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.

Wireless protocol for transmission of powerpoint & other slides

At every conference I go to, with a few rare exceptions, we always see people wasting time fiddling with computers and projectors in order to show their presentation, which is (sadly) almost always in powerpoint. Many laptops won’t switch displays until they see a monitor on the VGA port, which makes things take longer.

So how about a wireless protocol for sending presentations from laptops to projectors or a computer connected to the projector. Over 802.11 or bluetooth, presumably.

Of course, if the presentation is powerpoint or other popular slideshow format, all this needs is a way to transmit the file, and then the control keystrokes. There are already protocols to do this for teleconferneces, where people in another city are watching the slides on their own computer, but I have not yet seen this used at a conference. There could also be a video protocol where the laptop screen is mirrored to the projector through an efficient screen transfer system. These already exist and are free (VNC, for example) but they could be improved by pre-sending the next slide, if it’s static, for instant transition. Fancy animations (which are a curse anywhere) and videos would be a bit slower but should be fine over a good network.

An authentication protocol would be needed, the speakers would get a passcode for access.

Of course, this can also be sped up if speakers are told to set up their laptop in advance, while the prior speaker is speaking, with a good video switch that simulates a monitor so the laptop can be put into external mode. With a wireless protocol, some advance setup would be needed but it need not be on the stage.

On the need for self-replicating nanotech assemblers

In recent times, I and my colleagues at the Foresight Nanotech Institute have moved towards discouraging the idea of self-replicating machines as part of molecular nanotech. Eric Drexler, founder of the institute, described these machines in his seminal work “Engines of Creation,” while also warning about the major dangers that could result from that approach.

Recently, dining with Ray Kurzweil on the release of his new book The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology, he expressed the concern that the move away from self-replicating assemblers was largely political, and they would still be needed as a defence against malevolent self-replicating nanopathogens.

I understand the cynicism here, because the political case is compelling. Self-replicators are frightening, especially to people who get their introduction to them via fiction like Michael Chrichton’s “Prey.” But in fact we were frightened of the risks from the start. Self replication is an obvious model to present, both when first thinking about nanomachines, and in showing the parallels between them and living cells, which are of course self-replicating nanomachines.

The movement away from them however, has solid engineering reasons behind it, as well as safety reasons. Life has not always picked the most efficient path to a result, just the one that is sufficient to outcompete the others. In fact, red blood cells are not self-replicating. Instead, the marrow contains the engines that make red blood cells and send them out into the body to do their simple job.

Read on  read more »

Government could buy emergency petroleum reserve as futures

Many are commenting on the gasoline shortages and price increases involved with hurricane evacuation and other emergencies. Some people can’t get gas to get out of the city. Others full up giant tanks even when they don’t need it. Stations raise prices as supply drops and demand increases, as per the normal rules of the market. Some suggest the stations be price-controlled to stop this, but that would only result in even more gas hoarding by the public.

The government could instead have a strategic emergency gasoline reserve. However, it need not keep this reserve in tanks, it could “keep” it in the storage tanks of all the private gas stations, by arranging a special emergency-based futures contract with the station owners, in advance. Not all stations need participate, as long as enough gas for evacuation can be reserved.

During the emergency, it would be calculated how much fuel will be needed per vehicle. Each station would provide that much fuel to each vehicle. The simplest way to do this is to devise some long-lasting mark that will last at least a few days to a week, and for each station to put it on a car after delivering the fuel. Perhaps something as simple as a sharpie mark or other semi-permanent mark on the gas cap. This is unfair in that people with multiple cars could get extra fuel, but other systems, like vouchers and databases have their own problems. Vouchers would be lost or sold on the black market, unfortunately.

Any fuel over and above the contracted amount could be sold at market prices to those who want more fuel and/or wish to hoard. Probably quite high market prices. Fuel tankers could also be arranged to resupply stations with emergency reserve needs. Note that the customers could still pay a normal price for the reserve gas, reducing the cost of the contract. They would also sign a voucher at the station, on which random audits could later be done to confirm compliance. Stations would contract to deliver based on the minimum reserve they keep in their own tanks. There could also be a true reserve in government owned tankers to cover the slop factor.

