Random Ideas

Cranes, and rooftops, should be decorated

Look at the skyline of any growing city, and what do you see, but a sea of construction cranes. The theory is that each crane will go away and be replaced by an architectually interesting or pleasing building, but the cycle continues and there are always cranes.

My proposal: An ordinance requiring aesthetic elements on construction cranes. Make them look beautiful. Make them look like the birds they are named after, or anything else. Get artists to design them as grand public art installations. Obviously you can’t increase the weight a lot, or cut the visibility of the operator too much, but leave that as a challenge to the artists. And give us a city topped with giant works of art instead of eyesores.

While we’re building these skyscrapers, it seems to me we also don’t seem to care about the aesthetics of our cities from above. The view from the towers, or incoming aircraft bringing in fresh visitors, is of ugly rooftops, covered with ugly pipes, giant air conditioners and spaces everybody imagines that nobody sees. Yet we all see them.

Compare that with many European hillside towns where everybody knew they would be seen from above. At least in the old days, the roofs were crafted with the same care as the house. Today, that’s been changing, and many roofs are covered with antennas, satellite dishes and in the middle east, black water heaters. We care a lot about how our houses look from the curb, and we imagine people don’t see the roof. But we do.

Surprising math on Obamacare levels: Go for the Bronze!

Recently I learned from health.net, the insurer which did my individual plan, that they were canceling it. I’m one of those who lost his health plan with the switch to the ACA (Obamacare) plans, so I need to shop in the healthcare marketplace and will likely end up paying more.

What surprised me when I went to the marketplace was the math of the plans. For those who don’t know, there are 4 main classes of plans (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) which are roughly the same for all insurers. There is also a 5th, “Catastrophic” plan available to under-30s and hardship cases, which is cheaper and covers even less than Bronze. Low income people get a great subsidized price in the marketplace, but people with decent incomes get no subsidy.

The 4 plans are designed so that for the average patient, they will end up paying 60% (Bronze), 70% (Silver), 80% (Gold) or 90% (Platinum) of health care costs, with the patient, on average, bearing the rest. All plans come with a “Maximum out of pocket” (MOOP) that is at most $6,350 for all plans but $4,000 (or less) for the Platinum.

Here’s some analysis based on California prices and plans. The other states can vary a fair bit. Insurance is much cheaper in some regions, and there are plans that use moderately different formulae. In every state the MOOP is no more than $6,350 and the actuarial percentages are the same.

As you might expect, the Platinum costs a lot more than the Bronze. But at my age, in my early 50s, I was surprised how much more. I decided to plug in numbers for Blue Cross, which is actually slightly cheaper than many of the other plans. I actually have little information with which to compare the companies. This is quite odd — my health insurance is going to be by biggest annual expenditure after my mortgage. More than my car — but there’s tons of information to help you choose a car. (Consumer Reports does have a comparison article on the major insurance companies before the ACA for their subscribers.)

The Platinum plan costs $350/month extra over Bronze, $4200/year. Almost as much as the MOOP. So I decided to build a spreadsheet that would show me what I would end up paying on each plan in total — premiums plus my personal outlays. Here is the sheet for me in my early 50s:

The X axis is how much your health care actually cost, ie. what your providers were paid. The Y axis is how much you had to pay. The green line is unity, with your payout equal to the cost, as might happen in theory if you were uninsured. In theory, because in reality uninsured people pay a “list price” that is several times the cost that insurance companies negotiate. Also in theory because those uninsured must pay a tax penalty.

All the plans go up at one rate until they first hit your deductibles (Bronze/Silver) and then at a slower rate until you hit your MOOP. After the MOOP they are a flat line almost no matter what your health spending does. The Silver plan is the most complex. It has a $250 drug deductible and a $2000 general deductible and the usual $6,350 MOOP. In reality, these slopes will not be smooth lines. For example, on the silver plan if you are mostly doing doctor visits and labs, you do copays, not the deductible. If you hit something else, like MRI scans or hospitalization, you pay out the full cost until you hit the deductible. So each person’s slope will be different, but these slopes are meant to represent an estimate for average patients.

The surprising thing about this chart is that the Bronze plan is pretty clearly superior. Only for a small region of costs does your outlay exceed the other plans, and never by much. However, in the most likely region for most people (modest health care) or the danger zone (lots of health care) it is quite a bit cheaper. The catastrophic plan, if you can get your hands on it over 30, is even better. It almost never does worse than the other plans.

I will note that the zone where Bronze is not the winner is around the $8,400 average cost of health care in the USA. However, what I really want to learn is the median cost, a statistic that is not readily available, or even better the median cost or distribution of costs at each age cohort. The actuaries obviously know this, and I would like pointers to a source.

Premiums are tax deductible for the self-employed, as are large medical expenses for all, but the outlays above premiums can also come from a Health Savings Account (HSA) which is a special IRA-like instrument. You put in up to around $3K each year tax-free, and can pay the costs above from it. (You also don’t pay tax on appreciation of the account, and can draw out the money post-retirement at a decent rate.)

The chart suggests the Bronze plan is the clear winner unless you know you will be in the $6K to $10K zone where it’s a modest loser. It seems to beat the Platinum all the time (at least in this simplified model) but might have minor competition from the Silver. The Gold is essentially always worse than the Silver.

