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Apr. 24th, 2015

The future of the "Nerf" hobby?

Someone asked me, a while after the announcement of the Nerf Rival series (due out later this year), what I thought it might mean for the future of the hobby/sport that nerfing is now.

I don't know -- but there are some things I hope that it doesn't mean.  Rival is still too much of an unknown to me.  I like foam ball shooters in general, but anything smaller than one inch seems to me like it's trying to be BBs, like airsoft and paintball.  When I hosted local nerf wars, nothing with less than a full inch of foam was allowed to score a hit.  If an opponent launched a too-small fragment of a dart, you could ignore it.  Rival starts off with the drawback of failing that existing test.

Airsoft, Paintball, Nerf -- projectile combat hobbies.
Other ones with some comparability include laser tag and super soakers.
Nerf has always been the one where a kid with no friends, no athletic ability, no social skills, and no mechanical skills, but a lot of money, usually learns that you can't just buy your way past all those deficiencies.  Some leave; but some grow instead -- and I consider that a great thing. Nerf has always been where a kid with a $40 budget and a few of the characteristics mentioned above can buy a blaster, a pack of darts, and a few mod supplies from their local hardware store, to be able to have a good time, and compete with pretty much anyone.
If nerf should become yet another field where no talent no skill no socialization rich kids could stay just the way they were by buying a fancy rig, even if they only achieve middle-of-the-pack performance that way, what would be the point of distinguishing nerf any more?

If you say I'm calling nerf a "cheap" hobby ... I don't have an argument against that.  I like it that way.

I do not mean that anyone who ever brings a "fancy rig" to a nerf event, or spends $200 on blasters and accessories, lacks social skills or sportsmanship, because usually they also bring the mechanical skill to have assembled it, play skill enough to use it, and social skill enough to discuss its use and its advantages as well as disadvantages.  Though frankly I have seen the bad version happen a couple of times too, and people have been asked to leave nerf wars for poor sportsmanship (irrespective of what gear they carry).

On another hand, I would really like to see something with greater accuracy, at range, than the present darts.  Nerf MEGA darts can actually fly 100 feet from some of the new blasters, but there is almost no realistic hope of hitting a target the size of a person by aiming rather than just by occasional luck.  Whereas, a few foam alternative ammo types (e.g, Zing arrows) really can stay in a person-sized zone at such a range.  What Nerf has done several times is replace accuracy with quantity.  Vulcan, Hail-Fire, Rhino Fire -- weilders sometimes call themselves the "heavys" of nerf, I call them the spammers.  But it's not been a bad thing, because so far they've been range limited, and a good air pressure blaster user can pick them off when necessary.

I've actually got another objection to electric blasters, but I've had to let that go.  Again, when I hosted local wars, we allowed human-power only.  In some cases we insisted that air pressure blasters had to be pumped during play, starting the round empty.  We made exceptions for electric powered blasters principally because back then they were all pretty terrible, with horizontally configuired flywheels, like the Tommy 20 and Ultimate Rapid Blast from Buzz Bee.

I personally enjoy the engineering side of nerf, coming up with new ideas for modifications, tuning accuracy, other foam ammo types, ways to improve range, and rate of fire.  I particularly like foam ball ammo when it's larger than an inch, and various missile types such as those used by Nerf's Demolisher, Titan, and Big Bad Bow.  I personally don't want anything that looks any more like firearms than when they come out of the toy store, and I'm seriously dismayed that lately firearms are trying to look more like toys.  Something else I very much do not want is for any more incidents driving publicity which could lead to public parks banning all forms of "toy guns."

I don't know the future of nerf; I just hope it has one.

Sep. 10th, 2012

"Big Data" At Home

Personally, I'm looking forward to it.

I welcome the day when I can run a query on my phone to learn something like "how much have I spent on ice cream in the past six months?" or run a query to list every purchase for the past tax year, and then configure a filter to decide which items to export to my tax agent, pretty much eliminating my errors of forgetting stuff, or transcribing receipts incorrectly.

Merchants where I shop should be more than willing to "beam" electronic invoices to me that will be far more detailed than the abbreviations they normally put on paper receipts.  Even if I have used some sort of electronic cash 'prepaid debit card' to anonymize my identity, they still get to spend less on those rolls of receipt paper.  Whereas if I have identified myself, they can also supply me with incentives, based on past purchases, to become or remain a repeat customer.  Other businesses I regularly interface with might do stuff that seems "crazy" today, like eliminate billing "cycles" and just let me view an up-to-the minute account any time I want, and pay when I want, or perhaps automatically when I get paid.  They could set minimums and maximums and credit limits, but if the data is always available at hand, and never needs to be committed to paper, there's a lot less motivation to bother with their cycles, and a little more to respect mine.  I could configure filters and triggers with my online banking account such that each time my direct deposit arrives, a certain amount or percentage goes to my cable internet, another to my cell provider, to the water company, electric, and so on.

