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.

Robocar talk on Mon, Feb 13 at Intel auditorium

A new group has sprung up in the valley around the concept of the open source automobile. I will be speaking at their meetup, which was going to be at Hacker Dojo and has moved to Intel’s auditorium. Looks like a good crowd is signed up. Sorry, no deep Google secrets but there will be a video featuring the car and many visions of the future.

Robocars at Silicon Valley Open Source Automotive

This group is about all aspects of computerization in cars.

Series on robocars in Wired

I’m back from a trip to the Netherlands and Ontario, and there’s more to come on that, but the press awakening about robocars continues to grow:

This week, Wired has expanded it’s “Let the Robot Drive” series with more articles:

In other news the Sartre road-train project reports a successful high-speed test with with a convoy of 4 vehicles behind a truck.

Airline bureacracy reigns at United

Two recent flight booking experiences on United Airlines:

a) I booked a round trip to Toronto with miles. Due to new plans, I ended up getting a different flight to Toronto but wanted to take the same flight back. I had booked return tickets for 2 passengers, but you can book one-way tickets for the same miles price, and you can book passengers together or independently (later joining the reservations to sit together.) It doesn’t cost any more to get 4 single legs, it’s just a lot more work for you and the airline.

When I needed to change it, they said, no, there was no way to just use the return leg. I must cancel or not use the entire trip. To cancel and re-credit the miles is $250 for 2 passengers — so much for free. To re-book the one-way leg another $200 or so. The original booking was $125 in fees. That’s a bunch. Had I booked it as independent trips, I could have used my return leg, and just refunded or re-used the outgoing leg. I decided to re-use the whole trip and buy a paid fare ticket. Perhaps that’s what they wanted, but now if I want flexibility I must jump through hoops booking, and make them jump too.

b) The alternate trip was to Brussels. I booked a flight with one flight number that stops and changes flights in Chicago. It’s really two flights but with one number. Many other alternatives existed that were really two flights with different numbers. On checking in, I found that there were business class seats available. Normally on United, if you have status, that means a complimentary upgrade to busines class on the domestic flights. But because I booked it as one flight, I have no domestic flight. Other people on the same flight to Chicago with me are getting upgraded because they are not flying on to Europe while I’ll sit in coach. It’s not a long flight, but still. Next time, never book a single flight unless that’s what you really want, which you may do if it’s the same plane and that reduces your risk of lost luggage and gets you better seats. In this case, there is no advantage to the single flight number it seems, and a big loss.

Of course, phone staff have no power to make things right. Sigh.

End of rant.

Robocars and battery swap?

Update: When I first wrote this, I was under the mistaken belief that Better Place only swapped one type of battery module. At present they only support one, but their swap stations are designed to support up to six kinds, as long as they can be loaded and unloaded from below.

Recently, electric car battery-swap company Better Place announced delivery of their first cars in Israel. Israel is a country of small size where it makes sense to deploy a technology like this with a chicken and egg problem. They hope to have enough battery swap stations that people feel they can drive an electric car and refuel it as quickly and conveniently as a gasoline buggy.

I remain skeptical about battery swap for electric cars, but think robocars solve many of those problems. Here’s why:

To have a workable battery swap system, you need to standardize the battery module, ideally having just one or two form factors and electrical characteristics. Just one to start, in fact. This has many downsides:

  • A large part of the innovation in electric cars today is in the batteries. A big part of what Tesla did was their new cooling system. Designers all want to be able to play with chemistries, voltage, controllers and more. They might give up playing with size and placement but not those things.
  • It’s still an issue to not be able to vary size and shape of the battery, at least for people wanting to build cars of unusual shape.
  • A large part of the cost of an electric car today is the battery. With the swap system, you can’t buy the battery with the car. You get whatever battery you are swapped. That’s good in some ways, but eliminates open market competition on these systems because there is only one buyer — the swap company.
  • Swap machines are expensive, take land and still take five minutes, arrival to departure. That’s almost as quick as filling up with gas, but a typical gas station has 8 pumps, and some have many more. If there are several cars in line at a single swap station, you’re in for a serious wait.

On the plus side, people actually need swaps more rarely than they imagine. A 70-100 mile range car will hardly ever feel the need for a swap — in many ways the availability of the swap makes you feel more comfortable about the car, even if you rarely use it. It’s better than the level 3 charge which can damage the battery and still takes 15-20 minutes.

I think robocars (cars able to move while empty to the swap station) solve many of these problems. They solve them because while robocars (particularly those operating as taxis) need to run all day and thus want to swap batteries, the cars can move to the swap station on their own, when they are not serving somebody.

