Tags

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 »

P2P DVD Exchange

For the past couple of years, I've been mulling over an idea for a different kind of DVD "rental" company, similar in ways to the popular NetFlix. Now I have encountered a new company called Peerflix which is doing something similar. Is it annoying or vindicating to see somebody else run with something? :-)

So instead I will comment on Peerflix, which I am going to try out, and what I planned to do differently.

The rough idea is a movie network that doesn't own the movies. The members do. The members declare what disks they have that are available to go out (key in or scan UPC codes or just put disks in drives) and, just like netflix, they also browse the list of DVDs and pick what they would like to rent. For each disk you have out, you are entitled to one in (approximately), and somebody close to you, who has the disk you want, is told to mail it to you.

Once scaled up, it's faster than netflix (the disk is mailed to you directly from the last person to have it, rather than going through the warehouse) but mainly it's vastly cheaper. In theory it could even run for free, with postage and mailers being the only cost -- plus of course the initial disks you introduce into the system. Netflix 3-at-a-time is $216/year, the one at a time is $120 per year.

There are, however, a number of interesting problems to solve in doing this, and some special factors you may not know about Netflix.  read more »

Another eBay feedback improver

Earlier, I wrote some proposals for improving ebay style feedback, including not having feedback revealed until both have left it. That has some flaws, but the main reason eBay is unlikely to do this is that eBay likes feedback to be positive, they want to convince buyers it is safe to shop there.

So here’s an alternate idea to prevent revenge feedback. Revenge feedback is only vaguely in eBay’s interests, in that the fear of it keeps feedback positive, but the existence of it adds to the negatives.

To solve this, attempt to detect revenge feedback and print statistics on it. What would be detected is negative feedback left by a seller on a buyer after the buyer has left negative feedback, but not if the buyer left this feedback immediately.

In theory the buyer has just one duty — to pay promptly. Indeed, since eBay owns PayPal they could also just report about buyers whether they paid promptly with PP and that should be all you need to know. Sellers might want to tag a “troublesome buyer” who has a lot of complaints after getting the item but I think that’s in an entirely different class of feedback anyway.

So really, a seller should leave feedback once the buyer has paid, and negative feedback only if the buyer pays slowly, pays falsely or doesn’t contact the seller.

Under my system above, if the seller waits to give feedback, in particular waits until after the buyer gives feedback, she’s taking a risk that her own negative feedback will get counted in the revenge count. And a high revenge count will scare away deals, deservedly.

More simply, the system could also just count how often the feedback came in the expected order (Seller’s first, then Buyer’s) and how often the other way around. This would strongly encourage sellers to feedback first. You would see when bidding that a seller always or rarely feedbacks on payment, and again, stay away from those who don’t.

Now admittedly, with the fear of revenge feedback gone, buyers would be more honest, and reputations would drop a bit. eBay might still want to avoid this, but with luck it would not be a big change.

Updated thoughts: It may be time for a 3rd party company to begin offering more detailed reputation information. Since eBay has stopped robots it doesn’t like, this would have to be on-client software which extracts results of transactions from eBay to another database that a browser add-on (like ShortShip) can display. All the useful information could be stored — feedback order, possible revenges, feedback based on dollar volume etc. Counting no-feedback transactions is harder and probably requires a blockable spidering operation or some complex shared network. To this one could add more feedback done outside of ebay, including revenge claims and full text stories that eBay doesn’t allow in feedback comments.

Useful hint: eBay doesn’t allow URLs in feedback, but if you invent a random string you can put ‘Search for randomstring’ in the feedback comment, and make a web page with that string in it that Google and the rest will find. Then people wanting to know more than 80 characters can learn it. Of course, the other party can also make a web page with that string so searchers see both sides, which is fine. A good non-random string might be something like eBay followed by the item number, as in ‘eBay130064299000’ — in fact, if such a method became common you could search for it without even needing it in the feedback.

Changing the nature of TV again

I love hard disk video recorders because they surprised me by being much more than super-fancy VCRs. They changed the nature of the way people watched TV in ways I didn't expect.

Now I've been working with MythTV which is an open source PVR. I have a new program in development, and if any of the readers out there are using MythTV I wouldn't mind some folks to test it out before I announce it to the Myth community.

This program does many things, including two things that I think could change the nature of how TV is chosen.

The system, called TVWish is in general a wishlist program. It lets you build large lists of TV you're looking to see. If the shows you want come on anywhere on your TV schedule, even years later, it will record them.

