Topic

Burning Man 2010 Panoramas with new Flash Viewer

I have put up a page of panoramas from Burning Man 2010. This page includes my largest yet, a 1.2 billion pixel image of the whole of Black Rock City which you will find first on the page. I am particularly proud of it, I hope you find it as amazing as I do.

There are many others, including a nice one of the Man while they dance before the burn with the whole circle of people, a hi-res of the temple and the temple burn, and more.

However, what’s really new is I have put in a Flash-based panorama zoom viewer. This application lets you see my photos for the first time at their full resolution, even the gigapixel ones. You can pan around, zoom in and see everything. For many of them, I strongly recommend you click the button (or use right-click menu) to enter fullscreen mode, especially if you have a big monitor as I do. There you can pan around with the arrow keys and zoom in and out with your mouse wheel. There are other controls (and when not in fullscreen mode you can also use shift/ctrl or +/- for zooming.) A help page has full details.

Go into the gigapixel and shot and zoom around. You’ll be amazed what you find. I have also converted most of my super-size city photos of Black Rock City to the zoom viewer, they can be found at the page of Giant BRC photos as well as many of my favourites from the various years. I’m also working at converting some of my other photos, including the gallery of my largest images which I built recently. It takes time to build and upload these so it will be some while before the big ones are all converted. I may not do the smaller ones.

If you don’t have flash, it displays the older 1100 pixel high image, and you can still get to that via a link. If you have flashblock, you will need to enable flash for my photo site because it will detect you have no flash player and display the old one.

Get out the big monitor and it will feel like you’re standing on a tower in Black Rock City with a pair of binoculars. The gigapixel image is also up on gigapan.

I'm loving the Shweeb concept

There was a bit of a stir when Google last week announced that one of the winners of their 10^100 contest would be Shweeb, a pedal-powered monorail from New Zealand that has elements of PRT. Google will invest $1M in Shweeb to help them build a small system, and if it makes any money on the investment, that will go into transportation related charities.

While I had a preference that Google fund a virtual world for developing and racing robocars I have come to love a number of elements about Shweeb, though it’s not robocars and the PRT community seems to not think it’s PRT. I think it is PRT, in that it’s personal, public and, according to the company, relatively rapid through the use of offline stations and non-stop point to point trips. PRT is an idea from the sixties that makes sense but has tried for almost 50 years to get transit planners to believe in it and build it. A micro-PRT has opened as a Heathrow parking shuttle, but in general transit administrators simply aren’t early adopters. They don’t innovate.

What impresses me about Shweeb is its tremendous simplicity. While it’s unlikely to replace our cars or transit systems, it is simple enough that it can actually be built. Once built, it can serve as a testbed for many of PRT’s concepts, and go through incremental improvements.  read more »

Dustbot, a prototype deliverbot

An Italian team has built a prototype robot they call Dustbot which is aimed (in a backwards way) at the deliverbot vision.

The goal of the dustbot is to travel on demand to houses through the narrow, pedestrian streets of European cities so people can give the robot their trash, which it then takes back to the dump and drops there. It does not automate the pickup of the trash — you have to be there and put your bag into it, though it is able to drop it on it own. It is not clear if they plan to have it operate on streets with cars, or if it is truly ready to wander with civilians.

This is an evolutionary extension of the already common delivery robots used in factory floors and in hospitals. The hospital robots interact with the general public, and do it simply by being so slow that impact or injury is very unlikely, even with a programming error. But looking at the market of the very narrow, mostly or all-pedestrian ancient urban street, the challenge is more difficult than a hospital, but not as difficult as a vehicle that has to go fast enough that it could hurt somebody.

In tune with my predictions about deliverbots, the key is that the robot does not have to be in a hurry, so it can go as slow as is necessary to be safe. As the system improves, that speed gets faster and faster until it’s practical to go on urban streets at 15mph (ducking out of the way of cars) and eventually at the same speed as the cars. This robot can also be limited to a specific area in which it is well tested and armed with accurate data, because that’s much less of a restriction on delivery robots than it is on cars. (If you need to deliver elsewhere, use another service — but people will resist a taxi that will only take them certain places.)

