Victrola

Checked out a band that was on my “to check out” list last night. Victrola. They’ve got a regular Monday-night gig at the Empanada Parlour. They’re good. Early New Orleans style jazz, torch songs, that sort of thing.

On my way home, I snapped one of the brake cables on my bike. This has never happened to me before. Fixed that today, and replaced the other cable as a preventative measure. Also installed new brake pads, as long as I was in there. I hate installing new brake pads. Takes forever to get them adjusted, and I never get them quite right.

Ubiquitous intrusion

There’s been a lot of talk over the past year or so regarding corporate monitoring of employee e-mail, web-browsing, and the like. I think these problems are very important, but they are beyond the scope of this discussion.

Technology is value-neutral. It can be used in good ways and evil. Likewise technologies in combination. I’ve been thinking about one particularly frightening combination of technologies that we may see all-too soon. All of the following exist right now or are in the pipeline:

What I am envisioning is that we will have glasses with unobtrusive–nearly invisible–webcams and HUD overlays. These will be connected to the Internet via some kind of souped-up cellphone/palmpilot doohickey of the future. When you see a face, you’ll be able to push a button (or speak a command, whatever) initiating the following events:

  1. Your webcam takes a picture of the person’s face
  2. That picture is transmitted via your wireless Internet connection to a face database
  3. If there is a match, information about that person is transmitted back to you
  4. That information is then displayed in your eyeglass HUD

In short, just by looking at a person, you might be able to learn his or her name, address, and other info. That’s bad enough, but it gets much, much worse. Technologically, it would be trivial to include a system that allowed people to post “reviews” of that person. In fact, all of the basic information, like name and address, could be gathered through volunteer members of the system, instead of commercial databases (which might well be unwilling to participate)–the Internet Movie Database is a volunteer effort, and an excellent (but benign) example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Third Voice caught a lot of flack for the original version of its software, which basically allowed anyone to write graffitti on other websites, viewable to other people with Third-Voice software. This resulted in a lot of snide comments being plastered over high-traffic sites like Yahoo. (Third Voice has evidently taken its software in a different direction.) Imagine this being done to your face, viewable to anyone with the right equipment. And of course, there’s no reason to expect the comments that others would make about you would be honest or accurate. Any stranger who sees you on the street would be able to contribute a comment about you. You could even add in GPS data, so that the central database could compile a running log of your whereabouts.

All the technology to accomplish this exists right now, although the setup would be ungainly and terribly expensive. I believe that in less than five years, the technology will be much smaller, more elegant, and more accessible.

There are lots of other interesting and scary variations on this. Stationary webcams are bound to proliferate, located at busy intersections and the like. Such a system as I am discussing could link in with those so, just possibly, you could see a snapshot of someone’s back while you look at their face. Or you could sit at home and tell the system to follow a certain person through town, with other stationary webcams (or perhaps even other person-mounted webcams) constantly looking for that person’s face and updating you on his progress.

I refer to this situation as “ubiquitous intrusiveness,” or more concisely, as “omnihell.” This is very different from the Big Brother worries we have regarding business and government today–it is a situation where everybody is conducting surveillance on everyone else. Will it actually happen? I’m tempted to think that if I can imagine it, someone else is already working on it. I fear the only thing standing in the way of making it happen is the Golden Rule–if you are snooping on others, you’ll likely be snooped on yourself. Perhaps, as a culture, we will feel a common sense of revulsion at the whole prospect and stand back.

I got to thinking about this, not as a way for people to swap notes on other people, but as a personal memory tool–my first thought was not that you’d share your face-database with others, but that you’d have sole access to it, so you’d never have the embarrassing experience of re-meeting people and forgetting their names. Then I realized the information could be shared, meaning it almost certainly would be, and then you’d get this scenario.

later:

Evidently everyone entering the stadium to see the 2001 Superbowl was face-matched, in an effort to ferret out terrorists.

