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Congress passes DTOPA -- blocking phones

Today, Congress passed 410-15 the Delete Telephony Online Predators act, or DTOPA. This act requires all schools and libraries to by default block access to the social networking system called the “telephone.” All libraries receiving federal funding, and schools receiving E-rate funding must immediately bar access to this network. Blocks can be turned off, on request, for adults, and when students are under the supervision of an adult.

“This is not the end-all bill,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said. “But, we know sexual predators should not have the avenue of our schools and libraries to pursue their evil deeds.” The “telephone” social network allows voice conversation between a student and virtually any sexual predator in the world. Once a predator gets a child’s “number” or gives his number to the child, they can speak at any time, no matter where the predator is in the world.

Many children have taken to carrying small pocket “telephones” which can be signalled by predators at any time. Use of these will be prohibited.

Transit agencies -- allow a discount for people who travel together for ordinary trips.

Transit is of course more efficient than private cars, many people on one vechicle. But because a round-trip for a couple or family involves buying 4 to 8 single tickets, couples and families who have cars will often take their cars unless parking is going to be a problem. For example, for us to go downtown it’s $6 within SF. For people taking BART from Berkeley or Oakland it’s $13.40 for 2 people. Makes it very tempting to take a car, even if it costs a similar amount (at 35 cents/mile, 15 of those for gasoline in a city) for the convenience and, outside of rush-hour, speed.

So even if transit is the winning choice for one, it often isn’t for 2. And while 2 in a car is better than 1, an extra 2 on transit during non-peak hours is even better for traffic and the environment.

Many transit agencies offer a one-day family pass, mostly aimed at tourists. There may be some that also offer what I am going to propose, which is a more ordinary one-way or return ticket for groups of people living at the same address, that is sufficiently discounted to make them do the transition from car to transit.

This isn’t trivial, we don’t want drivers to have to check addresses on IDs as people get on the bus. They can check a simple card, though. For example, people could get a simple, non-logged card with their photo and some simple word, symbol or colour combination, so that the driver can tell right away that all the cards were picked up together. (For example they could all have the same randomly chosen word on them in large print, or 3 colour stripes.)

The household/family fare would be only available outside of hours where the transit cars get loaded to standing room. Past that point each rider should pay, and driving is usually rough anyway. Passengers could board, show their matching cards, and get reduced, or even free fares for the additional people. The driver could look at the photos but probably only needs to do that from time to time. (Mainly, we would be trying to stop somebody from getting a set of household cards, and selling cheap rides to random people at the stop with them. Not that likely an event anyways, but random photo checks could stop it.)

It’s harder to manage at automatic fare stations as found on subways. There you could get more abuse, but it might not be so much as to present a problem. The main issue would be homeless people “renting” card sets to groups of people who arrive at a turnstile. (At fancy pay-to-pee public toilets in SF, the homeless were given unlimited use tokens. Better that than have them urinate on the streets for lack of a quarter. They promptly got to renting these tokens to tourists wanting to use the toilets.)

If you’re not too worried about abuse, family tickets could simply be purchased in advance from a desk where they can check that everybody is in the same household. The adults would have to show (easiest for couples) but they need not bring the kids, who already get reduced fares as it is, though in the household ticket they would probably be free.

I presume some transit agencies already do this since the one-day passes are common enough. How do they work it out? Is it aimed at locals rather than tourists? Do they assume locals close to the transit line get monthly passes?

No, senator Stevens was misquoted...

Everybody in the blogosphere has heard something about Alaska’s Ted Stevens calling the internet a series of tubes.

They just heard him wrong. His porn filters got turned off and he discovered the internet was a series of pubes.

(And, BTW, I think we’ve been unfair to Stevens. While it wasn’t high traffic that delayed his E-mail — “an internet” — a few days, his description wasn’t really that bad… for a senator.)

Switching to popular vote from electoral college

A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.

