Thursday, 27 May 2010

The right router

I have many techy friends. They all have wifi. Which means, if I visit them, I have to go through a long and tortuous route to use their internet connection - because a combination of UK law and common sense make using encryption on your wifi really rather important.

I don't have this problem in hotels.

In hotels, When I try to use the wifi, they just intercept my DNS requests, rerouting me to a page where I can enter my credit card details. From this they can then give anyone with my MAC address access to the internet. It works well.

Why can't home routers do this?

When I go to a friends house, I should fire up my browser and get a login page. My friend can then either give me a guest password (which will give me access for a few hours), or give me a username and password of my own (to give me access whenever I want).

Now - this will only give MAC level security - which I guess isn't perfect 9although it seems to work for hotels), but it would also provide an easy route (over the web, once you've logged in) to provide all the other information needed to configure a computer to use the router's security features.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Incredible Machines

It has become a running joke between me and my friends that satellites read my mind, and then distribute my ideas to other people (who make money out of them). I don't believe this (although the whole point of this website was to rip apart the satellite mind reader's monopoly on my ideas... also, possibly I should later write an article on the idea I have for selling peoples ideas via a satellite network...)

The first idea I remember having, which I quickly saw someone else creating, was for a computer game. My idea was that yo0u controlled a cartoon cat who had to maneuver items around a levels and ladders type screen to construct a Heath Robinson style machine to trap a cartoon mouse. This was back in the days of Tetris and similar puzzle games, you understand.

Not long after, I started seeing adverts for "The Incredible Machine", not quite the same idea, but similar enough - and different enough from existing games - to be a shock. At a still very young age I was having ideas in a similar league to professionals. (Of course - I now know that no professionals have ideas and better than those of a fifteen year old kid - but at the time it was a learning experience)

So, that is my story... except

Heath Robinson machines keep coming back. We've had Honda adverts with car parts rolling across our TV screens and winning awards. People like the Heath Robinson.

And we have graphic cards which render 3D scenes that look better than reality (actually, this is a lie - except for in football games. I now notice that football on TV looks significantly less good than in computer games). And we have physics engines.

Its time for the incredible machine to return. In 3D.

Or - if not the incredible machine - why not a similar 3D game about a cat trying to catch a mouse?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Simple Scanner

There are a number of portable scanners, like the Doxie and Fujtsu Scan Snap, all promising to make the paperless office a reality. And all requiring you to lug around a laptop in order to power them and download the scanned files.

A propose a portable scanner which can be charged like a mobile phone (over micro usb) and can then save the scanned documents onboard until you are ready to pull them off later. This way, you only have the portable scanner to lug around most of the time.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Voting Survey

As I write this, the election is drawing near in the UK. By the time you read this it will have been and gone, and we'll be in a brave new world, totally different fromt he one before May 6th. Or something.

Right now, there are many websites which allow you to say how much to like particular policies. You make your choices, and the site tells you who to vote for. A sample of 1 (me) suggests they work fairly well.

There is also a campaign called Power 2010. Power 2010 is interesting, it set itself up as a policitcal pressure group without any aims, then got people to vote for the goals the group should have.

Power 2010 was broken - because the voting meant they would focus on the top 5 policies - even though only a minority of people may have wanted those policies - and there may have been noone that agreed with all five.

My suggestion is different: take the voting survey, but track how people answer. From this, you might be able to find 'clumps' of policies that many people agree with - or at least that more people agree with more of than they do with any existing political party. In essence, you could reverse engineer part politics and come up with a more attractive framework than the one presently suggested. And you may find new ideas - like liberty or small c conservatism which transcend parties entirely

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Programming Tools: Versioning (and magic)

The programming tools series of articles (which, I know, I promised I had already finished) relied heavily on the version control system at its heart.

Today I want to talk about a new feature of versioning: Magic Files

Imagine, I check into the version control system my source code (or a gif), I want the facility to say to the VCS "now give me the compiled code" (or "now give me a jpeg version of the gif"). The VCS - not me - should know how to generate the file I'm asking for. Because there should be rules which tell the VCS how to generate the file

Now, because we can make a rule that any such process should be side-affect free, once the VCS has generate the file, it can keep a copy of it, at least until one of the files that were used in generating it has changed. And there is nothing to say that the VCS has to wait for someone to ask for the file before it generates it - if it sees free processor time, the VCS can spawn compilation.