Why the high price for Skype

The reason that eBay paid such a huge price for Skype has now become clear. There were several companies competing to buy Skype, and just before the bidding closed, eBay decided the best way to win was to place a giant bid just a few seconds before the end. (This might be known as bid skyping.)

On a serious note, it has long been eBay policy, it is reported, to not want to facilitate communications between buyers and sellers, because they will just arrange to avoid eBay fees by selling outside eBay. Either this has changed, or the “obvious” parts of the plan — Skype presence on eBay auctions, “Skype the seller” buttons and so on, are not part of the value for eBay.

A change in the demographics of your life due to IM

When I left high school, I didn’t look back. I have a few friends from HS, but mostly I found many more like minded people in university. That seems to be a male trait, in that more women seem to keep a circle of friends from HS than men do, but for those that find themselves at university, this is where the social circle that may stay with us our entire lives is formed.

However, today, university frosh, both male and female, and keeping in constant touch with their HS friends via instant messaging and VoIP. They don’t remove you from their buddy list because you went to different schools. This means they are keeping more and closer friends from their HS days and also are more in touch with life at other universities.

I expect this will have far reaching consequences, not all predictable today. To how people live their lives, how they socialize and go on vacations, and how aware they are of the world outside their new university life. With buddy list presence, these remote friends are gaining an intimacy in some ways higher that we used to give to local friends.

New BCEC convention center, yet unwired

Attending a convention in the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) I found one thing very surprising. The show organizer had to install wireless APs all around the building on poles, with long wires leading to power and ethernet. How can a new convention center not already be set up for wireless? I will admit, in some ways it is correct to anticipate that the radios that would do the work will be quickly obsolete, and thus should not be so permanently installed, but it seems crazy to me that a new CC would not have been built with spaces in the ceilings or upper walls ready for some sort of wireless network.

The meeting room halls also don’t have tons of power jacks in the floors. Today, at modern conventions, everybody brings laptops and they want to plug them in. Better conventions in older halls run extension cords and power strips, and there are a few of those here, but why should a new convention center not be ready to go?

The phone number is dead

Here at the VON conference, there’s lots of talk about numbering. While SIP had a dream of calling people using an E-mail address, the market has delivered devices with numeric keypads only, particularly in the mobile space. So nobody uses SIP URLs or domain names of any kind, and everybody worries about mapping to and from numbers. (Another thing Skype mostly ignored.) The regulators try to regulate VoIP by claiming they have the power when it makes calls to and from the legacy PSTN with its numbers.

But here’s something I learned putting out my free phone at Burning Man. Most of the people said, “I don’t know any of my friends’ numbers!” They did not have their cell phones or PDAs on them. The new generation of phone users is treating numbers as a one-time thing, to enter into the speed dial and forget. They know their own number, and perhaps a few other people, as well as their parents.

However, they do know how to TXT on a numeric keypad. So it makes me wonder, at least for the new generation, if the fuss about numbers is worth anything. What if we did switch back to names or SIP URLs (with short domains) and expected people to use various accelerated typing systems to enter numbers for the first time, and then have the phone remember after that.

One could easily create a service with an 800 number that let people dial it and then use digits to type in a SIP URL or e-mail address and connect to that person when not on their main phone. This is actually better, since even though it’s longer to type, it’s possible to remember it. On VOIP phones and Cell phones and smarter PSTN phones, people would switch to the names or speed dial. And the phone number would die the death it deserves.

More from VON later. VoIP is beyond heating up. As one speaker indicated, it’s past the tipping point. Its dominance over the PSTN is now assured. The only question is when it flips. People say things like, “And when the PSTN dies” here and nobody blinks. Though the regulators, pushed by the legacy lobby, still say things that make me throw my hands up in disgust. I asked Senator Sununu today if Congress had ever looked back and said, “I wish we had protected the legacy systems more?” To be fair, he’s one of the better members of congress on these issues.