State compacts are like treaties but are enforceable by both state courts and federal law, so this has some merit. In addition, you actually don’t even need to get 270 electoral votes in the compact. All you really need is a much smaller number of “balanced” states. For example perhaps 60 typically republican electoral votes and 60 typically democratic electoral votes. Maybe even less. For example I think a compact with MA, IL, MN (42 Dem) and IN, AB, OK, UT, ID, KA (42 Rep) might well be enough, certainly to start. Not that it hurts if CA, NY or TX join.

That’s because normally the electoral college already follows the popular vote. If it’s not going to, the race is very close, and a fairly small number of states in the compact would be assured to swing the electoral college to the popular vote in that case. There are a few exceptions I’ll talk about below, but largely this would work.

This is unlike proposals for states to, on their own, do things like allocate their electors based on popular vote within the state, as Maine does. Such proposals don’t gain traction because there is generally going to be somebody powerful in the state who loses under such a new rule. In a state solidly behind one party, they would be fools to effectively give electoral votes to the minority party. In a balanced state, they would be giving up their coveted “swing state” status, which causes presidential candidates to give them all the attention and election-year gifts.

Even if, somehow, many states decided to switch to a proportional college, it is an unstable situation. Suddenly, any one state that is biased towards one party (both in state government and electoral college history) is highly motivated to put their candidate over the top by switching back to winner-takes-all.

There’s merit in the popular-vote-compact because it can be joined by “safe” states, so long as a similar number of safe votes from the other side join up. The safe states resent the electoral college system, it gets them ignored. Since close races are typically decided by a single mid-sized state, even a very small compact could be surprisingly effective — just 3 or 4 states!

The current “swing state” set is AZ, AR, CO, FL, IA, ME, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OR, PA, VA, WA, WV, and WI, though of course this set changes over time. However, once states commit to a compact, they will be stuck with it, even if it goes against their interests down the road.

The one thing that interferes with the small-compact is that even the giant states like New York, Texas and California can become swing states if the “other” party runs a native candidate. California in particular. (In 1984 Mondale won only Minnesota, and got just under 50% of the vote. Anything can happen.) That’s why you don’t just get an “instant effective compact” from just 3 states like California matching Texas and Indiana. But there are small sets that probably would work.

Also, a tiny compact such as I propose would not undo the “campaign only in swing states” system so easily. A candidate who worked only on swing states (and won them) could outdo the extra margin now needed because of the compact. In theory. If the compact grew (with non-swing states, annoyed at this, joining it) this would eventually fade.

Of course the next question may surprise you. Is it a good idea to switch from the electoral college system? 4 times the winner of the popular vote has lost (strangely, 3 of those have been the 3 times the winner was the son — GWB, Adams - or grandson - Harrison- of a President) the White House. The framers of the consitution, while they did not envision the two party system we see today, intended for the winner of the popular vote to be able to lose the electoral college.

When they designed the system, they wanted to protect against the idea of a “regional” president. A regional winner would be a candidate with extreme popularity in some small geographic region. Imagine a candidate able to take 90% of the vote in their home region, that region being 1/3 of the population. Imagine them being less popular in the other 2/3 of the country, only getting 31% of the vote there. This candidate wins the popular vote, but would lose the electoral college (quite solidly.) Real examples would not be so simple. The framers did not want a candidate who really represented only a small portion of the country in power. The wanted to require that a candidate have some level of national support.

The Civil War provides an example of the setting for such extreme conditions. In that sort of schism, it’s easy to imagine one region rallying around a candidate very strongly, while the rest of the nation remains unsure.

Do we reach their goal today? Perhaps not. However, we must take care before we abandon their goal to make sure it’s what we want to do.

Update: See the comments for discussion of ties. Also, I failed to discuss another important issue to me, that of 3rd parties. The electoral debacle of 2000 hurt 3rd parties a lot, with a major “Ralph don’t run” campaign that told 3rd parties, “don’t you dare run if you could actually make a difference.” A national popular vote would continue, and possibly strengthen the bias against 3rd parties. Some 3rd parties have been proposing what they call a “safe state” strategy, where they tell voters to only vote for their presidential candidate in the safe states. This allows them to demonstrate how much support they are getting (and with luck the press reports their safe-state percentage rather than national percentage) without spoiling or being accused of spoiling.

