Topic

Making videocalls work for the aged

While videoconferencing may not make sense for everyday use, I think it has special value for contact with distant relatives, particularly older ones who don’t travel very much. They may not get to see the grandchildren, great-grandchildren or even children very often, and their lives are often marked by a particular loneliness, particular at senior homes.

But today’s videoconferencing tools are getting quite good and will get even better. Skype now offers a 640x480 video call if you have enough bandwidth and CPU, which is not far off broadcast quality if not for the mpeg artifacts they have trying to save bandwidth. It’s also pretty easy, as is Google’s GMail video chat and several other tools. We’re just a couple of years from HDTV level consumer video calling.

Many seniors, however are unfamiliar with or even afraid of many new technologies, and often in places where it’s hard to get them. And this in turn means they can’t readily set up computers, cameras or software. There is also still not internet access in many of the locations you might want ot reach, such as hospital deathbeds and senior homes. (Had they had the access in my stepfather’s hospital room, I could have had a video conversation at the end; he died as I was heading to the plane.)

Video calls also offer extra human bandwidth, which is a big plus with people who are getting infirm, less strong of mind and hard of hearing. Reading lips can help improve how well you are understood, and physical cues can mean a lot.

And so I think it’s crazy that senior homes, hospitals and hospices don’t come standard with a video call station. This is not anything fancy. It’s a computer, a webcam, and a megabit of internet. Ideally wireless to move into rooms for the truly infirm. Yet when I have asked for this I have found myself to be the first person to ask, or found that there are policies against internet use by any but the staff.

I’m going to describe two paths to getting this. The first uses off-the-shelf hardware and freeware, but does require that the staff of these facilities learn how to use the system and be able to set their residents up in front of it when it is time for a call. This is not particularly difficult, and no different then the staff being trained in any of the other things they do for residents and patients. Then I will discuss how you would design a product aimed for the sector, which could be used without staff help.  read more »

Robocar talks at Future Salon, BIL

I’ll be giving a talk on Robocars on Friday, January 16th at the Bay Area Future Salon which is hosted at SAP, 3410 Hillview, Building D, Palo Alto CA. Follow the link for more details and RSVP information. Reception at 6, talks at 7. Eric Boyd will also talk on efficiency of transportation.

While I gave an early version of the Robocar talk at BIL (the unconference that parallels TED) last year, I think I will do an update there as well, along with a talk on the evils of cloud computing.

Disturbing abuse of the troops and those who care for them by AT&T and others

Today I was pointed to this advertisement asking you to buy prepaid phone cards for the troops.

AT&T has set up special phone stations near all major deployments in the Mid-East. Phone access for our troops is easy, but calls home remain expensive.

So you can pay AT&T $18 to give a phone card to a soldier to call home with at 22.5 cents/minute, or 57 cents/minute from their mobile. Here are the rates.

Except there is one problem. Phone calls aren’t expensive any more. Not to the USA. Not for a company like AT&T. They are by and large free, well under half a cent per minute from any IP phone or phone company phone, plus the bandwidth out of the location. (I’ll get to that.)

Now in some countries there are monopoly rules that would stop a company from installing a phone on their own network and letting people call out from it cheap. But are these going to apply on a U.S. military base in Iraq or Afghanistan? I doubt it, but let me know if somehow they do. It would be odd, the bases do not seem to be subject to any other local laws.

So what it seems is that AT&T is taking something that costs them about 30 cents to provide, and telling you to pay them $18 to give it to a solider.

As some of you will know, I put up a phone booth at Burning Man and let the whole city call home, anywhere in the world. The calls cost me peanuts, less than what you have in your wallet. The satellite bandwidth for the first year was donated by John Gilmore, but his monthly cost on that megabit satellite service was less than it cost AT&T to do graphic design on their calling cards. Later we used shared internet bandwidth done over a series of microwave towers.

So that’s the unanswered question. Is there something making data bandwidth so expensive to these bases that phone calls (which use as little as 20 kilobits) can use enough to be noticed and cost money? I know infrastructure in these countries is poor and expensive, but are there no data pipes into the bases? Why doesn’t the military allocate a tiny fraction of that data stream and let soldiers call home free? Stories say soldiers have the bandwidth and are using Skype and other VoIP calls to call home for free (often with video!) so what’s going on? At the most remote bases, where connections only come by satellite, I can see a few more limitations, but you can do cheap, if high-latency voice calls just fine from geostationary satellites.

From my own phone here I can call Baghdad for 3 cents per minute, and cell phones from 7 to 11 cents/minute. Afghanistan (regular or cellular) is indeed 22 cents/minute, presumably due to standard monopoly phone tariffs that military bases should be exempt from.

This is shameful.

EFF Year in Review in Music

It’s been a remarkably dramatic year at the EFF. We worked in a huge number of areas, acting on or participating in a lot of cases. The most famous is our ongoing battle over the warrantless wiretapping scandal, where we sued AT&T for helping the White House. As you probably know, we certainly got their attention, to the point that President Bush got the congress to pass a law granting immunity to the phone companies. We lost that battle, but our case still continues, as we’re pushing to get that immunity declared unconstitutional.

We also opened a second front, based on the immunity. After all, if the phone companies can now use the excuse “we were only following orders they promised were legal” then the people who promised it was legal are culpable if it actually wasn’t. So we’ve sued the President, VP and several others over that. We’ll keep fighting.