If we move to age 60, now the win for Bronze is very clear. At age 60, the $5500 extra premium for Platinum almost exceeds the MOOP on the Bronze — the Bronze will always be cheaper. This makes no sense, and seems to be a result of the fact that the MOOP remains the same no matter how old you are (and is also the same for B/S/G/Cat.) Perhaps varying deductibles and the MOOP over time would have made more variety.

Here the Gold is clearly a loser to the Silver if you were thinking about it. Nobody in this age group should buy the Gold plan but I doubt the sites will say that. Platinum is almost as clearly a loss.

Thinking about money every time you use health care

With the choice for the older person so obvious, this opens up another question, namely one of psychology. The rational thing to do is to buy the Bronze plan. But with its $5,000 deductible, you will find yourself paying out of pocket for almost all your health care except in years you need major treatments and hospitalizations.  read more »

Free conferences that refund your ticket if you show up

There’s a problem I have seen at a number of free events, particularly “unconference” events which have a limited capacity. There will be a sign-up list, and once it fills up, people are turned away or get on a waiting list. (Some online ticket services now support the idea of free tickets for this purpose.)

Then you get to the event and 1/3 of the seats are empty. Because it did not cost anything to sign up, people were quite willing to no-show, and many other people signed up “just in case.” Unfortunately many who would have come decided not to go because the event was full.

To counter this, many events have started putting on a small charge “just for the sake of having a charge.” This charge is in the range of $10 to $30. It discourages signing up just in case, and makes people feel a little more strongly that they should come, but it’s not a burden for most people and raises a small amount of money for the event. (Usually such events are really paid for by sponsors or donors.)

Here’s another idea: Set a price for the event and take and authorize a credit card, but only charge the credit cards of the no-shows. This requires some sort of on-site desk where people can register to not get charged (or get a refund if they used another mechanism like paypal, cheuque or cash.)

The big question is, what should the price be? Many factors change as you change the price:

  • If the price is very high, you start scaring people away from registering, but you will get very few no-shows.
  • If the price is very low, you may still get plenty of no-shows, but now there is at least revenue for it … and empty seats.
  • For some price ranges, a large fraction of the crowd may elect not to refund even though they are at the event, either because it’s a hassle, or they feel like donating. They may feel themselves as cheap by going to ask for their $30 back from a non-profit ad-hoc event. This can help pay for the event.

While it will vary based on the type of event and wealth of the crowd, there is probably an optimal price, which can only be found by experimentation, that both comes as close as possible to filling the room and generating the most revenue from no-shows. It is not out of the question that there could be a price which (combined with a subtle pressure on people to donate rather than refund) pays for the conference.

People who plan to no-show could cancel before the event, possibly just a day before if there is a waiting list. People on the waiting list would not have to pay, but could be told on the morning of the event if they are in. A well managed, real-time waiting list with good predictions on whether people will make it can help assure the room is full.

People who are spending other money to get the conference (ie. booking a flight or hotel) might not have to pay, as they have other penalties for not showing. It’s mostly locals who do the “just in case” sign-up.

If anybody tries this, I would be interested in getting reports about the price and how people reacted to it and how many refunded. Slightly harder is figuring out how many people are scared away by the price, even with the refund promise. Events that are free tend to be free for a reason, and this system might not meet those goals.

Logistics

It would also be nice if ticket services supported this model. It makes sense, as they would get a small cut of any ticket not refunded. Refunds to paypal tend to cost you nothing, though I could see those services getting upset at merchants who are refunding almost all purchases and just using them as a vehicle for free. With cheques, one can also simply not deposit the cheque and even hand it back to the attendee at the conference. But since credit cards and paypal make it so easy, it is tempting to insist on those, and just allow a small fraction of the people to plead that they have no accounts, warning them the exceptions are personally reviewed.

You want to be able to process refunds without a large cost of volunteer or staff time. Of course if there is a registration desk you know who showed up and who didn’t, but most free events don’t want to have such a desk. If everybody uses a credit card, a number of options exist for a self-service desk. For example, they could just swipe the credit card they used at a self-swipe station, as counter-intuitive as “swipe to not be charged” might be. A station which photographs a person’s card or ID could also be self-serve, but requires post-processing.

The web page could also offer a QR code to print, and that printout could be brought and scanned to assure the refund. This could be done by a volunteer’s smartphone, or a self service station with PC and webcam. They need not actually print the code, as cameras can read a QR code from the attendee’s phone screen. Printouts though can also do a pre-printed attendee badge, allowing the person to just cut that out and pick up a badge-holder for it.

This does allow a small amount of cheating, where a no-show asks a friend to print out and show their refund page, but if the fee is low, I doubt there will be much of this. If there is already a staff desk, as most events have, placing the self-serve refund scanner there will discourage people from using it twice just to save a friend some money.

Note that having a refund desk where people have to come in person to ask for their refund will mean that more people decide to donate, so depending on the goals of the event, it may make sense to deliberately not make it trivial to get the refund. Some sponsored events may truly not wish the money, some may be secretly happy for it.

