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.

PVR Video recording surfing

We all love our Tivo or other PVRs (though my mother just got the Scientific Atlanta 8000HD which does HDTV but otherwise has a terrible UI. It's hard to imagine this was designed after people saw the Tivo or Replay.)

After you use your PVR, you get a large library. Deliberately recorded programs, or in the case of the Tivo "suggestion" mode, programs recorded at random that are similar to shows you have asked to record.

You can browse them like a directory. And once you use the PVR a lot you stop surfing the live TV by and large. So I suggest adding a "surf" mode for the recorded shows. Ie. pretend they are a set of channels that are on now. You would start surfing by seeing the first show live (but with the overlay showing what it is.) You could hit up or down and move to other recorded shows. For surfing purposes, the shows would pause and recontinue where you left off during this surfing session. After a while this would be forgotten for the next surfing session if you liked.

You can already browse through the descriptions, but this mode would give a more familiar feel to looking at the shows. This would be better for the suggestions than the requested shows. For example, I have often got many episodes of a show I watch, in order, and I don't want to browse them and spoil what's ahead. I don't even want to read the descriptions in many cases.

Oh yea, speaking of which, who isn't annoyed at the long delay for channel changes on PVRs, satellite boxes and digital cable boxes. Many of these have dual tuners, so why not do this: If the other tuner is available, start pre-buffering the "next" expected channel in a channel surf, so you can show it instantly. There is a downside to this, which is sometimes you will guess wrong or not have the other tuner and thus have to do the regular slow channel change, and I know that studies show that inconsistent response time is more confusing to users than consistently bad response time. But I think they could come to understand it. Of course, as tuners become cheaper, just have enough that you can always do it.

Brave new world of Vasopressin gene therapy

Emory University scientists, taking one species of vole that is one of the extremely rare animals to be actually monogamous, found a gene to boost the effect of Vasopressin, one of the love hormones. Inserting this gene into other voles made them more socially monogamous.

I had heard of this before, and there has been science fiction about couples taking love drugs, but this story made me wonder about how people might try to alter the concept of marriage.

Imagine there was a gene therapy which would improve the chances that you would remain in love with the one you currently love. Might couples want to take it when getting married? (Or, more practically, after a few years of test marriage and before children are begun.)

And more to the point, if this became popular, might there arise pressure to do so, even for those who don't particuarly want it?

One can imagine injecting the virus to deliver the gene at the wedding, truly sealing the bonds of love. (It's unlikely that the romantic idea of transmitting the virus in the first marital kiss would be a good idea.)

But what if it starts coming down to "Honey, why won't you take the gene therapy? Don't you love me enough? I'll take it for you!"

How will we answer that?

New word: dot-zom

A dot-zom is a dot-com that's walking dead, still coasting on investor money, but no future in sight. The stage before a dot-gone.

Is Versed being used for torture?

Here’s my most disturbing idea yet. There are drugs which erase memory (or rather block the formation of memories while they are used.) It seems disturbingly probable to me that these might be being used for torture. Espcially considering the light of new memos giving the US the green light for torture.

If you don’t know of this class of drugs, you may have heard of “Roofies” the “date rape” drug which have been used to both make a victim pliable and also to make her forget the rape. There are stronger drugs, such as Versed, which are used in surgery.

The surgical use is quite disturbing. They want to perform a procedure on you while you will be somewhat conscious, but it is painful and upsetting and will leave mental scars — so they put you through the pain but block you from remembering it.

However, it must be obvious to those wishing to do torture that this could be applied here too. Apply the drug, then apply torture which leaves few permanent marks. The victim would awaken unaware they had been tortured or what they had confessed to. They could not testify later about their torture, they would not even know to.

It’s hard not to think that this would be a more “humane” form of torture, in the same way the surgical use of the drugs is humane. After all, you just want the information, why leave the victim with psychic scars, as there always are from torture. This is frightening because it might make the public much more accepting of torture. And on top of that, how will we ever find out if torture is going on? Only from the torturers themselves.

This is just the start of a trend. Tools like “brain fingerprinting” already exist which cause no pain but examine your brain to find out if you remember something you are being shown, or if it’s the first time you are seeing it. People have already suggested this is so benign as to be suitable for airport screening!