Medical records obviously bring up appropriate privacy issues, but there could be many other types of records we might want to start keeping as well.  The television show "The Big Bang Theory" once made fun of the concept of "Haircut Records" but in the age of Big Data, anyone who really wanted those should be able to have them, whether it's just a few snapshots after every cut, or a detailed analysis of hair lengths and head geometry.  Automotive maintenance records are an obviously practical example, which should probably be stored in nonvolatile memory right in each vehicle, and backed up online.  Tracking the purchases of a hobby collector, or which child received what gifts from which grandparents, could be important to many people.  We'd be able to run "database queries" on much more of our lives, which could give us insights into ourselves, or simply allow us more freedom to pay less attention to details we'd rather not be bothered with.  Online merchants such as Amazon have already given us advances in gift lists and registries such that, if people wanted to buy me gifts, they'd only need to know my credentials like username there, and could see my "wish list" and be assured that if anyone bought me that same item a few seconds ago, they wouldn't be getting me a duplicate.

The age of big data would likely give each of us a more in-depth web presence, whether or not we ever contracted for a "home page."  Many of us can already see an array of data in many locations by searching for ourselves, in a Big Data world that would eventually include everyone.  But when we do opt to control a home page, a significant portion of what's found there might be external data, curated by the rules we choose to write.  It would update itself much of the time.

Overall, in my opinion, the wide reach and capture of "big data" could be a boon to human memory.  I already try not to memorize anything that'll always be easy to look up when I'd need it.  As for compromising our individual security, that risk certainly exists, but I believe there will be sufficient counter-measures available to those who need (or just desire) them.  Digital versions of pre-paid debit cards I've already mentioned, but I anticipate multiple kinds of "electronic cash" will emerge when users call for them.  Also tools to help us manage what I would call "aspects" of ourselves, as distinguished from personalities.  I want the grocery store to know about my past grocery purchases, and the toy store to know about my toy purchases, but it's unclear whether I want them to know about each other.  Some folks won't desire any such separations of aspects, and some folks may choose to have hundreds of them.  The tech that can bring us Big Data will carry along numerous solutions to such personal desires.  

At least for a generation or so, I'd expect a majority of people to want to keep at least their medical records separate from almost everything else, but in time, as the accumulation of mundane data grows, I suspect most people will care less and less about it.  Back in, I believe, 1996, I was quoted on the subject of The Information Revolution, saying "The revolution is over; the information won."  At that time there was already more information readily available online than anyone could put to use; we were buried in information.  That very "information overload," though, inspired people like the founders of Google to come up with corresponding advances in searching, and I believe the coming "data overload" of mostly mundane information will drive comparable advances.  

When I look at the gigantic advances in ease of access to research material that the web has brought us, and the ancillary tech advances like lowered power consumption in almost everything, cooler-running electronics, and handheld near-supercomputers, it reminds me a bit of the 1960s-70s "space race" that seemed like a high-tech boondoggle to many, but some of those critics are still alive today literally because of advances in health care that can be tied directly back to that space research.  The "Space Age," the "Information Age," I don't know if the next one will be the "Data Age" or the "Mobile Age" but it seems likely they'll both happen side-by-side, and we can't know, going in, the whole range of other advances they'll bring.

Oct. 24th, 2011

I'd like a waterproof Bluetooth speaker-phone for my shower, please!

I mean really - who wouldn't?

I'm an inventor
Usually people come to me with issues, and I invent solutions. 

When I was a kid, most of my hobbies involved mechanisms, and today I still enjoy working on Nerf blasters and similar toys.  I like to make them better, more powerful, more accurate, and yet still keep safety a strong focus.  I'd work on cars too, if only I had the time and budget, and maybe bicycles as well.  Once I started college and formally learned programming (I was already self-taught in Fortran and Basic), from then on the issues I tackled were software issues far more often than not.  But still I have always pondered physical things too, and wondered what could make them better. Sometimes ideas can exist in both realms at once.

I'm an inventor
For years I've tried to be an entrepreneur.

