Topic

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?

Hints on living on 12v power and batteries

Not really an invention, but I wrote up a nice article on living on 12 volt power without much generator use off the grid at Burning Man. Nothing really new, just some experience and advice, but I'm blogging it for those interested in the topic.

Car app -- 4 way stop broker

I called earlier for ideas for uses of ad-hoc wireless card data networks (with 802.11 or similar.) I've been having trouble finding any compelling because I think the space is narrow, especially for the driver. I don't see much data you will want that only other cars around you will have. It has to be fresh, live data (otherwise your car would have loaded it when parked) and it has to be giant data (otherwise you would pick it up over the 3G or 4G cellular networks at lower data rates) and not suffer from both the connectivity and the data availability being intermittent and random in nature.

However, seeing the Dresner paper on a Reservation-Based Intersection Control Mechanism (with cool simulations) made me wonder if we might be able to get something sooner.

People might be too scared of the technology to handle a high-volume intersection but what about a low volume one, such as a 4-way stop? In particular, what if we have to assume many cars don't have a network?

A networked 4-way stop would have a network node broadcasting its existence and state. If the node at the intersection were down, it would act like an ordinary 4-way stop. Networked cars approaching the intersection would broker travel through it. (They would all have GPS, 802.11 and the node at the intersection would have a map.)

If a car was given access, right lights on the stop signs would light up. (Their power needs are much less than a traffic light, possibly even solar.) The one with the cleared car would light yellow. The cleared driver would get a signal (audio and visible) that they are cleared, inside their car.

Drivers seeing the red light would stop (network enabled or not) and wait for the light to go off after the cleared cars go through. Drivers seeing the yellow light who are not the cleared car (and thus not a networked car) would stop and proceed through the intersection like a normal 4-way stop.

The cleared driver would approach the intersection at reduced speed and check for drivers stopped at the other signs. If there were none she would move through the intersection without stopping. If some were present the display would say which intersections had networked cars. If all were networked, the driver woudl proceed. If some are not networked, the driver would proceed with more caution (perhaps a 5mph rolling stop, ready to full-stop if needed) or speak a command or push a button to enhance the stop signal for the non-networked cars....  read more »

Scensors

Word of today: "Scensors", a combination of "sensors" and "censors", to mean surveillance devices which, by making people feel watched, cause them to self-censor their behaviour and speech.

(Thanks to Michael Froomkin for accidental inspiration as I sit at his talk at PFIR)

Non-metal suspenders

I like to wear suspsenders sometimes, but they have become an added burden when you travel or enter certain buildings because they have metal. Not that there are any accessory-vendors reading my blog, but sadly it's time for somebody to sell belts, suspenders and shoes for people who need them without metal.

Sigh.

No speed limit, a fuel limit.

Ok, I'll admit this is a crazy idea, not likely to ever see the light of day, but it's worth throwing out as an exercise. It is often said we should keep the speed limit low to encourage good fuel economy.

What if there were no speed limit, but instead a "fuel limit." For example, 2 gallons of gas per hour.

If you are driving a 30mpg Honda Accord, you
could thus go 60 miles an hour, as that would burn 2 gallons in one
hour. If you had a 50mpg Toyata Prius, you could go 100 miles/hour
because that would also burn 2 gallons/hour. ZEV? As fast as you
want, just like Germany.

Bad news in that 20mpg Ford Explorer 4WD. 40 miles/hour maximum speed
for you.

A Hummer? Forget it, you'll be below the minimum speed. No highway
driving for you. Enjoy the side roads.

This is more an academic exercise, as the voters would reject it (they
love their big cars) and we actually don't want anybody going 40mph on
I-280. But in fact, if the limit is set to encourage good fuel economy,
this would be the way to do it. A simpler, but also unpopular way
would be to tax gas to $5/gallon. It's fair, because when you crud up
my air by burning your gas, you owe me something, and the least you could
do is reduce my taxes.

Now of course if you really did something like this it would be more complex. Probably not linear, nobody below 50mph. If 50mph is not enough, an 55mph exception for commercial trucks, busses and other non-passenger or many-passenger vehicles. Being a carpool would also alter your speed. Of course it would be a fair bit harder for cops to enforce, but actually not that hard. Cops are trained to identify cars very quickly, and of course would have a quick database. But frankly, you can tell a guzzler when you see one, most of the time.

Notes on Tech-Nomading

Back in June I did a short experiment nomading. A trip that was just a change of home but not a vacation. My sister was going to Rome to shoot a war documentary for a couple of weeks, so we flew to Toronto.

