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What a great idea

Why didn't I think of that? A topic for really cool ideas I see other people do that deserve attention.

Low clearance underpasses for small robocars

I recently read a report of a plan for a new type of intersection being developed in Malaysia, and I felt it had some interesting applications for robocars.

The idea behind the intersection is that you have a traditional intersection, but dig in one or both directions, a special underpass which is both shallow and narrow. One would typically imagine this underpass as being 2 vehicles wide in the center of the road but other options are possible. The underpass might be very shallow, perhaps just 4 to 5 feet high.

Farmbot and robotic gardens

This summer, I started wondering what you might do to build a small farming robot to manage a home garden. I then discovered the interesting Farmbot project, which has been working on this for much longer, and has done much of what I thought might be useful. So I offer kudos to them, but thought it might be worth discussing some of the reasons why this is interesting, and a few new ideas.

Portugal's Velocidade Controlada -- speed control traffic signals

Recently I did a road trip through Portugal. I always enjoy finding something new that they are doing in a country which has not yet spread to the rest of the world.

Along a number of Portuguese roads, you will see a sign marked "velocidade controlada" -- speed control -- and then a modest distance down the road will be a traffic light in the middle of nowhere. There is no cross street. This is an interesting alternative to the speed bump or other "traffic calming" systems.

Rise of the selfie drones. Is tethered a good idea?

At CES, there were a couple of "selfie drones." The Nixie is designed to be worn on your wrist, taken off, thrown, and then it returns to you after taking a photo or video. There was also the Zano which is fancier and claims it will follow you around, tracking you as you mountain bike or ski to make a video of you just as you do your cool trick.

Augmented Reality as documentation and the "context" button

I've been a little skeptical of many augmented reality apps I've seen, feeling they were mostly gimmick and not actually useful.

I'm impressed by this new one from Audi where you point your phone (iPhone only, unfortunately) at a feature on your car, and you get documentation on it. An interesting answer to car user manuals that are as thick as the glove compartment and the complex UIs they describe.

Automating big-event parking

There are a growing number of apps designed to help people find parking, and even reserve and pay for parking in advance. Some know the state of lots. These apps are good for the user but also can produce a public good by reducing the number of people circling looking for parking. Studies suggest in certain circumstances a large fraction of the cars on the road are doing that.

This weekend, I attended the Maker Faire. I've been to almost every Make Faire, including the first, and now it's grown to be far too successful -- you can hardly walk down the aisles at the busy times. They need more space and a way to put more of it outside so thin out the crowds. Still, it is one of those places that makes you feel very clearly you are in the 21st century.

Early on Maker Faire realized it had a parking problem. The lot at the fairgrounds fills up now even before the event opens, and they manage various satellite lots and run shuttle buses to them.

This year they tried something interesting, a twitter feed with parking updates. They tweeted when lots filled up or re-opened, and suggested where to go. They took some limited feedback about lack of shuttles. I think that it by and large worked and reduced traffic around the event.

However, my judgment is that they were not entirely honest in their tweets. This year, and in prior years, they strongly encouraged people to go to one of the most remote lots, regularly telling people it was the fastest route to the event. This was not true. I don't want to ascribe any particular malice here, but there is a suspicion that there is a temptation to make reports in the interest of the event rather than the user. This does have positives, in that cars diverted from near the event reduce traffic which makes the shuttle buses run much faster, but if you give wrong information (deliberately or by accident) this means people stop trusting it and you get the traffic back as more people ignore it.

For example, we stopped at a remote lot, and saw a very long shuttle line. We drove on to a closer lot (also reported as having spaces, but not reported as clearly a better choice) to find lots of spaces, no shuttle line, frequent shuttles and also a walk that was only slightly longer than the shuttle trip.

Lights that indicate free parking stalls

Sometimes when I travel I see a great idea that hasn't yet spread everywhere yet. A parking garage I parked at in Tel Aviv had LEDs visible on the roof above every stall. These were red and green if the stall was full or empty. So it was quick to find an empty stall. This probably makes the garage more efficient because people don't have to circle hunting for a spot, and this justifies the cost. (The main cost of these is probably wiring the power for them.)

I've seen studies claiming that in busy areas, up to 30% of the traffic is cars circling looking for parking. Mostly they are looking for free parking or convenient on-street parking, since parking garages, though expensive can usually be found and entered quickly. Indeed, while on-street parking is often much more convenient, in many cases this is an artifact of parking being subsidized (because it's free, or free to people who live in an area) or cheaper than commercial parking markets. But we don't seem ready to fix that, though many cities put restrictions on street and metered parking, limiting the number of hours so that it is in theory only for visitors rather than all-day parkers.

There are many companies trying to see if they can improve parking using mobile devices and the internet. There are companies with sensors that manage parking spaces, companies that let you find spaces on a mobile device and even enter a garage with your mobile device. In some cases you can even extend your parking (if you prepaid) over the phone. Cities have been moving away from traditional meters to things like block meters (where you get a ticket and then put it on your dash) or fancy enforcement vehicles with licence plate cameras that spot not only if you are in a spot too long, but if you move within the busy zone to another spot.

As a user of parking, I would like to know I've got a good spot lined up before I get to my destination, and just pull right into it. I want a competitive market but I don't want to waste time and gas hunting. There are companies trying to address this, though mostly in commercial lots. It's mostly pretty basic right now -- it's considered fancy to even have sites like parkopedia or bestparking with a database of the parking in a city with the prices so you can comparison shop the parking lots.

So now for some rambling on what might be done on street.