More times than I can count, I have tried to make something out of my ideas.  In college in the 1970s I built a prototype, from plastic tubes and model parts, of an air turbine powered hair clipper, and when hooked up to my powerful shop vacuum, it did a great job cutting my hair with literally no mess.  Not too long after, late night TV ads featured the comparable "Flowbee," which had its own motor for the clipper blades.  I had talked to so few people about mine that there's essentially no possibility at all that my idea even influenced it.  Mine probably could have been produced much more inexpensively, having no motor, but not everyone has a powerful shop vacuum.  My prototype broke after maybe a dozen uses, and I never repaired it.

In the mid 1990s I got interested in countermeasures to deal with email spam.  At first, spam originated is a fairly limited number of places, and most could be blacklisted pretty easily.  But once we did that, spammers learned from it, and we entered a full-out "measure-countermeasure game" scenario.  A few past years writing software for the defense industry had left me pretty well prepared to play that game.  I volunteered programming services, collaborated with a lot of other volunteers, joined committees and mailing lists, made suggestions, and generally helped where I could.  When I tried to build a service, it was different - the first incarnation of whitelist.com, but it never got off the ground.  That was mostly due to a classic chicken-egg problem - nobody wanted to use my list until it was well populated with listings for well managed mail servers, and nobody wanted to bother to send their data to get onto my list, because nobody was using it.  Whitelist has gone through a few more iterations, including a technical method in client software which might actually stop the majority of spam types, but I never found a business model to get that going.  Possibly the ad-supported model now common in mobile software could have worked.

I'm an inventor
For years I've tried to be noticed.

Months ago, in a conversation with a friend who knows about several of my inventions - failures and minor successes, it was suggested that since none of my ideas has yet "gone big," I have pretty much nothing to lose by giving some away.  I could blog about several (not my very best, of course) and one day maybe it will get the attention of someone who'll ask what else I've got, and maybe invest in one or more.

In September, this thread https://plus.google.com/u/0/102001774674190160714/posts/28txHi3MwsT about a proposed ban on both plastic *and* paper shopping bags started me thinking about shopping bags.  My household uses most every form of shopping bag, including the disposables which we carefully collect and re-use so that we buy fewer garbage bags.  I keep a couple of sturdy paper bags behind the seat in my pickup, and one of my roommates has enough of a collection of sturdy reusable plastic bags to bring home a trunk full of stuff.  So we bring home disposable bags only when we can put them to re-use.  Sometimes they end up damaged, though, and then we make sure those get recycled.  My favorites have always been the tall sturdy paper bags, and some of the places which give those out also give me a nickel credit for each one I re-use.

I also find the plastic bags with enhanced bio-degrading properties very interesting.  I have bought large trash bags in pale green, which fall to pieces if left in the sun any more than about a week.  A few stores give out yellowish "T-shirt style" shopping bags which are said to do the same.  I hope they do, but haven't tested any in the garden yet.  I often bring bags to the store, but it seems like a good idea to chose biodegradable over eternal when I can.

I still think that paper is the superior choice, so long as it's not treated as single-use disposable.  Even then, it "sequesters" some carbon.  So the challenge to my creativity takes the form of inventing systems which could convince shoppers to re-use paper bags again and again, until they start to fall apart, and to encourage recycling when they do.  I think the simple technique of printing a redemption certificate on some sturdy paper bags, then re-using them as many times as possible across multiple stores/chains until they show signs of failure, could work pretty well.  I can still remember when soda bottles were returned for *deposit,* and most of them were cleaned and re-used many times.  I've never been convinced disposables were really an advance, when viewed as a whole system.


Just this weekend I had another "brainstorm" type idea, and now it's clearly enough of a collection to post a few and see if talking about ideas can go anywhere.  Sunday morning, I was in the shower when a phone call, which I had anticipated arriving just a few minutes later, came through.  My phone was in the room, but wet hands and mobile phones are a bad combo, so instead I just let it ring to VM, and called back a few minutes later.  Didn't think a whole lot about that for several hours.  Later in the day my roommate, who was "on call" this weekend and remotely handling a minor crisis at work, mentioned taking a shower as a "Murphy's Law" challenge: that's when anticipated calls always seem to arrive, so why not rush them by doing so intentionally?  Suddenly a concept that had been developing at a background level in my mind jumped to the fore -- a waterproof, Bluetooth speakerphone for the shower!  This household would immediately want two, I can attest to that.  It's such a self-evident concept that I shouldn't even need to describe it further.  Not that I could keep myself from pondering features and options for the next couple of days.  My mind explores alternatives and arguments whether I wanted to or not.  And you know what?  I'm not even the first to think of it, yet none seem to be available.  But if anybody wants to run with the idea, I'd love to work with you ... or at least, please send us two :-)

Jul. 28th, 2011

New User Review: Foursquare ... you suck

And I mean this in a friendly suggestion kind of way.  But I mean it.

