Critical Section

Archive: April 25, 2003

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Friday,  04/25/03  08:29 AM

Well, after about a week of using SharpReader, I'm giving it up.  It is a fine application, I didn't have any problems with it.  I just don't like viewing websites this way - it is like reading Reader's Digest, or something.  Plus, it creates pressure for me to read "everything".  I don't want to read everything, I just want to surf around and find interesting stuff.  The best way for me to interact with the blogosphere is to make a pass through my blogroll, picking sites I feel like looking at and clicking around...

The weekly Carnival of the Vanities is up.  This is a good way to find new blogs, check it out.

Solonor comments on, well, comments:  "The main way we introduce ourselves in the blogosphere is by commenting on someone's writing.  It seems a little rude at times.  We walk in the door of a stranger's house, criticize the furniture (even if it's a good comment), and invite ourselves back over whenever we feel like it."

Congratulations to Lee Hood, the smartest person I ever met, for winning the 2003 Lemelson-MIT Prize.  (Dr. Hood was my pre-med advisor at Caltech, in 1979, two or three lifetimes ago.)  "No single person has done more to create the genomics era than Leroy Hood."

C|Net has a feature on "the cars of tomorrow".  But they totally miss the most important feature - the ability for cars to spontaneously organize themselves into caravans, speeding traffic flow.  A few high-end cars have this technology now - some Mercedes have it, and some Lexus' - but it is positioned as a safety feature ("smart cruise control") rather than a traffic optimizer.

Just in case you thought the dumb "throw money at anything" attitude of the late 90s was gone forever, Shazam Entertainment just closed a $6M funding round.  What they do: if you're walking around and you hear a song you like, you dial Shazam from your cell phone, and their music recognition service will tell you what the song is.  Now that is a terrific business, isn't it?  (Almost like automating pathology, but different.)



Friday,  04/25/03  09:08 AM

The idea: Caravans

I thought about this a bit on my drive home, in traffic.  I was trying to think, what could I do, by myself in my car, to make traffic move along faster.  I think the best thing you can do is tailgate as closely as possible, without actually risking hitting the car in front of you, and track your accelerations and braking as closely as possible to the car in front of you.  A virtual towing rig, essentially.  This minimizes the space your vehicle uses on the road, minimizes air resistance, and maximizes your speed for the cars behind you (by yourself, you can't do anything to speed up the car in front of you). 

I've discussed this with a few friends, and they all have the same reaction.  Paraphrasing, their reaction is "when I get in traffic, I just relax and slow down, and try to drive along smoothly without tailgating".  This is what I do, too.  I don't want to get too close, because then I have to pay attention, and do a lot of stopping and starting.  But this strategy minimizes traffic efficiency!  It allows large gaps to open in front of you, "wasting" freeway space, and all the cars behind you can go no faster than you are going, regardless of the speed at which the cars ahead of you are traveling.

Okay, so what if you built a feature on a car that automatically kept you as close as "safe" to the car in front of you?  {"Safe" would be determined by your current speed and your car's braking ability, and assuming the car in front of you has really good brakes.}  Call this "caravan mode".

How it would work

It seems like this would be technically possible, with a radar or some sort of distance sensor in the front, and a tight feedback loop with your accelerator and brake. 

SO, you merge onto the freeway just like always, get into the lane you want, and hit a switch to enter "caravan mode".  Your car goes into a sort of autopilot, accelerating and braking to keep you as close as possible to the car in front of you.  You are not prevented from accelerating and braking normally (doing so automatically disengages caravan mode, as with cruise control), or from changing lanes, or anything else.  You are not restricted to a particular lane, and you are not dependant upon support from the road or other cars to make this work.  If there is only one car in the whole world with this feature, you still benefit.  For one thing, you don't have to pay attention (!), you won't hit the car in front of you. 

NEXT imagine several cars in a row each with "caravan mode" enabled.  They would travel more efficiently than without caravan mode.  The lead car would set the pace, subject to traffic, road conditions, other traffic, etc.  The other cars would be "towed" along at the same speed, very efficiently.  A long caravan of 100 cards would be WAY better than 100 cards acting independently.  (Interesting to try to model this in a spreadsheet or something.)

