Everybody should have off-site backup of their files. For most people, the biggest threat is fire, but here in California, the most likely disaster you will encounter is an earthquake. Only a small fraction of houses will burn down, but everybody will experience the big earthquake that is sure to come in the next few decades. Of course, fortunately only a modest number of houses will collapse, but many computers will be knocked off desks or have things fall on them.
To deal with this, I've been keeping a copy of my data in my car -- encrypted of course. I park in my driveway, so nothing will fall on the car in a quake, and only a very large fire would have risk of spreading to the car, though it's certainly possible.
The two other options are network backup and truly remote backup. Network backup is great, but doesn't work for people who have many terabytes of storage. I came back from my latest trip with 300gb of new photos, and that would take a very long time to upload if I wanted network storage. In addition, many TB of network storage is somewhat expensive. Truly remote storage is great, but the logistics of visiting it regularly, bringing back disks for update and then taking them back again is too much for household and small business backup. In fact, even being diligent about going down to the car to get out the disk and update is difficult.
A possible answer -- a wireless backup box stored in the car. Today, there are many low-cost linux based NAS boxes and they mostly run on 12 volts. So you could easily make a box that goes into the car, plugs into power (many cars now have 12v jacks in the trunk or other access to that power) and wakes up every so often to see if it is on the home wifi, and triggers a backup sync, ideally in the night.
I frequently say that there is no "internet of things." That's a marketing phrase for now. You can't go buy a "thing" and plug it into the "internet of things." IoT is still interesting because underneath the name is a real revolution from the way that computing, sensing and communications are getting cheaper, smaller and using less power. New communications protocols are also doing interesting things.
We learned a lesson on Friday though, about why using the word "internet" is its own mistake. The internet -- one of the world's greatest inventions -- was created as a network of networks where anything could talk to anything, and it was useful for this to happen. Later, for various reasons, we moved to putting most devices behind NATs and firewalls to diminish this vision, but the core idea remains.
Attackers on Friday made use of growing collection of low cost IoT devices with low security to mount a DDOS attack on DYN's domain name servers, shutting off name lookup for some big sites. While not the only source of the attack, a lot of attention has come to certain Chinese brands of IP based security cameras and baby monitors. To make them easy to use, they are designed with very poor security, and as a result they can be hijacked and put into botnets to do DDOS -- recruiting a million vulnerable computers to all overload some internet site or service at once.
Most applications for small embedded systems -- the old and less catchy name of the "internet of things" -- aren't at all in line with the internet concept. They have no need or desire to be able to talk to the whole world the way your phone, laptop or web server do. They only need to talk to other local devices, and sometimes to cloud servers from their vendor. We are going to see billions of these devices connected to our networks in the coming years, perhaps hundreds of billions. They are going to be designed by thousands of vendors. They are going to be cheap and not that well made. They are not going to be secure, and little we can do will change that. Even efforts to make punishments for vendors of insecure devices won't change that.
So here's an alternative; a long term plan for our routers and gateways to take the internet out of IoT.
Our routers should understand that two different classes of devices will connect to them. The regular devices, like phones and laptops, should connect to the internet as we expect today. There should also be a way to know that the connecting devices does not want regular internet access, and not to give it. One way to do that is for the devices to know about this, and to convey how much access they need when they first connect. One proposal for this is my friend Eliot Lear's MUD proposal. Unfortunately, we can't count on devices to do this. We must limit stupid devices and old devices too.
The social networks have access (or more to the point can give their users access) to an unprecedented trove of information on political views and activities. Could this make a radical difference in affecting who actually shows up to vote, and thus decide the outcome of elections?
I've written before about how the biggest factor in US elections is the power of GOTV - Get Out the Vote. US Electoral turnout is so low -- about 60% in Presidential elections and 40% in off-year -- that the winner is determined by which side is able to convince more of their weak supporters to actually show up and vote. All those political ads you see are not going to make a Democrat vote Republican or vice versa, they are going to scare a weak supporter to actually show up. It's much cheaper, in terms of votes per dollar (or volunteer hour) to bring in these weak supporters than it is to swing a swing voter.
The US voter turnout numbers are among the worst in the wealthy world. Much of this is blamed on the fact the US, unlike most other countries, has voter registration; effectively 2 step voting. Voter registration was originally implemented in the USA as a form of vote suppression, and it's stuck with the country ever since. In almost all other countries, some agency is responsible for preparing a list of citizens and giving it to each polling place. There are people working to change that, but for now it's the reality. Registration is about 75%, Presidential voting about 60%. (Turnout of registered voters is around 80%)
Scary negative ads are one thing, but one of the most powerful GOTV forces is social pressure. Republicans used this well under Karl Rove, working to make social groups like churches create peer pressure to vote. But let's look at the sort of data sites like Facebook have or could have access to:
- They can calculate a reasonably accurate estimate of your political leaning with modern AI tools and access to your status updates (where people talk politics) and your friend network, along with the usual geographic and demographic data
- They can measure the strength of your political convictions through your updates
- They can bring in the voter registration databases (which are public in most states, with political use allowed on the data. Commercial use is forbidden in a portion of states but this would not be commercial.)
