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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 »

Self driving cars, and sooner than we think, but what about in Boston?

If you’ve been following things, you know that after the great success of the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a new Grand Challenge has been proposed, this time for urban driving. The cars will have to navigate a city with other cars on the road. (I’m going to presume demolition derby style vehicles and speeds.) This time DARPA is providing some funding, though it was impressive how last time the modest (by military standards) $2M prize attained what would have been science fiction just years ago.

So I’m refirming my view that self-driving cars will come to us moderately soon. The technology is very near, and the case is so compelling. In spite of interesting speculations about personal rapid transit, or virtual right-of-way or other items in my transportation category, this is the likely winner because it requires no new infrastructure, and if we let it, it can grow from the ground up.

I’m talking cars that can drive today’s roads, and are better at avoiding people and other cars than we are. They do it on their own, though they cooperate where it makes sense to do so but don’t have cooperate to work.

The most compelling case is that over 1 million people are killed every year in or by cars, about 42,000 in the USA. In fact, there are over 6 million car crashes reported to police in the USA every year, costing an average of $2,900 per vehicle per year (clearly not all borne by insurance companies.) But if that’s not enough, we’ll see:

  • Self valet parking — car drives you to front door, then parks itself somewhere cheap.
  • Ability to read, work or web surf while in transit
  • Dedicated lanes and coordination with timed lights for faster trips.
  • Possible eventual ability to reliably go through stop-signs and red lights safely.
  • Higher fuel efficiency
  • Presumably save hundreds per year on insurace with lower accident rates
  • Presumably save even thousands on parking (for CBD commuters.) Parking also possible in cheaper, super-dense remote lots when you do need to park close.
  • Car will go to airport to pick up friends.
  • Car will run errands to pick up prescriptions and other urgent things. Or people will own or rent small efficient mini-cars to do delivery errands.
  • Can’t afford a car? Put in a lockbox for your stuff and rent it out as a Taxi when you aren’t using it. Or use the cars people are renting out as Taxis.

I would pay double for a car like this, but in fact it’s likely to save money, not cost money.

All the other alternatives seem worse. Mass transit is slow at grade and super expensive in tunnels or elevated ROW, and has slow and cumbersome transfers, no personalization and no privacy. PRT requires expensive new ROW. Private driving is of course congested and expensive.

Cost of crashes and traffic update

Let’s look at all the costs of crashes and other traffic problems:

  • With fatal crashes, of course, the cost of human lives, and suffering for loved ones.
  • With injury crashes, the cost of the injury, possibly a lifetime of problems, but also lost work.
  • With all crashes, the cost of repairing the cars
  • The cost of all the other safety equipment in the cars (though we would probably want to keep most of it unless crashes truly went to an insignificant number.) Still making a car safe in a crash is a large portion of its cost. And we still don’t have air bags for the people in the back seat.
  • The cost of police, fire and ambulences and other crash-management infrastructure.
  • The cost of police to enforce traffic regulations (or the cost of tickets to drivers) and parking regulations.
  • For accidents during high traffic times, the cost of traffic delays — 20 minutes for 3,000 people amounts to 1,000 person hours.
  • The need for wider roads to handle human driven traffic, and shoulders for accidents.

Boston Driver

In a recent discussion, the subject of the selfish driver came up. In Boston, driving in traffic is a constant game of chicken. Self-driving cars would of course be programmed to always lose a game of chicken. Done properly, a rogue driver could barrel at full speed into a crowd of self-driving cars and they would, if possible to do safely, part like water around the rogue car. You would actually have to work hard to try and hit one, especially if they are communicating to do this even better. Which brings up the problem, how to deal with the rogue driver, because it now seems the smart thing for that driver to do.

I wrote earlier about the problem of the selfish merge — a problem we have been unable to solve, where people zoom up to the end in a vanishing lane, causing a traffic jam, because somebody always lets them in, making the zoom-up the fastest strategy. I wondered if a reputation system could help. I don’t want to build a system where we track all cars and the rogue driver gets an automatic ticket. Though it would be nice if they did it constantly that perhaps vacant cars would glom around the rogue driver — reversing the strategy so that they always win a game of chicken instead of always lose — and pen him in and escort him to the cops.

eBay - let me list unfavourite sellers

Ok, so there's a million things to fix about eBay, and as I noted before my top beef is the now-common practice of immense shipping charges and below-cost prices for products -- making it now impossible to search by price because the listed price is getting less relevant.