Dustbot is probably too slow right now to be economical, particularly because you must wait for it. A robot that can pick up a standardized container is not too hard, however. One nice advantage of working on the trash problem is that there is no issue in leaving it on the street, so you don’t need to arrange home access for deliveries as a deliverbot would. There’s also little risk of piracy of the cargo, or damaging it.

There’s lots of video and photos on the site, here is a fluffy BBC video about the Dustbot. Note that this is about a year old — I just had not heard of it until recently.

Better meeting-room-to-many video conference calls

Yesterday we had a meeting using some videoconferencing. In a situation I find fairly common, the setup was a meeting room with many people, and then a small number of people calling in remotely. In spite of this being a fairly common situation, I have had trouble finding conferencing systems that do this particular task very well. I have not been looking in the high-priced end but I believe the more modestly priced tools should be able to focus on this and make it work. Yesterday we used Oovoo, one of the few multi-part conference systems to support PC and Mac, with some good but many bad results.

The common answer, namely a speakerphone on the meeting room table and a conference bridge system, is pretty unsatisfactory, though the technology is stable enough that it is easy to get going. The remote people are never really part of the meeting. It’s harder for them to engage in random banter, and the call fidelity is usually low and never better than PSTN phone quality. They usually have trouble hearing some of the people in the meeting room, though fancier systems with remote microphones help a bit with that.

The audio level

The next step up is a higher quality audio call. For this Skype is an excellent and free solution. The additional audio quality offers a closer sense of being in the room, and better hearing in both directions. It comes with a downside in that tools like Skype often pick up ambient noise in the room (mostly with remote callers) including clacking of keyboards, random background noises and bleeps and bloops of software using the speakers of the computer. While Skype has very good echo cancellation for those who wish to use it in speakerphone mode, I still strongly recommend the use of headsets by those calling in remotely, and even the judicious use of muting. There’s a lot more Skype and others could do in this department, but a headset is a real winner, and they are cheap.

Most of these notes also apply to video calling which of course includes audio.  read more »

Robot landing pad for planes without landing gear

Here’s an idea that seems a bit wild and scary at first, but it’s doable today and has broad benefits: Small aircraft that don’t have landing gear, but instead land and take off from robotic “can’t miss” platforms pulled by cables on short airfields.

For every small aircraft purchaser, a big decision is whether to get retractable landing gear. They are very expensive, and create a risk of failure, but your plane will fly a lot faster and be more fuel efficient if you get them. What if we could leave the landing gear on the ground?

Imagine a wheeled platform on the runway with robotic control and a variety of systems to perfectly track an approaching aircraft. Pulled by cables, it can accelerate at several “g”s forward and back and left and right. As the aircraft approaches it tracks it and the cockpit display indicates positive lock. If the plane veers left, it veers left. If the plane speeds up it speeds up. Pretty much no matter what the pilot or winds do (other than missing the runway entirely) the plane can’t miss landing on it. It’s spring loaded so even if the landing is a bit hard the shock is cushioned. Done right, it’s just like having fancy shock absorbing landing gear.  read more »

We already trust our robocars

This story from the Register about a test at the Stanford VAIL Lab reports an interesting result. They created a fake robocar, with a human driver hidden in the back. The test subjects then were told they could push the autopilot button and use the car. And they did, immediately picking up their newspapers to read as they would in a taxi (which is what they really were in.)

Not only that, when they were told the robot could not figure out the situation and needed human assist, they gave it, and then went right back to autopilot.

So trust of a robocar is already at a higher level than we might expect. I’ve ridden in Junior, and K. has stood in front of it, but that was with a human ready to take over the controls. Like many others pondering the future of robotic transportation, I believe we’ll only put robocars on our ordinary streets once they demonstrate a level of safety much superior to human drivers what I call the “robocar vision.” This does not mean a perfect level of safety, though, and the resulting accidents and occasional fatalities will be the cause of much debate and legal wrangling which will slow the development of the technology when it is saving lives.

Update: You might also like the Cute VW concept video where the dad explains to his son all the strange concepts like petrol, driving, traffic jams, accidents and parking.

