Topic

The net needs a free way to combine video and slides for showing talks

These days it is getting very common to make videos of presentations, and even to do live streams of them. And most of these presentations have slides in Powerpoint or Keynote or whatever. But this always sucks, because the camera operator — if there is one — never moves between the speaker and the slide the way I want. You can’t please everybody of course.

In the proprietary “web meeting” space there are several tools that will let people do a video presentation and sync it with slides, ideally by pre-transmitting the slide deck so it is rendered in full resolution at the other end, along with the video. In this industry there are also some video players where you can seek along in the video and it automatically seeks within the slides. This can be a bit complex if the slides try to do funny animations but it can be done.

Obviously it would be nice to see a flash player that understands it is playing a video and also playing slides (even video of slides, though it would be better to do it in higher quality since it isn’t usually full motion video.) Sites like youtube could support it. However, getting the synchronization requires that you have a program on the presenting computer, which you may not readily control.

One simple idea would be a button the camera operator could push to say “Copy this frame to the slide window.” Then the camera would, when there is a new slide, move or switch over there, and the button would be pushed, and the camera could go immediately back to the speaker. Usually though the camera crew has access to the projector feed and would not need to actually point a camera, in fact some systems “switch” to the slides by just changing the video feed. A program which sends the projector feed with huge compresion (in other words, an I frame for any slide change and nothing after) would also work well. No need to send all the fancy transitions.

But it would be good to send the slides not as mpeg, but as PNG style, to be sharper if you can’t get access to the slides themselves. I want a free tool, so I can’t ask for the world, yet, but even something as basic as this would make my watching of remote presentations and talks much better. And it would make people watching my talks have a better time too — a dozen or so of them are out on the web.

I’m in O’Hare waiting to fly to Munich for DLD. More details to come.

In the future, everyone famous will get service 15 minutes faster

There’s a phenomenon we’re seeing more and more often. A company screws over a customer, but this customer now has a means to reach a large audience through the internet, and as a result it becomes a PR disaster for the company. The most famous case recently was United Breaks Guitars where Nova Scotia musician David Carroll had his luggage mistreated and didn’t get good service, so he wrote a funny song and music video about it. 7 million views later, a lot of damage was done to United Airlines’ reputation.

I’ve done this myself to companies who refuse to fix things. I will write a page about the incident sometimes, and due to my high google pagerank, the page will show up high. Do a Google search for Qwest Long Distance and you’ll see the first hit is Qwest, and the 2nd is my boring but frustrating story of bad service. I’m not the only one to have done this. Over 200 people per month visit that page — which has been up for almost a decade — and you have to assume they have lost more business than it would have cost to make things right.

Now I think all good companies should make things right whenever they can to show that the errors are rare enough that they can afford to go the extra mile and fix them. If you won’t fix them, it means you must have a lot of them.

However, companies are soon going to realize that there are a whole raft of “minor celebrities” like David Carroll and even myself who can do far more damage than they can tolerate. Companies have always given top notch service to A-list celebrities, and even to B list. Not just gift bags at the Oscars. When I was kid, my father was A-list for a time in Canada, and that meant that when he got on a plane with a coach ticket, the flight attendant escorted him to first class. That was in the days before first class was always full due to upgrades, of course.

But there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who can be a risk for a company if they piss us off. All bloggers with a decent audience (and even some who have an audience that includes the A-list bloggers.) People with high search engine rank. People who can simply write well to get their story out there — in particular people who are good at making a story funny and entertaining. And of course, musicians and people who are good at video editing and producing viral videos. Perhaps them most of all.

So I predict that before long services will spring up to enumerate these D-list and E-list celebrities and potential celebs. Everybody will get graded. And a flag will show up in the customer service computer for the top few percentiles saying, “this one is an influencer.” It will say, “you are authorized, though you are just a script monkey customer rep, to do more for this customer.” Or you might just be direct right to a more powerful rep. This “long tail elite” may just start getting better service and even better deals, so long as they identify themselves first.

Companies have done this for some time based on how good a customer you are, ie. how much you spend. If you are a big spending customer, you get the magic 800 number or just get routed to the better service due to your frequent flyer number or even caller-ID. But I’m talking about doing this not just for those who spend a lot, but for those who influence a lot of spending — or could influence it in a negative way.

And of course they are working hard to make us identify ourselves in every transaction, just not yet for this. People who review products for a living will need to be sure they are anonymous when they buy and ask for service. But oddly, negative reviews from people who review stuff for a living are becoming less important than the horror story from the negative guy. Since most product reviewers at magazines are unwilling to go through the horrors of real customer service, they call the PR flacks and get top-rated service, and then explain in the review that they did this (if they are honest.)

If you’re not in the long-tail elite, this is all a bad sign. You’ll never get much satisfaction, and the number of horror stories on the net will go down below what the true level should be. Of course you will be able to join the long tail elite if you want to, since I am sure those who track it will note the names of people who regularly show up on consumer complaint message boards that have high readership or rank. But that’s a lot of work.

It doesn’t really do a lot of good for the rest of the world if perks are given to the long tail elite. Better just for companies to get good enough that they make mistakes rarely, and thus can afford to go the extra distance to fix them when it happens.

Foresight Institute Conference this weekend, Homebrew Robots and Germany

This weekend is the Foresight Institute conference on molecular nanotechnology and AI. I am on the board of Foresight Institute and will be speaking on the latest developments in robocars at the conference, along with a raft of great speakers. If you are interested in futurist issues around AI, nanotech and other accelerating technologies, this is the longest running conference in the field and the place to be. The whole conference is just $175 and you can register for it here.