  • There is much less need to standardize, though it does help. Your car simply goes to a swap station that has its type of battery available.
  • While it wastes energy and a little time, it doesn’t bother the robot to have to go a few miles to find such a station. You don’t need one on every popular route.
  • The robot can schedule an appointment for a swap if need be. Not that it really minds waiting a lot, unless it has a job to do. But with a scheduled swap it might even do one while carrying a passenger, if it happens to be passing a swap station and can book a no-wait appointment for the time it will be passing, and the passenger doesn’t mind the 3 minute stop.
  • Most typically, this will be used by taxi fleets. Each taxi fleet can have their own swap station, for the type of battery cases they like. They can program their taxis to take jobs that bring them closer to the swap station when they will be running low. You can get buy with just one swap station for the whole fleet, or perhaps just a few. The taxi fleet can have a mixture of cars of different swap types and cars without swap ability. The latter can’t run all day and must spend time in charging stations as planned.
  • With robocars, you can solve range problems not by swaping the battery, but by swapping the car. If you have a car that is running low, it can stop in a convenient lot to have you switch quickly to a taxi with lots of charge. Then the car you were in can head off for charge or swap in no paticular rush.

By allowing lots of types of battery form factors and swap stations, you allow innovation and competition in these areas, which in the long run is a win for the customer. Anything that blocks competition may sound good at first but quickly bogs things down.

Now I still want to credit Better Place for working to solve the range and range anxiety problems of electric cars. There will still be competition because I don’t expect all electric car vendors to want to be compatible with their system. But I think their technology comes into its own best when the cars can worry about the swap rather than the drivers.

Video of BMW's ConnectedDrive Connect car

BMW has spoken in the past of their Highly Automated Driving project. A new video about ConnectedDrive Connect goes into more details. While BMW insists this is just a research project and won’t be in their cars for a long time, they also are expected to soon produce a traffic jam autopilot to compete with the offerings from Mercedes and Audi.

The approach in this car is a bit different. They have a small LIDAR on the side of the vehicle, which presumably is there to find the lane markers, and a forward facing camera behind the rearview mirror. The other systems are mostly using cameras for their lane finding. They also have ultrasonics, which are typically used for automated parking and some blind-spot detection. LIDARs are currently much more expensive than cameras, but this is a concept car for now. (More complete robocars tend to use fairly advanced LIDARs.)

The 5,000km was reported back in September This comes after reports that their track trainer had done about 12,000 miles in a 3-series on the track. There are more details on this system at MIT Tech Review.

Article by Tom Vanderbilt and more

I’ve talked before about Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s an interesting journey into the world of traffic psychology and engineering, and has one chapter on robocars. That chapter was based on seeing Junior at Stanford, and things have come a long way since then.

Friday, Wired released Let the Robot Drive, a decent length article on the Google car (he came for a test ride) and various other projects, including more about the Mercedes 6-D vision system. For those hungry for Google Car news it’s a good place to go.

There’s also an article by John Markoff about the SCU legal conference I wrote about on Saturday, which finishes off quoting a joke I said there.

At the same time a different long article with a more futurist bent appears at the World Future Society web site by Thomas Frey.

SCU conference on legal issues of robocars

Yesterday I attended the conference on the legal implications of robocars put on by Santa Clara University Law Review. It was a well done conference, with some real content from a varied group of regulators and legal scholars, a sign of how real the robocar world has become.


After a technology introduction where Sven Bieker of Stanford outlined the challenges he saw which put fully autonomous robocars 2 decades away, the first session was on civil liability. The short message was that based on a number of related cases from the past, it will be hard for manufacturers to avoid liability for any safety problems with their robocars, even when the systems were built to provide the highest statistical safety result if it traded off one type of safety for another.

In general when robocars come up as a subject of discussion in web threads, I frequently see “Who will be liable in a crash” as the first question. I think it’s a largely unimportant question for two reasons. First of all, when the technology is new, there is no question that any lawsuit over any incident involving the cars will include the vendor as the defendant, in many cases with justifiable reasons, but even if there is no easily seen reason why. So potential vendors can’t expect to not plan for liablity.

But most of all, the reality is that in the end, the cost of accidents is borne by car buyers. Normally, they do it by buying insurance. But if the accidents are deemed the fault of the vehicle maker, this cost goes into the price of the car, and is paid for by the vehicle maker’s insurance or self-insurance. It’s just a question of figuring out how the vehicle buyer will pay, and the market should be capable of that (though see below.)

No, the big question in my mind is whether the liabilty assigned in any lawsuit will be significantly greater than it is in ordinary collisions where human error is at fault, because of punitive damages. The cost of collisions is well established and understood, and there is a large industry to manage it, and if robocars are, as planned, safer, then that cost goes down, and that means savings for the car buyer and for society — a big win for all. However, if the cost per collision is much higher even though the number of collisions drops, this can impede the ability of a robocar industry to innovate or even to exist and save those injuries.

Unfortunately, some liability history points to the latter scenario, though it is possible for statutes to modify this.


All cars must have insurance today, and it is normally bought by the car owner/driver, and covers almost all accidents. If a safe robocar is delivered, the lower rate of accidents should mean cheaper insurance. Alas, in California, one of the world’s largest insurance markets and home to robocar labs at Google, Stanford/VW and others, it’s not so simple. California’s Proposition 103 demanded that any insurance policy’s price must be based on weighted factors, and the top 3 weighted factors must be, in order, driving record, number of miles driven and number of years of experience. Other factors like the type of car you have — ie. if you have a robocar — must be weighted lower. So this law makes it very hard to give very cheap insurance for a robocar, and makes it close to impossible to do it for somebody who is getting the robocar precisely because they are a bad driver and have found themselves facing expensive insurance if they keep driving.

