What a great idea
Submitted by brad on Wed, 2016-02-03 17:18.
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.
The underpass is available only to vehicles which fit, which is to say ordinary height passenger cars or even just ordinary height half-width vehicles. Big vehicles such as SUV, vans, trucks etc. would not use the underpass, and instead use the at-grade intersection, where you would have traffic signals or stop signs.
Why is this such a good idea? It’s vastly cheaper to make such an underpass. Because it’s so shallow, it is cheap to dig and shore up the walls. You can start the downramp much closer to the intersection because you don’t need to go so far down. It’s a tiny fraction of the cost of a regular overpass or underpass which requires lots of space to go up and down, and must be high enough for big trucks to pass underneath. Not so here, as trucks never go under it.
The downramp could begin a very short distance from the intersection, or it could begin further out to allow for a longer tunnel, such space now dedicated to the left turn lanes. (Or the right turn lanes if the tunnels are on the outside rather than center of the road.)
The center has the advantage of only digging one tunnel for both directions and providing that space for the left-turn lane. The downside is you have this physical tunnel entrance with protective bollards in the middle of a road, which may present some risk — though there are many places where there are tunnel entrances in the middle of roads, but they are full sized. Indeed we have intersections like this in full sized mode, including on Geary St. in San Francisco. The alternative on the edges requires two trenches and puts the obstacles to the side, mixing straight-through underpass traffic with right turning traffic.
Cars small enough to use the tunnels would get a transponder to signal their ability, possibly to raise a gate. In addition, a camera system would detect any too-large vehicle trying to enter the tunnel and do whatever it can to stop it. In the end, a too-large vehicle would end up hitting soft barriers if it failed to stop or divert. (Most parking lots today have hanging barriers to let vehicles know they won’t fit.)
Now the small, light vehicles, such as the one-person robocars, could bypass the traffic lights if they are red. They might get an “express” lane that is just for them which goes through these underpasses so it’s a smooth ride all along the road, other than the ups and downs.
Robocars would have a better time knowing where they fit and letting the intersection know they fit. More to the point, their ability to drive “on rails” would allow a wider robocar to go down a narrower tunnel, keeping a tiny margin that a human driver could never handle. Human driven vehicles would need to be narrower if they used these tunnels.
This would strongly encourage the use of small, lower-height vehicles, which are also very energy efficient. Really strongly — who would want to drive in a big SUV that has to stop at traffic lights when you can go nonstop in a small pod? Of course, you probably still use the light if making a turn. This in turn would cause a drop in vehicle size and congestion, and increase overall road capacity beyond what we get from having no stopping for a large fraction of vehicles.
If you want to get extreme, you could even have just a one lane tunnel if it’s all robocars. The simplest approach would be to have the express lane (with tunnels) only go in the commute direction during rush hour. Off peak, the robocars could pace their trips in pulses so that they alternate what direction they move through the underpass. On a north-south road, you could imagine during the red lights having 15 cars northbound, then 15 cars southbound back and forth until the light is green and you allocate the tunnel to the most popular direction. Humans could not obey this easily but robots could.
This works best when one of the roads intersecting is bigger than the other, since it’s harder to have both routes get an underpass. You could have one take a deeper underpass — at 10’ deep under a 5’ deep one, it’s still not nearly as deep as a full road underpass. Or with all robocars, you could have the robots alternate through the underground intersection at full speed under computer control. People have built computer modules of this “reservation” style intersection for many years, but they never could solve the problem that not every car in an intersection is a trustable robocar, and as such, you can never make an intersection like this. If all cars are robocars, an underground at-grade intersection could easily allow traffic to flow on both routes, in both directions, with proper timing. Since you would not see the other vehicles coming it might not even be as scary.
I think these underpasses would pay for themselves in the increase in road efficiency they would generate, but if not, you could also require a toll to use them. I think a lot of people would pay a modest toll to have no red lights on their trip. Since all you need do is dig a shallow trench, shore up the walls, and cover it with metal plates or similar, it’s a completely different scale of problem from a real underpass. Without too much money, every major road could become a non-stop robocar road.
