Random Ideas

Wireless choreography

At our new favourite Indian buffet (Cafe Bombay) they run Bollywood videos on big screens all the time. In Bollywood, as you probably know, everybody is dancing all the time, in wonderful synchronization, like Broadway but far more. I’ve never been to an Indian dance club to see if people try to do that in real life, but I suspect they want to.

I started musing about a future where brain implants let you give a computer control of your limbs so you could participate in such types of dance, but I realized we might be able to do something much sooner.

Envision either a special suit or a set of cuffs placed around various parts of the arms and legs. The cuffs would be able to send stimuli to the skin, possibly by vibrating or a mild electric current, or even the poke of a small actuator.

With these cuffs, we would develop a language of dance that people could learn. Dancers have long used Dance notation to record dances and communicate them, and more sophisticated sytems are used to have computerized figures dance. (Motion capture is also used to record dances, and often to try to distill them to some form of encoding.) In this case, an association would be made between stimuli and moves. If you feel the poke on one part of your left wrist, move you left arm in a certain way, a different set of pokes commands a different move. There would no doubt have to be chords (multiple stimulators on the same cuff) to signal more complex moves.

Next, people would have to train so that they develop an intuitive response, so that as soon as they feel a stimulus, they make the move. People with even modest dance skill of course learn to make moves as they are told them or as they see them, without having to consciously think about it a great deal. The finest dancers, as we have seen, can watch a choreographer dance and duplicate the moves with great grace due to their refined skill.

I imagine people might learn this language with something like a video game. We’ve already seen the popularity of Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) where people learn to make simple foot moves by seeing arrows on the screen. A more advanced game would send you a stimulus and test how quickly you make the move.

The result would be to become a sort of automaton. As the system fed you a dance, you would dance it. And more to the point, if it fed a room full of people a dance, they would all dance the same dance, in superb synchronization (at least for those of lower skill.) Even without the music though normally this would all be coordinated with that. Dance partners could even be fed complimentary moves. Indeed, very complex choreographies could be devised combined with interesting music to be done at dance clubs in moves that would go way beyond techno. I can see even simple moves, getting people to raise and move hands in patterns and syncs being very interesting, and more to the point, fun to participate in.

In addition, this could be a method to train people in new and interesting dances. Once one danced a dance under remote control several times one would presumably then be able to do it without the cuffs, and perhaps more naturally. Just like learning a piece of music with the sheet music and eventually being able to take the music away.

I suspect the younger people were when they started this, the better they would be at it.

It could also have application in the professional arena, to bring a new member of a troupe up to speed, or for a dance to be communicated quickly. Even modest dancers might be able to perform a complex dance immediately. It could also possibly become a companion to Karaoke.

There are other means besides cuffs to communicate moves to people of course, including spoken commands into earphones (probably cheapest and easiest to put on) and visual commands (like DDR) into an eyeglass heads-up-display once they become cheap. The earphone approach might be good for initial experiments. One advantage of cuffs is the cuffs could contain accelerometers which track how the limb moved, and thus can confirm that the move was done correctly. This would be good in video game training mode. In fact, the cuffs could even provide feedback for the correct move, offering a stimulus if the move is off in time or position.

There have been some “use people as robots” experiments before, but let’s face it, dance is more fun. And an actual Bollywood movie could come to life.

Miles for charity

Many people accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles they will never use. Some of the airlines allow you to donate miles to a very limited set of charities. I can see why they limit it — they would much rather have you not use the miles than have the charity use them. Though it’s possible that while the donor does not get any tax credit for donated miles, the airline does.

However, it should be possible for a clever web philanthropist to set up a system to allow people to donate miles to any charity they wish. This is not a violation of the terms of service on flyer miles, which only forbid trading them for some valuable consideration, in particular money.

The site would allow charities to register and donors to promise miles to the charities. A charity could then look at its balance, and go to the airline’s web site before they book travel to see if the flight they want can be purchased with miles. If so, they would enter the exact itinerary into the web site, and a suitable donor would be mailed the itinerary and passenger’s name. They would make the booking, and send the details back to the charity. (Several donors could be mailed, the first to claim would do the booking.) In a few situations, the available seats would vanish before the donor could do the booking, in which case the charity would need to try another airline or paid seat.

Donors could specify what they would donate, whether they are willing to buy upgrades or business class tickets (probably not) and so on.