I predict we’ll see newer and “better” torture and interrogation techniques in the near future. Better brain scans. Polygraphs that actually work. More powerful drugs that affect not just memory but compliance. Perhaps eventually nanomachines that reach in and target brain centers to create compliance.

Some of these may already exist — though I think not too many or our intelligence communities would be doing a better job on terrorism than they are.

But they will exist. How will we as a society cope with them? We already seem willing to forget about the prohibitions on torture in the constitution and international law. We’ll pretend the prohibitions don’t even exist for these new forms.

The only way to avoid them will be to work soon for strong laws and eventually an explicit constitutional amendment protecting the right of privacy in our thoughts. And that will be a long time coming.

Update: More stories of Versed and other memory drugs in my new memory tag.

A new regime of radio regulation

Declan recently wrote an article about abolishing the FCC and selling off spectrum to private owners. It's an old idea, in fact too old, it was out of date even when the book he cites was published.

For starters, there is UWB -- ultrawideband technology that transmits on all frequences at once because it uses what would be viewed as noise pulses, rather than a band at all. The developers of the technology, when they first started telling the FCC about it, remarked that until they were told about it, the FCC would not have been able to detect that it was even _there_, let alone regulate it. They had to tell them it existed.

Owned spectrum would pretty much forbid UWB -- and any other future innovations that were similar.

Other new technologies eliminate interference in other ways, but having dynamic transmitter-receiver relationships that limit power and take advantage of the fact that radio waves don't actually interfere when they cross one another except at the receiving antenna unable to deal with the problem.

Selling off spectrum as a permanent property right forever carves the concept of "spectrum" into law, and that's simply a silly thing to do, knowing what we do now, and knowing what we might be capable of in the future.

Instead, how about a much simpler rule.

You should not broadcast in a way that interferes with other broadcasters.

or simply:

Though shalt not hog bandwidth.

With the following interesting interpretation. It doesn't matter who was there first. Rather, it is the duty of any transmitter to regularly take steps to avoid interfering with both those already doing radio in the area and those who might come along in the future.  read more »

Transit of Venus 2004

I took a trip to Toronto in part to see the very rare transit of Venus over the face of the Sun. I was lucky enough to get some great photos.

See my gallery of Venus Transit 2004 photos with notes.

Lovelock for nuclear power

Seeing the essay by James Lovelock, environmentalist pioneer and originator of the "Gaia hypothesis" that we must move to nuclear power to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, I thought the sentiment might be summed up as follows:

"Glow" is the new green.

Solar powered, wireless webcam

Everybody loves their webcams (though the surveillance aspects of some are to be worried about.)

What about a way to make them cheap and easy to put in cool places. Combine a webcam with a solar panel, 802.11 link and small bettery. The webcam charges the battery off the panel, and when there is enough charge to take a picture, it takes one and spits it out the wireless link. You don't need much of a battery or much of a solar panel, because the amount of power simply controls how often it can take a picture.

When the sunlight is bright, it's taking pictures frequently. When it's cloudy, they are less frequent. When it's dark, it's not taking them at all. (Though a unit with larger battery could do even this.)

These devices could easily be stuck on mountaintops, antenna towers, roofs etc. The only issue -- keeping the lens clean. Possibly a wiper (fired when blur is detected or manually) or occasional service. A little protection from the rain and wind for the lens of course.

And now that megapixel sensors are so cheap, why not produce a 1280x720 HDTV image, which people can stick on their new plasma screens on the walls, sampling images of the world?

Condo network for tech-nomads

Later I will blog my observations on an attempt to do a 2 week working trip to Toronto, but before I do let me throw out and idea to make technomadism easier.

A network of condos, of similar value (with some exceptions) in the most interesting cities of the world. The condos would be "standardized" to include the following:

  • A set of dressers with special removable drawers on rails. The drawers can be removed, lidded and slotted into a special packing crate for easy shipping.
  • Special bookshelves also easily moved. Some would contain your mobile books and papers, others ones that go to storage on shorter trips.
  • A standardized set of appliances, pots, pans, cutlery etc. as well as spices and a list of other dry ingredients to be kept in supply.
  • Of course a high speed internet connection, wireless and wired
  • A PVR modified to have a quick-remove hard drive as well as other home theatre and stereo equipment. Media server on network to play MP3s etc.
  • One or two office rooms with large monitor and keyboard, basic printer.
  • A nice collection of tools
  • VoIP phone equipment ready to handle your permanent number plus a local number for you.
  • A local cell phone account available for those from other countries.
  • A wiki with information on the neighbourhood and city. Best nearby restaurants, stores, places to get things cheap as well as links to the more standard tourist sites.
  • LCD or plasma panels to show photographs and other art.
  • E-mail access to the natives and former tennants to ask questions not answered in the Wiki
  • Of course, furniture.