Because Prop 103 is a ballot proposition, it can’t easily be superseded by the legislature. It takes a 2/3 vote and a court agreeing the change matches the intent of the original ballot proposition. One would hope the courts would agree that cheaper insurance to encourage safer cars would match the voter intent, but this is a challenge.


Kevin Vincent and Steve Wood from NHTSA, which writes the federal motor vehicle safety standards and does the crash tests, among other things, spoke and gave a fairly robocar-positive message. They are working to assure the vehicles operate safely on the roads, but do appear to be fully aware of how they are a new technology under new rules, and they don’t want to impede adoption by overregulating. They are working out plans to test vehicles in simulation, on test tracks and on the road to rate for safety and seem to have a generally forward-thinking plan.

Local and criminal laws

The session on criminal laws centered more on the traffic code (which isn’t really criminal law) and the fact it varies a lot from state to state. Indeed, any robocar that wants to operate in multiple states will have to deal with this, though fortunately there is a federal standard on traffic controls (signs and lights) to rely on. Some global standards are a concern — the Geneva convention on traffic laws requires every car has a driver who is in control of the vehicle. However, I think that governments will be able to quickly see — if they want to — that these are laws in need of updating. Some precedent in drunk driving can create problems — people have been convicted of DUI for being in their car, drunk, with the keys in their pocket, because they had clear intent to drive drunk. However, one would hope the posession of a robocar (of the sort that does not need human manual driving) would express an entirely different intent to the law. While the car might have an emergency manual override, as is likely for other reasons, one would hope it is the drunk’s responsiblity if they use it, not the car’s responsiblity for having it there.


The session on privacy left me a little wanting. There was no addressing the issue that cars will have cameras on them, recording the whole world once they get frequent enough. Most of the concern was on the logs of all your movements, which is indeed a concern — and already one with cell phones.

ITS and Spectrum

There were sessions on ITS and DSRC (the spectrum allocated for communications from vehicles to other vehicles and to local infrastructure points.) I’ve written on this topic before, and while I believe that of course robocars will make use of any such signals, they can’t be built to depend on them, and will in fact only encounter them occasionally for the next decade at least. As such, robocar development proceeds without much connection to the connected vehicle world, which I am sure bemuses those in the connected vehicle world.

You can read another press report on the conference and one from John Markoff of the NY Times.

Shocking: 99% of fire payouts go to only 1% of homeowners!

Frequently these days I will see some shocking statistic reported:

  • The top 1% of earners receive over 18% of all the income (or 23% including cap gains)
  • The top 5% sickest Americans account for half of all healthcare costs

These numbers suggest a shocking inequality. And there might even be an unusual inequality but you won’t see it from these numbers. What’s vital when people report things like this is that they outline what the ratio should be given what would be an expected distribution. You should expect the top 1% or top 5% of any unevenly distributed thing to be consuming a much larger share of the pie. That’s what it means to have an uneven distribution. If the top 1% of income earners only earned 1% of income, you would be in a communist utopia, and that’s true even if they earned 5%. That’s what it means to be one of the top earners.

To make this clear, I present the following statistic I suspect to be generally accurate: 99% of the fire insurance payouts in a given year go to the top 1% claiming policyholders. I have not got an actual source, but it is presumably the case because fewer than 1% of people have their house burn down. You would expect that the top 1% would get essentially all the fire insurance money in any given year.

So when you see a claim about distribution involving the top x% getting much more than x%, the right response is, “sounds normal, show me why this is unexpected or unusual.” It may well be, but you need the numbers to back it up.

French Robocar Effort, and CES news

A new robocar project named “Quasper” has emergence in France from the IRSEEM Esigelec lab and IFSTTAR. This vehicle uses a commercial actuator robot to control the wheel and pedals for drive-by-wire, and features a variety of typical sensors, though it only has a couple of smaller SICK LIDARSs rather than a high resolution LIDAR like the Velodyne used by many other projects. Their work is fairly basic for now. Because the DBW system occupies the driver’s seat, manual control is done through a joystick which controls the drive-by-wire robot. As a nice aesthetic touch, they have put much of the electronics in a standard roof box on top of their minivan. (Some of the early robocars did have a certain mad-science look with all their gear covering the roof.)

Here is a video of their vehicle in operation

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, which I attended, most of the car announcements were for information and entertainment systems in cars. The one positive light is that many car vendors now realize they no longer can own and control all the digital systems in a car, and are making tools to connect with the driver’s phone and tablet for various purposes. They are not quite ready to use the phone as their data connection, though so most mean you will be paying for 2 data connections.

Mercedes and Audi had displays relating to ADAS and autonomous driving. While there was no sign of the Mercedes 2013 S class that will feature an autopilot, they did show a rather strange demo of a future self-driving car where the windshield was now a giant augmented reality screen. There, using hand gestures, you could point and objects in the real world and learn more about them. Of course, if your car is self-driving, you could use any interface, not just a gestural one. Today, gestural interfaces are not very well developed and most people prefer touchscreens and keyboards.

