Digital photo lenses that distort

I like fine camera lenses, but the best quality are very expensive. There are many things that are hard to do in a good lens -- you want a sharp image, of course, over the full flat plane. Over the whole image plane you want low flare, high contrast and low chromatic abberation (ie. red and blue focus in the same spot.) And you want low distortions.

Most camera lenses try to be "rectilinear." That means they try to make a straight line straight in the image. This isn't actually natural, due to perspective straight lines are not straight.

So I wonder if we might soon see a new lens where no effort is made to fix distortions or make the image rectilinear, and all effort goes into the other factors. You are thus expected, with every image, to do digital post-processing to get a non-distorted rectilinear image. That will mean some small loss of image quality at the edges of the image, but probably a less distorted image than ordinary lens physics can deliver -- and a lot less cost -- in exchange.

Of course, this would primarily be for digital cameras, but a film user could also use the lens if they planned to scan their film for digital processing, as most do these days.

Down the road, each lens might contain within it the specifics of its own particular distortions, and the camera might be able to fetch this and either process directly or store it with the image for post-processing. Indeed, the lens might be a cheaply made lens with distortions due to the poor quality elements, or it might be a fine lens with deliberate distortions. (I have wondered if some P&S digicams might be doing this already.)  read more »

Why do elected officials preside over what voters don't care about?

A lot of our democratic process involves our elected officials voting and presiding over things that voters are not going to change their vote over. Oh, they are important things, and the voters actually do care about them, but they are not going to change many votes.

That's especially true now. In deciding whether to re-elect your congresscritter, is how they voted on say FCC spectrum policy going to make a difference to you, compared to their stance on bigger issues like the war and the economy? Even when spectrum policy matters a lot to you?

The result of this is that there is no accountability on these committees, and little downside to selling your vote to somebody who does matter -- a big contributor who can give you the money you think you need to win votes.  read more »

Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits Revised

(Baby I tried to fly again but I was…) First Class then Deported

Oh baby it’s a wide world (And it’s hard to get by Bangor, if you have to fly, Girl)

I’m being followed by an F-16 Shadow (And if I ever lose my rights…)

(Everyone jump off the ) Siezed Plane

(Suspected Terrorist) Warning has Broken

Oh Very Muslim, will you please leave us this time?

Universal underwater photography case

Generally, getting a case to use a camera underwater is expensive. The case has to be custom made for the particular camera, and it has to be full of waterproof push-through button-pushers for all the major controls. Digital cameras have helped a lot, since they can shoot far longer on a "roll" and things like zoom are electronic. They also sell in enough volume that some cases have gotten down to reasonable prices.

But more is possible because most modern digital cameras feature complete electronic control, either by USB or via infrared. This should make it possible to build a generic underwater camera case for whole classes of digital cameras of a certain size. The case itself can be very simple, with no holes or button gaskets. For cameras without infrared remote (or where the IR remote does nothing but a couple of buttons), a small USB to IR converter would allow complete control.

The box is simple, the real brains would be in an underwater-capable IR remote control carried or mounted on the outside of the case. It would need personality modules for new models of cameras but otherwise could be pretty much the same as well.

So you get a much simpler box and you get mass production because you can sell it for any camera. And you can keep it for your next camera. It's a bit bulkier, but that's about it. And it can offer more controls, even some controls that aren't even on the camera in some cases.

Zoom can be a bit tricky. You want to avoid glare off the plexi at the front when the lens isn't up against it. It's possible that might be designed to telescope when you change zoom settings, or the camera itself might gently move in an inner frame. Or it might just have a black bellows "hood" in the space between the lens and the view panel. This problem also exists in custom cases of course.

The same idea could also be applied to above-ground protection in harsh environments (snow, rain, dust etc.) for expensive cameras. There you don't need a pressure seal, just a thick bag with the same remote ability. Shoot happily in the rain.

Inflatable RV

RVs come in all sizes, from 40’ bus to towable pop-up. But what about inflatable in a trunk in the back of a minivan?

Setting up and tearing down tented campsites is a pain, and there are instant-setup tents and even some inflatable tents. But what about a super-duper inflatable tent, designed for car-camping.

