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For problems I've been thinking about that need better ideas. Your input is welcome.

Improving Exodus at Burning Man

I've created a new blog category "Burning Man" to track my posts on the event. I was using a simpler tag before.

Today I want to talk about the Burning Man Exodus problem, a problem you might find interesting even if you don't come to Burning Man. This year, even at 8pm Monday there was a long line and a 2 hour wait to get off the playa. Normally by about 5pm there is no wait. With 45,000 or more this year, and I presume at least 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles, and various chokepoints limiting traffic to 450 cars/hour, how do you drain the playa when everybody wants to go Sunday and Monday. (In addition, with so many now leaving Sunday, it makes Monday less interesting driving some who could leave Monday to leave earlier.)

It has now been routine to see waits of 5 hours or more at the peak times. I believe a solution should be possible involving some sort of appointment system, where cars are given a set time to leave, and they leave then. If they want to go at a peak time, instead of waiting 5 hours in line, they spend 5 hours in the city, or doing more cleanup, instead of idling their car in a giant line. Not that the line doesn't become a little bit of a party, but it's still not like being in camp. And for my exodus on Monday night there as the worst dust storm ever for Exodus, you could not see the car in front of you, or the fence beside you.

However, a good system to hand out appointments is hard to design. First of all, we have a mostly volunteer crew, and they don't have much law enforcement power to stop violators or ticket them. (More participation by the police in this, when the city truly needs them, instead of having them be there for pot busts that nobody wants would be a great thing.)

Here are some of the constraints:

Zapmeals for real?

At the recent Supernova 2007 conference, they did a session where startups presented, and to mix things up, at the end they told us that one of the companies was fake. Most people clued in, because the presentation had been funny, and had a few obvious business mistakes, but at the same time many commented that it was chosen well, because they would like it to exist. The fake company, ZapMeals claimed it would let you order delivered food from quality at-home chefs and caterers, with a reputation system that helped you choose them by quality. GPS-enabled delivery companies would show you where your meal was as it drove to your home.


How to stop people from putting widescreen TVs in stretch mode

(Note I have a simpler article for those just looking for advice on how to get their Widescreen TV to display properly.)

Very commonly today I see widescreen TVs being installed, both HDTV and normal. Flat panel TVs are a big win in public places since they don't have the bulk and weight of the older ones, so this is no surprise, even in SDTV. And they are usually made widescreen, which is great.

Better forms of differential pricing that don't punish flexibility so much

Differential pricing occurs when a company attempts to charge different prices to two different customers for what is essentially the same product. One place we all encounter it a lot is air travel, where it seems no two passengers paid the same price for their tickets on any given flight. You also see it in things like one of my phones, which has 4 line buttons but only 2 work -- I must pay $30 for a code to enable the other 2 buttons.

Medical adhesive that sticks to skin, but not hair?

As a hirsute individual, I beg the world's makers of medical tapes and band-aids to work on an adhesive that is decent at sticking to skin, but does not stick well to hair.

Not being versed in the adhesive chemistries of these things, I don't know how difficult this is, but if one can be found, many people would thank you.

Failing that would be an adhesive with a simple non-toxic solvent that unbinds it, which could be swabbed on while slowly undoing tape.


"Better hope nothing happens to me" service.

Here's an interesting problem. In the movies we always see scenes where the good guy is fighting the Evil Conspiracy (EvilCon) and he tells them he's hidden the incriminating evidence with a friend who will release it to the papers if the good guy disappears under mysterious circumstances. Today EvilCon would just quickly mine your social networking platform to find all your friends and shake them down for the evidence.

So here's the challenge. Design a system so that if you want to escrow some evidence, you can do it quickly, reliably and not too expensively, at a brief stop at an internet terminal while on the run from EvilCon. Assume EvilCon is extremely powerful, like the NSA. Here are some of the challenges:

  • You need to be able to pay those who do escrow, as this is risky work. At the same time there must be no way to trace the payment.
  • You don't want the escrow agents to be able to read the data. Instead, you will split the encryption keys among several escrow agents in a way that some subset of them must declare you missing to assemble the key and publish the data.
  • You need some way to vet escrow agents to assure they will do their job faithfully, but at the same time you must assume some of them work for EvilCon if there is a large pool.
  • They must have some way to check if you are still alive. Regularly searching for you in Google or going to your web site regularly might be traced.

Some thoughts below...

Encrytped text that looks like plaintext, thanks to spammers.

You may be familiar with Stegonography, the technique for hiding messages in other messages so that not only can the black-hat not read the message, they aren't even aware it's there at all. It's arguably the most secure way to send secret data over an open channel. A classic form of "stego" involves encrypting a message and then hiding it in the low order "noise" bits of a digital photograph. An observer can't tell the noise from real noise. Only somebody with the key can extract the actual message.

Reputation system for cars and the selfish merge.

George Carlin once proposed a system where people would shoot suction cup darts at cars when they did something annoying, like cutting you off, and if you got too many darts the cops would pull you over. Another friend recently proposed a lot of interest in building some sort of reputation system for cars using computers.

