Technology

Near-perfect virtual reality of recent times and tourism

Recently I tried Facebook/Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype. It has more resolution (I will guess 1280 x 1600 per eye or similar) and runs at 90 frames/second. It also has better head tracking, so you can walk around a small space with some realism -- but only a very small space. Still, it was much more impressive than the DK2 and a sign of where things are going. I could still see a faint screen door, they were annoyed that I could see it.

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The paradox of Bitcoin proof-of-work mining

Everybody knows about bitcoin, but fewer know what goes on under the hood. Bitcoin provides the world a trustable ledger for transactions without trusting any given party such as a bank or government. Everybody can agree with what's in the ledger and what order it was put there, and that makes it possible to write transfers of title to property -- in particular the virtual property called bitcoins -- into the ledger and thus have a money system.

Satoshi's great invention was a way to build this trust in a decentralized way. Because there are rewards, many people would like to be the next person to write a block of transactions to the ledger. The Bitcoin system assures that the next person to do it is chosen at random. Because the winner is chosen at random from a large pool, it becomes very difficult to corrupt the ledger. You would need 6 people, chosen at random from a large group, to all be part of your conspiracy. That's next to impossible unless your conspiracy is so large that half the participants are in it.

How do you win this lottery to be the next randomly chosen ledger author? You need to burn computer time working on a math problem. The more computer time you burn, the more likely it is you will hit the answer. The first person to hit the answer is the next winner. This is known as "proof of work." Technically, it isn't proof of work, because you can, in theory, hit the answer on your first attempt, and be the winner with no work at all, but in practice, and in aggregate, this won't happen. In effect, it's "proof of luck," but the more computing you throw at the problem, the more chances of winning you have. Luck is, after all, an imaginary construct.

Because those who win are rewarded with freshly minted "mined" bitcoins and transaction fees, people are ready to burn expensive computer time to make it happen. And in turn, they assure the randomness and thus keep the system going and make it trustable.

Very smart, but also very wasteful. All this computer time is burned to no other purpose. It does no useful work -- and there is debate about whether it inherently can't do useful work -- and so a lot of money is spent on these lottery tickets. At first, existing computers were used, and the main cost was electricity. Over time, special purpose computers (dedicated processors or ASICs) became the only effective tools for the mining problem, and now the cost of these special processors is the main cost, and electricity the secondary one.

Money doesn't grow on trees or in ASIC farms. The cost of mining is carried by the system. Miners get coins and will eventually sell them, wanting fiat dollars or goods and affecting the price. Markets, being what they are, over time bring closer and closer the cost of being a bitcoin miner and the reward. If the reward gets too much above the cost, people will invest in mining equipment until it normalizes. The miners get real, but not extravagant profits. (Early miners got extravagant profits not because of mining but because of the appreciation of their coins.)

What this means is that the cost of operating Bitcoin is mostly going to the companies selling ASICs, and to a lesser extent the power companies. Bitcoin has made a funnel of money -- about $2M a day -- that mostly goes to people making chips that do absolutely nothing and fuel is burned to calculate nothing. Yes, the miners are providing the backbone of Bitcoin, which I am not calling nothing, but they could do this with any fair, non-centralized lottery whether it burned CPU or not. If we can think of one.

(I will note that some point out that the existing fiat money system also comes with a high cost, in printing and minting and management. However, this is not a makework cost, and even if Bitcoin is already more efficient doesn't mean there should not be effort to make it even better.)

CPU/GPU mining

Naturally, many people have been bothered by this for various reasons. A large fraction of the "alt" coins differ from Bitcoin primarily in the mining system. The first round of coins, such as Litecoin and Dogecoin, use a proof-of-work system which was much more difficult to solve with an ASIC. The theory was that this would make mining more democratic -- people could do it with their own computers, buying off-the-shelf equipment. This has run into several major problems:

  • Even if you did it with your own computer, you tended to need to dedicate that computer to mining in the end if you wanted to compete
  • Because people already owned hardware, electricity became a much bigger cost component, and that waste of energy is even more troublesome than ASIC buying
  • Over time, mining for these coins moved to high-end GPU cards. This, in turn caused mining to be the main driver of demand for these GPUs, drying up the supply and jacking up the prices. In effect, the high end GPU cards became like the ASICs -- specialized hardware being bought just for mining.
  • In 2014, vendors began advertising ASICs for these "ASIC proof" algorithms.
  • When mining can be done on ordinary computers, it creates a strong incentive for thieves to steal computer time from insecure computers (ie. all computers) in order to mine. Several instances of this have already become famous.

