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Peerflix goes to dollar prices

I have written several times before about Peerflix — Now that I’ve started applying some tags as well as categories to my items you can now see all the Peerflix stories using that link — and the issues behind doing a P2P media trading/loaning system. Unlike my own ideas in this area, Peerflix took a selling approach. You sold and bought DVDs, initially for their own internal currency. It was 3 “Peerbux” for new releases, 2 for older ones, and 1 for bargain bin disks.

That system, however, was failing. You would often be stuck for months or more with an unpopular disk. Getting box sets was difficult. So in December they moved to pricing videos in real dollars. I found that interesting because it makes them, in a way, much closer to a specialty eBay. There are still a lot of differences from eBay — only unboxed disks are traded, they provide insurance for broken disks and most importantly, they set the price on disks.

One can trade DVDs on eBay fairy efficiently but it requires a lot of brain effort because you must put time into figuring good bid and ask prices for items of inconsequential price. Peerflix agreed that this is probably a poor idea, so they decided to set the prices. I don’t know how they set their initial prices, but it may have been by looking at eBay data or similar information.  read more »

Photo editors: Embed your text in the jpegs

Hey photo editing programs — I’m looking at you, Photoshop — a lot of you allow people to place text into graphic images, usually as a text layer. Most graphics with text on the web are made this way. Then we export the image as a jpeg or png/gif, flatting the layers so our artful text is displayed. This is how all the buttons with words are made, as well as the title banner graphics on most web sites.

So photo editors, when you render and flatten the layers, take the visible text (you know what it is) and include it in a tag inside the file, such as the EXIF information. Possibly as the caption if there isn’t already one. Let us disable this, including on just a single layer, but providing it would be a good default.

Then all the web spiders/search engines would be able to find that text. Web page editors could offer that text as a possible “alt” text for the graphic. And the blind would be able to have their web-page readers read to them the text embedded in graphics.

A solar economics spreadsheet

In light of my recent threads on CitizenRe I built a spreadsheet to do solar energy economic calculations. If you click on that, you can download the spreadsheet to try for yourself. If you don’t have a spreadsheet program (I recommend the free Gnumeric or Open Office) it’s also up as a Google Solar Spreadsheet but you may need a Google account to plug in your own numbers.  read more »

CitizenRe, real or imagined -- a challenge

Recently I opened up a surprising can of worms with a blog post about CitizenRe wondering if they had finally solved the problem of making solar power compete with the electrical grid. At that post you will see a substantial comment thread, including contributions by executives of the firm, which I welcome. At first, I had known little about CitizenRe and the reputation it was building. I thought i should summarize some of the issues I have been considering and other elements I have learned.

CitizenRe’s offer is very appealing. They claim they will build a plant that can make vastly cheaper solar. Once they do, they will install it on your roof and “rent” it to you. You buy all the power it produces from them at a rate that beats your current grid power cost. Your risks are few — you put down a deposit of $500 to $1500 depending on system size, you must cover any damage to the panels, and they offer removal and replacement for a very modest fee if you need to reroof or even move. You lock in your rate, which is good if grid rates go up and bad if grid rates go down or other solar becomes cheaper, but on the whole it’s a balanced offer.

In fact, it seems too good to be true. It’s way, way cheaper than any offering available today. Because it sounds so good, many people are saying “show me.” I want to see just how they are going to pull that off. Many in the existing solar industry are saying that much louder. They are worried that if CitizenRe fails to deliver, all their customers will have been diverted to a pipedream while they suffer financial ruin. Of course, they are also worried that if CitizenRe does deliver, they will be competed out of business, so they do have a conflict of interest.

Here are some of the things to make me skeptical.  read more »

Math getting better? -- CitizenRe

(Note: I have posted a followup article on CitizenRe as a result of this thread. Also a solar economics spreadsheet.)

I’ve been writing about the economics of green energy and solar PV, and have been pointed to a very interesting company named CitizenRe. Their offering suggests a major cost reduction to make solar workable.

They’re selling PV solar in a new way. Once they go into operation, they install and own the PV panels on your roof, and you commit to buy their output at a rate below your current utility rate. Few apparent catches, though there are some risks if you need to move (though they try to make that easy and will move the system once for those who do a long term contract.) You are also responsible for damage, so you either take the risk of panel damage or insure against it. Typically they provide an underpowered system and insist you live where you can sell back excess to the utility, which makes sense.

But my main question is, how can they afford to do it? They claim to be making their own panels and electrical equipment. Perhaps they can do this at such a better price they can make this affordable. Of course they take the rebates and tax credits which makes a big difference. Even so, they seem to offer panels even in lower-insolation places like New England, and to beat the prices of cheaper utilities which only charge around 8 cents/kwh.

My math suggests that with typical numbers of 2 khw/peak watt/year, to deliver 8 cents/kwh for 25 years requires an installed cost of under $2/peak watt — even less in the less sunny places. Nobody is even remotely close to this in cost, so this must require considerable reduction from rebates and tax credits.

A few other gotchas — if you need to re-roof, you must pay about $500 to temporarily remove up to 5kw of panels. And there is the risk that energy will get cheaper, leaving you locked in at a higher rate since you commit to buy all the power from the panels. While many people fear the reverse — grid power going up in price, where this is a win — in fact I think that energy getting cheaper is actually a significant risk as more and more money goes into cleantech and innovation in solar and other forms of generation.

