Archive for the 'Ideas' Category

Project 535

Monday, October 31st, 2005

A couple weeks ago, one of the newsletters I follow carried this interesting tidbit:

The One-Topic Reporter
Wow. Journalism sure has changed. Case in point: Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Shawna Richer has been given the go-ahead to spend the entire 2004-05 hockey season covering the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hot rookie, Sidney Crosby, who hails from Canada and is considered the next Wayne Gretzky. That’s right, it’s all Crosby all the time.

According to this column at by Richard Deitsch, Richer has acquired a work visa, rented a one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh, and she’ll be writing stories that appear not only in the sports section but also on the newspaper’s front page (two to three times a week). And she’ll be blogging about Crosby daily (or near daily). …

So that’s one subject, one reporter — for an entire season.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I can see why following young Sidney might have some appeal. But it seems to me that if we’re going to start dedicating reporters to a single person, we could set our sights a little higher. Perhaps, say, Congress?

How many of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress have their own dedicated reporter? I’ll wager the answer is zero, which is quite a shame. Because there’s another group that’s lavishing them with attention: lobbyists.

Oh, sure, we all know they’re out there, but do we really know how many? According to WaPo, there are 34,785 registered lobbyists at the federal level — or roughly 65 per member, a 53% increase from even 5 years ago.

Billions are being spent in this effort, and the article notes that “big-bucks lobbying is luring nearly half of all lawmakers who return to the private sector when they leave Congress, according to a forthcoming study by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.” More ex-Members, more effective lobbying.

So I’m sure Sidney’s a good kid, and who knows, the Canadians might have very little to worry in their government. Me, I’d prefer that American dedicated reporters start up The Hill.

Truck Tracking

Monday, September 19th, 2005

For the last few weeks, I’ve had all sorts of random ideas about how I would try to organize the logistical and communication efforts surrounding the Katrina recovery effort. Here’s one:

Ever heard of ScoutPal? It’s a combination hardware/service product that involves a bar code scanner, a cell phone, and an Amazon lookup service. The basic idea is that you can cruise through crap at a garage sale, scan anything that looks interesting, and you’ll know instantly if there’s an online market for it. (Amazon Japan does something similar, but it’s even slicker — it can interpret a picture of a barcode sent via your cameraphone, and send back a price-check.) Anyway, phones with bar code capability is step one.

Step two is GPS. Ideally, this would be in the phone as well, such as Nextel units. (Last I checked, Nextel was the only manufacturer that allowed software programs to access the phone’s location hardware.)

So now the plan begins to take shape — using scanner-equipped Nextel handsets, you could place volunteers anywhere there’s coverage. What are they going to scan? Why, trucks of course. Before your major retailers, your aid agencies, your volunteer groups set off, ask them to visit a special website to fill out some simple information: what are you bringing, what amount, and where are you headed. The site could then record the information and spit back a PDF with a big barcode. The trucker could then slap that barcode on the side of his/her rig.

When a truck hit an important checkpoint — main intake center, disaster perimeter, destination, whatever — a team member with a phone could just run up and scan it. Instantly, the truck’s serial, location, and time could be recorded and beamed back (via SMS) to the mothership (and therefore to whomever else needed it, such as on-site professionals and the home organizations that originated the shipments.) It’s like FedEx/UPS tracking, but on the fly, and for all sorts of goods.

Of course, it depends heavily on available cell phone coverage, but I have ideas for that as well…

Why Not International Standard Movie Numbers?

Friday, May 6th, 2005

We’ve got ISBNs and ISSNs, I think it’s time to devise a system for tracking movies.

I’d like to see an ISMN for a number of reasons, chief among them that it would allow me to track movies I want to see far more easily. As it is, I have a collection of random text files, a category in Gjots, a few entered in IMDb’s “My Movies”, and of course the various scraps of paper.

Step 1 would be to consolidate those, of course, but step 2 would be to start providing tools that would keep track of the ISMNs, and then be on the lookout. Knowing that I was interested in seeing a film, my computer (or mobile phone, or whatever) could scan movie listings, Amazon/Netflix availability, and television schedules, returning relevant information as it comes in.