Audi showed their lane-keeping system and crash avoidance tools. While they didn’t make a deal about it, reports say they are planning to have a traffic-jam autopilot like the Mercedes one, but up to 60kph instead of just 40kph. This means combining their lane-departure-correction system, which steers you back into the lane using the steering motor, and their automatic cruise control which follows the car in front. It’s now up to Audio and Mercedes to see who comes out first. It will be very interesting, as well, to see how the public responds to it.

Mercedes is downplaying the value of a self-driving car. In a keynote by M-B boss Dr. Dieter Zetsche, he said the following (as reported by Motor Trend):

“We don’t believe that autonomous driving is the ultimate goal. We still want the driver to be in charge, in control, be the pilot. But when you are stuck in a traffic jam, when you are driving five hours straight through Nebraska, it might not be the most fun (to drive). And at that time you can switch and say, ‘Take over, I’ll read a nice book, look at movies, or listen to music.’ So it’s your choice, you’ll always be in control, but you have the choice to hand (the controls) over to an autonomous car.”

High end brands like Mercedes are in an uncomfortable situation. For a long time, they have sold their product based on the excitement of driving. They are torn between that message and the value of the robocar. My own prediction is that initially, people will indeed be keen on cars which do the boring driving, but take them to places where the driving is more fun. While fun driving will not go away, I predict people will start feeling that more and more driving is a chore to leave to the robot, and less and less is a thrill that demands taking the wheel. Look at how readily people who move to New York or other non-driving cities adapt to not driving. But that’s not a message sporty car brands will want to say. At the same time, self-driving will be a desired luxury feature and so luxury cars will have to offer it. The problem is that high end brands tend to offer both sport and luxury, often in the same vehicles.

Let me make a memo on credit card purchases

Back to wishlists on credit cards: Every year, for tax time, I go over my downloaded credit card records and I classify them into categories. I could just try to divide out the business and personal expenses (which I handle by having credit cards for business only and for personal only) but I try to do a bit more categorization, and from time to time there’s a reason I don’t follow the strict rule about what card to use.

So I would like, when I do an online purchase, to have an optional field in the form in which I can type anything. This would get put in or added to the memo field that you get when you download your transactions into accounting software. A quick script could then turn these memos into the categories we need for accounting.

Since getting a new field in forms is a lot of work, card companies could also offer me a small set of similar card numbers, though there might be only one on the physical card. This could be used to do some very basic categorization on the same card. They would all download to the same account, but the last digit would show up in the memo field. I know there are cards that issued a new number for every internet transaction back in the more paranoid days, but I’m talking about a series of cards where only one digit changes (if accepted by the processors because they pass it fully along,) and I can fill in the digit I like for a given transaction. (If I wish I could also get another card made of course. In fact, that would be handy if I decide to get two cards on the same account when giving a sub-card to a family member but not wanting a completely independent account for them.)

Anybody do this?

Understanding when and how to be secure

Over the years I have come to the maxim that “Everything should be as secure as is easy to use, and no more secure” to steal a theme from Einstein. One of my peeves has been the many companies who, feeling that E-mail is insecure, instead send you an E-mail that tells you you have an E-mail if you would only log onto their web site (often one you rarely log into) with the password you set up 2 years ago to read it. I often get these for things like bills and statements — “Your statement is now available online.” A few nicer ones tell me that my statement is online but the e-maiil does contain the total in the statement. Only if the total is unexpected do I need to login to see the statement.

None of these sites seem to offer me the option of saying, “My E-mail is secure, at least if you are doing your job, so just send me the data in E-mail” or of using one of the end-to-end encrypted E-mail systems. Alas, there is more than one E-mail system, but it’s not hard to do the two most popular, PGP/GPG and S-Mime and they are fairly widely supported in mailers.

As I noted, my own mail is secure in that I run an SMTP server on my home server, and only access it over encrypted IMAP. If they have set up their server to do encrypted SMTP (which should be the default by now, frankly) then the mail is generally secure (though it does do a brief unencrypted stop at my spam filter system.)

However, somtimes the contents of the mail need no security, and so instead it’s just annoyance. I have an acccount with Wachovia bank, and yesterday got an E-mail that there was an “important, secure E-mail” I should read on their server. After logging in, I found that all they had to say was public information about their merger with Wells Fargo, and how accounts would be shifted over. There was no reason that needed to be secure, since the only secret to reveal was that I had an account there, and the E-mail revealed that.

So I wrote a note back to complain, telling them not to make me jump through hoops to read public information. What’s so much fun is the response I got back:

Thank you for contacting Wachovia. My name is Tulanee E, and I am happy to assist you.

Mr. Templeton, I would be happy to assist you. However, to guarantee the security of your information prior to confidential information being disclosed or any account activities being performed we need to verify your personal information. For this we kindly ask you to please call us at 1-800-950-2296 to discuss this issue. Representatives are available to assist you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I apologize for any inconvenience.

My goal today was to provide you a complete and helpful answer. Thank you for banking with Wachovia.