In the cabin-tent structure with high-pressure frame would also be (at lower pressure) one or more built in airbeds (that you leave the bedding on), an inflatable couch or chairs, wiring for LED or fluorescent lights in the roof with switches, 12v power jacks etc. On the outside might be an inflatable sink with 12v pump and drain hose and outside inflatable chairs. There would be an “air pressure bus” with quick-connects and turnable valves for each component. Inflation would be pushbutton, deflation might require turning values as you deflate components but still simple. Once deflated, the whole thing — components, bedding and all — would roll up and fit into a trunk or large suitcase that would fit in the back of a minivan or SUV. It would not be designed to be small or light like most tents.

It could also be designed to sit in a hitch holder, along with a bike rack. Add a portable toilet, camp stove, ice chest and folding tables (inflatables are not solid enough.) Ideally wire a special jack into the van battery, and replace the van battery with a marine battery (deep cycle and starting).

The goal: open the crate, open the valves and start the compressor. In a few minutes, a living space is erect. If needed, put in weights or stake it down. In the morning, start the vacuum on the internal components, then turn the valves to drain the support members, roll it up, bedding and all, and go.

I believe this could easily sell for $1,000 or more. It would be almost as easy as a pop-up camper, but best of all you would not be towing something. It would pay for itself for families on a cross country road trip pretty quickly. The key is to not think of it as a tent but as an RV.

We need a better word than "Singularity"

Vernor Vinge (Vin-GEE)(whose 1993 novel "A Fire Upon the Deep" I published in hypertext form) coined the term "singularity" to refer to a future social and technological shift so profound and vast that those who come before it are actually incapable of understanding it.

This is an important concept, one that plays out in his novels and the writings of many others, and it needs a term. But this term has ended up not being ideal.

Scientists already have a meaning for the word of course, but it is more specific. It refers to a point where a function is undefined. For example, dividing 1/x has a singularity at 0, since 1/0 is undefined. More to the point, 1/x also increases exponentially towards infinity as you approach 0. These concepts of rapid acceleration, and the inability to extrapolate past a singularity inspired the metaphor Vinge was trying to convey.

Other forms of singularity can include any sharp corner in a function (where the derivative is undefined) and in areas within a black hole (where are normal equations of physics are undefined.) However, the non-scientific public does not understand these mathematical meanings, and thus don't quickly grasp even the metaphor.

An example of such a metaphorical singularity would be the creation of language. Pre-verbal proto-humans simply can't understand the beauty of poetry at all, no matter how much time you would have to explain it.

The "Vinge" singularity deoes not involve a discontinuity or undefined point in history. Instead, the path is continuous. You can't easily point to a specific second and say "There is the singularity where language capable of Shakespeare arose."

So the term is wrong for those who understand the mathematical meaning and meaningless to those who don't. We should seek a better term.

I welcome suggestions from readers. I think the important thing to convey is perhaps the metaphor of the "blind corner" -- a sharp, but not impossibly sharp turn which you can't see around until you get there. The ideal metaphor should also convey the acceleration of change which causes the phenomenon, and this does not. That is more akin to flying off a cliff, or the planes that turn to submarines in the new "Sky Captain" movie.

802.11/SIP/Satellite free phone booth at Burning Man

One core reason I haven't blogged much in the last while is the flurry of activity regarding my annual trip to Burning Man. I've prepared a page about one of my too-many projects this year, which was to build an incongruous phone kiosk in the middle of the desert which worked and let you call anybody in the world for free. It was battery powered, and used 802.11 and Voice over IP combined with a satellite internet connection.

The reaction was remarkable and I have made a set of pages about phone booth and reaction to it. including pages on the building of it, galleries of photos of people using it (including, of course, naked people) and maps of all the places people called.

(I will probably submit this to slashdot next week to test my server!)

Now my goal was to take some highly familiar technology and put it in a place where it seemed impossible. And indeed, most people refused to believe it was "real" since there are other joke phone booths at Burning Man. Their disbelief and shock were what made it fun, as well as the emotional experiences and gratitude that came when people heard distant voices. It was a taste, in a small way, of what the phone meant when it was new.

I have much more stuff about Burning Man to blog in the days to come.