The road trip car and the hotel luggage rack

Just back from some time on the road, which always prompts me to think of ways to improve travel.

First, and most simply: Every hotel room comes with a small foldable stand on which to put your suitcase. The problem is they all come with exactly one of these. In some rooms there is space on the tables or dresser for another bag, but often there is not. Doing solo business travel I have just one bag, but all couples, and many solo wanderers have more than one, and so you end up putting bags on the floor. It’s quite annoying, since these stands can hardly be very expensive — folding cloth and metal chairs can be had for $10 in most stores. I’ve only tried once or twice to ask housekeeping for another, and been surprised to learn they don’t keep spares. Frankly, I think it would be cheaper to just put 2 in every room than waste staff time delivering extras, but either would work. And the hotel often knows if a room is booked for 2 rather than one in advance. If you have a bellman take up your bags, not only does the bellman see how many bags you have but it’s a sure thing you have several. Every bell station should have some extra racks and throw what is needed on the luggage cart.

Next, I think it would be interesting to see car rental companies develop cars just for road trips. They are the largest buyers of cars (and often owned by car companies) so custom cars are not out of the question. SUVs and some minivans contain many of the features of a road trip car, but they are often 3 times as expensive when reserved in advance, and 1.5x to 2x more expensive in gasoline usage. What features might a road trip car have?  read more »

My people will call your people

A number of people have been hiring “virtual” assistants in lower-wage countries to do all the tasks in their life that don’t require a personal presence. Such assistants are found starting at a few bucks an hour. I have not done it myself, since for some reason most of the things I feel I could pass on to such an assistant are things that involve some personal presence. (Though I suppose I could just ship off all the papers I need scanned and filed every few weeks to get that out of my life, but I want to have a scanner here too.)

Anyway, last weekend I was talking to an acquaintance about his use of such services. He has his assistant seducing women for him. His assistant, who is female and lives in India, logs onto his account on a popular dating site, browses profiles and (pretending to be him) makes connections with women on the site. She has e-mail conversations and arranges first dates. Then her employer reads the e-mail conversation and goes to the date. (Perhaps he also does a quick vet before arranging a date to be sure the assistant has chosen well, but I did not confirm that.)  read more »

Airline baggage solutions

Everybody knows about the Jet Blue attendant who flew off the handle when he got hit in the head by a bag and had fights with passengers over stored carry-ons. And we know airlines are starting to charge higher fees for checked bags (and even carry-ons) which netted them over $700 million last year. This pushes more people to want to use carry-on bags, which we already wanted to save time, and that means more waits at security and more waits getting on and off flights.

I admit to being a heavy user of carry-on bags. For one thing I usually have lots of camera equipment with me which is too fragile to check unless I have bulky foam cases. Which they then might lose, and which means getting to the airport around 20 to 30 minutes earlier and leaving it 15 minutes later with several more bags. (And perversely, paying more on some airlines.)

The system is getting stretched. I’ve often thought about one useful solution, which would be standardized carry-on bag racks with rails. The standard sized bags would quickly slick in and click-lock in place. No doors even (except for aesthetics) and no fussing with overhead bags, or rearranging. Perhaps some small unstructured place on top or between for coats and purses and laptop bags but mostly they would go under the seat, or in the seat pocket. (Currently they are not permitted in the seat pockets but these could be strengthened and given a closure so the computer can’t fly out in a crash.)

Add to this a system of official gate-check racks. These racks would be there at the gate or in the jetway. If need be they would be mounted in a special elevator or forklift so that they can be quickly and reasonably gently inserted and removed in the cargo hold. These racks would include some rails for standardized bags (especially on puddle-jumper planes which can’t have as many overhead rails) and some amorphous sections with strong cargo netting. They would have shock absorbers to reduce shocks when they are put on the plane or taken out. You would place your items in these racks yourself — in parallel with other passengers, in a wide space where doing so is not blocking others — and the goal would be that you could put semi-fragile items, including things like cameras and laptops into the racks with full confidence. To help with this, we could have a camera on the wing which feeds the seatback screens so that passengers could watch this module as it is loaded and unloaded. This would do a lot to ensure that it is treated with care in a way that checked luggage often is not.  read more »

New 400 megapixel Moraine Lake plus gallery of Moraine & Louise

Moraine Lake, in Banff National Park, is one of the world’s most beautiful mountain scenes. I’ve returned to Banff, Moraine Lake and Lake Louise many times, and in June, I took my new robotic panorama mount to take some very high resolution photos of it and other scenes.

