Topic

Free incoming vs. pools of cellular minutes

As noted, in Australia, I picked up a SIM at the airport for my unlocked phone. Australia, like Europe and most other places outside North America, uses a system where incoming calls to cell phones are paid by the caller, and are free to the mobile owner. As you may know, in North America and a small number of other countries, the mobile owner pays for airtime on incoming calls, and they look like ordinary landline calls to the caller.

In fact, in North America, there’s no easy way for an ordinary consumer to even know a number is a mobile, since you can port landline numbers to cell phones. In Australia, cell phones have their own state-code, so you know when you are calling them, and with a bit of memorizing, you also know which mobile company they belong to, which turns out to be important — because many mobile companies offer cheap or free calling between two phones on the same carrier (in both systems.) Some mobile companies have cross deals and offer cheap/free calling to any other mobile phone.

The cost to call these caller-pays phones is quite high, anywhere from 20 to 30 cents per minute. In fact, today, these caller-pays cell phones are the most expensive phones in the developed world to call. From here in California, using VoIP, I can call Australian land lines for 2 cents/minute, while it’s 22 cents/minute to call a mobile.

So which is better? Europeans argued that because incoming calls are free, people were less afraid to give out mobile numbers, and that spurred the faster deployment of cellular. But in the USA and Canada, people buy giant bundles of minutes that have gotten so cheap they tend to not care that much about the cost of the incoming calls or outgoing ones. When you do care, however (especially with some of the high per minute costs) the free-incoming argument is that you should not have to pay for a call you didn’t necessarily choose to have happen.

Since I was just there for a few weeks, I did not buy a plan with tons of minutes. So I definitely noticed my own sense about calling out vs. receiving. Most people don’t seem too bothered by calling a mobile. It depends on how much you notice phone costs. It is useful to know that you are calling a mobile, not simply for cost, but because you want to know if you’re interrupting somebody. However, that stands in the way of highly useful number portability.

(In my expected future where the phone number goes away, number portability becomes less important. Each person’s name/number might have a standard suffix for home, mobile, work, pager, fax etc.)

The arguments are present for both sides, but the big issue I see is that there is no competition in the cost of calls to mobiles. Even though the carriers are happily selling mobile to mobile minutes for near-free, the ability to bill the caller for incoming calls is a cash cow they have no incentive to reduce. As I indicated earlier, there were carriers advertising they would rebate customers some of the money paid in these heavy charges to landline callers. One could imagine a phone that is free, as long as you get enough incoming minutes to pay for your outgoing ones. Hardly fair.

Carriers might, in a more complex regime, be able to charge less to landline callers calling mobiles, but it’s hard to say if this would be a big competitive advantage, so has anybody done it? So what can bring the price down as the cost dwindles the way it has?

If you can’t tell that you’re calling a mobile (as in the USA) then the US model is really the only choice. You don’t want to see yourself dinged high fees for what you thought was a local call. The US model was that since I decided to have an expensive cell phone, the airtime was my problem. This model has lead to lots of competition on pricing for airtime in general. Now monthly plans with less than 300 minutes are rare, and they’re under 10 cents — well under in the larger plans, and often unlimited in off-peak periods.

Which system do you like better?

Button on cell phone to answer and play pre-recorded message

Of course, if you don't answer your cell phone it goes to voice mail and plays your pre-recorded message.

But what we need are phones which can answer and play a pre-recorded message for a short time. In particular a message of the form, "Hold on, I'm in a meeting and must keep silent. However, I'm walking out of the meeting right now while you hear this recording, and in a few seconds I'll be able to talk to you. Hold on... Still walking..."

This could be a special answer button on a phone (with the carrier doing nothing) or you could just press a number button (DTMF) or other button right after answer and the cell carrier could receive that and start playing the audio to the caller until you press another button or simply start speaking at full volume into the mic. This latter system would work with any phone, and you could choose from several options to play, including "Hold on, I'm actively driving" and so on.

At a recent conference they asked people not just to put phones on vibrate, but to turn them off unless you're a doctor-on-call. They declared that people getting up (and often briefly talking) was becoming too much of a disruption in meetings. A feature like this could be some of a stopgap.

It could also be implemented in a headset, particularly a bluetooth one, so you could use it with multiple phones.