She had the main things I needed. A house, a car, and of course a DSL connection. But could I get my home environment? I brought a wireless access point, and the ATA for my Vonage phone account. The Vonage account has both a Silicon Valley number and a Toronto number, so it moved quite easily. People could still call me on the regular numbers, and I could make calls without concern for the cost. I borrowed a local cell phone since my efforts to get my own spare phone unlocked and with a local NAM didn't work out.

Also vital for me was a big screen. I'm used to a very nice 1600 x 1200 21" screen and that's not portable. I was able to borrow a 19". My servers at home kept running and in fact I did a lot of things on them remotely 2500 miles away. At one point the DSL flaked out and I had to find a friend to come in and reboot it, but otherwise that was fine.

Toronto is a town I've lived in, so this is cheating, but I haven't really lived there since I was young, so it's halfway to a foreign town in terms of knowing my way to things. At your own base, you learn a lot about your area. You learn all the traffic patterns, and you know where all the shops are that have the things you want at the prices you like. It takes a lot of time to duplicate that.

I've also learned that as I've gotten older I've gotten too dependent on stuff. I think back to the first time I moved cross country, putting everything in the back of my hatchback and feeling great. The last time, I used 20 linear feet of Transport truck.

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Down with PoIP

Voice over IP, a field I've been working in, has been generating some recent excitement. And that's appropriate.

However a lot of the talk is about something I consider the wrong direction. I call it PoIP, for PSTN over IP or worse, POTS over IP. (POTS, in turn, stands for Plain old Telephone Service.)

This is largely what you get from Vonage and AT&T CallVantage and similar companies. An effort to create a product very similar to the old style phone or PBX, just at a lower price. Yes, there are some differences -- a few cute features formely found only in higher end PBXs and so-called Intelligent switches, and of course the geography-independent nature of using your internet connection as the hookup.

But must of these new features are evolutionary. They aren't the "disruptive" change that we're really looking for. Indeed, in the early days, I used to joke that VoIP was "Not quite as good as the old telephone, but at least it's harder to configure."

It may be that reputation that scared people into making PoIP. They feel, perhaps correctly, that first they must convince the public that VoIP isn't scary, that it's very similar to the phone. And indeed, some customers need that convincing. But that train of thought never leads to a disruptive change, and Vonage will never survive being AT&T for a few bucks less.

Skype, for better or worse, was ready to give up the old world, and insist you use a PC to make calls. I've had investors insist there is no way people would pick up a mouse to make calls, but they are doing so.

A disruptive product is worse than the status quo in others, and does something new the old guard weren't expecting. VoIP users should embrace the internet, not just to jam it into the phone.

Serial vs. Browsed, Reader-Friendly vs. Writer-Friendly

Online discussion and collaboration tools are old now, dating back almost 40 years to PLATO, 30 years for mailing lists, 25 years for BBSs and USENET. Yet somehow I don’t feel we’ve got it right yet, and in fact may be going in some wrong directions.

I beleive there are two central dichotomies that make the problem hard to solve.

The first is the distinction between “serial” material which is meant to be read as a stream (though perhaps referenced later) and “browsable” information meant to be read in a somewhat more random order.

E-mail, USENET, RSS feeds and message boards are largely serial. Blogs and web boards are attempts to be serial in a browsed medium, which the web largely is. Wikis are on the browseable side of the spectrum, though of course they contain serial aspects, like the ability to e-mail lists of recently changed pages. (Twitter is a somewhat interesting medium as it is serial but contains so much you simply sample the stream rather than read all of it.)

The second dichotomy is between reader-friendly and writer-friendly. Writer-friendly systems put as few burdens on the writer as possible in order to encourage participation. Reader friendly systems try to make it as easy as possible for a reader to get what she’s looking for out of the system. One of the central quests has been for automated software tools that let the writer not do much work but still let the reader get what they want. A search engine is an example of such a technology.

A professional publication will be highly reader-friendly. If you have a million readers, it’s worth every possible effort on the writer or publisher’s part to make it better for them, especially if they are your source of income. Writers will take the time to write well, organize, categorize and put in links to releated resources. They will create sidebars to deal with other topics or provide introductions to readers not as familiar with the subject matter.

Wikis are writer friendly. Anybody can just go in and edit any page any way they want. No other bounds (at least in the software) exist to encourage people to put material in the Wiki.

While I know the value of browsing, I think serial presentations are more reader-friendly, or at least can be. I don’t have to go looking for what’s new for me if the serial stream is decently managed. But this is not a universal rule.