The last point is challenging. It's almost impossible to fix. If mining can be done on ordinary computers, then they will get botted. In this case a thief will even mine at a rate that can't pay for the electricity, because the thief is stealing your electricity too.

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The failure of the pan-tilt camera in video calls

This year, we stayed with Kathryn's family for the holidays, so I attended dinner in my own mother's home via Skype. Once again, the technology was frustrating. And it need not be.

There were many things that can be better. For those of us who Skype regularly, we don't understand that there is still hassle for those not used to it. Setting up a good videoconferencing setup is still work. As I have found is always the case in a group-to-solos videoconference, the group folks do not care nearly as much about the conference as the remote solos, so a fundamental rule of design here is that if the remotes can do something, they should be the ones doing it, since they care the most. If there is to be UI, leave the UI to the remotes (who are sitting at computers and care) and not to the meeting room locals. Many systems get this exactly backwards -- they imagine the meeting room is the "master" and thus has the complex UI.

In this family setting, however, the clearest problem for me is that no camera can show the whole room. It's like sitting at the table unable to move your head, with blinders on. You can't really be part of the group. You also have to be away from the table so everybody there can see you, since screens are only visible over a limited viewing angle.

One clear answer to this is the pan/tilt camera, which is to say a webcam with servo motors that allow it to look around. This technology is very cheap -- you'll find pan/tilt IP security cameras online for $30 or less, and there are even some low priced Chinese made pan/tilt webcams out there -- I just picked another up for $20. I also have the Logitech Orbit AF. This was once a top of the line HD webcam, and still is very good, but Logitech no longer makes it. Logitech also makes the BCC950 -- a $200 conference room pan/tilt webcam which has extremely good HD quality and a built-in hardware compressor for 1080p video that is superb with Skype. We have one of these, and it advertises "remote control" but in fact all that means is there is an infrared remote the people in the room can use to steer the camera. In our meetings, nobody ever uses this remote for the reason I specify above -- the people in the room aren't the motivated ones.

This is compounded by the fact that the old method -- audio conference speakerphones -- have a reasonably well understood UI. Dial the conference bridge, enter a code, and let the remotes handle their own calling in. Anything more complex than that gets pushback -- no matter how much better it is.

The RV of the future

Over the years, particularly after Burning Man, I've written posts about how RVs can be improved. This year I did not use an regular RV but rather a pop-up camping trailer. However, I thought it was a good time to summarize a variety of the features I think should be in every RV of the future.

Smart Power

We keep talking about smart power and smart grids but power is expensive and complex when camping, and RVs are a great place for new technologies to develop.

To begin with, an RV power system should integrate the deep cycle house batteries, a special generator/inverter system, smart appliances and even the main truck engine where possible.

Today the best small generators are inverter based. Rather than generating AC directly from an 1800rpm motor and alternator, they have a variable speed engine and produce the AC via an inverter. These are smaller, more efficient, lighter and quieter than older generators, and produce cleaner power. Today they are more expensive, but not more expensive than most RV generators. RV generators are usually sized at 3,600 to 4,000 watts in ordinary RVs -- that size dictated by the spike of starting up the air conditioner compressor when something else, like the microwave is running.

An inverter based generator combined with the RV's battery bank doesn't have to be that large. It can draw power for the surge of starting a motor from the battery. The ability to sustain 2,000 watts is probably enough, with a few other tricks. Indeed, it can provide a lot of power even with the generator off, though the generator should auto-start if the AC is to be used, or the microwave will be used for a long time.

By adding a data network, one can be much more efficient with power. For example, the microwave could just turn off briefly when the thermostat wants to start the AC's compressor, or even the fans. The microwave could also know if it's been told to cook for 30 seconds (no need to run generator) or 10 minutes (might want to start it.) It could also start the generator in advance of cooling need.

If the master computer has access to weather data, it could even decide what future power needs for heating fans and air conditioning will be, and run the generator appropriately. With a GPS database, it could even know the quiet times of the campsite it's in and respect them.

A modern RV should have all-LED lighting. Power use is so low on those that the lights become a blip in power planning. Only the microwave, AC and furnace fan would make a difference. Likewise today's TVs, laptops and media players which all draw very few watts.

A smart power system could even help plugging into shore power, particularly a standard 15a circuit. Such circuits are not enough to start many ACs, or to run the AC with anything else. With surge backup from the battery, an RV could plug into an ordinary plug and act almost like it had a high power connection.