Tulanee E Online Services Team Online Customer Service: 1-800-950-2296

Maybe you shouldn't give a nice bag as your conference schwag

Like many, I go to a lot of conferences and events. And many of those events have decided that they should give everybody a bag. Most commonly it’s a canvas laptop sized bag, though sometimes it’s a backpack and at cheaper events just a tote. Some of the bags are cheap, some are quite nice. Some come with just the logo of the event on them, and others come festooned with many logos from sponsors who bought a space on the bag.

The bags are too nice to throw away, so I’ve kept most of them, usually tossing them in a storage crate. I decided to get the bags from the last decade out and lay them out for a photo. I’m guessing a lot of people have similar collections. We’re undergoing a serious bag spam problem.

I have used some of these bags but of course the vast bulk have either gone unused entirely, or were just used at the conference or just on the day they handed out the bag. Making the conference logo visible at the conference is pointless, though perhaps with the sponsored bags, all they want is to plaster their logo at the conference. It’s actually risky to use the conference bag at the conference, especially for things like your laptop, as it’s way too easy to mistake your bag for somebody else’s.

I don’t see other people using these bags much either. Sometimes on the flight back from the conference. Or if the conference is an invite-only conference that has some cachet to its sachet. It’s very rare to see people walking around with a bag with 6 sponsor logos on it. We conference-goers aren’t the type that like to be seen as carrying around somebody’s advertising, or being too cheap to buy our own briefcase.

This isn’t even the whole collection, there’s 50% more out there. I have actually used a few bags if I happened to particularly like their design, or they came from places I actually worked at. Messenger bags which wear comfortably on the body seem to meet my approval over yet more laptop briefcases. And I have disposed of or given away a few, or they weren’t in the crate I put bags into.

If you’re getting ready to hand out a conference bag, here are some things to consider:

  • Realize that almost everybody you give a bag to has a box full of bags at home. Being a really nice expensive bag might help a little but it’s costly.
  • Face it, unless you are TED, the vast majority of the bags you give out are going to sit in storage. Consider something else. Just don’t do it.
  • If you feel you have to have a bag, also have an alternative schwag that’s just as valuable people can pick instead of a bag.
  • Consider the bold move of putting the logos on the inside flap of the bag. That gives up the exposure you were never going to get much of anyway, and makes it more likely I will use the bag, and be reminded of you every day — and possibly even remind some of the folks I meet with who see me open my bag.
  • Forget about putting 6 logos on the bag unless all you want is to plaster those logos around your show floor. You can’t even give those bags away.
  • If you must have a bag, go cheap with a tote, and make it a zippered tote. We can always find uses for those, they make decent reusable grocery bags, for example. Then I’ll keep them in the trunk and remember you on grocery trips. Or go fancy and make it an insulated grocery bag.

This is not to say you could not impress me with something clever, perhaps for a short time. For example I would not mind a bag that integrated a universal power supply and had retractable cords so I did not have to take it out. Or one of those new photographers sling backpacks that you can pull around to access stuff without removing the straps from your shoulder. But if you do that, soon somebody else will have it too and I’ll have a box of them.

So what other schwag can you give out? That is a challenge of course, and there’s a whole industry trying to sell you stuff. It varies with the time, and it has to be something new so that I don’t have a box of them at home. Consumable stuff (chocolate bars etc.) are always welcome but you fear that this means your logo will be forgotten. But it’s better than being in a crate. Travel stuff is usually a hit but duplication is again a risk — retractable cables etc. Or spend your money on a nice mobile schedule for your event, one that doesn’t suck (most of the ones out there suck) and put some logos on that.

I am told that homeless shelters like donations of backpacks and other useful bags. I suppose if we all did this, and companies found their logo hanging from the shoulders of homeless dudes, they might think twice about giving out so many bags. A system to arrange donation to poor folks in Africa might also be good.

Better notification by credit cards

Almost all credit cards will let you download transactions. Many will e-mail you a balance or payment reminder once a month, or a warning if your balance goes above a certain amount. And I’ve seen a small number that will e-mail you on every transaction.

But does anybody have a smart notification system which I can set, allowing me to be comfortable that there is no misuse of my card without filling my mailbox?

  • At a basic level, notification (email or SMS) of transactions above a certain amount
  • Combine that with notification when a group of small transactions exceed a set amount or an amount of time goes by (E-mail only)
  • “You don’t need to notify me of this transaction” for your repeating transactions
  • Easy console to turn on or off warnings and fraud alerts on foreign locations

For those of us who are on e-mail or SMS literally every day, this is a lot better fraud protection for us than the systems they use now, especially the one that find us with denied transactions in unusual places.

Update: Thanks to all commenters — some cards are providing many of these services.

Content industry supports "Stop Airline Piracy Act" (SAPA)

Spokesmen for the MPAA, RIAA and several other content industry companies recently issued a statement of support for the new “Stop Airline Piracy Act” or SAPA, now before congress.

SAPA seeks to address the massive tide of copyright infringing material flowing into the USA on commercial airlines and delivery services. Today in China and many other countries, bootleg DVDs, CDs and software disks are being manufactured in bulk, and sold to visitors on the streets of these cities in illicit malls. Then, these visitors fly back to the USA with the pirate disks in their suitcases, taking them into the USA. Other Americans are ordering these pirate DVDs and having them shipped via both airlines and other shippers directly to their homes.