A unique serial number would prevent annoying glitches such as the one I spotted on Y! Movies the other day, in which they claimed my local theater was showing the 1995 release entitled Man of the House starring Chevy Chase, when in fact it was the unrelated 2005 film with Tommy Lee Jones. Harmless, perhaps, as there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d see either picture, but still an avoidable error.

ISMNs would also enable another dream of mine: differentiating versions. Almost two years ago, I suggested creating a list of DVD differences. My ISMN idea is a superset of that proposal, identifying both the film itself (with a major number) and the release version (minor.)

So say we have a code like 52.2001.1920.2.1 or even MX-2001-1920-ES-UR1. The first group could identify country of origin (Mexico), the second, year of release (2001), the third the serial, the fourth the spoken language (Espanol), and the final could differentiate between theatrical, pan and scan, unrated, airplane edition, edited for length for TV, and whatever else.

I could create my movie list and instruct my electronic agent to keep on the lookout for the films I wanted to see, and set certain parameters I would be willing to accept (say, has to have English subtitles, but can be rated or unrated.) Also, it would be a great way to share reviews with friends and even shopping sites. Why slave over Amazon reviews when you could write up a post on your own site, tag it with the ISMN, and then let Google or Amazon pick it up in a scan?

While we’re on the subject, it would also greatly simplify finding the official movie sites for films. (Why do we not have a .film domain extension? I’m so tired of or Pop the ISMN into Google, you could get the official page for that film, or the nearest thing to it, working from most to least specific.

I recognize this is horribly esoteric, but I hope the studios similarly recognize that the more ways they provide to keep track of their releases, the better the chance they’re going to get watched.

Update [Sat 03:09]: If I didn’t care if the number itself had meaning (and I don’t; ISBNs don’t) I suppose I could follow IMDb‘s numbering. A couple of years ago they went from links like to, where the prefix ‘tt’ denotes a film (a person is ‘nm’). Other sites, such as Rotten Tomatoes, accept this numbering standard as well: works, for example.

Now if only somebody would break up the different versions by content, language, and country…

Drivers of Quality

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Let us all now praise the Buffalo AirStation G54. It’s a USB-based wireless adapter, which isn’t so special. What has caught my eye, however, is that this little gem will automatically install its own driver, right from the unit itself. In other words, when you take the device to a friend’s laptop, you don’t have to bring a CD or anything else; just plug the sucker in and the necessary supporting software automatically installs.

All products should be like this. Flash memory, the sort that makes up USB key drives and low-cost MP3 players, has become very cheap, while broadband penetration has risen. Why don’t manufacturers wise up and capitalize on both trends? Simply add a few megabytes of flash memory to a device, and put the driver on that. Since Windows, Mac OS, and Linux can recognize a generic USB drive type, any peripheral would be automatically recognized first as a generic disk drive, then the driver could auto-install.

To take the concept to the next level, as part of the automatic driver installation your computer could automatically check for a newer version, using a standardized method such as:{MODEL}/

No CDs, no menus, no need to check for an updated version. Now that would be plug-and-play.

Emergency Broadcast Network

Sunday, April 24th, 2005

Today, the alarm sounded. During the summer months, the city briefly tests the tornado warning horn at noon on Saturday — probably one of those peculiarly Midwestern things. Anyway, the horn sounded today, and it jolted me out of sleep. My brain groggily tried to assess the situation: Is it noon already? But it’s not Saturday, is it? Does that mean this is a tornado? I don’t hear any wind… Then I just squinted at the clock, discerned that it was 12:03, and promptly returned to sleep.

Later on, I found some video of “a news desk practicing for an all out terror attack on the US.” As I watched the first few minutes of the ‘VNN’ faux broadcast, I remembered the horn, and I thought: can’t we do better than this?

The horn does a great job of cutting through whatever you’re doing, but it provides no detail. Similarly, the broadcast outlets have to strike a balance between providing detailed information and repeating themselves often enough that those who join midstream can get potentially life-saving information.