Rather than filling my Alberta Panorama Gallery with all those pictures, I have created a special page with panoramas of just Moraine Lake and its more famous sister Lake Louise. While I like my new 400 megapixel shot the best, an earlier shot was selected by the respected German Ravensburger puzzle company for a panoramic jigsaw puzzle along with my shot of Burney Falls, CA.

It was a bit of work carrying the motorized mount, laptop computer, tripod and camera gear to the top of the Moraine, but the result is worth it. While my own printer is only 24” high, this picture has enough resolution to be done 6 feet high and still be tack sharp up close, so I’m hoping to find somebody who wants to do a wall with it.

So check out the new gallery of photos of Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. I’ve also added some other shots from that trip to the Alberta gallery and will be adding more shortly. When on the panorama page ask for the “Full Rez Slice” to see how much there is in the underlying image.

Electric car vendors: bundle in short-term gasoline car rentals, with charging

Looking at new electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, we see that to keep costs down, cars with a range of 100 miles are on offer. For certain city cars, particularly in 2-car families, this should be just fine. In my particular situation, being just under 50 miles from San Francisco, this won’t work. It’s much too close to the edge, and trips there would require a full charge, and visits to other stops during the trip or finding parking with charging. Other people are resisting the electrics for lesser reasons, since if you ever do exceed the range it’s probably an 8 hour wait.

An alternative is a serial hybrid like the Chevy Volt. This has 40 miles range but a gasoline generator to provide the rest of the range and no “range anxiety.” Good, but more expensive and harder to maintain because electric cars are much simpler than gasoline cars.

Here’s an alternative: The electric car vendor should cut a deal with car rental services like ZipCar and Hertz. If you’re ever on a round trip where there is range anxiety, tell the car. It will use its computer and internal data connection to locate a suitable rental location that is along your route and has a car for you. It will make all appropriate reservations. Upon arrival, your electric car would transmit a signal to the rental car so that it flashes its lights to guide you and unlocks its doors for you. (The hourly car rental companies all have systems already where a transmitter unlocks the car for you.)

In many cases you would then pause, pull the rental out of its spot and put your electric in that spot. With more advanced robocar technologies, the rental would actually pull out of its spot for you. Zipcar has reserved spots for its vehicles and normally it makes no sense for the renter to have just pulled up in a car and need the spot, but it should work just fine. At Hertz or similar companies another open spot may be available.

Then off you go in your gasoline car. To make things as easy as possible, the negotiated contract should include refill of gasoline at a fair market price rather than the insane inflated price that car rental houses charge. Later come back and swap again.  read more »

Total Eclipse at Hao, French Polynesia

I got a chance to see my 5th eclipse on July 11 — well sort of. In spite of many tools at our disposal, including a small cruise ship devoted to the eclipse, we saw only about 30 seconds of the possible 4 minutes due to clouds. But I still have a gallery of pictures.

Many people chose the Hao atoll for eclipse viewing because of its very long airstrip and 3 minute 30 second duration. Moving north would provide even more, either from water or the Amanu atoll. Weather reports kept changing, suggesting moving north was a bad idea, so our boat remained at the Hao dock until the morning of the eclipse. In spite of storm reports, it dawned effectively cloudless so we decided to stay put and set up all instruments and cameras. Seeing an eclipse on land is best in my view, ideally a place with trees and animals and water. And it’s really the only choice for good photography.

As the eclipse came, clouds started building, moving quickly in the brisk winds. The clouds may have been the result of eclipse-generated cooling and they did increase as the eclipse came. However, having set up we decided not to move. The clouds were fast and small and it was clear that they would not block the whole eclipse until a big cloud came just near totality which almost did. We did get 30 seconds of fairly clear skies, so the crowd of first-timers were just as awed as first timers always are. Disappointment was only felt by those who had seen a few.