You can, of course, create more capacity by building full elevated guideways only for use by small, light vehicles. These are again, much cheaper to build than full roads that can handle heavy trucks, and they take up only pillar space so they can be run down the center of many roads. They still need to be up high enough for big vehicles to go under them. Aside from the cost, the big issue is how they change the built environment, blocking out the sun and putting vehicles running in front of the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings and houses. This is like a PRT plan but you only need to build these in the most congested zones.
There isn’t a lot of details on these plans, but I read about them at Reason’s Surface Transportation newsletter.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2015-12-14 17:31.
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.
The rough idea is to use robotics to manage a modest garden. It could be outside or in a greenhouse, or perhaps eventually a vertical farm on a wall. The simplest way to do this is to have a track and a gantry to allow the robot head to move to any spot in the rectangle and then do gardening tasks — tilling, planting seeds, watering, weed killing, weeding, analysis and even perhaps harvesting.
Why do people have gardens? Some do it because they enjoy the task, or at least some portions of the task. Those folks may not be interested in a farming robot, though they might like one which does the tiresome tasks like weeding.
Others garden to save money on produce, particularly specialty produce which is organic and where they know all about how it was grown. Initially, the robot might be too expensive to allow you to save money unless you pretend to ignore the cost of the robot.
Perhaps most interesting is the ability to get a supply of superior produce that’s already delivered to your house. The produce can be quite superior to agribusiness produce found in grocery stores, because many of those plants have been bred for things like shelf life, how well they pack and transport, how good they look on the shelf, yield, ripeness out of season and many other factors. The problem is, every time you breed for one of these, you breed out other things, including the most important — flavour. People with no love of gardening as a hobby will still pay well for food that tastes better.
To meet that last (and richest) market, you want a design that requires as little owner effort as possible. The owner would lay down the robot and pour in some soil, but ideally do very little else other than insert modules and possibly harvest.
The Farmbot today has a seed planting tool and a watering tool. Let’s look at other functions a farm robot might have:
- Because the robot knows very precisely where it put each seed, anything not in those locations is a weed. Knowing this offers various weeding strategies, including the ability to tackle each weed within hours after it sprouts. There could be very precision application of weed killers, and they could be placed with such precision they might be stronger than usual. Mechanical weed destruction and removal is also possible. The system would also know when it failed, and has to summon a human. Bosch makes a weed killing robot for larger farms.
- Simple hyperspectral cameras might eventually lead to super understanding of how plants are doing, and near-perfect estimation of ripeness, as well as amounts of feed and water to apply, again with full precision.
- Insect pests could be spotted immediately, and some of them dealt with. It is not even out of the question they could be burned with lasers, which of course is super cool.
- Animal pests (stealing the food) could be detected and harassed with motion, lights, sound or even that bug-killing laser. The robot could be a very superb scarecrow. Of course, netting could also be used on the garden since the human rarely has to access it.
- The soil could be tilled by the robot. Analysis of the soil may make more sense to do remotely but it could be a service.
- The system could tell you exactly when to pick every plant for perfection, or what the best plant to pick is when you want something. It might even be able to harvest certain plants with the right attachment and put them in a basket for you to collect.
- The robot could anticipate frosts, requesting the humans to put a cover over the garden and even applying heat.
For the non-gardening gardener, you would just order cartridges online with seeds, nutrients or weed killer, plug them in and let it run. Then eat whatever is at the peak of flavour. The app could also arrange trading with neighbours — everybody likes being generous to neighbours with home produce. (Farmbot is open source but of course could make money from this business quite well.)
Over time, mass manufacturing might make this cheaper and more flexible. For example, eventually a free-roaming design could be possible that is of course much easier to install and could handle much larger plots of land. (It would need to go back to base to refill on water and electricity.) Knowing the garden so well (because it planted it) it could know where to put its wheels. It doesn’t matter how slow it is, so long as it’s quiet.
Vertical farming might be interesting. With a vertical farm on the wall, the robot might simply hang in front of the wall without even needing tracks, though it could not apply much force in that case.