Now it turns out that while the donor can’t accept money for the miles, the charity might be able to. Oftentimes non-profit representatives travel for things like speaking engagements where the host has a travel budget. Some hosts would probably be happy to cover something other than airfare, such as other travel expenses, or a speaking honorarium with the money. In this case, the charity would actually gain real money for the donation, a win for all — except the airline. But in the case of the airline, we are talking about revenue it would have lost if the donor had used the miles for a flight for themselves or an associate. So the real question is whether the airline can be indignant about having miles that would have gone unused suddenly find a useful home.

Now it’s true the booking interfaces on the airline sites are not great, but they are improving. And some employee of the non-profit would need to have an account, possibly even one with enough miles, just to test what flights are available. But this will be true in many cases.

Would the airlines try to stop it? I doubt it, because this would never be that big, and they would be seen as pretty nasty going after something that benefits charities.

Miles could also be used for hotel stays and other travel items.

What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?

My father was famously a preacher turned agnostic. We used to argue all the time about the difference between an agnostic and an athiest. I felt the difference was inconsequential, he felt it was important. And I’ve had the same argument with other proclaimed agnostics. I found an amusing way to sum up my view of it in one answer.

What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

The difference is the atheist says she’s an atheist, while the agnostic says she’s an agnostic.  read more »

Elliptical Racer for toddlers and VR for children

When I watch the boundless energy of young children, and their parents’ frustration over it, I wonder how high-tech will alter how children are raised in the next few decades. Of course already TV, and now computers play a large role, and it seems very few toys don’t talk or move on their own.

But I’ve also realized that children, both from a sense of play and due to youthful simplicity, will tolerate some technologies far before adults will. For example, making an AI to pass the Turing Test for children may be much, much simpler than making one that can fool an adult. As such, we may start to see simple AIs meant for interacting with, occupying the minds of and educating children long before we find them usable as adults.

Another technology that young children might well tolerate sooner is virtual reality. We might hate the cartoonish graphics and un-natural interfaces of today’s VRs but children don’t know the interfaces aren’t natural — they will learn any interface — and they love cartoon worlds.  read more »

Model airplane dogfights with LEDs

Lots of people love model airplanes, and I bet they would love to simulate dogfights. They can't fire actual projectiles, as that would be dangerous, expensive, unworkable due to the weight and actually damage planes.

It should be possible to set up a system for dogfights using light, however. One way would be to have planes mount lasers that send out a coded pulse with a bit of dispersion, and have the other planes mount receivers with diffusers to pick up light from a lot of directions. It might be better to go in reverse, the way many shooting games do -- the planes broadcast a coded pulse from some bright LED in a specific colour and the "gun" is just a narrow sight that tries to pick up these pulses. When the gun gets one, it sends it down to the coordinator on the ground, and that tells the target plane it's been hit (possibly forcing it to leave the airspace after some number of hits, or impair the flying controls, etc.)

Of course you need authenticated equipment. If people provide their own it's too easy to cheat, and one could also just make a gun that has no barrel instead of a wide one, or have one on the ground. So some honour might be required here.

It would of course be hard to do, with no cockpit view. Some larger model planes can carry small video cameras for a more realistic dogfight of that sort, but I suspect people could figure something out. The gun could have sensors for the pulses that are wider than the actual "direct hit" sensor, allowing them to tell you when you're getting close, and even showing a screen on a laptop that is not a camera view from the plane but at least a view of how close you are to the target.

The wireless watch as a PDA/phone extension

I wrote earlier about the bluetooth vibrator watch. I pushed this in part to promote the idea that phones should (almost) never ring. That ringing is rude to others and violates your own privacy, too.

Sony, Citizen and some others are now releasing bluetooth watches that go beyond this. Your watch should become a very small control station for your larger PDA/phone. Of course digital watches have a small screen, and there are also some nice analog watches where the background of the watch is secretly a screen. This should become cheaper with time.

As before, when a call comes in, your watch should gently vibrate or even just tingle your skin with a small charge. On the screen should be the caller-ID, and the buttons should be marked with choices, such as rejecting the call or accepting it. (These features will be in some of the upcoming bluetooth watches) If you accept it, the caller would hear you saying that you are getting out your real headset/handset and will talk to them in a few seconds. If you were in a meeting, they might be told it will be more than a few seconds, as you must excuse yourself from the room.

Your watch of course knows if it is on your wrist in many ways, including temperature, so the phone can know to actually ring if you’ve taken the watch off — for example when going to bed, if you want it to ring when you’re in bed, that is.

As the screens increase in resolution, they could also show things like the subject of emails and pages. No more pulling out the blackberry or cell phone — just a subtle glance at your watch when it tingles. Be nice if you can set your presence on your watch so that all calls go to voice mail, too.

Most flip phones have a 2nd small screen on them so you can see the time and caller-id when the phone is closed. This would not be needed if you use a watch like this, so the cost of the phone can be reduced to make up for the more expensive watch.

