The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Rants and Raves' Category

At SIFF, The Movies Watch You!

Posted by Deliverator on 6th June 2013

I’ve been attending the Seattle International Film Festival for close to a decade. Recently, an issue which affects all festival attendees came to light and I feel an obligation to document it here, as SIFF has said little publicly on the matter.

This year, SIFF has included a uniquely identifying barcode on all passes and tickets and mandated that these barcodes must be scanned for entry. When asked about the barcodes and their purpose at press screenings prior to the start of the festival, members were told that the barcodes were for headcount and validation purposes only and that no data was being collected. It quickly became apparent through the My SIFF feature on the SIFF website that this was not the case. A permanent record of the screening attendance of every pass-holder was being created and stored. A heated debated quickly emerged on the passholder mailing list, called Fool Serious. Some passholders liked the idea of being able to track what films they had seen, but many expressed grave concerns about their movie attendance being tracked and to ill defined purpose. I found the situation extremely troubling, both due to the denials that this was taking place, but also due to the lack of any statement of how this data was being stored and used both directly by SIFF and potentially by third parties. At the time, SIFF had NO stated privacy policy, which is exceptional for an organization of its size in this era.

There was no notice that data collection would be taking place as a condition of entry at the time I purchased my pass or at the time the pass was issued to me and the terms printed on the pass itself don’t seem to require it as a condition of entry. I made multiple attempts to engage SIFF leadership, both via email and also via SIFF board members. I sent no fewer than 4 emails to a half dozen top SIFF employees asking that my pass be refunded or that I be allowed entry without being tracked, as I considered the tracking to be a term of execution added after purchase and issuance of the pass. I was told by sources within SIFF that the issue had been brought before directors (specifically named to me) and they had dismissed the issue rather cavalierly and hoped it would go away. SIFF finally responded (minimally, in a way that said next to nothing) almost two weeks after the beginning of the furor and made claims to have not heard of the issue prior to then, which I believe to be untrue.

I was finally contacted by SIFF’s managing director Mary Bacarella and Carl Spence and after a half hour phone conversation was offered to exchange my pass for 50 vouchers that I was assured would be issued anonymously. At no time was I offered the refund I had requested or entry without scanning. I feel I was forced into giving up the significant benefits of a pass including attendance at press screening, priority entry and seating and unlimited attendance, but didn’t feel they were willing to offer more. When I attempted to “cash in” my anonymous vouchers, I was asked repeatedly for my name and had to spend close to 10 minutes explaining that I didn’t want to provide my name. I asked why they needed my name and was told it was only to notify me of venue changes and the like. When I asked if the data was being used for any other purpose, I was told no. I repeated that I wanted to exchange them anonymously and had been given permission to do so by SIFF’s directors and the volunteer finally relented after I handed him Mary Bacarella’s business card and told him to take it up with her.

I’m willing to share many types of data. I don’t really care that my grocery store knows what sort of peanut butter I like. I care a great deal however about having my viewing habits, web browsing habits, reading habits, etc. logged in a uniquely identifying way. Unlike inconsequential data such as peanut butter preferences, what we listen to, read and watch tells people a great deal about who we are as individuals. Such data can also be misconstrued in a variety of ways that have real and unanticipated consequences. While many young people today are pretty blithe about what and with whom they share their information, I’ve seen the repercussions of over-sharing, identity theft, etc. first hand as part of my work and as such, try to maintain a high degree of separation between my public and private lives. I can imagine a lot of ways in which information such as this could be used in ways I would not approve, but it is the unanticipated ramifications that I find scariest.

SIFF finally posted a privacy policy to its website, and I find the terms and conditions layed out in it to be deeply suspect. SIFF does little to draw attention to this document and has made no public press statement on the matter. One provision in the privacy policy allows for members to request that their tracking data be deleted. I made such a request and shortly thereafter found that my SIFF account AND MEMBERSHIP had been outright deleted. When I’ve presented my membership card (which has a clear “valid until” date printed on it) at SIFF venues, I’ve been told they can find no record of my membership and have been further denied the benefits of the membership for which I paid. This whole situation has increasingly grown to resemble a play by either Kafka or Heller and I find this situation deeply ironic given that this year’s festival contains a film called “Terms & Conditions.”

Attendees should be told upfront in a forthright way by SIFF that they are being tracked and not have that data hidden in 6 pt type. They should be given the chance to opt-out in a meaningful and non-punitive way. SIFF has thus far failed utterly to do so. I hope that SIFF will reconsider their position and work with the people who have raised objections to develop a policy that better addresses the concerns raised by many of their most supportive members.

Posted in General, Movies, Rants and Raves | 2 Comments »

Social media integration for long winded posts.