Later I realized a better strategy for an eclipse cruise interested in land observation. When the clouds thickened, we should have left all the gear on land with a crewman from the ship to watch it. The cameras were all computer controlled, and so they would take whatever images they would take — in theory. We, on the other hand could have run onto the boat and had it sail to find a hole in the clouds. It would have found one — just 2 miles away at the airport, people gathered there saw the complete eclipse. For us it was just the luck on the draw on our observing spot. Mobility can change that luck. Photographs and being on land are great, but seeing the whole eclipse is better.

I said “in theory” above because one person’s computer did not start the photos properly, and he had to start them again by hand. In addition, while we forgot to use it, the photo program has an “emergency mode” for just such a contingency. This mode puts into into a quick series of shots of all major exposures, designed to be used in a brief hole in the clouds. In the panic we never thought to hit the panic button.

I was lucky last year in spite of my rush. I was fooled into thinking I could duplicate that luck. You have to learn to rehearse everything you will do during an eclipse. This also applied to my panoramas. I had brought a robotic panoramic mount controlled by bluetooth from my laptop. In spite of bringing two laptops, and doing test shots the day before, I could not get the bluetooth link going as the eclipse approached. I abandoned the robotic mount to do manual panos. I had been considering that anyway, since the robotic mount is slow and takes about 10 seconds between shots, limiting how much pano it could do. By hand I can do a shot every second or so. Of course the robot in theory takes none of my personal eclipse time, while doing the hand pano took away precious views, but taking 3 minutes means too much changing light and moving people.

Even so a few things went wrong. I was doing a bracket, which in retrospect I really did not need. A friend loaned me a higher quality 24mm lens than the one I had, and this lens was also much faster (f/1.8) than mine. While I had set to go into manual mode, at first I forgot, and int he darkness the camera tried to shoot at f/1.8 — meaning very shallow depth of field and poor focus on all things in the foreground. I then realized this and switched to manual mode for my full pano. This pano was shot while the eclipse was behind clouds. I had taken a shot a bit earlier where it was visible and of course used that for that frame of the pano, but the different exposure causes some lessening of quality. Modern pano software handles different exposure levels, but the best pano comes from having everything fixed.

More lessons learned. After the eclipse we relaxed and cruised the Atoll, swam, dove, surfed, bought black pearls and had a great time.

The next eclipse is really only visible in one reachable place: Cairns Australia in November of 2012. (There is an annular eclipse in early 2012 that passes over Redding and Reno and hits sunset at Lubbock, but an annular is just a big partial eclipse, not a total.)

Cairns and the great barrier reef are astounding. I have a page about my prior trip to Australia and Cairns and any trip there will be good even with a cloudy eclipse. Alas, a cloudy eclipse is a risk, because the sun with be quite low in the morning sky over the mountains, and worse, Nov 13 is right at the beginning of the wet season. If the wet starts then, it’s probably bad news. For many, the next eclipse will be the one that crosses the USA in 2017. However, there are other opportunities in Africa/2013 (for the most keen,) Svalbard/2015 and Indonesia/2016 before then.

I’ll have some panoramas in the future. Meanwhile check out the gallery. Of course I got better eclipse pictures last year.

Robocar challenge from Italy to China

Today marks the start of a remarkable robocar trek from Italy to China. The team from the Vislab International Autonomous Challenge start in Italy and will trek all the way to Shanghai in electric autonomous vehicles, crossing borders, handling rough terrain and going over roads for which there are no maps in areas where there is no high-accuracy GPS.

This would be impossible today so they are solving that problem by having a lead car which drives mostly autonomously, but sometimes has the humans take over, particularly in areas where there are no maps. This vehicle can be seen by the other vehicles and also transmits GPS waypoints to them, so they can follow those waypoints and use their sensors to fill in the rest. The other vehicles also will have humans to correct them in case of error, and the amount of correction needed will be recorded. Some of the earliest robocar experiments in Germany used this approach, driving the highways with occasional human correction. (The DARPA grand challenges required empty vehicles on a closed course, and no human intervention, except the kill switch, was allowed.) This should be a tremendous challenge with much learned along the way about what works and what doesn’t. As a computer vision lab, these cars appear to want to use vision a lot more than other robocars, which have gone LIDAR all the way. (There are LIDARs on the Vislab cars, but not as fancy as the 64 line Velodyne.)

