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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.

Paperless Home

In my home I now have a "home computer", for a while in the kitchen, now in the living room. Of course I have had computers in my home since the 70s, but this one is different. It's an old cheap laptop I picked up, not powerful at all. What's different is how I use it.

I have connected a Visioneer sheetfed scanner to it. I can drop papers and business cards into it and it scans them. Then I drop them in a box. I have scans of all the receipets and other documents, but if for some reason I need the original I can see by date which ones were nearby and presumably find it quickly enough. A good idea might be to drop a coloured sheet in once a month.

This has inspired me to design a simple device which would be very cheap to build. It's a small sheetfed scanner like this one, which is the size of a 3-hole punch. It's battery powered so it can be stuck anywhere. It has no cables going into it, instead it has a memory card slot, such as compact flash.

When you scan, the data would just be written to the flash card. (Nicely this means the scans are fast.) A button or two on the scanner might set some basic options (like colour or gray, delete and rescan etc.) At most a small LCD panel would be all you get.

When the flash is full, you would take it to the computer, which would do all the real work. Scan and process the data. Convert grayscales to bitmaps at the right level as desired. OCR the text for searching and indexing. Detect orientation, tilt, business cards (by size) etc. all automatically.

And of course then let you view and organize your papers on the computer.

We've dreamed of a paperless office for some time but never gotten there (though we get a little closer all the time.) But can we get to a paperless home, or at least a lower-paper home? I find the paperwork and nitty-gritty of managing a home gets more frustrating with time and hope something can help it.

As noted, my design is extremely cheap. The scanner, a small controller and a flash interface is about all there is too it. Cheaper than the current scanners, which can be had well under $100. The flash card is the expensive part.  read more »

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.

I want universal DC power

I went around and counted that we seem to have around 30 birick and wall-wart DC power supplies plugged in around the house, and many more that are not plugged in which charge or power various devices. More and more of what we buy is getting to be more efficient and lower power, which is good.

But it's time for standardization in DC power and battery charging. In fact, I would like to move to a world where DC devices don't come with a power supply by default, because you are expected to be able to power them at one of the standard voltage/current settings.

One early experiment is on airplanes. I have an adapter that takes the 12v from the airplane, and has many tips which put out different voltages for different laptops. These are expensive right now, but on the right track.

Our other early venture is USB, which provides up to 500ma at 5 volts. Many small devices now use USB for power if that's all they need. There are devices that plug in to USB only for power, they don't use the data lines. Some come with a small cigarette lighter plug that has a USB socket on it for car use. This includes cellular chargers, lights etc.

I think a good goal would be a standardized data+power bus with a small number of standard plugs. One would be very tiny for small devices and only provide minimal USB-level power, a couple of watts. Another would handle mid-level devices, up to a couple of amps. A third would be large and handle heavy duty devices up to say 20 amps, replacing our wall plugs eventually. There might be a 4th for industrial use.

In full form, the data bus would be used for the components to exchange just what power they want and have. Years ago that would have been ridiculous overkill, today such parts are cheap. However, to make it simple there would be a basic passive system -- perhaps as simple as a finely tuned resistor in place of the data components -- to make it easy and cheap to adapt today's components.

A fully smart component would plug into the smart power and get a small "carrier" voltage designed to run the power electronics only. A protocol would establish what power the supply can provide and what the component wants, and then that power would be provided.  read more »

Why don't oil companies develop automatic cars

I'll be writing more in the future on ideas for auto-drive cars (both plus and minus) but let me start by asking the question of why the oil companies haven't jumped up to foot the bill for the development of automatic cars and highways?

It seems a big win for them. Given the availability of a car that would drive itself on the freeway and perhaps a few major roads, people would be much more willing to tolerate longer commutes, and that seems a win if you sell gasoline. A multi-billion dollar win.

Not completely -- the automatic cars will be more fuel efficient (simply driving at constant speed is more fuel efficient, but they will also be more likely to be hybrid designs.) But that's coming anyway. Given the ability to read, work or sleep during the commute would easily make people willing to commute for longer. In fact, for those who can easily sleep, they might welcome a longer commute to get the chance to have a decent sleep period. (Though there are those annoying people who are asleep before the plane starts its taxi. I hate them.)

We're also talking about a car where, while in it, you can have a decent speed internet connection and phone. The commute time effectively could become fully effective work time. Or TV watching time, or reading time.

Of course, in theory an automatic car in special lanes would also not get subject to traffic jams, so a longer commute would take the same time, and a longer commute sells more gas -- though admittedly traffic congestion also sells more gas.

But once again, the upside for oil companies is huge, and it's also high for the automakers, and the highway planners. It's mainly not good for public transit, since it takes away one of its advantages. We already know the basics of how to build an automatic car on an automatic highway. One of the big remaining barriers is money, and this could be the source.

I've added some extra notes below...  read more »

Fix some eBay feedback problems

Like many, I am interested in reputation systems, and eBay has built the largest public reputation system. Many have noted how feedback on eBay is overwhelmingly positive — a 97% positive rating would be a reason to be wary of a seller.

It’s also noted that people do this because they are scared of revenge feedback — I give you a negative, you do it back to me. One would think that since the buyer’s only real duty is to send the money that the seller should provide positive feedback immediately upon receipt of that money, but they don’t.

Some fixes have been proposed, including:

  • letting you see the count of total auctions the party has been buyer or seller in, so you can see how many resulted in no feedback at all. Right now only eBay knows how large that number is.
  • double-blind feedback. That is to say that feedback is not revealed until both parties have entered it, or if only one party enters it, after the feedback period has expired.
  • Marking revenge feedback, ie. putting a mark next to negatives that were a response to an outgoing negative.

Thus you could have very low fear of revenge feedback and there would be no argument about who should go first.

This idea’s fairly obvious, so like many other obvious ideas about eBay one wonders if eBay doesn’t feel some benefit to themselves from not doing it, though it’s hard to see. I’m also curious as to why eBay doesn’t offer a “going, going, gone” auction where the auction closes only after 5 minutes with no bidding. That seems to be in the interests of sellers (and eBay which gets a cut of the selling price) and it’s certainly not something they are unaware of.

The only proposition I’ve heard is that eBay has decided that there is a positive value to itself (and possibly sellers) from bid-sniping, the process of bidding preemptively in the last minute of an auction to not give other live bidders (who didn’t use the automatic rebidder) a chance to come in with more. The only way this could be good woudl be if Snipers deliberately overbid in order to trump anything. Any research or thoughts on this? It may also be the case that the sniped auctions are more “fun,” or more of a contest. And finally having fixed closing times does facilitate participating in multiple auctions for the same thing.

I have also posted updated eBay thoughts and an even simpler system which eliminates revenge and in fact now have an eBay tag for all eBay related posts, including thoughts on eBay’s solution to all this.

Please Note: This thread is for discussion of philosophical or abstract aspects of the feedback system. Please do not post stories of your own particular problems from a particular seller or transaction. Keep it abstract.