Topic

The 17 Ontario terrorists, are they terrorists?

Of course I am disturbed to see that some of these apparently twisted men come from my home town of Mississauga, but I’m also bothered by the continuing expansion of the term terrorism.

To my mind, terrorism has always involved attacking ordinary innocents for the purpose of sewing terror to some polictical end. Attacking military targets, such as the Pentagon or the USS Cole, or Marine bases is not terrorism (though you can argue that the victims on the plane used in that attack on the Pentagon qualify it as terrorist, but sadly from their perspective, they more correctly fit the definition of what we euphamistically call “collateral damage.”)

Those arrested in Ontario, it was revealed, planned to attack Parliament and take the Prime Minister and others there hostage, demanding they pull troops from Afghanistan. While I make no excuse for their plans or actions, I can’t see attacking the very people who ordered the troops in as terrorism. (Though holding them hostage is.) You could call it treason (because many were Canadians or naturalized Canadians and had in the latter case taken an oath not to do this which they would have betrayed.) You could call it guerilla warfare if you accept them as legitimate guerrilla soldiers of that nation. You could call it insurrection. You could just call it conspiracy towards kidnapping and attempted murder. All of these crimes can offer Canada’s maximum penalty. (Which, by the way, is life in prison.)

But if this is terrorism, what isn’t? As noted, we’ve seen attacks such as that on the Cole, or Marine bases or the Pentagon called terrorist. Is the only thing that’s not terrorist sending in a ship with a flag on it full of uniformed fighters? Or lobbing a missile at a tall building with the major radio transmission towers on it, which is the first thing the U.S. does in its wars?

I should note that the definition of terrorism in the law they are charged under does not distinguish civilian from military targets. It just requires things like attacks causing serious bodily harm or death for politicial, religious or ideological purposes.

Update based on comments: As noted above kidnapping is not considered a valid tool of war. The rules of war require all captured enemy to be treated as POWs. As such, the hostage-taking part of the plan is legitimately classified as terrorist. While the leaders, including the civilian leaders at the top who issue orders to troops in my opinion count as valid military enemies in war, the role of assassination in war has always been controversial. It is however, perhaps the archetypical move of an insurrection.

Again, if guilty, these men are evil and deserve the strongest punishment whether attacking parliament is terrorist or not. What’s important about this debate is that society is using the word terrorism to redefine our laws, and make laws that punish it more, and allow law enforcement infringements of civil rights in ways that would not be allowed against non-terrorist criminals. So we must make particular care in defining the term. In particular, I hope we can define the term in a way that our own actions, and past wartime actions we approve of, would not even resemble what we define as terrorism. Civilized governments and armies should never deliberately target innocents, which is why that’s the right place to draw the line. They do, however, engage in guerilla actions, are born of insurrections, and send spies and sabateurs and assassins. They do blow up buildings with military value whether civilians in or nearby will be killed in the process. If we include such actions as terrorist, we should deplore them just as much when nations do them.

Travel laptop for couples

We often travel as a couple, and of course both have the same e-mail and web addictions that all of you probably have. Indeed, these days if you don’t get to your e-mail and other stuff for a long period, it becomes unmanageable when you return. For this reason, we bring at least one, and often two laptops on trips.

When we bring one, it becomes a time-waster. Frankly, our goal is to spend as little time in our hotel room on the net as possible, but it’s still very useful not just for e-mail but also travel bookings and research, where to eat etc. When we have only one computer — or when we have two but the hotel only provides a connection for one — it means we have to spend much more time in the hotel room.

It would be nice to see a laptop adopted for couple’s use. In many cases, this could be just a little software. Many laptops already can go “dual head”, putting out a different screen on their VGA connector than goes to the built-in panel. So a USB keyboard and a super-thin laptop sized flat panel would be all you need, along with power for the panel. In the future, as more and more hotel rooms adopt HDTVs, one could use that instead of the display.

Of course desktop flat panels are bigger than laptops, this would need to be a modified version of the same panels put into laptops, which are readily available. A special connector for it, with power, would make this even better. The goal is something not much larger than a clipboard and mini-keyboard. It could even be put in an ultrathin laptop case (with no motherboard, drives or even battery.)

Now, as to software. In Linux, having two users on two screens is already pretty easy. It’s just a bit of configuration. I would hope the BSD based Mac is the same. Windows is more trouble, since it really doesn’t have as much of a concept of two desktops with two users logged in. (Indeed, I have wondered why we haven’t seen a push for dual-user desktop computers, since it’s not at all uncommon to see an home office with two computers in it for two members of the family, but for which both are used together only rarely.)