Perhaps this is my bias, but is this not a perfect place to use the Internet? Imagine an emergency information site that you could browse using a GPS-enabled device (perhaps that PowerBook) that would give you relevant information: how far away the storm is, which exit routes were clear, how much time you had to react, nearest shelter/police station, etc.

Providing emergency information in this manner would capitalize on two big advantages of the on-demand Internet: no waiting for an anchor to recap, and the easy ability to delve as deeply as you need to find relevant information.

There are also two flaws with this approach: one, obviously not everyone has a computer and/or broadband, and two, the huge surge in traffic that a bona fide crisis would generate might cause the servers to crash or become slow. I think both challenges could be addressed using a system that takes advantage of HDTV’s ability to carry data. By delivering the data over television networks, those without computers could receive information on their sets, while others could get the basics without having to visit any specific site.

Of course, how long do you think it will be before the “Emergency Broadcast System” broadcasts are augmented by text messages sent to the phones of people in harm’s way? Unless the carriers find a way to make you subscribe for it, of course…

Credit Card RSS

Tuesday, April 19th, 2005

Here’s a small idea that I think would make a big difference: RSS feeds of your credit card purchases. (For those not familiar with RSS [example], it’s a standardized way for sites to provide headlines and articles. Using a feedreader such as NetNewsWire allows you to get updates from all your favorite sites in one go without visiting a bunch of bookmarks.)

With ccRSS, each time you updated to find what’s new, your feedreader would also query your credit card company. So you’d get a list of stories, as per usual, along with an item such as this:
19 Apr 3:22a - Approved: UNITED AIRLINES, $319.12

That’s useful all by itself, but where it really gets interesting is if the issuer could include a link to allow you to deny the charge. Say you see this:
19 Apr 3:32a - Approved:, $500.00 [report this transaction]

Suddenly, with no extra effort, you’re able to stay on top of your own credit card charges. Rather than rely solely on your issuer’s fraud department and computer models, and rather than wait the weeks it would take to get a statement (or, if you a little more savvy, until the next time you check it online), you would be able to shut down fradulent transactions in a matter of minutes.

Well, that “minutes” figure assumes you’re on the Internet with anywhere near the insane frequency that I am…

Cell Phonies

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

Several years ago, I remember discovering a little shop at Oakbrook Center displaying cell phones by a company called PrimeCo. The phones weren’t particularly special, but one feature really caught my eye: at any time, you could select a command on the phone and be shown your current account balance.

Fast-forward to the present. PrimeCo is no more, and its domain name forwards to U.S. Cellular. They offer a similar balance feature: just dial #BAL, then choose 1 for English, then enter your 10-digit account number, then please hold while your account is being accessed, then… who the hell knows. I hung up.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Carriers are supposed to be able to provide a superior experience because they control every device that connects to their network. In fact, here in the U.S. their power is even greater because of the huge popularity of “free” phones provided with contracts.

Yet rather than use the power to demand better, more integrated hardware, they’re actually reducing functionality1. That’s gotta stop, and then maybe they can take a look at how to actually improve the phone experience. There are plenty of obvious ones (standardized phone books that can be easily synched, menus that actually make sense, ringtones that don’t annoy the room) but let me also float my own idea: integrated voicemail.

What if your phone connected directly to your voice mailbox, using your screen to provide the information normally read to you? With a voice mail menu, you could see call information merged with your in-phone phonebook. Rather than hearing “Your callback number is 3..1..2..” you could see a list:

=Thursday 2:12p
Mom, Work  -  42s
=Wednesday 11:12a
Neff Cell - 1m12s

You could scroll up and down, highlight any message and choose “play” or “delete”. No need to navigate through voice-prompts and touchtones. See at a glance what it takes RoboGirl precious seconds to read out.

And, you know, make the carriers’ iron-fisted control actually work for you for a change.

1 Multiple carriers are disabling Bluetooth wireless support in an effort to force users to transfer files (for a fee) over the cellular networks.