Of course, I think the answer for that would be a preferential ballot, which would have to be done on a state by state basis, and might not mesh well with the compact under discussion.

Judge allows EFF's AT&T lawsuit to go forward

Big news today. Judge Walker has denied the motions — particularly the one by the federal government — to dismiss our case against AT&T for cooperative with the NSA on warrantless surveillance of phone traffic and records.

The federal government, including the heads of the major spy agencies, had filed a brief demanding the case be dismissed on “state secrets” grounds. This common law doctrine, which is often frighteningly successful, allows cases to be dismissed, even if they are of great merit, if following through would reveal state secrets.

Here is our brief note which as a link to the decision.

This is a great step. Further application of the state secrets rule would have made legal oversight of surveillance by spy agencies moot. We can write all the laws we want governing how spies may operate, and how surveillance is to be regulated, but if nobody can sue over violations of those laws, what purpose do they really have? Very little.

Now our allegations can be tested in court.

Paradox of abundance, with DVRs and Netflix/Peerflix

An interesting article in the WSJ yesterday on the paradox of abundance describes how many Netflix customers are putting many “highbrow” or “serious” movies on their lists, then letting them sit for months, unwatched, even returning them unwatched.

This sounds great for Netflix, of course, though it would be bad for Peerflix.

It echoes something I have been observing in my own household with the combination of a MythTV PVR with lots of disk space and a Peerflix subscription. When the time pressure of the old system goes off, stuff doesn’t get watched.

This is a counter to one of the early phenomenon that people with PVRs like Tivo/MythTV experience, namely watching more TV because it’s so much more convenient and there’s much more to watch than you imagined. In particular, when you record a series on your PVR, you watch every episode of that series unless you deliberately try not to (as I do with my “abridged” series watching system where I delete episodes of shows if they get bad reviews.)

In the past, with live TV, you might be a fan of a series, but you were going to miss a few. They expected you to and included “Previously on…” snippets for you. For a few top series you set up the VCR, but even then it missed things. And only the most serious viewers had a VCR record every episode of every show they might have interest in. But that’s easy with the PVR.

We’ve found some of our series watching to be really delayed. Sometimes it’s deliberate — we won’t watch the cliffhanger final episode of a season until we know we have the conclusion at the start of the next season, though that has major spoiler risks. Sometimes there will be series fatigue, where too much of your viewing time has gone to a set of core series and you are keen for something else — anything else. Then the series languishes.

Now there is some time pressure in the DVR. Eventually it runs out of disk space and gets rid of old shows. Which is what makes the DVDs from Peerflix or Netflix in even more trouble. Some have indeed gone 6 months without watching.

As the WSJ article suggests, part of it relates to the style of show. One is always up for lighthearted shows, comedies etc. But sitting there for months is The Pianist. For some reason when we sit down in front of the TV and want to pick a show, Nazis never seem very appealing. Even though we know from recommendations that it’s a very good film.

When the cinema was the normal venue for films, the system of choice was different. First of all, if we decide we want to go out to a movie, we’ll consider the movies currently playing. Only a small handful will be movies we think worthwhile to go to. In that context, it’s much more likely we might pick a serious or depressing movie with Nazis in it. It could easily be the clear choice in our small list. In addition, we know that the movie will only be in cinemas for a short time, any given movie, especially serious ones, may be gone in a few weeks. That’s even more true in smaller markets.

I’ve also noticed a push for shorter programming. When you’ve rented a DVD, your plan for the evening is clear, you are going to watch a movie at home. When you just sit down to choose something from your library, the temptation is strong to watch shorter things instead of making a 2 hour committment to a longer thing.

These factors are even more true when there are 2 or more people to please, instead of just one. The reality seems to be when the choice is 2 hours of war or Nazis or a 22 minute TV comedy, the 22 minute comedy — even several of them in a row — is almost always the winner. Also popular are non-fiction shows, such as science and nature shows, which have no strict time contract since you can readily stop them in the middle to resume later with no suspense.