Blinky balls at olympics

I finally watched the closing ceremonies yesterday (did not see them while at Burning Man, obviously.) I liked the blinky balls that the children and audience members had, and the sense that the flame lit the LED ball. But it was just manual, people pushed buttons.

It occured to me it would not be too expensive to make an LED blinky that worked a bit like flame. While it was on, it would transmit a particular signature code in its blinking. If another blinky got close enough to see this brightly enough, it would detect it and turn itself on for some period of time. You could tune the range, it's just a photoresistor.

That way they could "light" their neighbours the way a flame does, and the flame would pass along. With the range tuned to a few feet, the lighting would have propagated through the audience at some speed (you could define what the speed would be.)

This would also be a fun rave/party favour. You might be able to light your own or you could light from somebody else. Perhaps after too long alone the blinky would go out and need to be lighted from somebody else's, encouraging socialization.

Solar Powered PC

We all would love solar power to work better, but it's hard to have it make economic sense yet, at least if you're near the grid. A solar panel takes 4 years just to give back the energy it took to build it, and it never pays back the money put in if you compare it to putting the money into the stock market. And that's with full utilization. If you use panels and batteries, any time your batteries are near full the power is being discarded, and you also have to replace your batteries every so often and dispose of the old lead-filled ones. Yuk. A grid-tie can use all the power of a panel but that's an expensive, whole-house thing.

But here's a start -- a solar-using PC power supply. My PCs, like many folks', are on all day, including the peak-demand heat of the day. Desktops draw anywhere from 50 to 200 watts even when idling.

So make a PC power supply that has 3 external connections. One for the wall plug. And two optional ones, one for a 12v solar panel and one for a battery. Then sell it with a 50w or 100w solar panel -- most importantly, the panel should not ever generate more power than the PC uses.

Because of that, during the bright part of the day, the panel will be providing most, or just barely all, of the power for the PC. The wall plug will provide the rest. At night, the wall plug would provide all the power. It's a grid-tie but it doesn't feed power back to the grid, it just reduces demand on it. The 100w panel takes 100w off the grid load during the peak demand times. And we use every watt the panel generates, we never throw any away.  read more »

Improving RVs

First entry in a while due to trip to Burning Man ... more on that later. This time I returned to RV rental, after 2 years in a tent, so I thought I would make some notes on that.

It amazes me how little attention mainstream RVs pay to what is called "dry camping" -- away from electrical and water connections. Yes, they have batteries, tanks and generators, but it's very rare to see an RV use fluorescent lights, for example, even though they are available in 12v form and take 15% or less of the power of the incandescent lights they currently use. If running off batteries this is a no-brainer.

Inverters are also cheap these days, and more efficient. Some draw almost nothing now when not loaded, so a built in inverter to run 110v gear efficiently off the batteries also makes sense. As noted, a 1kw inverter is today quite cheap, and could even run the microwave, though you would not want to do that much. An automatic system to run mostly from battery but start the generator on-demand during daytime hours if it gets low could make sense.

Solar kits are sold for RVs but are rare and rarely standard. It also amazes me that they don't come standard with built in liquid soap dispensers, paper towel racks and other things to keep the commonly used stuff secure.

We have found it handy to use the rubbermaid (or similar) plastic storage boxes to put multiple boxes in the overhead storage. Pull out drawers would also make sense here. Each time you move you have to "rig for silent running" and some RVs we have rented come with metal blinds that will clank and clank unless you stuff towels into them.

The latest RVs only fill their water tank from a standard pressurized hose. Turns out that's a curse at burning man because the water truck is not allowed to have such a fixture due to the risk of backflow from an unknown tank. Doubt we will see a fix for that as it is an unusual problem.

RVs come with very low precision monitor guages, from before the digital age. They show you that your tanks are at 0, 1/3, 2/3 and full, for example, and likewise for your battery. On the fresh water tank they could measure flow through the water pump to get a much more accurate figure, and if they detected if the toilet was the use, they could also know how much was likely in the gray tanks. The black tank (sewage) sensors have been broken on every RV I have ever encountered, they gum up with toilet paper. You would think after decades of having unusable sensors they would devise some other method, such as a pressure sensor under a heavy membrane, or bouncing sound waves or light off the top of the sewage. You can of course shine a flashlight down the toilet, but that's harder to judge than you might think and of course not very pleasant.