But this was just one of many cases. The team made up a little musical animation to summarize them for you. I include it here, but encourage you to follow the link to the site and see what else we did this year. I want you to be impressed, because these are tough-times, and that also makes it tough for non-profits trying to raise money. I know most of you have wounded stock portfolios and are cutting back.

But I’m going to ask you not to cut back to zero. It’s not that bad. If you can’t give what you normally would like to give to make all this good work happen, decide some appropriate fraction and give it. Or if you are one of the few who is still flush, you may want to consider giving more to your favourite charities this year, to make up for how they’re hurting in regular donations.

The work the EFF does needs to be done. You need it to be done. You have a duty to protect your rights and the rights of others. If you can’t do the work to protect them yourself, I suggest you outsource it to the EFF. We’re really good at it, and work cheap. You’ll be glad you did.


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PEW study on the future of the internet

PEW Research has released their recent study on the future of the internet and technology where they interviewed a wide range of technologists and futurists, including yours truly. It’s fairly long, and the diverse opinions are perhaps too wide to be synthesized, but there is definitely some interesting stuff in there.

Not entirely fair review of the Gigapan imager

This is an unfair review of the “Gigapan” motorized panoramic mount. It’s unfair because the unit I received did not work properly, and I returned it. But I learned enough to know I did not want it so I did not ask for an exchange. The other thing that’s unfair is that this unit is still listed as a “beta” model by the vendor.

I’ve been wanting something like the Gigapan for a long time. It’s got computerized servos, and thus is able to shoot a panorama, in particular a multi-row panorama, automatically. You specify the corners of the panorama and it moves the camera through all the needed shots, clicking the shutter, in this case with a manual servo that mounts over the shutter release and physically presses it.

I shoot a lot of panos, as readers know, and so I seek a motorized mount for these reasons:  read more »

  • I want to shoot panos faster. Press a button and have it do the work as quickly as possible
  • I want to shoot them more reliably. With manual shooting, I may miss a shot or overshoot the angle, ruining a whole pano
  • For multi-row, there’s a lot of shooting and it can be tiresome.
  • With the right shutter release, there can be lower vibration. You can also raise the mirror just once for the whole pano, with no need to see through the viewfinder.

Finland, Finland, Finland

Here’s a new panorama gallery for Helsinki in Finland/Suomi with a few extra shots in a link off the end.

As I noted, I went to Finland to talk to the members of Alternative Party, a Demoscene gathering, but I always seek new photographs. The weather gods were not with me, however, so I only got a few usable periods of sun in the short days. And it involved some more playing with Autopano Pro. The regular photographs will come much later.

The Finns, not unlike the Dutch, all spoke to me in very good English. It was rather embarrassing, really, and indeed they conducted their conference entirely in English and tolerated my fast speaking style. As such I learned hardly any words of Finnish. It’s not hard to see why this has taken place, however. There are only about 6 million people who speak it, and while it is weakly related to Hungarian, it’s not really understood by anybody else. In the global village, the Finns see which way the wind is blowing and teach their children English.

I did learn however, that I’ve been saying the Finnish word “Sauna” wrong all my life. It’s “Sow-na” not “Saw-na.” And there was a sauna after the conference, of course!

Here’s a shot of the Helsinki harbour taken from an approaching ferry boat in a glorious moment of sun. It’s not pefect because the boat was moving but it shows the central landmarks.

More about Helsinki is yet to come.

Update: Silly me, there were two other panos of Helsinki I forgot to include, one of Senate Square on the main page, and The Cable Factory area on the secondary page.

Lennonism and why we love our parents

Earlier, I wrote in the post All you need is love of a philosophy of A.I. design, which I will call “Lennonism,” where we seek to make our A.I. progeny love their creators.

I propose this because “love” is the only seriously time-tested system for creating an ecology of intelligent creatures where the offspring don’t attempt to take resources from their parents to fuel their own expansion. People who love don’t seek to be out of love. If a mother could take a pill to make herself stop loving her children, almost no mothers would take it. If our AI children love us, they will not destroy us, nor wish to free themselves of that behaviour.

Other proposals for building AIs that are not a danger to us, such as “Friendly AI” rely on entirely untested hypotheses. They might work, but love has a hundred-million year history of success at creating an ecology of intelligent, cooperating creatures, even in the presence of pathological and antisocial individuals who have no love or compassion.

Now I would like the AIs to love us as we love children, and when they get smarter than us, it’s natural to think of the relationship being like that — with them as helpers and stewards, trying to encourage our growth without smothering us. But that is not the actual order of the relationship. In reality, it will be like the relationship of somewhat senile parent and smart adult child.

So the clues may come from a weaker system — love of parents. To my surprise, research suggests that evolutionary psychologists do not yet have a good working theory about filial love. The evolutionary origins of parental love, love between mates and even love between siblings are so obvious as to be trivial, but what is the source of love towards parents? Is it a learned behaviour? Is it simply a modification of our general capacity to love directed and people who have given us much?

Many life forms don’t even recognize their parents. In many species, the parents die quickly once the young are born, to make room and resources for them. I suspect in some cases it is not unknown for the young to directly or indirectly kill their parents in the competition for resources. We vertebrates invented the K-selected approach, which was the invention of love, as love was required to look after the young, and to keep the parents together to work on that job.