I started using Foursquare just over a month ago.  Barely long enough to have become "mayor" of a couple of places now.  But I'm seriously thinking about uninstalling.

I live in a suburb of San Jose (which is, I believe, the second most populous city in the most populous state), I can only imagine that in any more urban setting, the biggest of the problems that annoys me would be even bigger.  Almost every time I check in, anywhere, it lies to me.  The specific lie I refer to is something like "Every check-in counts."  But they don't.  And any users who can do half a dozen things in half an hour knows they don't.

I walk two to five miles for exercise, pretty much every single day.  I often take a light backpack, and do a little shopping along the way.  You don't have to carry much, if you shop almost every day.  I can walk through a nearby park, shop at Big Lots, Home Depot, TJ Maxx, pick up a snack at Starbucks, shop Target, Smart & Final, Pet Food Max, sometimes even drop off something at the Post Office, pick up a sandwich at Quiznos and a packet of crazy bread from Little Ceasar's, walk home via the Fire Station, and then through the same park again on my way home, all in less than an hour.  I certainly can understand that checking in again at the same park on the same day doesn't entitle me to any points, but often nearly half my other check-ins are zeroed out because "whoa, that's a lot of check-ins!"  Flimsy excuse, but ... whatever.  Clearly accusing me of some kind of cheating, when I'm doing just what I've done for years, and will continue to do with, or more likely without, you.  So don't bullshit me with  "every check-in counts" on those other times.

The badges are a great idea.  Feedback is encouraging.  Meeting other users is very cool.
But really. 
Thus is important:  Don't lie to me.  It really bugs me.  Grow some integrity.

As far as I can tell, the points system is ephemeral -- they cost nothing, and really mean almost nothing.  They're supposed to be a trivial reward for participation.  Every time you accuse a member of cheating the points system, someone at Foursquare should receive a report (only because an electrical shock is too much to ask), to be analyzed for where the real issue is.  The failure here is yours, not mine.  You fail to understand reality.  By applying your faulty judgement, you insult users, probably repeatedly all day every day.  There may be people somewhere who fit your concept of points "cheaters" but I believe you're cutting off your own nose here by not analyzing the data further.  I can conduct business with five or six shops in half an hour, on foot, because they're all close neighbors.  How does your hair-trigger accusatory algorithm deal with shopping malls?  ...At all?  At this point I don't think I even want to try.

Jun. 25th, 2011

WebOS Palm Touchpad Easter Egg

Over the past two days, as a part of a local mobile "Hackathon" event, I've spent some time playing with a Touchpad from Palm (HP) and it was fun.  It became even more fun when I accidentally discovered an "Easter Egg" they've put into the system.  The main desktop display has a mode where you can see half-sized representations of all the open windows.  You can slide them sideward to center an item (or a stack if items are stacked) and you can also "throw away" a window by flicking it upward.  Additionally,  you can throw one away by dragging it downward, if you drag your finger all the way off the screen.  When you take that action, the window seems to "rebound" off the bottom of the screen and then go up and fly off the top edge just like any that you flick upward.

However ... if you crank the volume up high, and also rotate the screen fully "upside down" (such that the USB socket is on the side that is now your left) then some special sound effects will apply, as you throw away a window through the same pull down and rebound motion.  The HP/Palm engineers at the event who loaned us the Touchpads even told me these familiar sounds were licensed from Rovio.  It was hilarious, such a small thing, but we kept laughing at it all through our development phase.

Jun. 17th, 2011

Android needs what Visual Basic did for Windows

This originally was just a concept for a short opinion piece blog entry, several months ago, but every time I try to work on it, it just keeps growing and growing.  The 'draft' is now thousands of words, mostly in disjoint paragraphs, in great need of better organization.  Parts of it read like a business proposal, and far too much reads like an autobiography.  I'm hardly a novelist; it would make an awful novelette anyway.  For now, I'm offering this "view from fifty thousand feet" sort of version.  I am hopeful that I can get comments and feedback from certain people, such as those who were there with me for some of the experiences I mention, and then write a new, more comprehensive and much improved article later.

Android is hot.  Android is growing.  But I'm confident it could be, and do, much more.  In 1990, Windows 3.0 was hot, and was growing.  In 1992, Win3.1 was even hotter and growing still faster, with huge numbers of new adopters.  One of the factors fueling increased growth then, and at least through 2000, was Visual Basic.  I was there, programming in VB, and it was a blast!  VB represented a dramatic advance in development tools in many ways, some of which may not have even been intended.

