, automatically pick a free band, and then transmit, “I’m car X. Car Y is in front of me, car Z in front of it. Cars A and B are right front and direct right, car C is left, car D is behind me (probably you!)” In fact it would be giving signal strength info from all directionals. It should be pretty easy then to tell, with all that info from all the cars around you, which is the car directly in front of you.

Then display it on the dash or even in a heads up display where the tail of the car is.

For privacy reason, cars could change their serial number from time to time so this can’t track them, though there is a virtue in broadcasting the licence plate so you can confirm you are really seeing the view of the car ahead of you by reading the plate.

This solution would cost under $50 for the camera and transmitter, much easier to mandate. The receiver would be an option car owners could buy. Not as fair of course, since the vision blockers should be the ones paying for this.

Complain somebody is suspicious, you miss your flight too.

We should all be disturbed by the story of a man who was questioned and missed his flight because he spoke on his cell phone in Tamil. Some paranoid thought it was suspicious, reported it, and so the guy gets pulled and misses his flight.

This is not the first time. People have been treated as suspicious for speaking in all sorts of languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Urdo or just being Arabs or Sikhs. Sometimes it’s been a lot worse than just missing your flight.

So here’s a simple rule. If you want to report something as suspicious, then you don’t fly until the matter is resolved. After all, if you are really afraid, you wouldn’t want to fly. Even with the nasty foreigner pulled off the plane, you should be afraid of conspiracies with teams of villains. So you go into the holding cell and get a few questions too.

Now frankly, I would want to do much worse when it turns out the suspect is very obviously innocent. But I know that won’t get traction because people will not want to overly discourage reports lest they discourage a real report. But based on my logic above, this should not discourage people who think they really have something. At least not the first time.

TSA employees are of course in a CYA mode. They can’t screen out the paranoia because they aren’t punished for harassing the innocent, but they will be terribly punished if they ignore a report of somebody suspicious and decide to do nothing. That’s waht we need to fix long term, as I’ve written before. There must be negative consequences for people who implement security theatre and strip the innocent of their rights, or that’s what we will get.

Passenger side steering wheel as common equipment

More cars are being made “drive-by-wire” where the controls are electronic, and even in cars with mechanical steering, throttle and brake linkages, there also exist motorized controls for power steering and cruise control. (It’s less common on the brakes.)

As this becomes more common, it would be nice if one could pop in a simple, short duration control console on the passenger’s side. It need not be large, full set of controls, it might be more of the video game console size.

The goal is to make it possible for the driver to ask the passenger to “take the wheel” for a short period of time in a situation where the driving is not particularly complex. For example, if the driver wants to take a phone call, or eat a snack or even just stretch for a minute. For long term driving, the two people should switch. It could also be used in an emergency, if the driver should conk out, but that’s rare enough I don’t think it’s all that likely people would have the presence of mind to pop out the auxilary controls and use them well.

The main question is, how dangerous is this? Disabled people drive with hand controls for throttle and brakes, though of course they train with this and practice all the time. You would want people to practice driving with the mini-console before using it on a live road. A small speed display would be needed.

While it’s possible to just pass over steering, and have the person in the driver’s seat be reading with brakes that seems risky to me, even if it’s cheaper. Driving from the other side of a car has poorer visibility, of course, but it’s legal and doable. However, I wouldn’t recommend this approach for complex city driving.

We’re used to a big wheel, but almost everybody is also comfortable with something like fold out handlebars that could pop out from the glovebox. (There is an airbag problem with this, perhaps having the bars be low would be better. As they are electronic, they can even pop up from under the front of the seat, or the console between the two seats.) Motorcycle style throttle — clutch would be too much work.

Driving schools would like to buy this of course. They already get cars with a passenger side brake pedal.

The comment spammers are going manual, it seems

Some time ago I modified this blog softare (Drupal) to ask a very simple question of people without accounts posting comments. It generally works very well at stopping robot posting, however the volume of spam has been increasing, so I changed the question. Volume may have dropped a touch but I still got a bunch, which means the spammers are actually live humans, not robots.

It’s also possible that asking natural language questions (rather than captcha style entry of text from a graphic) has gotten common enough that spammers have modified their software so they can figure out the answer once and easily code it, but I don’t think this is the case.

What’s curious is that my comment form also clearly explains that any links in comments will be done with the rel=nofollow tag, which tells Google and other search engines not to treat the link as a valid one when ranking pages. This means that, other than readers of the blog clicking on the links, which should be very rare, these spams should be unproductive for the spammer. But they’re still doing them.

The change however was prompted by a new breed of comment spam, where the spammers were copying other comments from inside large threads, but inserting their link on the author’s name. (This also uses rel=nofollow.) Indeed, such a technique does not automatically trigger my instincts to delete the spam, but they chose one of my own comments, so I recognized it. Right now my methods cut the spam enough that it is productive to manually delete what gets posted, though if the volume got high enough I would have to find other automated techniques.

(Drupal could of course help by having a much easier to use delete, including a ‘delete all from this IP address’ option.)

The VoIP world needs a pay-per-call E911 service

As most people in the VoIP world know, the FCC mandated that “interconnected” VoIP providers must provide E911 (which means 911 calling with transmission of your location) service to their customers. It is not optional, they can’t allow the customer to opt out to save money.

It sounds good on the surface, if there’s a phone there you want to be able to reach emergency services with it.

The meaning of interconnected is still being debated. It was mostly aimed at the Vonages of the world. The current definition applies to service that has a phone-like device that can make and receive calls from the PSTN. Most people don’t think it applies to PBX phones in homes and offices, though that’s not explicit. It doesn’t apply to the Skype client on your PC, one hopes, but it could very well apply if you have a more phone like device connecting to Skype, which offers Skype-in and Skype-out services on a pay per use basis and thus is interconnected with the PSTN.

Here’s the kicker. There are a variety of companies which will provide E911 connectivity services for VoIP companies. This means you pay them and they will provide a means for you to route your user’s calls to the right emergency public service access point, and pass along the address the user registered with the service. Seems like a fine business, but as far as I can tell, all these companies are charging by the customer per month, with fees between $1 and $2 per month.

This puts a lot of constraints on the pricing models of VoIP services. There’s a lot of room for innovative business models that include offering limited or trial PSTN connection for free, or per-usage billing with no monthly fees. (All services I know of do the non-PSTN calling for free.) Or services that appear free but are supported by advertising or other means. You’ve seen that Skype decided to offer free PSTN services for all of 2006. AIM Phoneline offers a free number for incoming calls, as do many others.

Read on…  read more »

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