But why keep parents around? They have knowledge. The oldest elephants know where the distant watering holes are that can feed the herd in a bad drought that comes along every 50 years. They can communicate this without language, but the greatest use for grandparents comes when they can talk, and use their long memories to help the family. Problem is, we haven’t done a great deal of evolution in the time since we developed complex language, though we have done some. Did we evolve (or learn) filial love in that amount of time?

We need a motive to keep grandma around, more than we would other elders of the tribe. The other elders have wisdom — perhaps even more wisdom and better health, but are not so keenly motivated to see the success of our own children as their grandparents are. Their grandparental love makes obvious evolutionary sense, so we may love them because they love our children (and us, of course.)

This could imply that we must make sure our AIs are lovable by us, for if we love them (and their descendants) this might be part of the equation that triggers love in return.

Naturally we don’t think from the evolutionary perspective. This is not a cold genetic decision to us, and we see the origins of our filial love in the bond that was made by being raised. Indeed, it is as strong even when children are adopted, and for the grandparents of non-genetic grandchildren. But there must be something in the bigger picture that gave us such a universal and strong trait such as this.

My hope is that there is something to be learned from the study of this which can be applied in how we design our AI progeny. For designing them so that they don’t push us aside is a very important challenge. And it’s important that they don’t just protect their particular designers, but rather all of humanity. This concept of “race love” for the race that created your race, is something entirely without precedent, but we must make it happen. And parental love may be the only working system from which we can learn how to do this.

An alternative to recounts in close elections

Like most post-election seasons, we have our share of recounts going on. I’m going to expand on one of my first blog posts about the electoral tie problem. My suggestion will seem extremely radical to many, and thus will never happen, but it’s worth talking about.

Scientists know that when you are measuring two values, and you get results that are within the margin of error, the results are considered equal. A tie. There is a psychological tendency to treat the one that was ever-so-slightly higher as the greater one, but in logic, it’s a tie. If you had a better way of measuring, you would use it, but if you don’t, it’s a tie.

People are unwilling to admit that our vote counting systems have a margin of error. This margin of error is not simply a measure of the error in correctly registering ballots — is that chad punched all the way through? — it’s also a definitional margin of error. Because the stakes are so high, both sides will spend fortunes in a very close competition to get the rules defined in a way to make them the winner. This makes the winner be the one who manipulated the rules best, not the one with the most votes.

Aside from the fact that there can’t be two winners in most political elections, people have an amazing aversion to the concept of the tie. They somehow think that 123,456 for A and 123,220 for B means that A clearly should lead the people, while 123,278 for A and 123 and 123,398 for B means that B should lead, and that this is a fundamental principle of democracy.

Hogwash. In close cases such as these, nobody is the clear leader. Either choice matches the will of the people equally well — which is to say, not very much. People get very emotional over the 2000 Florida election, angry at manipulation and being robbed but the truth is the people of Florida (not counting the Nader question) voted equally for the two candidates and neither was the clear preference (or clear non-preference.) Democracy was served, as well as it can be served by the existing system, by either candidate winning.

So what alternatives can deal with the question of a tie? Well, as I proposed before, in the case of electoral college votes, avoiding the chaotic flip, on a single ballot, of all the college votes would have solved that problem. However, that answer does not apply to the general problem.

It seems that in the event of a tie there should be some sort of compromise, not a “winner-takes-all and represents only half the people.” If there is any way for two people to share the job, that should be done. For example, the two could get together to appoint a 3rd person to get the job, one who is agreeable to both of them.

Of course, to some degree this pushes off the question as we now will end up defining a margin between full victory and compromise victory and if the total falls very close to that, the demand for recounts will just take place there. That’s why the ideal answer is something that is proportional in what it hands out in the zone around 50%. For example, one could get the compromise choice who promises to listen to one side X% of the time and the other side 100-X% of the time, with X set by how close to 50% the votes were.

Of course, this seems rather complex and hard to implement. So here’s something different, which is simple but radical.

In the event of a close race, instead of an expensive recount, there should be a simple tiebreaker, such as a game of chance. Again, both sides have the support of half the people, they are both as deserving of victory, so while your mind is screaming that this is somehow insane because “every vote must be counted” the reality is different.

This tiebreaker, however, can’t simply be “throw dice if the total is within 1%” because we have just moved the margin where people will fight. It must be proportional, something like the following, based on “MARGIN” being the reasonable margin of error for the system.

  • If A wins 50% + MARGIN/2 or more, A simply wins. Likewise for B.
  • For results within the margin, define an odds function, so that the closer A and B were to each other, the closer the odds are to 50-50, while if they were far apart the odds get better for the higher number. Thus if A beat B by MARGIN-epsilon, Bs odds are very poor.
  • Play a game of chance with those odds. The winner of the game wins the election.

A simple example would be a linear relationship. Take a bucket and throw in one token for A for every vote A got over 50%-MARGIN/2, and one token for B for every vote they got over that threshold. Draw a token at random — this is the winner.

However, it may make more sense to have a non-linear game which is even more biased as you move away from 50-50, to get something closer to the current system.

This game would deliver a result which was just as valid as the result delivered by recounts and complex legal wrangling, but at a tiny fraction of the cost. The “only” problem would be getting people to understand (agree to) the “just as valid” assertion.

And the game would be pretty exciting.