Anyway, as you can see the WJS article resonated with me. Since the phenomenon is common, the next question is what this means for the industry. Will the market for more serious movies be diminished? The public was already choosing lighter movies over serious ones, but now even those who do enjoy the serious movies may find themselves tending away from them.

Of course, if people take a DVD from Netflix and leave it on the shelf for months, that actually helps the market for the disk in the rental context, helps it quite a bit. Far more copies are needed to meet the demands of the viewers, even if there are fewer viewers. However, the real shift coming is to pay-per-view and downloading. If people look at the PPV menu and usually pick the light movie over the serious one, then the market for the serious ones is sunk.

Burning Man 2005 Panoramas

Hot on the heels of the regular photos the gallery of 2005 Burning Man Panoramas is now up. This year, I got to borrow a cherry picker at sunset on Friday for some interesting perspectives. The long ones are around 3400 by 52000 at full res (180 megapixels) and even the ones on the web are larger than before. Use F11 to put your browser into full screen mode.

This year I switched most of my generation to Panorama Factory, which in its latest verions has allowed fine control of the blending zone, so I can finally use it to deal with moving people in scenes.

Here’s a view of the temple, mostly because it has the narrowest thumbnail.

On the refutation of Metcalfe's law

Recently IEEE Spectrum published a paper on a refutation of Metcalfe’s law — an observation (not really a law) by Bob Metcalfe — that the “value” of a network incrased with the square of the number of people/nodes on it. I was asked to be a referee for this paper, and while they addressed some of my comments, I don’t think they addressed the principle one, so I am posting my comments here now.

My main contention is that in many cases the value of a network actually starts declining after a while and becomes inversely proportional to the number of people on it. That’s because noise (such as flamage and spam) and unmanageable signal (too many serious messages) rises with the size and eventually reaches a level where the cost of dealing with it surpasses the value of the network. I’m thinking mailing lists in particular here.

You can read my referee’s comments on Metcalfe’s law though note that these comments were written on the original article, before some corrections were made.

How only Google can pull off pay-to-perform ads

Bruce Schneier today compliments Google on trying out pay-to-perform ads as a means around click-fraud, but worries that this is risky because you become a partner with the advertiser. If their product doesn’t sell, you don’t make money.

And that’s a reasonable fear for any small site accepting pay-to-perform ads. If the product isn’t very good, you aren’t going to get a cut of much. Many affiliate programs really perform poorly for the site, though a few rare ones do well.

However, Google has a way around this. While the first step on Google’s path to success was to make a search engine that gave better results, how they did advertising was just as important. At a time when everybody was desperate for web advertising, and sites were willing to accept annoying flash animations, pop-ups and pop-unders and even adware, Google introduced ads that were purely text. In addition, they had the audacity, it seemed, to insist that pay-per-click bidding advertisers provide popular ads people would actually click through. If people are not clicking on your ad, Google stops running it. They even do this if there are not other ads to place on the page. They had the guts to say, “We’ll sell pay per click, but if your ad isn’t good, we won’t run it.” Nobody was turning down business then, and few are now.

Sites of course don’t want to be paid per click, or a cut of sales. They want a CPM, and that’s about all they want, as long as the ads are otherwise a good match for the site. Per-click costs and percentages are just a means to figuring out a CPM. Advertisers don’t want to pay CPMs, they want to pay for results, like clicks or sales.

Google found a great way to combine the two. They offered pay per click, but they insisted that the clicks generate enough CPM to keep them happy.

The same will apply here. They will offer pay for performance, but those ads will be competing with bidders who are bidding pay-per-click. Google will run, as it always has, the type of ad that gets the highest results. If you bid pay per performance, and the PPCs are bidding higher, your ad won’t run. And even if there are not higher PPCs, if your ad isn’t working and convering into sales and generating revenue for Google, I suspect they will just not run it. They can afford to do this, they are Google.

And so they will get the best of both worlds again. Advertisers who can come up with products that can sell through ads will pay for actual sales, and love how they can calculate how well it does for them. Google will continue to get good CPMs, which is what they care about, and what Adsense partners (including myself) care about. And they will have eliminated clickfraud at least on these types of ads. Once again they stay on top.