They are using electric cars to send a green message. While I do believe that the robocars of the future will indeed be electric, and that self-recharge is a cruicial element of the value of robocars, I am not as fond of this decision. “One thing at a time” is the philosophy that makes sense, so I think it’s better to start with proven and easy to refuel gasoline cars and get the autonomy working, then improve what’s underneath. But this is a minor quibble about an exciting project.

They have a live tracking tool (not up yet) and a blog you can follow.

More robocar news to come. Yesterday I had an interesting ride in Junior (Darpa Grand Challenge II winner) and we trusted it enough to have Kathryn stand in the crosswalk while Junior drove up to it, then stopped and waited for her to walk out of it.

Can your computer be like your priest?

I’ve had a blogging hiatus of late because I was heavily involved last week with Singularity University a new teaching institution about the future created by Nasa, Google, Autodesk and various others. We’ve got 80 students, most from outside North America, here for the summer graduate program, and they are quite an interesting group.

On Friday, I gave a lecture to open the policy, law and ethics track and I brought up one of the central questions — should we let our technology betray us? Now our tech can betray us in a number of ways, but in this case I mean something more literal, such as our computer ratting us out to the police, or providing evidence that will be used against us in court. Right now this is happening a lot.

I put forward the following challenge: In history, certain service professions have been given a special status when it comes to being forced to betray us. Your lawyer, your doctor and your priest must keep most of what you tell them in confidence, and can’t be compelled to reveal it in court. We have given them this immunity because we feel their services are essential, and that people might be afraid to use them if they feared they could be betrayed.

Our computers are becoming essential too, and even more intimately entangled with our lives. We’re carrying our cell phone on our body all day long, with its GPS and microphone and camera, and we’re learning that it is telling our location to the police if they ask. Soon we’ll have computers implanted in our bodies — will they also betray us?

So can we treat our personal computer like a priest or doctor? Sadly, while people we trust have been given this exemption, technology doesn’t seem to get it. And there may be a reason, too. People don’t seem as afraid to disclose incriminating data to their computers as they are of disclosing it to other people. Right now, we know that people can blab, but we don’t seem to appreciate how much computers can blab. If we do, we’ll become more afraid to trust our computers and other technology, which hurts their value.

Can the ethics that developed around the trusted professions move to our technology? That’s for the future to see.

Using the phone as its own mouse, and trusting the keyboard

I’ve written a bunch about my desire to be able to connect an untrusted input device to my computer or phone so that we could get hotels and other locations to offer both connections to the HDTVs in the rooms for monitors and a usable keyboard. This would let one travel with small devices like netbooks, tablet computers and smart phones yet still use them for serious typing and UI work while in the hotel or guest area.

I’ve proposed that the connection from device to the monitor be wireless. This would make it not very good for full screen video but it would be fine for web surfing, email and the like. This would allow us to use the phone as its own mouse, either by having a deliberate mouse style sensor on the back, or using the camera on the back of the phone as a reader of the surface. (A number of interesting experiments have shown this is quite doable if the camera can focus close and can get an LED to light up the surface.) This provides a mouse which is more inherently trustable, and buttons on the phone (or on its touchscreen) can be the mouse buttons. This doesn’t work for tablets and netbooks — for them you must bring your own mini-mouse or use the device as a touchpad. I am still a fan of the “trackpoint” nubbins and they can also make very small but usable mice.

The keyboard issue is still tough. While it would seem a wired connection is more secure, not all devices will be capable of such a connection, while almost all will do bluetooth. Wired USB connections can pretend to be all sorts of devices, including CD-Roms with autorun CDs in them. However, I propose the creation of a new bluetooth HID profile for untrusted keyboards.