I will also be doing my general Robocar talk on Wednesday, February 24th at the “Homebrew Robotics Club” of Silicon Valley. This is a great group of people who hack robotics as a hobby, and it meets at the CMU building at NASA Ames Research Center. This event is free and open to the public.

Finally, in 2 weeks I will be attending the DLD 10 conference in Munich Germany, and may try to make my way into some parties at the World Economic Forum in Davos while doing a little Alpine road trip after DLD.

Note for those who can’t attend the Foresight conference, you can watch it stream live

DNA scans for everybody who did a failed drug trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midwifing the Canadian Flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avatar isn't Dances With Wolves, it's another plot

Everybody has an Avatar review. Indeed, Avatar is a monument of moviemaking in terms of the quality of its animation and 3-D. Its most interesting message for Hollywood may be “soon actors will no longer need to look pretty.” Once the generation of human forms passes through the famous uncanny valley there will be many movies made with human characters where you never see their real faces. That means the actors can be hired based strictly on their ability to act, and their bankability, not necessarily their looks, or more to the point their age. Old actors will be able to play their young selves before too long, and be romantic leading men and women again. Fat actors will play thin, supernaturally beautiful leads.

And our images of what a good looking person looks like will get even more bizarre. We’ll probably get past the age thing, with software to make old star look like young star, before we break through the rest of the uncanny valley. If old star keeps him or herself in shape, the skin, hair and shapes of things like the nose and earlobes can be fixed, perhaps even today.

But this is not what I want to speak about. What I do want to speak about involves Avatar spoilers.  read more »

Gift Guide: Being better to give than to receive

Who writes a gift guide in January?

This one is not about specific gifts but rather a philosophy of gift giving. Every year at Seasons I run into the problem that decently well off adults have with gift giving. They will often ask for a list of possible gifts, not knowing what to get. And it can be hard to come up with the list because, frankly in these days of online ordering, if there’s something you really want that is not that expensive an item, you would have bought it already.

I believe that instead of giving people what they want, you should give them what you want to give them. This is not simply a desire to make gift giving more selfish, to making giving be in the interests of the giver. It is a statement that a proper gift should be an expression of yourself. It should be something you enjoy giving, and not just because you want to bring a smile to your recipient (though you should also want that.)

Christmas shoppers often overspend to buy fancy and overadvertised gifts which seem nice but which are never really used by the recipient. This is actually a major inefficiency in the economy, in that products are produced to little productive end other than to say, “see, I spent some serious money on you.” We’ll never stop that but we might redirect it.

Rule One: No money between adults

Adults should never give money. That’s not an expression of yourself, unless the expression is “I’m really rich.” The one exception is that parents can give life-changing amounts of money to children. A large sum can be an expression of your instinctive desire to make your kids’ lives better. Likewise employers can give cash bonuses. But those are not really gifts.

Rule One-A: Absolutely no gift cards.

Gift cards are like giving money, except they’re stupid money that can only be spent at one store. Stores love them because people leave $5 billion undredeemed on gift cards every year — down from $10 billion back when they were allowed to let gift cards expire. Many people think a gift card is better than money because it says, “OK, at least I know enough about you to get you a gift card at a store I know you like to shop at.” But that’s hardly saying much.

Gift cards from generic stores that sell something for everyone are right out. That’s just the gift of cash with a restriction. Gift cards might be more tolerable from extreme specialty stores, so that your picking of the store constitutes an expression of yourself and your relationship with the recipient.

Gift cards for services are a bit more tolerable. After all, it’s hard to give services otherwise.

Gift cards would make more sense if they were offered at a discount, so you could buy a $50 card usable after seasons for $40. They almost never do this though. But it still isn’t much of an expression of you.

Exception: If you truly need a gift that requires no expression of yourself, these might work. For example, gifts for people you don’t know well, gifts for a large group of co-workers etc. But what you’re saying here is, “listen, I wanted to give you a small gift but let’s face it, you weren’t high enough up on the list to merit a lot of time.” Sometimes that’s a perfectly OK thing to say, if it’s a gift for your postal worker or the office.

In addition to services (which can’t be physically given) we’re seeing a lot more in online or virtual goods, such as downloadable games, e-books, apps, music and the like. Sometimes you can buy a code you can email, or if you know somebody’s account, you can add such items to it. This creates a conundrum. I would much rather somebody gave me an e-book over a paper book these days — I don’t have shelf space. Do you give these “items” because the only way to give them is virtually? Or is this a sign that these items are now removed from the set of things that should be given? It may be best to consider a middle ground which discourages virtual gifts if you can think of something else, but tolerates them if they really are the best thing.

It’s more acceptable if you can give a very specific item, like a song, book or game you picked. No iTunes gift cards, but instead codes for a specific item. One for which the choosing of the item said something about you.

Imagine a world of plenty

One way to think about this is to imagine a world where everybody you knew was a billionaire, with no want for money. What would you give then? You can see immediately how giving cash or a gift card would make little sense in that world. Truth be told, for most gifts, the cost of the gift is a blip in our net worths, so the real world is not too different from this one, unless you’ve giving a gift that’s so extravagant that it would be noticed in the annual budget, like a car.

Limit your manufactured items

The adage that the best gifts are ones you make yourself has much truth. And where you can afford the time for that, or have the skills for it, this is indeed the right way to go. But I don’t expect you to stop giving manufactured items entirely.

When you give a manufactured item, one that you can just point-click-and-ship, the gift is not the item, but what went into selecting it. The choice must depend not on your impressions of what they want, but rather ways in which you can be better (by some standards) at picking what they want than they are. You must find something that you knew was good but they didn’t.

So if you really know cameras, you probably know better how to shop for certain items. Buy something that you know more about than the recipient. Do you have good taste in clothing, or know where the best shops are? That’s where to buy your items. Not in a big box store or at the mall — anybody can go there.