Robots might even make practical something that started off silly — indoor farming with LED light sources. The idea of taking even solar panel energy and using it to shine lights indoors is silly compared to having a garden outdoors or having skylights, but people have slowly been making that more reasonable, using purple LEDs (no light wasted on the green plants don’t want) of high efficiency. Robots might be able to do even better, shining or concentrating light precisely on the leaves of plants so that little energy is spent lighting anything else. I have not done the math, but if anything can make this work, such precision might do the job.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2015-10-04 11:07.
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.
At the sign a radar gun measures your speed. If you are over the limit, then as you approach the light, it turns red. It turns red for you, and also anybody behind you and the oncoming traffic.
The result is people slow down for these signs to the limit. Far more effectively than any speed bump, and without the very annoying bump. Mostly this is done on faster roads than the quiet residential streets that have speed bumps, and of course traffic lights cost more than speed bumps, at least today.
The social dynamic is interesting. Even though many of us are scofflaws when it comes to the speed limit, most are much more religious about a red light. Even a red light like this one where there is no physical danger to running the red light, just the fairly unlikely risk of a stronger ticket. Strangely, though both speeding and running this light are both just violations of the law, I never saw anybody run one, and drivers who were total speed demons elsewhere quickly slowed down before these signs. (People know where they are, so they aren’t a general speed reducer, but rather more like a speed bump in cutting speed in one particular place.)
Added to this is the element of public shame. If you trigger this light, you stop everybody around you too. If you’re a sociopath, this won’t concern you, but for most there is a deep shame about it.
Today, as noted, a traffic light and radar gun are a moderately expensive thing. These lights are not nearly as expensive because they don’t require the complex intersection survey and programming of sometimes 20-30 real lights, but they still need a pole, and electricity, and weather hardened gear. In the future, I predict this sort of tech will get quite inexpensive, possibly cheaper than a speed bump. You could imagine making one with solar power and LEDs which only displayed the red light, not the green, and so needed no external power for it. They need not be on all the time — in fact if the batteries got low, they could just shut down until they recharged. The radar and communications link could also become quite cheap.
Of course, I would like to see this combined with more reasonable speed limits. I have pointed out before that the French Autoroute approach of a realistic limit of 130km/h that everybody obeys and where you really get tickets if you exceed it is much better than the US approach of a 65mph limit that 90% of drivers disregard. This system is much better than the speed bump. Speed bumps hurt cars and impede emergency vehicles. Emergency vehicles can blow through these. These could even vary their speed based on conditions and time of day.
Robocars of course would know where all these are and never trigger one, even if the occupants have commanded the vehicle to exceed the limit. But this is mostly a technology for human drivers. It is halfway along the path to “virtual infrastructure,” which is how roads and traffic control will work in the future when every car, human driven or not, uses a maps and data over phones to know the road, rather than signs and lights.
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2015-02-07 15:11.
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.
The selfie is everywhere. In Rome, literally hundreds of vendors tried to sell me selfie sticks in all the major tourist areas, even with a fat Canon DSLR hanging from my neck. It’s become the most common street vendor gadget. (The blue LED wind up helicopters were driving me nuts anyway.)
I also had been thinking about this, and came up with a design that’s not as capable as these designs, but might be better. My selfie drone would be tethered. You would put down the base which would have the batteries and a retractable cord. Up would fly the camera drone, which would track your phone to get a great shot of you. (If it were for me, it would also offer panorama mode where it spun around at the top shooting a pano, with you or without you.)
This drone could not follow you as you do a sport, of course, or get above a certain height. But unlike the free designs, it would not get lost over the cliff in the winds, as I think might happen to a number of these free selfie drones. It turns out that cliffs and outlook points are a common place to want to take these photos, they are the place you really need a high view to capture you and what’s below you.
Secondly, with the battery on the ground, and only a short tether wire needed, you can have a much better camera as payload. Only needing a short flight time and not needing to carry the batteries means more capabilities for the drone.
It’s also less dangerous, and is unlikely to come under regulation because it physically can’t fly beyond a certain altitude or distance from the base. It could not shoot you from water or from over the edge of the cliff as the other drones could if you were willing to risk them.