Posted by Deliverator on 18th November 2012

I’ve been forsaking the WordPress blog here for quite some time. Most of my ruminations seem to be too short for me to be bothered with writing a blog entry, so I’ve largely shifted to using my Twitter account. At the same time, I’m also finding Twitter’s 140 character limit a bit too limiting. I am often writing 3 or 4 back to back tweets on a subject, which I am sure does not endear me to followers uninterested in said subject.

There do exist 3rd party services like TwitLonger that work around Twitter’s forced brevity problem/feature, but I like to keep my data in-house to avoid many of the snafus that are part and parcel of using cloud services. Having lost or lost control of data important to me in the past, I don’t like trusting my content/making myself dependent on companies whose operational procedures are opaque to me and whose terms of service, business model, etc. might change with the blowing of the wind. It is one of the chief reasons I’ve yet to join Facebook, Google+, etc.

I am going to start testing various plugins for WordPress that allow me to automatically cross-post to Twitter as well as archive my tweets here in case Twitter’s business model becomes too onerous (the promoted tweets are already getting obnoxious).

Posted in Blogging, General, Mobile Blogging, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

The perpetually sucky state of non-destructive book scanning

Posted by Deliverator on 7th February 2012

Every few years I find myself in the unenviable position of unavoidably needing to non-destructively scan a book. Every few years I pray that someone has come up with an affordable, reasonably quick way of doing this that produces good quality results. Every few years I burn an evening researching the state of the field. Every few years I come away disappointed. Here are my observations from this go around:

Hardware:

Sheet Feeders – If you can afford to destroy the book, you can cut off the binding with a fine toothed band-saw or other power tool of your choice and feed the pages through a sheet-feeder style scanner. Sheet feeders like the popular Fujitsu ScanSnap series can scan both sides of each pages at something like 20 pages per minute at 600ish DPI. This is mighty impressive as it cuts the actual scanning time for a book down to something like a half hour. Unfortunately, when I find myself in the position of needing to scan a book, it is usually some rare tome it took me 2 years and $300 to find on AbeBooks. For my purposes, solutions requiring a band-saw need not apply. Also, many of the better scanners cost $400+, which is pushing what I would consider affordable.

Commercial Copy Stands range from simple single overhead camera rigs to more complex dual camera rigs with adjustable cradles to support the book without damaging it, re-positionable lighting, non-reflective glass to hold the pages flat, automatic page flippers, etc. Commercial, off-the-shelf solutions from companies like Atiz can run $14k+ without even factoring in the cost of cameras (typically high end Canon DSLRs). Great, if you are a university library spending grant money, sucky if you are a book nerd on a budget.

DIY Copy Stands – A substantial percentage of the functionality, speed and quality of these rigs can be replicated for under $1000 by building your own dual camera copy stand following one of the several increasingly standardized designs from the DIY Book Scanner project. This is still more time and money than I want to spend and probably more space than I want to waste for a device I would only very seldom use. When a full, well documented/supported, single evening kit is available for under $300 plus the cost of cameras, I will probably be interested. The BookLiberator looked to commercially produce kits that would meet all my requirements, but efforts to produce the units fell apart after Ion Audio announced its similar sub-$200 BookSaver product at CES 2011. Ion has since VERY quietly pulled the plug on the BookSaver without ever selling any, but their initial product announcement was enough to send most small, independent efforts to produce a similar device scurrying for someplace small and dark.

Flatbed scanners are an inexpensive, mature, widely used technology which suck at scanning books in a wide variety of ways. First, most flatbeds tend to be optimized for high quality scans of things like photos, not for speed. Secondly, most scanners have a significant bezel around the scanning platen, meaning the only way to scan a book is to significantly bend/distort the spin in order to get the pages to lie flat against the glass. Even mashed against the glass, you usually get significant page distortion near the binding resulting in curving text and uneven illumination.

Several years ago I purchased a Plustek OpticBook 3600 plus, a flatbed scanner specially optimized for scanning books. The OpticBook has a very thin bezel along one edge of the platen which lets you open a book to a 90 degree angle and have one page flat against the glass while the other hangs freely over the side. This lets you produce an undistorted scan of a page without significantly bending the spine. The “DigiBook” software included with the scanner has an automatic page rotation feature, so that every other page gets rotated 180 degrees. This lets you scan a page, flip the book over to scan the opposite page and have everything automatically rotated the right way. There are giant over-sized buttons on the scanner that let you trigger a scan in B&W, greyscale or color. The actual scan takes 5-8 seconds, as the scanner is optimized for speed, rather than highest possible DPI.