- In many cases, the voter registration data also reveals if you voted in prior elections
- Your status updates and geographical check-ins and postings will reveal voting activity. Some sites (like Google) that have mobile apps with location sensing can detect visits to polling places. Of course, for the social site to aggregate and use this data for its own purposes would be a gross violation of many important privacy principles. But social networks don't actually do (too many) things; instead they provide tools for their users to do things. As such, while Facebook should not attempt to detect and use political data about its users, it could give tools to its users that let them select subsets of their friends, based only on information that those friends overtly shared. On Facebook, you can enter the query, "My friends who like Donald Trump" and it will show you that list. They could also let you ask "My Friends who match me politically" if they wanted to provide that capability.
Now imagine more complex queries aimed specifically at GOTV, such as: "My friends who match me politically but are not scored as likely to vote" or "My friends who match me politically and are not registered to vote." Possibly adding "Sorted by the closeness of our connection" which is something they already score.
This weekend I went to Pomona, CA for the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge which had robots (mostly humanoid) compete at a variety of disaster response and assistance tasks. This contest, a successor of sorts to the original DARPA Grand Challenge which changed the world by giving us robocars, got a fair bit of press, but a lot of it was around this video showing various robots falling down when doing the course:
What you don't hear in this video are the cries of sympathy from the crowd of thousands watching -- akin to when a figure skater might fall down -- or the cheers as each robot would complete a simple task to get a point. These cheers and sympathies were not just for the human team members, but in an anthropomorphic way for the robots themselves. Most of the public reaction to this video included declarations that one need not be too afraid of our future robot overlords just yet. It's probably better to watch the DARPA official video which has a little audience reaction.
Don't be fooled as well by the lesser-known fact that there was a lot of remote human tele-operation involved in the running of the course.
What you also don't see in this video is just how very far the robots have come since the first round of trials in December 2013. During those trials the amount of remote human operation was very high, and there weren't a lot of great fall videos because the robots had tethers that would catch them if they fell. (These robots are heavy and many took serious damage when falling, so almost all testing is done with a crane, hoist or tether able to catch the robot during the many falls which do occur.)
We aren't yet anywhere close to having robots that could do tasks like these autonomously, so for now the research is in making robots that can do tasks with more and more autonomy with higher level decisions made by remote humans. The tasks in the contest were:
- Starting in a car, drive it down a simple course with a few turns and park it by a door.
- Get out of the car -- one of the harder tasks as it turns out, and one that demanded a more humanoid form
- Go to a door and open it
- Walk through the door into a room
- In the room, go up to a valve with circular handle and turn it 360 degrees
- Pick up a power drill, and use it to cut a large enough hole in a sheet of drywall
- Perform a surprise task -- in this case throwing a lever on day one, and on day 2 unplugging a power cord and plugging it into another socket
- Either walk over a field of cinder blocks, or roll through a field of light debris
- Climb a set of stairs
The robots have an hour to do this, so they are often extremely slow, and yet to the surprise of most, the audience -- a crowd of thousands and thousands more online -- watched with fascination and cheering. Even when robots would take a step once a minute, or pause at a task for several minutes, or would get into a problem and spend 10 minutes getting fixed by humans as a penalty.
At CES, there were a couple of "selfie drones." The Nixie is designed to be worn on your wrist, taken off, thrown, and then it returns to you after taking a photo or video. There was also the Zano which is fancier and claims it will follow you around, tracking you as you mountain bike or ski to make a video of you just as you do your cool trick.
I'm sure, like me, you have lots of electronic gadgets that have status LEDs on them. Some of these just show the thing is on, some blink when it's doing things. Of late, as blue LEDs have gotten cheap, it has been very common to put disturbingly bright blue LEDs on items.
Day 3 at CES started with a visit to BMW's demo. They were mostly test driving new cars like the i3 and M series cars, but for a demo, they made the i3 deliver itself along a planned corridor. It was a mostly stock i3 electric car with ultrasonic sensors -- and the traffic jam assist disabled. When one test driver dropped off the car, they scanned it, and then a BMW staffer at the other end of a walled course used a watch interface to summon that car.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.