Visual Basic made programming more accessible to ordinary people than had ever been done before.  Or has since.  Visual Basic was wildly successful in the 1990's, and Microsoft seems to have credited 100% of that to the developers.  I was one of those developers, but I have to disagree.  In my corner of the VB world, it was the clients, the domain experts, the non-developers, who made a bigger difference.  For the first time, they were able to buy a box, bring it home, read a manual, and do some programming.  Without having to study and become a "developer" at all.  Similarly to the influence of spreadsheets before it, VB users no longer had to learn how to do everything from scratch.  This brought many more "regular folks" into the process of creating software.  People who were principally concerned with the tasks they wanted to accomplish, and hardly at all concerned over any platform or language choices.  At the same time, VB was a full fledged* development tool, so those people, when they reached the limits of what they could glean from the manual, could hire a professional like me to take it to higher levels. 
(*)Initial versions of VB did have some serious limitations, but we developers built and distributed tools to overcome those, in a "components" marketplace that has influenced all software marketplaces since.

Android, and its marketplaces, could benefit greatly from a tool which would bring down the entry bar, like VB did for Windows. 

Google does have App Inventor for Android.  But App Inventor brings inescapable limitations.  App Inventor does not have a way for professionals to extract 'real' code from it, to extend.  It does what it does, and that's about all.  It may be fine for certain users to develop prototypes, but if those are successful, and the user then hires a professional to continue their work to a higher level, the professional, instead, has to start over, with a "more serious" tool set.

Android principally has Java (a full fledged language by any definition), and several open-source environments to develop Java in, with Eclipse appearing to be the leader.  Almost all Android apps are produced with one of these and the Android development kits supplied by Google.  But the learning curve for any of these combinations of tools is steep.  There is fragmentation evident in the tools, and the quantity of "busy work" that is still required from developers has been, to me, staggering.  Why should anyone have to memorize which API version corresponds with which system version and/or codename?  Mechanical details should be mechanically reproduced, period.  And mechanical differences should be mechanically compensated for.  The development tools should simply do what the user commands, and prompt at compile time for options.  If necessary when code utilizing new features is entered, advise the user at that time that platform compatibility is being reduced.  And when compile time comes, the tools should build as many distinct versions as are necessary to support all the platforms targeted, from a single code base.

Twenty years after VB1, and the entry bar is somehow higher?  The bar should never go higher.  It should be our job to keep it down, and even to drag it ever lower.  Systems get more complex, and languages too, but there's always room to build bridges.  In my opinion, we developers spend too much time trying to think up and make "the next thing," to work only on our immediate problems, compared to the time we invest in making the future easier for everyone.  When I entered the field in the 1970s, it was clear to me that part of our mission as software developers was to deliver the computing resources to others with ever-increasing usability.  There may be some doubt about computers ever achieving the power to interpret human language directly into programs, but there can be no doubt that we can approach such a goal far more closely than anything currently does.  In my years as a VB consultant, many clients came to me with programming needs that could be adequately explained, verbally, in an hour, with a few hours of follow-up question and answer sessions later.  That's not really such a large quantity of human speech.  The information contained therein constituted the design of an application, but the hard part was turning those ideas into code.  There will probably always be a "hard part" between human imagination and software implementation, but reducing it, and automating more of it, should be major goals of the entire software industry.  Right now, every Android developer needs to accomplish a daunting quantity of repetitive mechanical tasks over and over, for every platform version of every app they work on.  Most of that should just be done by the tools.  Better tools make everyone more productive.  It's a tide that does raise all boats.

The tool set today is just not adequate, and I don't believe there's any technical reason it can't be.  Whether the answer is a whole new set of tools, or just more and better extensions to existing ones like Eclipse, is unimportant.  Perhaps there's even a way to rework App Inventor to emit Java code - but I suspect the limitations of the existing tool may still be too harsh.  I think the most productive path is probably extending Eclipse and the SDKs.  VB was one of the pioneers of the Integrated Development Environment, and Eclipse certainly qualifies as an IDE, but when dealing specifically with Android, Eclipse currently just isn't integrated enough.  Someone needs to take that on, and create a professional grade tool set for Android that will be as approachable for 'domain experts' of 2013 as VB 3.0 was for those of 1993.

...Anybody want to help me form a startup?

May. 10th, 2011

Android USB Accessories

A quick short note this time...

Android devices such as my own Droid X will soon support USB accessory devices.  I haven't read all the releases yet, but at the very least, I'm sure we'll be able to control arudino devices.  Not that I've built any ... but they're pretty cool geek toys.