The goal is a nearly painless move. Crate up your personal stuff (clothes and other special items) and any special tools and equipment you like. Slot the hard drive out of the PVR. Pack up your computer. It all goes in crates to send ground, you pack enough to live on in your suitcase since you will get there sooner.

(You'll find some similarities of goals in this to my earlier Ship of modern nomads concept.)

This way you can go to a new place with no fuss and minimal settling time, and work and live there. You will have what you need and access for how to find the things only natives know about. Your phone numbers and other access remain the same.

Members would buy into the system and get their "home" condo, plus pay extra for their share of common costs and the few spare condos needed to make the system work. Then they could move to an open condo in their class or lower (or higher for a fee) for fairly low moving costs.

Would people buy into this? Not those who have to put down roots, but those who want to see the world.  read more »

Stirling Engine based hybrid car

I'm not the only one to have thought of this, but as yet no real work has been done. How about a hybrid car powered with a Stirling Engine? (Not spelled Sterling, btw.)

The Stirling is more efficient than the internal combustion or diesel engine, and it's also a lot quieter. Sounds great, but it's not good for cars because it can't rev up quickly and it takes about 5 minutes to get the engine hot enough to run well. We want our cars to start the minute we put the key in.

A hybrid design (with enough batteries for 10-20 miles) solves this. You can get all the acceleration you need from the electric motors, and you can start driving right away, while heating up the Stirling "boiler". Then it kicks in to provide the power to run the car for the long haul. If you know the trip is short, no need to fire up the Stirling until the battery gets low.

The Stirling can burn anything. Gasoline, kerosene, diesel, vegetable oil, hydrogen, even wood! Yes, you could, in theory, be stuck by the side of the road out of gas, then go out with an axe to chop trees and refuel your car.

Well, almost. You want high-temperature burning for the best efficiency, and this would pollute and probably dirty your nice clean boiler. Right now the engines are expensive to machine but I suspect that could change.

Copy Globe's "Reality Check"

I am on the road in Toronto, so not a lot of blogging, but let me point to an idea that should spread. The Toronto Globe and Mail has a regular feature called Reality Check, where they take claims by politicians and officials, especially ones in negative ads, and research them.

Of course, it's easy to politicise such a task, finding flaws only in the party you don't like, but with proper checks and balances to produce objective journalism, I think every newspaper should have this, and featured prominently. Yes, we see it in blogs and mailing lists, but usually with bias. We need it in newspapers.

Gas futures at the gas pump?

Commodities traders buy gasoline futures all the time. Could they work at the gas pump? Imagine a big gas chain willing to sell you future gas today. You would buy a coupon, good for 15 galons of gas in August, the month you plan a big family trip in the minivan. You're afraid the high prices in the future might hurt the trip, you can be protected against them. The futures might even cost less than gas at the pump today due to widespread belief that supplies will open up. In times of heavy fear they would cost less. You could even buy some of your gas years ahead (from a big chain you know will be around) and then sell them on eBay if you don't need them. Would you need a commodities licence to do so?

Would anybody buy them?

(Thanks to Kathryn for this idea.)

Better UI for Wifi password setup

The new genertion of WiFi equipment supports WPA (WiFi Protected Access) a version of the IETF's EAP protocol, so that superior key authentication with different keys for each user and the keys are much harder to crack. In corporate networks, the keys can be fetched via RADIUS -- effectively allowing a single login password to provide all network access securely.

That's great, but not enough has been done that I have seen to make a good user interface for the home network. I set up family member's wireless networks with WEP keys and its a pain even for a skilled person. When a person visits my house and wants wireless access I need to key in a 32byte hex string.