We can take this further: why not just check out your test results file: that would run every test and tell you how it did. And running an individual test [by looking at the individual test results log] would just check out the files it needed to run - which means only the files needed to perform a test would be compiled - leading to the optimal code-compile-test loop.

In short, I'm talking about merging the version control system and make.

Its a different world - and one which probably requires far more storage (and a few extra VCS features such as a 'regenerate' option to regenerate a file which for some reason went awry) - but one which feels to me more inherently usable, and which provides us with more records of exactly what has and hasn't been run.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Gluten Free Holidays

Sometimes an idea seems so obvious, you assume people have already had it, and I've just not noticed. This is one such idea - I can't believe it isn't already happening on some scale out there somewhere.

Nevertheless, I have not come across it. And so...

I like to travel. Its a change of pace, a breath of fresh air. And until recently, it was easy: just book a flight, find a hotel and go. The world was my marine mollusk.

Not any more.

Because I am gluten-intolerant. Which means I can't eat anything with gluten in it. At all. I notice even the slightest bit of contamination. And I know that any gluten I notice, means the lining of my gut has noticed even more - and even if I'm not paying for it now, I'll pay for it later.

A quick experiment of going back onto gluten fully showed it sapped more or less all of my energy, and slowed most of my thought processes. It took well over a fortnight for my body to even begin to adapt to coping with gluten again. I can't go back.

Which makes travelling hard.

Because before, I could pop into any restaurant and order whatever I fancied. Now I have no such option. Before I could eat anything and everything. Now I have to be careful. and in the UK, I know how to be careful. I know how to read the labels. I know what is and isn't likely to cause me grief.

But drop me on a street in Calcutta, and I'm going to be stumped.

So I propose Gluten Free Holidays. There are holiday companies that specialise in all sorts of things. Why not a company that specialises in a few trips each year for people who have allergies and intolerances to food. These trips will be 100% full board. The travel company will make sure that the hotels know exactly how to cater for the eating requirements of their guests. The travel agency will liaise with airlines to ensure the right quantity of special meals are laid on.

Much of the world doesn't use wheat as a staple - in India, for example, rice and chick-peas win. There is no reason why it should be hard to find appropriate and, where desired, culturally authentic food. I might just be talking about practical holidays here... but I might also be talking about gourmet tours.

In any event, Gluten Free Holidays would open the world to those of us who have shied away due to food finding problems

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Meeting Manager

This is a small part of a bigger idea - but this came first, and would be a useful product on its own.

Companies have meetings. When I invented this idea, I was part of a small startup, and we were having too many meetings. Within a few days of this idea popping unbidden into my head, the startup merged with another company, and the number of meetings skyrocketed. Now I've moved to a big corporate behemoth. I think all I do these days is meet. And prepare to meet. And sometimes have met. Also I write software, but that's strictly on my own time...

Meetings have a format. Its not hard - but so often people forget to follow it. And when the format is not followed, meetings become more and more of a waste of time.

The format - for those who don't know - is

An agenda is sent to all invitees. This allows people to decide if they need to come to the meeting (well, in general the people the agenda is sent to, are expected to attend - or apologise, the people it is cc.ed to can attend if they want)
A reminder is sent nearer to the time.
People arrive at the meeting. It starts on time.
The minutes of the last meeting are read out. People have the opportunity to accept them or reject them (this is tricky. In the email age, we can let people accept or reject minutes before the next meeting)
Each action from the minutes is discussed. The person who is actioned reports on their progress.
We then move through each agenda item in turn. At the end of each item it is decided if any actions need to be taken. These actions, and the people actioned are agreed upon there and then.
Finally we get to Any Other Business (AOB). In general there should not be any other business - you have had the agenda ahead of time, you should have been able to contact the writer of the agenda and get your item submitted so that people can prepare. The chairman needs to be firm here.
If it is agreed that a further meeting is needed, the time and date should be set.
Following the meeting - within the next 24 hours or so, minutes should be sent out - to all invitees. They should also be made available online to other people with an interest.

Much of this can be automated.

First - the list of invitees: this is often going to stay much the same for each meeting type. Sure, their may be the occasional guest or change in group member, but lists of group members can be maintained to ensure we know exactly who has been invited.

The agenda: this can be sent out by email (for people where an email address exists) and by post (for people where we only have a postal address). Software can make the decision as appropriate. But we can also provide a website which people can connect to to suggest changes or additions to the agenda. This makes collating the agenda an open and collaborative task.