Australia's Ideas

When I visit a foreign place, it’s interesting to note what everyday things are done differently there, what’s caught on and what hasn’t. (P.S. I now have my panoramas up.)

In Australia, almost every toilet has two flush buttons, one for a “half flush” (often really a 2/3) for #1 and a full flush for #2. This is presumably mandated by law, and one hopes it saves a lot of water. I’ve often thought that homes should install cheaper urinals to save water as well. In public toilets, all lower-end gent’s rooms have a stainless steel “wall” urinal which feels less private to people used to independent units. More disquieting are the ones with a grate in front of the wall that you stand on, so your “wee” flows under you. I’ve seen these wall urinals in many other places of course, not just Australia.

Almost every Aussie motel room has a toaster in it. No bread, just a toaster. The toast marketing board has done their job well in Australia, though some Aussies insisted it was for British tourists. And of course, always milk, meaning they often provide a fridge even in cheaper rooms. The minibar milk is free, too. Of course at 240v, the kettles are super-fast for that morning cuppa.

Urban hotels have that annoying “insert your room key” slot to turn on power and heating/AC in the room. I’ve seen that around Asia and other places as well. In some hotels one plug is still on with the card out so you can charge your computer. In others no plug is online, however everybody knows you can stick any plastic card in the slot, so you leave a card in to recharge your devices.

In Victoria and South Australia, there was a massive campaign on the highways against sleepy driving, with signs literally every few miles asking sleepy drivers to pull over, and free coffee for drivers at most roadside stops.

In the Northern Territory, you will often see “Road Trains” which are trucks trailing 3 trailers at once. Sounds hard to turn around… With a new railway in place from Darwin to Alice, this has probably cut back on these. Are they not legal in the USA for safety reasons? Seems more efficient. (Pictures to come.)

There seems to be less free wireless in urban Australia, though I didn’t actually wardrive much.

I’ll write more about this later, but I noticed that mobile phone packages there are all sold with a “cap” system. The mobile calling rate is very high — 40 to 80 cents/minute for local calls to landlines — but you typically end up buying $50 of airtime or more and getting $230 more “free”, at least that was the plan on Vodaphone, the SIM I bought. So if you only wanted a little airtime you paid through the nose, but if you used a lot, the price worked out OK. Like Europe, the caller pays for your airtime when they phone you, incoming calls to your cell are free. Some carriers are rebating some of the money paid by the caller back to the recipient. That will have interesting consequences.

Australia uses 240v (highest in the world) and all plugs must have a tiny switch on the socket (called a powerpoint, probably to the dismay of Microsoft) to disable it to avoid sparks when plugging things in and out. Other high-voltage countries also have the mini-switch. Their 2-prong plug, though now rarely used, is inherently polarized and different from everywhere else in the world except NZ. However, their new standards for grounded plugs with shielding against touching the live conductor produce giant bulky plugs and power cords. We could all use a smart power system like the universal DC (&AC) system I have propsed elsewhere in the blog. Australian switches are to us, upside-down, just like Australians.

And of course, Australia has the Timtam. However, the pleasure of that is countered by the their yukky favourite spread, Kraft Vegemite.

Updated Notes: A commenter asked about tipping. Indeed, at first you get “sticker shock” in Aussie restaurants. There you might easily see a main course at $30, but that’s really $22.50 and then the tax and tip are included so you can more properly treat it as $18 in California. Australians differed to me on whether you don’t tip at all, tip only with superb service, tip only in cheaper places or tip 5% on capable service. Cabs you don’t tip but round up to the nearest dollar. Australia wisely got rid of the penny several years ago.

As to which method is better? Well, optional tipping does give you the ability to control how much you pay for service, and do it after you’ve been able to judge it. On the surface that sounds good for the customer, but we also seem to like seeing the real price in advance. For example, I feel that visible taxes are better (as in Canada and USA) but the GST is always included in Australia now, by law, so you pay the price cited. The latter is more convenient, the former makes it more clear what’s going on.

Note that while I found Aussie servers and clerks to be exceptionally friendly, at several meals, including at very expensive places, I got decidedly slow service that would have rated a punative tip. Too anecdotal to come to a conclusion though.

More notes: Fish and chips are the Australian national meal, but they don’t serve them with vinegar as in the UK and Canada. No worries, mate, (The Australian national catchphrase) they’ll bring some.