On Windows, you would probably need to just have one user logged in, and both people would be that user to Windows. However, you would have different instances of Firefox/Mozilla, for example, which can use different profiles so each person has their own browser settings and bookmarks, their own e-mail settings etc. It would be harder to have both people run their own MS Word, but it might be doable.

Some variants of the idea include making a “thin client” box that plugs into the main computer via USB or even talks bluetooth to it, and has its own power supply. It might do something as simple as VNC to a virtual screen on the main box. Or of course it could plug into ethernet but that’s often taken on the main box to talk to the hotel network if the hotel has a wired connection. (More often they have wireless now.) The thin client could also act as a hub to fix this.

If you want to bring two laptops, you can make things work by using internet connection sharing over wired or wireless ad-hoc network, though it’s much more work than it should be to set up. But my goal is to avoid the weight, size and price of a 2nd laptop, though price is not that big an issue because I am presuming one has other uses for it.

Sorry, SETI, ET not phoning

Yesterday I attended Seth Shostak’s standard talk about the work at the SETI institute. I know others from the institute such as Frank Drake and Jill Tarter who inspired the Jodi Foster character in the movie Contact. I wanted to see what was new. (Once, by the way, I went on an eclipse cruise where Drake and Tarter were passengers. On a dive boat, somebody talked about the movie Contact, so I told them that Tarter was on the ship, and she had inspired the character. The woman was amazed and asked, “You mean she met an extraterrestrial?”)

I have a lot of sympathy for this cause, for the search is important and the payoff extremely so. But I must report a serious lack of optimism. Read on to find out why…  read more »

Immigration Rant

As I watch the immigration debate, I remain astounded at the views expressed by various sides. I am an immigrant to the USA, of course (of the legal type) so naturally I have some sympathies with immigrants, but the inconsistency of some viewpoints bothers me.

If you needed an argument for encouraging immigration, you should have been with me at Agenda in the year 2000. Agenda is a high-priced computer/internet industry executive conference (I used to be one). In that year, it was filled with all the people who were building all the hot new companies and the people running some of the older ones. The very people who were being held up as the engine of economic creation in the USA. That boom wilted a little bit, but there was still a lot of real stuff underneath.

Some high level government official was speaking and immigration came up. Another person at the lunch asked all those in the crowd who were born outside the USA to raise their hands. I would guess at least 60% of us raised our hands. Everybody knows that immigrants built the USA. What some people seem to have lost is that this never stopped. It’s going on just as much today.

Being anti-immigrant reminds me of racism, to use an inflamatory term. Racism is the belief that the broad circumstances of a person’s ancestry affect their worth as a person, and should affect their rights in society. Anti-immigrant nationalism is actually stronger. I was born 20 miles from the U.S. border, to parents also born there (though they were born to immigrant parents from Europe.) What moral code says that those like me deserve less of such fundamental rights as the ability to work, freedom to travel, freedom to live on my land, or to vote for those that will govern us? How can a few miles difference in birthplace morally command such a difference?

It can’t. People are not inherently superior or more or less worthy of human rights based on their parentage or the accidents of their birth. The reasons for sealed borders are entirely pragmatic, ends-justify-the-means reasons. But few are willing to admit that. This has become more true as societies move to offering not just rights but welfare and social support systems to people who live within them. No country can provide welfare to the world, so nations decide to set up an arbitrary rule (birth and parentage) to control who can get in to receive it. I’m not saying these pragmatic arguments aren’t real, just that we should admit what they are. When people get on soapboxes and decry Indians taking jobs from Americans, they seem to be saying that Indians are less worthy than Americans. That there is a moral reason we should contract for labour from people with the same ancestry or birth situation as ourselves over those who don’t share that. There is no such moral reason.

Addendum: I also think every country should encourage as many foreign students as it can. As my privacy sparring partner (but still friend) David Brin puts it, they send their children to our country and get infused with our values and ideas, and come to know us as human beings, and then some go home to spread those ideas — and they pay for this privilege. Who could possibly be against that?

1999 2.0

So over the last 2 weeks I attended 4 nicely catered parties, starting with a dinner for O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conference and ending with one for the SuperNova conference.

By the last party I made up a badge that said “1999 2.0” — that was after the shrimp came out. Though to be fair, it was still cash bar, so we aren’t quite there yet. Though they also gave everybody a $50 gift card at an online content store (where I couldn’t find anything I wanted to spend the $50 on…)

VC funding of speculative deals is certainly up, though of course the IPO market has yet to repeat the boom. People are watching Vonage, which spammed me with E-mail, a paper letter and a voice mail to tell me I could participate in their stock offering (except the fine print says I can’t as I am not a U.S. citizen.)

