Best Of Blog

DNA/Medical testing services that promise what they won't tell you.

Today many services offer MRI scans for a fee. DNA testing services are getting better and better — soon they will be able to predict how likely it is you will get all sorts of diseases. Many worry that this will alter the landscape of insurance, either because insurance companies will demand testing, or demand you tell them what you learn from testing.

Many criticise the MRI scan services because they quite often show up something that’s harmless but which inspires a medical demand to check it out just to make sure. That check-out may be expensive or even be invasive surgery.

So people are suggesting, “don’t get tested because you don’t want to know.” However there is stuff you do want to know, and stuff that may be useful in the future.

I propose escrowed testing services that promise not to tell you, or anybody, certain things that they find. For example, they would classify genetic tendencies for diseases for which there is no preventative course, like Parkinsons or Alzheimer’s. Many would say they have no desire to know they might get Parkinson’s as they get older, since there is nothing they can do but worry.

The service might escrow the data themselves with the big added plus that they would regularly re-evalutate the decision about whether you might want to know something. Thus, if a preventative treatment comes along that is recommended for people with your genes, then they would recognize this and tell you the thing you formerly didn’t want to know. They would also track what new things can be tested, and tell you when a re-test might make sense as technology improves.

The information could also be escrowed with a trusted friend or relative. You might have a buddy or spouse who could get the full story, and then decide what you need to know. A tough role of course, perhaps too tough for a spouse, who would worry about your pending Parkinson’s almost as much as you. You can’t easily use relatives, because they share lots of your DNA, at least for DNA scans.

Of course, your doctor is an obvious person for this, but this goes against their current principles and training.

Of course there is a legal minefield here. One would need a means to provide pretty good immunities for the escrowers, while at the same time not allowing them to be totally careless. The honest belief that information was in the don’t-tell profile should be enough to provide immunity.

There is another risk here, of course, which is that strangers, even doctors, can’t be fully trusted with the final decisions on your health. You will be taking a risk that the 3rd parties won’t work quite as hard at solving problems or even paying attention to them as you would. In fact, you’re doing this because you would worry too much.

There’s another benefit to this. Many people, if told to expect something, will invent it. This is very common with things like drug side-effects. In order to avoid this, when I take a new drug, I don’t read the long PDR list of side-effects. Instead, I have Kathryn read them. Then I can wait until I truly sense something and ask if it’s a side effect, rather than expecting it. The same principle applies here, though that suggests you need somebody very close as your health escrow. Of course again your doctor would be the right choice here, so that when you went there to say “I’m feeling numbness in my fingers” she could say, “Ah, well now it’s time to tell you about this thing we found in your gene scan.” Possibly a system that lets the doctor search, but not read, the gene scan, could help.

The true invention of the internet, redux, and Goodmail/Network Neutrality

I wrote an essay here a year ago on the internet cost contract and how it was the real invention (not packet switching) that made the internet. The internet cost contract is “I pay for my end, you pay for yours, and we don’t sweat the packets.” It is this approach, not any particular technology, that fostered the great things that came from the internet. (Though always-on also played a big role.)

It’s time to re-read that essay because two recent big issues uncover attacks on the contract, and thus no less than the foundation of the internet.

The first is the Goodmail program announced by AOL. The EFF has been a leading member of a coalition pushing AOL to reconsider this program. People have asked us, “how bad can it really be?” Why is putting a price on E-mail so bad?

One particular disturbing thing about the goodmail program is that it reminds me a bit of a protection racket. Goodmail hopes its customers will pay it hundreds of millions of dollars because they are afraid of spam filters. They are selling those customers (who are required to be legitimate mailers sending solicited mail) protection from the spam filters of AOL. Problem is, those spam filters shouldn’t be blocking the legitimate mail at all — it is a flaw in the filters that makes people want to buy protection from them. They’re buying protection from something that shouldn’t be harming them in the first place. An ISP, like AOL, would normally be expected to have the duty to deliver legitimate mail to its customers. To serve those customers, they also block spam. Now, unlike the mobster selling protection, AOL’s spam-blockers are not blocking the legitimate mail maliciously, but that’s about the only difference, and part of why this smells bad.

This has been my direct criticism of the program on its own. Goodmail says it’s really a certification program. There have been IETF standards to sign E-mail and get certificates for signers for a long time, and many “Certificate Authority” companies of all stripes who sell such a process. They don’t charge per message, though.