Though Carlin's was a satire, it actually has merits that it would be hard to match in a computerized system. Sure, we could build a system where if somebody was rude on the road, you could snap a quick photo of their licence plate, or say it into a microphone or cell phone for insertion into a reputation database. But people could also just do this to annoy you. There's no efficient way to prove you actually were there for the rude event. The photos could do that but it's too much work to verify them. The darts actually do it, since you could not just stick them on my car when I'm stopped, or I would pull them off before driving.

One problem I want to solve with such a system is the selfish merge. We've all seen it -- lanes are merging, and the cooperating drivers try to merge early. Then the selfish drivers zoom ahead in the vanishing lane until they get to its end. And always, somebody lets them in. Selfishly zooming up does get you through the jam faster, but at the same time these late mergers are a major contributor to the very jam they are bypassing.

We'll never stop people from letting in the drivers, and indeed, from time to time innocent drivers get into the free lane because they are not clear on the situation or missed the merge.


Wanted: A google/yahoo/etc. ad optimizer

Yahoo is now entering the context-driven ad field to compete with Adsense, and that's good for publishers and web authors. I have had great luck with adsense, and it provides serious money for this blog and my other web sites, which is why I have the affiliate link on the right bar encouraging you to join adsense -- though I won't mind the affiliate fee as well, of course.

Wanted -- a system to anonymously test the support of radical ideas

How often does it happen? There's an important idea or action which is controversial. The bravest come out in support of it early, but others are wary. Will support for this idea hurt them in other circles? Is the idea against the "party line" of some group they belong to, even though a sizeable number of the group actually support it? How can you tell.

Boy SBC/ATT online ordering, do you ever suck

Can giant companies, especially monopolies, ever get it right? Listen to this litany of the efforts to move my phone service, and get DSL.


MMORPG for Seniors and Shut-ins

I was visiting a senior citizen today who rarely leaves her house due to lack of mobility. Like many her age, she is not connected to the net, nor interested in it. Which makes the following idea a challenge.

Could we design a really engaging game/online community for seniors? Especially those who have had to give up much of their old community because of infirmity? They don't want to slay monsters like in Evercrack or Warcraft. They won't build objects like in Second Life.

Can we stop the loud-beep on backing up?

One of the scourages of urban areas is the requirement (I presume) that heavy equipment make a loud beeping noise when it's backing up. It's meant to warn anybody standing behind the vehicle, presumably because the driver doesn't have the same field of vision to see you, and because people are more wary of standing in front of a moving vehicle than behind it.


Use GPS Maps to improve map databases, but protect privacy

Mapping programs, and fancy GPSs come with map databases that will, among other things, plot routes for you and estimate the time to travel them. That's great, but they are often wrong in a number of ways. Sometimes the streets are wrong (missing, really just a trail, etc.) and they just do a rough estimation of travel time.

Hunting a way to make private expropriation more fair

Well, the Supreme Court ruled today that expropriation for private development can still be legal if the town council seems to think there's a public benefit. It's a terrible decision, with strange logic, and strange votes from the judges, but you will probably read many other articles about that today. What I want to figure is, given this ruling, what can we do to make it better?

What we will see happening is a land developer coming to the city with a plan to demolish a redevelop a block in a way that they claim will be good for the city -- perhaps bringing in tourists, jobs, business, whatever. Of course the deal is very good for the land developer, or they would not be drafting it.

I suggest we make it less sweet for the developer in such cases and give some of that sweetness to the expropriation victims. Today they get a "fair market value" for their property (that part of the 5th amendment wasn't shredded) but I say, if the expropriation is for private use, let's give them more.

First, start by paying them this fair market value at the date of expropriation, as we do now.

Then, after the deal is complete (with some time limits and other good constraints) we want to determine just how much "value" came from aggregating the properties. Right now this value goes to the developer. We're going to give most or all of it to the expropriated folks. So we come up with a value for the amalgamated property. (More below on how to do that.) This pre-opening profit would go, all or most of it, to the landowners. The developer keeps any further appreciation of the property as they operate it -- they need an upside too, of course.

More ideas follow...

Enforce the "step in before storing your bag" rule?

Here's an entry in my new "solve this" cateogry, which asks for reader input on solving problems.

When flying on a very full flight yesterday, we had an example of what my approach for faster airplane loading would have helped with. But until we get that, are there other solutions?

On the full flight, passengers would stand in the aisle trying to store their bags. With the compartments full they took a long time doing it, sometimes found themselves unable to. This blocked the loading and even though we started boarding 30 minutes before the flight, we were not finished by departure time. The flight attendants were on the PA every few minutes telling people not to stand in the aisle, to instead step into the row and let people pass, but very few paid attention to it. We don't seem inclined to do this, and not just because we are desperate for storage space. (I'm one of the desperate, I carry on fragiles like camera gear that I refuse to let them throw around.) We just don't believe that our own efforts will slow things much, and we also believe it will take "just a few more seconds" to get the bag in right.


What would we do with 802.11 in our car

I wrote some time ago of how I would like a car's MP3 player/computer to have 802.11, so that when it parks in my driveway, it notices it is home and syncs up new data and music.


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