Measuring the battery accurately is of course a much easier task, and I use my voltmeter to do it. You could also do a full coulomb counter like laptops do to really accurately measure charge level and the condition of the battery to find out when it's time to replace. None of this stuff is expensive in the modern digital world, but RV designers still think in 80s technology, I surmise.

It's also common to find just one 12v jack in an RV and at most 2, usually where TVs will go. They assume RV owners will not be using much 12v equipment even though it's quite common nowadays.

In order to protect the batteries when camping off-grid, there should be timers or automatic shut-offs of lights if voltage goes below certain limits. Many an RV camper has left a light on and found their battery drained. If they are there and the timer trips, they can just manually turn it on again.

Comments now have anti-spam

I regret to get in anybody's way, but the volume of comment spam I have been getting has been driving me nuts, and Movable Type makes it a royal pain to delete. There is no point in them spamming, I turned off putting links on URLs they include in the spams, but they do it anyway.

Anyway, to stop them, I added a box to the comment form where you have to enter a word I describe. No, I don't put the word in an image -- that popular technique is shutting the blind off from a growing part of the web -- I just describe it in English. Just a warning for those wanting to comment. And hope no spammers decide to automate it (if they do I change the question.)

RFID in passports

The movement for RFID in passports (and biometric passports) is growing. Belgium plans a trial later this year. As a privacy advocate I take some irony in realizing that this gives us what we have been asking for for ages.

Not having to show ID when we travel.

Olympics on the Tivo

As I watch the Olympics on my Tivo, I'm having a hard time understanding how anybody could watch them without one. The number of events has become immense, and the coverage is 24 hour -- more than that, because I have both CBC and NBC coverage. (Plus CNBC, MSNBC and others, and I could buy TSN and Country Canada if I were desperate.)

So my Tivo records a lot of it, and I use it extensively. Most long races are watched at high speed for the middle part. It silences the commentary too, though at times it would be nice if the Tivo, when in 3x mode, would decode the closed captioning and display it for me. Of course I zoom over the endless array of constantly repeated commercials, and the sports I don't care to see.

How long before we get what we really want, on either a bigger screen or two screens (one for the images and one for text.) Tell us the background facts in text, let us call them up when we want and browse them. Let us surf around all the video, be it the backgrounders on the athletes and locations, and the events themselves. This is what I'm trying to get close to with my Tivo. There are web sites with streaming video but that can't approach even NTSC television, let alone high-def TV.

They would learn what's popular and put money into it, and what's not popular. What's not too popular might get very minimal coverage (fixed cameras at the event or bloggers coming hi-def videocameras if the networks yield on a given event) but that's OK.

The local paper had a reporter try to watch all the coverage in a day, which was of course unbearable. But working people can't be watching even the 4 to 5 hours of primetime, not easily. This may be the last summer Olympics to be viewed this way, based on the pace of innovation, though all the regulation trying to interfere with TV innovation (Broadcast flag etc) may prove me wrong.

A totally mixed sporting summit

At the Olympics, only in equestrian events do men and women compete on an equal footing, since it's about control of the horse, not strength. There used to be a truly mixed event in shooting (skeet and trap) but these were split in the 90s. (Perhaps shotgun experts will explain why this is, even though a woman won the last mixed event.) There are other mixed events -- Sailing, mixed doubles badminton, ice dancing, pairs skating, mixed doubles luge and so on, which are mixed by requiring a fixed number of men and a fixed number of women.

It would be nice to come up with some more events that can be truly mixed, but it's also pretty easy to design events mixed as defined by the rules. Mixed doubles tennis already exists. It's easy to imagine all sorts of "relay" sports with a mixed team in swimming, track and other sports. Ideally even a relay consisting of events women do particularly well at combined with events men do particularly well at. Team events are easy to mix as well, such as rowing, bobsled as well as baseball, basketball, voleyball etc. Many of the machine-based sports (car racing, motocross, etc.) don't show up in the olympics but can be, and are in some cases truly mixed.

So the idea, initially for the PR value, would be to create a games where all events are mixed in some way or another, with as many truly mixed events as possible. One imagines it should be able to get good TV ratings at least the first time for the novelty, which could turn into prizes good enough to attract top athletes to do the work of creating new teams.