Follow-up: Later at the conference, during the concert by Huey Lewis & the News, I thought it would be a nice romantic gesture to call home during his song “The Power of Love.” I suggested that to a friend whose cell phone battery had died and said she could use my phone. “I don’t know my boyfriend’s number. I am not even sure of the area code,” she said. Meanwhile others took cameraphone pictures of the performance and send them along with texted captions in similar romantic gestures. Mr. Lewis even took a cell phone from the audience and sang into it for whoever was on the other end.

Upcoming conferences and speaking

In addition to the EFF party, here are some upcoming conferences I will be attending and/or speaking at:

  • Sunday, a half-day at Accelerating Change 2005, Stanford

  • Monday, Sept 19th at 10pm, panel on CALEA Wiretap rules for VoIP, at Pulver Voice on the Net conference in Boston at The BCEC (not Hynes as I reported earlier) Convention Center. I’ll be at the conference for most of the week.

  • Friday Sept 23, I’ll be going with Kathryn for Ray Kurzweil’s talk on his new book, The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology, which Kathryn worked on. The talk is for the Long Now Foundation, at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. He’s doing many talks on a long book tour.

  • We’ll be at George Gilder’s Telecosm at Lake Taho on the 26th.

  • EFF Party, of course, on the 2nd of October

  • Keynoting the AUUG Linux conference, in Sydney, Australia, on Oct 19th

  • Back for Foresight Nanotech’s annual conference on the 22nd of October. (I’m on the board) At the San Francisco Airport Marriott.

EFF 15th Anniversary Party, Oct 2

Join us for a party.

When:  Sunday, October 2nd, 2005 at 5 p.m.

Where:  EFF Headquarters in San Francisco, 454 Shotwell Street, 94110

EFF is 15 years old this year, and we are going to celebrate! We’re having an anniversary bash at our San Francisco headquarters on Shotwell Street on Sunday, October 2nd, 2005. The party starts at 5 p.m.

Join us for delicious Mexican food and drinks from Pancho Villa, hear a special address from our founders, John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore, taste our special 3D cake, and enjoy both the grooves of Gypsy Jazz from the Zegnotronic Rocket Society, and the hypnotic beats of DJ Ripley and Kid Kameleon.

Our celebration is free of charge and open to anyone, so bring your friends and family. We look forward to celebrating with you!

Please let us know you’re coming so we don’t run out of food and libations! Send an email to rsvp at, or call 415-436-9333 x129.

EFF’s office is located at 454 Shotwell Street and is BART accessible. Take BART to 16th and Mission, walk to 19th street and take a left, and take another left on Shotwell Street, three blocks down. We are located
between 18th and 19th on Shotwell.

Hybrid RVs, more RV notes

Every time I take an RV trip (ie. each Burning Man) I come up with more observations. The biggest one is that it cost $360 in gasoline to go from the bay area to the black rock desert, about 800 miles. And that’s at a price still well below world price. The RV owner said he was planning to get out of the business, people no longer want to pay the gas price.

So why is it taking so long to produce a hybrid RV? Hybrid cars are great of course, but trucks and RVs are what really suck gas and need the improved efficiency. And they have the room for larger and more unusual engine configurations. Most of all, RVs also mostly come with expensive generators and batteries, and a hybrid RV would of course have a super duper power plant and batteries and inverters, presuming the engine was efficient at lower revs. The Hybrid RV’s power plant could also be a backup generator when parked at the non-moving home. Probably make the most sense with diesel fuel, or as I have suggested before, even the highly efficient stirling engine. (Stirlings are big, and take time to warm up, but an RV with batteries is fine with this.)

Every RV’s shower has this hose based showerhead with an on-off dial with a slight leak. Our camp built a much nicer shower using a standard kitchen sprayer. A kitchen sprayer with a lock-on would be much better and would make it easier to conserve water by letting you pulse water where you need it when rinsing.

Cleaning the RV, especially when back from the desert, is hard. RV renters charge fat cleaning deposits and fees. Why doesn’t some company that hires out housekeepers do an RV service. You could come to them. Drive in, and a team of 5 attacks your RV, cleaning it in minutes. Do it at a car wash to also handle the outside if needed. Espcially after Burning Man there’s a business here.