Here's one possible fix. Just as you can have a list of favourite sellers, allow me to add a seller to my list of blocked sellers. I would no longer see listings from them. Once I scan a seller's reputation and see that I don't trust them, I don't want to be confused by their listings. Likewise if I want to block the sellers who use the fat shipping, I could do that, so I could unclutter my listings. That might be something to make a bit more temporary.

Ideally let sellers know they are getting on these lists, too. They should know that their practices are costing them bidders.

Outsourced valet parking with drive-by-wire cars

There already are some drive-by-wire cars being sold, including a few (in Japan) that can parallel park themselves. And while I fear that anti-terrorist worries may stand in the way of self-driving and automatic cars, one early application, before we can get full self-driving, would be tele-operated cars, the the remote driver in an inexpensive place, like Mexico.

Now I don’t know if the world is ready, safety-wise for a remote chauffeur in a car driving down a public street, where it could hit another car or pedestrian, even if the video was very high-res and the latency quite low. But parking is another story. I think a remote driver could readily park a car in a valet lot kept clear of pedestrians. In fact, because you can drive very slowly to do this, one can even tolerate longer latencies, perhaps all the way to India. The remote operator might actually have a better view for parking, with small low-res cameras mounted right at the bumpers for a view the seated driver can’t have. They can also have automatic assists (already found in some cars) to warn about near approach to other cars.

The win of valet parking is large — I think at least half the space in a typical parking lot is taken up with lanes and inter-car spacing. In addition, a human-free garage can have some floors only 5’ high for the regular cars, or use those jacks around found in some valet garages that stack 2 cars on top of one another. So I’m talking possibly almost 4 times the density. You still need some lanes of course, except for cars you are certain won’t be needed on short notice (such as at airports, train stations etc.)

The wins of remote valet parking include the ability to space cars closely (no need to open the doors to get out) and eventually to have the 5’ high floors. In addition, remote operators can switch from vehicle to vehicle instantly — they don’t have to run to the car to get it. They can switch from garage to garage instantly, meaning their services would be 100% utilized.

Read on…  read more »

A multi power supply for your desk from a PC power supply

I’ve blogged several times before about my desire for universal DC power — ideally with smart power, but even standardized power supplies would be a start.

However, here’s a way to get partyway, cheap. PC power supplies are really cheap, fairly good, and very, very powerful. They put out lots of voltages. Most of the power is at +5v, +12v and now +3.3v. Some of the power is also available at -5v and -12v in many of them. The positive voltages above can be available as much as 30 to 40 amps! The -5 and -12 are typically lower power, 300 to 500ma, but sometimes more.

So what I want somebody to build is a cheap adapter kit (or a series of them) that plug into the standard molex of PC power supplies, and then split out into banks at various voltages, using the simple dual-pin found in Radio Shack’s universal power supplies with changeable tips. USB jacks at +5 volts, with power but no data, would also be available because that’s becoming the closest thing we have to a universal power plug.

There would be two forms of this kit. One form would be meant to be plugged into a running PC, and have a thick wire running out a hole or slot to a power console. This would allow powering devices that you don’t mind (or even desire) turning off when the PC is off. Network hubs, USB hubs, perhaps even phones and battery chargers etc. It would not have access to the +3.3v directly, as the hard drive molex connector normally just gives the +5 and 12 with plenty of power.

A second form of the kit would be intended to get its own power supply. It might have a box. These supplies are cheap, and anybody with an old PC has one lying around free, too. Ideally one with a variable speed fan since you’re not going to use even a fraction of the capacity of this supply and so won’t get it that hot. You might even be able to kill the fan to keep it quiet with low use. This kit would have a switch to turn the PS on, of course, as modern ones only go on under simple motherboard control.

Now with the full set of voltages, it should be noted you can also get +7v (from 5 to 12), 8.7v (call it 9) from 3.3 to 12, 1.7v (probably not that useful), and at lower currents, 10v (-5 to +5), 17v (too bad that’s low current as a lot of laptops like this), 24v, 8.3v, and 15.3v.

On top of that, you can use voltage regulators to produce the other popular voltages, in particular 6v from 7, and 9v from 12 and so on. Special tips would be sold to do this. This is a little bit wasteful but super-cheap and quite common.