The OpticBook concept is very nice in theory, but the implementation leaves something to be desired. Even with the scanner bezel as thin as it is, the scanning element doesn’t get close enough to the binding to scan most paperbacks. It works fine for hard covers like textbooks, where the content doesn’t start as close to the binding. The software is also very crash prone and the work-flow somewhat less than ideal, with the operator having to hit a “transfer” button in the software after each page to write the image out to disk, despite the over-sized buttons on the scanner itself. Anything that adds 5-10 extra seconds to the work-flow gets multiplied tremendously over a 500+ page book. These scanners are also very poorly sealed, with significant dust accumulating on the interior of the glass plate with no easy way to clean it short of disassembly. There doesn’t appear to be a way to adjust the lamp brightness, so you tend to get a bit of bleed through from text on the other side of pages you are scanning. Many users also complain of short bulb life, although my unit is still functional. From reviews I’ve read, I am not convinced that Plustek has learned much from their mistakes in successive models in this series.

Handheld Scanners – I’ve never been impressed with the quality of the results from hand-held “wand” scanners. I haven’t personally checked out any of these devices in years, as I’ve largely consigned the whole category into Sharper Image / SkyMall crap-gadget territory. If someone wants to tell me that X device can quickly and accurately scan a paperback, I may look into these in the future.

Software:

Post Processing – While hardware has seen little improvement since my last review, there have been some improvements on the software side of things. The DIY Book Scanner project has yielded a plethora of scripts, tools, etc. for packaging up scans into various digital book formats. Of these, I have found a tool called Scan Tailor to be the most polished, easy to install, and to use. Scan Tailor will take a directory filled with scanned images and will straighten, deskew, remove background and bleed through (to give you black text on a pure white background), set a constant page size/margin, etc. Scan Tailor will work almost completely auto-magically through each step of the process and if it does make a mistake, it is easy for the user to intervene and apply a manual correction. Scan Tailor cut my workflow from previous years of 6-8 programs and scripts (each with fussy dependencies on libraries and frameworks) down to 3. I still do some post processing of scans in irfanView and Scan Tailor doesn’t do the final bundling of images into PDFs, DJVU, etc. or do OCR, but other than that it is pretty much a one stop shop for post scan image processing.

Binding – Once you have a directory full of post processed images, what are you going to do with them? I am still using Presto Pagemanager 7.10 for assembling my post processed TIFF images into PDFs. It isn’t ideal in many ways, but has the virtue of not costing me anything more and working consistently, if in somewhat of a hurky-jerky liable to temporarily freeze Explorer kinda way. I played around with a half dozen PDF/DJVU binder scripts/programs recommended by the book scanning forums and basically concluded that the free options all royally sucked in one way or another, not the least of which is requiring me to install 5 different programming frameworks just to try them out. Scan Tailor is a lovely, consistent, unified application that is easy to install and use. The DIY Book Scanner community could really use something as well done for the binding stage of the process. As it is, one is left to fend with a gobbledygook of unmanageable python scripts, ruby scripts, feeding various Unix command line utilities and throwing an undocumented fit anytime it finds something not to its liking. The situation is marginally improved if you want to output DjVu files rather than PDFs, but only marginally.

OCR – So, you want to turn those post processed scans into a re-flowable format like .epub for easy reading on your ebook reader device? You are kidding me, right? OCR is one of those things that has been around since the dawn of scanning and despite a lot of protestations seems to have changed little. If you asked me about the state of OCR 5 or 10 years ago I would have told you there is Omnipage & Abbyy Fine Reader & everything else. Today, that still seems to be the state of the industry. I tried a half dozen of the everything else variety including OpenOCR (Cuneiform), VietOCR and TiffDjvuOCR. Most of the free solutions seem to use Tesseract, an open source OCR engine from Google. Across 3 books with straightforward, single column formatting and commonly used fonts, I found the free OCR packages basically good enough to create a rough keyword index for searching books, but nothing near the accuracy to create a readable, reflowable ebook without significant time spent correcting errors. I concluded I might actually be able to retype a book faster and more accurately than if I tried to correct all the strange and easily unspotted errors committed by OCR. I would be curious to try the commercial packages at some point, as a lot of book scanners seem to swear by recent versions of Abbyy Fine Reader, but I’m not really in the mood to spend $150+ to fart around with either of the commercial offerings.

Posted in Books, General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

Ipad 2 – Easy Replacement

Posted by Deliverator on 4th June 2011

I’ve had a couple hardware problems with my Ipad 2 (which I purchased on the first day of availability). The first was that the battery life was never as good as my Ipad 1. With my Ipad 1, I could go almost a week without charging, so long as I was only using it for ebooks and light web browsing. With my Ipad 2, I found myself putting it on the charger every couple days. The other issue I had was my Ipad 2 had a leaky back-light. When reading ebooks on a black background, this was really apparent and annoying. When used for anything else, pretty much unnoticeable. However, I read a lot of books. Still, not quite enough of an issue for me to get up and do something about it.