Car theft as a public service

This is a provocative title, which may be the reason you are reading this. I am not saying that all car theft is a public service. Only when the car in question has a noisy car alarm.

Why? a few reasons:

  1. Most of the occasions when we hear a car alarm, it is not because the car is being stolen–it is because the car was inadvertently jostled. So most of the time, the car alarm is nothing but a public nuisance. Stealing the car removes this nuisance from a neighborhood that has probably heard the car alarm too many times.
  2. Since car alarms rarely signal a car actually being stolen, people (including owners of alarmed cars) generally don’t take them seriously. If a car is stolen despite having an alarm, there is a chance (a slim one) that the owner will realize the futility of using a car alarm and choose not to install one in the future.
  3. Thanks to lobbying by the car-alarm industry, insurers are required to offer lower rates to owners of alarmed cars. Seriously. But if the rate of theft for alarmed cars were to exceed non-alarmed cars, the insurance industry could probably get this reversed on an actuarial basis, removing an incentive for car alarms.

Phones, the Internet, and Stuff

I don’t like the way phones work.

First off, let’s take phone numbers. Phone numbers are not easy to remember. I can remember 10 or so. Admittedly, speed-dialers have made me lazy–I could probably remember more if I put my mind to it. I like e-mail addresses much better. I can tell someone my e-mail address, and they can probably remember it, at least until they get home. If I tell anyone my phone number, they’ll almost certainly need to write it down immediately, unless they have an excellent memory or I come up with a cute mnemonic.

Next, think of all the phone numbers people need these days. A well-connected person might have a home phone, office phone, cellphone, pager, and fax number. That’s five numbers, and two of them aren’t even for voice communications. Imagine this worst-case scenario for trying to reach this person: The guy you are calling is in the field, with his cellphone, but the batteries are run down. You try him first at home, then at work, then on his cellphone (which can’t answer). You try paging him, and he gets the page, but can’t call you back. As a last resort, you write out what you wanted to say and fax it to him. Perhaps by the time he gets to a phone to return your page, you are away from the phone from which you sent the page, so he starts chasing you at all your various contact numbers.

Admittedly, some people have multiple e-mail addresses (I am one of them), but it is usually not hard to set things up so that they are all funneled to one address, or so that you can pick them all up easily.

Phone numbers generally change when you move, certainly if you move a long distance. E-mail addresses do change for a lot of people when they change service providers, but there are easy ways to get permanent e-mail addresses so that you can move around and change ISPs with impunity, and still be easily reached.

So what do we do about this?

The future of phones is in the Internet. Phone calls will be carried over Internet lines like e-mail or pictures. We won’t have phone lines running into our homes per se, we’ll have permanently-connected data lines that carry voice signals among other things. The devices on which we make phone calls may or may not look like phones. Internally, they will be more like computers (unless they are computers, plain and simple). Cellphones will be essentially the same. Once phone calls run over the Internet, they’ll work more like existing Internet services, like e-mail.

Here are some descriptions of specifically what I have in mind.

One aspect I predict is that phones (or phone lines) will not have specific phone numbers permanently assigned to them, any more than computers have specific e-mail addresses assigned to them today. When you get to a phone, you will log into it to let the network know where you can be reached. So how would a call get to you? A few possibilities come to mind.

The folks responsible for Java have invented something they call a Java ring, which is pretty much what it sounds like. A ring that you wear on your finger, which contains a small processor, and which could be used in place of numerous keys, ID cards, etc. I love this idea, and envision that future phone-like devices will let you log into them by waving your ring over them, or touching a pad, or something like that. When the phone interfaces with the ring, the phone gets information about you from the ring, and configures itself to answer calls intended for you.