The charging per message sets a nasty precedent which is an attack on the internet cost contract. It violates the rule about not sweating the individual traffic. I pay for my end, you pay for yours. As soon as we start deciding some traffic is good and bad, and some traffic has to pay to transit the pipes or get through the filters, we’ve taken a step backwards to the settlement based networks that the internet defeated decades ago.

In the 70s and 80s the world had many online services you paid for by the hour. It had MCI mail, which you paid to send. It had packet switched X.25 networks you paid for by the kilopacket. They were all crushed by the internet, not just in cost, buy in innovation. AOL, the last of the online services, had to adopt the internet model in almost all respects to avoid a slope to doom.

The idea of a two-tier internet, which many have been writing about recently, has generated the debate on a subject called network neutrality. Sometimes the problem is attempts to block services entirely based on what they are (such as blocking VoIP that competes with the phone service of the company that owns the wires.) Other times it’s a threat that companies providing high-bandwidth services, like video and voice, should “pay their share” and not get a “free ride” on the pipes that “belong” to the telco or cable ISPs.

Once again, the goal is to violate the contract. The pipes start off belonging to the ISPs but they sell them to their customers. The customers are buying their line to the middle, where they meet the line from the other user or site they want to talk to. The problem is generated because the carriers all price the lines at lower than they might have to charge if they were all fully saturated, since most users only make limited, partial use of the lines. When new apps increase the amount a typical user needs, it alters the economics of the ISP. They could deal with that by raising prices and really delivering the service they only pretend to sell, or by charging the other end, and breaking the cost contract. They’ve rattled sabres about doing the latter.

The contract is worth defending not just because it gives us cheap internet or flat rates. It is worth defending because it fosters innovation. It lets people experiment with services that would get shut down quickly if people got billed per packet. Without the cost contract, great new ideas will never get off the ground. And that would be the real shame.

Give us TVoIP, not IPTV

A buzzword in the cable/ilec world is IPTV, a plan to deliver TV over IP. Microsoft and several other companies have built IPTV offerings, to give phone and cable companies what they like to call a “triple play” (voice, video and data) and be the one-stop communications company.

IPTV offerings have you remotely control an engine at the central office of your broadband provider which generates a TV stream which is fed to your TV set. Like having the super set-top box back at the cable office instead of in your house. Of course it requires enough dedicated bandwidth to deliver good quality TV video. That’s 1.5 to 2 megabits for regular TV, 5 to 10 for HDTV with MP4.

Many of the offerings look slick. Some are a basic “network PVR” (try to look like a Tivo that’s outsourced) and Microsoft’s includes the ability to do things you can’t do at your own house, like tune 20 channels at once and have them all be live in small boxes.

I’m at the pulver.com Von conference where people are pushing this, notably the BellSouth exec who just spoke.

But they’ve got it wrong. We don’t need IPTV. We want TVoIP or perhaps more accurately Vid-o-IP. That’s a box at your house that plays video, and uses the internet to suck it down. It may also tune and record regular TV signals (like MythTV or Windows Media Center.)

Now it turns out that’s more expensive. You have to have a box, and a hard drive and a powerful processor. The IPTV approach puts all that equipment at the central office where it’s shared, and gets economies of scale. How can that not be the winner?

Well for one, TVoIP doesn’t require quality bandwidth. You can even use it with less bandwidth than a live stream takes. That’s because after people get TVoIP/PVR, they don’t feel inclined to surf. IPTV is still too much in the “watch live TV” world with surfing. TVoIP is in the poor-man’s video on demand world (like NetFlix and Tivo) where you pick what you might want to see in advance, and later go to the TV to pick something from the list of what’s shown up. Tuns out that’s 95% as good as Video on Demand, but much cheaper.

But more importantly, it’s under your control. Time and time again, the public has picked a clunkier, more expensive, harder to maintain box that’s under their own control over a slick, cheap service that is under the control of some bureaucracy. PCs over mainframes. PCs over Network Computers and Timesharing and SunRays. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why they did this for economic reasons, or even for quality reasons.

They did it because of choice. The box in your own house is, ideally, a platform you own. One that you can add new things to because you want them, and 3rd party vendors can add things to because you demand them. Central control means central choice of what innovations are important. And that never works. Even when it’s cheaper.