(Disclaimer: I am a consultant to Google, and am in their Adsense program. If you aren’t in it, there is a link in the right-hand bar you can use to join that program. I get a pay for performance credit if you do. Unlike Google’s PPC ads, where Adsense members are forbidden by contract from encouraging people to click on the ads, there is no need for such strictures against pay for performance ads, in fact there’s evey reason to encourage it.)

Remaining neutral on network neutrality -- it's the monopoly, stupid

People ask me about the EFF endorsing some of the network neutrality laws proposed in congress. I, and the EFF are big supporters of an open, neutral end-to-end network design. It’s the right way to build the internet, and has given us much of what we have. So why haven’t I endorsed coding it into law?

If you’ve followed closely, you’ve seen very different opinions from EFF board members. Dave Farber has been one of the biggest (non-business) opponents of the laws. Larry Lessig has been a major supporter. Both smart men with a good understanding of the issues.

I haven’t supported the laws personally because I’m very wary of encoding rules of internet operation into law. Just about every other time we’ve seen this attempted, it’s ended badly. And that’s even without considering the telephone companies’ tremendous experience and success in lobbying and manipulation of the law. They’re much, much better at it than any of the other players involved, and their track record is to win. Not every time, but most of it. Remember the past neutrality rules that forced them to resell their copper to CLECs so their could be competition in the DSL space? That ended well, didn’t it?

Read on…  read more »

PayPal should partner with UPS and other shippers

You’ve seen me write before of a proposal I call addresscrow to promote privacy when items are shipped to you. Today I’ll propose something more modest, with non-privacy applications.

I would like PayPal, and other payment systems (Visa/MC/Google Checkout) to partner with the shipping companies such as UPS that ship the products bought with these payment systems.

They would produce a very primative escrow, so that payment to the seller was transferred upon delivery confirmation by the shipper. If there is no delivery, the money is not transferred, and is eventually refunded. When you sign for the package (or if you have delivery without signature, when it’s dropped off) that’s when the money would be paid to the vendor. You, on the other hand, would pay the money immediately, and the seller would be notified you had paid and the money was waiting pending receipt. The payment company would get to hold the money for a few days, and make some money on the float, if desired, to pay for this service.

Of course, sellers could ship you a lump of coal and you would still pay for it by signing for it. However, this is a somewhat more overt fraud that, like all fraud, must be dealt with in other ways. This system would instead help eliminate delays in shipping, since vendors would be highly motivated to get things shipped and delivered, and it would eliminate any communications problems standing in the way of getting the order processed. There is nothing much in it for the vendor, of course, other than a means to make customers feel more comfortable about paying up front. But making customers feel more comfortable is no small thing.

Extended, the data from this could go into reptuation systems like eBay’s feedback, so that it could report for buyers how promptly they paid, and for sellers how promptly they shipped or delivered. (The database would know both when an item was shipped and when it was received.) eBay has resisted the very obvious idea of having feedback show successful PayPal payment, so I doubt they will rush to do this either.

Burning Man 2005 Photos plus Aerial shots

I’ve gotten way behind on putting up my photographs, and I realized I had never put my Burning Man 2005 shots up. We’re already planning for 2006.

So I got them up this weekend. Of particular interest to burners this year will be the aerial survey I did of the city, over 200 close-up photos of just about every camp in the city from the sky.

And yes, I shot plenty of panoramas, and I have built most of them, but still don’t have the panorama page up.

So take a visit to my 2005 Burning Man Photos.

A super-compact global power adapter

Those who travel on trips through many countries face the problem of how to plug in their laptops and gear. Many stores sell collections of adapters, but they are often bulky, and having multiple adapters for multiple gear can be really bulky. (Usually you get one adapter and then use a 3-way splitter or cord for your type of plug.)

Today, however, almost all my travel gear is 2-prong, not 3-prong. It’s mostly my laptop and various chargers for cameras, phones etc. And all of it runs on every voltage and hz found in the world.