When connecting to an untrusted keyboard, the system would need to identify any privileged or dangerous operations. If such operations (like software downloads, destructive commands etc.) come from the keyboard, the system would insist on confirmation from the main device’s touchscreen or keyboard. So while you would be able to type on the keyboard to fill text boxes or write documents and emails, other things would be better done with the mouse or they would require a confirmation on the screen. Turns out this is how many people use computers these days anyway. We command line people would feel a bit burdened but could create shells that are good at spotting commands that might need confirmation.  read more »

Losing your passport

Last week, on my trip to Berlin, I managed to drop my passport. I don’t know where — it might have been in the bathroom of Brussels airport trying to change clothes in a tiny room after a long red-eye, or it might have been when Brussels Air made me gate check a bag requiring a big rearrangement of items, or somewhere else. But two days later, arriving at a Pension in Berlin I discovered it was missing, and a lot of calling around revealed nobody had turned it in.

In today’s document hungry world this can be a major calamity. I actually have a pretty pleasant story to report, though there were indeed lots of hassles. But it turned out I had prepared for this moment in a number of ways, and you may want to do the same.

The upshot was that I applied for a passport on Wednesday, got it on Thursday, flew on Friday and again on Monday and got my permanent passport that same Monday — remarkable efficiency for a ministry with a reputation for long bureaucracy.

After concluding it was lost, I called the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. Once you declare the passport lost, it is immediately canceled, even if you find it again, so you want to be sure that it’s gone. The Embassy was just a couple of U-bahn stops away, so I ventured there. I keep all my documents in my computer, and the security guy was shocked I had brought it. He put all that gear in a locker, and even confiscated my phone — more on that later.  read more »

Rolling travel bag that plugs in

Since I’m on the road (Washington DC right now, then Berlin on Monday for a few days and then Toronto for the weekend of the 11th) I will lament on the problem I have noted before in travel power. We have to carry so many chargers. I have also found it’s a pain to take them all out and put them back in again.

So how about an electrified rollaboard travel bag. It would plug in, and of course you would have the right adapters for the countries you are going to. Then, along the bottom it would offer a power strip of sorts, with receptacles for your home plug form. The back of these units tends to have spare room due to the bars.

It would also feature an internal USB powering hub, with a few USB jacks, but also built in would be some retractable cables with micro-usb (the new power standard for phones and some other devices) or mini-usb if you still need that. (Alternately have one and adapters for the other.)

Next a universal battery charger. They sell these now with plates that adapt to the various camera batteries, and they even have plates for nimh AA batteries etc. Perhaps even 2 plates.

And of course a universal laptop power supply, but this needs a somewhat long cord. Now I know, you need a power supply to carry with the laptop to meetings, so do you want to carry two? Perhaps not, but I actually like to when space is not super tight. It’s possible this supply could be done in a way that it can snap out, and so all you carry is an extra wall cord. Since I like retractables however you might want another laptop cord and special tip for it.

The advantage: One thing to plug in and unplug when you go from room to room.

And the fact that the wheelies, because of their carry handle, tend to have some extra room to put stuff if it is built in.

The downside: Standards change and your wheelie could get obsolete. The x-ray people may take a bit of time to get used to it as well.

Explicit interfaces for social media

The lastest Facebook flap has caused me to write more about privacy of late, and that will continue has we head into the June 15 conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy where I will be speaking on privacy implications of robots.

Social networks want nice easy user interfaces, and complex privacy panels are hard to negotiate by users who don’t want to spend the time learning all the nuances of a system. People usually end up using the defaults.

One option that might improve things is to make data publication more explicit in the interface, and to let users choose, in an easy way, the level of exposure for a specific act.

Consider twitter. Instead of having a “Tweet” button, it should have a “Tweet to the world” button and a “Tweet to my followers” button. (Twitter wisely does not tweet when you hit Enter, as many people forget it is not the search box.) For people tweeting by SMS or other means, they could define a special character to put at the front of the tweet, like starting your tweet with a “%” to make it private (or public depending on your default.) Of course, your followers could still log and republish your private tweets, but they would at least not go into public archives. (Unless you’ve accepted a follower who does that, which is admittedly a problem with their design.)

This interface might seem complex but what’s important is that it’s clear. You know what you are doing. Here your choice makes sense to you and you are not squeezed into a set of defaults, ie. their choices.