To go further, for group camping, RVs should have the ability to form an ad-hoc power grid. This same ability is already desired in the off-grid world, so it need not be developed just for RVs. RVs able to take all sorts of input power could also eventually get smart power from RV campsites. After negotiation, a campsite might offer 500v DC at 12 amps instead of 115v AC, allowing the largest dual-AC RVs to plug into small wires.

Augmented Reality as documentation and the "context" button

I've been a little skeptical of many augmented reality apps I've seen, feeling they were mostly gimmick and not actually useful.

I'm impressed by this new one from Audi where you point your phone (iPhone only, unfortunately) at a feature on your car, and you get documentation on it. An interesting answer to car user manuals that are as thick as the glove compartment and the complex UIs they describe.

RAID, backyard backup and the future of backup

Had my second RAID failure last week. In the end, things were OK but the reality is that many RAID implementations are much more fragile than they should be. Write failures on a drive caused the system to hang. Hard reset caused the RAID to be marked dirty, which mean it would not boot until falsely marked clean (and a few other hoops,) leaving it with some minor filesystem damage that was reparable. Still, I believe that a proper RAID-like system should have as its maxim that the user is never worse off because they built a RAID than if they had not done so.

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The laptop in the tablet world

I have owned a laptop for decades, and I've always gone for the "small and light" laptop class because as a desktop user, my laptop is only for travel, and ease of carrying is thus very important. Of course once I get there I have envied the larger screens and better keyboards and other features of the bigger laptops people carry, but generally been happy with the decision.

Others have gone for "desktop replacement" laptops which are powerful, big and heavy. Those folks don't have a desktop, at most they plug their laptop into an external monitor and other peripherals at home. The laptop is a bitch to carry but of course all files come with it.

Today, the tablet is changing that equation. I now find that when I am going into a situation where I want a minimal device that's easy to carry, the tablet is the answer, and even better the tablet and bluetooth keyboard. I even carry a keyboard that's a fair bit larger than the tablet, but still very light compared to a laptop. When I am in a meeting, or sitting attending an event, I am not going to do the things I need the laptop for. Well, not as much, anyway. On the airplane, the tablet is usually quite satisfactory -- in fact better when in coach, though technically the keyboard is not allowed on a plane. (My tablet can plug in a USB keyboard if needed.)

**If my laptop is now going to be used in a more stationary way, primarily in hotel rooms and remote work situations, perhaps now a larger one with a bigger screen and keyboard makes sense. ** In fact, the name laptop becomes a misnomer. With the tablet your prime choice when in a place with no table, you would almost never put the computer on your lap.

Planes are a particular problem. It's not safe to check LCD screens in your luggage, so any laptop screen has to come aboard with you, and this is a pain if the computer is heavy.

With the tablet dealing with the "I want small and light" situations, what is the right laptop answer?

One obvious solution are the "convertible tablet" computers being offered by various vendors. These are laptops where the screen is a tablet and it can be removed. These tend to be Windows devices, and somewhat expensive, but the approximate direction is correct.

Another option would be to break the laptop up into 3 or more components:

  • The tablet, running your favourite tablet OS
  • A keyboard, of your choice, which can be carried easily with the tablet for typing-based applications. Able to hold the laptop and connect to it in a permitted way on the plane. Touchpad or connection for mouse.
  • A "block," whose form factor is now quite variable, with the other stuff.

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We need a security standard for USB and other plug-in devices

Studies have shown that if you leave USB sticks on the ground outside an office building, 60% of them will get picked up and plugged into a computer in the building. If you put the company logo on the sticks, closer to 90% of them will get picked up and plugged in.

Time for the post office to let anybody print postage with no minimums

For some time, the US Postal Service has allowed people to generate barcoded postage. You can do that on the expensive forms of mail such as priority mail and express mail, but if you want to do it on ordinary mail, like 1st class mail or parcel post, you need an account with a postage meter style provider, and these accounts typically include a monthly charge of $10/month or more. For an office, that's no big deal, and cheaper than the postage meters that most offices used to buy -- and the pricing model is based on them to some extent, even though now there is no hardware needed.

Modify E-book reader designs for digital signs

One of the useful attributes of electronic paper (such as E-Ink) is that it doesn't take any power to retain an image, it only takes power to change the image. This is good for long-lasting E-readers, and digital signs are one of the other key applications of electronic paper, though today they are sold with a focus on the retail market.