Do you own and love a hot gadget that is not that popular yet? Get it, even though they might not love it as much. What you are sharing is your knowledge and love for the item, to let them see and experience a part of your life.

Books and other media

One particular type of manufactured item deserves special attention, namely books and media. Don’t give books of the type they like to read. Give the books and authors that you have read and love. Again, you might give them a book they would not love as much as the new hardcover from their favourite author. But the book, and the love for it, is an expression of you. If you know them intimately enough to know of books by their favourite writers which they themselves might not know about, that’s also OK.

It’s also OK if you are a better researcher to use that skill to surprise them. Perhaps you know more about how to look things up online, or read the right blogs where good people will recommend things. You can buy those things as long as your knowledge was special, and not generic.

Time rather than money

No gift expresses yourself more than time. A gift which is hard to choose and takes time says more than a gift which cost a lot. Most personalization requires time. Photography can be a great source for this — do you have a series of photos of the person, or places they love, that you could make into a slideshow or poster?

In addition, we all have too much stuff already, so don’t just give more “stuff” that they have to bring out when you visit. Unless they have a weight problem or a drinking problem, unusual foods and drinks that you enjoy can be a good expression of yourself. Of course, stuff you made yourself is even better.

Sometimes ya gotta break the rules

This is not the only way to give gifts. And nobody will figure the perfect gift for every person every time, not even close. This is just a direction to go, in opposition to what is most marketed — “impress them with how much money you were willing to spend on them.” And while your gift should be an expression of your personality, it would be wrong to think this means that gift giving is all about you, the giver. Rather the message is that it’s about both people.

In addition, many of these rules don’t apply to gifts to young children. First of all young children may not yet be able to understand an adult’s expression. And unlike adults they don’t have all that they want. They are easy to impress and very grateful.

Still, with children, look to gifts that you particularly enjoyed as a child, or in particular gifts which changed your life in a positive way. Did a football turn you into an athlete? Did a microscope make you a scientist? Pass it on.

Best collaborative processing and tagging of a group's photo archive?

I have the photo archives of a theatre company I was involved with for 12 years. It is coming upon its 50th anniversary. I have a high speed automatic scanner, so I am going to generate scans of many of the photos — that part is not too hard. Even easier for modern groups in the digital age, where the photos are already digital and date-tagged.

But now I want members of the group to be able to rotate the photos, tag them with the names of people in them and other tags, group them into folders where needed, and add comments. I can’t do this on my own, it is a collaborative project.

Lots of photo sharing sites let other people add comments. Few sites let you add tags or let trusted other people do things like rotations. Flickr lets others draw annotations and add tags/people which would make it a likely choice, but they can’t rotate.

Facebook has an interesting set of features. It’s easy to tag photos with friends’ names, and they get notified of it and the photos appear on their page, which is both good and bad. (The need for the owner to approve is a burden here.) Tagging non-friends is annoying because when somebody adds a real friend tag you must delete the old one, and the old ones may be spelled differently. However, the real deal-breaker on facebook is that the resolution is unacceptably small.

The recent killer feature I really want is face recognition, which makes tagging with people’s names vastly easier. Even the fact that it auto-draws boxes around the faces for you to tag is a win even without the recognition feature. The algorithms are far from perfect but they speed up the task a great deal. As such, right now an obvious choice is Picasa and Picasa Web Albums. however, while PWA lets you allow others to upload photos to your albums and tag their own photos, they can’t tag yours.

There is also face recognition in iPhoto, but I am not a Mac user so I don’t know if that can meet this need.

So right now two choices seem to be Flickr (but I must do all rotates) or a newly created Picasa account to which the password is shared. That’s a bit of a kludge but it seems to be the only way to get shared face recognition tagging.

Facebook can be integrated with a face recognizer called “Polar Rose” which also works with the 23hq photo sharing site. However, Facebook’s resolution is way, way too small and you need to approve tags.

I have not tried all the photo sharing sites so I wonder if people know of one that can do what I want?

Border Travel in an underpants bomber world

I just landed on a flight from Toronto to San Francisco. If you were inside the USA you may not have heard about the various crazy rules applied to travel to the USA, or at least not experienced them. While we were away the rules changed every day, and perhaps every hour.

Toronto was hit the hardest because it has the most flights to the USA of any airport in the world (with a few other Canadian airports not far behind.) Due to the busy border, you clear U.S. customs and immigration through their satellite office in Toronto, so your plane lands you at domestic gates in the USA, making connections far easier.

The USA started insisting on intimate pat-downs on all passengers and complete hand screening of all carry-ons. For a while there was even a regulation that passengers would have to sit in their seats with nothing on their laps (not blankets, not books, not computers) for the last hour of the flight. That got reverted to “pilot’s discretion” and in our case there was no talk of this.

The heavy search requirements brought Toronto’s heavy to-USA traffic to a standstill. Even with extra mounties pitching in, there was now way to get all those people through the terminal, so the CATSA brought in a near-ban on carry-ons. You could only carry on items from a short list. Notable things not on the list (ie. banned) included books, kid’s toys, lenses and various items people bring on not because they need them in flight, but because they are essential to their trip, or are fragile.

After a few days of reduced carry-ons, they got the processing down, as long as you got there 3 hours in advance, sometimes more. A real burden on 1 hour flights to New York, Boston or Washington. Still a burden on my 5 hour flight to SFO, since that was at 7am, meaning getting to the airport at 4am, (1am Pacific Time, about the time I would get to bed.)

