Tags

The end of public transit

I’ve been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there’s a lot of merit to that case.

However, in the wealthy USA, we don’t, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.

Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don’t consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)

However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.  read more »

Many new panoramas of Alberta, Banff, Jasper and Rockies

I’ve been remiss in updating my panoramas, so I just did some work on the site and put up a new page full of Alberta panoramas, as well as some others I will point to shortly.

The Alberta rockies are among the most scenic mountains in the world. Many have called the Icefields Parkway, which goes between Banff and Jasper national parks, the most scenic drive in the world. I’ve taken it several times in both summer and winter and it is not to be missed. I have a wide variety of regular photos I need to sort and put up as well from various trips.

This image is of Moraine Lake, which is close to the famous Lake Louise. All the lakes of these parks glow in incredible colours of teal, blue and green due to glacial silt. In winter they are frozen and the colour is less pronounced, but the mountains are more snow-capped, so it’s hard to say which is the best season. (This photo is available as a jigsaw puzzle from Ratzenberger.)

Enjoy the Panoramics of Alberta. And I recommend you book your own trip up to Calgary or Edmonton to do the drive yourself. I think you’ll find this to be among my best galleries of panoramas.

I also recently rebuilt and improved my shot of Ginza-5-Chome, Tokyo’s most famous street corner. While it was handheld I have been able to remove almost all the ghosts with new software.

A Posix (universal API) for package management

As part of my series on the horrors of modern system administration and upgrading, let me propose the need for a universal API, over all operating systems, for accessing data from, and some control of the package management system.

There have been many efforts in the past to standardize programming APIs within all the unix-like operating systems, some of them extending into MS Windows, such as Posix. Posix is a bit small to write very complex programs fully portably but it’s a start. Any such API can make your portability easier if it can’t make it trivial the way it’s supposed to.

But there has been little effort to standardize the next level, machine administration and configuration. Today a large part of that is done with the package manager. Indeed, the package manager is the soul (and curse) of most major OS distributions. One of the biggest answers to “what’s the difference between debian and Fedora” is “dpkg and apt, vs. rpm and yum.” (Yes you can, and I do, use apt with rpm.)

Now the truth is that from a user perspective, these package managers don’t actually look very different. They all install and remove packages by name, perform upgrades, handle dependencies etc. Add-ons like apt and GUI package managers help users search and auto-install all dependencies. To the user, the most common requests are to find and install a package, and to upgrade it or the system.  read more »

Renting out eBay feedback to first-time sellers

An eBay reputation is important if you’re going to sell there. Research shows it adds a decent amount to the price, and it’s very difficult to sell at all with just a few feedbacks. Usually sellers will buy a few items first to get a decent feedback — sometimes even scam items sold just for feedback. Because savvy buyers insist on selling feedback, it’s harder, and sometimes sellers will also sell bogus items just for feedback as a seller. eBay has considered offering a feedback score based on the dollar volume of positive and negative transactions but has not yet done this. Some plugins will do that.

One thing I recommend to low feedback sellers it to offer to reverse the “normal” payment system. If the seller has little feedback and the buyer has much better feedback, the seller should send the item without payment, and the buyer pay on receipt. Many people find this foreign but in fact it makes perfect sense. In real stores you don’t pay until you get the item, and many big reputation merchants allow payment on credit for known buyers. Another idea is to offer to pay for escrow. This costs money, but will make it back in higher sale prices.

However, here’s a new idea. Allow high-reputation sellers to “lease out” feedback, effectively acting as a co-signer. This means they vouch for the brand new seller. If the new seller gets a negative feedback on the transaction, it goes on both the new seller’s feedback and the guarantor’s. Positive feedback goes on the seller and possibly into a special bucket on the guarantor’s. The guarantor would also get to be involved in any disputes.