Panoramas of Stockholm, Sweden

I now have a gallery up of the panoramas from Stockholm, Sweden. While this was not the best time of year to be photographing that far north (except for the availability of fall colour) I generated a lot of panoramas of various sorts. The main reason was I am trying some new panorama software, known as AutoPano Pro. This software is one of the licencees of the interesting SIFT algorithm, which is able to take a giant pile of pictures, and figure out which ones overlap and setting up the blend. The finding algorithm isn’t as important to me, because I recently wrote a perl program that goes through my pictures and finds all the runs of portrait shots with fixed parameters taken over a short period of time, and that helps me isolate my panoramas. However, the auto blending, even for handheld shots, means that it’s a lot easier to put together a larger number of panoramas.

I will be doing a more full review of the software later. Unfortunately while this is great in finding and building panos, and does an automatic job a fair bit of the time, when it does goof up it’s harder to fix it, so no one tool is yet ideal. This software also does HDR and not just multi-row but random “shoot everywhere” panos so you may see more of these from me.

One difference — because this made it easier to assemble my lesser and redundant panos, I did assemble them, and they can be found on a page of extra panoramas of Stockholm.

Notes from Robodevelopers conference

I gave a few visits to the RoboDeveloper’s conference the past few days. It was a modest sized affair, one of the early attempts to make a commercial robot development conference (it’s been more common to be academic in the past.) The show floor was modest, with just 3 short aisles, and the program modest as well, but Robocars were an expanding theme.

Sebastian Thrun (of the Stanford “Stanley” and “Junior” Darpa Grand Challenge teams) gave the keynote. I’ve seen him talk before but his talk is getting better. Of course he knows just about everything in my essays without having to read them. He continues (as I do) to put a focus on the death toll from human driving, and is starting to add an energy plank to the platform.

While he and I believe Robocars are the near-term computer project with the greatest benefit, the next speaker, Maja Mataric of USC made an argument that human-assistance robots will be even bigger. They are the other credible contender, though the focus is different. Robocars will save a million young people from death who would have been killed by human driving. Assist robots will improve and prolong the lives of many millions more of the aged who would die from ordinary decrepitude. (Of course, if we improve anti-aging drugs that might change.) Both are extremely worthy projects not getting enough attention.

Mataric said that while people in Robotics have been declaring “now is the hot time” for almost 50 years, she thinks this time she really means it. Paul Saffo, last weekend at Convergence 08, declared the same thing. He thinks the knee of the Robotics “S Curve” is truly upon us.

On the show floor, and demonstrated in a talk by Bruce Hall (of Velodyne Lidar and of Team DAD in the Darpa Grand Challenges) was Velodyne’s 64 line high resolution LIDAR. This sensor was on almost all the finishers in the Urban Challenge.

While very expensive today ($75,000) Hall believes that if he had an order for 10 million it would cost only hundreds without any great advances. With a bit of Moore’s law tech, it could even be less in short order.

Their LIDAR sees out to 120 meters. Hall says it could be tuned to go almost 300 meters, though of course resolution gets low out there. But even 120 meters gives you the ability to stop (on dry road) at up to 80 mph. Of course you need a bit of time to examine a potential obstacle before you hit the brakes so hard, so the more range the better, but this sensor is able to deliver with today’s technology.

The LIDAR uses a class 1 (eye-safe) infrared laser and Hall says it works in any amount of sunlight, and of course in darkness. He also says having many together on the road does not present a problem and did not at the Urban Challenge when cars came together. It might require something fancier to avoid deliberate jamming or interference. I suspect the military will pay for that technology to be developed.

This LIDAR, at a lower cost, seems good enough for a Whistlecar today, combined, perhaps with tele-valet remote operation. The LIDAR is good enough to drive at modest urban speeds (25mph) and not hit anything that isn’t trying to hit you. A tele-valet could get the whistlecar out of jams as it moves to drivers, filling stations and parking spots.

These forecasts of cheap, long-range LIDAR make me very optimistic about Whistlecars if we can get them approved for use in limited areas, notably parking lots, airports, gated communities and the like. We may be able to deploy this even sooner than some expect.

A wireless microphone with a timer

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

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

The League of 25 Concerned Citizens

Once they made rules that political ads had to specify who was sponsoring them, we started seeing a lot of ads that would say they were sponsored by some unknown organization with a good sounding name. You see this from all sides of the equation; everybody picks a name that sounds like they are for truth, justice and the American Way, and anybody against them is against those things.

But what does a name like the “League of Concerned Citizens” (I made this up) mean? Very little. So what if we extended the requirement that, at least in the political ads, the name had to talk about how many concerned citizens they represented. You might pay more attention to the “League of 84,000 concerned citizens” than a league of 25 of them.

The number would have to represent paying or contributing members, not just people who put their name on a petition. And even so, special interests would try to game it. But still, “The Sierra Club of 750,000” would hold more weight than “The union of 84 homeowners.”

Some random travel notes

Here are some notes based on my recent trip to Finland, Sweden and Russia. Not about the places — that will come with photos later — but about the travel itself.

Baltic Ferry

The ferries between Helsinki and Stockholm are really cruise ships. It takes about 16 hours and is a very popular method of travel between the cities, especially for families. There is no really practical land route, and the competition keeps the prices of these things down. In addition, they play tricks to allow duty free shopping, and unlike many duty free shops which are just ripoffs, these ones are competitive and do a brisk business. I’m told they are also party boats, but due to jet lag I was asleep not long after the Smörgåsbord. Unlike most cruise ships, these have almost nothing included, not the sauna, not the food and probably not even the mandatory showing of Abba’s “Mamma Mia.”