Anyway, point is, you would get a single box and you could plug almost all your DC devices into it, and it would be cheap-cheap-cheap, because of the low price of PC supplies. About the only popular thing you can’t plug in are the 16v and 22v laptops which require 4 amps or so. 12v laptops of course would do fine. At the main popular voltages you would have more current than you could ever use, in fact fuses might be in order. Ideally you could have splitters, so if you have a small array of boxes close together you can get simple wiring.

Finally, somebody should just sell nice boxes with all this together, since the parts for PC power supplies are dirt cheap, the boxes would be easy to make, and replace almost all your power supplies. Get tips for common cell phone chargers (voltage regulators can do the job here as currents are so small) as well as battery chargers available with the kit. (These are already commonly available, in many cases from the USB jack which should be provided.) And throw in special plugs for external USB hard drives (which want 12v and 5v just like the internal drives.)

There is a downside. If the power supply fails, everything is off. You may want to keep the old supplies in storage. Some day I envision that devices just don’t come with power supplies, you are expected to have a box like this unless the power need is very odd. If you start drawing serious amperage the fan will need to go on and you might hear it, but it should be pretty quiet in the better power supplies.

eBay shipping scam and more eBay dynamics

I’ve done a few threads on eBay feedback, today I want to discuss ways to fix the eBay shipping scam. In this scam, a significant proporation of eBay sellers are listing items low, sometimes below cost, and charging shipping fees far above cost. It’s not uncommon to see an item with a $1 cost and $30 in shipping rather than fairer numbers. The most eBay has done about it is allow the display of the shipping fees when you do a search, so you can spot these listings.

I am amazed eBay doesn’t do more, as one of the main reasons for sellers to do this is to save on eBay fees. However, it has negative consequences for the buyer, aside from making it harder to compare auctions. First of all, if you have a problem, the seller can refund your “price” (the $1) but not the shipping, which is no refund at all. Presumably ditto with paypal refunds. Secondly, the law requires that if you are charged more than actual shipping (ie. handling) there is tax on the total S&H. That means buyers pay pointles taxes on shipping.

Again, since eBay would make more fees if they fixed this I don’t know why they have taken so long. I suggest:

  • Let buyers sort by shipping fees. Pretty soon you get a sense of what real shipping on your item should be. A sort will reveal who is charging the real amount and who isn’t. Those who don’t provide fees get listed last — which is good as far as I am concerned.
  • Let buyers see a total price, especially on Buy-it-now, shipping + cost, and sort on that or search on that. Again, those who don’t provide a sipping price come last.
  • Highlight auctions wthat use actual shipping price, or have a handling fee below a reasonable threshold. This will be unfair on certain high-handling items.
  • Of course, charge eBay fees on the total, including handling and shipping. Doesn’t help the buyer any but at least removes the incentive.

Now let’s talk about the reputation dynamics of the transaction. The norm is buyer sends liquid money sight unseen to the seller, and the seller sends merchandise. Why should it necessarily be one way or the other? In business, high reputation buyers just send a purchase order, get the item and an invoice, and pay later.

I think it would be good on eBay to develop a norm that if the buyer has a better reputation thant he seller, the seller ships first, the buyer pays last. If the seller’s rep is better, or it’s even, stick with the current system.

Sellers could always offer this sort of payment, even when the seller is high-rep, to high-rep buyers as an incentive.

There should also be special rules for zero-rep or low-rep sellers. By this I don’t mean negative reputation, just having few transactions. Who is going to buy from a zero-rep seller? The tradition has been to build up a buyer rep, and then you can sell, which is better than nothing but not perfect.

When the seller has a very low rep, the seller should just automatically assume it’s going to be send-merchandise-first, get money later except with very low rep buyers. Low rep sellers should be strongly encouraged to offer escrow, at their expense. It would be worth it. Often I’ve seen auctions where the difference in price is quite large, 20% or more, for sellers of reputations under 5. eBay should just make a strong warning to the low-rep sellers that they should consider this, and even offer it as a service.

Update: I’ve run into a highly useful Firefox extension called ShortShip. This modifies eBay search pages to include columns with total price. Their “pro” version has other useful features. You can sort by it, but it only is able to sort what was on that particular page (ie. the auctions close to ending, typically) so the price sort can be mistaken, with a cheaper buy-it-now not shown. eBay is so slow in adding software features that extensions like this are the way to go.

Hybrid Personal Rapid Transit

When I was in high school, I did a project on PRT — Personal Rapid Transit. It was the “next big thing” in transit and of course, 30 years later it’s still not here, in spite of efforts by various companies like Taxi 2000 to bring it about.