The process included the fairly standard x-ray (with agents making various exceptions for people, generally allowing books that could be paged through and even some small knapsacks) with pat down only if you set off the alarm. Then, shortly after you started walking down the row of gates was a 2nd checkpoint. There you got a serious patdown that might remind you of a massage, and a complete hand inspection of everything in your bags. (I suggest they should let you pay extra for a real massage, which also of course detects anything on your body.) Many checks of ID and boarding pass and you are on your way.

There are many disturbing things about the reaction to the underpants bomber but a few stand out.

  • It is certain that the TSA and all other major agencies knew about the risk of somebody strapping explosives to their legs and taking them through the magnetometer. So a plan should have been in place long ago about what to do about it, and how to react at the first public incident.
  • In spite of this the agencies are out running around like chickens with their heads cut off, changing plans every day, no sign of forethought. Are they just testing the public to see what they will tolerate?
  • Lots of talk of thz scanners to see everybody naked. Is this a way to get those accepted, after people complained?
  • For Toronto, and most of the Canadian airports, a bad guy can quite readily drive just 90 minutes and go to another airport like Buffalo and get no special screening! While the public does not like this extra trek, it’s no burden to the terrorist to do this. Only the innocent are punished.
  • You could still smuggle your stuff inside a laptop, or a body cavity or several other places I noticed.
  • Keep this up and people will stop flying, and they will definitely go to airports like Buffalo.
  • As I have suggested before, appointments for security inspections are one answer to the 3 hour early arrival.
  • For me the worst thing was packing lenses in checked bag. I had to improvise protection for them. When such a rule is put in place by surprise over Christmas, you have to expect a lot of people brought stuff that they needed to carry on on the way back, even if they would not plan a new trip today expecting to carry on their fragiles.

With some irony, all this came after a lunch with Peter Watts. If you didn’t hear, Peter was crossing back into Canada at Port Huron/Sarnia and got pull over for exit inspection leaving the USA. Because he wasn’t a complete little sheep, he reports he was beaten up by the border patrol and now is charged with assaulting an officer. I really doubt he did those things, but the most disturbing thing are those who comment on the story saying it’s his fault for not being subservient enough. I understand the reasons for letting police do their jobs, but when you are just inspecting people driving out of the country, with no special reason to believe they are criminals or worthy of above average suspicion or anything but the presumption of innocence we are all owed, then there should be standards, and better defined rights for the subject of the inspections. If a person is not a known threat, why should they not get to ask questions about what is being done to them and their vehicle? Yes, one time in many thousands, an actual nasty criminal might do something odd and need to be set upon with force. It’s one of the risks people take doing an armed policing job. It can happen anywhere, any time. But must the people give up their rights and be complete sheep because of it?

Can’t we have a system where different situations suggest different levels of police control? Where the police, while they may have the power to give you orders and you have to obey without much chance to question, get in trouble if they abuse that power in a non-hostile situation? Where they have a simple way of explaining that they think the situation has escalated, and a way to declare it that we are taught in school to understand? So if the copy says, “I’m escalation — get on the ground now” you have to get on the ground, but the cop has to justify later why he escalated. Simply being a citizen who is mindful of his rights doesn’t seem much grounds for that.

Happy Seasons to all

I’ve been feeling we in the secular, atheist world should still have an official event at the end of the year, since with the Christians and the Jews making merry, it’s a good time to do it. We have New Year’s Eve of course, but so does everybody.

This new holiday, to mark the changing of the Seasons might be called “Seasons.” Of course that is in part so that all the people saying “Seasons Greetings” (without the apostrophe, oddly enough) will now be making our greeting. Another name for it could be “Holidays” but that does have religious roots.

Now the real changing of the seasons is around Dec 21, but it makes far more sense to celebrate a gift holiday on Dec 28-29. That way you can buy gifts for everybody at half price. And we seculars are smart and thrifty.

So Happy Seasons to all.

Video windows that simulate 3-D

I’m waiting for the right price point on a good >24” monitor with a narrow bezel to drop low enough that I can buy 4 or 5 of them to make a panoramic display wall without the gaps being too large.

However, another idea that I think would be very cool would be to exploit the gaps between the monitors to create a simulated set of windows in a wall looking out onto a scene. It’s been done before in lab experiments with single monitors, but not as a large panoramic installation or something long term from what I understand. The value in the multi display approach is that now the gap between displays is a feature rather than a problem, and viewers can see the whole picture by moving. (Video walls must edit out the seams from the picture, removing the wonderful seamlessness of a good panorama.) We restore the seamlessness in the temporal dimension.

To do this, it would be necessary to track the exact location of the eyes of the single viewer. This would only work for one person. From the position of the eyes (in all 3 dimensions) and the monitors the graphics card would then project the panoramic image on the monitors as though they were windows in a wall. As the viewer’s head moved, the image would move the other way. As the viewer approached the wall (to a point) the images would expand and move, and likewise shrink when moving away. Fortunately this sort of real time 3-D projection is just what modern GPUs are good at.

The monitors could be close together, like window panes with bars between them, or further apart like independent windows. Now the size of the bezels is not important.

For extra credit, the panoramic scene could be shot on layers, so it has a foreground and background, and these could be moved independently. To do this is would be necessary to shoot the panorama from spots along a line and both isolate foreground and background (using parallax, focus and hand editing) and also merge the backgrounds from the shots so that the background pixels behind the foreground ones are combined from the left and right shots. This is known as “background subtraction” and there has been quite a lot of work in this area. I’m less certain over what range this would look good. You might want to shoot above and below to get as much of the hidden background as possible in that layer. Of course having several layers is even better.