Web 2.0 certainly seems replete with companies getting funding with little sign of how to build a sustainable business.

No more monitor out of scan range

It can be very frustrating when a PC decides to send a signal to a monitor that is outside its scan range. Yes, the systems try hard to avoid it, via things like plug and play EDID information on monitor specs, and reverting changes to monitor settings if you don’t confirm them after a few seconds, but sometimes it still happens. It happens after monitor swap, it happens if you don’t have a monitor turned on when you boot or if you have KVM switch that doesn’t talk about the monitor.

The result can be frustrating. If you know how to reboot your PC without seeing the screen you can try that but even that can fail.

So I suggest that monitors be a bit better about signals that are outside of their range. If the dot clock is too fast, for example, consider dividing it by two if the electronics can handle that, showing half the pixels. If there are too many scan lines, just show as many as you can. The bottom of the screen will be missing, but that’s better than no view at all. If the refresh frequency is too high (though usually that’s because the dot clock is too fast) you can skip every other frame, for a very flickering display, but at least not a blank one. Whatever you can do, you can save people from hitting the reset button.

Self driving cars, and sooner than we think, but what about in Boston?

If you’ve been following things, you know that after the great success of the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a new Grand Challenge has been proposed, this time for urban driving. The cars will have to navigate a city with other cars on the road. (I’m going to presume demolition derby style vehicles and speeds.) This time DARPA is providing some funding, though it was impressive how last time the modest (by military standards) $2M prize attained what would have been science fiction just years ago.

So I’m refirming my view that self-driving cars will come to us moderately soon. The technology is very near, and the case is so compelling. In spite of interesting speculations about personal rapid transit, or virtual right-of-way or other items in my transportation category, this is the likely winner because it requires no new infrastructure, and if we let it, it can grow from the ground up.

I’m talking cars that can drive today’s roads, and are better at avoiding people and other cars than we are. They do it on their own, though they cooperate where it makes sense to do so but don’t have cooperate to work.

The most compelling case is that over 1 million people are killed every year in or by cars, about 42,000 in the USA. In fact, there are over 6 million car crashes reported to police in the USA every year, costing an average of $2,900 per vehicle per year (clearly not all borne by insurance companies.) But if that’s not enough, we’ll see:

  • Self valet parking — car drives you to front door, then parks itself somewhere cheap.
  • Ability to read, work or web surf while in transit
  • Dedicated lanes and coordination with timed lights for faster trips.
  • Possible eventual ability to reliably go through stop-signs and red lights safely.
  • Higher fuel efficiency
  • Presumably save hundreds per year on insurace with lower accident rates
  • Presumably save even thousands on parking (for CBD commuters.) Parking also possible in cheaper, super-dense remote lots when you do need to park close.
  • Car will go to airport to pick up friends.
  • Car will run errands to pick up prescriptions and other urgent things. Or people will own or rent small efficient mini-cars to do delivery errands.
  • Can’t afford a car? Put in a lockbox for your stuff and rent it out as a Taxi when you aren’t using it. Or use the cars people are renting out as Taxis.

I would pay double for a car like this, but in fact it’s likely to save money, not cost money.

All the other alternatives seem worse. Mass transit is slow at grade and super expensive in tunnels or elevated ROW, and has slow and cumbersome transfers, no personalization and no privacy. PRT requires expensive new ROW. Private driving is of course congested and expensive.

Cost of crashes and traffic update

Let’s look at all the costs of crashes and other traffic problems:

  • With fatal crashes, of course, the cost of human lives, and suffering for loved ones.
  • With injury crashes, the cost of the injury, possibly a lifetime of problems, but also lost work.
  • With all crashes, the cost of repairing the cars
  • The cost of all the other safety equipment in the cars (though we would probably want to keep most of it unless crashes truly went to an insignificant number.) Still making a car safe in a crash is a large portion of its cost. And we still don’t have air bags for the people in the back seat.
  • The cost of police, fire and ambulences and other crash-management infrastructure.
  • The cost of police to enforce traffic regulations (or the cost of tickets to drivers) and parking regulations.
  • For accidents during high traffic times, the cost of traffic delays — 20 minutes for 3,000 people amounts to 1,000 person hours.
  • The need for wider roads to handle human driven traffic, and shoulders for accidents.