Seems risky, and because of that, guarantors would only do this for people they trusted well, or who paid them a juicy bond, which is the whole point of the idea. Guarantors would probably use bonds to issue refunds to badly treated customers to avoid a negative, though you want to be careful about blackmail risks. It’s possible the breakdown of true and as-guarantor negatives might be visible on a guarantor if you look deep, but the idea is the guarantor should be strongly motivated to keep the new seller in line.

With lendable reputation, new sellers could start pleasing customers and competing from day one.

Why do most online discussion packages suck so badly?

Yesterday I attended the online community session of Web2Open, a barcamp-like meeting going on within Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Expo. (The Expo has a huge number of attendees, it’s doing very well.)

I put forward a number of questions I’ve been considering for later posts, but one I want to make here is this: Where has the innovation been in online discussion software? Why are most message boards and blog comment systems so hard to use?

I know this is true because huge numbers of people are still using USENET, and not just for downloading binaries. USENET hasn’t seen much technical innovation since the 80s. As such, it’s aging, but it shouldn’t be simply aging, it should have been superseded long ago. We’ve gone through a period of tremendous online innovation in the last few decades, unlike any in history. Other old systems, like the Well, continue to exist and even keep paying customers in spite of minimal innovation. This is like gopher beating Firefox, or a CD Walkman being superior in some ways to an iPod. It’s crazy. (The users aren’t crazy, it’s the fact that their choice is right that’s crazy.)  read more »

Virtual Machine Image library at EC2

The use of virtual machines is getting very popular in the web hosting world. Particularly exciting to many people is Amazon.com’s EC2 — which means Elastic Compute Cloud. It’s a large pool of virtual machines that you can rent by the hour. I know people planning on basing whole companies on this system, because they can build an application that scales up by adding more virtual machines on demand. It’s decently priced and a lot cheaper than building it yourself in most cases.

In many ways, something like EC2 would be great for all those web sites which deal with the “slashdot” effect. I hope to see web hosters, servers and web applications just naturally allow scaling through the addition of extra machines. This typically means either some round-robin-DNS, or a master server that does redirects to a pool of servers, or a master cache that processes the data from a pool of servers, or a few other methods. Dealing with persistent state that can’t be kept in cookies requires a shared database among all the servers, which may make the database the limiting factor. Rumours suggest Amazon will release an SQL interface to their internal storage system which presumably is highly scalable, solving that problem.

As noted, this would be great for small to medium web sites. They can mostly run on a single server, but if they ever see a giant burst of traffic, for example by being linked to from a highly popular site, they can in minutes bring up extra servers to share the load. I’ve suggested this approach for the Battlestar Galactica Wiki I’ve been using — normally their load is modest, but while the show is on, each week, predictably, they get such a huge load of traffic when the show actually airs that they have to lock the wiki down. They have tried to solve this the old fashioned way — buying bigger servers — but that’s a waste when they really just need one day a week, 22 weeks a year, of high capacity.

However, I digress. What I really want to talk about is using such systems to get access to all sorts of platforms. As I’ve noted before, linux is a huge mishmash of platforms. There are many revisions of Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE, Debian, Gentoo and many others out there. Not just the current release, but all the past releases, in both stable, testing and unstable branches. On top of that there are many versions of the BSD variants.  read more »

Urban retail neighbourhood of the future

Towns lament the coming of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. Their cut-rate competition changes the nature of shopping and shopping neighbourhoods. To stop it, towns sometimes block the arrival of such stores. Now web competition is changing the landscape even more. But our shopping areas are still “designed” with the old thinking in mind. Some of them are being “redesigned” the hard way by market forces. Can we get what we really want?

We must realize that it isn’t Wal-Mart who closes down the mom’n’pop store. It’s the ordinary people, who used to shop at it and switch to Wal-Mart who close it down. They have a choice, and indeed in some areas such stores survive.  read more »

The Efficiency of Attention in Advertising

I’ve written before about the problems with TV advertising. Recently I’ve been thinking more about the efficiency of various methods of advertising — to the target, not to the advertiser. Almost all studies of advertising concern how effectively advertising turns into leads or sales, but rarely are the interests of the target of the ad considered directly.