My variation would probably be a niche. Most selfies are there to show off where you were, not to be top quality photos. Only more serious photographers would want one capable of hauling up a quality lens. Because mine probably wants a motor in the base to reel it back in (so you don’t have to wind the cables) it might even cost more, not less.
The pano mode would be very useful. In so many pano spots, the view is fantastic but is blocked by bushes and trees, and the spectacular pano shot is only available if you go up enough. For daytime a tethered drone would probably do fine. I’m still waiting on the Panono — a ball, studded with cameras from Berlin that was funded by Kickstarter. You throw the ball up, and it figures when it is at the top of its flight and shoots the panorama all at once. Something like that could also be carried by a tethered drone, and it has the advantage of not moving between shots as a spinning drone would be at risk for. This is another thing I’ve wanted for a while. After my first experiments in airplane and helicopter based panoramas showed you really want to shoot everything all at once, I imagined having decent digital cameras getting cheap enough to buy 16 of them and put them in a circle. Sadly, once cameras starting doing that, there were always better cameras that I now decided I needed that were too expensive to buy for that purpose.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2013-08-12 11:20.
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.
Like so many apps, however, this one will suffer the general problem of the amount of time it takes to fumble for your phone, unlock it, invoke an app, and then let the app do its magic. Of course fumbling for the manual and looking up a button in the index takes time too.
I’ve advocated for a while that phones become more aware of their location, not just in the GPS sense, but in the sense of “I’m in my car” and know what apps to make very easy to access, and even streamline their use. This can include allowing these apps to be right on the lock screen — there’s no reason to need to unlock the phone to use an app like this one. In fact, all the apps you use frequently in your car that don’t reveal personal info should be on the lock screen when you get near the car, and some others just behind it. The device can know it is in the car via the bluetooth in the car. (That bluetooth can even tell you if you’re in another car of a different make, if you have a database mapping MAC addresses to car models.)
Bluetooth transmitters are so cheap and with BT Low Energy they can last a year on a watch battery, so one of the more compelling “Internet of Things” applications — that’s also often a gimmick term — is to scatter these devices around the world to give our phones this accurate sense of place.
Some of this philosophy is expressed in Google Now, a product that goes the right way on many of these issues. Indeed, the Google Now cards are one of the more useful aspects of Glass, which otherwise is inherently limited in its user interface making it harder for you to ask Glass things than it is to ask a phone or desktop.
The car app has some wrinkles of course. Since you don’t always have an iPhone (or may not have your phone even if you own an iPhone) you still need the thick manual, though perhaps it can be in the trunk. And I will wager that some situations, like odd lighting, may make it not as fast as in the video.
By and large, pointing your phone at QR codes to learn more has not caught on super well, in part again because it takes time to get most phones to the point where they are scanning the code. Gesture interfaces can help there but you can only remember and parse a limited number of gestures, so many applications call out for being the special one. Still a special shake which means “Look around you in all ways you can to figure out if there is something in this location, time or camera view that I might want you to process.” Constant looking eats batteries which is why you need such a shake.
I’ve proposed that even though phones have slowly been losing all their physical buttons, I would put this back as a physical button I call the “context” button. “Figure out the local context, and offer me the things that might be particularly important in this context.” This would offer many things:
- Standing in front of a restaurant or shop, the reviews, web site or app of the shop
- In the car, all the things you like in the car, such as maps/nav, the manual etc.
- In front of a meeting room, the schedule for that room and ability to book it
- At a tourist attraction, info on it.
- In a hotel, either the ability to book a room, or if you have a room, hotel services
There are many contexts, but you can usually sort them so that the most local and the most rare come first. So if you are in a big place you are frequently, such as the office complex you work at, the general functions for your company would not be high on the list unless you manually bumped them.
Of course, one goal is that car UIs will become simpler and self-documenting, as cars get screens. Buttons will still do the main functions you do all the time — and which people already understand — but screens will do the more obscure things you might need to look up in the manual, and document it as they go. You obviously can’t ever do something you need to look up in the manual while driving.
There is probably a trend that the devices in our lives with lots of buttons and complex controls and modes, like home electronics, cars and some appliances, will move to having screens in their UIs and thus not need the augmented reality.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2013-05-20 13:12.