It’s interesting that they are offering a price to compete with your own local utility. That makes sense in a “charge what the market will bear” style, but it would make more sense to market only to customers buying expensive grid power in states with high insolation (ie. the southwest.)

Even with the risks this seems like a deal with real potential — if it’s real — and I’ll be giving it more thought. Of course, for many, the big deal is that not only do they pay a competitive price, they are much greener, and even provide back-up power during the daytime. I would be interested if any readers know more about this company and their economics.

Update: There is a really detailed comment thread on this post. However, I must warn CitizenRe affiliates that while they must disclose their financial connection, they must also not provide affiliate URLs. Posts with affiliate URLs will be deleted. Some salient details: There is internal dissent. I and many others wonder why an offer this good sounding would want to stain itself by being an MLM-pyramid. Much stuff still undisclosed, some doubt on when installs will take place.

More eBay feedback

A recent Forbes items pointed to my earlier posts on eBay Feedback so I thought it was time to update them. Note also the eBay tag for all posts on eBay including comments on the new non-feedback rules.

I originally mused about blinding feedback or detecting revenge feedback. It occurs to me there is a far, far simpler solution. If the first party leaves negative feedback, the other party can’t leave feedback at all. Instead, the negative feedback is displayed both in the target’s feedback profile and also in the commenter’s profile as a “negative feedback left.” (I don’t just mean how you can see it in the ‘feedback left for others’ display. I mean it would show up in your own feedback that you left negative feedback on a transaction as a buyer or seller. It would not count in your feedback percentage, but it would display in the list a count of negatives you left, and the text response to the negative made by the other party if any.)

Why? Well, once the first feedbacker leaves a negative, how much information is there, really, in the response feedback? It’s a pretty rare person who, having been given a negative feedback is going to respond with a positive! Far more likely they will not leave any feedback at all if they admit the problem was their fault. Or that they will leave revenge. So if there’s no information, it’s best to leave it out of the equation.

This means you can leave negatives without fear of revenge, but it will be clearly shown to people who look at your profile whether you leave a lot of negatives or not, and they can judge from comments if you are spiteful or really had some problems. This will discourage some negative feedback, since people will not want a more visible reputation of giving lots of negatives. A typical seller will expect to have given a bunch of negatives to deadbeat buyers who didn’t pay, and the comments will show that clearly. If, however, they have an above average number of disputes over little things, that might scare customers off — and perhaps deservedly.

I don’t know if eBay will do this so I’ve been musing that it might be time for somebody to make an independent reputation database for eBay, and tie it in with a plugin like ShortShip. This database could spot revenge feedbacks, note the order of feedbacks, and allow more detailed commentary. Of course if eBay tries to stop it, it has to be a piece of software that does all the eBay fetching from user’s machines rather then a central server.

A real life Newcomb's Paraodox

This week I participated in this thread on Newcomb’s Paraodox which was noted on BoingBoing.

The paradox:

A highly superior being from another part of the galaxy presents you with two boxes, one open and one closed. In the open box there is a thousand-dollar bill. In the closed box there is either one million dollars or there is nothing. You are to choose between taking both boxes or taking the closed box only. But there’s a catch.

The being claims that he is able to predict what any human being will decide to do. If he predicted you would take only the closed box, then he placed a million dollars in it. But if he predicted you would take both boxes, he left the closed box empty. Furthermore, he has run this experiment with 999 people before, and has been right every time.

What do you do?

A short version of my answer: The parodox confuses people because it stipulates you are a highly predictable being to the alien, then asks you to make a choice. But in fact you don’t make a choice, you are a choice. Your choice derives from who you are, not the logic you go through before the alien. The alien’s power dictates you already either are or aren’t the sort of person who picks one box or two, and in fact the alien is the one who made the choice based on that — you just imagine you could do differently than predicted.

Those who argue that since the money is already in the boxes, you should always take both miss the point of the paradox. That view is logically correct, but those who hold that view will not become millionaires, and this was set by the fact they hold the view. It isn’t that there’s no way the contents of the boxes can change because of your choice, it’s that there isn’t a million there if you’re going to think that way.

Of course people don’t like that premise of predictability and thus, as you will see in the thread, get very involved in the problem.

In thinking about this, it came to me that the alien is not so hypothetical. As you may know from reading this blog, I was once administered Versed, a sedative that also blocks your ability to form long term memories. I remember the injection, but not the things I said and did afterwards.

In my experiment we recruit subjects to test the paradox. They come in and an IV drip is installed, though they are not told about Versed. (Some people are not completely affected by Versed but assume our subjects are.) We ask subjects to give a deliberated answer, not to just try to be random, flip a coin or whatever.

So we administer the drug and present the problem, and see what you do. The boxes are both empty — you won’t remember that we cheated you. We do it a few times if necessary to see how consistent you are. I expect that most people would be highly consistent, but I think it would be a very interesting thing to research! If a few are not consistent, I suspect they may be deliberately being random, but again it would be interesting to find out why.

We videotape the final session, where there is money in the boxes. (Probably not a million, we can’t quite afford that.) Hypothetically, it would be even better to find another drug that has the same sedative effects of Versed so you can’t tell it apart and don’t reason differently under it, but which allows you to remember the final session — the one where, I suspect, we almost invariably get it right.