Your watch could also bind to your desk phone at the office. And the phone would also know if you are in the office or not.

Imagine a world of peace where you’re never hearing phones going off, and you aren’t seeing people constantly pulling out phones and blackberries to check calls and messages. Imagine a world where people no longer wear cell phones on their belts, either.

The watch could have a small headset in it too, but that would add bulk, and I think it’s better to pull out a dedicated one.

The only real downside to this — you would probably have to charge your watch once a week. This might not easily fit in with the smaller ladies’ watch designs. It should be possible in any larger design. E-ink technology, which takes no power to run a display, could also make a great material for the background of your watch dial, or even display a tolerable virtual watch dial for the many who prefer an analog set of hands. It might be necessary to design a protocol even lower power than bluetooth to give the watches even better battery life, and of course a standard charging interface found in hotels and offices would be great.

I think once this happens it will be hard to imagine how we tolerated it any other way. Yes, people get fun and status from their ringtones, but I think we can handle sacrificing that.

The watch could also be a mini-screen for a few other PDA and phone functions. For example, if you use a bluetooth earpiece, you can keep your phone in your pocket or purse, which is really nice, but sometimes you want a bit of display, for example to assist with voice command mode.

(Of course if you know about Voxable, you know I believe phone calls should simply not happen at all at the wrong times, but that’s a different leap.)

Calendar software, notice when I fly

Most of us, when we travel, put appointments we will have while on the road into our calendars. And we usually enter them in local time. ie. if I have a 1pm appointment in New York, I set it for 1pm not 10am in my Pacific home time zone. While some calendar programs let you specify the time zone for an event, most people don't, and many people also don't change the time zone when they cross a border, at least not right away. (I presume that some cell phone PDAs pick up the new time from the cell network and import it into the PDA, if the network provides that.) Many PDAs don't really even let you set the time zone, just the time.

Here's an idea that's simple for the user. Most people put their flights into their calendars. In fact, most of the airline web sites now let you download your flight details right into your calendar. Those flight details include flight times and the airport codes.

So the calendar software should notice the flight, look up the destination airport code, and trigger a time zone change during the flight. This would also let the flight duration look correct in the calendar view window, though it would mean some "days" would be longer than others, and hours would repeat or be missing in the display.

You could also manually enter magic entries like "TZ to PST" or similar which the calendar could understand as a command to change the zone at that time.

Of course, I could go on many long rants about the things lacking from current calendar software, and perhaps at some point I will, but this one struck me as interesting because, in the downloaded case, the UI for the user is close to invisible, and I always like that.

It becomes important when we start importing our "presence" from our calendar, or get alerts from our devices about events, we don't want these things to trigger in the wrong time zone.

Internet oriented supper club

At various times I have been part of dinner groups that meet once a month or once a week at either the same restaurant or a different restaurant every time. There’s usually no special arrangement, but it’s usually good for the restaurant since they get a big crowd on a slow night.

I think there could be ways to make it better for the restaurant as well as the diners — and the rest of the web to boot. I’m imagining an application that coordinates these dinners with diners and the restaurants. The restaurants (especially newer ones) would offer some incentives to the diners, plus some kick back to the web site for organizing it. As part of the deal, the diners would agree to fairly review the restaurant — at first on public restaurant review sites and/or their own blogs, but with time at a special site just for this purpose. Diners would need to review at least 80% of the time to stay in.

Here’s what could be offered the diners:

  • Private rooms or private waiter, with special attention
  • Special menus with special items at reduced prices
  • Special billing, either separate bills or even pay online — no worrying about settling.
  • Advanced online ordering and planning for shared meals, possibly just before heading out.

For the restaurant there’s a lot:

  • A bunch of predictable diners on a slow night
  • If they order from a special menu, it can be easier and cheaper to prepare multiple orders of the same dish.
  • Billing assistance from the web site with online payment
  • A way to get trustable online reviews to bring in business — if the reviews are good.

Now normally a serious restaurant critic would not feel it appropriate to have the restaurant know they are being reviewed. In such cases they will not get typical service and be able to properly review it. However, this can be mitigated a lot if all the restaurants are aware of what’s going on, and if the reviews are comparative. In this case the restaurants are being compared by how they do at their best, rather than for a random diner. The latter is better, but the former is also meaningful. And of course it would be clear to readers that this is what went on.