I think that has to change, because we’re getting more tools to avoid advertising and getting more resistant. I refuse to watch TV with ads, because at $1.20 per hour of advertising watched, it’s a horrible bargain. I would rather pay if I could, and do indeed buy the DVDs in many cases, but mostly my MythTV skips the ads for me. The more able I am to do this, the more my desires as a target must be addressed.

Advertising isn’t totally valueless to the target. In fact, Google feels one big reason for their success is that they deliver ads you might actually care to look at. There are other forms of advertising with the same mantra out there, and they tend to do well, such as movie trailers and Superbowl ads.

Consider a video ad lasting 30 seconds, with a $10 CPM. That means the advertiser pays one cent per viewer of the ad. The viewer spends 30 seconds. On the other hand, a box with 3 or 4 Google ads, as you might see on this page, is typically scanned in well under a second. These ads also earn (as a group) about a $10 CPM though they are paid per click. Google doesn’t publish numbers, but let’s assume a $10 CPM and a 1% click-through on the box. It’s actually higher than this.

In the 30 seconds a TV ad takes, I can peruse perhaps 50 boxes, bars or banners of web ads. That will expose me to over 100 product offers that in theory match my interests, compared to 1 for the video ad. The video ad will of course be far more convincing as it is getting so much attention, but in terms of worthwhile products offered to me per second, it’s terrible.

It isn’t quite this simple though, since I will click on one ad every every minute spent looking at ads (not every minute on the web) and perhaps spend another minute looking in detail at what the ad had to offer. That particular, very well targeted site, gains the wealth of attention the video ad demands, but far more efficiently.

I think this area is worth of more study in the industry, and I think it’s a less understood reason why Google is getting rich, and old media are running scared. In the future, people will tolerate advertising less and less unless it is clearer to them what value they are getting for it. Simply being able to get free programming is not the value we’re looking for, or if it is, we want a better deal — more programming in exchange for our valuable attention. But we want more than that better deal. We want to be advertised to efficiently, in a way that considers our needs and value. The companies that get that will win, the dinosaurs will find themselves in the movie “The Sixth Sense” — dead people, who don’t know they’re dead.

You... Forgive me I...I had no idea

In the Temple of Five, #3 (D’Anna) seeks to see the faces of the Final Five. Cavil says “That can’t happen” and tries to shoot her. Later she is boxed for her quest (and also because the actress is only contracted for so many episodes, but we’ll ignore that.:-)

As she enters the projection, she looks with some surprise at the 5 robed figures laid out before her. Curiously, there are six drapes, but they stand on only 5 of them, leaving the one on her left empty. Then she approaches one with a look of shocked recognition and issues the apology:

You… Forgive me I…I had no idea

(By the way, in a nice irony, as she gives up everything to see the faces of the Final Five, two of them are outside, getting shot at by her own Centurions.)  read more »

Making instruments with the human voice

The human voice is a pretty versatile instrument, and many skilled vocalists have been able to do convincing imitations of other sounds, and we’ve all heard “human beat box” artists work with a microphone to do great sounds.

That got me thinking, could we train a choir to work together to sound like anything, starting with violins, and perhaps even a piano or more?

The idea would be to get some vocalists to make lots of sounds, both pure tones and more complex ones, and break them apart with spectrum analysis.   Do the same for the target sound — try to break it up into components that might be made by human vocal cords with appropriate spectrum analysis.

Then find a way to easily add the human sounds together to sound like the instrument.  Each singer might focus on one of the harmonics or other tonal qualities of the instrument.  Do it first in the computer, and then see if the people can do it together, without being distracted.  Then work on doing the attack and decay and other artifacts of the start and end of notes.

If it all worked, it would be a fun gag for a choir to suddenly sound like a piano or violin playing a popular piece.   Purer tones like a flute might be harder than complex tones.  Percussion is obviously possible though it might need some amplification.  Indeed, amplification to adjust the levels properly might help a lot but would be slightly more artificial than hearing this without any electronics.   Who knows, perhaps a choir could even sound like an orchestra playing the opening to Beethoven’s 5th, something everybody knows well.