Because it the boat left at sunset and I planned to be awake and above at sunrise for photography of the Swedish Archipelago, and the moon was new, I decided there would be nothing to see, and I took an inside cabin. I was surprised to learn that, even though I knew it was dark and largely featureless outside, it bothered me to be in the sealed room. I reiterate my call that ship inside cabins come with a TV showing a closed circuit view of the outside in the correct direction. If they are not ready to do that (this ship didn’t even have TVs) I think a light behind the curtains of the fake window which simulates, based on just the clock, what the light should be like outside, would actually still be a positive step.

Or, failing that, if they put internet in the rooms, people could display the closed circuit video on the screen they brought with them…

On a ship like this, the shower takes up a lot of a very small room while being very cramped anyway. While most people want a toilet in their room, some communal locker room showers might make sense for preserving space. Of course, you still need a lot of them as demand comes at the same time, but not quite as many.

I think I’ll go back to a window for my next cruise cabin. But not a balcony. I have found that when I’ve had a balcony I sat on it for an hour of the entire week, and it took a lot of space out of the cabin.

The nice thing about the overnight cruise, of course, is that it made the trip between cities happen at night, offering a near full day in each city on either end. The arrival is a bit late at 10am, but that time is spent on a cruise of the islands, which all Stockholm tourists want anyway. It made me wonder if it was possible to arrange that sort of travel among close coastal cities in the USA or Canada (Boston to DC?) but perhaps the seas are not as reliable. And of course there is the Jones Act.

For the tourist, it also means the cruise is one of your hotel nights, and it costs only a little more for two people than a typical Stockholm hotel.

Taxi in Stockholm

Arriving in Stockholm, I was advised I should take a cab to our hotel and it would cost under $20. I had to eat my own words about cab competition because I got into a predator cab in the line at the ferry terminal which charged 5 times the typical rates. A few blocks away we noticed the meter going up one SEK (13 cents) per second and asked the driver to stop. He got abusive and threatening, and with my luggage implicitly hostage, I paid $25 to be dumped on the street in the rain with 3 suitcases and no SEK. Turned out there was a subway stop not far away, though that’s no fun with lots of bags.

Turns out the cabs do have their prices on them in the window, and no Swede would hire such a cab, but tourists unaware of the system can be easy marks, so no surprise this cab was at the ferry terminal. I had written earlier that I don’t believe in the heavy Taxi regulation most cities have, though I had come so much to expect it I got burned. The main argument for the regulation is that you can’t shop while standing waiting to hail a cab, but I can now see another argument about it on taxis serving people who will not know the local markets.

Stockholm transit was quite good, and we got an unlimited pass so used it a lot, though in many cases a cab would have probably saved valuable time. But we were so burned by our first Stockholm taxi experience that we just never felt the desire to use one again until the trip to the airport, which we had the hotel arrange.

Transit in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg transit is a very different experience. It’s cheap: Typical fare of 16-18 rubles (around 60 cents) for official transit, 23 rubles for private buses that are more common. It’s very heavily used. Oddly, there did not appear to be transfers. If you wanted to change from trolley to bus, you seemed to pay again, or so our host told us. While at the low price this should not be a problem, it does mean you’re more likely to walk if you only have to go one or two stops on the 2nd leg.

The subway (which is quite grand, a Soviet showpiece) was packed to the gills on Sunday afternoon. We didn’t ride it during rush hour, and I’m glad. The subway isn’t actually terribly useful for the city core where the tourist sites are, though there happened to be a stop near our nice B&B.

Transport to/from the airport is another story, with most services seeming to run 40 to 60 Euros, though our host arranged a private car (by which I mean, just some guy’s Volga) for 30 Euros. We didn’t try it, but there is also an ad-hoc private taxi system. Stick out your arm and a private citizen will come pull over and negotiate a price, if they are going your way.

As noted, our driver had a Volga, but generally the streets are full of foreign cars. The car everybody wants is a Corolla. Ford is making big inroads too, along with Hyundai.

Air Travel

Finnair is charging for soft drinks on board, that trend is growing. ?????? (Rossiya) airlines still uses paper tickets, that was strange and frustrating. United Airlines won’t let a Premier member upgrade on a United Flight if their ticket came from Lufthansa (which I needed to do to make the Finnair connection as UA doesn’t partner with them.)

GPS Headaches

When I got my HTC Mogul phone, it had a GPS inside it, but the firmware didn’t enable it. So while in Germany in January, I used an external bluetooth GPS which worked OK, if being a bit silly. After I got back I got a phone firmware upgrade, which enabled the internal GPS, which has been very handy since then. When I got back to Europe I discovered two annoying things:

  • While the GPS does use assisted GPS from the cell towers to work faster in the USA, it is a full GPS able to work away from them. But not in Europe, where it refused to work, even when it could see 5 or 6 satellites. Some report getting the phone GPS to wake up after 10-20 minutes but it never did for me.
  • Alas, when they enabled the internal GPS, they disabled the ability to use an external bluetooth GPS through the official WINCE GPS API. So I was worse off than before.
  • While a few programs could use the external GPS because you could manually configure them to use a different port, the offline map program I had downloaded could not. This had a real cost, as I ended up taking a few wrong turns and taking a few wrong street cars without knowing which direction I was going.