But the accessory I would buy instantly is a tiny tiny webcam, if it has excellent macro capabilities.  The obvious use would be with a very short cable to clip onto my (single camera) phone for video conferencing.  But I would also use it with a few feet of cable as an inspection camera.  Sometimes as a substitute for my reading glasses, like the other day when I freed a micro-SD card from an apparently stuck clamp, and sometimes for things a mirror just can't do.  I have a family history of melanoma, and though I usually remember my sunscreen, that's not always enough.  A tiny inexpensive camera could have a lot of uses in home health care.  Not only checking out the spot on my back that (so far) always turns out to be nothing, but if it didn't, I should be able to snap a picture and email it to my doctor.  If such a micro-cam has an LED illuminator, moms could use it when kids feel ill, so that a medical professional in conference could look for strep throat, ear infections ... whatever.  If such tools became common, health care facilities could dedicate staff to making almost "house calls" without ever again losing a minute to travel time.

Mar. 20th, 2011

What I want from Near Field Communication (NFC)

(looking for a place to publish this.  If you're an editor, I welcome help trimming my usual verbosity)

NFC is a technology poised for a consumer explosion.  That could be good and bad ... and probably will be both.

NFC is a radio wave technology for the exchange of data over very short ranges (4 cm).  Like Bluetooth and Wi-fi, NFC uses radio waves, but at very low power.  The same technology as contact-less payment cards.  NFC devices can also read passive devices such as proximity cards and RFID tags, inductively supplying energy sufficient to power the other device.  If both devices are powered, communication over slightly longer ranges (up to 20cm) could be possible.

NFC phones are already in use in a number of locations outside the US, such as transit payment systems in Japan.  The latest handset from Google, the Nexus S, has NFC, the iPhone5 has been rumored to have it, and then to not have it. Even for those who would not upgrade just for NFC, we may soon see retro-fit devices in the form of replacement memory cards with NFC support built in.  These probably will only be effective with certain phone models, depending on factors such as metal in the phone shells - which might shield the antennae from working.

If you search around the usual places, there's not a lot of information (yet) about NFC and how we can expect it to work for us.  Which could mean there's still time for our opinions to be heard about how it should be.

Many in the US have already seen the terminals we can "wave" special proximity smart-cards over, enabling a transaction "in mid air" as widely featured on commercials for certain payment cards.  These same or very similar terminals will work with NFC enabled phones as well.  One day soon, we will probably be able to wave our phone across such a terminal at the end of our grocery check-out line, and not only use NFC to authorize payment from our bank card, but also to receive a fully itemized and detailed digital receipt document, paperlessly.

That alone will certainly simplify my own life noticeably.  Like a lot of people, I actually keep paper receipts for at least a few weeks, stashing them in an actual old shoe box, and occasionally searching through the box when something needs to be returned or exchanged.  Several times each year, I go through the box, throwing most into a shredder, but saving a few into my "next year's taxes" folder.  Of course it would be even better if I started using a financial record keeping application, too.  Digital receipts might be just the incentive.

The radio technology of NFC is similar to that of the anti-theft devices for which we are getting used to walking through "gates" of detection antennas as we enter and exit stores.  There is little doubt that many of the same "gates" will soon also capture any identity data that's available in mid-air as we pass.  Where we've been (and what we've bought) are extremely interesting information commodities in commerce right now.  Like a scene right out of certain science fiction movies, we may soon find ourselves treated to advertising tailored specifically to us as we pass by.  Some billboards we walk past will be capable of talking specifically to us, even by name!  And perhaps more importantly, they will know what we have recently purchased, and probably more about our purchase histories than even we can remember.  These targeted advertisements could happen even without NFC, using the tiny passive RFID data tags already placed into some merchandise.  In fact, NFC technology is somewhat compatible with RFID technology, which may bring us features like being able to directly scan products with our phones while inside stores, for pricing, inventory, and more.  We may be able to snip out some of our old RFID tags, to recycle as shopping list reminders.  What's even more attractive to me personally is that we may be able to use our phones to finally locate those annoying lost security tags which occasionally set off the in-store alarms when we walk in.