The center for science in the interests of guys

I have invented a fictional scientific institute, funded by men, that keeps producing studies which, at least on the surface, seem to be good news for guys.

Here's a summary of some of the research:

New European system of Bistromathics

Bistromathics was Douglas Adams' term for the crazy difficulty of dividing up l'addition at a restaurant properly. The very rules of math seem to go wrong, which is why they were able to make a stardrive as long as the ship had a bistro in it.

When groups go out to dinner, many people feel that "Div N" is the safest way to go. Namely divide the total bill with tip by the number of folks and everybody pays that. It has the advantage of great simplicity, avoiding the bistromathics. And it is close to a must with shared dishes and the norm for Chinese/Indian.

For many people, Div-N balances out over time, but many people resent Div-N for various reasons:

  • For non-drinkers, they are bothered at paying a bar tab that often is as big as the food tab. Sometimes two totals are given because of this.
  • For vegetarians, not only are their dishes usually cheaper, but many have an ethical problem with paying for other's meat.
  • Dieters are as they are due to lack of self-control. Many have a compulsion that bothers them if they pay for food but don't eat it. (Larger restaurant portions are blamed by some for the obesity epidemic.)
  • Women tend to eat less than men, causing a sex-bias.
  • Some are just plain poor, and can't handle the high Div-N bill. Because Div-N encourages liberal ordering of expensive dishes and apetizers, it tends to raise the overall price.

Often there will be somebody (frequently of low income) who wants to break the Div-N rule and pay just for what they ordered. My rule for this now is to hand them the bill and say they are responsible for calculating and collecting the bill for everybody. I do this because there have been times when I have been the banker that people have announced they will only put in for what they ordered after much of the div-N payment has been done. While one can sympathise if they only ordered $10 of food and div-N is $25, what they are asking is that the banker now take the loss. This is why they should become the banker.

I was told last year of a new system which is gaining popularity in Europe. It works as follows. One diner is indeed the banker. The bill is passed around and each is told to put in "what they think they owe." The banker takes the pile of money and does not count it. It is made very clear that the banker will not be counting, at least not at the table. The banker then pays the bill out of their own wallet, usually by credit card, though sometimes with cash. To avoid counting, paying with cash should typically be done by just taking out a modest number of the large bills from the stack if the banker is short.

Google Mobile Maps with traffic

I'm quite impressed with Google's mobile maps application for smartphones. It works nicely on the iPhone but is great on other phones too.

Among other things, it will display live traffic on your map. And I recently saw, when asking it for directions, that it told me that there would be "7 minutes of traffic delay" along my route. That's great.

How to get a subsidy on any phone (even an iPhone)

This idea came to me via Al Chang. I'm shopping for a new smartphone, and I have been dismayed at how hard it is to get just what I want and not pay a huge fee for it. Right now I'm leaning towards the new HTC Mogul, in part because the Sprint SERO offer is just too good to pass up.

However, in the GSM world, one thing that's frustrating is that carriers only provide a limited number of phones, and in some cases, such as the Nokia E62, they actually rip useful features out of the phones before offering them. (The E61 has Wifi, the E62 removes it!) But the subsidy, which can be $200 to $300 is also too rich to pass up if you're signing up for new service. If they are going to force you into a 2 year contract -- which they do for anything, even just a change of plan -- you are foolish not to take this subsidy.

So here's Al's plan. Go out and buy the phone you want, unlocked (or locked to the carrier you plan to use) from whatever source you like, including cell dealers, Amazon, Dell or eBay.

Next go to your carrier's web site and find the most subsidized phone they sell which works with the plan you intend to use. Find the most subsidized phone by looking at the subsidy price, and comparing it to the typical "completed auction" price on eBay for a no-contract (locked or unlocked) phone. It is often the case, by the way, that there are eBay sellers who will sell you phones that cost $200 after subsidy in the carrier's store for $1 because they kick back to you the kickback they get from the carrier for selling you a fancy phone on a fancy plan. (I have not tried these sellers but they generally have top reputations and lots of happy comments from phone buyers so I presume it works. It does not, however, work with SERO.)

Thinking about what cars really cost

I've been writing a bunch about transportation of late, and I got the chance to have lunch with Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, and talk about the economics.

She proposes that we really need to make the true cost of our transportation visible to solve many of our problems (congestion, pollution, etc.) It's often been described just how much of a subsidy the U.S. and in particular California gives to the car driver, but to most people it's not too visible.

She's particularly interested in changing the rules on parking. We subsidize parking a lot. Most people are aware of the use of roadsides for free or cheap parking on public land. Robin proposes getting rid of the requirements that force building developers to provide adequate parking for their building. Most people think these are a good idea, because otherwise developers would not provide parking, and the cars coming to the building would suck up all available parking in the area and there would quickly not be any.

Retail carbon credits for the car driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia's Ideas

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

Mesh network of cell phones when the towers go down

Klein Gilhousen, one of the founders of Qualcomm, proposed this evening at Gilder's Telecosm that cell phones be modified, if an emergency shuts down the towers, to do some basic mesh networking, not so much for voice, but for text messaging and perhaps pust-to-talk voice packets, as well as location information from their internal GPS if present.

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.

Pre-order drinks for intermission

In this new category, "What a great idea" I will document interesting ideas I have seen in my travels. Things that make you go "why didn't I think of that?" Some may be new, others just new to me.

At a recent symphony concert, I came out at intermission to see a table laid out with drinks and snacks, each with a little numbered placard. People had placed and prepaid orders before the show, and thus could get their drink without any line.

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