Airline Recording

Sunday, March 27th, 2005

Two things for the idea file this evening. For the first, let me quote from The 9/11 Commission Report:

29. Calls to American’s reservations office are routed to the first open line at one of several facilities, among them the center at Cary, N.C. … The call from Ong was received initially by Vanessa Minter and then taken over by Winston Sadler; realizing the urgency of the situation, he pushed an emergency button the simultaneously initiated a tape recording of the call and sent an alarm notifying Nydia Gonzalez, a supervisor, to pick up the line. Gonzalez was paged to respond to the alarm and joined the call a short time later. Only the first four minutes of the phone call between Ong and the reservations center (Minter, Sadler, and Gonzalez) was recorded because of the time limit of the recently installed system. [footnote 29, page 453 of printed edition (emphasis added)]

So the first idea is to fire whomever approved this ridiculous system. Is it not bizarre that your entire conversation with sales staff could be monitored (even when you’re on hold) but only 4 minutes of a bona fide emergency would be saved? This on a new system? The technology to do more is certainly available, and with digital phone systems is really quite cheap. I think it would be much smarter to just record all calls transferred to a supervisor as a matter of course. We make stockbrokers do it!

I’ve mentioned before that I think we should consider solutions to record cockpit chatter remotely, and if it’s done appropriately I think it’s still a good idea. A related idea would be to have planes send their GPS coordinates back at a set interval automatically.

Take, for example, any plane outfitted with Boeing’s Connexion wireless internet service. That plane maintains an Internet connection, so why not have it send GPS coordinates every 15 seconds (or other rate, as appropriate for minimizing search radius based upon speed)? True, it would be almost never used, but for those times a plane went missing, wouldn’t it be great to go to the server and pull up the last known location?

In both cases, the amount of data (and cost!) involved is truly negligible, but the insight gained could be life-saving.

Unleash the SplashPad!

Saturday, March 26th, 2005

From the “I wish I’d thought of that,” and, more importantly, the “I wish I could buy that” categories, may I present the SplashPad:

green mousepad-like device with Palm and cellphone resting on it

This is a mousepad-sized device which allows you to charge phones, PDAs, and the like wirelessly. Just plop your device on the pad, and it starts charging. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, I first heard about it some time ago and there appears to be no progress since (note how this image, from, features the rather old Palm V.) I also predict that even when the product is viable, all sorts of OEMs will balk at paying a licensing fee.

Which is where my idea comes in: I think Splashpower should provide the pads to hotels at cost. That way, when people come visit and ask “what’s this plugged-in mousepad thingy in my room?” The staff can respond: “that’s a Splashpad, and it means you don’t have to pack all the transformers for your phone, digital camera, PDA…” Bam, watch how fast people look for phones that support it. Since phones have a roughly 18 mos. refresh cycle, you could be in serious business.

But whatever. I want one!

Down With the Mini-plug

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

I have a text file in which I collect fragments of ideas that may or may not make it here. One of them was “iPod = defacto car connection”, an abbreviation meant to remind me that it’s the unique, breakthrough popularity of the iPod that’s finally pushed car manufacturers like BMW to provide direct connections to its stereo.

dash with iPod plugged in

I thought of that when I saw that GM plans to include a mini-plug connection in the dash of some of their 2006 models.

That’s nice and all, but jesus! What took so damn long? We’ve been dealing with crappy cassette adapters for CD players for ages. Despite some admirable upgrades, they’re a poor solution (ours tends to get very hot.) Ditto FM adapters like the iTrip, which are nice enough, but a pain when you want to use shuffle.

Would it be so hard for the automakers to hash out a generic digital connection? Even if it required an adapter of some kind (such as something that plugged into the iPod’s dock connector), wouldn’t it be great if all cars had a standard connection that allowed you to bring your tunes with you? It might not have all the capability of each specific player, but hey, even some track/artist advance options and a connection for dash display would rock.

Twenty years after the CD, and several years post-iPod, I just can’t believe that the best GM can do is plug into the headphones slot. This is what happens when you don’t have common standards.