SAPA addresses this problem by giving content owners tools to cut down this pirate flow. A content owner, once they learn of an airline or shipping service which is regularly and repeatedly bringing pirated material into the country, can file claims alleging the presence of this infringement. The bill allows them to shut off the flow of money, traffic and customers to the airlines, by getting US companies to stop directing people to the airlines, and stopping payment services from transferring money to them.

“Last month, we worked with customs and border patrol to inspect planes coming into LAX from overseas,” said Pearl Alley, a spokesperson for the MPAA. “We found that every single plane of an unnamed airline had pirated material in passenger bags or in the hold. Not just a few planes, every single plane. Most planes had multiple pirated products, including DVDs and CDs, and files on laptops and music players.” Customs is able to seize any laptop or music player coming into the country for any reason and copy its drive to see what’s on it, according to CBP officials.

“These airlines and shippers are enabling and facilitating infringement. This has got to be stopped, and SAPA will stop it,” said Alley.

Under SAPA, an airline alleged to have been regularly carrying in pirated material can be blacklisted. Travel agents will be forbidden from booking passengers on the airline. Travel web sites can be ordered not to list flights or even the existence of the airline. Phone book and Yellow page companies can be ordered to remove any listings for the airline, and in some cases, phone switches can be ordered to not complete calls directed at airline phone numbers. Travel review books and sites can be ordered edited to delete mention of the airline or recommendations to fly on it.

To shut off the money flow, an accusation of alleged infringement under SAPA can result in an order to Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and other financial processors to not accept payments for the airline or shipping company. “They may be overseas, but we can stop them from destroying American jobs with tools we have at home,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), co-sponsor of the senate version of the bill.

Airports can also be prohibited from allowing the planes to land. However, planes in the air can file a counter-notice within 5 days of a claim, providing they subject themselves to US jurisdiction and agree to be liable if they are found to have copyright material in their holds. Aircraft which can’t file a counter notice are free to turn around on approach to LAX and return over the Pacific, but may not land at any airport in a country which has signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement with the USA.

“Legitimate Airlines, ones that are not carrying in pirated material every day, will not be harmed by this act, because of the counter-notice provision. In addition, if a rightsholder files a false claim, and there are no copyright violations on board the plane, the airline has a right to sue for damages over misuse of the act — so it’s all safe and does not block legitimate trade,” said Alley.

Several airlines, travel agencies and travel sites have, not surprisingly, filed opposition to this bill, but it is supported by a broad coalition of US job creators in Hollywood and Redmond, as well as domain name site GoDaddy.

Time for delivery companies to work weekends

This time of year I do a lot of online shopping, and my bell rings with many deliveries. But today and tomorrow, not Saturday. The post office comes Saturday but has announced it wants to stop doing that to save money. They do need to save money, but this is the wrong approach. I think the time has come for Saturday and Sunday delivery to be the norm for UPS, Fedex and the rest.

When I was young almost all retailers closed on Sunday and even had limited hours on Saturday. Banks never opened on the weekend either. But people soon realized that because the working public had the weekend off, the weekend was the right time for consumer services to be operating. The weekend days are the busiest days at most stores.

The shipping companies like Fedex and UPS started up for business to business, but online shopping has changed that. They now do a lot of delivery to residences, and not just at Christmas. But Thursday and Friday are these odd days in that business. An overnight package on Friday gets there 3 days later, not 1. (If you use the post office courier, you get Saturday delivery as part of the package, and the approximately 2 day Priority mail service is a huge win for things sent Thursday.) In many areas, the companies have offered Saturday and even Sunday delivery, but only as a high priced premium service. Strangely, the weekend also produces a gap in ground shipping times — the truck driving cross-country presumably pauses for 2 days.

We online shoppers shop 7 days a week and we want out stuff as soon as we can get it. I understand the desire to take the weekend off, but usually there are people ready to take these extra shifts. This will cost the delivery companies more as they will have to hire more workers to operate on the weekend. And they can’t just do it for ground (otherwise a 3 day package sent Friday arrives the same time as an overnight package.)

Update: I will point out that while online shipping is the David to the Goliath of brick & mortar, changing shipping to 7 days a week will mean a bunch more stuff gets bought online, and shipped, and will bring new revenue to the shipping companies. It’s just just a cost of hiring more people. It also makes use of infrastructure that sits idle 2 days a week.

This is particularly good for those who are always not hope to sign for packages that come during the work week. The trend is already starting. OnTrak, which has taken over a lot of the delivery from Amazon’s Nevada warehouse to Californians, does Saturday delivery, and it’s made me much more pleased with Amazon’s service. When Deliverbots arrive, this will be a no brainer.