Some possible problems and solutions:

  1. What if the lead car travels too fast for one of the other cars?  The solution is simply to have an adjustment for the maximum speed you're willing to go.  Just like a cruise control, essentially.  If the car in front goes faster than this, you fall back and leave caravan mode.  As soon as you get close enough to a car in front, you reenter caravan mode.
  2. What if you follow too close?  As with the maximum speed, there would be an adjustment for this - turn the knob to select.  Some people are more comfortable being further back - the driver decides.  Leaving a bigger gap is safer and less aggresive, but also less efficient.
  3. How do other cars merge into a caravan?  This is a tough problem, because each car in the caravan is automatically trying to minimize the gap to the next car.  In the early days of this feature few cars would have it, so caravans of more than a few cars in a row would be rare and merging would not be too hard.  If the feature is successful and many cars have it, long caravans would form, and merging would become difficult.
    A couple of possibilities for this:
    1. The human driver could notice that a car wants to merge (blinker, etc.) and touch their brake to slow down.  This would open a gap, and the car could merge in.  Once the merge is complete, the driver re-engages caravan mode, and life goes on.
    2. If the human driver doesn't slow down, and a car "sticks their nose in" anyway, so be it; the caravan sensor notices the new car, slows down (to maintain a safe gap), and the newcomer joins the caravan.  If the new car doesn't have caravan technology it becomes a new lead car.
    3. If the car merging in was equipped with the caravan feature, it could electronically signal the cars in the caravan.  This would cause the nearest car to slow down automatically to make room.  In the coolest case the merge would happen automatically with no human intervention required by the driver making room, but perhaps s/he has to reengage caravan mode manually after the car has merged.  {One pleasant attribute of this solution is that it creates additional incentive for people to add caravan mode to their car, so they could merge into existing caravans...}
  4. What happens when the lead car exits the highway?  Nothing!  This is a not a system for steering, it is only a system for controlling speed.  The lead car changes lanes, exits the highway, etc.; so the second car becomes a new lead car.  It will speed up to the maximum level set in its cruise control until it gets close to another car, at which point the car in front becomes the new lead car.  {An interesting attribute of this approach is that lead cars will most likely not have this technology.  So cars which have caravan technology will "draft" cars which don't...}


This solution has some pretty properties (W=UH):

  • No road modifications are required.
  • It appears technically feasible at a reasonable cost per car.
  • Cars with the feature can coexist with cars that don't have the feature.
  • Cars with the feature benefit even if very few other cars have the feature, but the more cars have the feature, the valuable the feature becomes.  (Leading to a classic "network effect".)
  • It is a safety feature.  Really!  You will not be able to hit anything in front of you while in caravan mode...  At the very least it is safer than cruise control, which is installed in just about every modern car.

More complexity

Here's a v2 feature:  Cars in a caravan “communicate” with each other, via a wireless network (802.11, anyone?).

The primary benefit of the caravan is that it eliminates the “lag” in human reaction from the time the car ahead of you changes speed to the time that you do.  However, there is another lag caused by the inherent momentum of the car.  Even if the caravan electronics instantly detected a change of speed in the car ahead and instantly changes your car’s acceleration or braking, your speed would not change instantly.  Sure, eliminating the human lag is great – by far the main part of the overall lag – but eliminating the “acceleration lag” would be even better.

If the car ahead could signal that it is braking or accelerating before it actually does so, your car could anticipate the change and compensate automatically.  The next level of improvement would be a signal from the car ahead of the car ahead – anticipating adjustments by the car ahead before it actually makes them.  Perhaps the added complexity of this solution would not be worth the limited benefit.

Another idea – have predictive software in the car which anticipates acceleration changes.  This could be a learning algorithm, so your car gradually becomes more familiar with the behavior of the car ahead.  This has the advantage of simplicity (no communication with other cars required) and can also be done in “what if” mode, without actually changing acceleration, to see if it would help.

Even more complexity

Here's a v3 feature:  Regional networks.  Cars with caravan technology could "subscribe" to a service which helps them locate caravans to join.  This network could also signal weather, accident information, and traffic conditions.  {In addition to being useful, this is also a recurring revenue opportunity...}

A little off subject:  I have a little GPS map unit in my car, I love it.  The one thing it lacks which would make it totally great is information about traffic conditions.  It will pick a route it feels is optimal but which I know involves the Sepulveda Pass at 8:00 in the morning.  I’ve often thought it would be cool if all people who had such a unit were connected through a two-way network, probably piggybacked on the two-way paging networks.  Each car would contribute its own traffic conditions (just its location and speed, otherwise anonymous) in exchange for realtime traffic information from other cars in the vicinity.  There are enough people driving around with GPS units that a reasonable picture of realtime traffic on major streets would result.  Something I would gladly pay monthly for…

Your comments and suggestions are eagerly solicited...