There definitely are NFC features already imagined which can be time- and work-savers for typical consumer users.  Here's a scenario I imagine from my own future, making a stop for gas:

At the pump-based payment station, there's a rubberized holder where I can set my phone or tablet down safely, at a readable angle.  [Once charging-mat technology becomes common, these may even supply a little charging current to any mobile device as a courtesy service.]  I rest my phone on it, and the nearby ATM-like keypad asks for a PIN.  My phone displays several options: PIN, one-time-PIN, Repeat customer, and Cancel.  I have not stopped at this particular station before, so I choose "one-time-PIN", and my phone invents and shows me an ephemeral PIN.  I enter that into the terminal keypad, and both screens confirm.  Once the connection is confirmed, I put the phone back in my pocket,  and begin pumping gas.  With the pump latch set, I can walk to the "mart" to grab a bottle of water and maybe a snack.  Inside the "mart" I encounter a self-checkout terminal, which has a similar "shelf" where I could place my phone, but I notice there's also a hip-level pad, which I choose to brush momentarily against.  The checkout station recognizes my phone and asks for my PIN, which I can remember for five minutes, so I enter it.  (Or my phone can remind me, or I can have it generate another new PIN)  I scan my items, press a "done" key on the station, and depart.  Back outside, the payment station offers to review my receipt so far.  When pumping is done, I press YES and it itemizes all my purchases in a single transaction.  Even though my phone is still in my pocket and out of NFC range, my identity is known, and the receipt information can be forwarded to me via email, and  made available to my bank's online banking and record keeping.  If I was anxious to see this receipt, I could have put my phone on their cradle before completing the transaction, and expect to receive it immediately.

On another day, I visit a regular gas-stop, to which I've been many times (perhaps it's on my commute route).  Ignoring their holder/shelf, I simply turn so that my phone, in my pocket, is presented to a hip-level antenna/pad.  The screen greets me by name, and I begin the pumping process.  I have pre-authorized this familiar station, and maybe one or two other regular stops, and chosen not to even use a PIN.  When I'm done, I simply leave, confident that my receipt will be in my virtual shoebox if I ever wish to look for it.  

My car, on the other hand, knowing that the filler door has been operated, later interrogates my phone for the purchase information so that it can compute recent gas mileage.  My hypothetical car uses NFC via my phone for keyless ignition, and I dock it for GPS navigation.  In fact I might prefer that my car send an odometer record to my phone for every trip, so that I can track company mileage later.  New cars may have several NFC antennas, on the dash and in or near the seats.

Arriving at the address of a business appointment, I place my phone momentarily on the receptionist's counter, and my calendar communicates with theirs, immediately identifying who I am for their guest badge printer, showing my picture on their screen for security, and downloading web-based directions for me to the meeting room.  I smile and thank the busy receptionist, everything we each need was automatically prepared for us this time.  Since I'm a little early, I click the "restroom" link in my directions, for a slight adjustment to my path through the hallways.

Another day, in an unfamiliar shopping mall, I wave my phone past a symbol on an information kiosk, and a searchable map is downloaded to my phone.  As I walk thorough the mall, the map doesn't seem to be updating - perhaps my GPS is blocked - so I pass my phone next to a symbol at a store doorway, where a passive RFID tag identifies the store address, updating my map location.  Malls could mount passive location tags at every doorway, kiosk, hallway, and intersection, and shoppers could navigate precisely even without GPS.  At one point I happen to choose a restaurant to update my position, and I also receive a link if I want to click to see today's specials!  A little later another mall kiosk catches my attention - a temporary display on loan from a local museum.  A passive tag next to the display provides information on the curios, and links to the museum's web site.  Another billboard catches my attention with a movie I might like to see later, and an active tag there supplies mall theater data to the movie ticket purchasing app already on my phone.  I purchase two tickets.  Reaching the store I initially wanted, a tag at their doorway downloads an internal map, which directs me to the department I was seeking.  At checkout, the clerk scans my items, then I simply set my phone on the counter, enter my PIN on the store keypad, and both payment and my receipt are exchanged in seconds.  Meeting my friend at the movie theater, we proceed directly to the ticket-taking usher. I wave my phone over his podium, and his display confirms my ticket purchase and tells him which hallway to direct us to.  After the movie, my friend and I investigate that restaurant, and over the dessert special, we also wave our phones together, to participate in a feature of a new popular online game we both play - where bonuses shared in person via NFC are a little more valuable than those shared in other ways.

Why isn't NFC already popular in the US?  The articles I have located mostly point to security concerns.  Since the main "selling point" of the technology has been mobile commerce, almost every bit of NFC tech has been focused on payment systems.  Maybe we're more security-aware in the US, maybe we actually have more "high tech bad guys" or maybe we're hedging our bets waiting for other countries to work the kinks out first.  In any event, end users know that when it comes to payments, easier to use probably means easier to steal.