For example, I have gathered a list of hundreds of top movies, trimmed to what I have not seen and put it in my wishlist. Now if one of those movies shows up, I will see it. Reminds one of netflix perhaps.

The two big changes however are not this, though it's handy.

First, you can import your wishlist from a web URL. That lets you trust somebody else to program what TV your box will record. I call this a "critic" function because you could name the URL of a TV critic who recommends shows. I anticpate one day the same critics who get advanced tapes of shows and write newspaper columns about tonight's TV might create a list so that your box records it.

But it can mean much more than this. A "critic" can be a friend who recommends shows to you. It can be people on the east coast telling west coasters what was good in the lineup. It can be thousands of fans watching shows and rating them on their remote control, causing people to record and not record shows that night or in reruns. It can be people amalgamating the opinions of viewers and professional critics to redirect how you hear about TV.

The second element reflects something I wrote about before in my essays on the future of TV. I now call it Abridging a TV Series

Here, you take a series that is in reruns or syndication. You get a list of the episodes, ranked in order of quality. You put this list into my program and set a quality level. And you only watch the best. You skip the turkeys. Life is too short to watch bad TV. Already many TV show fan sites have episode lists with ratings, either critical or based on fan votes. I've been using these lists to manually abridge series and it's amazingly producitve. A mediocre series turns into a shorter, excellent one.  read more »

Burning Man photos: Galleries up, new Decompression gallery added

Well, a couple of weeks ago when I announced the phone project at Burning Man, I implicitly was linking to my new galleries for Burning Man 2004. However, let me officially announce those galleries now, plus the addition of a new gallery today.

Enjoy

Speaking at VON, Foresight, Debating Brin, Decompression

I'll be speaking at three conferences in the near future, and can offer discounts to blog readers for two of them.
VoIP
Coming up October 19, I will be speaking on the future of SIP, and whether IAX2 or Skype might kill it, at the Pulver Voice on the Net conference in Boston.
Nanotech and Privacy
Later that week, I will chair day 2 (Sat, Oct 23) of the Foresight Conference on Advanced Molecular Technology in Washington, DC. Friday is about technology, Saturday is about Applications, Sunday is Policy. On Saturday I will deliver a talk on the merits of privacy which will lead into a debate about privacy and surveillance in the nanotech world.

Blog readers who wish to attend this conference can get a 30% discount by using registration code BRAD30-CP.
Debating David Brin on Privacy
Then, on November 6, I will do a similar debate at Accelerating Change 2004, this time with noted Science Fiction author David Brin (who also wrote "The Transparent Society.) Blog readers can get a $50 discount before Oct 20 by using the code AC2004-BRAD.

After that it's off to the Vintage Computer Festival, and Hackers.
Burning Man Decompression
Plus, before all that, this Sunday I will be at the Burning Man Decompression party, a small taste of Burning Man on the city streets. I will display my latest giant photographs, plus my Star Map and with luck we will have the phone booth in operation, though it won't be as out of place on a city street.
EFF Salon on E-Voting
And finally, though I won't be speaking at it, the EFF has restarted our BayFF series of talks and salons on major issues. The next is Tuesday, October 12, 7pm at the 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco on the subject of e-voting and the upcoming election. Free, but how much would it hurt you to donate?

802.11/SIP/Satellite free phone booth at Burning Man

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

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

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

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

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

Blinky balls at olympics

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

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

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

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

Solar Powered PC

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

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

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

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

Improving RVs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympics on the Tivo

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

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

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

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

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

A totally mixed sporting summit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use closed captions or SAP to blab over music at Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

Hints on living on 12v power and batteries

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

Is Versed being used for torture?

Here’s my most disturbing idea yet. There are drugs which erase memory (or rather block the formation of memories while they are used.) It seems disturbingly probable to me that these might be being used for torture. Espcially considering the light of new memos giving the US the green light for torture.

If you don’t know of this class of drugs, you may have heard of “Roofies” the “date rape” drug which have been used to both make a victim pliable and also to make her forget the rape. There are stronger drugs, such as Versed, which are used in surgery.

The surgical use is quite disturbing. They want to perform a procedure on you while you will be somewhat conscious, but it is painful and upsetting and will leave mental scars — so they put you through the pain but block you from remembering it.

However, it must be obvious to those wishing to do torture that this could be applied here too. Apply the drug, then apply torture which leaves few permanent marks. The victim would awaken unaware they had been tortured or what they had confessed to. They could not testify later about their torture, they would not even know to.

