fighting the lack of good ideas

sloshing dessert

So, I was sitting at Cold Stone in Chapel Hill with a buddy of mine Saturday evening, enjoying my mint and peanut butter ice cream with pineapple and coconut mix-ins, when I piped-up with “this would be so much better with rum”.

Then it hit me: I need to open a bar and ice cream joint, and call it an Ice Cream Barlor. Or maybe “Lay you out on the Marble Slab Creamery”, or “Slushy Slosher”.

screen… but for x

I’m sure most Linux sys admins are familair with screen – it’s a virtual terminal multiplexer that allows single logins to be ‘detached’, then resumed later. This is fantastic because it means what you’re doing can survive connection failures, you can share it with other users, etc.

Windows has a similar tool called ‘Remote Desktop’, which runs on the RDP standard.

I would *LOVE* to have the same functionality available in Linux: be able to remote into an X session, picking up its last state (presuming that user had already been logged-in), or to be able to launch a new session, then disconnect later, and pick it up again whenever I want to in the future.

I have no idea how hard that may be to implement, but it would rock.

i know why search is broken

Search is broken. Google, Yahoo, Ask, Alta-Vista, and on, and on the list goes.

Hundreds of companies, thousands of individuals. I know why search is broken, and I know what needs to be fixed. Now to figure out the how of fixing.

When you’re looking for information, you search on keywords. Google’s been nice enough to rank results by ‘popularity’ (yeah, it’s called PageRank, and it’s proprietary, but it’s a popularity/relevance ranking). The problem is that you have to know what keywords were used. Some places are nice enough to suggest spelling fixes (it’s not ‘brittany spears’, it’s ‘britney spears’).

But that’s not the issue. The issue is that you don’t know what word, term, or phrase to look for. You have the concept you need to find, like ‘module’. Except you don’t think of that word, you think of ‘chunk’. Bam! You’re out of luck: no author would use the word ‘chunk’ when they mean ‘module’, right?

To fix search, we need to search on not just the keyword, but the concept. In English, you’d use a thesaurus.

So, you’re thinking: “This is easy! I’ll just build a comparator that looks at the keyword and then goes through an index of a thesaurus and finds stuff. And we’ll all be rich!”

Hold it, buster. You missed something. This is a perfectly valid English sentence, and you can figure out what I’m saying, too: “Bring me the cooler cooler cooler from the cooler’s cooler.” Cooler is used five times, with the following meanings (at least): hip, less warm, box to keep things cool, jail cell, big refrigerator.

That’s the problem with trying to fix search. Words can mean far too many things in English. But here’s your big chance to figure out a solution: I’ve told you the problem, and I’ve given you the target.

Now go make it work.

a flying ‘bus’

Public transit is an interesting concept, and as I’ve written about before, is not a panacea.

However, I’m wondering if it might be reasonable to apply the concept to flying. Bear with me a minute here.

Let’s say you fly – maybe a lot, maybe not a lot, but when you do, you pretty much go to the same places. Airlines have frequent flyer programs. Why not have frequent flyer cards upon which you not only earned miles, but also could buy flight segments? For example, let’s say I fly a lot between a given pair of cities (maybe Raleigh and Baltimore). A company like Southwest could sell me en masse a bunch of flight segments (good for any segment they fly from any city to any other), and I could redeem them for actual trips.

Taking my example, let’s say I fly a lot between Raleigh and Baltimore. Instead of paying $50 each way (or whatever the current price is) – I could buy 10 flight segments for, say $475. All taxes and fees included already. Then, if i need to fly to Albany for some reason, instead of redeeming 1 flight segment each way, I cash-in two each way, and voila: I have a round trip from Raleigh to Albany.

By selling flight segments in batches, Southwest could guarantee passengers (or at least revenue). The drawback, of course, is that you can only redeem segments for flights that have open seats left.