If the set top box were to remain a set top box, a box you can’t control, then IPTV would make good sense. But we don’t want it to be that. It’s now time to make it more, and companies are starting to offer products to make it more. We want a platform. Few people want to program it themselves, but we all want great small companies innovating and coming up with the next new thing. Which TVoIP can give us and IPTV won’t. Of course, there are locked TVoIP boxes, like the Akimbo and others, but they won’t win. Indeed, some efforts, like the trusted computing one, seek to make the home box locked, instead of an open platform, when it comes to playing media (and thus locking linux out of the game.) A truly open platform would see the most innovation for the user.

Disclaimer, I am involved with BitTorrent, which makes the most popular software used for downloading video over the internet.

Hybrid Personal Rapid Transit

When I was in high school, I did a project on PRT — Personal Rapid Transit. It was the “next big thing” in transit and of course, 30 years later it’s still not here, in spite of efforts by various companies like Taxi 2000 to bring it about.

With PRT, you have small, lightweight cars that run on a network of tracks or monorail, typically elevated. “Stations” are all spurs off the line, so all trips are non-stop. You go to a station, often right in your building, and a private mini-car is waiting. You give it your destination and it zooms into the computer regulated network to take you there non-stop.

The wins from this are tremendous. Because the cars are small and light, the track is vastly cheaper to build, and can often be placed with just thin poles holding it above the street. It can go through buildings, or of course go underground or at-grade. (In theory it seems to me smart at-grade (ground-level) crossings would be possible though most people don’t plan for this at present.)

The other big win is the speed. Almost no waiting for a car except at peak times, and the nonstop trips would be much faster than other transit or private cars on the congested, traffic-signal regulated roads.

Update: I have since concluded that self-driving vehicles are getting closer, and because they require no new track infrastructure and instead use regular roads, they will happen instead of PRT.

Yet there’s no serious push for such systems…

Read on.  read more »

4th Amendment Shipping Tape

Looking at printed wedding gift ribbon some time ago, Kathryn thought it would be amusing to put the 4th amendment on the ribbon, and tie it around our suitcases.

That turned out to be hard to make, but I did make a design for shipping tape which you can see below. The printed shipping tape has the text slant so that as the pattern repeats, the 4th amendment appears as a long continuous string, as well as a block.

You can put this shipping tape on your packages and your airplane luggage. Every time I fly, my luggage gets a card in it telling me how “for my protection” they have searched it.

Now, when they open my luggage, they will have to literally slice the 4th amendment in half in order to do this.

Too bad we can’t wrap it around our phone wires, but at least the EFF is suing AT&T to stop the NSA wiretaps.

We ordered several cases of this tape for the EFF. You can get it as a gift if you join the EFF or buy it directly from the EFF Store. There is a fat markup of course, which goes to protecting your civil rights. Buy some for your own shipping tape gun, or give the gift of privacy rights to a friend.

And yeah, I know it probably won’t stop them from searching. But if, like John Perry Barlow on his way back from Burning Man, I have to go to court over it, it will be nice to tell the judge that they cut the 4th amendment up to search my bags.

(Minor note: The printer could not always get the repetitions to line up perfectly, so sometimes there’s a vertical gap.)

Why Google took the wrong course over China

Google’s decision to operate a search service in China, implementing Chinese censorship rules into the service, has been a controversial issue. Inside Google itself, it is reported there was much debate, with many staff supporting and many staff opposing the final decision, as as been the case in the public. So it’s not a simple issue.

Nonetheless, in spite of being friends with many in the company, I have to say they made the wrong decision, for the wrong reason.

Google, and many others including other search engines, argue that their presence there, even censored, will be good for the ordinary Chinese people. The old uncensored google.com is just as available today as it was before, which is to say it works much of the time but is often blocked by the so-called great firewall of China, and blocked in frustrating ways. So, Google can claim it hasn’t taken any information access away from the Chinese, only added more reliable access to the information not banned by the Chinese regime.

To some credit, Google could have moved into China much earlier. Competitors, like Yahoo, got more involved sooner, with poor results for press freedom.

Furthermore, most people agree that search engines, including Google, have been a great and powerful force for increasing access to information of all sorts, and that it will help the Chinese people to get more access to them. We can even take heart that the Chinese regime’s censorship efforts will be futile in the face of the internet’s remarkable ability to route around such barriers.

The point that is missed is that all these claims of benefit can be true, and it can still be the wrong decision.