In particular, I believe the reviewers should not simply give stars or numerical ratings to restaurants. They can do that, but mainly they should just place the restaurants in a ranking with the other restaurants they have scored, once they have done a certain minimal number. This fixes “star inflation.” With most online review sites, you don’t know if a 5-star rating is from somebody who gives everything 4 or 5 stars, or if it’s the only 5-star rating the reviewer ever gave. All these are averaged together.

In addition, the existing online review sites have self-selected reviewers, which is to say people who rate a restaurant only because they feel motivated to do so. Such results can be wildly inaccurate.

Finally, it is widely suspected that some fraction of the reviews on online sites are biased, placed there by the restaurant or friends of the restaurant. There are certainly few mechanisms to stop this at the sites I have seen. Certainly if you see a restaurant with just a few high ratings you don’t know what to think.

This dining system, with the requirement that everybody review, eliminates a good chunk of the self-selection. Members would need to review whether they felt the mood or not. (You could not stop them from not going to a restaurant that does not appeal to them, of course, so there is still some self-selection.) It is possible a restaurant might send its friends to dine at “enemy” restaurants via the club to rate them down, but I think the risk of this is much less than the holes in the other systems.

Restaurants with any confidence in their quality should be motivated to invite such an online dining club, especially new restaurants. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for new restaurants to offer the general public things like 2nd entree free or other discounts to get the public in, with no review bonus. If the site becomes popular, in fact, it might become the case that a new restaurant that doesn’t invite the amateur critics could be suspect, unwilling to risk a bad place in their rankings.

More on finding the lost

Last week, I wrote about new ideas for finding the lost. One I’ve done some follow-up on is the cell phone approach. While it’s not hard to design a good emergency rescue radio if you are going to explicitly carry a rescue device when you get lost, the key to cell phones is that people are already carrying them without thinking about it — even when going places with no cell reception since they want the phone with them when they return to reception.

Earlier I proposed a picocell to be mounted in a light plane (or even drone) that would fly over the search area and try to ping the phone and determine where it is. That would work with today’s phones. It might have found the 3 climbers, now presumed dead, on Mt. Hood because one of them definitely had a cell phone. It would also have found James Kim because they had a car battery, on which a cell phone can run for a long time.

My expanded proposal is for a deliberate emergency rescue mode on cell phones. It’s mostly software (and thus not expensive to add) but people would even pay for it. You could explicitly put your phone into emergency rescue mode, or have it automatically enter it if it’s out of range for a long time. (For privacy reasons you would want to be able to disable any automatic entry into such a mode, or at least be warned about it.)

What you do in this mode depends on how accurate a clock you have. Many modern phones have a very accurate clock, either from the last time they saw the cell network, or from GPS receivers inside the phone. If you have an accurate clock, then you can arrange to wake up and listen for signals from rescue planes at very precise times, and the planes will know those times exactly as well. So you can be off most of the time and thus do this with very low power consumption. It need not be a plane — it’s not out of the question to have a system with a highly directional antenna in some point that can scan the area.

If you don’t know the exact time, you can still listen at intervals while you have power. As your battery dies, the intervals between wakeups have to get longer. Once they get down to long periods like hours, the rescue crews can’t tell exactly when you will transmit and just have to run all the time.

If you know the exact time a phone will be on, you can even pull tricks like have other transmitters cut out briefly at that time (most protocols can tolerate sub-second outages) to make the radio spectrum quieter.

At first, you can actually listen quite often. The owner of the phone, if conscious might even make the grim evaluation of how long they can hold out and tell the phone to budget power for that many days.

When the phone hears the emergency ping (which quite possibly will be at above-normal power) it can also respond at above normal power, if it feels it has the power budget for it. It can also beep to the owner to get input on that question. (Making the searcher’s ping more powerful can actually be counterproductive as it could make the phone respond when it can’t possibly be received. The ping could indicate what its transmit power was, allowing the phone to judge whether its signal could possibly make it back to a good receiver.)

Of course if the phone has a GPS, once it does sync up with the picocell, it could provide its exact location. Otherewise it could do a series of blips to allow direction finding or fly-over signal strength location of the phone.

In most cases, if we know who the missing person is we’ll know their cell phone number, and thus their phone carrier and in most cases the model of phone they have. So searchers would know exactly what to look for, and whether the phone supports any emergency protocol or just has to be searched for with standard tech.

I’ve brought some of these ideas up with friends at Qualcomm. We’ll see if something can come of it.

Update: Lucent does have a picocell that was deployed in some rescue operations in New Orleans. Here’s a message discussing it

Let the world search for the lost

There is a story that Ikonos is going to redirect a satellite to do a high-res shot of the area where CNet editor James Kim is missing in Oregon. That’s good, though sadly, too late, but they also report not knowing what to do with the data.