The next challenge is to very quickly spot the viewer’s head. One easy approach that has been done, at least with single screens, is to give the viewer a special hat or glasses with easily identified coloured dots or LEDs. It would be much nicer if we could do face detection as quickly as possible to identify an unadorned person. Chips that do this for video cameras are becoming common, the key issue is whether the detection can be done with very low latency — I think 10 milliseconds (100hz) would be a likely goal. The use of cameras lets the system work for anybody who walks in the room, and quickly switch among people to give them turns. A camera on the wall plus one above would work easily, two cameras on the left and right sides of the wall should also be able to get position fairly quickly.

Even better would be doing it with one camera. With one camera, one can still get a distance to the subject (with less resolution) by examining changes in the size of features on the head or body. However, that only provides relative distance, for example you can tell if the viewer got 20% closer but not where they started from. You would have to guess that distance, or learn it from other queues (such as a known sized object like the hat) or even have the viewer begin the process by standing on a specific spot. This could also be a good way to initiate the process, especially for a group of people coming to view the illusion. Stand still in the spot for 5 seconds until it beeps or flashes, and then start moving around.

If the face can be detected with high accuracy and quickly, a decent illusion should be possible. I was inspired by this clever simulated 3-D videoconferencing system which simulates 3-D in this way and watches the face of the viewer.

You need high resolution photos for this, as only a subset of the image appears in the “windows” at any given time, particularly when standing away from the windows. It could be possible to let the viewer get reasonably close to the “window” if you have a gigapan style panorama, though a physical barrier (even symbolic) to stop people from getting so close that the illusion breaks would be a good idea.

Twitter clients, only shorten URLs as much as you truly need to and make them readable

I think URL shorteners are are a curse, but thanks to Twitter they are growing vastly in use. If you don’t know, URL shorteners are sites that will generate a compact encoded URL for you to turn a very long link into a short one that’s easier to cut and paste, and in particular these days, one that fits in the 140 character constraint on Twitter.

I understand the attraction, and not just on twitter. Some sites generate hugely long URLs which fold over many lines if put in text files or entered for display in comments and other locations. The result, though, is that you can no longer determine where the link will take you from the URL. This hurts the UI of the web, and makes it possible to fool people into going to attack sites or Rick Astley videos. Because of this, some better twitter clients re-expand the shortened URLs when displaying on a larger screen.

Anyway, here’s an idea for the Twitter clients and URL shorteners, if they must be used. In a tweet, figure out how much room there is to put the compacted URL, and work with a shortener that will let you generate a URL of exactly that length. And if that length has some room, try to put in some elements from the original URL so I can see them. For example, you can probably fit the domain name, especially if you strip off the “www.” from it (in the visible part, not in the real URL.) Try to leave as many things that look like real words, and strip things that look like character encoded binary codes and numbers. Of course, in the end you’ll need something to make the short URL unique, but not that much. Of course, if there already is a URL created for the target, re-use that.

Google just did its own URL shortener. I’m not quite sure what the motives of URL shortener sites are. While sometimes I see redirects that pause at the intermediate site, nobody wants that and so few ever use such sites. The search engines must have started ignoring URL redirect sites when it comes to pagerank long ago. They take donations and run ads on the pages where people create the tiny URLs, but when it comes to ones used on Twitter, these are almost all automatically generated, so the user never sees the site.

Wanted: An IRC Bot to gateway to a twitter backchannel

It’s now becoming common to kludge a conference “backchannel” onto Twitter. I am quite ambivalent about this. I don’t think Twitter works nearly as well as an internal backchannel, even though there are some very nice and fancy twitter clients to help make this look nicer.

But the real problem comes from the public/private confusion. Tweets are (generally) public, and even if tagged by a hashtag to be seen by those tracking an event, they are also seen by your regular followers. This has the following consequences, good and bad.

  • Some people tweet a lot while in a conference. They use it as a backchannel. That’s overwhelming to their followers who are not at the conference, and it fills up the feed.
  • When multiple people do it, it’s almost like a spam. I believe that conferences like using Twitter as backchannel because it causes constant mentions of their conference to be broadcast out into the world.
  • While you can filter out a hashtag in many twitter clients, it’s work to do so, and the general flooding of the feed is annoying to many.
  • People tweeting at a conference are never sure about who they are talking to. Some tweets will clearly be aimed at fellow conference attendees. But many are just repeats of salient lines said on stage, aimed only at the outsiders.
  • While you can use multiple tags and filters to divide up different concurrent sessions of a conference, this doesn’t work well.
  • The interface on Twitter is kludged on, and poor.
  • Twitter’s 140 character limit is a burden on backchannel. Backchannel comments are inherently short, and no fixed limit is needed on them. Sure, sometimes you go longer but never much longer.
  • The Twitter limit forces URLs to be put into URL shorteners, which obscure where they go and are generally a bane of the world.

Dedicated backchannels are better, I think. They don’t reach the outside world unless the outsiders decide to subscribe to them, but I think that’s a plus. I think the right answer is a dedicated, internal-only backchannel, combined with a minimal amount of tweeting to the public (not the meeting audience) for those who want to give their followers some snippets of the conferences their friends are going to. The public tweets may not use a hashtag at all, or a different one from the “official” backchannel as they are not meant for people at the conference.

The most common dedicated backchannel tool is IRC. While IRC has its flaws, it is much better at many things than any of the web applications I have seen for backchannel. It’s faster and has a wide variety of clients available to use with it. While this is rarely done, it is also possible for conferences to put an IRC server on their own LAN so the backchannel is entirely local, and even keeps working when the connection to the outside world gets congested, as is common on conference LANs. I’m not saying IRC is ideal, but until something better comes along, it works. Due to the speed, IRC backchannels tend to be much more rapid fire, with dialog, jokes, questions and answers. Some might view this as a bug, and there are arguments that slowing things down is good, but Twitter is not the way to attain that.

However, we won’t stop those who like to do it via Twitter. As noted, conferences like it because it spams the tweetsphere with mentions of their event.