I’ve said these before: Paper towel racks, built-in soap dispensers, inverters, flourescent lights. Why aren’t these everywhere in the RV world, instead of being rare?

Stabilizers jacks are great, but how about something simpler, some way to lock the springs or shocks (of course with an interlock to prevent starting the vehicle!) And while slide-outs are great, why do we never see flip out beds the way pop-top campers have, or a pop-up on the cab-over bed? (Most RVs don’t have any spare wall space except in the master bedroom, which does limit the flip-out bed concept. You also almost never see murphy beds.) Flip-out beds don’t take away your dinette or couch as do the extra beds commonly found. And how about a seat belt design for use on the beds for safe sleeping while driving? You can do this now but it doesn’t seem super safe.

Playa phone at Burning Man

If you noticed a long break in the blogging, it’s because I was at Burning Man. And while people do blog from Burning Man, it’s not what you want to spend your time doing. I will have more entries in the future, but let me relate some stories of the network and the phone booth first.

Last year, we erected a free phone booth in the desert to great results. This year, it was going to be even better because of a plan for a new internet connection. In the past, John Gilmore had brought his satellite dish, which had all the latency and bandwidth limits of satellite. This year he splurged on getting a microwave link in, which will be even faster next year. Sadly, much of that money was wasted because we never got the “first mile” — the on-playa 802.11 network — operating at a satisfactory level. There was huge packet loss and jitter in most places, when it was up at all. Next time some of the money will go into better equipment and planning for the local network.

As such, the phone booth, located in our camp on 7:30, only worked intermittently and rarely with great voice quality. We eventually decided to sacrifice the aesthetic purity of a booth sitting in the desert, connected to nothing, and moved it on its wagon by trike to the center camp, home of the incoming microwave link. The we set it up on the street, with an ethernet wire snaking in. We were no longer wireless, but the voice quality was top notch. I wasn’t able to spend much time with it but reports were that the line got very long at times.

In our own camp, you could tell if it was working or not based on whether there was a line. Even waiting for it to work was better than the 2-3 hour time investment of taking the bus to the phone booth in Gerlach.

Last year, I recounted the emotional experience people had using an unexpected and impossible phone to hear the voices of loved ones. This year, this was magnified by Katrina. I learned of Katrina, in fact, when people came to ask to use the phone to contact their relatives in NOLA. (Read on…)  read more »

Adsense and the advertising/editorial wall

You are probably familiar with Google adsense, which is providing the ads you see on the right hand side of this page. Adsense code examines the text of pages, and tries to match Google adwords bids against it. The publisher of the page gets some undisclosed share of the Google revenue.

Recently adsense has been improving a lot for me, and my revenue from it per day has more than doubled, either due to better ad placement, better share or higher bids — it’s hard to say. It has gotten good enough that one can now readily see making a living as a good web writer through adsense. At an extreme example, my Copyright Myths article, which is admittedly very popular, is now generating over $250 per month in revenue. Just that one article. An author able to generate articles that popular (admittedly difficult, part of the popularity comes from having been around for decades and being linked to from many places) could make a living wage.

On one hand, Adsense seems like a great implementation of the wall that is supposed to exist between advertising and editorial. I have no idea what ads will appear, I don’t control it. I have no relationship with the advertisers, and there are so many advertisers that it would be hard for any one of them to hold sway over me as a writer.

However, there is an opposite factor. Clearly some topics are much more lucrative than others. My jokes and photos pay just a small fraction of what writing on copyright pays, because there are lots of copyright lawyers willing to bid high to advertise to people curious about that topic. My spam essays pay decently because of anti-spam companies. My DNS essays get little traffic, but when they do they get people selling domain names etc.

In the extreme, if you become the big expert on a disease like mesothelioma, the asbestos caused disorder, laywers hoping to sign up clients will pay many dollars for every click. (It was famously the most expensive word in a survey last year.)

So there is a strong push now, for a writer wanting to make a living (instead of one like me getting some extra change) to write about the very specific topics that get high adwords or overture bids.