You do want to be sure you are accurate, so that people don’t complain they never got a refund after the fact. Again, I think cheating will be low in this area so it may not be a big concern.

Then, at the end of the conference, send an email to all on their refund status. This allows protests from those who thought they refunded. If the scanner is on-line, it could have emailed about the scan right then and there, and many can see that email right away. For a small amount of money you can also send a text message confirmation; just about anybody can get that.

Generating delicious fake regional cuisine

One of the greatest things that can give a region a sense of identity is the presence of a regional cuisine. In addition to identity it brings in tourists, so every region probably really wishes it had one.

Of course a real regional cuisine takes a long time to develop, even centuries. The world’s great cuisines all were a long time coming, and were often based on the presence of particular local ingredients as much as on the food culture. Some cuisines have arisen quickly, particularly fusion cuisines which arise due to immigrants mixing and from colonialism. Today the market for ingredients is global, though there are still places where particular ingredients are at their best.

One recent regional food, the “Buffalo” chicken wing, is believed to have come from a single restaurant (The Anchor Bar in Buffalo) and spread out to other local establishments and then around the world. Part of its success in spreading around the world is its simplicity and the fact that (unlike many other regional-source foods) it features ingredients found all around the world. Every town would like to have its equivalent of the Buffalo Wing.

To make this happen, I think towns should hold contests among local restaurants to develop such dishes. Restaurants might enter dishes they already specialize in, or come up with something new. The winner, by popular vote, would get their dish named after the town, and found on the menus of other competing restaurants for some period of time.

The following rules might make sense:

  • Ideally, the dish should try to be based on an ingredient which is available locally, and perhaps at its best locally, but which still can be found in the rest of the world so the dish can spread.
  • All restaurants submitting a dish must agree that should they win, they will publish recipes for the dish and claim no exclusive on it. They will, however, be the only restaurant to say they have the original dish and were the winner of the contest.
  • Ideally, recipes will be published in advance, so other restaurants can also make the dish during the contest, in particular restaurants that are not competing. (Competing chefs might deliberately make the dish badly.) In fact, advance publication (and a contest cookbook) might be part of the rules.
  • “None of the above” should be an encouraged choice on the voting form. The first round might not create a dish worthy of the town.
  • A panel of chefs would rate the dishes according to difficulty. Dishes that are easier would be encouraged, as these can spread more easily. The list of difficulties would be published for voters to use in making their decisions. Ie. voters might pick the 2nd most tasty dish if it’s much easier to make.
  • Every dish must be available in “chef-approved” form at some minimum number of restaurants, so it is easy to try each dish. Private chefs can compete if they can recruit restaurants to offer their dish.
  • At the end of the contest, the city’s tourist board would have a budget to promote the dish to tourists.
  • Voting would be done online, but voters would need to get a token to vote somewhere based on a unique ID so they can’t vote more than once. They need not pick a single dish. The “Approval” voting system, where voters can list as many dishes as they find qualified, and the one with the most votes wins, can be used.
  • It is certainly possible as well to have multiple winners, and the creation of variations on the winning dish would be encouraged.

Would this be an authentic regional cuisine that “comes from the people?” Of course not. But it might be tasty, and if chosen by the people, might grow into something that really belongs to that city.

Everybody is your 16th cousin

In my article two weeks ago about the odds of knowing a cousin I puzzled over the question of how many 3rd cousins a person might have. This is hard to answer, because it depends on figuring out how many successful offspring per generation the various levels of your family (and related families) have. Successful means that they also create a tree of descendants. This number varies a lot among families, it varies a lot among regions and it has varied a great deal over time. An Icelandic study found a number of around 2.8 but it’s hard to conclude a general rule. I’ve used 3 (81 great-great-grandchildren per couple) as a rough number.

There is something, however, that we can calculate without knowing how many children each couple has. That’s because we know, pretty accurately, how many ancestors you have. Our number gets less accurate over time because ancestors start duplicating — people appear multiple times in your family tree. And in fact by the time you go back large numbers of generations, say 600 years, the duplication is massive; all your ancestors appear many times.

To answer the question of “How likely is it that somebody is your 16th cousin” we can just look at how many ancestors you have back there. 16th cousins share with you a couple 17 generations ago. (You can share just one ancestor which makes you a half-cousin.) So your ancestor set from 17 generations ago will be 65,536 different couples. Actually less than that due to duplication, but at this level in a large population the duplication isn’t as big a factor as it becomes later, and if it does it’s because of a closer community which means you are even more related.

So you have 65K couples and so does your potential cousin. The next question is, what is the size of the population in which they lived? Well, back then the whole world had about 600 million people, so that’s an upper bound. So we can ask, if you take two random sets of 65,000 couples from a population of 300M couples, what are the odds that none of them match? With your 65,000 ancestors being just 0.02% of the world’s couples, and your potential cousin’s ancestors also being that set, you would think it likely they don’t match.