With PRT, you have small, lightweight cars that run on a network of tracks or monorail, typically elevated. “Stations” are all spurs off the line, so all trips are non-stop. You go to a station, often right in your building, and a private mini-car is waiting. You give it your destination and it zooms into the computer regulated network to take you there non-stop.

The wins from this are tremendous. Because the cars are small and light, the track is vastly cheaper to build, and can often be placed with just thin poles holding it above the street. It can go through buildings, or of course go underground or at-grade. (In theory it seems to me smart at-grade (ground-level) crossings would be possible though most people don’t plan for this at present.)

The other big win is the speed. Almost no waiting for a car except at peak times, and the nonstop trips would be much faster than other transit or private cars on the congested, traffic-signal regulated roads.

Update: I have since concluded that self-driving vehicles are getting closer, and because they require no new track infrastructure and instead use regular roads, they will happen instead of PRT.

Yet there’s no serious push for such systems…

Read on.  read more »

Olympics notebook

Found a thread on avsforum where NBC's engineers are participating. Turns out it would be very simple for them to include a second audio stream without the commentary. In addition, this has apparently been done by some European broadcasters.

I would like to even propose we expand the standard a bit here, to indicate when two streams are "mixable." If Stream 1 had the full audio, and stream 2 had it without commentary, one could also mix these streams, to effectively adjust the volume of the commentary if your equipment knew enough to do so. You could also subtract them if you wanted just the commentary. In a perfect world, each audio channel would come in its own stream so that you could mix yourself, and edit out Scott Hamilton for example, but that's not likely to happen.

So let's encourage them to do this for all sports. Give HD viewers a true "being there" sense. Other interesting things learned: The SD stuff is being shot with widescreen PAL (625 line, 50hz) cameras, cropped and coverted to 525line 60hz for SDTV, upconverted with no need for crop for 1080i60hz viewers.

Sport inflation: It keeps going. Just too many sports. I must admit I am of two minds on Snowboardcross. On the one hand, sports where people physically race one another (like in track) are much more exciting to watch. On the other hand, both Snowboardcross and short-track speed skating tend to have too much luck in them because of this, as people both fall, or are hit by those who fall. Those who are innocent have been getting free passes from the heats (fair) but are just out of luck in the finals.

At least there is no "program component." In spite of Figure Skating's efforts to revamp the terrible judging system which ended in scandal last time when a French judge was bribed to reduce the score of a Canadian pair, it seems that "reputation" remains a huge hidden component in the scores.

It probably wouldn't get the audience, but I would switch figure skating to a pure, non-judged event like high-jump. You keep raising "the bar" (difficulty level on a series of jumps and moves) until only the gold medalist can do it. You would end up with more medals (at least one for the Axel and Toe Loop, or just a general for toe jumps and edge jumps.)

It's not that the dances and choreography aren't pretty and fun to watch. It's just that they are artistry rather than pure athletics -- and thus depend on reputation too much.

These olympics are doing poorly in the ratings. I would have figured with all the HDTVs out there the reverse would happen. Of course, I watch with MythTV. It would be unbearable to watch these games without Myth or Tivo or similar, and most HD users don't have those things.

Interesting issue with Ice Dancing. One of the teams featured a U.S. man and Canadian woman, who could not compete in 2002 because of this. They competed this year after some lobbying got U.S. citizenship for the woman via act of congress. I wonder if we'll see more Olympic gamesmanship with modification of citizenship rules. (It's been common for years for people with dual citizenship who can't get on one country's team to just compete for the other country, particularly small ones.)

I suppose one could just allow a bi-national team like this one to compete. I mean they give 2 gold medals to the winning team, what harm is there if it's one for each country? Seems like something grand in the spirit of international cooperation. The problem is the rules about how many competitors a country can send. Both nations might be afraid to send half of a team if it counted the same as sending the full team against their quota. If it only counted half, they would need to send half of two teams, but it might work.

The national borders are becoming less important in the big money sports. The US-Canadian ice dancers train in the US. I recall at least one eastern team which trained in Calgary. (Such training in richer countries is common.) Why not present the world with the best team?

HDTV to SDTV cropping in the camera, and NBC SD widescreens

Note 1: NBC doesn’t have nearly enough HD cameras for the Olympics, and I can’t really blame them for not having one for every section of luge track to show us something for half a second.