Last week however, the battery situation worsened considerably. While reading a book (with no apps backgrounded), my Ipad 2 went from 80 someodd percent to 10% warning level in like and hour and a half. I put it on the charger and went to bed. In the morning, I found my Ipad 2 not only hadn’t charged, but was dead as a rock. When put on the charger, I could get an apple logo to show up and a “hook up to itunes” restore message, but it would turn off and not power on under battery as soon as it was unplugged.

I ended up driving down to the Apple Store in Bellevue Square. The place was a complete zoo, but Apple seemed to have enough employees on hand to keep everything moving along. I proceeded to the back of the store where the very busy “Genius Bar” was located and I was intercepted before I could quite get to the counter by a guy asking me if I had an appointment. I said I didn’t and he pulled out his Ipad, asked me some basic questions about what was going on and created an appointment for me for 10 minutes later. In the meantime, I wandered the store looking at various accessories and doodads that I probably shouldn’t buy. A tech flagged me down, questioned me about what I was experiencing, plugged it into a testing device, verified the problem and hooked me up with a new, non-refurbished unit within another 15-20 minutes. I got home, plugged the replacement in, restored my most recent backup and had my replacement unit fully functional in hardly anytime at all. Granted, not everyone lives by an Apple Store, but I was very pleased by how quickly my problem was resolved. Oh, and the new unit did not have any back-light issues.

This Ipad 2 replacement process is a huge contrast to the long, uncertain chain of events that one must go through if a PC breaks down. Especially troubling is how manual (and thus difficult for a casual end user) the process is of migrating one’s programs, settings and data from one PC to another. The PC world has had decades to get this right and still gets it profoundly wrong. Quite simply, Apple with their Ipads and Iphones currently offers the easiest and most seamless old profile -> new device migration in the computing world.

Posted in iOS, Operating Systems, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

My take on Ipad 2

Posted by Deliverator on 2nd March 2011

I own an original model Ipad and use it daily. Today, Apple announced Ipad 2. Here are my thoughts on it and whether it is enough for me to upgrade:

Pluses:

-Ipad 2 is thinner and a little lighter than the original, while retaining the same general width x height and screen size of the original. The slight reduction in weight will be nice for those who use it as an book reader, as arm fatigue was a definite factor with the original.

-Ipad 2 has dual cameras. I’ve never seen video conferencing as much of a killer app, but I know some people that were really dieing for this with the Ipad 1.

-Ipad 2 has a new, faster dual core processor with what is being described as “9x” faster graphics. I am all for increased performance, but it is up in the air whether many app makers will write applications that make use of the faster subsystems for risk of alienating the large Ipad 1 user base.

-Magnetic screen cover system is a big plus in my view, as it lets you protect the Ipad’s screen when putting it in a bag or (in my case) large pocket, while adding little to the dimensions of the unit. Most cases for the Ipad 1 greatly increased the unit’s apparent bulk.

-3G models available for Verizon and not just AT&T.

-Has some extra motion sensing capability (3 axis gyro) compared to Ipad 1, which should be nice for gaming.

-One of the big pluses in my view is the new HDMI video output adapter, which works for ALL applications. This is a big change from Ipad 1 where applications had to be specially coded AND approved for TV output use. Think Hulu+, games, etc.

-Pricing is being kept competitive or slightly lower than similar Android devices

Negatives:

-No built in SD slot for downloading photos. This should have been do-able even with the thinner bezel of Ipad 2. The lack of a SD slot was a consistent minus cited by many Ipad 1 users/reviewers. I hate that Apple tries to make their devices aesthetically clutter free at the expense of needing to buy and carry a lot of easily lost adapters & dongles.

-No USB port. Nuff said. Wasn’t a big issue with me, but I know a lot of people wanted it.

-The Ipad 2 apparently still has only 256 MB of ram. I’ve bumped up against this consistently in my everyday use of the Ipad 1, which has the same amount, especially when doing tabbed browsing.

-Still requires an external power brick for charging versus being able to charge via USB on most computers, even if it takes significantly longer.

-Still no syncing over WiFi.