Part of this is nothing new. In the past the way to make the most profitable magazine was to cover a topic that would attract readers that advertisers want to reach. Some general media, like newspapers, sought only to gain an audience, and advertisers would pay to reach the general audience.

But advertisers don’t want to reach a general audience, or only rarely do they wish to do so. Google has broken one of the great aphorisms of advertising, “90% of all advertising is wasted, the problem is figuring which 90%.” And from this they have a multi-billion dollar business. But how will this affect editorial down the road?

Is strong crypto worse than weaker crypto? Lessons from Skype

A mantra in the security community, at least among some, has been that crypto that isn’t really strong is worse than having no crypto at all. The feeling is that a false sense of security can be worse than having no security as long as you know you have none. The bad examples include of course truly weak systems (like 40 bit SSL and even DES), systems that appear strong but have not been independently verified, and perhaps the greatest villian, “security through obscurity” where the details of the security are kept secret — and thus unverified by 3rd parties — in a hope that might make them safer from attack.

On the surface, all of these arguments are valid. From a cryptographer’s standpoint, since we know how to design good cryptography, why would we use anything less?

However, the problem is more complex than that, for it is not simply a problem of cryptography, but of business models, user interface and deployment. I fear that the attitude of “do it perfectly or not at all” has left the public with “not at all” far more than it should have.

An interesting illustration of the conflict is Skype. Skype encrypts all its calls as a matter of course. The user is unaware it’s even happening, and does nothing to turn it on. It just works. However, Skype is proprietary. They have not allowed independent parties to study the quality of their encryption. They advertise they use AES-256, which is a well trusted cypher, but they haven’t let people see if they’ve made mistakes in how they set it up.

This has caused criticism from the security community. And again, there is nothing wrong with the criticism in an academic sense. It certainly would be better if Skype laid bare their protocol and let people verify it. You could trust it more. Read on…  read more »

Bar Camp

Just back from a day at Bar Camp which was quickly put together as a tongue-in-cheek response to Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp and folks who had not been invited. Foo Camp is great fun, and Tim does it all for free, so it’s not suprising he has to turn people away — even me :-) — but Bar Camp was surprisingly good for something thrown together at the last minute with no costs.

It makes you wonder why some conferences have to cost so much. In Foo Camp, Tim provides his campus of course, which he already owns, and some rental facilities and most expensively, food, and lets people come free. Programming is ad-hoc, in recognition that at so many conferences, people come not because of the program but because of their fellow attendees. I haven’t asked Tim what it costs him per attendee but I suspect it’s much more modest than the fees at comparable conferences. People literally camp in empty cubicles and offices, though those not up for that can get hotel rooms or bring RVs.

Bar camp was even cheaper. Socialtext provided the office space in downtown Palo Alto. In just a short time, sponsors such as Technoratti and others provided all the food people could want, and attendees brought snacks and drinks. Fewer folks camped because it was in Silicon Valley, but some of the younger set did. Talks were quickly put together, but interesting, and covered whole ranges of new and interesting software developments. And as at Foo Camp and everywhere else, hallway conversation was the real action.

With the glut of office space in this valley, and in other places, such ad-hoc conferences should not be hard to set up. Nor should sponsors be hard to find for modest food and other needs. If people become interested in having a conference rather than a business, they can do for nothing what could cost $1000 per person and with less work.

Not that I wouldn’t enjoy going back to Foo Camp, but Bar was its own rewarding experience too.

Universal laptop power supplies for desks, conference tables

I’ve called before for a system of Universal DC Power and I still want it, but there is a partial step we could take.

I have a laptop power supply that comes with a variety of tips. The tips tell (through something as simple as a resistor) the power supply how much voltage and current to supply for the laptop they are designed for. I bought mine for use in an airplane, others are sold that do both 12v and AC power.

I would like to see one designed for the corporate market, rather than the carry-around market. Ones to be left in offices and under conference tables, so that when somebody visits with a laptop, they can plug it in. No need to get out their own supply or eventually no need to bring it.