15 years ago, when I was publishing an online newspaper, I got a customer at a university in apartheid-ruled South Africa. I did not want to do business with South Africa, but I hadn’t investigated things much. My feed was not to be censored, so it would only be a positive influence. They convinced me to do it.

However, later, I asked South Africans about the boycotts. Most agreed that the boycotts were hurting the ordinary South African, the poor black South African, more than they were hurting the ruling Broderbund. That “engagement” (non-boycott) resulted in more good than harm at the individual level. But, in spite of this, many of them said, “Please boycott!”

Why? Because it was doing something. Selling to South Africa was the ordinary path, acting like nothing was going on there. It sent no message, made no statement, was even a light endorsement. Boycotting was the active course, an act of defiance, an act of protest.

Google’s course, however, turns out to be clearer. There are many levels of engagement. We all do business with China; it seems half our clothes and manufactured goods come from there. Only a few call for a boycott of China entirely. Even though we’ve seen, painfully, that just by doing business in China, Yahoo has felt itself compelled to turn over the identity of a reporter to the police so that he could be jailed for a decade.

But Google decided to go beyond doing business in China. They are not just doing business in a repressive country. They have agreed to become the actual implementer of the repression. Their code, their servers, do the censorship.

They are not just selling goods to a repressive country, they are selling arms, to put it in extreme terms.

And that’s too far. That is collaboration, not merely engagement. And that’s where the line must be drawn to “not be evil.”

Serving queries may help the individual Chinese in the short run. Not serving them, however, makes a bold statement, a message to China and to Google’s competitors that can’t be missed, and helps the Chinese people even more in the long run.

Addendum: There’s another reason this is a problem — it makes the people using google.com easier to spot.

Addrescrow -- privacy for physical address and much more

This is an idea from several years go I’ve never written up fully, but it’s one of my favourites.

We’ve seen lots of pushes for online identity management — Microsoft Passport, Liberty Alliance and more. But what I want is for the online world to help me manage my physical identity. That’s much more valuable.

I propose a service I call “addrescrow” which holds and protects your physical address. It will give that address to any delivery company you specify when they have something to deliver, but has limits on how else it will give away info from you. It can also play a role in billing and online identity.

You would get one or more special ID names you could use in place of your address (and perhaps your name and everything else) when ordering stuff or otherwise giving an address. If my ID was “Brad Ideas” then somebody would be able to send a letter, fedex or UPS to me addressed simply to “Brad Ideas” and it would get to me, wherever I was.

(Read on…)  read more »

AAAS issues warning to Pat Robertson -- You have turned away from science

Washington, DC: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a stern warning today to Televangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson had recently condemned the citizens of Dover, PA to the wrath of God for not voting in a school board that would teach Intelligent Design in classes.

“We’d like to say to the good Reverend Robertson: if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to Science, you just rejected it from your life,” AAAS said on its daily television show broadcast from Washington, the 3.14159 Club.

“And don’t wonder why it hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. We’re not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just pushed science out of your life. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for its help because it might not be there,” they said. “In particular, you won’t have a phone to call the ambulance, and it won’t exist even if you could call it. And even if the doctor lived next door and you could call her, she would only bleed you and put smelly poultices on your forehead to balance your humours. And she would be a guy.”

“Actually, we’re just kidding,” the AAAS later corrected. “Science works whether you believe in it or not. That’s what’s really cool about it,” they said.

“What they said,” indicated Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in an independent statement.  read more »

Is strong crypto worse than weaker crypto? Lessons from Skype

A mantra in the security community, at least among some, has been that crypto that isn’t really strong is worse than having no crypto at all. The feeling is that a false sense of security can be worse than having no security as long as you know you have none. The bad examples include of course truly weak systems (like 40 bit SSL and even DES), systems that appear strong but have not been independently verified, and perhaps the greatest villian, “security through obscurity” where the details of the security are kept secret — and thus unverified by 3rd parties — in a hope that might make them safer from attack.

On the surface, all of these arguments are valid. From a cryptographer’s standpoint, since we know how to design good cryptography, why would we use anything less?

However, the problem is more complex than that, for it is not simply a problem of cryptography, but of business models, user interface and deployment. I fear that the attitude of “do it perfectly or not at all” has left the public with “not at all” far more than it should have.