For home networks, how about a nice simple protocol. When a new device attempts to connect to the network, note that. Then let the user go to the web configuration page for their access point. There it will list the new devices that have tried to get on the net. There will probably be only one. If the user clicks to approve it, transmit the WEP key back to that new device (encrypted with a public key the device provided) so it can now join the network. Possibly with reduced permissions, but that's a bonus.

The main goal is plug and play (or near to it) joining of the encrypted network in the ordinary home. If there are multiple APs, they can share the key with WPA or other protocols. Or frankly, it's not even a giant burden to have to confirm the new user to all the APs, since most homes don't have more than one. (Mine does, I can't get the signal to go from one corner of my house to the other.)

Want to make it even easier for the unskilled home user? Put a button on the access point. Push it, then the new laptop will ask for a key. A light will go on if one and one one device asked for access, and the laptop will confirm it. Then push the button again and the laptop gets a permanent key for access then and in the future. Of course a web interface is cheaper than a button and clearer but this is dirt simple. If two devices try to get access, then you get an error and have to try again or go to the web interface, but this would be rare and a sign that perhaps somebody was trying to sneak in.

High quality videoconferencing restaurant

It's always dangerous to predict that soon we will all videoconference, but the technology really is getting better (See the Marconi ViPr, for example.) And bandwidth is getting cheaper. The Marconi system wants 8 megabits bidirectional -- the secret being not to do very fancy compression to instead push for really low latency and hi resolution -- but this is getting to be more affordable.

Here's a possible application. Nice restaurants making tables for a remote virtual dinner date. A table for one facing a screen, connected with another such table in another city. Get together for dinner with distant friends. Of course, one would also like to do it for larger groups but as the Marconi project shows, that requires losing too much resolution (at least for now) to get an acceptable experience.

Another barrier -- you want a lifesize screen here, but a bigger screen means a larger difference from the other's eyes and the camera, and that just looks wrong. The low latency requirement stops us from playing cute tricks, like having two cameras left and right and trying to calculate an eye that's looking at you. This is hard to do though some day we might solve it.

For an added touch the restaurants, if they share a menu, might even offer you a taste of the dish the other person ordered. Here, try this, it's delicious. Hokey, but who knows? Harder of course to provide physical contact, though there have been attempts to build gloves for virtual handsakes and in the extreme there is teledildonics.

Of course the system (without the teledildonics) would also be popular for business lunches. Of course there are lots of videoconferencing centers trying to sell their services for business meetings, but we have a certain attraction to meeting for lunch for a one one one or 2 on 2. It might make work what we haven't done before.

On the other hand, I think we should work to eliminate the speakerphone from the audio conference call. It's never great. Just give everybody in the room a bluetooth earbud or headset, and headsets for anybody joining remotely. Good audio, full duplex, ability to interrupt. Forget the echo cancelling and tinny acoustics.

Viagra spam

Thought of the day...

Spam is there to teach us just how many different ways there are to spell Viagra.

Changing the letters on phone keys

When SIP was designed for internet telephony, the feeling was to get rid of the phone number and replace it with IDs with the form of email addresses. E-mail addresses are of course easier to remember and read, though as a downside they tie your address to a domain, which is fine if it's yours, but silly if it's your service provider's.

However, to much surprise, handsets with numeric keypads not only continue to dominate the phone, but their use is growing. So much that complex "texting" systems have been designed and come with phones to let people enter text messages with the keypad.

In addition, popular IP phones feature not full keyboards, but traditional keypads, even though they have room. Mobile phones largely won't have keyboards for size constraints. As a result, IP phone users are using services like Free World Dialup and SipPhone so they can have phone numbers again, the thing we wanted rid of.

There is another ancient system involving phone numbers based on the letters Bell put on the keypad. Starting with Pennsylviana-6-5000, and moving to numbers like 1-800-FLOWERS.

Of course there are other answers to dialing -- menus, speech interfaces and so on. But if dialpads are with us for a while longer, does it make sense to rethink the system of finding words to spell out phone numbers?

If we use the existing system (with perhaps some minor mods) we could get a wide selection of spellable words by having longer numbers. No reason you can't have multiple numbers -- a "normal" 7 (or 10) digit number and then a longer number that is easier to remember but harder to key because it's longer. Thus I could probably have "BRADTEMPLETON" 2723-836753866 as a phone number, as well as my regular 7 digit number for use in systems that can't handle long numbers. Cell phones of course can easily have the length of numbers extended, but even ordinary phones can do this easily with a * or # code.