Each time you do it, however, you think you’re doing it for the first time. However, at first you probably (and correctly) won’t want to believe in our amazing predictive powers. There is no such alien, after all. That’s where it becomes important to videotape the last session or even better, have a way to let you remember it. Then we can have auditors you trust completely audit the experimenter’s remarkable accuracy (on the final round.) We don’t really have to lie to the auditors, they can know how we do it. We just need a way for them to swear truthfully that on the final round, we are very, very accurate, without conveying to the subject that there are early, unremembered rounds where we are not accurate. Alas, we can’t do that for the initial subjects — another reason we can’t put a million in.

Still, I suspect that most people would be fairly predictable and that many would find this extremely disturbing. We don’t like determinism in any form. Certainly there are many choices that we imagine as choices but which are very predictable. Unless you are bi, you might imagine you are choosing the sex of your sexual partners — that you could, if it were important, choose differently — but in fact you always choose the same.

What I think is that having your choices be inherent in your makeup is not necessarily a contradiction to the concept of free will. You have a will, and you are free to exercise it, but in many cases that will is more a statement about who you are than what you’re thinking at the time. The will was exercised in the past, in making you the sort of mind you are. It’s still your will, your choices. In the same way I think that entirely deterministic computers can also make choices and have free will. Yes, their choices are entirely the result of their makeup. But if they rate being an “actor” then the choices are theirs, even if the makeup’s initial conditions came from a creator. We are created by our parents and environment (and some think by a deity) but that’s just the initial conditions. Quickly we become something unto ourselves, even if there is only one way we could have done that. We are not un-free, we just are what we are.

A first solution to linux dependencies part 2 -- yes, service packs

Last week I wrote about linux’s problems with dependencies and upgrades and promised some suggestions this week.

There are a couple of ideas here to be stolen from (sacrilige) windows which could be a start here, though they aren’t my long term solution.

Microsoft takes a different approach to updates, which consists of little patches and big service packs. The service packs integrate a lot of changes, including major changes, into one upgrade. They are not very frequent, and in some ways akin to the major distribution releases of systems like Ubuntu (but not its parent Debian ), Fedora Core and SuSE.

Installing a service pack is certainly not without risks, but the very particular combination of new libraries and changed apps in a service pack is extensively tested together, as is also the case for a major revision of a linux distribution. Generally installing one of these packs has been a safe procedure. Most windows programs also do not use hand-edited configuration files for local changes, and so don’t suffer from the upgrade problems associated with this particular technique nearly as much.  read more »

The linux package upgrade nightmare, part 1

We all spend far too much of our time doing sysadmin. I’m upgrading and it’s as usual far more work than it should be. I have a long term plan for this but right now I want to talk about one of Linux’s greatest flaws — the dependencies in the major distributions.

When Unix/Linux began, installing free software consisted of downloading it, getting it to compile on your machine, and then installing it, hopefully with its install scripts. This always works but much can go wrong. It’s also lots of work and it’s too disconnected a process. Linuxes, starting with Red Hat, moved to the idea of precompiled binary packages and a package manager. That later was developed into an automated system where you can just say, “I want package X” and it downloads and installs that program and everything else it needs to run with a single command. When it works, it “just works” which is great.

When you have a fresh, recent OS, that is. Because when packagers build packages, they usually do so on a recent machine, typically fully updated. And the package tools then decide the new package “depends” on the latest version of all the libraries and other tools it uses. You can’t install it without upgrading all the other tools, if you can do this at all.

This would make sense if the packages really depended on the very latest libraries. Sometimes they do, but more often they don’t. However, nobody wants to test extensively with old libraries, and serious developers don’t want to run old distributions, so this is what you get.

So as your system ages, if you don’t keep it fully up to date, you run into a serious problem. At first you will find that if you want to install some new software, or upgrade to the lastest version to get a fix, you also have to upgrade a lot of other stuff that you don’t know much about. Most of the time, this works. But sometimes the other upgrades are hard, or face a problem, one you don’t have time to deal with.

However, as your system ages more, it gets worse. Once you are no longer running the most recent distribution release, nobody is even compiling for your old release any more. If you need the latest release of a program you care about, in order to fix a bug or get a new feature, the package system will no longer help you. Running that new release or program requires a much more serious update of your computer, with major libraries and more — in many ways the entire system. And so you do that, but you need to be careful. This often goes wrong in one way or another, so you must only do it at a time when you would be OK not having your system for a day, and taking a day or more to work on things. No, it doesn’t usually take a day — but it might. And you have to be ready for that rare contingency. Just to get the latest version of a program you care about.

Compare this to Windows. By and large, most binary software packages for windows will install on very old versions of Windows. Quite often they will still run on Windows 95, long ago abandoned by Microsoft. Win98 is still supported. Of late, it has been more common to get packages that insist on 7 year old Windows 2000. It’s fairly rare to get something that insists on 5-year-old Windows XP, except from Microsoft itself, which wants everybody to need to buy upgrades.

Getting a new program for your 5 year old Linux is very unlikley. This is tolerated because Linux is free. There is no financial reason not to have the latest version of any package. Windows coders won’t make their program demand Windows XP because they don’t want to force you to buy a whole new OS just to run their program. Linux coders forget that the price of the OS is often a fairly small part of the cost of an upgrade.

Systems have gotten better at automatic upgrades over time, but still most people I know don’t trust them. Actively used systems acquire bit-rot over time, things start going wrong. If they’re really wrong you fix them, but after a while the legacy problems pile up. In many cases a fresh install is the best solution. Even though a fresh install means a lot of work recreating your old environment. Windows fresh installs are terrible, and only recently got better.

