Software Nerd

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Municipal Wireless R.I.P.

Free or cheap "municipal Internet" schemes are dying all over the country. Over the last year, computer magazines have reported the failures; today, the NY Times picked up the story. Good riddance!

Some companies (Earth-link in particular) wanted to place wifi routers on city utility-poles. Cities saw an opportunity. Without paying out cash, they could trade this new-found asset (access to utility poles) for a certain number of discounted or free connections. The city would be paying (in the form of access-rights) and tax-payers would never know!

The plans ran into one big problem: paid alternatives are cheap!

High-speed access prices are low, and access is already widespread. Voters aren't clamouring for a city-provided Internet connection at $15 a month, when their current high-speed DSL is under $30. Not enough people were signing up for the few projects that had started to go live.

As for the wireless part, there was never even a plausible socialist argument for giving poor people wireless access wherever they roamed! For those people who want it, Verizon and others do a good job. For about $40 a month, one can be connected anywhere your cell-phone will work.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Snow plowing

Today, we had a surprise March snow -- enough to close schools and make 10 year olds beam. While doing the driveway, I was thinking of a Burt Rutan speech. He says that space travel has been slow because the government has handled it. An integration slipped into place: street snow-plowing is just "okay-ish", with little innovation over the decades. It is likely because most street-plowing is done by government or contracted out by government.

A couple of years ago, I had a little idea about improving snow-plowing of streets (post is below). It's an abstract idea; but, imagine someone could made an invention along these lines. Since it does not address costs, but addresses quality of service, he'd have a harder time selling the idea.

Newer sub-divisions often handle their own snow-plowing, by contracting it out. So, that's a good market: a contracting company that can say, "If you use us, we'll leave your driveways clear!" Some of the richer cities might like the idea too: "when you buy your next snow-truck, buy our intelligent version"!! However, to the extent that city governments handle snow-plowing, that puts a damper on innovation in that little area.

=================The Feb 2006 post =================

Pictured here is a typical snow-truck that clears the roads.

Residents of winter states know what happens when the snow-truck has gone through the neighborhood. The pile of snow that now lines both sides of the street also blocks your driveway. This is an inconvenience. Often, one has cleaned the driveway and left for work. One returns to a little pile of snow across the entrance to the driveway. If you drive over it, it ices up.

Now, consider this snow-blower truck, typically used at airports. Rather than pushing the snow a little to the side, it blows it, much like a vacuum cleaner ... much like the snow-blowers folks use on their driveways. It's probably more expensive than a regular snow-truck. Won't work in neighborhoods and regular streets, because the snow will be blown where you don't want it.

Now consider this.
Step 1: Take the snow-blower truck and make the blower less powerful: more like a "snow dropper", just powerful enough to lift the snow into a small repository, from where it is immediately deposited at the side of the truck. The net-effect would be similar to the snow-truck: a line of snow piled by the side of the road.

Step 2: Now, add the ability to pause the "dropping" for short durations. Assume the snow receptacle can hold enough to allow it to be paused for a few yards at a time. Now, all we need is a way to pause it at the right places: like in front of my driveway :)

Step 3: If ought not to be too hard or expensive to have a device that uses some kind of beam pointed a little ahead and a little to the side of the truck, detecting the presence of grass/mud versus driveway asphalt/concrete. Get this to work reasonably well, and one has the control mechanism for the "dropper".

The net result is a slightly tall pile along the streets, except at the driveway entrances, where there's none.

Further Improvement: In some neighborhoods, it would be better to detect cars parked by the side of the road, and deal with that too.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Dangerous Middle could work against "Gridlock"

From a comment on another blog, I gather that some people are using the term "The perfect middle", to describe the (supposedly) new-found commonality between the "left" and the "right" in U.S. politics. Yikes!

Many U.S. voters are in the "middle". Even among people who think of themselves as Democrat or Republican, many do not agree with their own party's "extreme" positions.

Many "independent" voters do not hold much of an explicit political philosophy. They aren't like Objectivists who have strong views on an ideal political system, but do not like either party. Rather, the typical "independent" has accepted the principles of current status quo. He thinks that the problems lie only in implementation (i.e. bad politicians), not with political philosophy.

A variant of this can be found in poorer countries, where lots of "middle" voters will tell you that the basic (socialist-leaning_ philosophy of their country is just fine, if only their politicians would be less corrupt and focus on honest implementation.

I picture the Dems and GOP members as if they are all standing on top of a long lever, with the pivot in the middle. Simplifying greatly, on any particular issue the GOP stand on one side and the Dems on the other. Most policies are enacted near the center of gravity. For example, at one end, people want Medicare to take on much more, while at the other people want to curtail it. The result is a plan that increases it a little, but adds some "private-provider" choices. Similarly, at one end people want abortions banned, while at the other people want few laws restricting abortions. The result is a law that restricts "partial birth" abortions.

The thing is: if people from both "extremes" walk toward the middle, the center-of-gravity remains unchanged.

I have a hypothesis though: even though the center-of-gravity remains unchanged in the middle, the more people there are crowding around the middle, the faster and more likely such policies will get enacted at all. As long as enough people from both sides are far from the middle, they will delay and fight changes, and government is slowed down a bit.

This annoys the typical independent "in the middle", because they see the bickering and the "gridlock" and think it's bad. They want their politicians to stop fighting, and meet at the middle.

On the contrary, I fear the smoother government and the lack of grid-lock could be far worse. Given the center-of-gravity of political opinion today, my recommendations is" "Don't anybody move".