In some cases, forming new teams would be trivial. 2 men and 2 women both experienced at relay racing for example, need learn very little to make a mixed relay team, and in fact mixed relays take place in amateur sport fairly regularly.

(Another interesting thought would be mixed relays of entirely different sports. One is depicted in one of the commonly running TV ads on the CBC. Some people have done relay Triathalon already, and the concept can be extended.)

I will add that I'm not trying to add more sports to the Olympics, which are already overflowing with events.

Use closed captions or SAP to blab over music at Olympics

2 years ago, I got so frustrated at Bob Costas blabbing over parts of the Olympic opening ceremonies that clearly were not meant to be blabbed over that I rush ordered a satellite dish to watch the rest of the Olympics on the CBC.

(Besides, you find out there are events at the Olympics in which Americans are not competing for medals!)

This year Costas was probably a little better, the CBC announcers a touch worse than before but still better than Costas. However, there's an obvious answer out there. Use more text. If you need to explain the symbolism of a piece of music or art, do it in text. Either put text on the main screen, or just put the text into the closed captioning but don't say it.

Another alternative, use the SAP. Have the announcer exercise some judgement, and create one audio stream with just the non-intrusive commentary (during applause and breaks) and add in the blabber on the other channel (probably the main channel since they think the bulk of their audience wants this blabber.)

For those watching in HD, there is much more potential to add text, since you have more screen real estate and can have smaller text and thus more of it.

How can the Scientific Atlanta HD-8000 suck so badly?

I've been a longtime user of the Tivo, and when my mother got an HDTV, I pushed her to get a PVR. In Canada, the only really workable option for her was to rent the HD-8000 HD PVR from Rogers, her cable company. No Tivo service in Canada, and she wasn't ready for a PC based PVR (And HD ones are still immature.)

Two things I learned from the process. The first was how amazed I was at how badly the HD-8000 was designed. It strikes me as a first generation unit, not something that was designed after people looked at the Tivo and the Replay. Trying to watch a show in the middle of recording it is possible, but really cumbersome. It's very easy to lose your buffer on a live program you were watcing, or to lose your place in a recorded program you were watching. Browsing shows is guide-based, requiring you to browse only a particular day at a time. I could go on.

The other remarkable thing was seeing my low-tech mother's reaction. In spite of all I tell her about the PVR, she still wants to watch TV live most of the time. As a retiree and caregiver, she's home most of the time, and while she intellectually understands what the box does, her habits are so-long set that she really doesn't "get" it.

Which may explain the poor UI on the HD-8000. They don't expect their users to get it either. They expect their users to see it as a fancy VCR, with the ability to pause live TV. (Tivo owners learn that pausing live TV is more of a gimmick feature, in that you almost never watch live TV.)

Watching the recorded HD does make me jealous, though. HD PVR choices here are limited. You can get DirecTV's HD-Tivo for $1000, or build a MythTV box for a similar amount of money. It is the need for the PVR that has stopped me from getting HDTV, which otherwise I want very much.

But my Mother doesn't remember that when called on the phone, she can pause it. Or that you should always record a show you see that you want to watch, to give you the freedom to switch from it and come back later without risk. She is happy with her old habit of switching channels when a commercial comes on, and coming back to the other show later, presumably missing some of it. She is even happy watching low def live, when PVRed hi-def is a few steps away. My mother helps me remember that all users are not like me, which is good.

Who has been brilliant at Presidenting?

One of the thing that annoys Bush's opponents so much is that Bush does not appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed, and we feel the President should be so. I talked with Bush when he was running, and he wasn't as stupid as he appears on TV under all that scruity (nobody is, everybody reported that Quayle wasn't), but he's not at Clinton's level, for example.

In spite of sharing this feeling, I challenge people to look back in history for the Presidents who were smart at "presidenting." While there have been smart Presidents, the truth is the most admired presidents (in the modern era) seem to be admired not for how clever they were, but for their boldness or the strength of their convictions and leadership.

Intelligence, the voting public seems to feel, is not a top quality for the President, though his advisors should have lots of it. The President's job is to have his vision and decide which of his smart advisors' advice best implements that vision. The vision itself probably can't be all that smart, since the general public has to grasp it and follow it and approve of it.