They usually mistake a Canadian for an American. (Horror of horrors.) Can’t blame them, my own accent sounds like neither, but you can tell I’m from North America so it’s not an inappropriate guess.

Australian airport security was a breath of fresh air after so much travel in North America. “No worries, mate.” Check in with luggage recently increased to 30 minutes before takeoff. Keep your shoes on. One hour in advance for a flight from Cairns to Sydney which used the international terminal. (It’s a plane from Japan that continues on and the pax clear custons in Sydney so the domestic customers join an international flight with a special sticker which lets them bypass customs. Turns out to be a giant security hole — a foreign tourist could carry on or check a bag of contraband and the domestic passenger could take it through customs. I presume they have random checks to deter this.)

On the other hand domestic flights on Qantas allow only one checked bag (32kg) and one 7kg carry-on. A mess for the international traveller who came in possibly with 2 checked bags due to the 22kg limit of most airlines and a heavy carry-on. Fortuantely they only enforced the carry-on rule on me once and just let me split it into two bags.

Oh yeah, they got rid of the penny years ago. Very nice. Took me quite a while to notice I wasn’t getting any pennies in change.

More to come on Australia.

External laptop batteries, especially on planes

Recently I purchased an external battery for my Thinkpad. The internal batteries were getting weaker, and I also needed something for the 14 hour overseas flights. I picked up a generic one on eBay, a 17 volt battery with about 110 watt-hours, for about $120. It's very small, and only about 1.5 lbs. Very impressive for the money. (When these things first came out they had half the capacity and cost more like $300.)

There are downsides to an external: The laptop doesn't know how much charge is in the battery and doesn't charge it. You need an external charger. My battery came with its own very tiny charger which is quite slow (it takes almost a day to recharge from a full discharge.) The battery has its own basic guage built in, however. An external is not as efficient as an internal (you convert the 17v to the laptop's internal voltage and you also do wasteful charging of the laptop's internal if it is not full, though you can remove the internal at the risk of a sudden cutoff should you get to the end of the external's life.)

However, the plus is around 9 to 10 hours of life in a small, cheap package, plus the life of your laptop's internal battery. About all you need for any flight or long day's work.

It's so nice that in fact I think it's a meaningful alternative to the power jacks found on some airlines, usually only in business class. I bought an airline adapter a few years ago for a similar price to this battery, and even when I have flown in business class, half the time the power jack has not been working properly. Some airlines have power in coach but it's rare. And it costs a lot of money for the airlines to fit these 80 watt jacks in lots of seat, especially with all the safety regs on airlines.

I think it might make more sense for airlines to just offer these sorts of batteries, either free or for a cheap rental fee. Cheaper for them and for passengers than the power jacks. (Admittedly the airline adapter I bought has seen much more use as a car and RV adapter.) Of course they do need to offer a few different voltages (most laptops can take a range) but passengers could reserve a battery with their flight reservation to be sure they get the right one.

It would be even cheaper for airlines to offer sealed lead-acid batteries. You can buy (not rent) an SLA with over 200 watt-hours (more than you need for any flight) for under $20! The downside is they are very heavy (17lbs) but if you only have to carry it onto the plane from the gate this may not be a giant barrier.

Of course, what would be great would be a standard power plug on laptops for external batteries, where the laptop could use the power directly, and measure and charge the external. Right now the battery is the first part to fail in a laptop, and as such you want to replace batteries at different times from laptops. This new external should last me into my next laptop if it is a similar voltage.

Immune system based dating service

One of the more interesting results in human sexuality was the study that revealed that women prefer the smell of men whose immune systems are the most different from their own. In the study, women were given a variety of men’s T-shirts (used) and asked which ones smelled the most appealing. It was found they liked the most men who had different genetic immunities from their own. (I’m not sure just how they determined this immune system mapping.) This makes sense, we want to breed children with combined immunities — opposites should attract in this case.

If the mapping is not too expensive, this seems like a good basis for a dating service. Of course do the other things dating services are doing, matching interests etc. But also add “chemistry” of which smell is an important though not complete part. Many people complain that computer dating matches them up with interesting friends but there is often no spark. A dating service that could offer chemistry as well as compatibility could do very well…

(Of course if the immune map is too expensive to build, one could do it the old fashioned way, with a gallery of T-shirts at the office. First find the partners you are compatible with in other ways, then pull out the shirts and see who passes the smell test.)