I would love to see an IRC Bot designed to gateway with the Twitter world. Here are some of the features it might have.  read more »

Why facebook wants you to open up your profile

There is some controversy, including a critique from our team at the EFF of Facebook’s new privacy structure, and their new default and suggested policies that push people to expose more of their profile and data to “everyone.”

I understand why Facebook finds this attractive. “Everyone” means search engines like Google, and also total 3rd party apps like those that sprung up around Twitter.

On Twitter, I tried to have a “protected” profile, open only to friends, but that’s far from the norm there. And it turns out it doesn’t work particularly well. Because twitter is mostly exposed to public view, all sorts of things started appearing to treat twitter as more a micro blogging platform than a way to share short missives with friends. All of these new functions didn’t work on a protected account. With a protected account, you could not even publicly reply to people who did not follow you. Even the Facebook app that imports your tweets to Facebook doesn’t work on protected accounts, though it certainly could.

Worse, many people try to use twitter as a “backchannel” for comments about events like conferences. I think it’s dreadful as a backchannel, and conferences encourage it mostly as a form of spam: when people tweet to one another about the conference, they are also flooding the outside world with constant reminders about the conference. To use the backchannel though, you put in tags and generally this is for the whole world to see, not just your followers. People on twitter want to be seen.

Not so on Facebook and it must be starting to scare them. On Facebook, for all its privacy issues, mainly you are seen by your friends. Well, and all those annoying apps that, just to use them, need to know everything about you. You disclose a lot more to Facebook than you do to Twitter and so it’s scary to see a push to make it more public.

Being public means that search engines will find material, and that’s hugely important commercially, even to a site as successful as Facebook. Most sites in the world are disturbed to learn they get a huge fraction of their traffic from search engines. Facebook is an exception but doesn’t want to be. It wants to get all the traffic it gets now, plus more.

And then there’s the cool 3rd party stuff. Facebook of course has its platform, and that platform has serious privacy issues, but at least Facebook has some control over it, and makes the “apps” (really embedded 3rd party web sites) agree to terms. But you can’t beat the innovation that comes from having less controlled entrepreneurs doing things, and that’s what happens on twitter. Facebook doesn’t want to be left behind.

What’s disturbing about this is the idea that we will see sites starting to feel that abandoning or abusing privacy gives them a competitive edge. We used to always hope that sites would see protecting their users’ privacy as a competitive edge, but the reverse could take place, which would be a disaster.

Is there an answer? It may be to try to build applications in more complex ways that still protect privacy. Though in the end, you can’t do that if search engines are going to spider your secrets in order to do useful things with them; at least not the way search engines work today.

Robocars of the future from 1958 and Google Tech Talk

You may have seen it already but it’s amusing to watch this encoding of a 1958 Disney show on the highway of the future:

This highway features a mixture of human driven cars, robocars and PRT style robocars on private guideways. Much of it is typical of ancient predictions of the future, with an expectation of remarkably cheap and strong materials and portable atomic power, but some of it is on the mark (like urban sprawl.) The roles of mom and dad don’t change in 50 years. It is always humbling to go back into the past and see how futurists have got it wrong, and wonder where you are going wrong in your own predictions. (I’ve learned you should never predict dates for things because while you might have a sense about how long it would take to develop the technology, you can’t as easily predict how markets and governments will react.)

However, I will be prognosticating again next week, giving my Robocar talk in the Google “Tech Talk” series at Google HQ in Mountain View on Dec 14 at 11am. While not generally open to the public, I can bring in guests if they all come in at around 10:30am. Contact me if this is of interest. They will put the talk up on Google Video when done. Of course, if you are a Googler, I hope to see you there.

It’s amusing to note that many of the vision seen in the movie “Minority Report” are found in this Disney video from much earlier.

Make e-Ink tablets an add-on for our phone/PDAs, not stand-alone

It’s over 17 years since I first too a stab at e-Books, and while I was far too early, I must admit I had not predicted I would be that early. The market is now seeing a range of e-Ink based electronic book readers, such as the kindle, and some reasonable adoption. But I don’t have one yet. But I do read e-books on my tiny phone screen. Why?

The phone has the huge advantage that it is always with me. It gives me a book any time I am caught waiting. On a train, in a doctor’s office, there is always a way to catch up on reading. It’s not ideal, and I don’t use it to read at home in bed, but it’s there. The tablets are all large, and for a good reading experience, people like them even larger. This means they are only there when you make deliberate plans to read, and pack them in your bag.

I’m not that thrilled with e-Ink yet, both for its low contrast and the annoying way it has to flash black in order to reset, causing a distracting delay when turning the page. There are ways to help that, but as yet it suffers. e-Ink also can’t readily be used for annotation or interactive operation, so many devices will keep a strip of LCD for things like selecting from menus and the like. Many of the devices also waste a lot of space with a keyboard, and the Kindle includes a cellular radio in order to download books. e-Ink does have a huge advantage in battery life.

What makes sense to me instead would be a sheet (or two sheets, folded) of e-Ink with very little in the way of smarts inside the device. Instead, it would be designed so that a variety of cell phones could dock to the e-Ink sheet and provide the brains. Phones have different form factors, of course, and different connectors though almost all can do USB. (Though annoyingly only as a slave, but this can be kludged around.) It would be necessary to make small plastic holders for the different phone models which can mate to a mount on the book display, ideally connecting the data port at the same time. The tablet of course should be able to connect to a laptop via USB (this time as a slave) but do the same reading actions. The docking can also be, I am reminded by the commenters, done by bluetooth, with interesting consequences.