To understand how this might work in more detail, it helps to understand a little of how existing Internet services work. Take domain name servers, for starters. Every machine that is permanently hooked into the Internet has a long dotted-decimal number called an IP number (like “192.102.1.226”, for example) and a name (like “sluggo.cartoons.org”). Domain name servers maintain long tables of the associations between the two. When you type in a website’s address, your web browser first asks a name server “what is the IP number for this name” gets a response, and then uses the IP number to connect to the web server. These tables are updated once a day.

The nice thing about this is that it is dynamic: the domain name can move around to different machines on the network. It isn’t hard to imagine something like this with phones–you would have a permanent “virtual” number (or better yet, name, perhaps the same as your e-mail address), and the network would keep track of what physical phone-like device was currently hosting that phone number. But only updating once a day is much too slow for a phone system, since people are constantly moving around–tables would need to be updated every few seconds, and that would be impractical too, since the tables would be really big.

A more productive example might be the way e-mail works. When you send out a piece of e-mail, your e-mail software connects to a server called an SMTP server. It is the SMTP server’s mission in life to take your outgoing e-mail, find where it is going, and send it there. It does not go directly to the recipient’s e-mail software, though, it goes to another server called a POP server, which acts as a holding-pen for e-mail until the recipient gets around to checking for his e-mail. You can send e-mail via any SMTP server in the world, as long as it is willing to talk to you, and you can pick up your e-mail from any POP server in the world, as long as you have an e-mail account on it and know your password (SMTP is not password-protected for some reason, which has benefitted spammers greatly. Many ISPs restrict the machines that their SMTP servers will talk to, as a way of blocking outgoing spam). Another way of putting it is that you can access your regular POP server from anywhere in the world. This is great, because you can travel without changing your e-mail address. You just need to be able to get a connection to the Internet.

How exactly would that work? That’s where the different possibilities present themselves.

One scenario would be sort of like the name-server arrangement–master tables of people and the phones they are at, which are used whenever someone tries to call you. The drawbacks to this scheme have already been covered.

Another option would be to mimic the mailserver scheme. You would have a (semi) permanent “call server” that would be analogous to a POP server; when you logged into a phone, that phone would simply learn where your call server was, and notify the call server where you were. Calls would always pass first to your call server, and then on to you. This doesn’t require master tables of phone numbers to be updated all the time, but it is inefficient to force the voice signals to be routed through a call server that may be far away.

This suggests a hybrid approach. When you log into a phone, it notifies a call server of your current location. From that point on, the call server will receive incoming calls, but notify the calling phone “here’s where he is really at, you can make a direct connection to him now.” This only requires a one-time detour to the call server, so it is probably most efficient. (In fact, this is a lot like the name server system–once your web server learns a certain machine’s IP number, it doesn’t continue to pester the name server for it.)

While not strictly necessary, it might also be handy for your call server to receive a log of your outgoing calls (technically, your call server would not need to be involved in any of your outgoing calls). This would be handy for reconciling your call log with your phone bill, although there might not be any such thing as a phone bill under this system–everythings just Internet data, right?

Billing under this scheme becomes problematic. Like I said, calls are just packets of Internet data, so you can’t really bill by call duration or distance. However, you can bill by the amount of data the call consumed, and you can also multiply that by the priority with which it was delivered. Right now the Internet cannot prioritize the types of information it carries, but it will be able to before long. Live voice conversations will require a very high priority, since we cannot tolerate long equipment-induced delays in conversations (if you’ve ever had an international call that was routed by satellite, you have an idea of how irritating this can get). It is possible to squeeze down the amount of information that a phone conversation requires quite a bit, so people should be able to trade off voice quality for bandwidth (and money) savings.

Figuring out the data volume and packet priority for the call is just the first step in computing the price. Perhaps if your call server and the phone you are calling from are operated by the same network, the price will be lower than otherwise. If the other party is on the same network as your current phone and/or your call server, there might be a price reduction for that too. It gives a new perspective on the concept of a “local call”, doesn’t it. Network proximity becomes more important than geographic proximity.

