Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Fundamental Ubicomp Issue #1 - World Models

One cross-cutting aspect common to many ubicomp applications is the need for a world model, some computational representation of the physical world. Some issues here include:

  • Using sensors and existing data sources to acquire and update the model
  • The precision and accuracy of that model with ground truth (ie the real world)
  • Coming up with standard representations that can be shared across multiple apps
  • Controlling how the world model is shared with others
  • Mediating the conflict between high-fidelity models with privacy

The last two points are especially interesting ones, and point to a larger question with respect to ubicomp. It seems that the more reliable and more fine-grained ubicomp world models are, the less inherent plausible deniability there is. Imagine if you could no longer tell white lies on the cell phone about where you were or what you were doing. In a perfect system, there is no place to hide.

Of course I'm pushing an extreme case, but here's another way of thinking about it. Perhaps we should build ubicomp systems to have some inherent level of ambiguity in them, as one way of managing the privacy issues that will inevitably arise.
I wonder how long it will be before we start seeing egregious uses of location-enabled cell phones.


Earlier this month, mobile tracking firm Xora showed off the latest version of its Nextel GPS (global positioning system) phone software. The company says 1,600 corporate customers have signed up for its services, including "geofences" technology that sets off an alarm at the office when field workers go to preprogrammed off-limits sites, such as a bar or a park.

"There's no electro shock--yet," Xora CEO Sanjay Shirole said.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

[Privacy] Some Privacy Quotes

"You know it when you lose it."
-- David Flaherty

"My own hunch is that Big Brother, if he comes to the United States, will
turn out to be not a greedy power-seeker but a relentless bureaucrat
obsessed with efficiency"
-- Vance Packard

Privacy is "ultimately a psychological construct, with malleable ties
to specific objective conditions"
-- Jonathan Grudin, 2001

"Numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what
is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the housetops.'"
-- Brandeis and Warren

Open Video Project

Now this is a very cool resource for finding videos online. Let's you type in keywords, see similar searches, and most importantly, find useful videos. Link goes to a search for videos on "ubiquitous computing".

Are Privacy and Security Vitamins or Aspirins?

Just finished a talk for Topics in Privacy where I was making the case that both privacy and security are vitamins rather than aspirin.

The old saw goes that businesses need to provide aspirin, that is solve an immediate problem, rather than provide vitamins, something that we all know is good for us but we don't do. The observation here is that privacy and security seem to be more of vitamins, something we know we should have in our systems and something we know we should take more care of, but rarely do.

This insight struck me while I was reading the New York Times Magazine, more specifically The Autonomist's Manifesto.

When this experiment began in 1996, some critics said it was unfair to create these ''Lexus lanes.'' But by now, even drivers who won't pay the toll have come to appreciate the lanes because they divert traffic from the regular highway. And while affluent drivers are more likely to pay the bill, surveys have found people of all incomes using the lanes. Most of the ones I interviewed were budget-conscious, middle-class commuters who used the free lanes when possible. But when the traffic got heavy, they considered the toll a bargain.

''Isn't it worth a couple of dollars to spend an extra half-hour with your family?'' said T.J. Zane, a political consultant who drives a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta. ''That's what I used to spend on a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Now I've started bringing my own coffee and using the money for the toll.''

These toll lanes have become so popular that they're being extended 12 miles farther out of town, and the concept of variable tolls has become highway engineers' favorite solution to traffic jams. After decades of working on technological fixes like beam-control roads, they've turned to basic economics instead. They now see traffic jams as the equivalent of bread lines in the Soviet Union, a consequence of an unimaginative monopoly run by politicians loath to charge the market price for a valuable commodity. To be fair to the Soviet politicians, though, at least they didn't blame the public for the problem that they created. They didn't promote a smart-diet program urging people to eat less bread.

The privacy risks here are in how the monitoring system could be used for purposes beyond congestion control, but interestingly, privacy isn't mentioned at all. Again, vitamins versus aspirin.

It all reminds me of that famous quote by Vance Packard: ""My own hunch is that Big Brother, if he comes to the United States, will turn out to be not a greedy power-seeker but a relentless bureaucrat obsessed with efficiency."