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Car users frustrated with their tech

The latest JD Power survey on car satisfaction has a very new complaint that has now the second most annoying item to new car owners namely problems with the voice recognition system in their hands-free interface. This is not too surprising, since voice recognition, especially in cars, is often dreadful. It also reveals that most new tech has lots of UI problems -- not every product is the iPod, lauded from the start for its UI.

Terminal mode or a standard mounting port for mobile phones in cars?

It's very common to use mobile phones for driving activities today. Many people even put in cell phone holders in their cars when they want to use the phones as navigation systems as well as make calls over a bluetooth. There's even evidence that dashboard mounting reduces the distracted driving phenomenon associated with phones in cars.

Watson, game 2

Not much new to report after the second game of the Watson Jeopardy Challenge. I've added a few updates to yesterday's post on Watson and the result was as expected, though Watson struggled a lot more in this game than in the prior round, deciding not to answer many questions due to low confidence and making a few mistakes. In a few cases it was saved by not buzzing fast enough even though it had over 50% confidence, as it would have answered slightly wrong.

Watson, come here, I want you

The computer scientist world is abuzz with the game show world over the showdown between IBM's "Watson" question-answering system and the best human players to play the game Jeopardy. The first game has been shown, with a crushing victory by Watson (in spite of a tie after the first half of the game.)

Tomorrow's outcome is not in doubt. IBM would not have declared itself ready for the contest without being confident it would win, and they wouldn't be putting all the advertising out about the contest if they had lost. What's interesting is how they did it and what else they will be able to do with it.

Dealing with a general question has long been one of the hard problems in AI research. Watson isn't quite there yet but it's managed a great deal with a combination of algorithmic parsing and understanding combined with machine learning based on prior Jeopardy games. That's a must because Jeopardy "answers" (clues) are often written in obfuscated styles, with puns and many idioms, exactly the sorts of things most natural language systems have had a very hard time with.

Watson's problem is almost all understanding the question. Looking up obscure facts is not nearly so hard if you have a copy of Wikipedia and other databases on hand, particularly one parsed with other state-of-the-art natural language systems, which is what I presume they have. In fact, one would predict that Watson would do the best on the hardest $2,000 questions because these are usually hard because they refer to obscure knowledge, not because it is harder to understand the question. I expect that an evaluation of its results may show that its performance on hard questions is not much worse than on easy ones. (The main thing that would make easy questions easier would be the large number of articles in its database confirming the answer, and presumably boosting its confidence in its answer.) However, my intuition may be wrong here, in that most of Watson's problems came on the high-value questions.

It's confidence is important. If it does not feel confident it doesn't buzz in. And it has a serious advantage at buzzing in, since you can't buzz in right away on this game, and if you're an encyclopedia like the two human champions and Watson, buzzing in is a large part of the game. In fact, a fairer game, which Watson might not do as well at, would involve randomly choosing which of the players who buzz in in the first few tenths of a second gets to answer the question, eliminating any reaction time advantage. Watson gets the questions as text, which is also a bit unfair, unless it is given them one word a time at human reading speed. It could do OCR on the screen but chances are it would read faster than the humans. It's confidence numbers and results are extremely impressive. One reason it doesn't buzz in is that even with 3,000 cores it takes 2-6 seconds to answer a question.

Indeed a totally fair contest would not have buzzing in time competition at all, and just allow all players who buzz in to answer an get or lose points based on their answer. (Answers would need to be in parallel.)

Watson's coders know by now that they probably should have coded it to receive wrong answers from other contestants. In one instance it repeated a wrong answer, and in another case it said "What is Leg?" after Jennings had incorrectly answered "What is missing an arm?" in a question about an Olympic athlete. The host declared that right, but the judges reversed that saying that it would be right if a human who was following up the wrong answer said it, but was a wrong answer without that context. This was edited out. Also edited out were 4 crashes by Watson that made the game take 4 hours instead of 30 minutes.

It did not happen in what aired so far, but in the trials, another error I saw Watson make was declining to answer a request to be more specific on an answer. Watson was programmed to give minimalist answers, which often the host will accept as correct, so why take a risk. If the host doesn't think you said enough he asks for a more specific answer. Watson sometimes said "I can be no more specific." From a pure gameplay standpoint, that's like saying, "I admit I am wrong." For points, one should say the best longer phrase containing the one-word answer, because it just might be right. Though it has a larger chance of looking really stupid -- see below for thoughts on that.