Note: I’m now back from Australia and at Foresight’s Nanotech conference. Later I will be writing a lot about my observations in Australia, and later still putting up a large array of photos.

Australia, fair

I’ve arrived this morning in Melbourne, a very pleasant city in which I haven’t allocated enough time, as per usual. Lots of interesting food, seems very livable with great transit, pleasant spaces and parks and architecture. And also surveillance cameras, everywhere. And warnings about stopping terrorism even though there hasn’t really been much here.

Once again I wish there were simple agencies to rent you all your tourist things so you didn’t have to pack them or worry about them. As I wished for before, there was a Vodaphone store in the airport arrivals lounge that sold me a SIM card for $30, though to get a really good deal you have to buy another $50 (AUS, 37.5 USD) of airtime.

My tour will take me now to Adelaide briefly, then up to Darwin to stay in Kakadu national park, then to Cairns (reef, of course) and finally ending in Sydney on the 17th, including speaking at the AUUG open source and unix conference on the 19th. Should be a great trip, and I’ll try to blog other observations about Australia.

Some immediate ones: Most people have told me they felt australians were great friendly people. My cab driver (black) said he loved Australia except the people were the most unfriendly in the world… Race may have something to do with this, I fear. I’m told my (barely) Canadian accent will sound sexy here.

End the Universal Service Fund

Recently I attended a panel that covered, among other things the universal service fund. This fund, which you usually see as an add-on on your phone bill, taxes urban phone users (through their interstate carriers) to subsidize local phone service for the poor, the rural, schools and health care. Sounds noble, but it collected over 5 billion dollars in 2002, and now the question has come about how to apply it to the internet now that people are making phone calls over the internet.

The panel was asked to explain the purpose of the fund, and they cited the various reasons above. There are people who live very far from cities to whom it would not be economical to run phone wires to at their real cost, etc. I suggested the purpose of the USF was to transfer money to the states of senators who support it from the states of senators who don’t.

Established telcos, who pay into the USF (though often also get paid out of it) are pushing to apply it to VoIP telcos. They want barriers to entry against the upstart competitors.

Why the cynical view? As I noted previously in the blog, friends and I decided last month to bring internet and phone service to Burning Man, in the Black Rock desert, which is about as rural and remote as it gets in the lower 48 states. We did it just for a lark, on the budget of just a few private individuals — admittedly richer than average individuals, but nowhere near corporate budgets.

We were able to do that through the use of the tons of revolutionary low cost technologies that have appeared due to the deregulation of unlicenced spectrum and VoIP. And the cost of that is just getting lower every day.

The truth is, today you can provide phone service to the poor, and schools, and hospitals, and a great deal of the rural, for a lower price than the urban people were getting “cheap” phone service when it was decided to tax it. And that trend is going to continue, especially if more spectrum is opened up to unlicenced use or cognitive radio use.

I conceive of a relatively cheap solar powered box with motorized directional antennas which could be dropped by helicopter on ridgetops for about $3,000 (and falling.) Somebody on the ground would aim the antennas to build a redundant mesh, and data/phone could reach just about anywhere cheaply, except the most remote corners of Alaska and a few other places. This is just one plan. The reality is that the exponential progress of bandwidth and radio technologies will provide others. Instead of taxing the new technologies and those deploying them, free them to get real results.

What's the deal with IPTV

IPTV is the new buzzword for video over IP, in particular as it relates to DSL/phone companies wanting to compete with cable companies and give you TV using your DSL. (The cable companies are hard at work at giving you phone service over your cable modem.)

I saw a demo of Microsoft’s IPTV product recently. They talked about how they had this slick interface that could show you live thumbnails of what was on several other channels while a bigger box showed your current channel. They said how doing it all at the central server (which could get access to all the live streams independently, unlike a typical tuner card or cable box) allowed this fancy multiplexing.

But then I asked them, “So, do you still watch live TV?” They admitted that, like everbody else who gets a Tivo, MythTV, Ultimate TV or other PVR that they almost never watch live TV. So why demo something that’s the wave of the past? Mostly because it looks cool.