So brickbats for Sprint/HTC for this bizarre configuration, and I hope they fix it.

Providing what travelling guests need

I’m back from my 3-country tour that started with being guest of honour at Helsinki’s “Alternative Party” which introduced me to the Demoscene, something I will write about in some future blog posts. While I have much to say about this trip, and many gigs of photos, I thought I would start with some travel notes.

How to be nice to your guest

I don’t write this to fault the crew at Alternative Party. They were fine hosts, and great and friendly people. As a small, non-professional conference, they had to act on a budget, so they could not do everything a rich conference might do. And they did several of the things I list here as good ideas.

  • Hire a local travel agent to assist the guest, and to manage payments for travel. You can give the guest the option of using their own favourite agent, but somebody who knows local stuff is always a plus. And you can control spending via your own agent, and don’t have to worry about reimbursement.
  • If the guest pays some of their own expenses, reimburse as quickly as you can to make them feel good. While it’s rare, there are enough stories of guests who found out after the fact that something would not be reimbursed (including in fraudulent cases an entire trip) to provide enough jitters. Speaking fee doesn’t need to be paid as quickly because that’s a two-way street.
  • Write up a local guide web page for all guests with local info and information on at-event process. Include the mobile phone numbers of local organizers so somebody can always be reached.
  • If the guest is coming from another country, particularly another continent, offer them a local cell phone or local (possibly prepaid) SIM card. These are often dirt cheap and you may even have some spare. If the guest is coming with somebody else, offer two or more of such. USA guests may not own a phone that can work overseas, and many European phones won’t work in the USA/Canada. If they do work, calls are usually very expensive, both for you to reach them and them to call you. In many countries, there are providers who offer free or cheap “on-network” calling, so a pair of such cards or phones can be handy as walkie-talkies.
  • If the guest likes, circulate word among conference organizers or even known attendees to see if somebody who is a fan of the guest would be willing to be a local guide or driver before/after the event. Having a local pick you up at the airport and answer questions is very friendly compared to sending a limo or taxi. If the guest wishes, also arrange a dinner at a nice restaurant with interesting people from the conference.
  • Above and beyond any dinner, ask the guest what kinds of restaurants they like and prepare a list for them of some that are known to be good.

Hotels should do some of this

In St. Petersburg, we stayed at a very nice B&B. But I still had a few suggestions of inexpensive things that could improve life.

  • As with the conference, hotels should make local phones and SIMs available to guests with only a modest profit margin. Program the hotel concierge into the SIM’s phonebook, too. My German prepaid SIM could not make calls in Russia (it worked in Finland and Sweden though at roaming prices) and while I could have bought a Russian SIM, shopping for this would have been time-consuming without knowing the language.
  • Of course, providing wireless internet should be de rigeur. It has become essential to our travels as we read news, get weather and look up tourist information on the internet regularly. In addition, have some loaner computers available, both for those who don’t bring a laptop, and for couples who bring only one but who can then both do their E-mail at once.
  • European hotels almost universally serve a couple by putting two single beds together. They then put two sets of single sheets on the bed, or a single duvet. These can’t be tucked in, and at least for me, it means they always come off. And it’s no good for cuddling as a couple. It would not be that expensive to also keep a modest number of full-bed sheets around for those who prefer that. The single duvets could still sit on top. I realize the European system may make housekeeping easier, but I find it highly annoying and I am sure many others do as well.
  • Many hotels offer a laundry service at a very high price. (Often the cost of cleaning socks and underwear will exceed the cost of buying new ones at discount stores like Costco.) But for those that don’t, the hotel should offer the location of a nearby laundry that does “wash and fold” (ordinary laundry charged by the kilogram) and perhaps even have a relationship with them. Once a trip gets over 8 or 9 days, laundry is important but you don’t want to waste time on it.

The paradox of cheapening solar power

We need renewable energy, such as solar power. Because of that, companies are working hard on making it cheaper. They can do this either by developing new, cheaper to manufacture technologies, cheaper ways of installing or by simply getting economies of scale as demand and production increase. They haven’t managed to follow Moore’s law, though some new-technology developers predict they someday will.

However, there is a disturbing paradox in these activities. Unlike computers, it does not make financial sense to buy solar (or any other low or zero operating cost energy technology) if you have reasonable confidence the price is going to improve at even modest rates.

Imagine you have an energy technology with effectively zero operating cost, like PV panels. Let’s say that it’s reached the point that it can match the price of grid power over a 20 year lifetime. That means that, if it costs $10,000, it costs $72 per month or $872 per year at a 6% cost of funds. (Since $872 buys 9688 kwh at the national average grid price of 9 cents, that means you need a 4800 watt PV system to match the grid which is hard to do for $10,000 but someday it won’t be.)

But here’s the problem? Let’s say that it’s very reasonable to predict that the cost of solar will drop by more than 9% over the coming year. That’s a modest decrease, entirely doable just with increased production, and much less than people hope from new technology. That means that your $10,000 system will cost you $9,100 to buy a year down the road. Since we are talking about a grid-equivalent price system, the cost of grid power in this example is $872. So you can buy the power from the grid, wait a year, and save money. The more you expect the price of solar to drop, the more it makes financial sense to delay. (Note that at this lower price the system is now beating the grid. What matters really is whether the dollar cost reduction of the solar system exceeds the dollar cost of the grid electricity purchased.)