Externalities:

-Apple is beginning to enforce much harsher terms on 3rd parties wishing to supply content to Ipad users. They are essentially requiring any content being provided to users to also be available for purchase through their own content stores at the same price, so that they can get a (sizeable) cut of the pie. This will apparently apply even when the purchase is made “off site” and not as an in-app purchase. This will effectively make it impossible / not cost effective for competitors like Kindle, Nook and Sony to offer eBooks to Ipad users and will likely broadly apply to other types of content as well. I find this move to be incredibly anti-competitive and is a HUGE minus for me. One of the things which has made Ipad such a compelling part of my daily life is its ability to consume media from a variety of sources, whether that is news, books, music, podcasts or video. By constraining my choices to what Apple itself offers, they have greatly limited the appeal of the whole platform to me. If it wasn’t for this single thing, I would probably buy an Ipad 2. As is, if these changes take effect, I may sell my existing Ipad 1 in favor of an Android alternative.

Posted in General, iOS, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Some thoughts on Western Digital My Book Essential 3TB USB 3.0 External Hard Drive

Posted by Deliverator on 25th February 2011

I recently found myself spending so much time juggling how I was storing my data in order to get it to fit on a combination of a 2 TB and a 1.5 TB external hard drive, that I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit getting a 3 TB external drive for backup. I decided against getting a 3 TB drive when they first came out, in part due to AnandTech’s unfavorable review of the only 3 TB drive on the market at the time, Seagate’s GoFlex Desk 3TB. The big turn offs for me were the poorly designed enclosure resulting in very high temperatures, high $/GB ratio and a host of compatibility issues. Since that time, both Western Digital and Hitachi have gotten in on the game as well with 3 TB offerings of their own. I opted for the My Book Essential 3TB, since it seemed to have the best designed enclosure of the bunch, offered the cheapest $/GB ratio of any of the 3 TB drives on the market at $165 via Newegg and gave me a chance to try out my USB 3.0 port on my Asus P6X58D motherboard.

Installation of this drive was decidedly NOT a breeze. I ended up having to update my motherboard’s bios, USB 3.0 controller sub-firmware and USB 3.0 drivers  just to get the drive to be recognized and then had to install and then update Western Digital’s included Smartware software in order to update the drive’s firmware in order to get it working properly. I wouldn’t recommend this to clients as a “just plug it in to gain 3 TB of storage” device, but once I got it working it has behaved like any other external hard disk drive and has stayed comfortably cool via strictly passive ventilation and worked reliably through multi Terabyte initial data copying and subsequent daily backups.

Western Digital doesn’t exactly go out of their way to advertise it, but this drive spins at something below 6000 RPM (hence the assorted eco-branding). Even with the fast USB 3.0 interface, this drive performs considerably below any 1.5 or 2 TB drive I’ve owned, even with those drives being in USB 2.0 enclosures. This drive is decidedly for bulk data storage purposes only.

One other thing Western Digital doesn’t advertise is that the drive used in the enclosure is the same WD30EZRS series drive which they sell for ~$35 MORE as a bare OEM drive sans enclosure. Popping the drive out of its enclosure is relatively straightforward, although you are likely to pop a couple plastic clips in the process, voiding your warranty. Still, if you are looking for a 3TB internal drive on the cheap and don’t mind potentially voiding your warranty coverage, this is about as cheap as you can get one.

I ended up picking up a second unit to use as an internal drive. I kept it in its enclosure long enough to update it to the most recent drive firmware and then popped it open. I am keeping the enclosure in case I ever need to apply another firmware update. It has functioned like any other non-boot drive in my system, save for that the performance characteristics are such that if you have more than a few apps contending for I/O attention from the drive, throughput drops enough that HD video streams start breaking up. This can be problematic if you are trying to watch a movie and a backup job starts in the background, for instance. To reiterate, this drive whether used externally or internally should be used for bulk data storage only.

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Reviews, Storage, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

My take on Light Peak/Thunderbolt

Posted by Deliverator on 25th February 2011

With this week’s refresh of Apple’s Macbook Pro line of computers, consumers are going to get their first sampling of Intel’s Light Peak technology under the moniker “Thunderbolt.” Apple is no stranger to introducing new external interfaces, having premiered and acted as the die-hard champion of Firewire and Displayport. Both of these technologies, though offering technical advantages over other interfaces at their time of introduction, haven’t really become very mainstream and have remained pricier than alternatives. With USB 3.0 having beaten Thunderbolt to market by almost a year, I know a lot of techies have taken a brief look at Thunderbolt and dismissed it as yet another connector to try and fit on a motherboard bezel. I’ve looked at Thunderbolt in some depth and the deeper I’ve dug, the more I am interested. If widely adopted, I think it may widely reshape the collection of peripherals and mess of wires that have come to represent a “Desktop” level computing environment.

The salient points:

-Thunderbolt offers significantly more bandwidth than USB 3.0 with dual fully bi-directional 10 Gbps. That is up to 20 Gbps in both directions. USB 3.0 after overhead offers around 3.2 Gbps This greatly influences the classes of peripherals that could be run over a link. Think externalizing GPU’s vs external hard drives.