Boston Driver

In a recent discussion, the subject of the selfish driver came up. In Boston, driving in traffic is a constant game of chicken. Self-driving cars would of course be programmed to always lose a game of chicken. Done properly, a rogue driver could barrel at full speed into a crowd of self-driving cars and they would, if possible to do safely, part like water around the rogue car. You would actually have to work hard to try and hit one, especially if they are communicating to do this even better. Which brings up the problem, how to deal with the rogue driver, because it now seems the smart thing for that driver to do.

I wrote earlier about the problem of the selfish merge — a problem we have been unable to solve, where people zoom up to the end in a vanishing lane, causing a traffic jam, because somebody always lets them in, making the zoom-up the fastest strategy. I wondered if a reputation system could help. I don’t want to build a system where we track all cars and the rogue driver gets an automatic ticket. Though it would be nice if they did it constantly that perhaps vacant cars would glom around the rogue driver — reversing the strategy so that they always win a game of chicken instead of always lose — and pen him in and escort him to the cops.

More conference notes -- Just-in-time event registration

Last weekend, I attended a conference (Singularity Summit) at Stanford which was free. They had a large hall ready to hold 1800, but they got enough registrations to put around 700 on the wait list. However, at the actual event there were a few hundred empty seats in the balcony.

This is because when something is free, people register to go “just in case” and as many as half of them will not show up. In fact, it’s often suggested that it’s better to charge a nominal fee that nobody will be scared of, because it can actually make more people attend, because they said they would and paid to.

(The Long Now foundation, when it decides an event is going to overflow, institutes a $5 “reservation fee” to assure a seat. Normally their events are free with $10 suggested donation. Before they did this I had the disappointment of driving up all the way to the city to be turned away.)

Everybody is so connected now that it seems a just-in-time confirmation system might make sense. Done primarily on the web, those who wish to go would have to confirm via the web or via automated phone system the day before the event. Late that evening, or even the next morning, waitlisters would be mailed and given the opportunity to confirm. In addition, a phone-in number could provide the stats for those driving to the event, to know if it’s worth going.

Airlines are doing OK allowing at-home check in 24 hours before the flight, so this can work too. Even with this, some would confirm and not arrive, and that percentage could be learned to do the right overbooking.

Attendees who confirm would be given a page to print, which would tell them the confirmation procedure, and give the URLs and phone numbers for confirmation and stats. This page would in turn be their ticket. No need for fancy bar codes on it, for a free event you aren’t going to get people copying them or forging them.

In addition, for longer events, people leave and don’t return, so the online and phone status reports could indicate that while the event had been full, it’s now safe to come. Truth is, you are still going to get enough no-shows that those who didn’t confirm can probably still show up, but this way they can be sure.

IMAP server should tell you your SMTP parameters

When you set up a mail client, you have to configure mail reading servers (either IMAP or POP) and also a mail sending server (SMTP). In the old days you could just configure one SMTP server, with no userid or password. Due to spam-blocking, roaming computers have it hard, and either must change SMTP servers as they roam, or use one that has some sort of authentication scheme that opens it up to you and not everybody.

Worse, many ISPs now block outgoing SMTP traffic, insisting you use their SMTP server (usually without a password.) Sometimes your home site has to run an SMTP server at a non-standard port to get you past this.

I propose that IMAP (and possibly POP) include an extension so that the IMAP server can offer your client information on how to send mail. At the very least, it simplifies configuration for users, who now only have to provide one server identity. From there the system configures itself. (Of course, the other way to do this is to identify such servers in DHCP.)

This also simplifies the situation where you want to use a different SMTP server based on which mail account you are working on, something DHCP can't handle.

The IMAP server would offer a list of means to send mail. These could include a port number, and a protocol, which could be plain SMTP, or SMTP over SSL or TLS, or even some new protocol down the road. And it could also offer authentication, because you have already authenticated to the IMAP server with your userid and password. It could tell you a permanent userid and password you can use with the SMTP server, or it could tell you that you don't need one (because your IP address has been enabled for the duration of your IMAP session in the IMAP-before-SMTP approach.) It could also offer a temporary authentication token, which is good only for that session or some period of time after it. Ideally we would have IMAP over SSL/TLS, and so these passwords and tokens would not be sent in the clear.

With a list of possible methods, the client could chose the best one. Or, of course, it could chose one that was programmed in by a user who did custom configure their own SMTP information.

It's also worth noting that it would be possible, down the road, to use the very same IMAP port for a slightly modified SMTP session to an IMAP server set up to handle this. This could handle firewalls that block all but that port. However, the main benefit is to the user with simpler configuration.