It’s hard not to think that this would be a more “humane” form of torture, in the same way the surgical use of the drugs is humane. After all, you just want the information, why leave the victim with psychic scars, as there always are from torture. This is frightening because it might make the public much more accepting of torture. And on top of that, how will we ever find out if torture is going on? Only from the torturers themselves.

This is just the start of a trend. Tools like “brain fingerprinting” already exist which cause no pain but examine your brain to find out if you remember something you are being shown, or if it’s the first time you are seeing it. People have already suggested this is so benign as to be suitable for airport screening!

I predict we’ll see newer and “better” torture and interrogation techniques in the near future. Better brain scans. Polygraphs that actually work. More powerful drugs that affect not just memory but compliance. Perhaps eventually nanomachines that reach in and target brain centers to create compliance.

Some of these may already exist — though I think not too many or our intelligence communities would be doing a better job on terrorism than they are.

But they will exist. How will we as a society cope with them? We already seem willing to forget about the prohibitions on torture in the constitution and international law. We’ll pretend the prohibitions don’t even exist for these new forms.

The only way to avoid them will be to work soon for strong laws and eventually an explicit constitutional amendment protecting the right of privacy in our thoughts. And that will be a long time coming.

Update: More stories of Versed and other memory drugs in my new memory tag.

Fantasy a risk in moviemaking?

At the Oscars last night (which were pretty boring, with one nice joke featuring Billy Crystal camcordering a new movie) Peter Jackson thanked the Studios for having the courage to back a big fantasy epic like the Lord of the Rings.

But a look at IMDB's list of all-time movie revenues reveals something else. Of the top 25 grossing movies of all time, how many were science fiction and fantasy?

23 of them. Only Titanic (at #1) and Forrest Gump were not. So with that record, how hard should it have been to pitch the generally regarded top fantasy book in history (not counting the Bible) for big box office. Yes, the prior two animated productions had been poor performers, but with modern moviemaking techniques, and skilled people, this was not a risky proposition.

(Yes, the list is in current dollars, which heavily biases towards recent films. Even the constant dollar list is heavily loaded with fantasy and science fiction.)

And the next 25 are heavily loaded that way too.

The peril in automatic cars

I hinted last week I would write about a peril from and to automatic cars, or actually any drive-by-wire cars.

That peril is they become highly useful terrorist weapons. Today terrorists get kamikazis to drive ordinary cars to attack targets and checkpoints. It will be easy to modify a drive-by-wire car (including the self-parking cars already on the market) to be controlled by the cheap remote controls found on toy cars and planes today, and easy to mount a wireless camera (X10, the terrorist's tool!) as well.

A remote control car can be a weapon on its own, just to smash into things, but more nastily it can be loaded with explosives or poison or other nasty things. If drive-by-wire cars become commonplace (and they will) this will be possible.

I present a problem without good solution, and I also fear some of the solutions even more than the problem. For example, one of the big advantages of the automatic self-parking car which I described earlier is the car that drops you off and picks you up right at the door of where you're going. However, just as false anti-terrorist security has made it almost impossible to park or pick people up at some airports, they will move to ban all vechicles from going just where we want them to go.

They may also start demanding government overrides for the automatic cars, so police can take control of our vehicles on demand, bypassing even manual control. They will try to tightly regulate the technology (stifling it) and only allow blessed companies to work on it. As I said, a problem without obvious solution.

The next market for automatic cars

I seem to be thinking a lot about the future of automatic cars these days. Already we're seeing cars in Japan that can park themselves in a tight parallel parking spot, and this leads me to think that the next market for the technology, after the basic automatic highway, won't be the city street but the parking lot.

Parking lots eat a lot of space, and where the land is expensive, automatic cars will offer automatic valet parking. Drive to the mall/office/whatever, enter the automatic lane and be whisked to the door. Get out and your car will run off and park itself efficiently, possibly some distance from the building. (In the future with more fully automatic cars trusted on city streets, it might rent itself out as an autotaxi.)

When ready to leave, use your cell phone to tell the car to come to the nearest door, and it will be waiting there. Obviously that's a great convenience, but the real reason this will happen is it saves a bundle for the building/parking lot, because they can park more cars in the same space, or even park cars offsite. Whatever cost is needed to bury guide-wires or other transponders is easily justified by the efficiency gain, especially in downtown multi-story lots, many of which already justify the cost of humans to do the work.

Later, however, I will reveal the big catch that may keep us from this.