-Thunderbolt provides significantly more power to external devices than USB 3.0. USB 3.0 gives you a little under 5 watts to play with, which, while an improvement over USB 2.0’s ~2.5 watt, is less than half of Thunderbolt’s 10 watts. 10 watts is enough to power most full size desktop 3.5″ hard drives in external enclosures. It is enough to drive a monitor reasonably bright 20″ LCD monitor. With a little bit of power conserving design, it may be possible to do away with the need for power adapters for most present, common, PC peripherals except laser printers.

-Thunderbolt lets your daisy chain up to 7 devices. All the devices chained together have to share the Thunderbolt port’s overall bandwidth and power allotments, but both are fairly ample. The daisy chaining ability, combined with more directly powered peripherals, means a lot fewer cable will be needed to connect all your peripherals to your CPU unit and a lot of those cable runs will be shorter. In brief, way less desktop mess / tangle of cables.

-Thunderbolt tunnels the PCI Express protocol as well as Display port. Since tons of interface chips are designed to plug into PCI Express buses already, this will make it relatively trivial for 3rd party device manufacturers to take existing designs for internal peripherals and create “external peripheral” versions of the same. This, combined with much friendly licensing to implement compatible implementations and support of the underlying technology via Intel could make Thunderbolt a rapid starter, whereas some of the “inside baseball” aspects of Firewire lead to its slow adoption and lack of mainstream support compared USB 2.0.

Am I going to jump in headfirst and order a Macbook Pro today? No, but if Apple doesn’t try to play this one too close to its chest (and smother the baby in the process), Thunderbolt has the potential to truly become the “universal” bus that USB has long claimed to be.

 

Posted in General, Mac, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Some thoughts on the forthcoming 520 bridge toll system

Posted by Deliverator on 16th February 2011

While I am normally in favor of tolls and other systems of taxation that generate revenues to pay for infrastructure where it is to be used and by those who use it, our state has a poor history of continuing to collect tolls after the cost of construction has been paid, even in cases where the original legislation authorizing the construction and tolls had specific sunset clauses. Government has a tendency to be very reluctant to give up a revenue stream once it has been established, even when such taxation is no longer (or never was) justifiable under any reasonable, expressible philosophy of taxation. With the recent, massive budget shortfall, we have seen seen increasingly desperate attempts by the government to stick their fingers in other people’s pies, with often little or no justification for why they are entitled to a slice in the first place.

It should be noted that the legislation establishing the toll does not have a sunset provision requiring the toll to be removed after the bridge is paid for, or be scaled back to maintenance levels after payment of the bonds are completed. It merely requires that “Revenue from tolling the bridge will only be used as authorized by the Legislature for bond payments, operations and maintenance within the SR 520 corridor.” This means that the toll revenue may be used to pay for anything in the 520 corridor, potentially freeing up funds to pay for budget shortfalls elsewhere. It also appears that tolls can be used to fund mass transit and not simply highway purposes, something some toll payers may disagree with strongly. Is there even a requirement to pay off the 30 YEAR bonds as quick as toll revenues allow? The original I-90 floating bridge’s tolls paid off its cost of construction in 9 years, decades ahead of projections. The current 520 bridge’s tolls were ended in 16 years. I have to wonder after all the accounting jiggery-pokery takes place, how much and for how long 520’s toll revenues will have been used to pay for highly controversial projects like Seattle’s Waterfront Tunnel?

I am also extremely opposed to electronic RFID or plate registration as the sole means of paying a toll. RFID systems have severe privacy implications that often go un-addressed or unacknowledged by implementers or are addressed dismissively. From WSDOT’s faq :

Will my privacy be protected?
Yes. Good To Go! electronic tolling Passes use radio frequency identity chips, which do not hold any personal information. For Pay By Mail, only photos of the vehicle are taken, not the driver or occupants. All personal data, including name, address and payment information, is kept confidential and privacy is protected by law. Under no circumstances is individual customer information disclosed for use by marketing firms.

This scant acknowledgment of the issues surrounding RFID systems answer falls into the dismissive category. There is essentially no anonymous way of paying this toll. You either have to register your plate and establish an account, or get an RFID badge/sticker and establish an account. Government entities have an even poorer reputation for keeping databases private (uh, Wikileaks anyone?) than commercial enterprise, who often at least have some financial/reputation impact rationale for keeping client data private and I am very loath to supply my billing information to a government agency. While they make assurances that the data stored in their databases will remain private, tolling data has been used in numerous criminal and civil cases.

