Wednesday, June 15, 2005

[Privacy] GPS for your own good

Last year, a UK insurance company tested a "pay as you drive" insurance system that uses a GPS receiver package to track exactly what distance a car is driven and set each month's premium accordingly. It's a sensible idea: If you leave your car in the garage for a month, there's no reason why you should be charged the same as someone who drove 500 miles over the same period. Even better, because the instruments are transmitting (not just recording), if your car is stolen it can easily be tracked and the miscreants apprehended.

So what?

The system has some interesting potential side effects. For one thing, the police (or an estranged spouse) could easily subpoena your "travel records" for use in an investigation. The insurance company could also start charging based on where your car spends time: Long periods in high-crime neighborhoods would affect your premium accordingly. Even more provocative, companies could begin collecting data on their customers' driving habits: when and how much they speed, how often they change lanes, their tendency to accelerate rapidly or slam on the brakes, and other features of their driving performance that could (potentially) correlate with accident data.

Really good analytics might even indicate when someone is driving in an impaired state (such as he just saw his latest premium notice and is in shock). But the most intriguing and perhaps lifesaving possibility comes when you hook the insurance company's server to a SPAM phone dialer and arrange for a deep, authoritative, machine-generated voice to call and remonstrate with customers who are speeding or otherwise driving recklessly. (Of course, you'll be able to cut the irony with a knife if answering the phone distracts you so much that…you get the idea.)

Monday, June 13, 2005

[Java] Tim Bray on Java Generics, Arrays, and Comparables

Tim Bray bangs his head against the wall when using Java generics. I just turned off the compiler warnings in Eclipse. I don't care how powerful generics are, the syntax is ugly and the effects are unpredictable.

Anyhow, a Comparable isn’t a Comparable any more, it’s a Comparable, and an Integer isn’t a Comparable any more, it’s a Comparable, and you’re going to get unsafe-comparison whines every time you try to compile anything (and worse, your API’s customers will too).

Then when you try to paramaterize it all with generics you’ll discover that Comparable is kind of surprising, and then you’ll discover there are all sorts of problems with arrays of parameterized types. Anyhow, after pursuing a maze of twisty little Java-Generics passages around the Internet (I read Gilad’s explanation of the unsafeness of generic arrays seven or eight times, even), I stumbled on the key resources to explain this stuff: Peter Williams of Sussex University on Generic arrays, and this excerpt from Java in a Nutshell by David Flanagan, which I totally have to buy. To summarize, the key incantations are:

public interface Page<K extends Comparable<K>>
public class LocalPage<K extends Comparable<K>> implements Page<K>
Pair<K>[] p = (Pair<K>[]) new Pair[size];

On that last one, you have to be prepared to ignore the unchecked-cast warning (and it would be good to read Gilad’s piece so you understand why it happens).

ACM Ubiquity: Immersed in the Future: Randy Pausch on the Future of Education

And so, when people say, well, how do you feel having a career doing all this frivolity, I hasten to point out that the number of computer science majors in America last year declined by 23 percent. The direct implications to American productivity, quality of life and educated citizenry and national defense could not be more stark. Not producing enough computer scientists is a mission-critical way to fail for a modern society, and I'm the only guy in town that I know of with a potential solution to that problem. Yet I'm the one being called frivolous?

I know Randy's been criticized for working on research considered "non-serious", but he's got an important point here. It sort of reminds me of when people start out saying, "if only people were better, then we could...". Well, the problem is that millenia of recorded human history strongly suggest that people aren't better, and it's a fact we have to deal with. And if being entertaining improves retention, learning, and quality of life, why does it have to be an either-or choice?

I like this quote:

It's not an accident that the highest rates of academic dishonesty occur in introductory programming courses, and that's not just because it's mechanically easy to copy code; the reason is that we put people into the most frustrating situation in the world...