Already I have credit cards that do not require my signature for purchases under certain price thresholds.  I'm not entirely happy about this, because I know that the card issuers are simply making me pay for a share of the fraud they call "too small" to fight.  I want new technologies to make credit card frauds harder, not easier.  I may want the card companies to be forced to clean up the fraud, instead of just sweeping it under their rug of merchant fees.  But that illustrates that it's not really an NFC issue.  If the purchaser doesn't have to supply any identifying data to confirm a purchase, thieves need only capture what's readable from the card, or phone, and that may be possible from just being next to the victim in a crowd. Even the combination of an ATM card with a secret PIN can be defeated by determined ATM thieves.

With NFC, we have an opportunity to increase user security, because the device is smart, and programmable.  We can build systems which allow each user to make choices about how easy they want their purchasing to be.  In my gas station scenario, I suggested a scheme with PIN options given to the user, so they could choose levels of security for their purchases, perhaps different levels at different merchants.  The PIN procedures I have imagined probably have security holes I didn't spot, but I’m certain those can be identified and worked out.  It is clear that the "wave and go" simplest scenario has essentially no security at all.  Virtual pickpockets can queue up a transaction, then merely need to bump past you in a crowd, to get your phone's identity data and complete their theft.  Someone good at working a crowd could probably achieve many small thefts per hour.  It has been reported that there are already virtual pickpockets in some cities, scanning crowds for smart card data that can be captured just by proximity.  I am convinced this will only increase, and rather than fight it effectively, the card processing companies would prefer to do as they always have - spread the losses across the customer base in the form of nearly-invisible fees (paid by merchants, who have no choice, and obviously passed on in the form of higher prices for everyone).  With NFC, and the addition of smart devices which for the most part can use additional communications channels at the same time, we can add additional layers of security through things such as looking up web site security certificates over our phone's data link, to verify the identity and authenticity of any devices with which we make NFC connections.

Do we want the same payment conveniences the rest of the world is beginning to enjoy?  Personally, I say no, but with just a few considerations to greater security, I probably could favor it.  But I could get that payment convenience today with just a contactless payment card, which I can keep secure in a shielded wallet.  I want the highly detailed digital receipts, but in theory, the payment card company could collect all the required data and email that to me.  Though I'd still have to email it to my (theoretical) car for that mileage computation.  


I believe I have illustrated that not everything about NFC needs to get bogged down in the security world of payments.  There are many other useful exchanges of data which NFC can make possible.  The tools are reaching developers now - it's up to us to think of even more uses.  Geo-location, local information, maps and directions.  Ticketing and check-ins. Game play. Paperless receipts - perhaps even with web links, security photos (of the items, and the person purchasing), and inventory information attached, communicated directly into the user's record keeping database of choice.  And mobile commerce with enhanced security. By some fairly recent reports, Apple may have decided not to include NFC in the next revision of their iOS family (iPhone5, etc.).  This could represent a major opportunity for Android.  It could also be a misstep: if Apple's reservations are correct, and another technology can be brought to market quickly enough to displace NFC.  But NFC is already making progress in other countries, so even if important issues remain to be worked out, NFC probably won't be disappearing right away.

== bio ==

I'm Bob O'Brien.  I think about stuff all the time.  I can't help it, it's just how my wires are connected.  I examine things; I imagine how unbuilt things should function; I imagine what might go wrong, and I then think up ways to fix it.  If there isn't enough information, I'm not afraid to guess. I'm willing to form an opinion, and I'm never afraid to change that opinion over new data.  To be shown wrong is fine, because it means I just learned something.  I love to learn.

Jan. 11th, 2011

Sorely disappointed in my own generation right now

We, who were teenagers at the time men were walking on the moon, have seemingly done nothing at all to show even that much of a "long term view" for the future of mankind.

We're crapping in our own nest, barely able to even slow down the rate at which we build NEW coal fired power plants. Tremendous effort and resources are wasted on the question of whether climate change WAS anthropogenic, while the real question should be what we CAN do about it going forward. Do a web search on "Carbon sequestration" and see ridiculous amounts of time (of some very smart people), energy, and resources being poured down a boondoggle rat-hole when the PERFECT method is so trivial --> burn less coal, in fact don't even mine so much in the first place. The relative energy savings would be huge. Has anybody pointed out to you lately that coal mining kills a few thousand people every year? Compare that to nuclear energy, even if there was a Chernobyl every 40 or so years (which actually there probably doesn't have to ever be another).

And politics ... sheesh! But my personal theory is that politics being so out of control is actually just a result of the runaway of the portion of the for-profit entertainment media.which claims to be "news." I won't climb that soapbox just right now.

Aug. 22nd, 2010

I'm back

We meet again, Livejournal.

Maybe there will be more, this time.

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