Unless you deliberately shield the RFID tag in other areas, there is nothing to prevent the tag from being read at other locations by the state or by other individuals and most people are frankly not going to bother. There are countless examples of how tags can be abused (up to and including cloning of someone else’s card) by private individuals. For instance, an acquaintance of mine, Eric Butler, recently showed how a commonly available cell phone could be used to remotely read someone’s ORCA transit card and display their recent whereabouts.

WA state is one of only a few that has a law against skimming someone’s RFID data without their knowledge, but if the rewards of doing so are large enough and it can be done anonymously, with little chance of being caught, then I am doubtful that this law will have a deterrent effect.

Turning 520 into a toll bridge will undoubtedly shift a lot of traffic onto the region’s other, already crowded arterials. The particular implementation details of this toll system just give me one more reason not to use 520 and not to go into Seattle for non-essential needs.

Update: It does appear you can set up a quasi-anonymous “Unregistered Pass Account” account without deliberately disclosing identifying information by showing up in person at one of the customer service centers and paying for a pass in cash. Given that they already have equipment in place to take pictures of license plates for plate based billing, they have the technical ability to correlate a plate with an unregistered pass, effectively de-anonymizing it. This is a marginally better situation, as the government/company hired to run the system wouldn’t have your direct billing details, but you would still be carrying around an RFID tag that is chirping for all to hear/clone/whatever. They also warn that if the pass isn’t read correctly, one would be sent an inflated/surcharge bill by mail. In such a situation, you couldn’t really protest without revealing your identity.

A more desirable setup would be the ability to set up a cash only account for plate based billing. In such a situation, one wouldn’t have to carry around a chirping RFID tag and wouldn’t be disclosing more information than the state already has through a vehicle’s registration. This doesn’t appear to be possible, currently, and they are charging a $.25 extra surcharge per toll for plate based billing. How much is your privacy worth to you? One has to wonder at the rationale for this disincentive. This may be an indication that their plate image capture system functions poorly in some situations, such as gridlock traffic, when an overhead mounted camera may not have a clear shot of the plate. I wonder whether this will cause scofflaws to deliberately tailgate large trucks and the like?

Posted in Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Changes Apple needs to make to the Ipad if they want my $500+

Posted by Deliverator on 7th April 2010

Much has been written about the Apple Ipad and its pros and cons. I got a chance to play with one for a while today and I found it quite compelling in a lot of ways. I believe it to be  an early representative of a fundamentally new class of computing devices. I also don’t think that the present device does enough or enough better to justify purchasing one for the vast majority of current computer users. That said, I am sure Apple will sell a ton of them. Here is what they would need to do to sell one to ME:

-For me, the Ipad at present is an extremely niche product. This isn’t a bad thing. I own a LOT of niche products and tend to use the device that is most appropriate to the task WHILE AT HOME. Out and about, I am limited in what I can or am willing to carry and I can’t see myself lugging this along when I have other devices like my Lenovo X300 which are more broadly suited to a wide range of purposes. At home, I can see myself using this as a media consumption “appliance” to read books, listen to music, etc. while chilling out on the couch in front of my projector. As a “couch computer,” one of the blatantly obvious uses for an Ipad would be as the ultimate universal remote control, yet the Ipad lacks the inexpensive infrared hardware necessary for such functionality.

-One of the most compelling uses that my dad and I both agreed upon was viewing photos. The Ipad, due to its beautiful, bright, wide angle screen and extremely fluid photo browser, makes the best digital photo frame ever. Unfortunately, the Ipad doesn’t have any kind of media slot and one has to transfer pictures to the device through Itunes. An SD slot is an absolute no-brainer in a device like this, but Apple probably wants to bilk people out of $200 extra for the 64 GB version rather than give consumers an inexpensive option for expansion. They do sell a “camera connection kit” but I sure as hell don’t need another external, easily lost dongle.

-Include a good quality 1-2 MP webcam for video calling use and Apple would not only get my dollars, but a huge potential market of people looking for something they could give to the elderly as a “grandma safe” limited use computer.

-I insist on user replaceable batteries in all my products. My experience with virtually all rechargeable batteries on devices I frequently use is that the batteries all exhibit severely diminished capacity within a few years. I view the Ipad as a computing “appliance” and when I buy an appliance I am willing to pay for quality, but it has to last more than just a couple of years. I would only be willing to plunk down $500 for a device like an Ipad if I could reasonably expect ~5 years of use from it.

-USB port for connection to external peripherals & HDMI for video/audio out. The proprietary dock connector is not an acceptable alternative to me.

-Good quality GPS chip.

-Multitasking. The technical arguments against multitasking on a device like this fall flat and the user experience arguments are intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

-Something closer to a real file-system and more options for getting files/content onto and off the device.