I imagine, if you wanted people to cheat the most in freshman composition, you would say, you have to write a five-page paper, and you can't use any tools other than some very crude editing system that doesn't do spelling correction or anything else. You submit your five-page paper, and if there's any spelling or grammatical errors in it, you get told there's a problem in your paper somewhere on page two. And if you can beat your way all the way through that, then you get to submit your five-page paper, and the professor will read it and grade it on its merits. Oh, and by the way, this course will be taught in Sanskrit. I mean, literally, that's what we do to people in intro programming. And then we have a community of people who, I think it's a fair assessment, that if you measured the social skills across the disciplines, computer scientists, shall I be generous and say, won't end up in the top half. And we wonder why a lot of people never take their first programming course. And if they do, we don't get a lot of them to go on to a second one.

[Privacy] NYTimes: Take My Privacy, Please!

Ted Koppel correctly notes that there are many privacy threats greater than the PATRIOT Act. One problem, however, is that just because the PATRIOT act is a lesser concern, does not mean that it is not an important concern.

Part of its mission statement, as found on the OnStar Web site, is the creation of "safety, security and peace of mind for drivers and passengers with thoughtful wireless services that are always there, always ready."

As an aside, I was in the Barnes and Nobles last week, and couldn't help but skim through the Revenge of the Sith book. The part I was most interested, though, was how Palpatine actually convinced the Senate to go along with his scheme of creating the Empire, framing it in terms of peace, justice, and security. Supposedly, Lucas based this portion on Richard Nixon and on Hitler taking over the Reichstag.

There's something about these themes of "peace, justice, and security" that just targets our reptile brains, short-circuiting our thinking brains and makes it impossible to think through these issues rationally.

And here's a good quote from Tivo:

And how about all the information collected by popular devices like TiVo, the digital video recorder that enables you to watch and store an entire season's worth of favorite programs at your own convenience? ... No one is suggesting that TiVo tracks what each subscriber records and replays. But could they, if they needed to? That's unclear, although TiVo does have a privacy policy. "Your privacy," it says in part, "is very important to us. Due to factors beyond our control, however, we cannot fully ensure that your user information will not be disclosed to third parties."

Thursday, June 09, 2005

[Location] CNN: Google tinkerers make data come alive

Google charts each point on its maps by latitude and longitude -- that's how Google can produce driving directions to practically anywhere in the nation. Seasoned developers have figured out how to match these points with locations from outside databases that can contain vast amounts of information -- anything from police blotters to real estate listings.

Thanks to Adrian Holovaty, 24, who overlayed Chicago Police Department crime statistics on a Google map, house-hunters in the Albany Park neighborhood can pinpoint all the sexual assaults in the district between May 19 and April 19 on a single map. With each crime marked by a virtual pushpin, Chicagoans can quickly learn what dangerous train stations, pool rooms and alleys to avoid.


Visitors to, which combines Google Maps with data on convicted sex offenders, can call up maps of their communities and click on the pushpins to see the name, last known address and mug shot of each offender.

Drivers searching for their area's cheapest gas can go to, which blends Google Maps with data from's database of prices at individual gas stations.

Home buyers can pinpoint the locations of houses in their price range at And renters can turn to, which melds the technologies of Craigslist and Google, to spot available housing in 29 cities including San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Microsoft is finding customers for its cell phone location server

Junk remover 1-800-Got-Junk is among the first to use a specialized Microsoft server to incorporate real-time location information into maps and driving directions generated by Microsoft MapPoint Web Service, the companies announced on Monday.


The Microsoft offering lets 1-800-Got-Junk pack capabilities into cell phones for its drivers, such as pushing a single cell phone button to adjust a delivery route on the fly should they get lost...

The deal is a sign that the market for location-based services is starting to catch on among businesses. However, the technology has not yet caught on among the general public. While Microsoft has had some success with selling location information--it has more than 500 corporate customers generating 20 million maps and directions a day--Seinfeld conceded that it has been difficult getting consumers interested.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

[HCI-Sec] Pet Photos for Bank of America

Now here's an interesting idea. I wonder what kinds of attacks scammers will try on this...

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - What could make you feel more at ease than a picture of your dog, Scruffy?

Bank of America (Research) will require Internet clients to register their computers and assign a digital image, such as a photo of a pet, to their accounts in an effort to cut down on fraud, the bank announced.

The free service, called SiteKey, lets clients pick an image, write a brief phrase and select three challenge questions.

The image will appear on the site every time a customer has to enter a password.