Facebook has come close to this. There is a little lock icon next to the Share button, and it becomes a select box where you can set who you will share a posting with. It has a bit too much UI, but it’s on the right track. A select box can make it smaller but it should say “With the world” when that is the default state, to make your action explicit for you. This should be extended to many other actions on Facebook, so that buttons which do things which will inform the world, or your friends, say it. “Share this photo with the world.” “Tell all 430 friends your Strawberries are ripe.” The use of the number is a good idea, to make it clear just how many people you are publishing to.

Of course “with the world” is somewhat bulky and “with all friends of your friends” is even bulkier. The UI can start this way, but the user should be able to to a page where they can switch to icons, once it is clear that they know what the icons mean. When facebook again tries to move our social graph out into partner sites, this approach should follow. Instead of “Like” it would be “Tell your friends you Like” and so on. Verbose, but worth being verbose about.

This only applies to social media, of course, where there is a choice. If you comment on this blog it doesn’t yet say “post your comment to everybody” because there really isn’t any other choice expected on public blogs. Private/public blog systems like LiveJournal have featured a means to make postings available only to friends for a long time.

PR2 robots and open source

I don’t often write about robots that don’t go on roads, but last night I stopped by Willow Garage, the robot startup created by my old friend Scott Hassan. Scott is investing in building open robotics platforms, and giving much of it out free to the world, because he thinks progress in robotics has been far too slow. Last night they unveiled their beta PR2 robots and gave 11 of them to teams from 11 different schools and labs. Those institutions will be all trying to do something creative with the robots, just as a Berkeley team quickly made it able to fold towels a few months ago.

I must admit, as they marched out the 11 robots and had them do synchronous dance there was a moment (about 2 minutes 20 seconds in that video) when it reminded me of a scene from some techno thriller, where the evil overload unveils his new robots to an applauding crowd, and the robots then turn and kill all the humans. Fortunately this did not happen. The real world is very different, and these robots will do a lot of good. They have a lot of processing power, various nice sensors and 2 arms with 7 degrees of freedom. They run ROS, an open source robot operating system which now runs on many other robots.

I was interested because I have proposed that having an open simulator platform for robocars could also spur development from people without the budgets to build their own robocars (and crash them during testing.) A robocar test model is going to involve at least $150,000 today and will get damaged in development, and that’s beyond small developers. The PR2 beta models cost more than that, but Willow Garage’s donations will let these teams experiment in personal robotics.

Of course, it would be nice for robocars if there were an inexpensive robocar that teams could get and test. Right now though, everybody wants a sensor as nice as the $75,000 Velodyne LIDAR that powered most of the top competitors in the DARPA urban challenge, and you can’t get that cheaply yet — except perhaps in simulator.

When is "opt out" a "cop out?"

As many expected would happen, Mark Zuckerberg did an op-ed column with a mild about face on Facebook’s privacy changes. Coming soon, you will be able to opt out of having your basic information defined as “public” and exposed to outside web sites. Facebook has a long pattern of introducing a new feature with major privacy issues, being surprised by a storm of protest, and then offering a fix which helps somewhat, but often leaves things more exposed than they were before.

For a long time, the standard “solution” to privacy exposure problems has been to allow users to “opt out” and keep their data more private. Companies like to offer it, because the reality is that most people have never been exposed to a bad privacy invasion, and don’t bother to opt out. Privacy advocates ask for it because compared to the alternative — information exposure with no way around it — it seems like a win. The companies get what they want and keep the privacy crowd from getting too upset.

Sometimes privacy advocates will say that disclosure should be “opt in” — that systems should keep information private by default, and only let it out with the explicit approval of the user. Companies resist that for the same reason they like opt-out. Most people are lazy and stick with the defaults. They fear if they make something opt-in, they might as well not make it, unless they can make it so important that everybody will opt in. As indeed is the case with their service as a whole.

Neither option seems to work. If there were some way to have an actual negotiation between the users and a service, something better in the middle would be found. But we have no way to make that negotiation happen. Even if companies were willing to have negotiation of their “I Agree” click contracts, there is no way they would have the time to do it.  read more »