The dream of video on demand has been with us for decades and it’s a cool dream but a silly one. Sure, it would be nice to be able to pull up anything from a giant catalog and watch it, but it turns out that watching delayed, even much delayed is fine. “Netflix is video on demand with a very high latency,” I explained.

So why don’t the cable companies get it? They are going all out to bring us 30 megabit aDSL to deliver this, and that’s great for a lot of other apps, but it turns out that with a PVR, a more modest 3 megabit (or even 1 megabit) can give you TV just fine, with some latency. They should focus there instead of trying to put it all in the central server, where it will surely die.

How car/oil industry cheats us of 6 billion dollars a year

Recently, I discovered something that others have known for a while but many don’t know. Namely that effectively all modern cars that say they should use Premium (high-octane) gasoline run perfectly fine on regular. Since the early 90s, cars have had more advanced carb/fuel-injector systems which adjust to the octane of the gas and don’t knock. Like an idiot, I’ve been filling my car with premium. The engineers at all the major car vendors have confirmed this.

I worked out that since the USA uses 370 million gallons of gas a day, or 135 billion per year, at 12% premium sales, that’s 16 billion gallons of premium sold, almost none of it needed. Call it 15B gallons. At a surcharge of 20 to 30 cents/gallon that’s over 3 billion extra dollars charged to no purpose in the USA, and presumably another 3 billion outside (though perhaps they buy less hi-test outside.) The USA uses about 44% of world gasoline.

So why do many cars come with a line in the owner’s manual saying to use premium gasoline? Turns out the marketing departments believe customers of higher-end cars are ethralled by horsepower. They want to advertise the highest peak horsepower number they can. And you can deliver a slightly higher peak horsepower on higher octane. Nothing so big that you would notice it outside of extreme driving conditions or pro racing, but you can publish a higher number. So long as you spec the car as using premium.

So to satisfy these marketing numbers, the world is spending about 6 billion extra bucks each year on high octane fuel. And I’m not even considering all the extra infrastructure required (fancier pumps and blending systems, more tanks with risk to leak into the ground etc.)

Many people think high-octane gasoline is “more powerful.” In fact, oddly, the octane rating measures how non-explosive the fuel is. The higher the octane, the less likely it will explode under pressure. People think of high-octane fuel as more powerful because with high octane fuel, you can design a higher performance car that works at higher compression, safe in the knowledge you won’t get explosions from anything but the spark plug, ie. knocking. The fuel is not higher power, it’s the engine, which is why putting premium into a regular car is a waste unless it’s knocking. Lead cheaply reduces knocking at low pressure which is why they used to add it until they realized, “holy crap, we’re filling our fuel with toxic lead!”

There is still controversy over whether high-compression engines get better mileage than when they run at lower compression with regular.

What a scam. Spread the word.

Mesh network of cell phones when the towers go down

Klein Gilhousen, one of the founders of Qualcomm, proposed this evening at Gilder’s Telecosm that cell phones be modified, if an emergency shuts down the towers, to do some basic mesh networking, not so much for voice, but for text messaging and perhaps pust-to-talk voice packets, as well as location information from their internal GPS if present.

Thus, in New Orleans, everybody would have been able to text in and out, at a battery cost to those who relay the messages to the working cell towers. Texting doesn’t require continuous connectivity. In time, of course, towers would be repaired or they could be flow in on blimps or choppers.

I suggested that in fact this could be a commercially viable service, allowing people to text who are beyond the range of cell towers, possibly quite a bit beyond the range. Operators could still charge for this. (Others, more cynical, felt operators would never want stuff in phones that made them usable without the carrier.)

He also suggested some simple improvements. During Katrina, people who did get their cell phones out of town could not make calls because the databases that let them roam were “under water.” The databases need to be backed up, or more simply during an emergency, switch so that unknown phones are allowed to make calls if their home system does not respond, rather than blocking them.

This requires hardware mods, unfortunately (phones today can’t transmit and receive on the same bands) but otherwise is easy and could keep comms up in an emergency. A number of other cheap devices can keep power to phones.

Another person suggested phones have an ELT-like mode, where a person can enter a text message of the SOS form. Messages might indicate if the person is just advertising their location, or needs urgent help. Helicopters flying overhead could identify the phones, triangulate on them and locate all mobile owners who need rescue.