An interesting illustration of the conflict is Skype. Skype encrypts all its calls as a matter of course. The user is unaware it’s even happening, and does nothing to turn it on. It just works. However, Skype is proprietary. They have not allowed independent parties to study the quality of their encryption. They advertise they use AES-256, which is a well trusted cypher, but they haven’t let people see if they’ve made mistakes in how they set it up.

This has caused criticism from the security community. And again, there is nothing wrong with the criticism in an academic sense. It certainly would be better if Skype laid bare their protocol and let people verify it. You could trust it more. Read on…  read more »

Voices to the Playa -- Voice mails left for Burning Man folks

Last year at Burning Man, I built a free phone booth out on the desert. Using VoIP, 802.11, batteries and a satellite uplink, it sat there on the playa floor and let you make free calls anywhere in the world. I blogged about that story, but there was an untold part of the story.

The phone had a number that outsiders could call, and they did, and sometimes people there answered. If not they left voice mail. The voice mail told them to describe the target of their message and offer a bribe to the listener to deliver it. Alas, due to technical problems, we never really got an active system in place to deliver the voice mails, but people still left some. Recently I pulled them out and listend, and they are great fun, especially if you know Burning Man.

Within the mails are calls of love from moms, little kids, dads, lovers and friends. There’s a joke (I hope) firing from a boss and a proposal of marriage. There’s a hurricane warning and many descriptions that could never have found their target in our giant city (“She’s a blonde camped along 4:30 I think.”) Also fun are the offered bribes to deliver the messages.

Since everybody knew they were leaving a message for any random stranger to hear, I think it’s fine to have them on the web.

I don’t think you have to be an ember to enjoy these. Just imagine the context of an entire city of 40,000 people with one phone, one voice mail, and people trying to get messages in.

They can be heard at this page of Burning man voice mails. You can either read the short summaries to pick the best voicemails, or like me, just listen to them raw from the combined file or ZIP archive.

On the invention of the internet

Update: A more active thread on how this relates to Goodmail and other attempts at sender-pays traffic

There is much talk these days of “who invented the internet?” Most of the talk is done wearing a network engineer’s hat, defining the internet in terms of routing IP datatgrams, and TCP. Some relates to the end to end principle with a stupid network in the middle and smart endpoints. These two are valid and vital contributions, and recognition for those who built them is important.

But that’s not what the public thinks of when it hears “the internet.” They think of the collection of cool applications they use to interact with other people and distant computers. Web sites and mailing lists and newsgroups and filesharing and VoIP and downloading and chat and much more. Why did these spring into being in this way rather than on other networks?

I believe a large and necessary ingredient for “the internet” wasn’t a technological invention at all, but a billing system. The internet is based on what I call the “internet cost contract.” That contract says that each person pays for their own pipe to the center, and we don’t account for the individual traffic.

“I pay for my half, you pay for yours.”

While the end-to-end design allowed innovation and experimentation, the billing design really made it possible. In the early days of the internet, people dreamed up all sorts of bizarre applications, some serious, some entirely frivolous. They put them out there and people played with them and the most interesting thrived.

Many other networks had users paying not by the pipe, but based on traffic. In that world, had you decided to host a mailing list, or famously put a webcam up in front of your company fishtank, the next day the company beancounter would have called you into the office to ask why the company got a big bandwidth bill in order to show off the fishtank. The webcam — or FTP site or mailing list — would have been shut down immediately, and for perfectly valid reasons.

Pay-based-on-usage demands that applications be financially justifiable to live. Pay-per-pipe allowed mailing lists, ftp sites, usenet, archie, gopher and the web to explode.  read more »

802.11 broadcast of local info

On a recent roadtrip, I did some “wardriving” where you scan for 802.11 (wifi) access points. Today they are everywhere. The scanning program lists the network name (SSID) as well as other information like the model of access point and whether it has encryption on. Often the SSIDs are informative, with the names of families and companies. Mine is an web address that would let a neighbour contact me.

All this happens because most access points transmit a regular “beacon” packet which lists their SSID and other information needed to connect to them. Seeing that the SSIDs were sometimes interesting, I wondered if we might do much more with a special beacon.

This beacon would deliberately tell you a bit about the access or location. It would contain a mixed XML/HTML packet with a variety of useful fields and general text. These could range from simple descriptions (“This access point belongs to Joe Smith, I’m a programmer”) to information (“On this site, Paul Revere stopped on his ride to consult with local minutemen”) to street directions (“Turn right to get to highway 101, left for downtown”) to, of course, advertising (“We sell fresh fruit and have a special on plums today.”)