The reminder: This can be automatically sent out

The meeting: Google have talked about an interesting trick - when they hold meetings, each agenda item is given a fixed period of time. On a screen the agenda and a clock are displayed - you know from this exactly what agenda item you should be on, and how long you have left to discuss it.

More importantly, you can display the current agenda item on a screen so that people know what is discussed. As decisions are made, or actions are assigned, these can be input into the computer by either the secretary or the chair. People can see them as they are added - this makes contesting the minutes later on harder.

You can also automatically import the action items from previous meetings for discussion as the meeting begins.

When the meeting concludes, you will already have half of your minutes. The secretary can add any additional detail from his or her notes, and then send them out to everyone involved (again, printing those which need to be posted). The minutes will also be automatically uploaded to an internal document repository (so they can be view by the appropriate people)

Since the new minutes are now online and available, people have the opportunity to comment on them - accept them or reject them straight away. This means revised minutes can be produced, making agreement more likely at the next meeting. people can also make notes on their own actions, so that their status is visible to everybody involved.

None of this is essential, and most of it could be done within some of the better business process and business document management tools. But a standalone tool which does this easily and perfectly without rough edges would be sure to win fans amongst those who like their meetings to run like clockwork.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Micropayments (not quite dead yet)

Every so often someone suggests the saviour of the Internet will be micropayments. Well, I wasn't really aware the internet was dying, but assuming that it is, and I'm just not being very observant, I notice that none of the micropayment systems actually seem to work particularly well.

Lets assume that no-one cares about privacy here. But we do care that people can get started using the system with essentially no financial risk. And we only care about very small transactions - sub 10 UK pence.

Now, sub-10p prices don't make much sense from the perspective of credit card transactions - the transaction costs are to high. But we are not talking about the credit card world - we are talking about a world where the game is simpler, and the issues of protecting transactions are smaller.

Now, several people could set themselves up as micropayment agencies. Lets assume 3 companies do this, google, amazon and paypal.

They all choose to follow the same system - when a user goes to a micropayment site, the site displays a form following a particular microformat. The user enters their username and the address of their chosen server - this is transmitted back to the host, who we then are redirected to in order to complete the transaction. Finally we are sent back to the host, along with a special token signed by the issuing agency promising to pay some quantity of money.

So far so good. Buts its quite cumbersome. I assume each of these companies might provide a browser addon to recognise the payment microformat, and do all the work automatically - at least on approved sites.

But even this isn't enough. I don't want to pay any money up front, because I don't know if anyone will actually accept micropayments. But neither google, amazon or paypal know me... so they come up with different approaches to get me paying.

Paypal say: You already have a paypal account, stick some money in there, and we'll pass it on. You can always withdraw it if you want.

Google say: Since you haven't given us any money upfront, when we redirect you back to the site, we will embed it in a frame and show you some adverts. We will try to recoup the cash from the ads.

Amazon say: We're going to trust you. We'll sub you a bit of money, and then overcharge you later to try to make up our loss - and our rep.

So paypal will just work - the website returns its tokens and paypal hands over the cash (the token is signed to identify the owner and paypal, so there is no question of duplication)

But amazon and google are risky. Google hand over the money made by the adverts (up to 150% the amount the site was actually charging... google keep the rest). This means sometimes you get paid less than you asked by google, sometimes you get paid more. Amazon will pay some percentage of their weeks total income - which may mean they pay more or less again than the site requested... because amazon generally charge people 11p to enter a 10p site, they can make up for the fact that they earn nothing from people when they first start to use the service. In the amazon case, they may split their money between sites, as some sites may be frequented by people who pay a lot, while others may be frequented by freeloaders... this would encourage site owners to encourage their users to pay their dues.

In the end, site owners can look at the payment authority and make a guess as to what each penny you request from them is actually worth - with paypal it will be a penny - but with amazon, maybe it will be 1.1p and google it might be .8p... you then might decide to charge a google user more - and an amazon user less. Google might decide it is worth having a second signature for people who have put money into a wallet in order to avoid adverts - because those people are known for being good for micropayments.

So - is the transaction cost low enough? Probably. Everyone is going to find a bit of money dropping on the floor- the question is do you make enough in total, while being able to weed out enough of the freeloaders.

Will it change the world? I'm not sure micropayments are the answer... but if they are, this might be the best way to approach them.