But it seems in many areas they are showing us a widescreen image from an SD camera, and it looks more blurry than the pillarboxed SD footage they show of past scenes. I wonder, are they taking a cropped widescreen section out of their 4:3 SDTV camera? If so, that’s not what I want. Or are there a lot of 16:9 SD cameras out there?

Note 2: I haven’t researched much how people are using broadcast HD cameras for live events, but notes I have found suggest the camera crews shoot in 16:9 and compose the frame so that the 4:3 frame in the middle will look good for downconvert.

I propose a fancier scheme. Sometimes you want HD to get more detail on the same scene. Sometimes you want it to get the same detail and a bigger view, especially in sports. It would be good if somebody (camera operator or directors in control room) could set the crop box dynamically. It could just be a 4:3 box in the middle, or panned left and right, but it could and should also be a smaller box anywhere in the frame, perhaps 2/3rds of the frame height (a 480 line section of a 720 line field) or even a 480 line section of a 1080 line field.

The camera operator would have to see a clearly marked box in their viewfinder, to show what the current 4:3 SDTV view is like, and compose to assure the main action is in that box. In the meantime HD viewers would see the whole scene. When it makes more sense to show both viewers a similar view, the box would pull out. In theory, the box could pull out all the way so the SDTV viewers see a letterboxed view, though I doubt many networks would use that.

It would be confusing for the camera operator to do this at first, and it might make sense for the control room folks to do this at least some of the time.

This would also be a sort of digital zoom for the SDTV viewers, and the UI might be integrated into the zoom control. Possibly a button would control whether an optical zoom was done, or the SDTV view was shrunk.

Anybody know if they’re doing it this way? I’ve certainly seen TV shows like SNL recently that are clearly composed for 16:9. Are we seeing a crop of the 4:3, or are the 4:3 people seeing letterbox? I would have to tune both programs to find out.

Rethinking household/office power, beyond 60hz

I’ve written before about the desire for a new universal dc power standard. Now I want to rethink our systems of household and office power.

These systems range from 100v to 240v, typically at 50 or 60hz. But very little that we plug in these days inherently wants that sort of power. Most of them quickly convert it to something else. DC devices use linear and switched mode power supplies to generate lower voltage DC. Flourescent lights convert to high voltage AC. Incandescent bulbs and heating elements use the voltage directly, but can be designed for any voltage and care little about the frequency. There are a dwindling number of direct 60hz AC motors in use in the home. In the old days clocks counted the cycles but that’s very rare now.

On top of that, most of what we plug in uses only modest power. The most commonly plugged in things in my house are small power supplies using a few watts. Most consumer electronics are using in the 50-200w range. A few items, such as power tools, major appliances, cooking appliances, heatters, vacuum cleaners and hairdryers use the full 1000 to 1800 watts a plug can provide.

So with this in mind, how might we redesign household and office power…  read more »

Crash-avoiding cars

I’ve written before about automatic self-driving cars, both their risks (overregulation due to fear of their use by terrorists) and possible driving forces (oil companies excited by people taking longer trips) and more.

Generally, except for a few specialized applications (such as the automatic parking lot) such cars, if they are to be used where people or cars that may not under network control are present, must start with a basic ability to avoid accidents. In a vigourous debate with friend Charles Merriam last night, the question came up about where the value will lie. Charles is a big proponent of worrying first about crash-avoiding cars.

Right now we all pay from $250 to $500 per year, and often much more, for insurance to cover the risk of accidents. Of course, that’s just the financial cost, and financial proxies for suffering, so the real value we would put on an accident resistent car might be much higher. Perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 over the life of the car.

That seems like a highly lucrative market on its own. While the self-driving car has many other long term merits (because you can do other work while moving, and you don’t have to park it, and it can appear on demand as a taxi for you) we should be very close to financially justifying the accident-avoiding car today…  read more »

Why the high price for Skype

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

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

Hybrid RVs, more RV notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playa phone at Burning Man

If you noticed a long break in the blogging, it’s because I was at Burning Man. And while people do blog from Burning Man, it’s not what you want to spend your time doing. I will have more entries in the future, but let me relate some stories of the network and the phone booth first.