I frankly think that while satellite is good, for something like this, traditional aerial photography is far better, because it’s higher resolution, higher contrast, can be done under clouds, can be done at other than a directly overhead angle, is generally cheaper and on top of all this can possibly be done from existing searchplanes.

But what to do with such hi-res data? Load it into a geo-browsing system like Google Earth or Google Maps or Microsoft Live. Let volunteers anywhere in the world comb through the images and look for clues about the missing person or people. Ideally, allow the map to be annotated so that people don’t keep reporting the same clues or get tricked by the same mistakes. (In addition to annotation, you would want to track which areas had been searched the most, and offer people suggested search patterns that cover unsearched territory or special territory of interest.)

These techniques are too late for Kim, but the tools could be ready for the next missing person, so that a plane could be overflying an area on short notice, and the data processed and up within just minutes of upload and stitching.

Right now Google’s tools don’t have any facility for looking at shots from an angle, while Microsoft’s do but without the lovely interface of Keyhole/Google Earth. Angle shots can do things like see under some trees, which could be important. This would be a great public service for some company to do, and might actually make searches far faster and cheaper. Indeed, in time, people who are lost might learn that, if they can’t flash a mirror at a searchplane, they should find a spot with a view of the sky and build some sort of artificial glyph on the ground. If there were a standard glyph, algorithms could even be written to search for it in pictures. With high-res aerial photography the glyph need not be super large.

Update: It’s also noted the Kims had a cell phone, and were found because their phone briefly synced with a remote tower. They could have been found immediately if rescue crews had a small mini-cell base station (for all cell technologies) that could be mounted in a regular airplane and flown over the area. People might even know to turn on their cell phone if they are conserving power if they heard a plane. (In a car with a car charger, you can leave the phone on.) As soon as the plane gets within a few miles (range is very good for sky-based antenna) you could just call and ask “where are you?” or, in the sad case where they can’t answer, find it with signal strength or direction finding. There are plans to build cell stations to be flown over disaster areas, but this would be just a simple unit able to handle just one call. It could be a good application for software radio, which is able to receive on all bands at once with simple equipment, at a high cost in power. No problem on a plane.

Speaking of rescue, I should describe one of my father’s inventions from the 70s. He designed a very simple “sight” to be placed on a mirror. First you got a mirror (or piece of foil) and punched a hole in it you could look through. In his fancy version, he had a tube connected to the mirror with wires, but it could be handheld. The tube itself had a smaller exit hole (like a washer glued to the end of a toilet paper cardboard tube.)

Anyway, you could look through the hole in your mirror, sight the searchplane through the washer in the cardboard tube and adust the mirror so the back of the washer is illumnated by the sunlight from the mirror. Thus you could be sure you were flashing sunlight at the plane on a regular basis. He tried to sell military on putting a folded mirror and sighting tube in soldier’s rescue kits. You could probably do something with your finger in a pinch though, just put your finger next to the plane and move the mirror so your finger lights up. Kim didn’t think of it, but taking one of the mirrors off his car would have been a good idea as he left on his trek.

Cute pun idea -- real crib sheets

Ok, this is a silly idea, but it would make a great baby shower gift. Crib sheets — which is to say sheets to go on a baby’s bed — printed with small notes on your favourite subjects of choice — math, physics, history, as you would need for taking an exam. And who knows, maybe you can pretend if the baby sleeps surrounded by Maxwell’s equations she’ll become a genius.

Sponsored conference bags with logos on the inside

I go to many conferences, and most of them seem to want to give me a nice canvas bag, and often a shirt as well. Truth is though, I now have a stack of about 20 bags in my closet. I’ve used some of the bags, typically the backpacks, but when I have so many other bags I don’t feel a strong motivation to walk around with a briefcase or laptop bag with a giant sponsor’s logo on it, or worse, a collection of 10 logos. No matter how nice the bag is. In addition, even if I got logo-free bags I have no need for 20 of them, but I can’t really give away logo covered bags as gifts.

Which means the sponsor wasted their money. And I think this is common, for while I sometimes see people carrying a sponsor bag outside the confines of a conference, it’s pretty rare compared to the number given out. You want me to be your billboard, I want more than a bag for it.

Might some sponsors take the plunge and make a bag with the sponsor’s logo inside the bag? Or perhaps if on the outside, in a more subtle way. This seems stupid at first, but a bag I actually use, which at least reminds me of the company when I use it, is better than a bag that stays stacked in a closet. (Of course, logo-inside bags would be given away more, which may not accomplish much.) Perhaps the sponsors should go in for designer bags, and turn their logos into desirable designer logos?