Flying Low

Friday, March 11th, 2005

I just discovered Yahoo! Next, which is apparently a sort of Google Labs-like proving ground for developing technologies.

One of the things Y! is cooking up is a service called FareChase, which does a good job of aggregating prices from various airline sites and breaking them out by time/price and other factors. It’s a good idea, especially when the airlines are only offering their best fares on their own sites and not the Tr/Ex/Or triumvirate. However, it needs to search a lot more airlines and allow for more flexible dates (I really like the +/-1 day feature on Orbitz, and like it even better on Travelocity, since you can do entire months, as well as choose non-U.S. destinations.)

What I really want to see is a fare chaser to which I can say “I usually fly from ORD, what’s a good deal right now?” Often, I don’t care about dates, or even destinations. As my friends can attest, I’m open to going just about anywhere.

Which is why I find the whole days/destination prompt so limiting.

Announcing Big Print Bank

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

That’s it — I’ve had it. I’ve seen my last ad for “free*” checking.

I’ve decided it’s time to start my own bank. I will call it “Big Print Bank” (yes, dumb, but certainly not the dumbest.) Why Big Print? Well, in part because it’s fun to say. But mostly because our mission will be to remind you what other banks may have forgotten to mention… and to do it in big print, naturally.

Here’s a few mock-ups for our first billboards:

(References Citi’s “live richly” campaign.)

(You know my feelings on MBNA.)

(More on payday loans.)

I think that’s a good start. (I also think I am shockingly out of practice. Time spent on concept: a few minutes. Time spent in Photoshop: way too damn long!)

* Except during regular business hours.

Ideas I’d Like to See Implemented: “PrivaShip”

Sunday, March 6th, 2005

This is the first in a new category, Ideas, to which I will sporadically add things that I wish service providers/manufacturers would create.

Have you ever stopped to consider what a pain-in-the-ass e-commerce is? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud member of Generation FedEx(?) and therefore a massive fan of sitting in my chair and having my clicks result in products on my doorstep.

But why must I fill out so many damn forms? And, further, why does every little random vendor I’ve never heard of need to know all this information?

“Why John,” you’re thinking, “how else do you expect them to deliver your purchases?”

No problem. Consider this: all the major carriers (UPS, FedEx, DHL, the Postal Service) assign tracking numbers for their systems. You may not be aware of this, but packages such as UPS WorldShip actually create “placeholder” tracking numbers before the package is even scanned.

So why not make a plug-in for my browser that lets me generate these? Here’s the scenario I envision:

  1. Visit a site and add item(s) to the cart.
  2. Click “checkout.”
  3. Embedded code in checkout page causes browser helper (i.e., a local program) to ask “Generate Tracking Number for:” with a choice of carriers used by that vendor, service type(s), and the addresses I use.
  4. With a maximum of 4 clicks (FedEx, Express, Home, Save), a “Destination ID:” box is then pre-filled on the order page.
  5. Click “Complete order” and we’re done.

Now, you may have noticed I’ve called this “PrivaShip”, an admittedly horrible name meant to emphasize another part of this idea: in addition to saving data entry, there’s no reason the vendor need know my address at all. FedEx (or whomever) could sort it to the distribution center nearest the delivery point, then auto-print an actual address label right on top.

Similarly, there’s really no reason why any vendor need have my credit card number. Before I gave MBNA the boot, I was a big fan of their “disposable credit card numbers” service (Citibank and AmEx also have it.) When I wanted to make a purchase with an online store I didn’t expect to use again, I would load up the small Flash app, sign in, and enter the amount. The app would create a custom number/expiration and CVC2, which would only be honored once for my pre-set limit (or just above to allow for shipping.)

I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t integrate a similar browser plug-in to generate credit card numbers on the spot. And if I enter a password and thus verify my identity, why should it even display my (real) name?

In short, I want online purchases to be as quick and quasi-anonymous as cash. Because how cool would it be to have my packages delivered to:
1Z 932 332 39 9983 182 4

* A little something I coined awhile ago to refer to those who came after GenX, and who demand instant gratification. – Return