This has many large advantages:

  • Done right, this tablet is a fair bit cheaper. It has minimal brains inside, and no cell phone. In fact, for most people, it also does not include the cost of a cell phone data service. (I presume with the Kindle the cost of that is split between the unit and the book sales, but either way, you pay for it.)
  • The cell phone provides an interactive LCD screen to use with all the reader’s interactive functions — book buying, annotating etc.
  • The cell phone provides a data connection for downloading books, newspapers and web pages.
  • The cell phone provides a keyboard for the few times you use a keyboard on an e-Book reader
  • When you don’t have your e-Ink tablet, you still have all your books, and can still order books.

The main thing the cell phone doesn’t have is huge battery life. The truth is, however, that cell phones have excellent battery life if they are not turning on their screen or doing complex network apps. We do such activities of course, and they drain our batteries, but we expect that and thus charge regularly and carry more. I’m not too scared at the idea of not being able to read my books with the phone dead.

The tablet could also be used with a laptop, especially a netbook. Laptops can actually run for a very long time if you put them in a power conserving mode, turning off the screen and disks, possibly even suspending the CPU between complex operations.

However, there is no need to run it at all. While I described the tablet as being dumb, it takes very little smarts for it to let you page through a pre-rendered book that was fed to it by the phone or laptop. That can be done with a low power microcontroller. It just would not do any fancy interactive operations without turning on the phone or laptop. And indeed, for the plain reading of a single book, akin to what you can do with the paper version, it would be able to operate on its own.

Of course, the vendors would not want to support every phone. But they could cut a deal to let people use old supported phones (which are in plentiful supply as people recycle phones constantly) with a minimal books-only data plan similar to the plans they have cut for the dedicated devices. In the GSM world, they could offer a special SIM good only for book operations for use in an older phone of the class they do support. And they could also build a custom module that slots perfectly into the tablet with the cell modem, small LCD screen and keyboard for those who still want a stand-alone device.

This approach also allows you to upgrade your tablet and your phone independently.

As noted, I think a folding tablet makes a lot of sense. This is true for two reasons. First, you get more screen real estate in half the width of tablet. Secondly, with two e-Ink panels, you can play some tricks so that you flash-refresh the panel you aren’t reading rather than the one you are finishing. While slightly distracting (depending how it’s done) it means that when you want to switch to the next page, you do it with your eyes, with no delay. You have to push a button when you switch (even going from left to right though it’s not apparently needed) so that the page you have fully finished refreshes while you are reading the next one. This could also be done with timings. Or even with a small camera watching your eyes, though I was trying to make the tablet dumber and this takes CPU and power right now. I can imagine other tricks that would work, such as how you hold the tablet (capacitive detection of your grip, or accelerometer detection of the angle.)

The tablet could also be built so the two pages of e-Ink are on the front and back. In this case it would not fold, though a slipcover would be a good idea. A “flip tablet” would display page 1 to you with page 2 on the back. To read page 2 you would physically flip it over. It would detect that of course, and change page 1 to page 3 when it was on the other side. This would mean the distraction of the flash-refresh would not be visible to you, which is a nice plus.

Cutely, the flip tablet could detect which direction you flip it. So if you flip it counter clockwise, you get the next page. If you flip it clockwise you get the previous page. Changing direction means you might briefly see the flash while you are flipping the unit but the UI seems pretty good to me. For those who don’t like this interface, the unit could still hinge out in the middle to show both pages at once.

Bluetooth connection

Using bluetooth for the connection has a number of interesting consequences. It does use power, and does not allow exchange of power between the tablet and device, but it means you don’t have to physically put the phone on the tablet at all. This may be a pain in some circumstances (needing two hands to do interactive things) but in other circumstances having a remote control to use to flip pages can be a real win.

I have found a very nice way to do e-reading is to have the pages displayed in front of you, at eye height, rather than down low in your hands. In particular, if you can mount your tablet on the top back of an airplane seat, it is much more comfortable than holding a book or tablet in your hands. The main downside is that the overhead light does not shine on the page there, so you need a backlight or LED book light. The ability to do remote control from your phone, in your rested hand would be great. Unfortunately they have the strange idea that they want to ban bluetooth on planes, though it poses no risk. They don’t even like wires.

In the 90s I built a device for reading books on planes where I got a book holder (they do make those) and I rigged it to attach with velcro and hang from the back of the seat in front. In those days it was quite common to have velcro on the top of the seat. Combined with a book light, I found this to be way more comfortable than holding a book in my hands, and I read much more pleasantly. Today you might have to build it so that a plate wedges between the raised table and seatback and a rod sticks out to hold the tablet.

Or on some planes they could support e-books on the screen in the seatback, with the remote control that is in your armrest. Alas, they would indeed need to use bluetooth so your PDA could display the book on that screen. (In general, letting your PDA use the screen in front of you would be very nice. It’s too sucky a resolution for laptops, since it must have been designed years ago in an era of sucky resolution. Today 1650 x 950 displays cost $100.

How to do a distributed Twitter (MSM)

Dave Winer recently made a call for an open source twitter shell, which he suggests be perhaps done with a javascript framework to let any site act like twitter.com. Many people are interested in this sort of suggestion, because while the folks at twitter.com are generally well loved and felt to be good actors, many people fear that no publishing system that becomes important should be controlled by just one company.

For success, such a system would need to be as easy to use and set up as twitter for users, and pretty easy to set up for server operators. One thing it can’t do so easily, alas, is use a simple single namespace the way twitter does. A distributed system probably has to make names be domains, like E-mail addresses. That almost surely means something longer than twitter names and no use of the @name syntax popular in Twitter to refer to users. On the other hand almost everybody already has a domain based ID, ie. their E-mail address. On the other hand most people are afraid to use this ID in public where it might get spam. It’s a shame, but many might well prefer to get a different ID from their E-mail, or of course to use one at twitter, which would now look like user@twitter.com to the outside world instead of @user within twitter.