What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?

My father was famously a preacher turned agnostic. We used to argue all the time about the difference between an agnostic and an athiest. I felt the difference was inconsequential, he felt it was important. And I’ve had the same argument with other proclaimed agnostics. I found an amusing way to sum up my view of it in one answer.

What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

The difference is the atheist says she’s an atheist, while the agnostic says she’s an agnostic.  read more »

Please release HD movies on regular DVDs

If you’ve looked around, you probably noticed a high-def DVD player, be it HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, is expensive. Expect to pay $500 or so unless you get one bundled with a game console where they are subsidized.

Now they won’t follow this suggestion, but the reality is they didn’t need to make the move to these new DVD formats. Regular old DVD can actually handle pretty decent HDTV movies. Not as good as the new formats, but a lot better than plain DVD. I’ve seen videos with the latest codecs that pack a quite nice HD picture into 2.5 to 3 gigabytes for an hour. I’ve even seen it in less, down to 1.5 gigabytes (actually less that SD DVDs) at 720p 24 fps, though you do notice some problems. But it’s still way better than a standard DVD. Even so, a dual layer DVD can bring about 9 gb, and a double sided dual layer DVD gives you 18gb if you are willing to flip the disk over to get at special features or the 2nd half of a very long movie. Or of course just do 2-disk sets.

Now you might feel that the DVD industry would not want to make a new slew of regular DVD players with the fancier chips in them able to do these mp4 codecs when something clearly better is around the corner. And if they did do this, it would delay adoption of whatever high def DVD format they are backing in the format wars. But in fact, these disks could have been readily playable already, with no change, for the millions who watch DVDs on laptops and media center PCs. More than will have HD DVD or Blu-Ray for some time to come, even with the boost the Playstation 3 gives to Blu-Ray.  read more »

Upgrading: ask me few questions, and ask them together

One of my current peeves is just how much time we spend maintaining and upgrading computer operating systems, even as ordinary users. The workload for this is unacceptably high, though it’s not as though people are unaware of the problem.

Right now I’m updating one system to the beta of the new Ubuntu Feisty Fawn. (Ubuntu is the Linux distro I currently recommend.) They have done some work on building a single upgrader, which is good, but I was shocked to see an old problem resurface. In a 2 hour upgrade process, it asked me questions it didn’t need to ask me, and worse, it asked them at different times in the process.  read more »

Hard work for Burning Man to be Green

This year’s theme for Burning Man is “the Green Man.” It represents a lot of things. For many it just is an inspiration for art centered on nature or the environment. Others are taking it as a signal to try to be better environmentally. That’s going to be a very tough road for a festival centered on building a temporary city far from everything and pyrotechnic art.

So I wrote up some thoughts on the challenges involved. The toughest problem is that transporting an entire city to the desert and then taking it back is a great personal and artistic endeavour, but not one that can be considered green. All efforts to reduce the pollution at the event are dwarfed by the fuel burned to get there. So what can be done?

Read about the problems of having a green man.

A made-up backstory for Battlestar Galactica

When I watch SF TV shows, I often try to imagine a backstory that might make the story even better and SF like. My current favourite show is Battlestar Galactica, which is one of those shows where a deep mystery is slowly revealed to the audience.

So based on my own thoughts, and other ideas inspired from newsgroups, I’ve jotted down a backstory to explain the results you see in the show. Of course, much of it probably won’t end up being true, but there are hints that some of it might.

In my Battlestar Galactica back-story I explain why

  • Why everybody — even the so-called humans — is a Cylon
  • Who the Final 5 are and what they are doing
  • Why all this has happened before and is happening again
  • How the Cylons were made, and where they got their biotech

Of course, ignore this if you don’t watch the show. It’s pure fanfic/speculation.