Turns out that’s almost nil. Like the famous birthday paradox, where a room of 30 people usually has 2 who share a birthday, the probability there is no intersection in these large groups is quite low. it is 99.9999% likely from these numbers that any given person is at least a 16th cousin. And 97.2% likely that they are a 15th cousin — but only 1.4% likely that they are an 11th cousin. It’s a double exponential explosion. The rough formula used is that the probability of no match will be (1-2^C/P)^(2^C) where C is the cousin number and P is the total source population. To be strict this should be done with factorials but the numbers are large enough that pure exponentials work.

Now, of course, the couples are not selected at random, and nor are they selected from the whole world. For many people, their ancestors would have all lived on the same continent, perhaps even in the same country. They might all come from the same ethnic group. For example, if you think that all the ancestors of the two people came from the half million or so Ashkenazi Jews of the 18th century then everybody is a 10th cousin.

Many populations did not interbreed much, and in some cases of strong ethnic or geographic isolation, barely at all. There are definitely silos, and they sometimes existed in the same town, where there might be far less interbreeding between races than among races. Over time, however, the numbers overwhelm even this. Within the close knit communities, like say a city of 50,000 couples who bred mostly with each other, everybody will be a 9th cousin.

These numbers provide upper bounds. Due to the double exponential, even when you start reducing the population numbers due to out-breeding and expansion, it still catches up within a few generations. This is just another measure of how we are all related, and also how meaningless very distant cousin relationships, like 10th cousins, are. As I’ve noted in other places, if you leave aside the geographic isolation that some populations lived in, you don’t have to go back more more than a couple of thousand years to reach the point where we are not just all related, but we all have the same set of ancestors (ie. everybody who procreated) just arranged in a different mix.

The upshot of all this: If you discover that you share a common ancestor with somebody from the 17th century, or even the 18th, it is completely unremarkable. The only thing remarkable about it is that you happened to know the path.

DNA scans for everybody who did a failed drug trial

The pharma industry is littered with cases of drugs that showed good promise, but proved to be too dangerous when they got into human trials. Dangerous side effects will cancel development for most drugs. In some cases, such as Vioxx and Fen-Phen the dangerous effects were discovered later, and the drugs pulled from the market.

Some people got better on the drugs, others had bad side effects. Sometimes those bad side effects will be the result of various environmental factors, or perhaps rarely they will be bad luck. However, I suspect that some good portion of the time, they will be due to genetic factors in the test subject.

DNA sequencing is getting cheaper every day. Even today the whole genome can be done for $5,000 wholesale and many expect it to be hundreds before long. Collections of 600,000 to 1,000,000 SNPs can be read for a few hundred dollars.

It strikes me that the drug companies will want to make efforts immediately to get DNA samples, if they don’t have them, from all the people who participated in the trials of failed drugs, particularly those who had the bad side effects. And to get those samples sequenced. Because in some cases, they may well find a connection between the bad reaction and genetic patterns. They might find cases where all the side effects had one gene and all the regular reactions had another.

If they do find this, then suddenly they will have a billion dollar drug on their hands again, with much of the work already done, presuming the FDA and other regulatory agencies accept this approach. With the gene identified, making a test for it would be very cheap, and suddenly a useful drug might be available to those who have no problems with it. This might leave the people with the reacting DNA out in the lurch of course, and nobody is likely to try to find a drug for them in the immediate future.

If people get large DNA scans, those scans should remain in the possession of the patient or their doctor. There are already laws forbidding insurance companies in some jurisdictions from using DNA data to adjust insurance, but there will be powerful forces trying to reverse this.

DNA results will also explain differing efficacies of the drugs. It’s already been learned that many people need different doses of the same drug, and also that some drugs work on men but not on women, for example.

I expect this will be standard practice for future drug trials, but my point today is that since many of these people are still alive, we can reach into the past and learn the truth about long-past drug trials as well, and perhaps get a brief flood of new useful substances as long as the patient is DNA typed in advance.

Midwifing the Canadian Flag

I was contacted this week by the daughter of Don Watt, a well known Canadian graphic designer responsible for the branding and logos at many large companies including Loblaws and WalMart. Watt had just died at the end of December, and she was looking for more information from me about her father’s account of how he had secretly been the designer of the modern Canadian Flag. She contacted me, because in his story, my father, Charles Templeton, had been the go-between for Watt and the government leaders who picked the flag.

There’s a bit about Watt’s story in this Toronto Star Obituary for him. His version contradicts the official version quite markedly, and there is evidence on both sides. Many of the players, however, are deceased.

As the story goes, there was a plan to give Canada its own flag, replacing the colonial Red Ensign. A national contest was held, and people could submit designs. Don Watt worked at Hathaway-Templeton, a design firm co-founded by my uncle Bill Templeton in Toronto. My father was also working at Hathaway-Templeton at the time — his brother gave him a job to help him recover from his expensive 2nd place run for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. (Or this may have been just before he worked there, during his various visits to his brother’s company.)

Watt came up with a flag design, supposedly like the current one but with blue bars (“From sea to sea” being the motto.) He says he did this because my father told him the government didn’t like the designs that were coming in through the competition. Watt did a design and my father took it to the leadership in Ottawa — the Liberal party was in power at the time under Prime Minister “Mike” Pearson, and they were the ones driving the controversial flag change. In one version of the story Pearson likes the design but prefers red bars (the Liberal party colours after all, but also the national colours.) Contradictory reports say Pearson liked an alternate design with blue bars but 3 maple leaves in the middle.