Linux has been much better at the incremental upgrade, but even there fresh installs are called for from time to time. Debian and its children, in theory, should be able to just upgrade forever, but in practice only a few people are that lucky.

One of the big curses (one I hope to have a fix for) is the configuration file. Programs all have their configuration files. However, most software authors pre-load the configuration file with helpful comments and default configurations. The user, after installing, edits the configuration file to get things as they like, either by hand, or with a GUI in the program. When a new version of the program comes along, there is a new version of the “default” configuration file, with new comments, and new default configuration. Often it’s wrong to run your old version, or doing so will slowly build more bit-rot, so your version doesn’t operate as nicely as a fresh one. You have to go in and manually merge the two files.

Some of the better software packages have realized they must divide the configuration — and even the comments — made by the package author or the OS distribution editor from the local changes made by the user. Better programs have their configuration file “include” a normally empty local file, or even better all files in a local directory. This does not allow comments but it’s a start.

Unfortunately the programs that do this are few, and so any major upgrade can be scary. And unfortunately, the more you hold off on upgrading the scarier it will be. Most individual package upgrades go smoothly, most of the time. But if you leave it so you need to upgrade 200 packages at once, the odds of some problem that diverts you increase, and eventually they become close to 100%.

Ubuntu, which is probably my favourite distribution, has announced that their “Dapper Drake” distribution, from mid 2006, will be supported for desktop use for 3 years, and 5 years for server use. I presume that means they will keep compiling new packages to run on the older base of Dapper, and test all upgrades. This is great, but it’s thanks to the generousity of Mark Shuttleworth, who uses his internet wealth to be a fabulous sugar daddy to the Linux and Ubuntu movements. Already the next release is out, “Edgy” and it’s newer and better than Dapper, but with half the support promise. It will be interesting to see what people choose.

When it comes to hardware, Linux is even worse. Each driver works with precisely one kernel it is compiled for. Woe onto you once you decide to support some non-standard hardware in your Linux box that needs a special driver. Compiling a new driver isn’t hard once, until you realize you must do it all again any time you would like to slightly upgrade your kernel. Most users simply don’t upgrade their kernels unless they face a screaming need, like fixing a major bug, or buying some new hardware. Linux kernels come out every couple of weeks for the eager, but few are so eager.

As I get older, I find I don’t have the time to compile everything from source, or to sysadmin every piece of software I want to use. I think there are solutions to some of these problems, and a simple first one will be talked about in the next installment, namely an analog of Service Packs

The strange story of eBay Playstation 3 auctions

I’m not a gamer. I wrote video games 25 years ago but stopped when game creation became more about sizzle (graphics) than steak (strategy.) But the story of the release of the Playstation 3 is a fascinating one. Sony couldn’t make enough, so to get them, people camped out in front of stores, or in some cases camped out just to get a certificate saying they could buy one when they arrived. But word got out that people would pay a lot for them on eBay. The units cost about $600, depending on what model you got, but people were bidding thousands of dollars even in advance, for those who had received certificates from stores.

It was amusing to read the coverage of the launch at Sony’s own Sonystyle store in San Francisco. There the press got bored as they asked people in line why they were lining up to get a PS3. The answer most commonly seemed to be not a love of gaming, but to flip the box for a profit.

And flip they did. There were several tens of thousands of eBay auctions for PS3s, and prices were astounding. About 20,000 auctions closed. Another 25,000 are still running at this time. Some auctions concluded for ridiculous numbers like $110,000 for 4 of them, or a more “reasonable” $20,000 for 5. Single auctions reached as high as $25,000, though in many of these cases, it’s bad news for the seller because the high bidders are people with zero eBay reputation who obviously won’t complete the transaction. In other cases serious sellers will try to claim their bid was a typo. There are some auctions with serious multiple bidders that got to 3 and 4 thousand dollars, but by mid-day today they were all running about $2,000, and they started dropping very quickly. As I watched in a few minutes they fell from $1,500 to going below a thousand. Still plenty of profit for those willing to brave the lines.

It’s interesting to consider what the best strategy for a seller is. It’s hard to predict what form a frenzy like this will take, and when the best price will come. The problem is eBay has a minimum 1 day for the auction, so you must guess the peak 1 day in advance. Since many buyers were keen to see the auction listing showing that the person had the unit in hand, ready to ship, the possible strategy of listing the item before going to get it bore some risks. Some showed scans of their pre-purchase.

The most successful sellers were probably those who picked a clever “buy it now” price which was taken during the early frenzy by people who did not realize how much the price would drop. All the highest auctions (including those with fake buyers) were buy-it-now results. Of course, it’s mostly luck in guessing what the right price was. I presume the buy-it-now/best-offer feature (new on eBay) might have done well for some sellers.

However, those who got a bogus buyer are punished heavily. They can re-list, but must wait a day to sell by auction, and will have lost a bunch of money in that day. If they can find the buyer they might be able to sue. If they are smart, they would re-list with a near-market buy-it-now to catch the market while it’s hot.

Real losers are those who placed a reserve on their auctions, or a high starting bid price. In many cases their auctions will close with no succesful bidder, and they’ll sell for less later. Using a reserve or high starting bid makes no sense when you have such a high-demand item. Those paranoid about losing money should have at most started bidding at their purchase price. I can’t think of any reason for a reserve price auction in this case — or in most other cases, for that matter. Other than with experimental rare products, they are just annoying.