It will be tough reversing Citizens United

There are a large number of constitutional amendments being proposed to reverse the effects of the recent US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Here the court held that Citizens United, a group which had produced an anti-Hilary Clinton documentary, had the right to run ads promoting their documentary and its anti-Clinton message. It had been held at the lower court that because the documentary and thus the ads advocated against a candidate, they were restricted under campaign finance rules. Earlier, however, the court had held earlier that it was OK for Michael Moore to run ads for Fahrenheit 9/11, his movie which strongly advocated against re-electing George W. Bush. The court could not find the fine line between these that the lower court had held, but the result was a decision that has people very scared because it strips most restrictions on campaigning by groups and in particular corporations. Corporations have most of the money, and money equals influence in elections.

Most attempts at campaign finance reform and control have run into a constitutional wall. That’s because when people talk about freedom of speech, it’s hard to deny that political speech is the most sacred, most protected of the forms of speech being safeguarded by the 1st amendment. Rules that try to say, “You can’t use your money to get out the message that you like or hate a candidate” are hard to reconcile with the 1st amendment. The court has made that more clear and so the only answer is an amendment, many feel.

It seems like that should not be hard. After all, the court only ruled 5-4, and partisan lines were involved. Yet in the dissent, it seems clear to me that the dissenters don’t so much claim that political speech is not being abridged by the campaign finance rules, but rather that the consequences of allowing big money interests to dominate the political debate are so grave that it would be folly to allow it, almost regardless of what the bill of rights says. The courts have kept saying that campaign finance reform efforts don’t survive first amendment tests, and the conclusion many have come to is that CFR is so vital that we must weaken the 1st amendment to get it.

With all the power of an amendment to play with, I have found most of the proposed amendments disappointing and disturbing. Amendments should be crystal clear, but I find many of the proposals to be muddy when viewed in the context of the 1st amendment, even though as later amendments they have the right to supersede it.

The problem is this: When they wrote that the freedom of the press should not be abridged, they were talking about the big press. They really meant organizations like the New York Times and Fox News. If those don’t have freedom of the press, nobody does. And these are corporations. Until very recently it wasn’t really possible to put out your political views to the masses on your terms unless you were a media corporation, or paid a media corporation to do it for you. The internet is changing that but the change is not yet complete.

Many of the amendments state that they do not abridge freedom of the press. But what does that mean? If the New York Times or Fox News wish to use their corporate money to endorse or condemn a candidate — as they usually do — is that something we could dare let the government restrict? Would we allow the NYT to do it in their newspaper, but not in other means, such as buying ads in another newspaper, should they wish to do so? Is the Fox News to be defined as something different from Citizens United?

I’m hard pressed to reconcile freedom of the press and the removal of the ability of corporations (including media ones) from using money to put out a political message. What I fear as that to do so requires that the law — nay, the constitution — try to define what is being “press” and what is not. This is something we’ve been afraid to do in every other context, and something I and my associates have fought to prevent, as lawsuits have tried to declare that bloggers, for example, were not mainstream press and thus did not have the same freedom of the press as the big boys.  read more »

A foveal digital camera sensor

Earlier I wrote about desires for the next generation of DSLR camera and a number of readers wrote back that they wanted to be able to swap the sensor in their camera, most notably so they could put in a B&W sensor with no colour filter mask on it. This would give you better B&W photos and triple your light gathering ability, though for now only astronomers are keen enough on this to justify filterless cameras.

I’m not sure how easy it would be to make a sensor that could be swapped, due to a number of problems — dust, connectivity and more. In fact I wonder if an idea I wrote about earlier — lenses with integrated sensors might have a better chance of being the future.

Here’s another step in that direction — a “foveal” digital camera that has tiny sensors in the middle of the frame and larger ones out at the edges. Such sensors have been built for a variety of purposes in the past, but might they have application for serious photography?

For example, the 5d Mark II I use has 22 million 6.4 micron sensors. Being that large, they are low noise compared to the smaller sensors found in P&S cameras. But the full frame requires very large, very heavy, very expensive lenses. Getting top quality over the large image circle is difficult and you pay a lot for it.

Imagine that this camera has another array, perhaps of around 16 million pixels of 1.6 micron size in the center. This allows it to shoot a 16MP picture in the small crop zone or a 22MP picture on the full frame. (It also allows it to shoot a huge 252 megapixel image that is sharp in the center but interpolated around the edges.) The central region would have transistors that could combine all the wells of a particular colour in the 4x4 array that maps to one large pixel. This is common in the video modes on DSLR cameras, and helps produce pixels that are much lower noise than the tiny pixels are on their own, but not as good as the 16x larger big pixels, though the green pixels, which make up half the area, would probably do decently well.

As a result, this camera would not be as good in low light, and the central region would be no better in low light than today’s quality P&S cameras. But that’s actually getting pretty good, and the results at higher light levels are excellent.

The win is that you would be able to use a 100mm/f2 lens with the field of view of a 400mm lens for a 16MP picture. It would not be quite as good as a real 400mm f/2.8L Canon lens of course. But it could compare decently — and that 400mm lens is immense, heavy and costs $10,000 — far more than the camera body. On the other hand a decent 100mm f/2.8 lens aimed at the smaller image circle would cost a few hundred dollars at most, and do a very good job. A professional wildlife or sports photographer might still seek the $10K lens but a lot of photographers would be much happier to carry the small one, and not just for the saved cost. You would not get the very shallow depth of field of the 400mm f/2.8 — it would be about double with a small sensor 100mm f/2 — but many would consider that a plus in this situation, not a minus.