Wireless protocol for transmission of powerpoint & other slides

At every conference I go to, with a few rare exceptions, we always see people wasting time fiddling with computers and projectors in order to show their presentation, which is (sadly) almost always in powerpoint. Many laptops won’t switch displays until they see a monitor on the VGA port, which makes things take longer.

So how about a wireless protocol for sending presentations from laptops to projectors or a computer connected to the projector. Over 802.11 or bluetooth, presumably.

Of course, if the presentation is powerpoint or other popular slideshow format, all this needs is a way to transmit the file, and then the control keystrokes. There are already protocols to do this for teleconferneces, where people in another city are watching the slides on their own computer, but I have not yet seen this used at a conference. There could also be a video protocol where the laptop screen is mirrored to the projector through an efficient screen transfer system. These already exist and are free (VNC, for example) but they could be improved by pre-sending the next slide, if it’s static, for instant transition. Fancy animations (which are a curse anywhere) and videos would be a bit slower but should be fine over a good network.

An authentication protocol would be needed, the speakers would get a passcode for access.

Of course, this can also be sped up if speakers are told to set up their laptop in advance, while the prior speaker is speaking, with a good video switch that simulates a monitor so the laptop can be put into external mode. With a wireless protocol, some advance setup would be needed but it need not be on the stage.

On the need for self-replicating nanotech assemblers

In recent times, I and my colleagues at the Foresight Nanotech Institute have moved towards discouraging the idea of self-replicating machines as part of molecular nanotech. Eric Drexler, founder of the institute, described these machines in his seminal work “Engines of Creation,” while also warning about the major dangers that could result from that approach.

Recently, dining with Ray Kurzweil on the release of his new book The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology, he expressed the concern that the move away from self-replicating assemblers was largely political, and they would still be needed as a defence against malevolent self-replicating nanopathogens.

I understand the cynicism here, because the political case is compelling. Self-replicators are frightening, especially to people who get their introduction to them via fiction like Michael Chrichton’s “Prey.” But in fact we were frightened of the risks from the start. Self replication is an obvious model to present, both when first thinking about nanomachines, and in showing the parallels between them and living cells, which are of course self-replicating nanomachines.

The movement away from them however, has solid engineering reasons behind it, as well as safety reasons. Life has not always picked the most efficient path to a result, just the one that is sufficient to outcompete the others. In fact, red blood cells are not self-replicating. Instead, the marrow contains the engines that make red blood cells and send them out into the body to do their simple job.

Read on  read more »

Government could buy emergency petroleum reserve as futures

Many are commenting on the gasoline shortages and price increases involved with hurricane evacuation and other emergencies. Some people can’t get gas to get out of the city. Others full up giant tanks even when they don’t need it. Stations raise prices as supply drops and demand increases, as per the normal rules of the market. Some suggest the stations be price-controlled to stop this, but that would only result in even more gas hoarding by the public.

The government could instead have a strategic emergency gasoline reserve. However, it need not keep this reserve in tanks, it could “keep” it in the storage tanks of all the private gas stations, by arranging a special emergency-based futures contract with the station owners, in advance. Not all stations need participate, as long as enough gas for evacuation can be reserved.

During the emergency, it would be calculated how much fuel will be needed per vehicle. Each station would provide that much fuel to each vehicle. The simplest way to do this is to devise some long-lasting mark that will last at least a few days to a week, and for each station to put it on a car after delivering the fuel. Perhaps something as simple as a sharpie mark or other semi-permanent mark on the gas cap. This is unfair in that people with multiple cars could get extra fuel, but other systems, like vouchers and databases have their own problems. Vouchers would be lost or sold on the black market, unfortunately.

Any fuel over and above the contracted amount could be sold at market prices to those who want more fuel and/or wish to hoard. Probably quite high market prices. Fuel tankers could also be arranged to resupply stations with emergency reserve needs. Note that the customers could still pay a normal price for the reserve gas, reducing the cost of the contract. They would also sign a voucher at the station, on which random audits could later be done to confirm compliance. Stations would contract to deliver based on the minimum reserve they keep in their own tanks. There could also be a true reserve in government owned tankers to cover the slop factor.

Why the high price for Skype

The reason that eBay paid such a huge price for Skype has now become clear. There were several companies competing to buy Skype, and just before the bidding closed, eBay decided the best way to win was to place a giant bid just a few seconds before the end. (This might be known as bid skyping.)