Particularly sad was one auction where the seller claimed to be a struggling single mom who had kids that lucked out and got spots in line, along with pictures of the kids holding the boxes. She set a too-high starting price, and will have to re-list.

Another bad strategy was to do a long multi-day listing.

It’s possible the rarity of these items will grow, as people discover they just can’t get one for their kids for Christmas, but I doubt it.

The other big question this raises is this: Could Sony have released the machine differently? Sony obviously left millions on the table here, about 30 to 40 million I would guess. That’s tolerable for Sony, and they might have decided to give it up for the publicity that surrounds a buying craze. But I have to wonder, would they not have been better served to conduct their own auctions, perhaps a giant dutch auction, for the units, with some allocated at list price by lottery or for those willing to wait in line so that it doesn’t seem so elitist. (As if any poor person is going to buy a PS3 and keep it if they can make a fast thousand in any event.)

Some retailers took advantage of demand by requiring customers to buy several games with the box, presumably Sony approved that. With no control from Sony all the retailers would be trying to capture all this money themselves, which they could easily have done — selling on eBay directly if need be.

I predict in the future we will see a hot Christmas item sold through something like a dutch auction, since being the first to do that would generate a lot of publicity. Dutch auctions are otherwise not nearly so exciting. When Google went public through one, the enemies of dutch auctions worked to make sure people thought it was boring, causing Google to leave quite a bit of money on the table, but far less than they would have left had they used traditional underwriters.

On a side note — if you shop on eBay, I recommend the mozilla/firefox/iceweasel plugin “Shortship” which fixes one of eBay’s most annoying bugs. It lets you see the total of price plus shipping, and sort by it, at least within one ebay display page.

Smarter power when the supply changes

In furtherance of my prior ideas on smart power, I wanted to add another one — the concept of backup power.

As I wrote before, I want power plugs and jacks to be smart, so they can negotiate how much power the device needs and how much the supply can provide, and then deliver it.

However, sometimes, what the supply can provide changes. The most obvious example is a grid power failure. It would not be hard, in the event of a grid power failure, to have a smaller, low capacity backup system in place, possibly just from batteries. In the event of failure of the main power, the backup system would send messages to indicate just how much power it can deliver. Heavy power devices would just shut off, but might ask for a few milliwatts to maintain internal state. (Ie. your microwave oven clock would not need an internal battery to retain the time of day and its memory.) Lower power devices might be given their full power, or they might even offer a set of power modes they could switch to, and the main supply could decide how much power to give to each device.

Of course, devices not speaking this protocol, would just shut off. But things like emergency lights need not be their own system — though there are reasons from still having that in a number of cases, since one emergency might involve the power system being destroyed. However, battery backup units could easily be distributed around a building.

In effect, one could have a master UPS, for example, that keeps your clocks, small DC devices and even computers running in a power failure, but shuts down ovens and incandescent bulbs and the like, or puts devices into power-saving modes.

We could go much further than this, and consider a real-time power availability negotiation, when we have a power supply or a wire with a current limit. For example, a device might normally draw 100mw, but want to burst to 5w on occasion. If it has absolutely zero control over the bursts, we may have to give it a full 5w power supply at all times. However, it might be able to control the burst, and ask the power source if it can please have 5w. The source could then accept that and provide the power, or perhaps indicate the power may be available later. The source might even ask other devices if they could briefly reduce their own power usage to provide capacity to the bursting device.

For example, a computer that only uses a lot of power when it’s in heavy CPU utilization might well be convinced to briefly pause a high-intensity non-interactive task to free up power for something else. In return, it could ask for more power when it needs it. A clothes-dryer or oven our furnace or other such items could readily take short pauses in their high power drain activities — anything that uses a cycle rather than 100% on can do this.

This is also useful for items with motors. A classic problem in electrical design is that things like motors and incandescent lightbulbs draw a real spike of high current when they first turn on. This requires fuses and circuit breakers to be “slow blow” because the current is often briefly more than the circuit should sustain. Smart devices could arrange to “load balance” their peaks. You would know that the air conditioner compressor would simply never start at the same time as the fridge or a light bulb, resulting in safer circuits even though they have lower ratings. Not that overprovisioning for safety is necessarily a bad thing.

This also would be useful in alternative energy, where the amount of power available changes during the day.

Of course, this also applies to when the price of power changes during the day, which is one application we already see in the world. Many power buyers have time-based pricing of their power, and have timers to move when they use the power. In many cases whole companies agree their power can be cut off during brown-outs in order to get a cheaper price when it’s on. With smart power and real-time management, this could happen on a device by device basis.

These ideas also make sense in power over ethernet (which is rapidly dropping in price) which is one of the 1st generation smart power technologies. There the amount of power you can draw over the thin wires is very low, and management like this can make sense.

Will Battlestar Galactica 2.0 update the "descended from aliens" mistake?

I’m enjoying the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Unlike the original, which was cheezy space opera, this show is the best SF show on TV. Yes, I watched the original when I was 18. I knew it was terrible (and full of bad science) but in the 70s TV SF was extremely rare, and often even worse.

The original show began with Pactrick Macnee narrating an opening “There are those who believe that life here, began out there, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians…” They sought the lost tribe of Earth, and in a truly abyssmal sequel finally came to 1980 Earth, which was of course technologically backward compared to them and unable to help in their fight.