You could also use 3.2 or 2.1 micron sensors for better low-noise and less of a crop (or focal length multiplier as it is incorrectly called sometimes.)

One other benefit is that, if your lens can deliver it, and particularly when you have decent lighting, you would get superb resolution in the center of your full frame photos, as the smaller pixels are combined. You would get better colour accuracy, without as many bayer interpolation artifacts, as you would truly sense each colour in every pixel, and much better contrast in general. You would be making use of the fact that your lens is sharper in the center. Jpeg outputs would probably never do the 250 megapixel interpolated image, but the raw output could record all the pixels if it is not necessary to combine the wells to improve signal/noise.

Botswana / Falls panorama gallery up

I have put up a new gallery of panoramic photos from my trip earlier this year to Botswana (with short stays in South Africa and Zimbabwe.) There are some interesting animal and scenic shots, and also some technically difficult shots such as Victoria Falls from a helicopter. (I also have some new shots of Niagara falls from a fixed wing plane which is even harder.)

In the case of the helicopter, which is still moving as it was just a regular tour helicopter, the challenge is to shoot very fast and still not make mistakes in coverage. I took several panos but only a few turned out. Victoria Falls can really only be viewed from the air — on the ground the viewing spots during high water season are in so much mist that it’s actually raining hard all around you, and in any event you can’t see the whole falls. One lesson is to try not to be greedy and get a 200m pano. Stick to 50 to 100mm at most.

On this trip I took along a 100-400mm lens, and it was my first time shooting with such a long lens routinely. I knew intellectually about the much smaller depth of field at 400mm, but in spite of this I still screwed up a number of panoramas, since I normally set focus at one fixed distance for the whole pano. Stopping down 400mm only helps a little bit. Wildlife will not sit still for you, creating extra challenges. I already showed you this elephant shot but I am also quite fond of this sunset on the Okavango delta. While this shot may not appear to have wildlife, the sun is beaming through giant spiderwebs which are the work of “social spiders” which live in nests, all building the same web. I recommend zooming in on the scene in the center. I also have some nice regular photos of this which will be up later.

I am still a bit torn about the gallery of ordinary aspect ratio photos. I could put them up on my photo site easily enough, but I’ve noticed photos get a lot more commentary and possibly viewing when done on Google+/Picasa. This is a sign of a disturbing trend away from the distributed web, where people and companies had their own web sites and got pagerank and subscribers, to the centralized AOL style model of one big site (be it Facebook or Google Plus) which is attractive because of its social synergies.

Concept robocars at Tokyo Auto Show and more

As expected, there’s more news from the Tokyo auto show, which is well known for strange concept cars.

First there is the Toyota Fun Vii

The video is very science-fictional, though they have built a concept to look at without the auto-driving. Amusingly, they do show something I have always thought would be a nice ironic demo — playing a car racing game while in a self-driving car. While we are some distance away form a car where the entire surface, inside and out, is a display, I do think we’ll see display panels on robocars to help them act as taxis. Those display panels will say who the taxi is for, and might even have your favourite bumper sticker slogan while you move inside. Inside displays will be useful for all the things you would expect — dashboard, work and entertainment.

Toyota is also showing a Prius with a system them call AVOS (Automatic Vehicle Operation System.) While this is said to be a longer-term self-driving systems, report suggest that what will be done at the motor show is back-seat rides demonstrating parking ability and pickup at the door, similar to Nissan’s Pivo and Stanford’s Junior 3, but with some added obstacle avoidance. I have not seen reports of rides as yet. The Prius itself is use more basic sensors than the Google car and other major robocars.

Speaking of Nissan, this brief interview with Mitsuhiko Yamashita, head of R&D, still promotes the idea of dedicated lanes, which I believe would vastly slow the deployment of self-driving vehicles.

On the other hand, speaking of Google, here’s a New York Times op-ed by Sebastian Thrun with his picture of the future.

Nissan Pivo 3 concept has valet park, come-get-me features

Nissan has announced a new version of their Pivo concept car. The Pivo 3 here’s a story with a video offers 4 wheel steering and automatic parking, including a claimed functionality for automated valet parking. In the AVP case, the car requires a special parking lot, though it is not said what changes are needed. A few years ago the Stanford team demonstrated Junior 3 which could valet park in a lot to which it had a map, and which had no civilian pedestrians.

The Pivo 3, it is reported, “will come and pick you up when you summon it.” Presumably this involves both the parking lot and the path to the door where you summon it containing the special infrastructure it needs, but this is not described. What’s also described is something fairly important — automatic charging, where the car takes itself to a charging station and hooks up.

They say they have no commercial plans for the car, but that they do expect to put such functionality into other cars around “2016 to 2017.”

With the Tokyo motor show about to start, expect new announcements from Japan in the days to come — for example Toyota has promised a self-driving Prius at the show, in a similar parking lot mode to the Pivo.

Syndicate content