The show remains one of the great SF TV shows, though it has been bogging down of late. This timeline may be a plea to return the show to some good hard SF roots. Posthumanism and strife between humans and AIs are hot themes in modern SF, and BSG is most interesting if it’s set in our future with things to say about the relationship between man, machine and artificial biological intelligence.

Update: I have updated the article based on the season finale, which confirmed a number of my speculations though of course not all of them.

Bluetooth headsets as virtual headsets in a PBX

It’s nice to have a headset on your desk telephone, for handsfree conversations. A number of phones have a headset jack, either of the submini plug used by cell phones, or using a phone handset jack. Many companies buy headset units that plug into the handset line to provide a headset, some of them are even wireless.

But bluetooth headsets today are cheap, standardized and have a competitive market. And they are of course wireless. Many people already have them for their cell phone. I have seen a very small number of desk phones support having a bluetooth headset, and that shouldn’t be al that expensive, but it’s rare and only on high-end phones.

Here’s the idea: Put bluetooth headset support into the PBX. Bluetooth headsets can’t dial, they can effectively only go on-hook and off-hook with a single button. You would associate (in the PBX) your bluetooth headset with your desk phone. A bluetooth master would be not too far from your desk, and tied into the PBX, or into a PC that talks to the PBX. When your BT headset was in range of this master, it would be tied to ith with Bluetooth. (You would have to do an actual bluetooth pairing in advance. In addition, many people have bluetooth headsets normally linked to their cell phone, and call attempts from the headset go to the cell phone. The system would have to switch that over to the PBX.)  read more »

Elliptical Racer for toddlers and VR for children

When I watch the boundless energy of young children, and their parents’ frustration over it, I wonder how high-tech will alter how children are raised in the next few decades. Of course already TV, and now computers play a large role, and it seems very few toys don’t talk or move on their own.

But I’ve also realized that children, both from a sense of play and due to youthful simplicity, will tolerate some technologies far before adults will. For example, making an AI to pass the Turing Test for children may be much, much simpler than making one that can fool an adult. As such, we may start to see simple AIs meant for interacting with, occupying the minds of and educating children long before we find them usable as adults.

Another technology that young children might well tolerate sooner is virtual reality. We might hate the cartoonish graphics and un-natural interfaces of today’s VRs but children don’t know the interfaces aren’t natural — they will learn any interface — and they love cartoon worlds.  read more »

Sysadmin services trading

I've ranted before about just how hard it has become to configure and administer computers. And there are services where you can hire sysadmins to help you, primarily aimed at novice users.

But we advanced users often need help today, too. Mostly when we run into problems we go to message boards, or do web searches and find advice on what to do. And once we get good on a package we can generally fix problems with it in no time.

I would love a service where I can trade my skill with some packages for help from others on other packages. There are some packages I know well, and could probably install for you or fix for you in a jiffy. Somebody else can do the same favour for me. In both cases we would explain what we did so the other person learned.

All of this would take place remotely, with VNC or ssh. Of course, this opens up a big question about trust. A reputation system would be a big start, but might not be enough. Of course you would want a complete log of all files changed, and how they were changed -- this service might apply more to just editing scripts and not compiling new binaries. Best of all, you could arrange to have a virtualized version of your machine around for the helper to use. After examining the differences you could apply to them to your real machine. Though in the end, you still need reputations so that people wanting to hack machines would not get into the system. They might have to be vetted as much as any outside consultant you would hire for money.

There seems a real efficiency to be had if this could be made to work. How often have you pounded for hours on something that a person skilled with the particular software could fix in minutes? How often could you do the same for others? Indeed, in many cases the person helping you might well be one of the developers of a system, who also would be learning about user problems. (Admittedly those developers would quickly earn enough credit to not have to maintain any other part of their system.)

The real tool would be truly secure operating systems where you can trust a stranger to work on one component.

Model airplane dogfights with LEDs

Lots of people love model airplanes, and I bet they would love to simulate dogfights. They can't fire actual projectiles, as that would be dangerous, expensive, unworkable due to the weight and actually damage planes.