This idea was a common one in science fiction of the 20th century. It was frequent in written SF, and Star Trek twice took it up. In one 60s episode, the Enterprise met Sargon, who claimed to have sewn most of the humanoid races. Spock states this meshes with Vulcan history, but another character says that Humans appear to have evolved on Earth. A later episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation reverses this, and Picard follows clues left in DNA to discover the common ancestry of all the humanoids.

Back in the 60s and 70s, when Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek were written, you could get away with this plot. It had a romantic appeal. While there was tons of evidence, as even Star Trek of the 60s knew, that humans were from Earth, we had not come to the 90s and the DNA sequencer. Today we know we share 25% of our DNA with cabbages. We’re descended from a long line in the fossil record that goes back a billion years. If life on this planet was seeded from other planets, it was over a billion years ago. It certainly wasn’t during the lifetime of Humanity, and nor were all the animals also seeded here at the same time as we were unless the aliens who did it deliberately created a fake fossil record.

(Of course creationists try very hard to make the case that this could be true, but they don’t even remotely succeed. If you think they do have a point, you may want to stop reading. You can read on for more SF theory though.)  read more »

Some early panoramas of the burn itself

While it will be a while before I get the time to build all my panoramas of this year’s Burning Man, I did do some quick versions of some of those I shot of the burn itself. This year, I arranged to be on a cherry picker above the burn. I wish I had spent more time actually looking at the spectacle, but I wanted to capture panoramas of Burning Man’s climactic moment. The entire city gathers, along with all the art cars for one shared experience. A large chunk of the experience is the mood and the sound which I can’t capture in a photo, but I can try to capture the scope.

This thumbnail shows the man going up, shooting fireworks and most of the crowd around him. I will later rebuild it from the raw files for the best quality.

Shooting panoramas at night is always hard. You want time exposures, but if any exposure goes wrong (such as vibration) the whole panorama can be ruined by a blurry frame in the middle. On a boomlift, if anybody moves — and the other photographer was always adjusting his body for different angles — a time exposure won’t be possible. It’s also cramped and if you drop something (as I did my clamp knob near the end) you won’t get it back for a while. In addition, you can’t have everybody else duck every time you do a sweep without really annoying them, and if you do you have to wait a while for things to stabilize.

It was also an interesting experience riding to the burn with DPW, the group of staff and volunteers who do city infrastructure. They do work hard, in rough conditions, but it gives them an attitude that crosses the line some of the time regarding the other participants. When we came to each parked cherry picker, people had leaned bikes against them, and in one case locked a bike on one. Though we would not actually move the bases, the crew quickly grabbed all the bikes and tossed them on top of one another, tangling pedal in spoke, probably damaging some and certainly making some hard to find. The locked bike had its lock smashed quickly with a mallet. Now the people who put their bikes on the pickers weren’t thinking very well, I agree, and the DPW crew did have to get us around quickly but I couldn’t help but cringe with guilt at being part of the cause of this, especially when we didn’t move the pickers. (Though I understand safety concerns of needing to be able to.)

Anyway, things “picked up” quickly and the view was indeed spectacular. Tune in later for more and better pictures, and in the meantime you can see the first set of trial burn panoramas for a view of the burn you haven’t seen.

Paradox of abundance, with DVRs and Netflix/Peerflix

An interesting article in the WSJ yesterday on the paradox of abundance describes how many Netflix customers are putting many “highbrow” or “serious” movies on their lists, then letting them sit for months, unwatched, even returning them unwatched.

This sounds great for Netflix, of course, though it would be bad for Peerflix.

It echoes something I have been observing in my own household with the combination of a MythTV PVR with lots of disk space and a Peerflix subscription. When the time pressure of the old system goes off, stuff doesn’t get watched.

This is a counter to one of the early phenomenon that people with PVRs like Tivo/MythTV experience, namely watching more TV because it’s so much more convenient and there’s much more to watch than you imagined. In particular, when you record a series on your PVR, you watch every episode of that series unless you deliberately try not to (as I do with my “abridged” series watching system where I delete episodes of shows if they get bad reviews.)

In the past, with live TV, you might be a fan of a series, but you were going to miss a few. They expected you to and included “Previously on…” snippets for you. For a few top series you set up the VCR, but even then it missed things. And only the most serious viewers had a VCR record every episode of every show they might have interest in. But that’s easy with the PVR.

We’ve found some of our series watching to be really delayed. Sometimes it’s deliberate — we won’t watch the cliffhanger final episode of a season until we know we have the conclusion at the start of the next season, though that has major spoiler risks. Sometimes there will be series fatigue, where too much of your viewing time has gone to a set of core series and you are keen for something else — anything else. Then the series languishes.

Now there is some time pressure in the DVR. Eventually it runs out of disk space and gets rid of old shows. Which is what makes the DVDs from Peerflix or Netflix in even more trouble. Some have indeed gone 6 months without watching.

As the WSJ article suggests, part of it relates to the style of show. One is always up for lighthearted shows, comedies etc. But sitting there for months is The Pianist. For some reason when we sit down in front of the TV and want to pick a show, Nazis never seem very appealing. Even though we know from recommendations that it’s a very good film.

When the cinema was the normal venue for films, the system of choice was different. First of all, if we decide we want to go out to a movie, we’ll consider the movies currently playing. Only a small handful will be movies we think worthwhile to go to. In that context, it’s much more likely we might pick a serious or depressing movie with Nazis in it. It could easily be the clear choice in our small list. In addition, we know that the movie will only be in cinemas for a short time, any given movie, especially serious ones, may be gone in a few weeks. That’s even more true in smaller markets.