On a serious note, it has long been eBay policy, it is reported, to not want to facilitate communications between buyers and sellers, because they will just arrange to avoid eBay fees by selling outside eBay. Either this has changed, or the “obvious” parts of the plan — Skype presence on eBay auctions, “Skype the seller” buttons and so on, are not part of the value for eBay.

A change in the demographics of your life due to IM

When I left high school, I didn’t look back. I have a few friends from HS, but mostly I found many more like minded people in university. That seems to be a male trait, in that more women seem to keep a circle of friends from HS than men do, but for those that find themselves at university, this is where the social circle that may stay with us our entire lives is formed.

However, today, university frosh, both male and female, and keeping in constant touch with their HS friends via instant messaging and VoIP. They don’t remove you from their buddy list because you went to different schools. This means they are keeping more and closer friends from their HS days and also are more in touch with life at other universities.

I expect this will have far reaching consequences, not all predictable today. To how people live their lives, how they socialize and go on vacations, and how aware they are of the world outside their new university life. With buddy list presence, these remote friends are gaining an intimacy in some ways higher that we used to give to local friends.

New BCEC convention center, yet unwired

Attending a convention in the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) I found one thing very surprising. The show organizer had to install wireless APs all around the building on poles, with long wires leading to power and ethernet. How can a new convention center not already be set up for wireless? I will admit, in some ways it is correct to anticipate that the radios that would do the work will be quickly obsolete, and thus should not be so permanently installed, but it seems crazy to me that a new CC would not have been built with spaces in the ceilings or upper walls ready for some sort of wireless network.

The meeting room halls also don’t have tons of power jacks in the floors. Today, at modern conventions, everybody brings laptops and they want to plug them in. Better conventions in older halls run extension cords and power strips, and there are a few of those here, but why should a new convention center not be ready to go?

The phone number is dead

Here at the VON conference, there’s lots of talk about numbering. While SIP had a dream of calling people using an E-mail address, the market has delivered devices with numeric keypads only, particularly in the mobile space. So nobody uses SIP URLs or domain names of any kind, and everybody worries about mapping to and from numbers. (Another thing Skype mostly ignored.) The regulators try to regulate VoIP by claiming they have the power when it makes calls to and from the legacy PSTN with its numbers.

But here’s something I learned putting out my free phone at Burning Man. Most of the people said, “I don’t know any of my friends’ numbers!” They did not have their cell phones or PDAs on them. The new generation of phone users is treating numbers as a one-time thing, to enter into the speed dial and forget. They know their own number, and perhaps a few other people, as well as their parents.

However, they do know how to TXT on a numeric keypad. So it makes me wonder, at least for the new generation, if the fuss about numbers is worth anything. What if we did switch back to names or SIP URLs (with short domains) and expected people to use various accelerated typing systems to enter numbers for the first time, and then have the phone remember after that.

One could easily create a service with an 800 number that let people dial it and then use digits to type in a SIP URL or e-mail address and connect to that person when not on their main phone. This is actually better, since even though it’s longer to type, it’s possible to remember it. On VOIP phones and Cell phones and smarter PSTN phones, people would switch to the names or speed dial. And the phone number would die the death it deserves.

More from VON later. VoIP is beyond heating up. As one speaker indicated, it’s past the tipping point. Its dominance over the PSTN is now assured. The only question is when it flips. People say things like, “And when the PSTN dies” here and nobody blinks. Though the regulators, pushed by the legacy lobby, still say things that make me throw my hands up in disgust. I asked Senator Sununu today if Congress had ever looked back and said, “I wish we had protected the legacy systems more?” To be fair, he’s one of the better members of congress on these issues.

Follow-up: Later at the conference, during the concert by Huey Lewis & the News, I thought it would be a nice romantic gesture to call home during his song “The Power of Love.” I suggested that to a friend whose cell phone battery had died and said she could use my phone. “I don’t know my boyfriend’s number. I am not even sure of the area code,” she said. Meanwhile others took cameraphone pictures of the performance and send them along with texted captions in similar romantic gestures. Mr. Lewis even took a cell phone from the audience and sang into it for whoever was on the other end.