In other words, a replacement for signs and billboards and markers. And perhaps much more. Access points would also talk about themselves, declaring, for example, if the owner is offering open internet access for free or for fee, or has a local database of information, and what classes of information are in the main text. The local lattitude and longitude for those without a GPS could be useful, along with local map data in a compact form.

Users could quickly get a program for their laptop (such as Netstumbler) to read and display such virtual annotations to the world as they drive. Primarily for passengers to use, of course. Eventually dedicated boxes would become available, and onboard car computers and GPS units could understand the protocol. Mass market access points would include a set-up screen in their web interface to let the owner enter the information beacon text and enable it. (Today some APs have open source firmware and an energetic programmer could do this right away.)

All of this might be both useful and entertaining. Children might enjoy reading all the random bits of information that flow by and stop asking “are we there yet?” The journey can become the reward. (Of course remember to look out the window sometimes.)

I can imagine vendors making a cheap solar powered access point that, during the day at least, sends out information beacons as soon as enough power is stored in the capacitors to send one. These could operate on a small, cheap solar cell (the more power, the more frequent the beacon) and be placed anywhere. “I’m an oak tree!”

Below, I will get into some technical issues and discuss the unanswered question, which is how to avoid abuse by excessive advertisement, spam and falsehoods.  read more »

Tales of the HDTV Superbowl Commercials Party

For the third year in a row, I held a "superbowl commercials" party. In this case, we used MythTV to record the game in HDTV for a while, then sat down to fast forward through the football and slow down to watch the commercials.

I've written a page about the Superbowl Commercials Party here, including fun stories from the party and a bit about the MythTV software that did the recording and playback on two different floors in HDTV.

Also included is a discussion of how the equipment I used will become illegal in just a few months, and what we're doing to try and stop that. It's an interesting lesson in how regulation can stop innovation and what's really happening in the future of TV.

Database Dangers: The easy evidence is what they follow

You may have run into the story of a fireman charged with burning down his own home. They charged him because his Safeway Club card records showed he had purchased the type of firestarter that was used in the arson on his house.

Sounds like a good case? Problem is somebody else confessed to the arson. He's now a free man.

People often wonder why privacy advocates get up in arms about things like the Safeway database. I mean, how can it harm you, especially if you're not doing anything suspicious?

The problem is that police are attracted to the evidence that is easy to find. But when databases become more and more comprehensive, the chance that they will contain something interesting grows.

In an old-time investigation, finding receipts for the firestarters would be a major clue, and mind convict somebody. That's because searches of what you bought weren't so easy. If you bought the very tool used in the crime, and it was prominent enough that they found it, it looked bad for you.

But the cops aren't aware they are falling into one of the traps of bad science. When you have a lot of data, you can always find something that matches what you are looking for. When you find it, your intuition tells you "this is too strange to be coincidence." But in fact math tells us that it is. That's why you must never start with the conclusion and dig around in a big pool of data looking for evidence of your conclusion. Good scientists have known not to do this for years. Cops haven't.

NA Wireless providers -- allow incoming VoIP for free!

We've seen the explosion in Voice over IP phone companies, using lower IP costs (and regulatory bypass) to offer very cheap long distance. Today, in the wholesale market, you can place VoIP calls to regular phone numbers in the major cities of the world for between 0.5 cents and 1 cent per minute. So cheap that companies are routinely offering people "unlimited" long distance plans for a flat monthly fee.

The rates are cheap, but they aren't yet free, so calls don't happen without contracts and plans and arrangements.

Here's something begging to be done: The cellular carriers in the USA and Canada should allow people calling in from the internet to call any cell phone for free.

This would cost them the tiny amount they get for terminating long distance calls to cell phones, but the end result would be their own customers billing more minutes. That's what they want (sort of.) They could release a free program for use on common PCs to call any cell phone. They could have a java applet or ActiveX control to make a web page to let you call any cell phone for free, just as they let you send an SMS from a web page for free. (If you have a headset with a mic, at least.)