Last year, we erected a free phone booth in the desert to great results. This year, it was going to be even better because of a plan for a new internet connection. In the past, John Gilmore had brought his satellite dish, which had all the latency and bandwidth limits of satellite. This year he splurged on getting a microwave link in, which will be even faster next year. Sadly, much of that money was wasted because we never got the “first mile” — the on-playa 802.11 network — operating at a satisfactory level. There was huge packet loss and jitter in most places, when it was up at all. Next time some of the money will go into better equipment and planning for the local network.

As such, the phone booth, located in our camp on 7:30, only worked intermittently and rarely with great voice quality. We eventually decided to sacrifice the aesthetic purity of a booth sitting in the desert, connected to nothing, and moved it on its wagon by trike to the center camp, home of the incoming microwave link. The we set it up on the street, with an ethernet wire snaking in. We were no longer wireless, but the voice quality was top notch. I wasn’t able to spend much time with it but reports were that the line got very long at times.

In our own camp, you could tell if it was working or not based on whether there was a line. Even waiting for it to work was better than the 2-3 hour time investment of taking the bus to the phone booth in Gerlach.

Last year, I recounted the emotional experience people had using an unexpected and impossible phone to hear the voices of loved ones. This year, this was magnified by Katrina. I learned of Katrina, in fact, when people came to ask to use the phone to contact their relatives in NOLA. (Read on…)  read more »

Universal laptop power supplies for desks, conference tables

I’ve called before for a system of Universal DC Power and I still want it, but there is a partial step we could take.

I have a laptop power supply that comes with a variety of tips. The tips tell (through something as simple as a resistor) the power supply how much voltage and current to supply for the laptop they are designed for. I bought mine for use in an airplane, others are sold that do both 12v and AC power.

I would like to see one designed for the corporate market, rather than the carry-around market. Ones to be left in offices and under conference tables, so that when somebody visits with a laptop, they can plug it in. No need to get out their own supply or eventually no need to bring it.

Unlike the carry-around where you pick your tip and leave the rest, this would have an array of tips, possibly rotating on a click-wheel, or all connected to a switch where one can dial the voltage/polarity/etc.

Some companies take more drastic steps. At Google for example, I notice they have standardized on thinkpads, and so all desks and conference tables have think pad supplies. Everybody is able to roam the building and be sure of laptop power. These supplies, while a bit more expensive, could solve the same problem.

An alternate would be to standardize the special tip that describes the power needed. Everybody could get a tip or pigtail for their laptop and carry just that around. Conference rooms could in fact have single supplies that let you plug in several of the pigtail. Of course that is halfway to my original proposal.

Now it turns out a considerable majority of laptops take either 16 volts or 19 volts. The main rebel is Dell, which uses funny plugs and often over 20v. Some need more current than others, I don’t know if any need current limiting or if simply making the PS capable of 100w would do the trick. Anyway, in this case, we could develop a standard 16v plug (the thinkpad one) and a different standard 19v plug (probably an HP one), in two different shapes and colours, and people with laptops could carry a cheap converter to plug their laptop into it. Over time, laptops might come directly able to use this, if they aren’t already — on our path to a smarter power bus. Then people could say, “Oh, you have the orange plug. Great, I can plug my laptop into that.” Vendors who make laptops that won’t plug into one of these two will probably think about switching.

How about a Hugo Award for Science Fiction?

As some will know, I got heavily into the Hugo awards 13 years ago during my efforts at becoming an eBook publisher in the SF field. The Hugo award is voted on by the fans who attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, a moderately small voting pool (under 1000 of the typical 4000 to 7000 attendees will vote.)

The most important award and 2nd most voted on is the one for best Novel. The least important, but most voted on award is the one for best movie.

But still, for a long time, though both SF and Fantasy qualified for the award, the best Novel went exclusively to Science Fiction (with one dab into alternate history by Phillip K. Dick) and usually to hard, ideas-based SF. This went on until 2000 when the superb hard-SF novel “A Deepness in the Sky” won. The drama award was also heavily into SF, though it had some deviations, such as the coverage of Apollo XI and a few films in the 80s.

But in 2001, for the first time, a Fantasy novel won the best novel Hugo. Not just any fantasy novel, but a children’s novel, Harry Potter 4. Of course, the Harry Potter series is the most remarkable success not just in fantasy, but in publishing, so this is not too shocking. What’s surprising is that in 2002, 2004 and 2005 a fantasy novel would win best novel. At the same time, fantasies won all the best movie awards and all of the new best TV episode award until 2005. (Read on…)  read more »

Voices to the Playa -- Voice mails left for Burning Man folks

Last year at Burning Man, I built a free phone booth out on the desert. Using VoIP, 802.11, batteries and a satellite uplink, it sat there on the playa floor and let you make free calls anywhere in the world. I blogged about that story, but there was an untold part of the story.