According to Watt, when his flag was chosen, it was also felt it would be bad if it were known that the design came from a professional logo designer, and worse, from one working for a design firm with many government contracts and tied to a prominent person in the Liberal party (ie. my father.) This was very far from the impression they had of a populist contest.

So it was, according to Watt, agreed that his role and my father’s would be kept silent. Many others had similar designs, bars and maple leaves in various sizes and configurations were common in many of them. Other names got the glory, but Watt was content with that.

Watt told his family, and later after the secrecy period was over, others in the industry but never made big public declarations about it. He told it to my cousin with whom he worked closely.

Is the story true? It’s hard to evaluate. The others did have similar designs, and even if Watt’s version is correct, I suspect they honestly believe it was their designs that were used. And of course, it may be true. From what little I know of Mr. Watt, he seems to have a good reputation and many other claims to fame, so it does not seem the sort of story he would need to make up.

However, my prime reason for some skepticism comes from the fact that my father never told me this story, nor put it in his memoirs. He wasn’t the sort of person to avoid bragging. If the story is true and he never told of it, he must have had a particularly strong sense of honour on the temporary bond of secrecy, and did not want to disrupt the official story. Nor did Watt until his later years.

Still, it was an interesting anecdote to hear. The Canadian experience is different from the U.S. one. Things like the Candian flag and constitution are events in living memory, while for the USA, they are distant history. If true, it would be a fun thing to add to the list of family stories.

On a side note, the Canadian flag is considered one of the better ones from a graphic design standpoint by some.

On worldcon and convention design

The Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Montreal was enjoyable. Like all worldcons, which are run by fans rather than professional convention staff, it had its issues, but nothing too drastic. Our worst experience actually came from the Delta hotel, which I’ll describe below.

For the past few decades, Worldcons have been held in convention centers. They attract from 4,000 to 7,000 people and are generally felt to not fit in any ordinary hotel outside Las Vegas. (They don’t go to Las Vegas both because there is no large fan base there to run it, and the Las Vegas Hotels, unlike those in most towns, have no incentive to offer a cut-rate deal on a summer weekend.)

Because they are always held where deals are to be had on hotels and convention space, it is not uncommon for them to get the entire convention center or a large portion of it. This turns out to be a temptation which most cons succumb to, but should not. The Montreal convention was huge and cavernous. It had little of the intimacy a mostly social event should have. Use of the entire convention center meant long walks and robbed the convention of a social center — a single place through which you could expect people to flow, so you would see your friends, join up for hallway conversations and gather people to go for meals.

This is one of those cases where less can be more. You should not take more space than you need. The convention should be as initimate as it can be without becoming crowded. That may mean deliberately not taking function space.

A social center is vital to a good convention. Unfortunately when there are hotels in multiple directions from the convention center so that people use different exits, it is hard for the crowd to figure one out. At the Montreal convention (Anticipation) the closest thing to such a center was near the registration desk, but it never really worked. At other conventions, anywhere on the path to the primary entrance works. Sometimes it is the lobby and bar of the HQ hotel, but this was not the case here.

When the social center will not be obvious, the convention should try to find the best one, and put up a sign saying it is the congregation point. In some convention centers, meeting rooms will be on a different floor from other function space, and so it may be necessary to have two meeting points, one for in-between sessions, and the other for general time.

The social center/meeting point is the one thing it can make sense to use some space on. Expect a good fraction of the con to congregate there in break times. Let them form groups of conversation (there should be sound absorbing walls) but still be able to see and find other people in the space.

A good thing to make a meeting point work is to put up the schedule there, ideally in a dynamic way. This can be computer screens showing the titles of the upcoming sessions, or even human changed cards saying this. Anticipation used a giant schedule on the wall, which is also OK. The other methods allow descriptions to go up with the names. Anticipation did a roundly disliked “pocket” program printed on tabloid sized paper, with two pages usually needed to cover a whole day. Nobody had a pocket it could fit in. In addition, there were many changes to the schedule and the online version was not updated. Again, this is a volunteer effort, so I expect some glitches like this to happen, they are par for the course.  read more »

Tales of the Michael Jackson lottery, eBay and security

I’ve been fascinated of late with the issue of eBay auctions of hot-hot items, like the playstation 3 and others. The story of the Michael Jackson memorial tickets is an interesting one.

17,000 tickets were given out as 8,500 pairs to winners chosen from 1.6 million online applications. Applicants had to give their name and address, and if they won, they further had to use or create a ticketmaster account to get their voucher. They then had to take the voucher to Dodger stadium in L.A. on Monday. (This was a dealbreaker even for honest winners from too far outside L.A. such as a Montreal flight attendant.) At the stadium, they had to present ID to show they were the winner, whereupon they were given 2 tickets (with random seat assignment) and two standard club security wristbands, one of which was affixed to their arm. They were told if the one on the arm was damaged in any way, they would not get into the memorial. The terms indicated the tickets were non-transferable.