It seems if you’re willing to break the rules on rigidity of plugs, one could make a very small adapter by using independent pins, perhaps with a flexible rubber strip handle between them to keep them together and make it safer, but still allowing the pins to bend and have different spacing.

If you do this, there are really just a few types of pins you need. Thin blades, thick blades, thin round pins and in a few places fat round pins. The blades come at different angles — parallel in North America, slanted in Australia, colinear for thick blades in UK. With pins it’s more a question of spacing than angles. A single plug with a way to adjust the spacing could also work. (Israel has a strange pin I haven’t used, I don’t know if other pins or blades could be adapted to it.)

Generally this would not be suitable for plugging a wall-wart into a wall, you would want to plug in a short extension cord with multiple sockets of “your” type. And it might be hard to sell a product like this due to safety standards, since they don’t want to trust the user to know what they are doing, know that they are only plugging in equipment that takes any voltage and doesn’t care what pin is live and which is neutral, doesn’t need ground and doesn’t draw lots of current in any event. But it would be very compact.

Credit card companies, give us a fake "verifiable" address

When you buy stuff with a credit card online these days, they always want your address, because they will plug it into their credit card verification system, even if they are not shipping you a physical product.

I’m trying to give my physical address out less and less these days, and would in the long term love something like the addresscrow system I proposed.

However, as an interim, it might be nice to formalize a “fake” credit card billing address, authorized by the credit card company, that you can give when placing orders that will not be shipped to your physical address.

You can already do this, in that credit card verification systems tend to focus only on your street number and zip code, and rarely on your phone number, so you can make up a fake address based on this. If you live at 124 Elm St. 60609, you can usually get credit card verification with “124 Fake St. Chicago, IL 60609” choosing a street name that doesn’t exist so the post office will discard that mail. (Though often post offices try to be “good” and will get mail to you even if the street name is wrong. I guess you could try 124 DoNotDeliver St. to give them the hint.)

If it became official, the post offices could better learn what to do. There are arguments for and against letting the biller realize the address is fake. Good billers would accept this and not add it to mailing lists. Bad billers might refuse to let you enter the address.

The War Tapes

Got to preview a powerful and interesting movie last night, The War Tapes. The producers, one of whom I met, gave quality video cameras to various members of a National Guard company doing a tour of duty in Iraq. The goal was to show the war from the soldier’s POV. It’s graphic at times, and puts forward a variety of views (though I doubt it will make many people decide to favour the war more) and well worth a watch. It opens in San Francisco and Oakland this weekend, later in other places.

Versed for couple's counselling

I’ve been away because I had to have my gall bladder removed, thanks to a gallstone the size of a small moon. Unfortunately they had to do it “old school” rather than laproscopically, which means the recovery is so much more fun.

The immersion into the hospitalization system (first time in the US) will generate some blog posts, but today let me add thoughts on one element that surprised me. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote speculating on the use of Versed for torture. I still wonder about that, and now I have a direct experience. Though I was not told about it, the anesthesiologist included one of the amnesia-inducing drugs into the pre-op “calm you down” sedation coctail. I remember him doing that injection, and getting a bit flushed from that, but it’s blank after that. No memory of any discussion after, of being wheeled to the operating room and receiving the actual injection to make me unconscious for the procedure. Those events never laid down.

(When I asked the surgeon about not being told I would receive this drug, she at least had a sense of humour and said, “How do you know you weren’t told?” Indeed, I don’t know that. And to pile on the irony, I brought the movie “Momento” to the hospital, and watched it during my recovery.)

It is disturbing to have a memory deliberately erased. We’ve all lost memories, found periods in which we can’t recollect anything about particular event or stretch, but this is different.

Still, it got me wondering about bizarre uses to which this might be put. I already speculated on torture and sinister uses. And we know about the use for date-rape which is highly disturbing. I wondered about its application to deep dark secrets.