The phone had a number that outsiders could call, and they did, and sometimes people there answered. If not they left voice mail. The voice mail told them to describe the target of their message and offer a bribe to the listener to deliver it. Alas, due to technical problems, we never really got an active system in place to deliver the voice mails, but people still left some. Recently I pulled them out and listend, and they are great fun, especially if you know Burning Man.

Within the mails are calls of love from moms, little kids, dads, lovers and friends. There’s a joke (I hope) firing from a boss and a proposal of marriage. There’s a hurricane warning and many descriptions that could never have found their target in our giant city (“She’s a blonde camped along 4:30 I think.”) Also fun are the offered bribes to deliver the messages.

Since everybody knew they were leaving a message for any random stranger to hear, I think it’s fine to have them on the web.

I don’t think you have to be an ember to enjoy these. Just imagine the context of an entire city of 40,000 people with one phone, one voice mail, and people trying to get messages in.

They can be heard at this page of Burning man voice mails. You can either read the short summaries to pick the best voicemails, or like me, just listen to them raw from the combined file or ZIP archive.

Peerflix falls down

I’ve written a few times about Peerflix the P2P DVD trading system similar to some of my own ideas. After trying it for a few months, I have to report trouble.

As I feared, as a DVD drops in popularity, it means somebody will be stuck with it. I feel it should be the original contributor but in Peerflix, it’s whoever happens to have traded for it most recently. Back in April, I got in 4 DVD trades for high quality movies 1-2 years in age. In particular for Momento, Mystic River, School of Rock and A Mighty Wind. I have been slow to getting to watch these, so I’ve gotten to see just how many chances there have been to return them.

In 2 months, we’ve seen just a couple of requests for Momento and Mystic River. In all those cases, if I didn’t respond to the request within a short time, a few hours at most, somebody else would send off their copy of the disk and I would remain stuck with it. Of course since I have not yet watched Mystic River, I may have just not been motivated enough to say yes. Today I got my first request to send off A Mighty Wind and did not agree in time. I have not ever gotten a chance to send off School of Rock.

Now for “new releases” this is not the case. The DVDs I contributed that were recent and in high demand did get requested quite quickly. But the lesson quickly learned is that if you want to watch a slightly older DVD, you truly are buying it rather than borrowing it. If rapid watching is your goal, trading off a recent DVD for an older one will leave you in the lurch.

Now it’s true that at video stores, they say that only new releases really draw the volume, so this perhaps is no surprise. But it’s also not a very workable system. I was debating recommending my family in Canada join up, but with the smaller membership group there, I fear it could be even worse. The cheaper plans from Netflix or other competitors make more sense.

Update: I don’t watch DVDs very often due to my MythTV always having good HD shows in it (once you have HD it’s hard to go back to regular TV or even DVD) so I’ve seen frightening patterns. Peerflix put out a recommendation for Memento on their blog, so I now get requests for it moderately often. However, in the past 8 months, I have barely seen any requests for Mystic River, School of Rock or A Mighty Wind, all top-rated films if a few years old. And none of the couple of requests I have seen for these films have come when I was around — and I’ve only been away perhaps 15% of the time at most.

Update2: School of Rock was finally requested in December, I got the Pianist in exchange. Probably another long-term camper.

More on Peerflix experiences

Earlier I reported on Peerflix, which is implementing a P2P DVD sharing system with similarities to some of my own ideas. I have tried it out a bit now, and learned a bit more. I also have updated experiences with Peerflix.

The web site is marked beta and still very buggy, which is bad, but my first try on the service was first-rate. I mailed off my first DVD, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on Wednesday to somebody in San Jose (who almost surely got it today) and got the replacement for it — by strange coincidence another memory-related movie called Memento in the mail today. That is faster than most of the services, though people like Netflix could be this fast if they decided to take the same step and trust you when you said you mailed a disk, rather than waiting for it to arrive.

All this is good, but there’s still a killer flaw in the idea of actually selling the DVDs. All DVDs will have a limited lifetime of high-demand. As demand drops below supply, somebody holding the DVD at that time will get “stuck” with it, though you can fix that by being fast on the draw in agreeing to be the one to mail any new requesters that do come along.  read more »