Immediately a lot of people, especially those not from California who won, tried to sell tickets on eBay and Craigslist. In fact, even before the lottery results, people were listing something more speculative, “If I win the lottery, you pay me and you’ll get my tickets.” (One could enter the lottery directly of course, but this would increase your chances as only one entry was allowed, in theory, per person.)

Both eBay and Craigslist had very strong policies against listing these tickets, and apparently had staff and software working regularly to remove listings. Listings on eBay were mostly disappearing quickly, though some persisted for unknown reasons. Craiglist listings also vanished quickly, though some sellers were clever enough to put their phone numbers in their listing titles. On Craigslist a deleted ad still shows up in the search summary for some time after the posting itself is gone.

There was a strong backlash by fans against the sellers. On both sites, ordinary users were regularly hitting the links to report inappropriate postings. In addition, a brand new phenomenon emerged on eBay — some users were deliberately placing 99 million dollar bids on any auction they found for tickets, eliminating any chance of further bidding. (See note) In that past that could earn you negative reputation, but eBay has removed negative reputation for buyers. In addition, it could earn you a mark as a non-paying buyer, but in this case, the seller is unable to file such a complaint because their auction of the non-tranferable ticket itself violates eBay’s terms.  read more »

A wireless microphone with a timer

I’ve written before about microphones and asking questions at conferences. Having watched another crazy person drone on and on with a long polemic and no question, this time on a wireless mic, I imagined a wireless microphone with a timer in it. The audio staff could start the timer, or the speaker could activate the microphone and start the timer. A few LED would show the time decreasing, and then music would rise up to end the question, like at the academy awards. (In a more extreme version, those who did not turn the mic back off would get a small electric shock which increased in voltage, making it harder and harder to hold the mic.)

However, you do want a way, if the question is really interesting, to let the person speak if the moderator wants them to. This would suggest the music should come from the sound board and be optional. The electroshocks, too.

Scatter bluetooth keyboards everywhere

I want to expand on my proposal to standardize connectivity for devices in hotels. Let’s add to that and develop a regimen of having bluetooth keyboards everywhere. Every hotel room should have one (or the hotel should at least have one to loan you at the desk.) They should be in every cafe, on the train and every company meeting room and lobby.

They should be on the street, in kiosks. They should be at the train station. Everybody should have one at their house, for guests. And many other places.

We’re moving to smaller and smaller portable devices. Not just keyboard-less iPhones and PDAs — the new rage is ultra-mobile laptops with reduced size keyboards. We want our devices to be smaller, but there’s one thing you can’t shrink and keep fully usable, and that’s the keyboard. Yes, people get fast on their tiny blackberry keyboards, and yes there have been clever inventions like laser projected keyboards, inflatable keyboards and the much-missed butterfly keyboard, but the small ones just can’t cut it.

The small screen we seem to deal with. And via goggles or projection, there are ways to make a large screen on a tiny device if we try hard enough. But solving the typing problem requires some grander change, like perfect speech recognition, or alternate ways of typing.  read more »

Have a projector at the back of big conference presentations

Fancier conferences put up two projectors to let the audience see the slides. But the presenters still look at their slides on a notebook on the podium, or in some cases on a monitor on the floor below their stage.

How about adding a projector that projects on the back wall, just above the heads of the audience, for the speaker to see their own slides? Then they can roam the stage and see the slides without losing eye contact with the audience. They may not be able to see clear detail on the slides but they shouldn't need it.

It's true this does not work as well for "Presenter mode" which shows the speaker a different display on the notebook from what is seen on the projector, both because most notebooks don't have two video outputs, and also because you don't want to give the audience access to your notes and the title of the next slide as is often shown in presenter mode. However, not too many use this and it's not usually the end of the world if somebody can look back and see the notes.

You also want to show the speaker a clock. If that can be overlaid on the rear screen, great, but this can also be done as a different screen with a big clock. Projectors and screens are small enough to make this workable at fancy conferences.

Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn’t alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don’t cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can’t be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that’s needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need — boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don’t need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it’s much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline’s support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren’t good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It’s so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I’m talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.  read more »

Glue on preprinted vinyl sheets for conference bags

I wrote before about how the fancy bags they give away at conferences very rarely get used. I have a stack in the closet, and I’m not going to use them as my bag with sponsor logos plastered all over them. The people who attend such conferences aren’t the sort who want to carry your advertising everywhere, or scream out “I’m so cheap I’m using a sponsored bag.” And you can’t give them to friends as gifts, even if they are nice bags. So I suggested that they put logos on the inside but of course that doesn’t yet happen.

So here’s a business: Decent quality sheets that one can use to cover up the logos with something else. Either a sheet with the same common “ballistic” nylon texture, or even better, a sheet that I can print out on my inkjet printer (like a iron-on T-shirt transfer) which is thick enough to cover the other logo and let me have my own image or name.

Yes, this is sort of unfair to the sponsors of the bags. But the truth is, their sponsorship really doesn’t work after the conference is over. How often do you really see bags with logos plastered all over them out in the real world beyond the flight home from a conference? So this is more a reaction to waste than a desire to cheat the sponsors.

Can I take a photo of your business card?

I’m not sure why, but beaming business cards between PDAs never caught on as much as I would have liked. Of course Palm and Wince PDAs don’t speak the same beaming language (of course) and I never saw it much in Windows anyway.