If your name is Versace, you can get people to pay to carry your advertising, but sorry, not if your name is AT&T. I hope you can get over it. And while a bag is useful for carrying stuff home from the conferences and even storing literature, truth is you can use a $1 bag for that, not a $15 one. We really have to hunt to find better conference giveaways than bags, at least at conferences whose attendees all attend other fancy conferences.

Smarter power when the supply changes

In furtherance of my prior ideas on smart power, I wanted to add another one — the concept of backup power.

As I wrote before, I want power plugs and jacks to be smart, so they can negotiate how much power the device needs and how much the supply can provide, and then deliver it.

However, sometimes, what the supply can provide changes. The most obvious example is a grid power failure. It would not be hard, in the event of a grid power failure, to have a smaller, low capacity backup system in place, possibly just from batteries. In the event of failure of the main power, the backup system would send messages to indicate just how much power it can deliver. Heavy power devices would just shut off, but might ask for a few milliwatts to maintain internal state. (Ie. your microwave oven clock would not need an internal battery to retain the time of day and its memory.) Lower power devices might be given their full power, or they might even offer a set of power modes they could switch to, and the main supply could decide how much power to give to each device.

Of course, devices not speaking this protocol, would just shut off. But things like emergency lights need not be their own system — though there are reasons from still having that in a number of cases, since one emergency might involve the power system being destroyed. However, battery backup units could easily be distributed around a building.

In effect, one could have a master UPS, for example, that keeps your clocks, small DC devices and even computers running in a power failure, but shuts down ovens and incandescent bulbs and the like, or puts devices into power-saving modes.

We could go much further than this, and consider a real-time power availability negotiation, when we have a power supply or a wire with a current limit. For example, a device might normally draw 100mw, but want to burst to 5w on occasion. If it has absolutely zero control over the bursts, we may have to give it a full 5w power supply at all times. However, it might be able to control the burst, and ask the power source if it can please have 5w. The source could then accept that and provide the power, or perhaps indicate the power may be available later. The source might even ask other devices if they could briefly reduce their own power usage to provide capacity to the bursting device.

For example, a computer that only uses a lot of power when it’s in heavy CPU utilization might well be convinced to briefly pause a high-intensity non-interactive task to free up power for something else. In return, it could ask for more power when it needs it. A clothes-dryer or oven our furnace or other such items could readily take short pauses in their high power drain activities — anything that uses a cycle rather than 100% on can do this.

This is also useful for items with motors. A classic problem in electrical design is that things like motors and incandescent lightbulbs draw a real spike of high current when they first turn on. This requires fuses and circuit breakers to be “slow blow” because the current is often briefly more than the circuit should sustain. Smart devices could arrange to “load balance” their peaks. You would know that the air conditioner compressor would simply never start at the same time as the fridge or a light bulb, resulting in safer circuits even though they have lower ratings. Not that overprovisioning for safety is necessarily a bad thing.

This also would be useful in alternative energy, where the amount of power available changes during the day.

Of course, this also applies to when the price of power changes during the day, which is one application we already see in the world. Many power buyers have time-based pricing of their power, and have timers to move when they use the power. In many cases whole companies agree their power can be cut off during brown-outs in order to get a cheaper price when it’s on. With smart power and real-time management, this could happen on a device by device basis.

These ideas also make sense in power over ethernet (which is rapidly dropping in price) which is one of the 1st generation smart power technologies. There the amount of power you can draw over the thin wires is very low, and management like this can make sense.

Trade show giveaway: Toothpaste

Trade show booths are always searching for branded items to hand out to prospects. Until they fix the airport bans, how about putting your brand on a tube of toothpaste and/or other travel liquids now banned from carry-on bags?

(Yeah, most hotels will now give you these, but it’s the thought that counts and this one would be remembered longer than most T-shirts.)

Infrared patterns and paint to screw with tourist video/photos

Last week at ZeroOne in San Jose, one of the art pieces reminded me of a sneaky idea I had a while ago. As you may know, many camcorders, camera phones and cheaper digital cameras respond to infrared light. You can check this out pretty easily by holding down a button on your remote control while using the preview screen on your camera. If you see a bright light, you’re camera shoots in infrared.

Anyway, the idea is to find techniques, be they arrays of bright infrared LEDs, or paints that shine well in infrared but are not obvious in visible light, and create invisible graffiti that only shows up in tourist photos and videos. Imagine the tourists get home from their trip to fisherman’s wharf, and the side of the building says something funny or rude that they are sure wasn’t there when they filmed it.