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. read more »
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2012-03-26 22:33.
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. read more »
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2008-09-16 16:55.
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:
- Semen is an anti-depressent. Yes ladies, women with regular exposure to our special product have seriously lower incidence of depression. They compared couples who use condoms and those who don’t.
- Coffee is good for you. Ok, this isn’t just guys but in stereotypes, they are the coffee drinkers.
- Beer is good for you.
- Wine and alcohol is good for you.
- Men with two wives live much longer. Come on honey, do you want me to die young?
- A whole raft of studies on the health values of orgasm for women, and some for men.
- Chocolate is good for you. Ok, so the women eat just as much as we do.
- You live longer if you’re fat and fit than thin and unfit.
- High heels no worse on your knees than ordinary shoes.
- Staring at breasts increases lifespan in men. Ok, so this one was a false study but it could still be true.
- Short skirts cause fewer skirt-related injuries than long skirts. (Ok, this one is just self-evident.)
- Sex every day will strengthen your marriage. OK, not yet studied with full rigour, but, duh!
- There are reports that swallowing semen regularly decreases breast cancer. Though this has been disputed, it’s too good not to be researched here at the center.
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2007-10-29 17:37.
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. read more »
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2007-07-28 19:29.
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.
But they missed the obvious extension from that. Due to the delay, 101 is no longer my fastest route. They should use the traffic delay data to re-plot my route, and in this case, suggest 280. (Now it turns out that 280 is always better anyway, because aside from the fact it has less traffic, people drive at a higher average speed on it than 101, and the software doesn’t know that. Normally it’s a win except when it’s raining in the hills and not down by the shore.)
Now I’ve been wanting mapping and routing software to get a better understanding of real road speeds for a while. It could easily get that by taking GPS tracklogs from cabs, trucks and other vehicles willing to give them. It could know the real average speed of travel on every road, in every direction, at any given hour of the day. And then it could amend that with live traffic data. (Among other things, such data would quickly notice map errors, like one-way streets, missing streets, streets you can’t drive etc.)
Now to get really smart, the software should also have a formula for “aging” traffic congestion based on history and day of the week. For example, while there may be slow traffic on a stretch of highway at 6:30 pm, if I won’t get there until 7:30 it should be expected to speed up. As I get closer it can recalculate, though of course some alternate roads (like 101 vs. 280) must be chosen well in advance.
And hey, Google Mobile maps, while your at it, could you add bookmarks? For example, I would like to make a bookmark that generates my standard traffic view, and remember areas I need maps of frequently. And of course since traffic data can make them different, bookmark routes such as one’s standard commute. For this, it might make sense to let people bookmark the routes in full google maps, where you can drag the route to your taste, and save it for use in the mobile product, even comparing the route times under traffic. One could also have the device learn real data about how fast I drive on various routes, though for privacy reasons this should not be store unencrypted on servers. (We would not want our devices betraying us and getting us speeding tickets or liability in accidents due to speeding, so only averages rather than specific superlimit speeds should be stored.)
Also — there are other places in a PDA/phone with an address, most notably events in the calendar. It would be nice while looking at an event in the calendar (or to-do list) to be able to click “locate on the map.”
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2007-07-12 19:58.
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.) read more »
Submitted by brad on Sat, 2006-04-15 12:07.
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. read more »
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2005-11-01 15:59.
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. read more »
Submitted by brad on Mon, 2005-10-24 15:52.
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.)
In Australia, almost every toilet has two flush buttons, one for a “half flush” (often really a 2/3) for #1 and a full flush for #2. This is presumably mandated by law, and one hopes it saves a lot of water. I’ve often thought that homes should install cheaper urinals to save water as well. In public toilets, all lower-end gent’s rooms have a stainless steel “wall” urinal which feels less private to people used to independent units. More disquieting are the ones with a grate in front of the wall that you stand on, so your “wee” flows under you. I’ve seen these wall urinals in many other places of course, not just Australia.
Almost every Aussie motel room has a toaster in it. No bread, just a toaster. The toast marketing board has done their job well in Australia, though some Aussies insisted it was for British tourists. And of course, always milk, meaning they often provide a fridge even in cheaper rooms. The minibar milk is free, too. Of course at 240v, the kettles are super-fast for that morning cuppa.