Upcoming conferences and speaking

In addition to the EFF party, here are some upcoming conferences I will be attending and/or speaking at:

  • Sunday, a half-day at Accelerating Change 2005, Stanford

  • Monday, Sept 19th at 10pm, panel on CALEA Wiretap rules for VoIP, at Pulver Voice on the Net conference in Boston at The BCEC (not Hynes as I reported earlier) Convention Center. I’ll be at the conference for most of the week.

  • Friday Sept 23, I’ll be going with Kathryn for Ray Kurzweil’s talk on his new book, The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology, which Kathryn worked on. The talk is for the Long Now Foundation, at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. He’s doing many talks on a long book tour.

  • We’ll be at George Gilder’s Telecosm at Lake Taho on the 26th.

  • EFF Party, of course, on the 2nd of October

  • Keynoting the AUUG Linux conference, in Sydney, Australia, on Oct 19th

  • Back for Foresight Nanotech’s annual conference on the 22nd of October. (I’m on the board) At the San Francisco Airport Marriott.

EFF 15th Anniversary Party, Oct 2

Join us for a party.

When:  Sunday, October 2nd, 2005 at 5 p.m.

Where:  EFF Headquarters in San Francisco, 454 Shotwell Street, 94110

EFF is 15 years old this year, and we are going to celebrate! We’re having an anniversary bash at our San Francisco headquarters on Shotwell Street on Sunday, October 2nd, 2005. The party starts at 5 p.m.

Join us for delicious Mexican food and drinks from Pancho Villa, hear a special address from our founders, John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore, taste our special 3D cake, and enjoy both the grooves of Gypsy Jazz from the Zegnotronic Rocket Society, and the hypnotic beats of DJ Ripley and Kid Kameleon.

Our celebration is free of charge and open to anyone, so bring your friends and family. We look forward to celebrating with you!

Please let us know you’re coming so we don’t run out of food and libations! Send an email to rsvp at eff.org, or call 415-436-9333 x129.

EFF’s office is located at 454 Shotwell Street and is BART accessible. Take BART to 16th and Mission, walk to 19th street and take a left, and take another left on Shotwell Street, three blocks down. We are located
between 18th and 19th on Shotwell.

Hybrid RVs, more RV notes

Every time I take an RV trip (ie. each Burning Man) I come up with more observations. The biggest one is that it cost $360 in gasoline to go from the bay area to the black rock desert, about 800 miles. And that’s at a price still well below world price. The RV owner said he was planning to get out of the business, people no longer want to pay the gas price.

So why is it taking so long to produce a hybrid RV? Hybrid cars are great of course, but trucks and RVs are what really suck gas and need the improved efficiency. And they have the room for larger and more unusual engine configurations. Most of all, RVs also mostly come with expensive generators and batteries, and a hybrid RV would of course have a super duper power plant and batteries and inverters, presuming the engine was efficient at lower revs. The Hybrid RV’s power plant could also be a backup generator when parked at the non-moving home. Probably make the most sense with diesel fuel, or as I have suggested before, even the highly efficient stirling engine. (Stirlings are big, and take time to warm up, but an RV with batteries is fine with this.)

Every RV’s shower has this hose based showerhead with an on-off dial with a slight leak. Our camp built a much nicer shower using a standard kitchen sprayer. A kitchen sprayer with a lock-on would be much better and would make it easier to conserve water by letting you pulse water where you need it when rinsing.

Cleaning the RV, especially when back from the desert, is hard. RV renters charge fat cleaning deposits and fees. Why doesn’t some company that hires out housekeepers do an RV service. You could come to them. Drive in, and a team of 5 attacks your RV, cleaning it in minutes. Do it at a car wash to also handle the outside if needed. Espcially after Burning Man there’s a business here.

I’ve said these before: Paper towel racks, built-in soap dispensers, inverters, flourescent lights. Why aren’t these everywhere in the RV world, instead of being rare?

Stabilizers jacks are great, but how about something simpler, some way to lock the springs or shocks (of course with an interlock to prevent starting the vehicle!) And while slide-outs are great, why do we never see flip out beds the way pop-top campers have, or a pop-up on the cab-over bed? (Most RVs don’t have any spare wall space except in the master bedroom, which does limit the flip-out bed concept. You also almost never see murphy beds.) Flip-out beds don’t take away your dinette or couch as do the extra beds commonly found. And how about a seat belt design for use on the beds for safe sleeping while driving? You can do this now but it doesn’t seem super safe.