It should be possible to set up a system for dogfights using light, however. One way would be to have planes mount lasers that send out a coded pulse with a bit of dispersion, and have the other planes mount receivers with diffusers to pick up light from a lot of directions. It might be better to go in reverse, the way many shooting games do -- the planes broadcast a coded pulse from some bright LED in a specific colour and the "gun" is just a narrow sight that tries to pick up these pulses. When the gun gets one, it sends it down to the coordinator on the ground, and that tells the target plane it's been hit (possibly forcing it to leave the airspace after some number of hits, or impair the flying controls, etc.)

Of course you need authenticated equipment. If people provide their own it's too easy to cheat, and one could also just make a gun that has no barrel instead of a wide one, or have one on the ground. So some honour might be required here.

It would of course be hard to do, with no cockpit view. Some larger model planes can carry small video cameras for a more realistic dogfight of that sort, but I suspect people could figure something out. The gun could have sensors for the pulses that are wider than the actual "direct hit" sensor, allowing them to tell you when you're getting close, and even showing a screen on a laptop that is not a camera view from the plane but at least a view of how close you are to the target.

The wireless watch as a PDA/phone extension

I wrote earlier about the bluetooth vibrator watch. I pushed this in part to promote the idea that phones should (almost) never ring. That ringing is rude to others and violates your own privacy, too.

Sony, Citizen and some others are now releasing bluetooth watches that go beyond this. Your watch should become a very small control station for your larger PDA/phone. Of course digital watches have a small screen, and there are also some nice analog watches where the background of the watch is secretly a screen. This should become cheaper with time.

As before, when a call comes in, your watch should gently vibrate or even just tingle your skin with a small charge. On the screen should be the caller-ID, and the buttons should be marked with choices, such as rejecting the call or accepting it. (These features will be in some of the upcoming bluetooth watches) If you accept it, the caller would hear you saying that you are getting out your real headset/handset and will talk to them in a few seconds. If you were in a meeting, they might be told it will be more than a few seconds, as you must excuse yourself from the room.

Your watch of course knows if it is on your wrist in many ways, including temperature, so the phone can know to actually ring if you’ve taken the watch off — for example when going to bed, if you want it to ring when you’re in bed, that is.

As the screens increase in resolution, they could also show things like the subject of emails and pages. No more pulling out the blackberry or cell phone — just a subtle glance at your watch when it tingles. Be nice if you can set your presence on your watch so that all calls go to voice mail, too.

Most flip phones have a 2nd small screen on them so you can see the time and caller-id when the phone is closed. This would not be needed if you use a watch like this, so the cost of the phone can be reduced to make up for the more expensive watch.

Your watch could also bind to your desk phone at the office. And the phone would also know if you are in the office or not.

Imagine a world of peace where you’re never hearing phones going off, and you aren’t seeing people constantly pulling out phones and blackberries to check calls and messages. Imagine a world where people no longer wear cell phones on their belts, either.

The watch could have a small headset in it too, but that would add bulk, and I think it’s better to pull out a dedicated one.

The only real downside to this — you would probably have to charge your watch once a week. This might not easily fit in with the smaller ladies’ watch designs. It should be possible in any larger design. E-ink technology, which takes no power to run a display, could also make a great material for the background of your watch dial, or even display a tolerable virtual watch dial for the many who prefer an analog set of hands. It might be necessary to design a protocol even lower power than bluetooth to give the watches even better battery life, and of course a standard charging interface found in hotels and offices would be great.

I think once this happens it will be hard to imagine how we tolerated it any other way. Yes, people get fun and status from their ringtones, but I think we can handle sacrificing that.

The watch could also be a mini-screen for a few other PDA and phone functions. For example, if you use a bluetooth earpiece, you can keep your phone in your pocket or purse, which is really nice, but sometimes you want a bit of display, for example to assist with voice command mode.

(Of course if you know about Voxable, you know I believe phone calls should simply not happen at all at the wrong times, but that’s a different leap.)