With my new fancy scanner, I can scan a stack of 60 business cards in a minute, so it’s not going to take me long to do the physical scanning. Business card scanning has been around for a while, but it still presents challenges.

People like to do funny things on their cards. They put stuff on the back (not just for foreign language contacts, where it makes sense.) They put in coloured backgrounds and pictures to make the OCR process as hard as possible. They like to do embossing, or even strange shapes. (Some people used to put rolodex tabs on their cards to make them stand out in a rolodex.) They will put lines or other OCR killers in the background too. People should start expecting their card will be scanned and OCRd, and design accordingly. That means if you put in your stylized logo, but the company name in in plain text too. (Though the need for a URL on a card helps this nowadays.)

Of course, even better to solve the OCR problem would be to put just one string in a clear, easy-to OCR format, which is the URL of a vcard. Then it doesn’t matter if I can’t OCR anything else, I can get reliable (and up to date) information from there. (One could also imagine a hosting service with a standard URL prefix to put in front of a vcard ID so you don’t have to take up that much room on your card. Another idea would be to standardize the VCARD URL so that it says something like “VCARD: S/xxxxx” where xxxxx is a semi-private string, and “S” means use the web URL found elsewhere on the card, with “std-vcard/xxxxx” appended to it. This way you don’t have to duplicate the domain name, but nor can vcards be harvested. Otherwise we could just use the E-mail to extract the vcard.)

Anyway, I came up with another idea I will try instead of beaming. “Can I take a picture of your card?” Since I plan to scan people’s cards anyway, why not save the trouble and use a small pocket camera I am carrying, and take a photo right there. You don’t even have to give me the card. Will I be rude if I don’t take the physical card?

Now admittedly, camera phone pictures may suck, and for this you really need a camera with a macro mode. On camera flash may present a giant glare spot unless you learn how to do it right, or are shooting in bright light without flash. The photo won’t be nearly as good as a scan, of course. (I suppose one could imagine putting a 2” long hand-scanner line on the side of your PDA to hand scan cards, bar codes and many other things.)

The bad news is that cell phone cameras probably can’t make the cut. They don’t have macro mode, and if they have a flash, it’s going to be very hard to get a good exposure on the card. You have to tweak what you can tweak and even then it may not be possible. (I found I had to use my cell camera’s exposure compensation to drop it by 2 stops to avoid having the LED that counts for a flash not wash out the card, and even then it wasn’t very good.)

eBay should support the ReBay

Best

There’s a lot of equipment you don’t need to have for long. And in some cases, the answer is to rent that equipment, but only a small subset of stuff is available for rental, especially at a good price.

So one alternative is what I would call a “ReBay” — buy something used, typically via eBay, and then after done with it, sell it there again. In an efficient market, this costs only the depreciation on the unit, along with shipping and transaction fees. Unlike a rental, there is little time cost other than depreciation.

For some items, like DVDs and Books and the like we see companies that cater specially to this sort of activity, like Peerflix and Bookmooch and the like. But it seems that eBay could profit well from encouraging these sorts of markets (while vendors of new equipment might fear it eats into their sales.)

Here are some things eBay could do to encourage the ReBay.

  • By default, arrange so that all listings include a licence to re-use the text and original photographs used in a listing for resale on eBay. While sellers could turn this off, most listings could now be reusable from a copyright basis.
  • Allow the option to easily re-list an item you’ve won on eBay, including starting from the original text and photos as above. If you add new text and photos, you must allow your buyer to use them as well.
  • ReBays would be marked however, and generally text would be added to the listing to indicate any special wear and tear since the prior listing. In general an anonymised history of the rebaying should be available to the buyer, as well as the feedback history of the seller’s purchase.
  • ReBayers would keep the packaging in which they got products. As such, unless they declare a problem with the packaging, they would be expected to charge true shipping (as eBay calculates) plus a very modest handling fee. No crazy inflated shipping or flat rate shipping.
  • Since some of these things go against the seller’s interests (but are in the buyer’s) it may be wise for eBay to offer reduced auction fees and paypal fees on a reBay. After all, they’re making the fees many times on such items, and the paypal money will often be paypal balance funded.
  • Generally you want people who are close, but for ReBaying you may also prefer to pass on to those outside your state to avoid having to collect sales tax.
  • Because ReBayers will be actually using their items, they will have a good idea of their condition. They should be required to rate it. No need for “as-is” or disclaimers of not knowing what if it works.

This could also be done inside something like Craigslist. Craigslist is more popular for local items (which is good because shipping cost is now very low or “free”) though it does not have auctions or other such functionality. Nor is it as efficient a market.

Photograph your shelves to catalog your library

A lot of people want to catalog their extensive libraries, to be able to know what they have, to find books and even to join social sites which match you with people with similar book tastes, or even trade books with folks.

There are sites and programs to help you catalog your library, such as LibraryThing. You can do fast searches by typing in subsets of book titles. The most reliable quick way is to get a bar code scanner, like the free CueCats we were all given a decade ago, and scan the ISBN or UPC code. Several of these sites also support you taking a digital photograph of the UPC or ISBN barcode, which they will decode for you, but it's not as quick or reliable as an actual barcode scanner.