Conference panelist MP3s, egg-timers and other conference enhancements

From now on, whenever I moderate a conference panel or otherwise organize a conference, I will make a rule that all speakers must make an MP3 of their talk before the conference and E-mail it. While it woudl be a good idea to then listen and see how good a speaker they are, the primary purpose is to get an idea of the length. The speaker, recording their talk at home, will notice that their 20 minute talk takes 35 minutes, and cut down the number of slides until it fits a little better. If not, and they mail in an 35 minute MP3, you can tell them what will happen at 20 minutes.

Not that I haven’t gone over time myself. Many speakers can use the discipline. And it’s a shame for both speaker and audience when you find yourself having to skip the final parts at random to stay on time, or if you don’t, eliminating time from other speakers, from questions or from hallway break conversations, which are the most important part of almost any conference.

Many conferences have a screen counting down time for a speaker, which is fine. The same idea needs to apply with questions. Along with the microphone, hand each question asker a 30 second hourglass to hold up while they’re asking. Sure, if the question is interesting, let them turn it over. But if it’s boring, say “thanks” and move on. And give a slightly longer hourglass or timer to each panelist answering the question. Again, not to be a den mother, but to have a chance to move on if things are not going anywhere. (Kathryn suggested the actual egg timers.)

Web sites -- stop being clever about some structured data

A lot of the time, on web forms, you will see some sort of structured field, like an IP address, or credit card number, or account number, broken up into a series of field boxes. You see this is in program GUIs as well.

On the surface it makes sense. Never throw away structure information. If you’re parsing a human name, it may be impossible to parse it as well from a plain string compared to a set of boxes for first, last and middle names.

But this does not make sense if the string can always be reliably parsed, as is the case for IP addresses and account numbers and WEP keys and the rest. Using multiple boxes just means users can’t cut and paste. And it’s also hard to type unless you are ready to hit TAB at a point your mind wants to type something else. Some sites use javascript to auto-forward you to the next box when you’ve entered enough in one box, but it’s never perfect and usually doesn’t do backspace well.

Think about it. The multi box idea, expressed to extremes would have every form enter an e-mail address with a username box and a domain name box, with an @ printed between them. This would stop you from entering e-mail addresses without at signs. But fortunately nobody does it. We can always parse an E-mail and we don’t want to subject people to the pains of typing it in a strange way.

Now I have to admit I’ve been tempted sometimes on international phone numbers, because parsing them is hard. The number of digits in the various components, be they area codes or exchanges, varies from region to region and I am not sure anybody has written a perfect parser. But nor do people want to enter phone numbers with tabs. And they want to cut and paste. Remember this when designing your next web form.

Lobby art: a giant real-time globe

Some years ago, Al Gore wanted to spend a lot of money to put up a satellite which would transmit a live view of the whole Earth (well the half it could see) to make people more eco-conscious.

I figured it should be possible to generate the same view with some careful combination of weather satellite images and other satellite images. Yes, sometimes the view in one place might be an hour old while it’s near live in another, but with clever blending you would never know.

So the next thing I want somebody to do with this is build a giant globe to go in some corporate or museum lobby, and project this image of the planet onto it. That’s not so easy, since I want lots of resolution which means many overlapping projectors.

Ideally you would project from inside. Antarctica would probably lose out though if you tilted the planet 23 degrees, or even an amount corresponding to the locations lattitude you could find ways to put the bottom on boring ocean. You could also project from outside, which is a challenge since the screen is not equadistant. I don’t know if a mix would be possible. As noted, one idea would be to show the Earth at is truly is, so the lit part is looking towards the sun as people see it out the windows.

I would want to get close to the globe, but I think the best view would be from a moderate distance, far enough away that we have one pixel per minute of arc or so, the resolution of the human eye. As close as we can get to seeing it in space. (In that case we would want a darker room, not a lobby, and even put a moon on the walls. But a corporate lobby seems like a better way to fund a project like this.)

Airline loading followup

I’ve written several times before about airplane loading so it’s worth pointing to the article from Wired News on the subject today. Academics have been running a lot of simulations, and favour the reverse pyramid, which is a system that boards the rear-windows first, then the rear-middle and wing-windows, then rear-window, wing-middle and front-window and so on. Other airlines like a “last 5 of rear, first 5 of front, next 5 of rear, next 5 of front and so on” system and there are various others.