Urban hotels have that annoying “insert your room key” slot to turn on power and heating/AC in the room. I’ve seen that around Asia and other places as well. In some hotels one plug is still on with the card out so you can charge your computer. In others no plug is online, however everybody knows you can stick any plastic card in the slot, so you leave a card in to recharge your devices.
In Victoria and South Australia, there was a massive campaign on the highways against sleepy driving, with signs literally every few miles asking sleepy drivers to pull over, and free coffee for drivers at most roadside stops.
In the Northern Territory, you will often see “Road Trains” which are trucks trailing 3 trailers at once. Sounds hard to turn around… With a new railway in place from Darwin to Alice, this has probably cut back on these. Are they not legal in the USA for safety reasons? Seems more efficient. (Pictures to come.)
There seems to be less free wireless in urban Australia, though I didn’t actually wardrive much.
I’ll write more about this later, but I noticed that mobile phone packages there are all sold with a “cap” system. The mobile calling rate is very high — 40 to 80 cents/minute for local calls to landlines — but you typically end up buying $50 of airtime or more and getting $230 more “free”, at least that was the plan on Vodaphone, the SIM I bought. So if you only wanted a little airtime you paid through the nose, but if you used a lot, the price worked out OK. Like Europe, the caller pays for your airtime when they phone you, incoming calls to your cell are free. Some carriers are rebating some of the money paid by the caller back to the recipient. That will have interesting consequences.
Australia uses 240v (highest in the world) and all plugs must have a tiny switch on the socket (called a powerpoint, probably to the dismay of Microsoft) to disable it to avoid sparks when plugging things in and out. Other high-voltage countries also have the mini-switch. Their 2-prong plug, though now rarely used, is inherently polarized and different from everywhere else in the world except NZ. However, their new standards for grounded plugs with shielding against touching the live conductor produce giant bulky plugs and power cords. We could all use a smart power system like the universal DC (&AC) system I have propsed elsewhere in the blog. Australian switches are to us, upside-down, just like Australians.
And of course, Australia has the Timtam. However, the pleasure of that is countered by the their yukky favourite spread, Kraft Vegemite.
Updated Notes: A commenter asked about tipping. Indeed, at first you get “sticker shock” in Aussie restaurants. There you might easily see a main course at $30, but that’s really $22.50 and then the tax and tip are included so you can more properly treat it as $18 in California. Australians differed to me on whether you don’t tip at all, tip only with superb service, tip only in cheaper places or tip 5% on capable service. Cabs you don’t tip but round up to the nearest dollar. Australia wisely got rid of the penny several years ago.
As to which method is better? Well, optional tipping does give you the ability to control how much you pay for service, and do it after you’ve been able to judge it. On the surface that sounds good for the customer, but we also seem to like seeing the real price in advance. For example, I feel that visible taxes are better (as in Canada and USA) but the GST is always included in Australia now, by law, so you pay the price cited. The latter is more convenient, the former makes it more clear what’s going on.
Note that while I found Aussie servers and clerks to be exceptionally friendly, at several meals, including at very expensive places, I got decidedly slow service that would have rated a punative tip. Too anecdotal to come to a conclusion though.
More notes: Fish and chips are the Australian national meal, but they don’t serve them with vinegar as in the UK and Canada. No worries, mate, (The Australian national catchphrase) they’ll bring some.
They usually mistake a Canadian for an American. (Horror of horrors.) Can’t blame them, my own accent sounds like neither, but you can tell I’m from North America so it’s not an inappropriate guess.
Australian airport security was a breath of fresh air after so much travel in North America. “No worries, mate.”
Check in with luggage recently increased to 30 minutes before takeoff. Keep your shoes on. One hour in advance for a flight from Cairns to Sydney which used the international terminal. (It’s a plane from Japan that continues on and the pax clear custons in Sydney so the domestic customers join an international flight with a special sticker which lets them bypass customs. Turns out to be a giant security hole — a foreign tourist could carry on or check a bag of contraband and the domestic passenger could take it through customs. I presume they have random checks to deter this.)