A stupid President isn't good. He can be fooled by his advisors. He can be fooled or fool himself into thinking that you can invade an occuply a country simply because you have vastly superior miltary force. But smart Presidents can also make stupid decisions on the hard problems. (Americans should know the USA could never have existed if military power were enough to hold a territory.)

We keep an ideal of a philosopher-President like Jefferson, but we haven't had one for a while, we may never have one in the current electoral system. We yearn for President Bartlet perhaps. We like to hear how Clinton was on top of all his advisors told him, but what do you point to and say "This, that was done by Clinton or Carter or Nixon or whoever ... this was really smart."

The Democrats may not understand this. They don't understand how, with Bush shown to be a bit dim every day, he still gets half the country on his side. It's because it's not what that half of the country is looking for.

Thermos where you can see the fluid and level

Everybody likes a thermos to keep things cold or hot, but I have found that people also really like to see what's in a flask and how much there is. (Particularly when I bring my home-grown lemonade to parties, I notice people drink more of it from a clear and non-insulated container than an opaque one.)

One could build a lower efficiency thermos that used transparent insulating materials. But it should also be possible to simply have a transparent tube on the side, joined with the main chamber at the bottom, openable at the top to flush out for cleaning. This tube could be surrounded by transparent but insulating material, and possibly even have a slowing valve to the main chamber so it doesn't mix super fast. The valve would flow mostly one way (into the main chamber) with slow flow into the tube. This way, the room temperature liquid in the less-insulated part would not constantly feed heat into or out of the main chamber.

One could even imagine an entire outer shell on the container with white background, so it looks like you can see a flask of the liquid in question.

More failsafe firmware upgrade paths

Today, for the 2nd time, I lost a wireless access point in the process of putting new firmware into it. The new firmware apparently has some problems, but that's to be expected as a risk.

I've only seen it rarely, but the right thing to do is to have a rom or small un-writable section of the flash that contains a fully tested minimalist new firmware accepter. So that no matter what you do to the firmware, there is some way to get the old stuff back in, through some use of physical switches. I know have to send this thing back for warranty repair over something that I should be able to fix here.

Now other than that the WRT54G is a fine wireless access point precisely because the firmware is open source and you can get fancy extra features from other folks, but because this means more updating, there should be an escape hatch.

Will a party have the guts to cancel its convention?

Much of the coverage I read last week of the Democratic Convention harped on how the conventions no longer mean anything. The platform is decided in advance. The candidate is decided in advance. Yes, there is lots of networking and schmoozing and building relationships for the elections of the future, but how much is accomplished in the here and now?

Not a lot. And I've seen estimates placing the cost of the convention at well over $150 million. $60 million for security alone. Other costs paid for by the city, and of course the party and its members and the other 35,000 attendees must easily spend 50 million or more on travel, hotel, food, facilities etc. The networks covered 3 hours of it. Cable covered more, but a lot of it was remarkably boring speeches by local politicians saying the same thing to an often mostly empty convention hall. The hall was full for the big speeches. The protesters were relegated to a distant free-speech-zone, in an aggregious violation of the 1st amendment.

All that to do nothing except put on a show for the cameras? What if a party had the guts to declare they would not hold a fancy convention like that. They would conduct the formal votes on platform and candidate by mail.

Of course, they would still have a big acceptance speech and related big speeches, and the networks would still cover them (if only because of equal time laws relating to the coverage of the other party's convention.) The faithful would watch in local gatherings, and the hall in Kerry's home town would still be filled with thousands of cheering Democrats, just not delegates.

Why? Well, first of all, anywhere from 50 to 100 million to spend on the campaign where it matters -- swiing states. Not chump change. A secondly, the bold step of leading by example, not just by words. "We don't waste 100 million of taxpayers money and shut down a town just so we can put on a fake show that rubber stamps a result worked out months ago. We don't waste our own money. We want to focus on substance, not flash."

Deeds mean a lot more than speeches. Showing up the other party would be a powerful message for the first party with the guts to do this. One would still get airtime for the introduction and acceptance speeches. And later, when it means something, have a lower-key convention to focus on real issues like the party platform, and networking among party members. And do a lot online.

Yes something would be lost, but at what cost is it kept?