Make Your Custom Parts Online

This is pretty amazing, you can design custom physical parts and then have them created and then sent to you. From a research perspective, it would be really interesting if you could add behaviors to them (ie smart objects), or have a rapid prototyping tool that would make it easy to mock up some things before having to endure the cycle of waiting and finding that it wasn't exactly what you wanted.

Friday, September 24, 2004

[Just Plain Weird] If Chewbacca Wore Pants

And now, something completely off-topic...


"I remember the memos from 20th Century Fox," Hamill said. " 'Can you put a pair of lederhosen on the Wookie?' All they could think of was, 'This character has no pants on!' This went back and forth. They did sketches of him in culottes and baggy shorts."

Thursday, September 23, 2004

What a Difference 6 Years Make

Amazing, if you think about it, how Google has become so pervasive that almost everyone uses it as a verb, ie "to Google". Even more amazing was that it didn't exist 6 years ago. I think WiFi is the only thing that belongs in this category.


Google began in 1998 as an academic research project by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, who were then graduate students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Interesting continuation of the smart mobs idea expounded by Rheingold.


Wireless dating or Bluedating (from Bluetooth) is a form of dating which makes use of mobile phone and bluetooth technologies. Subscribers to the service enter details about themselves and about their ideal partner, as they would for other on-line dating services. When their mobile phone comes in the vicinity of that of another subscriber (a radius of about 10 meters) the phones exchange details of the two people (the vicinity can be a public and populated space too, like a pub, a street, plaza and so on). If there is a match then they are alerted and can seek each other out and directly chat using text bluetooth (bluechat). Settings can include an option which restricts alerts to subscribers who have a friend in common.

Not so promising results for Pittsburgh WiFi Wardriving

Data looks sparse, doesn't look good for PlaceLab support. Surely there must be more people here in Pittsburgh using WiFi.

[Research] Coolest Journal Name Ever

ACM Transactions on Architecture and Code Optimization (TACO)

Thursday, September 16, 2004

News of the Weird - The Data Nouse

"A Canadian inventor has designed a computer mouse steered by movements of the nose and eyelids. The invention, dubbed a "Nouse," is meant to help people with a disability use a computer."


I hope the inventor didn't get inspiration from this paper...

A Nose Gesture Interface Device: Extending Virtual Realities

This paper reports on the development of a nose-machine interface device that provides real-time gesture, position, smell and facial expression information. The DATA NOSETM — Data AtomaTa CORNUCOPIA pNeumatic Olfactory I/O-deviSE Tactile Manipulation[Olsen86, Myers91] — allows novice users without any formal nose training to perform complex interactive tasks.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The Most Sobering Statement Ever Made

"Sometimes, I say it this way -- it's kind of a tag line -- but I think it's not incorrect to say that there are at least three and a half or four billion people on this planet who believe that they have nothing to lose from the decline of the West...

Now is the time at which we need to stand up and say what we think that world ought to look like for all those other people, as well as ourselves, five or seven years out, and start building institutions that move things in that direction in a way that people see as being honest, an honest effort and a willingness to experiment, and a willingness to bear costs for those experiments, because most of them will fail. And a willingness to call them a failure and move on to the next experiment, in which case we can probably maintain some hope for ourselves and everyone else. But if we don't do that, if we keep postponing that vision, then we're fighting a losing battle and it will only get more expensive over time."

106 mobile phones per 100 people in Taiwan

"Asia/Middle East averaged only 12 per 100, but Taiwan's national rate was the highest in the world, at 106 mobile phones per 100 persons."

Sort of makes you wonder what one does with the extra phones.

First Federal Conviction for Wardriving

Interesting article, though unfortunately confuses the term "wardriving" with
actually using an open WiFi port.


WiFi - Was That Wardriving or Joyriding?

Wardriving. Even if you don't know what it is, you know that it
must be illegal. And if you have any doubts, federal prosecutors
don't. On August 3, they announced that Paul Timmins had pleaded
guilty to a single count of fraudulent and unauthorized WiFi access
to the private corporate network of a Lowe's store.