The scenario is this. You have a couple. One or both of them volunteer for an amnesia inducing drug. Then, you pour out your heart, with all the deep dark secrets you’ve been hiding, kinky fantasies you’ve been begging for, and wait for the reaction. If your own memory is not going to store, you make notes on the reactions. When you’re done, you know what secrets you can tell, and which would be relationship-destroying or particularly hurtful. Of course, the tested party needs to cooperate, and not say, “Oh, I had better pretend to not be bothered by that so that this horrible thing does not become lost to me” and and better not be a good actor. Or couples who are in the “both want to break up but are not admitting it for the sake of the other one” state could discover it and talk it out — though one could also make a computer program to solve that problem.

To be tricky, my companion in the pre-op room could have decided to tell me things there without my being aware I had received the drug — it is quite common now in sedation coctails — in which case I would not have thought to fake my reactions. Technically, though I trust her, I can not be sure via my own memory that she did not.

These drugs are currently Schedule IV, so they don’t see such non-medical use, but one can imagine other bizarre uses. For example, confidential job interviews. Consider applying for a job to work on a confidential project at a company. They might give you an NDA, or they might give you Versed and tell you the whole deal, knowing you won’t be talking about it. Or truly “embargoed” releases to the media, or trials of secret products before a focus group. And these aren’t as scary as the suggestions of use in torture or policework I already made. Certainly when it comes to any official use, we need a law requiring that any administration of such drugs be paired with complete videotaping of the entire episode and secure storage and authentication of the videotape — if we allow such use at all. (Unfortunately we are probably going to see use whether we permit it or not.)

There could be medical uses. For example, say you have the cliche’d incurable, non-communicable fatal disease and some number of months to live. You could be told, and given the choice about when you should be told in a way you’ll remember it. It’s like creating test versions of yourself to try new and dangerous ideas and report back if the real you should absorb them.

Now I should note that there are barriers to the ideas I worry about above. The drugs are not 100%. You can’t be sure they will block the long term storage of memory. And they also sedate you, put you in a calmer, non-natural mental state so they might not really be too useful in job interviews and other circumstances. (Even for torture, they might make you more able to tolerate the non-damaging torture they would want to do to you, just as they help you tolerate surgical squicks.)

But the drugs are going to get better, if they haven’t already in secret labs. There are documents of experimentation with amnesiac drugs in intelligence contexts back to Viet Nam. Who knows what the black labs have discovered? We are going to have to get used to a world where memory is more fungible, and we call can be temporarily the character from Momento.

The history of privacy

In recent times, we’ve seen a lot of debate about eroding the 4th amendment protections against surveillance in the interests of stopping terrorists and other criminals.

It’s gotten so prevalent that it seems the debate has become only about how much to weaken the 4th. Nobody ever suggests the other direction, strengthening it.

Let’s dip back into historical perspective, and think of the late 18th century, when it was written. In those days surveillance was a simple thing to understand. It required human beings who were physically present to watch you, or search your house. The closest thing to remote surveillance was the idea of opening somebody’s mail while in transit.

More importantly, it didn’t scale. To watch 100 people you needed 100 teams. You could watch the town square but otherwise large scale surveillance simply wasn’t physically possible.

And yet, even with this limited set of things to worry about, the signers of the bill of rights felt they had plenty to fear. If you could describe today’s techniques of surveillance to them — where we can observe people from a distance, plant bugs in their homes, see them through walls, detect sounds from windows and read electronic emissions; where we can listen to a person by keying in a number at our desk, and where, most shockingly of all, through computers observe the activities of effectively everybody — they would have gasped in shock.

Their reaction would not have been to say, “We had not realized there would be all these new useful tools of surveillance. We had better open up exceptions in the 4th to be sure they can be used effectively.” I think they would have instead worked to strengthen the 4th to prevent these new tools.

After all, they were revolutionaries. Had the King been able to data-mine the call records of colonial America, no doubt he would have discovered all those seditious founding fathers and rounded them up quickly.

So I ask, as the surveillance tools become stronger, doesn’t it make sense that the protection from them should become stronger, to retain balance? Society can still benefit from better police technology by making it more precise, rather than more broad. This is not saying give up what technology can do to protect us from crime, but rather to channel it in the right direction.