Unlike the carry-around where you pick your tip and leave the rest, this would have an array of tips, possibly rotating on a click-wheel, or all connected to a switch where one can dial the voltage/polarity/etc.

Some companies take more drastic steps. At Google for example, I notice they have standardized on thinkpads, and so all desks and conference tables have think pad supplies. Everybody is able to roam the building and be sure of laptop power. These supplies, while a bit more expensive, could solve the same problem.

An alternate would be to standardize the special tip that describes the power needed. Everybody could get a tip or pigtail for their laptop and carry just that around. Conference rooms could in fact have single supplies that let you plug in several of the pigtail. Of course that is halfway to my original proposal.

Now it turns out a considerable majority of laptops take either 16 volts or 19 volts. The main rebel is Dell, which uses funny plugs and often over 20v. Some need more current than others, I don’t know if any need current limiting or if simply making the PS capable of 100w would do the trick. Anyway, in this case, we could develop a standard 16v plug (the thinkpad one) and a different standard 19v plug (probably an HP one), in two different shapes and colours, and people with laptops could carry a cheap converter to plug their laptop into it. Over time, laptops might come directly able to use this, if they aren’t already — on our path to a smarter power bus. Then people could say, “Oh, you have the orange plug. Great, I can plug my laptop into that.” Vendors who make laptops that won’t plug into one of these two will probably think about switching.


Hot in the blogosphere these days, as a result of the Creationism/ID vs. Evolution debate is Pastafarianism, the worship of the Giant Flying Spaghetti Monster. The idea is to show that something as made up as the GFSM is as consistent as ID.

Now as I’ve written before, I think we should teach creationism and ID in the schools as an example of bad science. All students should learn how to identify when bad science and bad math (in particular bad stats) are being used to lie to them. They should take exams where they are given examples of bad science and must spot the flaws to pass.

However, never one to pass up a joke religion, I still think the Pastafari go too far. I propose Monolithism. (Perhaps monolitheism?).

Monolithism is a variation of Intelligent Design which proposes that man was given the gift of intelligent thought by giant black alien monoliths. They came to Earth long ago and are waiting out there for us to show them the results.

Now Monolithism has great visual aids already to show the process. It meets many of the requirements of I.D. except that most people know it’s a movie.

Can we stop the loud-beep on backing up?

One of the scourages of urban areas is the requirement (I presume) that heavy equipment make a loud beeping noise when it’s backing up. It’s meant to warn anybody standing behind the vehicle, presumably because the driver doesn’t have the same field of vision to see you, and because people are more wary of standing in front of a moving vehicle than behind it.

As such, as we all know, the sound is really piercing. And more to the point, it travels, often for miles. It’s a major noise pollution anywhere near any work site. I presume part of the problem as well is workers wearing hearing protection need it even louder.

So my challege is, can we do a better job? Can we make an attention getting sound that is more directional (aimed backwards, and perhaps down from the top of the vehicle) so it won’t travel as far or distract people not behind the machine?

Can we standardize rear-view cameras, which are so cheap now, so that the operator’s view of what’s behind is top notch?

Can we combine a quieter sound with really bright, moving lights, the kind you would see on the ground if your back were to the beeping machine? Could we blow air with high pressure streams or those long-distance vortexes like the AirZooka makes, or would this be too much of a problem with dust (or in wind?)

Can we have object detectors that spot objects in to the rear of the machine and make the beeps louder when there is something? (Admittedly they are going to go off for a wall or wheelbarrow as much as a guy, and they have to be really reliable because people would start depending on them to know how much caution to use.) Perhaps they can detect that everything they have seen has left the area and reduce the beeping, because if there is one person behind the truck, that assures you somebody is watching and will move anybody who doesn’t see the lights or hear the beeping.

I solicit other ideas to safely warn people about moving equipment that don’t ruin the peace.

Update: I received information from a firm called Brigade which claims to have an answer. They use white-noise alarms. They claim they are easier for us to echolocate than less natural pure-tone sounds, and I agree that they disperse into the environment more quickly so they won’t travel. The piercing alarm has been chosen in the past as it is un-natural and thus stands out more from background, but that means it travels further. Natural sounds fade from notice more quickly but possibly are just as recognizable close up.