The art piece at ZeroOne used this concept to put up a black monolith to the naked eye. If you pulled out your camera phone or digital camera, you could see words scrolling down the front. Amusing to watch people watch it. Another piece by our friends at .etoy also had people pulling out cameraphones to watch it. They displayed graphics made of giant pixels on a wall just a few feet from you. Up close, it looked like random noise. If you found a way to widen your field of view (which the screen on a camera can do) allowed you to see the big picture, and you could see the images of talking faces. (My SLR camera’s 10mm lens through the optical viewfinder worked even better.)

That piece only really worked at night, though with superbright LEDs I think it could be done in the day. I don’t know if there are any paints to coatings to make this work well. It would be amusing to tag the world with tags that can only be seen when you pull out your camera.

For virtual servers, virtualize mySQL too

Right now this blog is hosted by powerVPS, which provides virtual private servers. This is to say they have a large powerful box, and they run virutalization softare (Virtuozo) which allows several users to have the illusion of a private machine, on which they are the root user. In theory users get an equal share of the machine, but since most of the users do not run at full capacity, any user can "burst" to temporarily use more resources.

Unfortunately I have found that this approach does fine with CPU, but not with RAM. The virtual server I first used had 256MB of ram (burst to 1gb) available to it. But it was not able to perform at the level of a dedicated server with 256mb of ram -- swapping the rest to disk -- would do. It also doesn't perform anywhere near the level of a non-virtualized shared server, which is what you will commonly see in very cheap web hosting. An ordinary shared server looks like normal multi-user timesharing, though they tend to virtualize the apache so it looks like everybody gets their own apache.

I eventually had to double my virtual machine's capacity -- and double the monthly fee. You probably saw an increase in the speed of this blog a couple of weeks ago.

Now the virtual machines out there are pretty good, and do cost only a modest performance hit when you run one. But when you run many, you lose out on the OS's ability to run many copies of the same program but keep only one copy in memory.

I propose a more efficient design that mixes shared machine and virtual machine concepts. One step to that would be to not have every user run their own mySQL database. MySQL takes about 50mb of ram, which is not much today but a lot if multiplied out 16 times. Instead have one special virtual server (or just a different dedicated machine) with a copy of MySQL. This would be a special version, which virtualizes the connection, so that as far as each IP address connecting to it is concerned, they think they have a private version of mySQL. This means that everybody can create a database called "drupal" (as far as they think) if they want to. The virtualizer would add some prefix to the names based on which customer is connecting. This would also apply to permissions, so each root user would be different, and really only have global permissions on the right databases.

You would not be able to modify mySQL's parameters or start and stop it -- unless you went back to running a private copy in your own virtual server. But if you didn't need that, you would get a more efficient database server.

The bad news -- it's up to the hosting companies to do this. MySQL AB doesn't get paid by those hosting companies, so it's not particularly motivated to put in changes for them. But it's an open source system so others could write such changes.

The other big users on web hosts are apache and php. There are many virtualized versions of apache, but this is often where people do want to virtualize, to run custom scripts, java programs and special CGIs. Providing a mixed shared/virtual environment here would be more difficult. One easy approach would be to have it be two web sites, with some pages on the shared site and links going to the virtual site. More cleverly, the virtual apache could have internal rewrite rules that are not shown to outsiders that cause it to fetch and forward from the virtualized web server.

Rental no-talking lasers at events

Ok, this isn’t entirely serious but…

Just got back from a concert by Andrea Bocelli, which was 75% italian opera and then the last 25% his pop stuff. Curiously the conductor told the audience when they switched about how he was getting to the pop stuff we had been patiently waiting for and the audience applauds and laughs. If it’s really that way, it’s interesting to wonder if they still make more money doing mostly opera because opera commands more money because of implied lesser demand. (Expensive seats ran to $275 and that was a fair bit of the floor.)

Anyway, perhaps it was the different type of audience for Bocelli, but there was some talking, and people holding up cell phone cameras to take pictures, with the odd digital camera flash. It was a bit strange, mind you to see a crowd of people in fancy dress clothes and 3” heels at the hockey arena, eating nachos from the concession stands and watching opera.

Because in my mind you should not even have to think about shushing people at a classical concert. (I don’t think you should have to at a movie either, but that battle’s long lost.)

So the non-serious suggestion for all sorts of venues. Give people (with a $5 deposit) a portable laser that projects a small no talking symbol. Perhaps the word “TALK” with a circle and line, something you can do in the small resolution of laser pointers. When somebody talks (or does the cell phone thing which is distracting now just for the super-bright backlight) you beam the laser on them somewhere they will see. Ideally lots of people do it.