Naming problems aside, the denizens of the internet are certainly up to building a publish/subscribe based short message multicasting service, which is what twitter is using terms much older than the company. I might propose the name MSM for the techology (Multicast Short Message)  read more »

911 should be able to stop a train

It was over 5 years ago that I blogged about a robot that would travel in front of a train to spot cars stuck on the tracks in time to stop.

I recently read a local story about an RV that was demolished while stuck on the tracks here. The couple had time to talk to 911, who told them to get out, and it’s not clear from the story but it seems like a moderate amount of time may have passed (a couple of minutes) before their RV was smashed.

Here’s what should happen, and perhaps it does happen in some places:

  1. The 911 service should receive GPS and cell tower location on the caller. The moment the caller indicates they are stuck on the tracks, the 911 operator should push a button which figures out which tracks it might be and which trains might be approaching that crossing.
  2. Ideally trains are reporting their location with GPS as some do, but schedules can be used, or all trains anywhere near the area can be alerted.
  3. Signal lights close to the crossing should immediately go red, and cell phones of operators on the relevant trains should be called, and the computer or 911 operator can indicate which crossing is blocked. If the engineer is approaching that crossing they can emergency brake.

This can be enhanced a few ways:

  • Each crossing can have a big sign, “If stuck, get out of vehicle immediately, clear track (show direction) and call 911, and give this crossing number NNN.” The crossing number would work even if GPS and cell towers don’t locate the crossing.
  • Alternately, there could be a 10 digit phone number, different for each crossing. There is, however, some risk of abuse and false reports. You don’t want a war dialing telemarketer to stop trains. An operator may still need to confirm.
  • As noted, the sign should try to tell people to clear to the area slightly “upstream” (ie. towards the oncoming train, but not on the tracks, obviously.) That’s because when the train hits the car it throws it sideways and forward, never backwards along the path the train came from.
  • If you don’t see or hear a train, it makes slight sense to get out and call while walking so the call comes sooner. If you can see the train they can see you and it’s probably too late anyway. But human safety is more important.
  • The trains may have another way to reach the engineer, such as a private radio system, but just having a cell phone on each train (plus knowing trains staff personal cell phones and calling all of them) seems like a quick and easy solution. The cell in the train can have a very loud and flashing ringer, especially if it’s an emergency call.

It takes a long time to stop a train, but I bet most vehicles that get stuck on the tracks are stuck minutes before the train comes.

Swap should be encrypted by default

There are a variety of tools that offer encrypted filesystems for the various OSs. None of them are as easy to use as we would like, and none have reached the goal of “Zero User Interface” (ZUI) that is the only thing which causes successful deployment of encryption (ie. Skype, SSH and SSL.)

Many of these tools have a risk of failure if you don’t also encrypt your swap/paging space, because your swap file will contain fragments of memory, including encrypted files and even in some cases decryption keys. There is a lot of other confidential data which can end up in swap — web banking passwords and just about anything else.

It’s not too hard to encrypt your swap on linux, and the ecryptfs tools package includes a tool to set up encrypted swap (which is not done with ecryptfs, but rather with dm-crypt, the block-device encryptor, but it sets it up for you.)

However, I would propose that swap be encrypted by default, even if the user does nothing. When you boot, the system would generate a random key for that session, and use it to encrypt all writes and reads to the swap space. That key of course would never be swapped out, and furthermore, the kernel could even try to move it around in memory to avoid the attacks the EFF recently demonstrated where the RAM of a computer that’s been turned off for a short time is still frequently readable. (In the future, computers will probably come with special small blocks of RAM in which to store keys which are guaranteed — as much as that’s possible — to be wiped in a power failure, and also hard to access.)

The automatic encryption of swap does bring up a couple of issues. First of all, it’s not secure with hibernation, where your computer is suspended to disk. Indeed, to make hibernation work, you would have to save the key at the start of the hibernation file. Hibernation would thus eliminate all security on the data — but this is no worse than the situation today, where all swap is insecure. And many people never hibernate.  read more »

What's this odd twitter spam about?

Some recent searches have revealed unusual activity on twitter, and I wonder where it’s going. Narcissus searches on twitter reveal a variety of accounts tweeting links into my blog and sites, for reasons not clearly apparent.

For example, a week ago, a half dozen identical twitter accounts all tweeted my post about electric cars playing music. All the accounts had pictures of models as their icon, and the exact same set of twitter posts, which seem to be a random collection of blog and news URLs with a bit.ly pointer to the item, all posted via twitterfeed. These accounts seem to follow and be followed by about 500, presumably the same list.

Here are some of the accounts:

Then more recently I see another set of accounts which all follow about 20 people but are followed by about 200 to 500. They are all posting “from API” and again are just posting links, this time with tinyurl.com. The account names are odd, too.

  • sheen0uz
  • http://twitter.com/moshelir3u
  • http://twitter.com/felecin9v

These also seem to to have cute girls as icons. However, strangely, the many followers appear to be real, or at least some of them appear to be. Why are people following a spam robot? Are the followers people who were paid to do it, or are in some twitter-optimization scheme?

What I am curious about is the motive. Are they linking to real sites in the hope of gaining some sort of legitimacy in twitter indexing engines, so that later they can start linking to people who pay for it? (Twitter SEO?) Are they trying to form twitter equivalents of link farms? Are they just hoping that site authors will see the backlinks and look at them for some later purpose? (You would be amazed how many hits on a web server are there just to put a spammer in the “Referer” field, either to get you to look, or to show up in referer logs that some sites post to the web.)

Thoughts on what’s up?