But allowing free and open calling would encourage lots of innovating applications from the marketplaces. Smart PBXs would coordinate and connect with company cell phones over the internet. More advanced apps would link cell phones closer to PBX functions. People who use their cell as their home phone would have another reason to do it -- now all their friends can call free from VoIP phones or any PC. Companies like Vonage would offer free calls to cell phones even for people not on the unlimited plan.  read more »

Give us appointments at airport security

I've written about a few plans to get rid of the headache (and travel killer) that airport security has become. One of the great curses is that because you can't predict how long security might take, most people end up arriving way, way ahead of their flight in case the line is long, but often they clear it in just a few minutes. (Ditto the immigration/customs line at Canadian airports going to the USA.)

So here's another idea -- appointments for going through airport security. When you use web check-in (which many airlines now support) or even at the gate, you would be allocated an appointment in the latest available slot some period (say 20 minutes) before boarding ends for your flight. Appointments would be spaced at slightly more than the average time to clear a passenger through security.

This would work because there would be two lines at the security gate. One for people with appointments, one for those without (or who missed their appointment.) You could only enter the appointment waiting zone in the 10 minutes prior to your appointment, and presuming 30 seconds per party, that would mean it would hold about 20 people. An agent would check your bar-coded appointment slot in letting you in.

When your time comes (or at any free time) you would be taken through at the head of the security line. If somebody needs extra security (random search, suspect item) that of course delays the station they are going through, but the other stations are free to take the person with the next appointment. Only if all stations got bogged down with problem cases would people in the appointment line not go through at close to their exact appointment time.  read more »

Digital photo lenses that distort

I like fine camera lenses, but the best quality are very expensive. There are many things that are hard to do in a good lens -- you want a sharp image, of course, over the full flat plane. Over the whole image plane you want low flare, high contrast and low chromatic abberation (ie. red and blue focus in the same spot.) And you want low distortions.

Most camera lenses try to be "rectilinear." That means they try to make a straight line straight in the image. This isn't actually natural, due to perspective straight lines are not straight.

So I wonder if we might soon see a new lens where no effort is made to fix distortions or make the image rectilinear, and all effort goes into the other factors. You are thus expected, with every image, to do digital post-processing to get a non-distorted rectilinear image. That will mean some small loss of image quality at the edges of the image, but probably a less distorted image than ordinary lens physics can deliver -- and a lot less cost -- in exchange.

Of course, this would primarily be for digital cameras, but a film user could also use the lens if they planned to scan their film for digital processing, as most do these days.

Down the road, each lens might contain within it the specifics of its own particular distortions, and the camera might be able to fetch this and either process directly or store it with the image for post-processing. Indeed, the lens might be a cheaply made lens with distortions due to the poor quality elements, or it might be a fine lens with deliberate distortions. (I have wondered if some P&S digicams might be doing this already.)  read more »

Inflatable RV

RVs come in all sizes, from 40’ bus to towable pop-up. But what about inflatable in a trunk in the back of a minivan?

Setting up and tearing down tented campsites is a pain, and there are instant-setup tents and even some inflatable tents. But what about a super-duper inflatable tent, designed for car-camping.

In the cabin-tent structure with high-pressure frame would also be (at lower pressure) one or more built in airbeds (that you leave the bedding on), an inflatable couch or chairs, wiring for LED or fluorescent lights in the roof with switches, 12v power jacks etc. On the outside might be an inflatable sink with 12v pump and drain hose and outside inflatable chairs. There would be an “air pressure bus” with quick-connects and turnable valves for each component. Inflation would be pushbutton, deflation might require turning values as you deflate components but still simple. Once deflated, the whole thing — components, bedding and all — would roll up and fit into a trunk or large suitcase that would fit in the back of a minivan or SUV. It would not be designed to be small or light like most tents.

It could also be designed to sit in a hitch holder, along with a bike rack. Add a portable toilet, camp stove, ice chest and folding tables (inflatables are not solid enough.) Ideally wire a special jack into the van battery, and replace the van battery with a marine battery (deep cycle and starting).

The goal: open the crate, open the valves and start the compressor. In a few minutes, a living space is erect. If needed, put in weights or stake it down. In the morning, start the vacuum on the internal components, then turn the valves to drain the support members, roll it up, bedding and all, and go.

I believe this could easily sell for $1,000 or more. It would be almost as easy as a pop-up camper, but best of all you would not be towing something. It would pay for itself for families on a cross country road trip pretty quickly. The key is to not think of it as a tent but as an RV.