Of course, if people did this it would be distracting it itself, defeating the purpose. It only works if it is temporary, and people learn the lesson, and you don’t have to do it again. A digital follow-spot that identifies bright lights and sounds would also work. Pea-shooters might be better but how will people know what the message is?

Speaking of which, why don’t more cell phones dim the backlight when they are in a dark room? It would save power. (Though I know people now use these as flashlights of a sort.)

More conference notes -- Just-in-time event registration

Last weekend, I attended a conference (Singularity Summit) at Stanford which was free. They had a large hall ready to hold 1800, but they got enough registrations to put around 700 on the wait list. However, at the actual event there were a few hundred empty seats in the balcony.

This is because when something is free, people register to go “just in case” and as many as half of them will not show up. In fact, it’s often suggested that it’s better to charge a nominal fee that nobody will be scared of, because it can actually make more people attend, because they said they would and paid to.

(The Long Now foundation, when it decides an event is going to overflow, institutes a $5 “reservation fee” to assure a seat. Normally their events are free with $10 suggested donation. Before they did this I had the disappointment of driving up all the way to the city to be turned away.)

Everybody is so connected now that it seems a just-in-time confirmation system might make sense. Done primarily on the web, those who wish to go would have to confirm via the web or via automated phone system the day before the event. Late that evening, or even the next morning, waitlisters would be mailed and given the opportunity to confirm. In addition, a phone-in number could provide the stats for those driving to the event, to know if it’s worth going.

Airlines are doing OK allowing at-home check in 24 hours before the flight, so this can work too. Even with this, some would confirm and not arrive, and that percentage could be learned to do the right overbooking.

Attendees who confirm would be given a page to print, which would tell them the confirmation procedure, and give the URLs and phone numbers for confirmation and stats. This page would in turn be their ticket. No need for fancy bar codes on it, for a free event you aren’t going to get people copying them or forging them.

In addition, for longer events, people leave and don’t return, so the online and phone status reports could indicate that while the event had been full, it’s now safe to come. Truth is, you are still going to get enough no-shows that those who didn’t confirm can probably still show up, but this way they can be sure.

Conference panelist MP3s, egg-timers and other conference enhancements

From now on, whenever I moderate a conference panel or otherwise organize a conference, I will make a rule that all speakers must make an MP3 of their talk before the conference and E-mail it. While it woudl be a good idea to then listen and see how good a speaker they are, the primary purpose is to get an idea of the length. The speaker, recording their talk at home, will notice that their 20 minute talk takes 35 minutes, and cut down the number of slides until it fits a little better. If not, and they mail in an 35 minute MP3, you can tell them what will happen at 20 minutes.

Not that I haven’t gone over time myself. Many speakers can use the discipline. And it’s a shame for both speaker and audience when you find yourself having to skip the final parts at random to stay on time, or if you don’t, eliminating time from other speakers, from questions or from hallway break conversations, which are the most important part of almost any conference.

Many conferences have a screen counting down time for a speaker, which is fine. The same idea needs to apply with questions. Along with the microphone, hand each question asker a 30 second hourglass to hold up while they’re asking. Sure, if the question is interesting, let them turn it over. But if it’s boring, say “thanks” and move on. And give a slightly longer hourglass or timer to each panelist answering the question. Again, not to be a den mother, but to have a chance to move on if things are not going anywhere. (Kathryn suggested the actual egg timers.)

Lobby art: a giant real-time globe

Some years ago, Al Gore wanted to spend a lot of money to put up a satellite which would transmit a live view of the whole Earth (well the half it could see) to make people more eco-conscious.

I figured it should be possible to generate the same view with some careful combination of weather satellite images and other satellite images. Yes, sometimes the view in one place might be an hour old while it’s near live in another, but with clever blending you would never know.

So the next thing I want somebody to do with this is build a giant globe to go in some corporate or museum lobby, and project this image of the planet onto it. That’s not so easy, since I want lots of resolution which means many overlapping projectors.

Ideally you would project from inside. Antarctica would probably lose out though if you tilted the planet 23 degrees, or even an amount corresponding to the locations lattitude you could find ways to put the bottom on boring ocean. You could also project from outside, which is a challenge since the screen is not equadistant. I don’t know if a mix would be possible. As noted, one idea would be to show the Earth at is truly is, so the lit part is looking towards the sun as people see it out the windows.

I would want to get close to the globe, but I think the best view would be from a moderate distance, far enough away that we have one pixel per minute of arc or so, the resolution of the human eye. As close as we can get to seeing it in space. (In that case we would want a darker room, not a lobby, and even put a moon on the walls. But a corporate lobby seems like a better way to fund a project like this.)

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