[ This article was originally an email thread; Greg Crandall, Chris Prajzner, Kevin Schantz, Nick DeNicholas, Russell Bailinson, and Ramon Kurkchubasche each contributed to these ideas. ]

[ Later: the Caravan Fallacy... ]

[ Even Later: Caravans Revisited - the future is here! ]

[ Much Later: Caravans cont. - back to the future ]


Friday,  04/25/03  10:25 AM

There are few things I really hate, but one of them is applications whose uninstallers don't work.  I recently tried Synapse, a new music player which supposedly "learns" the music you like and suggests playlists.  I didn't like it - too much of a beta, I think - so I tried to uninstall it.  Well, the uninstaller didn't work, so I ended up using Explorer and Regedit to find "everything" and clean it up.  What a pain.  Why don't developers just use a standard installer like InstallShield or Wyse so they get working uninstallation for free?

Actually one of the things which turned me off about Synapse was the smugness of the GUI.  "Like, we're so cool, and we know we're cool, don't you think we're cool?"  No, I don't think you're cool; your app is sucky and your uninstaller is broken.  Back to coding, please.

Back in Iraq is back!  Back in the U.S., that is.  Christopher Allbritton is the reporter / blogger whose readers raised enough money to send him to Iraq.  He has come back and the experiement is ending.  Overall I enjoyed his writing but I didn't find it dramatically different or better or unusual compared to "the media".  In the end he was one guy in one place, and could only reports things he saw from where he was.  The advantage of the media is they have many people in many places, and can report from all over, giving some perspective.  Of course each media outlet has a spin, so then you have meta-media like the Command Post which integrate over all sources (including independents like Christopher) to give the big picture...DNA Helix

Today is the 50th anniversary of the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA.  This comes only days after the publication of the first human genome.  Dr. Watson: "The pace of discovery is going unbelievably fast."  Dr. Crick: "Did we appreciate how important DNA was? Yes we did."

It is interesting the way memes replicate through the blogosphere.  I have been thoughtful about this all along, but it was really borne in on me when my Tyranny of Email article crested a wave.  Now, more recently, the silly "Fehlervorhersagefreude" meme is making a wave of its own.  I recently found a great post by John Hilar called The Tipping Blog, which relates blogospheric meme propogation to The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell's terrific book about how ideas propogate in the real world.

I'm not going to do Malcom's book justice, but essentially he observes that ideas are spread by people, and that all people are not the same.  Certain people behave in ways that cause them to be especially important in the spread of ideas:

  • Connectors - People who know lots of other people, and spread ideas rapidly.  They are important because they connect different groups of people together.  In the real world these are people like stockbrokers, tennis pros, and hairdressers.  In the blogosphere they are people like Glenn Reynolds and Chris Pirillo.
  • Mavens - People who are subject matter experts.  They are important because their opinion is respected.  In the real world these are people like technical experts, religious leaders, and media columnists.  In the blogosphere they are people like Dave Winer and Steven Den Beste.
  • Salespeople - People who persuade other people.  They are important because they reinforce a point of view about something: "this is cool", "this is bad", "this is important".  In the real world these are people like politicians and newscasters.  In the blogosphere everyone is a salesperson!

There are a relatively small number of connectors, mavens, and salesmen, but they are the gatekeepers for ideas.  The rest of us are simply the consumers.


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About Me

Greatest Hits
Correlation vs. Causality
The Tyranny of Email
Unnatural Selection
On Blame
Try, or Try Not
Books and Wine
Emergent Properties
God and Beauty
Moving Mount Fuji
The Nest
Rock 'n Roll
IQ and Populations
Are You a Bright?
Adding Value
The Joy of Craftsmanship
The Emperor's New Code
Toy Story
The Return of the King
Religion vs IQ
In the Wet
solving bongard problems
visiting Titan
unintelligent design
the nuclear option
estimating in meatspace
second gear
On the Persistence of Bad Design...
Texas chili cookoff
almost famous design and stochastic debugging
may I take your order?
universal healthcare
triple double
New Yorker covers
Death Rider! (da da dum)
how did I get here (Mt.Whitney)?
the Law of Significance
Holiday Inn
Daniel Jacoby's photographs
the first bird
Gödel Escher Bach: Birthday Cantatatata
Father's Day (in pictures)
your cat for my car
Jobsnotes of note
world population map
no joy in Baker
vote smart
exact nonsense
introducing eyesFinder
to space
where are the desktop apps?
still the first bird
electoral fail
progress ratches
2020 explained