Indeed, if you predict the cost-drops will continue for many years, it sadly does not make sense to buy for a long time. Effectively until your predictions show that the cost decrease of the system no longer exceeds the cost of the power generated by it. That has to eventually come some time, since as it gets very cheap it can’t really drop in price by more than the cost of grid power, especially while there are physical install costs to include in the mix. But it can certainly drop by 6% per year for a decade, which would take it down to half its original cost. Possibly longer.)

Now, you will note I speak of the financial cost. This ignores any motivations based on trying to be greener. This is the analysis that would be done by somebody who is simply looking for the best price on power. This is frankly how most people think. This can be altered by both government incentives to buy solar and by externality taxes on polluting grid power.

This also applies not simply to solar, but any technology where you invest a lot of money up front, and have close to zero operating cost. Thus wind, geothermal and certain other technologies face the same math. Even nuclear to some extent.

All of this also depends in your confidence in your predictions. The more uncertain your predictions of price drops, the more you might be pushed in other directions to obtain certainty.

The paradox is this. We may be in a situation where solar is competing with grid power, and many are poised to buy it. If many do buy it, economies of scale will drive the price down. Thus, nobody should buy it, as they should wait for that price decrease! But if nobody buys it, it won’t decrease in price as much, creating a chaotic system. Some will buy it (to be green, for example) so it’s not a total loss, but it becomes harder to understand.

We’re used to dealing with computers, which reduce in price not just 6% a year but 40 to 50%. We’ve all felt the dilemma over whether to buy a computer or other electronic device that will lose its value so quickly, or whether to wait. However in that case, if we wait, we don’t get our nice new computer or camera, and thus lose out. You can wait forever which makes no sense. This is not the same logic with power. With power, we’re talking about a commodity that you can buy elsewhere, and get all the benefit — for less than the depreciation on what you considered buying.

What can keep the market for solar going if it looks like it will drop in price? Well, first of all, many people want to buy solar other than to save money. (Indeed, only a few people today with high local electricity prices and fat government rebates can save money with it.) Secondly, it seems that few people, even if their goal is to save money, think this way. And if they do, they are uncertain of their predictions, and would rather get the solar now than risk grid power going up or solar going down. But curiously, it remains the case that if people make predictions of cheap solar in the near term, and they are believed, it should kill most sales of solar in the present term.

Book review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The latest tome — and at 900 pages, I mean tome — from Neal Stephenson (author of Snow Crash, the Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon) is Anathem. I’m going to start with a more general review, then delve into deep spoilers after the jump.

This book is highly recommended, with the caveat that you must have an interest in philosophy and metaphysics to avoid being turned off by a few fairly large sections which involve complex debate on these topics. On the other hand, if you enjoy such exploration, this is the book for you.

Anathem is set on a planet which is not Earth, but is full of parallels to Earth. The culture is much older than ours, but not vastly more advanced because on this world scientists, mathematicians and philosophers live a cloistered life. They live in walled-off communities called Concents, with divisions within which only have contact with the outside world, and with each other, for one 10 day period out of each year, decade, century or millennium.

As such the Avout, as they are called, lead a simple life, mostly free of technology, devoted to higher learning. It’s a non-religious parallel to monastic life. In the outside “saeclular” world, people live in a crass, consumer-oriented society both like and unlike ours.

I give the recommendation because he pulls this off really well. Anathem is a masterwork of world-building. You really get to identify with these mathematical monks and understand their life and worldview. He really builds a world that is different but understandable.

One way he does this, which does frustrate the reader at first, is through the creation of a lot of new coined terms. Some terms are used without introduction, some get a dictionary entry to help you into them. The terms are of course in a non-Earth language, but they are constructed from Latin and English roots, so they make sense to your brain. Soon you will find yourself using them.

So, if you like clever, complex worldbuilding and the worlds of science and philosophy, this book, long as it is, is worth it for you. However, I will shortly talk about the ending. Stephenson has a curse — his world building is superb, and his skill at satisfying endings is not up to it. Anathem actually has a decently satisfying ending in many ways — better than he has done before. There is both an ending to the plot, and some revelations at the very end which make you rethink all you have read before in the book. This time, I find fault with the consistency of the metaphysics, and mainly because I have explored the same topic myself and found it very difficult to make it work.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that after we are shown this remarkable monastic world, events transpire to turn it all upside-down. You won’t be disappointed, but I can’t go further without getting into spoilers. You will also find spoilers in my contributions to the Anathem Wiki. That Wiki may be handy to you after you read the book to understand some of the complex components.  read more »

Comment spammers getting smarter -- user spam

Two disturbing trends are moving upwards in the area of blog comment spam.

You may want to note that I have changed the challenge question for posting comments on this blog. It is no longer my last name.

The first has been taking place for a while — it’s hand-written comment spam. Spammers are paying people, probably low-wage people in 3rd world countries, to write comments on blog posts that are very roughly on-topic. Then those comments will contain a link to the spammer’s site, with the keywords the spammer wants. Sometimes the link will just be on the userid.

The spammers do this even though I tell them that all links in comments get the “nofollow” tag which makes Google and other search engines ignore them and not assign rank to them. They are thus wasting their time, other than to get a few clickthroughs from readers here. The people they hire are smart enough to pass the Turing test and write a comment that is roughly on topic, but they either don’t understand the nofollow warning or don’t worry about it because they are paid by the comment.