I’ve also noticed a push for shorter programming. When you’ve rented a DVD, your plan for the evening is clear, you are going to watch a movie at home. When you just sit down to choose something from your library, the temptation is strong to watch shorter things instead of making a 2 hour committment to a longer thing.

These factors are even more true when there are 2 or more people to please, instead of just one. The reality seems to be when the choice is 2 hours of war or Nazis or a 22 minute TV comedy, the 22 minute comedy — even several of them in a row — is almost always the winner. Also popular are non-fiction shows, such as science and nature shows, which have no strict time contract since you can readily stop them in the middle to resume later with no suspense.

Anyway, as you can see the WJS article resonated with me. Since the phenomenon is common, the next question is what this means for the industry. Will the market for more serious movies be diminished? The public was already choosing lighter movies over serious ones, but now even those who do enjoy the serious movies may find themselves tending away from them.

Of course, if people take a DVD from Netflix and leave it on the shelf for months, that actually helps the market for the disk in the rental context, helps it quite a bit. Far more copies are needed to meet the demands of the viewers, even if there are fewer viewers. However, the real shift coming is to pay-per-view and downloading. If people look at the PPV menu and usually pick the light movie over the serious one, then the market for the serious ones is sunk.

Burning Man 2005 Panoramas

Hot on the heels of the regular photos the gallery of 2005 Burning Man Panoramas is now up. This year, I got to borrow a cherry picker at sunset on Friday for some interesting perspectives. The long ones are around 3400 by 52000 at full res (180 megapixels) and even the ones on the web are larger than before. Use F11 to put your browser into full screen mode.

This year I switched most of my generation to Panorama Factory, which in its latest verions has allowed fine control of the blending zone, so I can finally use it to deal with moving people in scenes.

Here’s a view of the temple, mostly because it has the narrowest thumbnail.

PayPal should partner with UPS and other shippers

You’ve seen me write before of a proposal I call addresscrow to promote privacy when items are shipped to you. Today I’ll propose something more modest, with non-privacy applications.

I would like PayPal, and other payment systems (Visa/MC/Google Checkout) to partner with the shipping companies such as UPS that ship the products bought with these payment systems.

They would produce a very primative escrow, so that payment to the seller was transferred upon delivery confirmation by the shipper. If there is no delivery, the money is not transferred, and is eventually refunded. When you sign for the package (or if you have delivery without signature, when it’s dropped off) that’s when the money would be paid to the vendor. You, on the other hand, would pay the money immediately, and the seller would be notified you had paid and the money was waiting pending receipt. The payment company would get to hold the money for a few days, and make some money on the float, if desired, to pay for this service.

Of course, sellers could ship you a lump of coal and you would still pay for it by signing for it. However, this is a somewhat more overt fraud that, like all fraud, must be dealt with in other ways. This system would instead help eliminate delays in shipping, since vendors would be highly motivated to get things shipped and delivered, and it would eliminate any communications problems standing in the way of getting the order processed. There is nothing much in it for the vendor, of course, other than a means to make customers feel more comfortable about paying up front. But making customers feel more comfortable is no small thing.

Extended, the data from this could go into reptuation systems like eBay’s feedback, so that it could report for buyers how promptly they paid, and for sellers how promptly they shipped or delivered. (The database would know both when an item was shipped and when it was received.) eBay has resisted the very obvious idea of having feedback show successful PayPal payment, so I doubt they will rush to do this either.

Burning Man 2005 Photos plus Aerial shots

I’ve gotten way behind on putting up my photographs, and I realized I had never put my Burning Man 2005 shots up. We’re already planning for 2006.

So I got them up this weekend. Of particular interest to burners this year will be the aerial survey I did of the city, over 200 close-up photos of just about every camp in the city from the sky.

And yes, I shot plenty of panoramas, and I have built most of them, but still don’t have the panorama page up.

So take a visit to my 2005 Burning Man Photos.

A super-compact global power adapter

Those who travel on trips through many countries face the problem of how to plug in their laptops and gear. Many stores sell collections of adapters, but they are often bulky, and having multiple adapters for multiple gear can be really bulky. (Usually you get one adapter and then use a 3-way splitter or cord for your type of plug.)

Today, however, almost all my travel gear is 2-prong, not 3-prong. It’s mostly my laptop and various chargers for cameras, phones etc. And all of it runs on every voltage and hz found in the world.

It seems if you’re willing to break the rules on rigidity of plugs, one could make a very small adapter by using independent pins, perhaps with a flexible rubber strip handle between them to keep them together and make it safer, but still allowing the pins to bend and have different spacing.

If you do this, there are really just a few types of pins you need. Thin blades, thick blades, thin round pins and in a few places fat round pins. The blades come at different angles — parallel in North America, slanted in Australia, colinear for thick blades in UK. With pins it’s more a question of spacing than angles. A single plug with a way to adjust the spacing could also work. (Israel has a strange pin I haven’t used, I don’t know if other pins or blades could be adapted to it.)

Generally this would not be suitable for plugging a wall-wart into a wall, you would want to plug in a short extension cord with multiple sockets of “your” type. And it might be hard to sell a product like this due to safety standards, since they don’t want to trust the user to know what they are doing, know that they are only plugging in equipment that takes any voltage and doesn’t care what pin is live and which is neutral, doesn’t need ground and doesn’t draw lots of current in any event. But it would be very compact.