Personal responsibility and the FDA

A couple interesting medicine-related stories on the news this evening.

One concerned hearings in Congress about FDA regulation of experimental treatments for grave diseases, like cancer. The gist of it was that people wanted to rein in the FDA, so that more experimental drugs would be available.

Only a couple days before, the notorious diet treatment fen-phen (or is that phen-fen?) was withdrawn from the market, and the general feeling was that this had not been regulated strictly enough.

Am I the only person who sees a contradiction here?

How do we fund medical research? How should we?

A news story today concerned prostate cancer, and especially, the amount of federal funding that goes to prostate cancer research. Evidently, prostate cancer gets about $80 million in research funding each year, and kills about 41,000 men. Breast cancer gets $550 million in annual funding, and kills about 45,000. AIDS gets $1.6 billion in funding, and kills about 51,000.

The point was made in this report that breast cancer research is better funded because women have organized and lobbied to get that funding. And of course AIDS has been the focus of intensive organizing and lobbying.

Now, all of these clearly merit research. But it is insane to allocate research dollars based on the group that makes the most noise. This started me thinking “there’s got to be a better way.”

So here’s my idea. First, we assign an economic value to one year of an average person’s life. Statisticians have some number that they use. I’m not sure what that number is. Let’s use $40,000, because it is a nice, round number. I readily admit that this is a crass way of looking at things, but it leads to a model that has a lot of explanatory power, so please hold your nose and continue.

Next, figure the average age of the victims, then substract that from the average lifespan. Multiply that by the number of victims each year, and then multiply that by $40,000. That is the economic potential lost to the disease each year.

For example, using prostate cancer for the moment, let’s say as a guesstimate that the average age at which men die of it is 65, and the average male lifespan is 75. On average, each victim has lost ten years. This yields the following:

10 years x $40,000/person/year x 41,000 people

= $16.4 billion in lost economic potential

Now figure this for all diseases, and you have an index of awfulness, or to look at it another way, a way of determining how much research money various diseases should get. This is based on something objective, not lobbying clout. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting we spend $16.4 billion per year on prostate cancer research; all I am saying is that given a certain reserve of money available for medical research is, this gives us a way to divide it up equitably. Although it is somewhat outside the scope of this topic, it could also be used to help indicate whether that pool is too big or too small.

So far so good. We can take this approach much further, though. According to this logic, AIDS would obviously get more money than prostate cancer or breast cancer, because it kills more people, and they tend to die at a younger age. But there’s another factor: AIDS is communicable. The fact that one AIDS carrier can pass the disease on to any number of other people needs to be accounted for. Again, we can estimate the average number of people that will catch HIV from one carrier, when those cases will mature into AIDS, the average lifespan for someone with AIDS, and work all these into the calculations. Admittedly, there is a lot of room for arguing over what those numbers might be, but if the basic premise is accepted, at least we are arguing over relatively objective data.

Another way to extend this is to apply it to diseases that don’t kill people. For example, if salmonella poisoning knocks 2,000 people out of commission each year, for an average of one week each, that is

1/52nd of a year x $40,000/person/year x 2,000 people

= $1,538,461 in lost economic potential

Of course, it costs a certain amount of money to treat each of those people. The way economic growth is currently measured, that is actually considered a good thing. This is kind of crazy, and for our purposes, let’s just pretend that spending money to cure a disease is less desirable than spending less money preventing it. Suppose that it costs $300 per case to treat salmonella poisoning. That’s 2,000 people x $300 per person, or $600,000. So add that to the lost economic potential. So we can extend this general approach to account for the relative cost of treating diseases (in fact, this will work with fatal diseases as well as minor ones). We could say that if we could prevent all those salmonella outbreaks for less than 2.1 million dollars, it would be worth it.

To be sure, I have oversimplified the matter here. There would no doubt be numerous variables involved in any such calculations. But the general approach is sound. Oregon uses a similar rational scheme for rationing medicare.