I still suspect my system of drawing the boarding order numbers on the carpet and asking passengers to stand in the square with their boarding number (except for children) would speed up any of these systems, because right now, no matter what boarding order they try, people violate it for the simple reason that violating it works. Having passengers enforce — excuse me, you’re standing in my square — would work in a way that having gate agents enforce doesn’t. The story has some nice simulations, and even shows why Southwest’s take-any-seat approach works well. It blocks at first as the first passengers grab the front of plane (as they do on all airlines because frequent flyers get these seats and early boarding) but then distributions the stowing-and-unpacking load, which is a big part of the load. The more you can stop stowing-and-unpacking from blocking people in the aisle, the better. Unloading seems pretty good, in that passengers stream off the plane pretty constantly, and you can’t do much better than that, except of course by having multiple doors, which is used remarkably rarely.

It’s time for a new airline using all sorts of new ideas, including the ones I have written about here, to restore a little speed to the flying experience.

Review: Trafficguage live traffic map

Through the SV100 I was given an interesting product called the Trafficgauge to review. It’s a small thick-PDA sized live map of the highways of your area, with indicators as to where there are traffic slowdowns. They cover about a half dozen cities.

What interested me about the product was its user interface. It doesn’t have one. There’s a button on it which does initial start (which you press only once when you get the item) and which can turn on a backlight and one very minor feature if you hold it down that I doubt any of the owners of the box even know about.

It’s always on, receiving traffic data presumably from some broadcast sideband, since it works indoors and in cars all around the bay area. By having no user interface, you can almost think of it as something like a smart map rather than a computer. I’m trying to figure out if it’s too simple or just right. When I first proposed in the early 90s that my cell company, since it knows where I am, should phone me if it sees me driving in to heavy traffic, I’ve wanted this sort of service to be aware of my location, and not bother me with data about traffic problems I am unlikely to care about. Radio traffic reports spend most of their time on stuff you don’t need to know either. As GPS chips drop in price (which they are) this box could know where you are but I am not sure it could do much with it other than show you. The indicators are not a bitmap, it’s a custom made LCD with bars for each section of highway which can be on or blinking.

(It also has icons to tell you what sporting events are taking place that day. This part is not well designed, first because I am not going to know what time the events are — could be day or night game — and the icons are in the corner, rather than in the approximate locations of the stadia (which admittedly is a challege as the stadia are all close together.)

It didn’t come with a dashboard mount, so it is a bit distracting to pick it up and look at, but not tremendously so.

On the other hand, the pricing to me, with a monthly fee, is not attractive. The data bandwidth is not so expensive as to demand this, it is largely a marketing decision. $80 plus $7/month seems a tad high. Mind you the eqivalent cell phone services also will get you coming and going. (Somehow I don’t know if the marketing departments would use “We get you coming and going” as a slogan, though it’s a good one!)

Which brings me to an idea of my own in this space, much simpler and cheaper. Namely a tiny radio (or feature in in-car radios) that constantly listens to the station that does traffic every 10 minutes — there’s one or more in every town. The box would know the little tune they always play with traffic reports, so when you pushed the button on it, it would play the latest traffic report. If it could not find the tune, it would just play from the approximate time the report comes with a button to hold down for fast forward or rewind. The standalone box would just retransmit the signal (usually from AM) onto an FM channel. Such a box could be cheap, and need no service fee. Of course the traffic station may not like it since when it works well, you would not hear their ads. And of course, most of the report is about highways you don’t care about.

For people with a computer or full blown PDA, of course, there are some alternatives. And indeed, the other downside of a dedicated box like this is that over time it really makes more sense to have it all in your PDA, not in independent boxes.

At a full browser, [SigAlert]http://www.sigalert.com/map.asp?Region=Bay+Area gives a much more detailed map, with popups on all the incidents and links to full CHP traffic reports. The CHP website itself gives a text summary of all police reports, it’s the same thing the radio stations use, and it can be fetched quickly on a simple browser.

eBay - let me list unfavourite sellers

Ok, so there's a million things to fix about eBay, and as I noted before my top beef is the now-common practice of immense shipping charges and below-cost prices for products -- making it now impossible to search by price because the listed price is getting less relevant.

Here's one possible fix. Just as you can have a list of favourite sellers, allow me to add a seller to my list of blocked sellers. I would no longer see listings from them. Once I scan a seller's reputation and see that I don't trust them, I don't want to be confused by their listings. Likewise if I want to block the sellers who use the fat shipping, I could do that, so I could unclutter my listings. That might be something to make a bit more temporary.

Ideally let sellers know they are getting on these lists, too. They should know that their practices are costing them bidders.