What do you think about this?

the future of interfaces

Apple recently introduced a convergent device that is a media player (iPod), cell phone, wifi device, and widget player (mini OS X) – I’m going to call it the iCon (since the current name is under trademark dispute). There’s one whole walloping button. Everything else is done via hand motions. Want to zoom in on an image? Grab it in two places, and slide your finger apart. Want to view a photo or video in quasi-letterbox format? Rotate the iCon 90 degrees and the image magically rotates to maintain viewability.

I wrote an article about the brokenness of current GUIs several months ago, and it was published by the ACM’s Ubiquity. You may find it interesting; you may not. You may want to read it in conjunction with this post – either before or after, doesn’t matter to me.

I wonder, though, where we’re actually going in interface engineering. We’ve been stuck on a handful of very limiting techniques for a very long time (command-line and windowing environments). Why are more interfaces not tried? Why don’t we bother to expand our horizons? I think it’s because we’re afraid to experiment.

Interface design needs a lot of work. But more importantly, it needs people who are willing to try anything at least once.

it’s not my problem

Security, air quality, water potability, land use, and the list goes on and on. When any one thing is too big to be one person’s problem, it becomes a problem for the populace, and once it’s everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s problem.

Securing airports is too complicated for one person to do, so a committee tries to do it, and we get security theater (to quote Bruce Schneier). Security should be everyone’s concern, and though it appears to be, we relegate it off to some government agency to handle for us. And then, when they do stupid stuff, we bitch and moan, or just suffer in silence, or sometimes we cheer because we don’t know any better.

Voting is not any one person’s problem – it’s an issue which every registered voter in America should have high on their priority list to do every year. I will be going to the polls in Mebane NC on 7 Nov 2006 to vote. Because if I vote, I exercise my right to have a say in how my government works. Those citizens who elect to not go to the polls to vote lose their chance to have a say in their government. If you don’t vote, you relegate your thoughts, opinions, judgments, and preferences off onto other people who, by definition of ‘opinion’ and ‘preference’, will not always think and act like you.

People who don’t vote are like people who toss candy wrappers out the windows of their cars on the highway. They figure a wrapper or two, here and there won’t affect anyone. And they’re right – to a point. A handful of candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and napkins won’t affect anyone. But it’s not just the candy wrapper they chuck out the window, it the other 14 million drivers who think the same way, and then bitch and moan over how gross the highways look.

Voting and being disappointed with the results does allow you to complain about the outcome – at least you threw your ballot and tried to make your preference win. But if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the outcome because you didn’t get off your lazy butt and go to the polls. In fact, you don’t even have to get off your lazy butt to vote – you can request an absentee ballot, and vote by mail.

I think we should adopt a policy in this country similar to the one the Australians use – voting should be required if you are registered. Australia consistently has >90% voter turn-out. They fine people who don’t vote.

A lot of people in America are unhappy with their government officials, but an awful lot of them won’t show up on Election Day to try to change the situation. I don’t actually care whether you are a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist, Green, or Independence party member. I don’t care if you’re affiliated with a political party – if you’re an adult in the United States and you’re registered to vote, you should be at the polls on Election Day.

Voting is a privilege in America that many nations’ citizens do not have. Don’t squander your advantage. Unless, of course, you’re content to let other people determine your nation’s course.

a kinder, gentler HRT

As much fun as it would be to be a part of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, what I’m thinking about now is a Hurricane Response Team.

Any church, charitable group, or even a business that wanted to engender some positive community goodwill could assemble a disaster team – volunteers and equipment that could be deployed to damaged areas easily, and self-sufficiently.

I envision such a group having a cargo van and a personnel van. Inside the cargo van could be stowed a gas grill, food, camp stoves, propane tanks, chain saws, wrecking bars, work gloves, and other ancillary safety equipment and tools. A 15 passenger van can comfortably accommodate 10-12 people, their extra clothes, beverages, a couple spare fuel cans, and personal items.

What else am I missing?