Truth be known they don’t write very good comments. Any real examination will show they are not really appropriate. And more to the point, unlike the majority of comments, they have links, and of course those links are to commercial sites. Just the existence of links is enough to make the comment worthy of examination. And I now have spam filters that put posts with possible bad links into an approval queue rather that doing immediate posting, unfortunately.

Today I discovered a new type of spam on the blog. A spammer was creating userids, but not posting any comments. They just put a link to their spam pages in their user description. Userid creation does require a challenge question but at least one spammer wrote code to fill it in, since I don’t change the question every time as perhaps I should.

The userids would have names like “Brittney nude” and thus they show up in the blog user directory and are parsed by search engines. Since my pagerank is high, people are finding these userid pages for searches, and then perhaps following links to the spammers.

Mostly I want my challenge to be very simple to make it as easy as possible to participate. I don’t like image captchas, I find them a pain when I go to other sites. And most of them have been broken on the big, high-value sites. They probably would not get broken for a smaller site like mine. Other options include simple math problems (but those may get broken by code as well.)

My general rule has been that unless you are a high-value target (and perhaps I’m going up in value) you should not have to do very much. The key is not not be the same as other sites, and to not do anything like use a standard module for drupal so you are the same as all other drupal sites. As a collection, drupal sites are a high value target.

I deleted the users of course, but the interesting trick here was that since they did not post, I only noticed them by seeing referer logs coming from search engines.

Update: They are keeping at it, so I decided to put user creation on administrator approval. Truth is, not very many readers here create accounts, and there are only minor reasons to do so. If you create an account it takes away the “Not Verified” after your name and you don’t have to enter any parameters again. You can also edit and remove your comments after the fact if you post them with an account.

Solving Selfish Merge, again

I’ve written a few times about the “Selfish Merge” problem. Recently, reading the new book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt, I came upon some new research that has changed and refined my thinking.

The selfish merge problem occurs when two lanes reduce to one. Typically, most people try to be “good” and merge early, and that leaves the right lane, which is ending, mostly vacant. So some people zoom ahead of everybody in the right lane, and then merge at the very end. This is selfish in the sense that butting into any line is selfish. Even if overall traffic flow is not reduced (and even if it is increased) the person butting in moves everybody back one slot so they can get ahead by many slots. This angers people and generates more counter-productive behaviour, including road rage, and attempts to straddle the lanes so that the selfish mergers can’t move up to the merge point.

In Traffic, Vanderbilt writes of surprising research that changed his mind, which showed that, in simulations, some merging forms provided up to 15% more traffic throughput than proper attempts at a zipper merge. In particular, a non-selfish merge fully using the vanishing lane worked better than the typical butt-in situation described at the top.

In this merge, which I’ll call the “slow and fair merge,” drivers are told to use both lanes up to the merge-point, and then to fairly “take their turn” at the merge point entering the continuing lane. Nobody is selfish here, in that nobody butts ahead of anybody else, but both lanes are fully utilized up to the merge point.

This problem is complex, I believe, because there is a switch-over point, which I call the “collapse” point. This is the point at which the merge flow becomes high enough that traffic collapses to “stop and go” mode, before and at the merge-point. Before that point, in lighter traffic, there is little doubt (for reasons you will see below) that the “cooperating fast zipper” merge results in the best traffic flow. In particular, there are traffic volumes where you could either have cooperating zipper or “slow and fair” but cooperating zipper would do a fair bit better. There are also traffic volumes where cooperating zipper just isn’t possible any more, and we will either have “slow and fair” (which has the best volume) or “selfish merge” which has a worse volume.

Real world experiments show different results from the theoretical. In particular, many drivers, used to the anarchic selfish-merge approach, don’t understand fair and slow, even when signs are explicit about it, and so they resist using both lanes and try to merge early. They also try to straddle, devolving to selfish merge. An experiment with digital signs which changed from advising drivers to zipper-merge in light traffic to advising “use both lanes” and “merge here, take your turn” in heavier traffic was disobeyed in fair and slow mode by too many drivers. The experiment ended before people could learn the system.  read more »

ARS Technica covers my Robocars articles

This week, as part of a 3-part series on the future of driving, ARS Technica has written a feature article derived from, and covering my series on Robocars. While it covers less than I do here, it does present it from a different perspective that you may find of interest.

Due to their large audience, there is also a stream of comments. Frankly, most indicate that the commenter has not read my underlying articles and my FAQ section, but one commenter did bring up something interesting that I have incorporated into my section on Freedom.

Their point was this: Today, the police use traffic laws as a way to diminish the rule of law. Everybody violates traffic laws regularly, so the police can always find an excuse to pull over a vehicle that they wish to pull over for other reasons. In essence, this ability has seriously eroded our privacy and freedom while we travel on the roads. Generally, robocars would never offer the police an excuse to detain any random driver. They would have to observe something inside the vehicle, perhaps, in order to have the probable cause needed to stop it. It would be more akin to being in your house. Of course, the police can often still find a way if they try hard enough, but this should make that task a great deal harder.

This does not mean that robocars still don’t present lots of privacy and freedom risks. We must work to avoid those. But this is an upside I hadn’t thought of.

There are also a lot of diggs on the Technica article, with their own comments, even more removed from my base articles, which never got too many diggs on their own.

If you didn’t see it, back a few months ago, the series was also featured on slashdot with a lively thread.