-An end to the walled garden mentality that is the Itunes/App store ecosystem. I am capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time and am an adult capable of making my own decisions on what constitutes appropriate content. I don’t like the degree of central control that Apple exerts over what you can do with a device that you have after all purchased and own. Ownership is a term that has pretty broad meaning to me. I believe that Apple is acting in an extremely anti-competitive fashion in their control of the app store approval processes and there are a great many Apple products that I would have bought if Apple didn’t constantly try to manage every aspect of my device usage / user experience. I just can’t stand  paying to be a captive consumer and so I don’t.

Do I think Apple will address many of these issues and gain my $500? No, not really, but someone is likely to build a tablet running Google Android that offers almost as good as a user experience as the Ipad, with a lot more versatility and at a fraction of the price. I wouldn’t count Microsoft out either. They have a long history with tablet style computers and with the forthcoming release of Windows Phone 7 have shown a willingness to dump the tired Windows WIMP user interface metaphor for something more appropriate to the way people would ideally interact with a tablet.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

A brief rant about ebook readers

Posted by Deliverator on 24th March 2010

I’ve been reading books electronically in one form or another since 1996 (on a USR Pilot 5000). Since then, I’ve owned ~8 devices on which I regularly read ebooks. Several of those devices have been dedicated, purpose built devices, ostensibly for reading ebooks and little else.

I currently do most of my electronic reading on a Sony PRS-505 with a Sony front light wedge/leather case accessory. I’ve been enacting a boycott on purchasing Sony products since the Sony Rootkit Debacle, but received the reader as a gift. Since receiving the Sony reader, Sony has released 3-4 new readers.

This year, it seems like hardly a day has passed when the tech news sites haven’t covered the release of a new reader product from some company or another. In some cases, this latest batch of e-ink readers represent 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation products. One would expect a pretty fine degree of design refinement from a 5th generation product, especially one devoted to such a singular task. Yet, virtually all the readers, announced or on the market today, fail to address 3 fundamental user experience issues. I seldom see these issues brought up to any great degree in product reviews, either. Yet, for me, these issues are key to enjoying an electronic reading experience:

  1. An ebook reader should be comfortable to hold in one’s hand (notice the singular there) for an extended period of time and without risk of slipping or dropping the device due to positional fatigue, accidental jarring, etc. Virtually all the readers on the market are thin, rectangular shaped devices and are often made of slick plastic or metal that provides for an actively slippery surface when combined with sweaty palms. Additionally, the above should apply in both horizontal and vertical orientations for both right and left handed individuals.
  2. Regardless of screen orientation, the next page/previous page buttons should lie under one’s thumbs. Simple turning of the page is by far the most frequently accessed function on any ebook reader. It should just be there without need to reach or place the reader in a stressful/uncomfortable position. The next page button in particular should be over-sized. A D-pad is not an acceptable substitute.
  3. This last is going to be somewhat controversial. The vast majority of day to day recreational reading (novels and the like) is done in the evening and at night, often times in less than ideal lighting conditions, especially for those who share their beds with a partner. Ebook readers need to incorporate some form of front or back lighting into their designs or offer well integrated official lighting accessories. This is a somewhat unpalatable task with the current crop of E-ink displays, where adding front lighting generally consists of placing an edge lit piece of clear plastic in front of the display. Adding another layer in front of the display diminishes the clarity and contrast of the display. And the high contrast, paper-like nature of E-ink displays are a good part of the reason that ebook readers use this sort of display in the first place instead of LCD, OLED and other display technologies.

The only reader I’ve owned which has come close to satisfying these requirement was the Nuvomedia Rocket eBook.

Nuvomedia Rocket eBook

This was one of the first electronic book readers sold and yet in many fundamental ways it was more enjoyable to use than devices made over a decade later in a far more mature & technologically advanced marketplace. It had an ergonomic, curvy wedge shape that was easy to cradle in the palm of one’s hand. Later versions of the device included a rubberized backside to make it even easier to grasp. The page up/down buttons were over-sized and comfortable to actuate without moving one’s hands in the portrait orientation for both right and left handed users and weren’t too bad in the horizontal orientation, either. The screen resolution doesn’t really compare to modern readers, but it was a high contrast B&W LCD and had decent back-lighting for night reading. Astoundingly, 10+ years later, a variant of this original device is still being sold as the eBookwise 1150 for ~$100. My personal experience with the later revisions of the Rocket eBook (post Gemstart acquisition) is that they used much lower quality displays, but I would be interested in opinions from more recent users.

In conclusion, I would really like for Sony/Amazon/B&N or SOMEBODY to make a comfortable to use ebook reader.

Posted in Books, General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves | No Comments »