What is missing, however, is the right marriage of the serial and the browsable. For discussions, and for breaking news, we want a serial presentation. We don’t want to go to a newspaper web site and figure out for ourselves what stories we already saw, or what parts of the stories we already know. We would like the system to know what’s new for us. At the same time, serial streams (including blogs) leave behind worthwhile trails that are meant to be browsed or searched later. But we don’t tend to fill our serial streams with things to help in that department, like links. Nor do we even have mechanisms in mailing lists or USENET to easily update items from the past that will be read by newcomers (either serially or through browsing.)

The marriage, when we find it, will allow people to have productive discussions online, like in a mailing list, but leave behind a useful information resource, with the tangents removed to tagged to be easily avoided, the useful and popular information highlighted, the past cleaned up and edited (though with the truth available.) Perhaps a marriage of Wiki techniques and newsgroups.

It should be able to balance reader and writer friendliness depending on how many there are of each. For example, a system with 10,000 readers and one writer should push the writer to do more, since if 2 minutes work by the writer can save a second for 10,000 people it’s a good trade-off. However, in small systems with few readers you want to encourage participation and not put demands on writers. Ideally you have a quest for fancy tools to get the most of both where you can have it.

I know people want this marriage. People are excited about products like GMail which let them get a better grasp of all the E-mail conversations they participate in. But there is so much more that has to be done. I don’t have the answer right now, but I want to encourage debate and innovation on the topic.

Update: I have added thoughts about how some media are “sampled” (you only dip into them from time to time and see what’s current) and some are subscribed (you read it all, or at least scan it all most of the time) in thinking about Twitter.

More commercial elimination

In the 80s, as VCRs were becoming popular, I saw an interesting product that acted as a commercial eliminator for those who wanted to tape classic, black and white movies that were often on late at night.

The product simply detected when the signal went colour, and would trigger the pause button on your VCR. (In early VCRs this was not even infrared.) The commercials were colour, the movie was B&W and so you got a commercial free movie recorded.

In watching HDTV movies recently, I had the thought you could now reverse this process. The movies are in hi-def, widescreen, but most of the commercials are in regular def, 4:3 ratio. So a commercial eliminator could pull the trick of deleting the old (rather than the new) on these shows. Of course this trick won't last forever. As HDTV grows more of the commercials will move that way. It's even easier to justify if it sells product.

Low blogging the last while, been on the road. In Toronto now for Jerry's Retreat.

Ethernet card that is every PC I/O device

It would be nice to see (perhaps it already exists) an ethernet card for a PC that also looked, in hardware, like all the other standard PC hardware. In particular like a basic standard SVGA video card, like a soundblaster, like a keyboard and like a mouse.

But in fact, all writes to these devices would be sent out over the ethernet. Writes to the video memory, sounds send to the sound card and so on.

This would be very handy with the server crowd, no need for consoles, kvm switches or having to physically go to a server to do work on it. There are tools to provide virtual services after machines have booted (and of course unix/linux machines have always been completely remote controllable after boot, and even during boot via serial console.) And indeed, with this card you would throw in smarter virtual drivers for devices after the operating system had booted that made more efficient use of the ethernet, or supported different resolutions.

Include jumpers to read all motherboard LEDs while at it. If you wanted to get really cute, put a tiny microphone on the card fed into the sound-card portion, so you can listen to noises the drives make etc.

The card could of course do wake-on-lan to the motherboard and have the ability to power off the machine as well. A physical visit to a machine would never be needed except to physically change hardware.

Eventually this would all go onto a standard I/O chip and, like all these peripherals are today, come standard with the ethernet that's on every server motherboard already. Virtual USB systems already exist if you want that, and might be a simpler solution for keyboard, mouse and sound in any event since new motherboards and their BIOSes are now used to seing those things on USB.

The moon's tidal lock affected the growth of science

People who speculate about the growth of cultures have wondered if our moon (which is unusually large compared to the host planet, at least based on the limited set of planets we can see) played a big role in our societies. Did it make us more aware of the sky than people who evolved on a moonless world would be, or a world with a small moon? Did the tides have an unusual affect on us beyond ordinary solar tides?

One thought did occur to me recently. The moon's rotation period is tidally locked, meaning the moon rotates at the same period with which it revolves around the Earth, and so it always presents the same face to the Earth. From our viewpoint, it does not appear to rotate at all.

Because of that, and because it's big enough to see with the naked eye, the features of the moon were fixed and visible to all generations of humans. We created the concept of "the man in the moon."

If the moon did have a visible rotation (ie. it was not tidally locked) it would be obvious to us. It would be obvious, in particular, that it is a sphere, and not a disk pinned to the sky as it appears to be.

So ancient astronomers would have seen the moon was a sphere and probably would have figured out much earlier that the sun, the other planets, and most importantly of all, the Earth itself, were a sphere. Perhaps more importantly, it would even be obvious to the common person. And what might that have done for the evolution of our technology and society?