Amazing new economics of the search bar

There’s lots of buzz now about IE7 and the “search box” at the top of the window. Microsoft says if you download IE7 that box will use the search engine you used in IE6, which is normally MSN search. For anti-trust reasons they are not rushing to just force it to be MSN or live from the start.

Recent comments to me have made me think about just how valuable that box is, and whether in fact it’s as valuable as all of Windows Vista Home, for example. Rumours have circulated that Mozilla foundation got something close to 70 million dollars by making Google the default search in the Firefox search box. For about a 10% share of the browser market.

Microsoft may have views on what default to set, but the real parties that will set the default for a lot of users are the OEMs (like Dell and HP) that ship with Windows Vista, and the big ISPs (Cable, DSL) who love to push a customized browser on their users. Both these groups have done basic customizations like setting the home page and throwing in some bookmarks. But nothing has every been so valuable as the search box.

It was suggested to me that the OEMs might open the default on the search box to bidding. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the rest would bid on who could offer the vendor a better deal — either as a percentage of revenues or a flat fee. Indeed, the type of customer (rich, poor, corporate, personal) might dictate the deal.

At some point, if it hasn’t already happened, the value of the search box could exceed the OEM’s cost for Windows Vista Home (street buzz suggests this is around $40 for high volume OEMs.) In other words, at some point, Microsoft would be effectively offering Windows Vista Home to the OEM for free, or even paying the OEM to take Windows if Microsoft search is the default search box. (Or even locked in. While MS dare not lock it in for anti-trust reasons, an OEM could do this.)

All of this depends on the dynamic of the negotiation between Microsoft and the PC vendors. Since I doubt MS wants to be in the position of paying vendors to take Windows — effectively putting them in the search business where they are #3 instead of the OS business — they will use whatever tools they have to fight this.

It doesn’t matter a lot that many users would switch from the default, or download a new browser (even IE7 directly from MS) if they don’t like the choice. The value of the default is powerful enough, unless it truly sucks.

This line of thinking goes further. Our PCs are becoming a conduit for much of our commercial activity. Google makes about $2B/quarter from ads, without forcing much on you at all, which has been part of their genius. In the past, people like NetZero failed to even pay for dial-up ISP service from ads. But there’s still much more to exploit. As Moore’s law drives down the price of the computer, and the effectiveness of Google and other companies at monetizing the web experience moves up, at some point the lines cross and it becomes worthwhile to subsidize, and then give away the entire PC, at least to certan prospects. Decent Linux PCs with no monitor are $160 at Fry’s. Are we that far away from this happening?

"Better hope nothing happens to me" service.

Here’s an interesting problem. In the movies we always see scenes where the good guy is fighting the Evil Conspiracy (EvilCon) and he tells them he’s hidden the incriminating evidence with a friend who will release it to the papers if the good guy disappears under mysterious circumstances. Today EvilCon would just quickly mine your social networking platform to find all your friends and shake them down for the evidence.

So here’s the challenge. Design a system so that if you want to escrow some evidence, you can do it quickly, reliably and not too expensively, at a brief stop at an internet terminal while on the run from EvilCon. Assume EvilCon is extremely powerful, like the NSA. Here are some of the challenges:

  • You need to be able to pay those who do escrow, as this is risky work. At the same time there must be no way to trace the payment.
  • You don’t want the escrow agents to be able to read the data. Instead, you will split the encryption keys among several escrow agents in a way that some subset of them must declare you missing to assemble the key and publish the data.
  • You need some way to vet escrow agents to assure they will do their job faithfully, but at the same time you must assume some of them work for EvilCon if there is a large pool.
  • They must have some way to check if you are still alive. Regularly searching for you in Google or going to your web site regularly might be traced.

Some thoughts below…  read more »

Is there a good electronic calendar workflow?

I’ve been playing with various calendar systems, such as Mozilla calendar, Korganizer, Google Calendar, Chandler and a few others, and I’m finding them wanting. I have not used iCal or Outlook so perhaps they solve all my problems, but I doubt they do.

I see two ways to want to merge in additional calendars, neither of which is supported very well.

The first type of merger is an intmate one, for calendars in which I will attend most or all events. Effectively they are like extensions of my own calendar, in that I should be considered busy for any event in these calendars, unless I explicity say otherwise. One example would be a couple’s calendar, for social events attended as a couple — parties, weddings etc. Family calendars and workgroup calendars could also qualify.