How about a Hugo Award for Science Fiction?

As some will know, I got heavily into the Hugo awards 13 years ago during my efforts at becoming an eBook publisher in the SF field. The Hugo award is voted on by the fans who attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, a moderately small voting pool (under 1000 of the typical 4000 to 7000 attendees will vote.)

The most important award and 2nd most voted on is the one for best Novel. The least important, but most voted on award is the one for best movie.

But still, for a long time, though both SF and Fantasy qualified for the award, the best Novel went exclusively to Science Fiction (with one dab into alternate history by Phillip K. Dick) and usually to hard, ideas-based SF. This went on until 2000 when the superb hard-SF novel “A Deepness in the Sky” won. The drama award was also heavily into SF, though it had some deviations, such as the coverage of Apollo XI and a few films in the 80s.

But in 2001, for the first time, a Fantasy novel won the best novel Hugo. Not just any fantasy novel, but a children’s novel, Harry Potter 4. Of course, the Harry Potter series is the most remarkable success not just in fantasy, but in publishing, so this is not too shocking. What’s surprising is that in 2002, 2004 and 2005 a fantasy novel would win best novel. At the same time, fantasies won all the best movie awards and all of the new best TV episode award until 2005. (Read on…)  read more »

Electric cars, perhaps not, but let's see more electric trikes

I recently picked up a surplus battery-powered motor assist for a bicycle, and it's a lot of fun. Due to lower power you have to start peddling to 3mph and then it can run the bike for 10 miles at 10mph (for normal weight people, not me.)

All-electric cars didn't do well in the market in part because people were scared of their limited range, slow charging and and high cost, and the annoyance of plugging them in. They love hybrids because they don't have the range problem. Some folks are promoting plug-in hybrids, which are hybrids with lots of batteries. You can and should charge them from the grid, but you don't have to, so your range is the same as a gas car (or better) and on most trips you are much more efficient.

But perhaps cars are the wrong target. Electric bikes are heavy and a little more unstable when slow or being walked, and get really bad if you put enough batteries on them to go 20 or 30 miles. But trikes on the other hand are stable and you can load a lot more batteries onto them for serious range. And electric trikes are wicked efficient, in terms of cost (and fuel burned) per mile of travel. Orders of magnitude ahead of hybrid cars.

And all this is quite cheap to make if done in quantity. If our cities made more bike paths and bike lanes these trikes could become a major commute form, especially in California with its assured good weather. Yes, it's not perfect -- you have to recycle the batteries, and you do have rain to worry about, and the speed is definitely lower. But for shopping trips, neighbourhood trips and short commutes it seems a giant win.

Editing down the funnies to those actually funny

Newspapers won’t like this idea, but the truth is that most of the funnies aren’t funny, certainly not every day. There are some talented people doing comic strips, but it’s hard to do on a 7 days a week schedule, so they are almost all inconsistent.

You can read most of the strips on the web, so the next step is to build a system where we do shared editorial on their quality. People would read the funnies and vote on them. Then, you could present a page which showed you only the ones that made a certain cut. You could tune the cut — “Show me the top 90% of Dilbert, only the top 10% of Blondie” as you like it.

And you could even ask for the top few percent of comics you don’t normally read, though of course some of the jokes only make sense to semi-regular readers, so this won’t always be a winner. But it should be often enough.

Of course, some people have to read the comics before they have been graded. And there are fans willing to do that, but if there aren’t, you can make a trading system that says to make use of the ratings you have to contribute some. (Though if you get too hardnosed about it, people would start to introduce fake ratings to game this.)

User’s ratings would not be absolute, but rather based on their past history, and where in their own spectrum of ratings for that comic a particular rating falls. So it doesn’t help that you rank every Dilbert a 10 out of 10, such scoring would be discarded. Nor can individual comic publishers bump their own ratings on an absolute level, since again it’s a percentile result — they can only promote a personal favourite at the expense of others.

This would not be so hard to code, who wants to code it?

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