802.11/SIP/Satellite free phone booth at Burning Man

One core reason I haven't blogged much in the last while is the flurry of activity regarding my annual trip to Burning Man. I've prepared a page about one of my too-many projects this year, which was to build an incongruous phone kiosk in the middle of the desert which worked and let you call anybody in the world for free. It was battery powered, and used 802.11 and Voice over IP combined with a satellite internet connection.

The reaction was remarkable and I have made a set of pages about phone booth and reaction to it. including pages on the building of it, galleries of photos of people using it (including, of course, naked people) and maps of all the places people called.

(I will probably submit this to slashdot next week to test my server!)

Now my goal was to take some highly familiar technology and put it in a place where it seemed impossible. And indeed, most people refused to believe it was "real" since there are other joke phone booths at Burning Man. Their disbelief and shock were what made it fun, as well as the emotional experiences and gratitude that came when people heard distant voices. It was a taste, in a small way, of what the phone meant when it was new.

I have much more stuff about Burning Man to blog in the days to come.

Serial vs. Browsed, Reader-Friendly vs. Writer-Friendly

Online discussion and collaboration tools are old now, dating back almost 40 years to PLATO, 30 years for mailing lists, 25 years for BBSs and USENET. Yet somehow I don’t feel we’ve got it right yet, and in fact may be going in some wrong directions.

I beleive there are two central dichotomies that make the problem hard to solve.

The first is the distinction between “serial” material which is meant to be read as a stream (though perhaps referenced later) and “browsable” information meant to be read in a somewhat more random order.

E-mail, USENET, RSS feeds and message boards are largely serial. Blogs and web boards are attempts to be serial in a browsed medium, which the web largely is. Wikis are on the browseable side of the spectrum, though of course they contain serial aspects, like the ability to e-mail lists of recently changed pages. (Twitter is a somewhat interesting medium as it is serial but contains so much you simply sample the stream rather than read all of it.)

The second dichotomy is between reader-friendly and writer-friendly. Writer-friendly systems put as few burdens on the writer as possible in order to encourage participation. Reader friendly systems try to make it as easy as possible for a reader to get what she’s looking for out of the system. One of the central quests has been for automated software tools that let the writer not do much work but still let the reader get what they want. A search engine is an example of such a technology.

A professional publication will be highly reader-friendly. If you have a million readers, it’s worth every possible effort on the writer or publisher’s part to make it better for them, especially if they are your source of income. Writers will take the time to write well, organize, categorize and put in links to releated resources. They will create sidebars to deal with other topics or provide introductions to readers not as familiar with the subject matter.

Wikis are writer friendly. Anybody can just go in and edit any page any way they want. No other bounds (at least in the software) exist to encourage people to put material in the Wiki.

While I know the value of browsing, I think serial presentations are more reader-friendly, or at least can be. I don’t have to go looking for what’s new for me if the serial stream is decently managed. But this is not a universal rule.

What is missing, however, is the right marriage of the serial and the browsable. For discussions, and for breaking news, we want a serial presentation. We don’t want to go to a newspaper web site and figure out for ourselves what stories we already saw, or what parts of the stories we already know. We would like the system to know what’s new for us. At the same time, serial streams (including blogs) leave behind worthwhile trails that are meant to be browsed or searched later. But we don’t tend to fill our serial streams with things to help in that department, like links. Nor do we even have mechanisms in mailing lists or USENET to easily update items from the past that will be read by newcomers (either serially or through browsing.)

The marriage, when we find it, will allow people to have productive discussions online, like in a mailing list, but leave behind a useful information resource, with the tangents removed to tagged to be easily avoided, the useful and popular information highlighted, the past cleaned up and edited (though with the truth available.) Perhaps a marriage of Wiki techniques and newsgroups.

It should be able to balance reader and writer friendliness depending on how many there are of each. For example, a system with 10,000 readers and one writer should push the writer to do more, since if 2 minutes work by the writer can save a second for 10,000 people it’s a good trade-off. However, in small systems with few readers you want to encourage participation and not put demands on writers. Ideally you have a quest for fancy tools to get the most of both where you can have it.

I know people want this marriage. People are excited about products like GMail which let them get a better grasp of all the E-mail conversations they participate in. But there is so much more that has to be done. I don’t have the answer right now, but I want to encourage debate and innovation on the topic.

Update: I have added thoughts about how some media are “sampled” (you only dip into them from time to time and see what’s current) and some are subscribed (you read it all, or at least scan it all most of the time) in thinking about Twitter.

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