Versed for couple's counselling

I’ve been away because I had to have my gall bladder removed, thanks to a gallstone the size of a small moon. Unfortunately they had to do it “old school” rather than laproscopically, which means the recovery is so much more fun.

The immersion into the hospitalization system (first time in the US) will generate some blog posts, but today let me add thoughts on one element that surprised me. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote speculating on the use of Versed for torture. I still wonder about that, and now I have a direct experience. Though I was not told about it, the anesthesiologist included one of the amnesia-inducing drugs into the pre-op “calm you down” sedation coctail. I remember him doing that injection, and getting a bit flushed from that, but it’s blank after that. No memory of any discussion after, of being wheeled to the operating room and receiving the actual injection to make me unconscious for the procedure. Those events never laid down.

(When I asked the surgeon about not being told I would receive this drug, she at least had a sense of humour and said, “How do you know you weren’t told?” Indeed, I don’t know that. And to pile on the irony, I brought the movie “Momento” to the hospital, and watched it during my recovery.)

It is disturbing to have a memory deliberately erased. We’ve all lost memories, found periods in which we can’t recollect anything about particular event or stretch, but this is different.

Still, it got me wondering about bizarre uses to which this might be put. I already speculated on torture and sinister uses. And we know about the use for date-rape which is highly disturbing. I wondered about its application to deep dark secrets.

The scenario is this. You have a couple. One or both of them volunteer for an amnesia inducing drug. Then, you pour out your heart, with all the deep dark secrets you’ve been hiding, kinky fantasies you’ve been begging for, and wait for the reaction. If your own memory is not going to store, you make notes on the reactions. When you’re done, you know what secrets you can tell, and which would be relationship-destroying or particularly hurtful. Of course, the tested party needs to cooperate, and not say, “Oh, I had better pretend to not be bothered by that so that this horrible thing does not become lost to me” and and better not be a good actor. Or couples who are in the “both want to break up but are not admitting it for the sake of the other one” state could discover it and talk it out — though one could also make a computer program to solve that problem.

To be tricky, my companion in the pre-op room could have decided to tell me things there without my being aware I had received the drug — it is quite common now in sedation coctails — in which case I would not have thought to fake my reactions. Technically, though I trust her, I can not be sure via my own memory that she did not.

These drugs are currently Schedule IV, so they don’t see such non-medical use, but one can imagine other bizarre uses. For example, confidential job interviews. Consider applying for a job to work on a confidential project at a company. They might give you an NDA, or they might give you Versed and tell you the whole deal, knowing you won’t be talking about it. Or truly “embargoed” releases to the media, or trials of secret products before a focus group. And these aren’t as scary as the suggestions of use in torture or policework I already made. Certainly when it comes to any official use, we need a law requiring that any administration of such drugs be paired with complete videotaping of the entire episode and secure storage and authentication of the videotape — if we allow such use at all. (Unfortunately we are probably going to see use whether we permit it or not.)

There could be medical uses. For example, say you have the cliche’d incurable, non-communicable fatal disease and some number of months to live. You could be told, and given the choice about when you should be told in a way you’ll remember it. It’s like creating test versions of yourself to try new and dangerous ideas and report back if the real you should absorb them.

Now I should note that there are barriers to the ideas I worry about above. The drugs are not 100%. You can’t be sure they will block the long term storage of memory. And they also sedate you, put you in a calmer, non-natural mental state so they might not really be too useful in job interviews and other circumstances. (Even for torture, they might make you more able to tolerate the non-damaging torture they would want to do to you, just as they help you tolerate surgical squicks.)

But the drugs are going to get better, if they haven’t already in secret labs. There are documents of experimentation with amnesiac drugs in intelligence contexts back to Viet Nam. Who knows what the black labs have discovered? We are going to have to get used to a world where memory is more fungible, and we call can be temporarily the character from Momento.

EBay: Sniping good or bad or just a change of balance?

Ebayers are familiar with what is called bid “sniping.” That’s placing your one, real bid, just a few seconds before auction close. People sometimes do it manually, more often they use auto-bidding software which performs the function. If you know your true max value, it makes sense.

However, it generates a lot of controversy and anger. This is for two reasons. First, there are many people on eBay who like to play the auction as a game over time, bidding, being out bid and rebidding. They either don’t want to enter a true-max bid, or can’t figure out what that value really is. They are often outbid by a sniper, and feel very frustrated, because given the time they feel they would have bid higher and taken the auction.

This feeling is vastly strengthened by the way eBay treats bids. The actual buyer pays not the price they entered, but the price entered by the 2nd place bidder, plus an increment. This makes the 2nd place buyer think she lost the auction by just the increment, but in fact that’s rarely likely to be true. But it still generates great frustration.

The only important question about bid sniping is, does it benefit the buyers who use it? If it lets them take an auction at a lower price, because a non-sniper doesn’t get in the high bid they were actually willing to make, then indeed it benefits the buyer, and makes the seller (and interestingly, eBay, slightly less.)

There are many ways to write the rules of an auction. They all tend to benefit either the buyer or the seller by some factor. A few have benefits for both, and a few benefit only the auction house. Most are a mix. In most auction houses, like eBay, the auction house takes a cut of the sale, and so anything that makes sellers get higher prices makes more money on such auctions for the auction house.

Read on…  read more »