Of course the spell a word system has name collisions, so not everybody can get their preferred choice of name, but everybody can have an easy to remember string, I would venture. (Like with domain names.)  read more »

Hand Iraq to Sheikh Hamad of Qatar

Of course the Iraqis have not enjoyed having an American Military Governor, but are they ready now for a U.S. pullout? Here's an alternative.

The most remarkable man I have read about in the Arab world is Sheikh Hamad, the Emir of Qatar. How about giving him temporary power with a later handoff date to an Iraqi parliament. There's not a lot of coverage about him on the Web, but consider the following.

His family has been an absolute monarchy for a century. In 1995, however, he deposed his father in a family-supported takeover to become the new young Emir.

In just a few years since then he has:

  • Spread democracy in much of his country, with an elected legislature and elected local officials.
  • Given the vote to women, and enabled many freedoms for them, including freedom of dress. Education for girls is mandatory, women make up the majority of students in the national university. However, his people are Wahabi style conservatives, and there is still much repression of women, by our standards.
  • Disbanded his government's information ministry, and funded, with a hands-off no-censorship approach, Al-Jazeera and other free press.
  • Invested heavily in education for the Qatari, giving grants to U.S. universities like Cornell to get them to build branch campuses in Qatar.

Now he's still a monarch, and has kept a lot of power, and it's not all sweetness and light by any stretch, but the above record is one I find remarkable. Absolute rulers voluntarily giving their people the vote is rare in history. And of course it's easier when you have billions of oil revenue and you get to take your cut.

Of course Qatar is a strong U.S. ally now (though he refused Powell's requests that he muzzle Al-Jazeera during the war) and has some resentment in the Arab world for that role. But if I can imagine any Arab leader who might be trusted to take the temporary reigns of a country, and be trusted to try to reform it in the best interests of the people and then be trusted to leave, his record makes him top my list. He is Sunni, which may be an issue for the Iraqi majority.

Of course, my knowledge of him is sketchy. You don't find a lot on the web. I would like to know more. But if he has the potential to solve the problem (though he might well not want the job) he should be looked at.

Trains that decouple and recouple

I've often wondered why, when you have an electric train line that has a terminus as the main destination, you can't give everybody an express train.

To do this, imagine for the commute home, a 5 car train starts downtown. It leaves and expresses a few stops down the line. (A local car leaves after to handle the stops close to downtown.) When it gets to point one, with sufficient warnings and many safeguards, it decouples, and the rear car brakes to stop at the first of its stations.

Passengers get off (and on as well, see below) and the car, which has its own power coupler, takes off to drop folks off at the next few stations. The main train releases another car after that which handles the next few stations.

This has been thought of before, but next the hard part, something needing more modern technology. After the drop-off car has completed its local run, it would attempt to rejoin the next express train, allowing local passengers who got on it to get on an express, then move to the car that will eventually decouple to go to their stop. With the right timing this could go on all day.

Not that this is easy...  read more »

Iraqi Prison Scandal Joke

I have finally realized why this White House is so concerned over the Iraqi Prison abuse scandal.

They fear they have been caught doing something really serious -- lying about sex.

(Of course, they may point out that what the prisoners were forced to do was not sexual relations according to the prior administration.)

Native games for native casinos?

Whenever I see a First Nation's (That's the Canadian politically corect term for Indians) Casino, I have a cynical thought along the lines of "ah, the great Indian tradition of video poker."

So here's a good idea for folks in the gambling machine industry: Track down some traditional native games that can be turned into gambling games on machines. Make machines to play them.

Sure, nobody plays these games any more, not even the Indians. But while everybody understands the financial attraction of the tribes using their special sovereignty to make a bundle with casinos, I suspect many would jump at the chance to offer a game with even limited origins in their own traditions.

At first, gamblers would be confused at new games, but they are remarkably adept at learning, especially with a little marketing. In particular, just provide better odds to introduce the games. Games like "Bowl and Dice" which are random, could easily be converted to slot-machine style games.

Of course this is a heavily regulated industry so a random person can't just enter it on a whim, so I cast this idea out for those already in that business.

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