On the other hand domestic flights on Qantas allow only one checked bag (32kg) and one 7kg carry-on. A mess for the international traveller who came in possibly with 2 checked bags due to the 22kg limit of most airlines and a heavy
carry-on. Fortuantely they only enforced the carry-on rule on me once and just let me split it into two bags.
Oh yeah, they got rid of the penny years ago. Very nice. Took me quite a while to notice I wasn’t getting any pennies in change.
More to come on Australia.
Submitted by brad on Tue, 2005-09-27 21:42.
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.
Thus, in New Orleans, everybody would have been able to text in and out, at a battery cost to those who relay the messages to the working cell towers. Texting doesn’t require continuous connectivity. In time, of course, towers would be repaired or they could be flow in on blimps or choppers.
I suggested that in fact this could be a commercially viable service, allowing people to text who are beyond the range of cell towers, possibly quite a bit beyond the range. Operators could still charge for this. (Others, more cynical, felt operators would never want stuff in phones that made them usable without the carrier.)
He also suggested some simple improvements. During Katrina, people who did get their cell phones out of town could not make calls because the databases that let them roam were “under water.” The databases need to be backed up, or more simply during an emergency, switch so that unknown phones are allowed to make calls if their home system does not respond, rather than blocking them.
This requires hardware mods, unfortunately (phones today can’t transmit and receive on the same bands) but otherwise is easy and could keep comms up in an emergency. A number of other cheap devices can keep power to phones.
Another person suggested phones have an ELT-like mode, where a person can enter a text message of the SOS form. Messages might indicate if the person is just advertising their location, or needs urgent help. Helicopters flying overhead could identify the phones, triangulate on them and locate all mobile owners who need rescue.
Submitted by brad on Sun, 2005-08-21 02:05.
Just back from a day at Bar Camp which was quickly put together as a tongue-in-cheek response to Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp and folks who had not been invited. Foo Camp is great fun, and Tim does it all for free, so it’s not suprising he has to turn people away — even me :-) — but Bar Camp was surprisingly good for something thrown together at the last minute with no costs.
It makes you wonder why some conferences have to cost so much. In Foo Camp, Tim provides his campus of course, which he already owns, and some rental facilities and most expensively, food, and lets people come free. Programming is ad-hoc, in recognition that at so many conferences, people come not because of the program but because of their fellow attendees. I haven’t asked Tim what it costs him per attendee but I suspect it’s much more modest than the fees at comparable conferences. People literally camp in empty cubicles and offices, though those not up for that can get hotel rooms or bring RVs.
Bar camp was even cheaper. Socialtext provided the office space in downtown Palo Alto. In just a short time, sponsors such as Technoratti and others provided all the food people could want, and attendees brought snacks and drinks. Fewer folks camped because it was in Silicon Valley, but some of the younger set did. Talks were quickly put together, but interesting, and covered whole ranges of new and interesting software developments. And as at Foo Camp and everywhere else, hallway conversation was the real action.
With the glut of office space in this valley, and in other places, such ad-hoc conferences should not be hard to set up. Nor should sponsors be hard to find for modest food and other needs. If people become interested in having a conference rather than a business, they can do for nothing what could cost $1000 per person and with less work.
Not that I wouldn’t enjoy going back to Foo Camp, but Bar was its own rewarding experience too.
Submitted by brad on Thu, 2005-08-04 15:50.
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.
This made tremendous sense. We have this drink station that gets used for just 15 minutes a night which is terribly inefficient, and they found a way to spread out the work. This fits into one of my major themes these days, “Why should we ever have to wait in line?”
Of course, such an idea may only work with affluent symphony-goers, who are far less likely to try and steal somebody else’s drink order. You could have claim checks and that would still be faster than ordering, pouring and paying, if you didn’t trust the patrons. And, if they didn’t want you to turn off your cell phone during the show, you could even have people TXT in their orders (with keypress beep turned off of course.)
Texting in orders might make more sense in places like ballparks and amusement parks, with a message back when it’s ready. Why miss the game to stand in line for a hot dog?