So I propose something far faster -- take a picture with a modern hi-res digital camera of your whole shelf. Light it well first, to avoid flash glare, perhaps by carrying a lamp in your hand. Colour is not that important. Take the shelves in a predictable order so picture number is a shelf number.

What you need next is some OCR of above average sophistication, since it has to deal with text in all sorts of changing fonts and sizes, some fine print and switching orientations. But it also has a simpler problem than most OCR packages because it has a database of known book titles, authors, publisher names and other tag phrases. And it even would have, after some time, a database of actual images of fully identified book spines taken by other users. There may be millions of books to consider but that's actually a much smaller space than most OCR has to deal with when it must consider arbitrary human sentences.

Even so, it won't do the OCR perfectly on many books. But that doesn't matter so much for some applications such as search for a book. Because if you want to know "Where's my copy of *The Internet Jokebook*" it only has to find the book whose text looks the most like that from a small set. It doesn't have to get all the letters right by any stretch. If it finds more than one match it can quickly show you them as images and you can figure it out right away.

If you want a detailed catalog, you can also just get the system to list only the books it could not figure out, and you can use the other techniques to reliably identify it. The easiest being looking at the image on screen and typing the name, but it could also print out those images per shelf, and send you over to get the barcode. The right software could catalog your whole library in minutes.

This would also have useful commercial application in bookstores, especially used ones, in all sorts of libraries and on corporate bookshelves.

Of course, the photograph technique is actually worthwhile without the OCR. You can still peruse such photographs pretty easily, much more easily than going down to look at books in storage boxes. And, should your library be destroyed in a fire, it's a great thing to have for insurance and replacement purposes. And it's also easy to update. If you don't always re-shelve books in the same place (who does) it is quick to re-photograph every so often, and software to figure out that one book moved from A to B is a much simpler challenge since it already has an image of the spine from before.

RC Blimp for mine exploration

As workers search for trapped miners in Utah, having drilled a 9” hole down to what is hoped to be their area, they plan to use things like sound and detecting CO2 and O2 in the atmosphere to find the miners.

It occurs to me that it should be possible to fit one of those inflatable radio controlled blimps down such a small tube, inflating it after it gets to the bottom. There are models that support small video cameras (and LED lights would not be too hard) especially in the denser air at the bottom of a mine. You would send down a radio relay station as well, and if things were really fancy, a way for the blimp to be told to dock for recharge or exchange of battery packs. (Small butane motors might also provide better power for weight.)

It’s also possible that power could be provided by paying out a wire, if it could generate enough thrust to drag that wire. There is a high risk the wire could get caught except on smooth floors, though. One might imagine paying out wire as far as one can go, and then disconnecting, fully charged, for a modest time on internal power. These blimps are cheap, you could send down several. They could easily sail over debris a ground based robot could not handle, though they could not crawl through small holes without deflating.

Another option would be an enclosed fan hovering robot. Such a robot would be able to go through smaller holes, though it’s hard to imagine remote pilots good enough to send them through such channels with only a video camera to see by. In the future, we may well have hovering robots able to use sonar to keep themselves stable and away from obstacles. They would go on ground when they could, then use bursts of hover to get over obstacles. But the blimp is something that could certainly work in ordinary mine channels today, though only for a limited battery life.

The price was right

The radio had a tribute to Bob Barker, who retires today after 35 years hosting The Price is Right. I always admired the genius of that show in making product placement an essential part of the show -- the show was about the advertisers and made the audience think about how much the product was worth and remember it. I'm surprised we didn't see more copycat game shows. There's plenty of product placement today, but it's largely gratuitous, not integral as this was. The fans on the radio said that while the show was gone, they could always watch reruns.

At first I laughed at this -- clearly you could not watch them too soon. But then I thought it might be amusing to see reruns from decades ago just because it would shock us as to how the prices of the items had changed. And then I thought you could recreate the show today, with modern people, and their puzzle would be figuring out the prices of items from the past. And this could be not simply the recent past -- there is no reason the game could not go back centuries, and puzzle the audience about history as well as commerce.

One could even invert the question. "I have here one gallon of gas. What year did it first hit 25 cents?" instead of "Here's a gallon of Gas. What did it cost in 1950?" Of course, the product placement opportunities are perhaps not nearly as good. Companies would not love to remind consumers how much more they charge for things today.

When will the google street view easter eggs and spam appear?

Everybody’s been discovering things in Google Street View. While Microsoft and Amazon did this sort of thing much earlier, there’s been a lot more publicity about Google doing it because it’s Google, and it’s much more high resolution among other things.

But now that it’s out, I expect we’ll see web sites pop up where people spot the Google camera-car and report on its location in real time. Allowing people to prepare for its passage.

I expect we’ll see:

  • People flashing various parts of their bodies
  • Dances, pyramids, etc.
  • Spam, and signs with sayings and ads and even anti-google slogans
  • Signs designed to look like a large Google ad box
  • People holding Google Maps flags like this crowd from Bay to Breakers

And more clever things I haven’t thought of. Soon they may have to stealth the vehicle!

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