The shows also contain total love-fest pieces about IBM which make me amazed that IBM is not listed as a sponsor for the shows, other than perhaps in the name "The IBM Challenge." I am sure Jeopardy is getting great ratings (just having their two champs back would do that on its own but this will be even more) but I have to wonder if any other money is flowing.

Being an idiot savant

Watson doesn't really understand the Jeopardy clues, at least not as a human does. Like so many AI breakthroughs, this result comes from figuring out another way to attack the problem different from the method humans use. As a result, Watson sometimes puts out answers that are nonsense "idiot" answers from a human perspective. They cut back a lot on this by only having it answer when it has 50% confidence or higher, and in fact for most of its answers it has very impressive confidence numbers. But sometimes it gives such an answer. To the consternation of the Watson team, it did this on the Final Jeopardy clue, where it answered "Toronto" in the category "U.S. Cities."

My phone should know when I start a trip

Every day I get into my car and drive somewhere. My mobile phone has a lot of useful apps for travel, including maps with traffic and a lot more. And I am usually calling them up.

I believe that my phone should notice when I am driving off from somewhere, or about to, and automatically do some things for me. Of course, it could notice this if it ran the GPS all the time, but that's expensive from a power standpoint, so there are other ways to identify this:

Where will 3-D cameras like Kinect lead?

This year, I bought Microsoft Kinect cameras for the nephews and niece. At first they will mostly play energetic X-box games with them but my hope is they will start to play with the things coming from the Kinect hacking community -- the videos of the top hacks are quite interesting. At first, MS wanted to lock down the Kinect and threaten the open source developers who reverse engineered the protocol and released drivers. Now Microsoft has official open drivers.

I'm loving the Shweeb concept

There was a bit of a stir when Google last week announced that one of the winners of their 10^100 contest would be Shweeb, a pedal-powered monorail from New Zealand that has elements of PRT. Google will invest $1M in Shweeb to help them build a small system, and if it makes any money on the investment, that will go into transportation related charities.

While I had a preference that Google fund a virtual world for developing and racing robocars I have come to love a number of elements about Shweeb, though it's not robocars and the PRT community seems to not think it's PRT. I think it is PRT, in that it's personal, public and, according to the company, relatively rapid through the use of offline stations and non-stop point to point trips. PRT is an idea from the sixties that makes sense but has tried for almost 50 years to get transit planners to believe in it and build it. A micro-PRT has opened as a Heathrow parking shuttle, but in general transit administrators simply aren't early adopters. They don't innovate.

What impresses me about Shweeb is its tremendous simplicity. While it's unlikely to replace our cars or transit systems, it is simple enough that it can actually be built. Once built, it can serve as a testbed for many of PRT's concepts, and go through incremental improvements.

Using the phone as its own mouse, and trusting the keyboard

I've written a bunch about my desire to be able to connect an untrusted input device to my computer or phone so that we could get hotels and other locations to offer both connections to the HDTVs in the rooms for monitors and a usable keyboard. This would let one travel with small devices like netbooks, tablet computers and smart phones yet still use them for serious typing and UI work while in the hotel or guest area.

I've proposed that the connection from device to the monitor be wireless. This would make it not very good for full screen video but it would be fine for web surfing, email and the like. This would allow us to use the phone as its own mouse, either by having a deliberate mouse style sensor on the back, or using the camera on the back of the phone as a reader of the surface. (A number of interesting experiments have shown this is quite doable if the camera can focus close and can get an LED to light up the surface.) This provides a mouse which is more inherently trustable, and buttons on the phone (or on its touchscreen) can be the mouse buttons. This doesn't work for tablets and netbooks -- for them you must bring your own mini-mouse or use the device as a touchpad. I am still a fan of the "trackpoint" nubbins and they can also make very small but usable mice.

The keyboard issue is still tough. While it would seem a wired connection is more secure, not all devices will be capable of such a connection, while almost all will do bluetooth. Wired USB connections can pretend to be all sorts of devices, including CD-Roms with autorun CDs in them. However, I propose the creation of a new bluetooth HID profile for untrusted keyboards.

When connecting to an untrusted keyboard, the system would need to identify any privileged or dangerous operations. If such operations (like software downloads, destructive commands etc.) come from the keyboard, the system would insist on confirmation from the main device's touchscreen or keyboard. So while you would be able to type on the keyboard to fill text boxes or write documents and emails, other things would be better done with the mouse or they would require a confirmation on the screen. Turns out this is how many people use computers these days anyway. We command line people would feel a bit burdened but could create shells that are good at spotting commands that might need confirmation.

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