Because the tools are going to get even better and “better.” The balance is going to continue to shift until there’s very little of the original design left.

High-speed cooling for the kitchen with flexible brine packs

Everybody who has used a microwave oven has wished at times for a "microwave fridge" that could cool things quickly. Of course the process is very different.

The fastest way to cool things, however, is to get lots of surface contact with a very cold fluid that will absorb and coduct lots of heat. And indeed, drop a drink can into ice-water, which is of course at 0 degrees centigrade (32F) and it will cool reasonably quickly.

Far faster is to drop it into icy brine water. Saltwater (brine) freezes much coooler. A 23% (by mass) brine doesn't freeze until -21C or -6 degrees farenheit. (In fact, 0 on that scale was in part derived from the freezing point of common brine, I believe.) A cooler full of salty icewater will cool drink cans much faster -- just a minute in fact, and this is well known. But it gets salt water on things, and can't be used to cool non-sealed things.

I propose packages of 23% brine in extremely soft and flexible (even at freezer temperatures) plastic packs. Perhaps moderate amounts of 1" or 2" spheres, not tautly inflated, so they can be squished and will conform to objects. The covering must be as conductive as you can reasonably get it, while staying flexible and not too fragile. Ideally dishwasher safe too...

Put them in the freezer, and then when you want to cool just about anything, pack them around it in a box. Get lots of surface area contact. Most freezers are supposed to be kept below 0F (-18C). They could even be placed on top of messy foods, if the container is easy to clean, and as noted, possibly could be dishwashable with modern ingredients. If you just slot a drink can or bottle into them, you would not need to clean them.

There are some risks. These packs could actually frostburn skin fairly quickly, I think. Small plastic pick-up handles/tabs would make sense for moving them by hand, or gloves or tongs could be used. Of course brine is not going to be toxic so puncture would generate nothing worse than a salty mess.

Brine is used in ice-cream making and other cooling applications already. For maximum cooling, a simple device with cold 23% brine, a conductive surface and some means to circulate the brine to generate convection would be in order.

There are some salts, such as Magnesium Chloride and Ca2Cl which stay liquid at much cooler temperatures. Those could be used in a tiny mini-cooler which takes them down to seriously cold temperatures. Then items to be flash-cooled could be inserted among the chilly pillows. Of course, expect frozen condensate if there is water around.

You can test this plan out yourself with solid zipper freezer bags. Take 750ml water and about 230g NaCl salt to make your brine. You don't have to get it exactly right, your freezer is probably not at -6F.

Rental no-talking lasers at events

Ok, this isn’t entirely serious but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

EBay: Sniping good or bad or just a change of balance?

Ebayers are familiar with what is called bid “sniping.” That’s placing your one, real bid, just a few seconds before auction close. People sometimes do it manually, more often they use auto-bidding software which performs the function. If you know your true max value, it makes sense.

However, it generates a lot of controversy and anger. This is for two reasons. First, there are many people on eBay who like to play the auction as a game over time, bidding, being out bid and rebidding. They either don’t want to enter a true-max bid, or can’t figure out what that value really is. They are often outbid by a sniper, and feel very frustrated, because given the time they feel they would have bid higher and taken the auction.

This feeling is vastly strengthened by the way eBay treats bids. The actual buyer pays not the price they entered, but the price entered by the 2nd place bidder, plus an increment. This makes the 2nd place buyer think she lost the auction by just the increment, but in fact that’s rarely likely to be true. But it still generates great frustration.

The only important question about bid sniping is, does it benefit the buyers who use it? If it lets them take an auction at a lower price, because a non-sniper doesn’t get in the high bid they were actually willing to make, then indeed it benefits the buyer, and makes the seller (and interestingly, eBay, slightly less.)

There are many ways to write the rules of an auction. They all tend to benefit either the buyer or the seller by some factor. A few have benefits for both, and a few benefit only the auction house. Most are a mix. In most auction houses, like eBay, the auction house takes a cut of the sale, and so anything that makes sellers get higher prices makes more money on such auctions for the auction house.

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