The other class of calendar is a suggested calendar. These calendars are imported but I will be attending relatively few events from them. It’s more I want to browse them. There are many such calendars now available on the calendar sharing services.

In a few of the tools you can copy an event from an imported calendar into your personal calendar, but after you do you now see two of the event. What you really want is a pointer to the imported event. Minor changes in the imported event should flow through into your final personal calendar. Changes in date or changes that cause a conflict should also flow through but be flagged as needing attention.

Tools like Google calendar, which allow you to access your calendar from remote locations (and easily publish public calendars) are good but they have privacy problems. As you may know if you read this blog, information on your own computer is protected by the 4th amendment. Information on somebody else’s computer (like Google’s) is not. As such, you would like to have any export of your personal calendar be encrypted, and accessible only while you are logged on with the password. Distilled, “free/busy” information may remain unencrypted for access even when you’re not online. However, this is a hard engineering problem to get right — in the long run we need the scope of the 4th amendment re-expanded so that “your papers” include not just your records stored at home, but your records stored on external servers.

Have I just not used enough tools? Do some calendars work this way that I haven’t seen?

Capacitive touch sensor on outside of cell phone

Since writing in the previous post about an end to all ringing of cellphones through the use of cheap bluetooth enabled vibrating devices in watches, belts, shoes and other wearables, I’ve been listening to the cacophany of rings in public meetings (even those were people are told to put their phone on vibrate.) One thing I am sure we’ve all experienced is hearing somebody’s ring get louder and louder in a meeting as they fumble to get the phone and open it to press the silence button.

I suggest the phone have a capacitave sensor on the outside so it knows when human skin is touching it. Once you are holding the phone there is no need for it to keep ringing, and certainly not to keep increasing in volume. Then one could open it and send the call to voicemail (or, in my design, push the button that answers and plays a recording to the caller saying you are walking out of a meeting and will be able to talk shortly.)

Of course, many of these fumbles are caused by phones that vibrate first, then start playing ringtone and then increase the volume of the tone. That’s not a bad design though obviously phones are often in a place where they are vibrating and that’s not being noticed. For those fumbling in a bag for their phone there will still be lots of loud noise.

It would be nice if phones had cheap accelerometers in them and only got really loud when they knew they were sitting still. In particular, if a phone has been sitting still for a while, and starts vibrating/ringing, and then it suddenly notices it is picked up thanks to the accelerometer, it could reduce the ringing (and perhaps do more flashing.) This might not work too well in vehicles, unfortunately. In cars we don’t care about loud rings but in trains we do.

End ringtones -- bluetooth "personal vibrator" watch.

No, not the sexual kind of personal vibrator. Today we regularly hear reminders to put phones on vibrate, and they are often ignored. The world is becoming rapidly swamped with loud, deliberately destracting cell phone ringtones. (The ringtones themselves are a business.)

I remember visiting Hong Kong 10 years ago, and a business lunch was a serious cacaphony of pagers in a crowded restaurant. They were going off ever few seconds, and this was acceptable there. I don't know how much worse it has gotten. I was on the train today and since that's a place people actually expect to take calls, ringing was quite regular.

Perhaps it's time to declare that cell phones should no longer ring at all, except in certain special circumstances. That the very idea of a ringer should be viewed as rude and pointless and in fact an invasion of your own privacy. Why should the world know you are getting a call?

To make this happen, I propose bluetooth based personal devices to be worn on the body. The most obvious one would be your watch. However, bluetooth based vibrating devices could be placed in glasses, belts, shoes, shirt collars or wallets. Anything the always-available wear on their body. Shoes and belts have the most potential for long battery life. Yes, you would have to charge your device once a week.

The vibrators would have a temperature transducer to know if they are indeed on the body. If that goes cold, a slowly rising ring could be issued from the device or the phone. The phone could also ring if the vibrating sensor is off or not connected to the phone. Or if the phone detects it is in a private car and plugged into car power, though frankly by this time we should all have cars with bluetooth handsfree anyway.

The phone itself, using temperature and other metrics, can also figure out if it is in a pocket, though this works mostly for men. Women tend to keep phones in purses.

Next step -- your cell phone should warn you when you are yelling. It knows if it is getting a good audio signal from you compared to ambient noise. As you probably know, people tend to talk loudly on cell phones if they are having trouble hearing the other party. Your phone should notice this, and give you some subtle "be quieter" tones. If you are using a headset yourself, the phone display could run a VU meter for constant reminder.

(Unfortunately most phones today shut down the backlight and even the processor in the phone during a call to save power, making this harder.)

Here's to a more peaceful public world.