Timmins stumbled on the network while engaged in "wardriving" -
the practice of driving around with a laptop computer while
looking for open wireless connections. In this case, he found one -
in the parking lot of a Lowe's store in suburban Detroit.
Timmins' guilty plea in the U.S. District Court for the Western
District of North Carolina marks what is believed to be the first wardriving conviction in the US. Whether you think that's a good
idea depends on whether you've ever used an unknown WiFi port to
connect to the Internet, which the US Justice Department seems
to think is a crime

Saturday, September 11, 2004

In Memoriam

On this third anniversary of a great loss, I hope some important words from the past will help guide our way into what will be a very difficult future:

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
- Abraham Lincoln

Tidbit of the Day - PhDComics

I was flipping through an old Georgia Tech yearbook, and saw that Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics, was an undergrad there the same time I was. Small world.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Broken Error Message

So I'm doing remote login to a machine to copy some web files, and I accidentally try to login as EECS Administrator (the administrator for the entire domain) rather than the local machine Administrator. This is a easy mistake to make, since you specify the domain separately from the user name.

An error is returned, stating that the EECS Administrator account has expired, go see the Administrator.

Good Quote about Cats and Dogs

A friend of mine was at my house the other day when one of my cats jumped in his lap. "I love cats," he said, "I just wish they would come when you call them." I said, "They have those. They're called dogs."

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Privacy - RFID Tech solutions

After seeing a public policy talk on RFIDs, I can't help but wonder if we're headed for a very difficult and muddled situation with respect to privacy.

One reason for this is that there is already a large base of RFIDs out there. Couple this with the expected wide deployment due to WalMart and the Department of Defense, the lack of any kind of meaningful control and feedback over disclosures, and the lack of coherent policy, and you've got a potentially bad situation coming in under the radar, despite the efforts of researchers, watch dog groups, and public policy makers to the contrary.

It seems that one fundamental problem here is that RFIDs can be used for so many different things. They can be used as keys (think cardkeys), financial payments (think FastTrak tolls or gas station key fobs), inventory trackers, as well as anti-theft devices. This one-size-fits-all approach makes it difficult to come up with meaningful solutions that maximize the real benefit while minimizing the foreseeable risks.

Crazy, Drunk, or Phone?

A little game I play is, whenever I see someone talking to themselves, try to guess whether they are crazy, drunk, or on the phone. I used to be pretty accurate, but I've noticed that it's been getting harder. For example, a while back, I thought this fairly well-dressed person in Berkeley was talking to someone on the phone, but I saw him the very next day standing on the same curb still chatting away, with wires near his ears or mouth.

I suspect with current technology trends, this game will be more interesting to play in the near future.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Friday, September 03, 2004

Communication as the Killer App for Ubicomp?

I've been slowly becoming convinced that communication is the killer app for ubicomp. There's actually more to this statement than is immediately obvious, because researchers have been talking about ubicomp for nearly 15 years, and have come up with lots of applications, very few of which are compelling. Seriously, does anyone really want their refrigerator to tell them to buy more milk?

Communication seems to be the key in many past applications, ranging from email to instant messenger to cell phones. By mixing location technologies, wireless communications, and multiple modes of input and output, ubicomp might be able to make new strides in this area, lowering barriers to entry and increasing the richness of communication with others.

Apparently, this is something that some social scientists have been arguing for a while (so my colleagues say), but only recently have tech researchers started thinking along these lines. Besides the basic human need for communication, the act of communicating seems to create a network positive effect. In other words, if I send a message, there's a likely expectation to receive a message.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Interesting Insights on B-Schools

Had lunch with a faculty member today, and he had this incredible insight into business schools.

Having went through Berkeley computer science PhD program, I had somewhat of an idea on how influential US News and World Reports was in terms of their rankings of grad programs. However, things seem far worse with business schools.

The basic issue here is that all business schools want to be in the top ten. However, one of the factors influencing rankings is how much money people make after they finish business school. Given this, what motivation do business schools have to really emphasize ethics? To encourage people to go into non-profits (who probably really could use the help of MBAs in developing feasible strategies)? To support people in going overseas and make a real difference in developing countries? Very little, because it would likely hurt their overall rankings.

I remember David Patterson once said in class, "For better or for worse, metrics define a field." This seems to be yet another hidden case of metrics just continuing the status quo.