Mark Gilbert's Blog

Science and technology, served light and fluffy.

In-Car Traffic Signals

The next time you roll up to an intersection and get caught by the light, stop for a moment and look around its immediate airspace.  What do you see? 

There’s probably a tall pole on at least two of the corners.  If the poles are wooden, they probably have lines (both support and electrical) draped across the road where the traffic lights hang.  If they poles are metal, they probably have the lights hung on cantilevered metal poles that dangle out over the road.  Either way, you have stuff hanging over your head to let you know when to go and when to stop.

If a driver rolls up and isn’t paying attention to the signal, there’s no reliable secondary mechanism for alerting them (and no, other drivers’ horns don’t count).

And how many times have you been stopped at an intersection, and easily have enough time to go, but can’t because the lights aren’t with you.

What if we changing things around, and moved the traffic signals INTO the car?

With this system, you’d roll up to the intersection, and a display embedded into your windshield tells you that the light is green, and it’s safe to proceed.  Or you’re coming up on the signal change, and the display is yellow as you approach, and eventually turns to red.  You wait at the light as you normally would and wait for your turn. The light goes green, and you proceed.

Or, perhaps you’re having an animated discussion with your significant other in the car, and you’re not paying enough attention to the intersection ahead of you.  The system flashes a yellow/red light onto your windshield, sees that you aren’t slowing down yet, and tells your car to activate an audible warning, bringing your attention back to the road.

Later, the initial in-car system evolves to the point where the intersection can the start tailoring signals to individual cars, thus optimizing traffic flow.

If power were to go out, the car’s system could detect that it wasn’t receiving ANY signals from the intersection, and present the equivalent to a 4-way stop for all approaching cars.

Without any signal lights being hung on or over the roadside, there aren’t any lights to maintain, or to keep clear of snow in the winter, saving maintenance costs. 

Is the city commission thinking about widening the road to 6 lanes?  Hanging new signals won’t be necessary – just some extra programming.

Finally, taking the lines and poles down would clear out a lot of the visual clutter at the intersection, thus allowing the city to reclaim a little beauty.

Are there challenges here?  Absolutely.  Taking down the traffic signals means that EVERY car on the road needs to have this system in place and working – in other words, the requirements for overall traffic safety are now moved from the street lights to the individual automobile.  That’s a hard sell for anyone on the city commission.

It may also pose a new challenge for traffic incidents, specifically, getting eye witnesses that can vouch for the state of the light when an accident happened.  With the system built into the car, victims- and perpetrators-alike could claim their vehicle said it was OK to go.  On the flip side, the vehicle data-collection modules (think airplane black boxes, but in cars) could record the actual state of the light as transmitted to the vehicle, and would serve as an objective source for the state of the light.

Traffic lights, in one form or another, have controlled pedestrian and vehicular traffic for over 140 years*.  Perhaps it’s time for something new.



* Source:

December 17, 2011 Posted by | You should totally write that! | Comments Off on In-Car Traffic Signals

Idea Incubation Site

One of the most recent posts on my company’s corporate blog mentioned a "Twitter Race".  Before I got any further than the title, my mind was racing (no pun intended) to figure out what a "Twitter Race" would actually look like.  Then I read ahead to see what it actually was.

I will do this frequently, and more times than not, I’ll figure out the core of the idea before I read past the first few words of the description.  I say this not to tout my mindreading abilities, but rather to point out that there are some really "duh – why didn’t I think of that?" ideas out there.  The fact that I can figure them out based on a five-word description gets me down (just a little) because I DIDN’T think of them already.

So, what did I think "Twitter Race" meant?  The first thing that popped into my head was a race that involved geo-tagged tweets – you or a member of your team had to be at specific places between points A and B, had to tweet from there, and had to have your tweets geo-tagged so that a race official could verify that your team actually got all of the checkpoints covered.  The actual meaning behind "Twitter Race" was a little different than that.

The fact that I was that far off of the mark got me thinking.  What if there was a site that would throw out a phrase like "Twitter Race", and then crowd-source the exploration and definition of that phrase.  So, for "Twitter Race", you might get Citroen’s idea, and mine, and 10 others that were nothing like them.

What could you do with this information?  Ideas are powerful things.  People get an idea – maybe something like "a site where my college buddies and I can stay in touch with each other" – then apply liberal amounts of blood, sweat, and tears to turn them into something real – Facebook.

What does the crowd get out of it?  Perhaps points or credits toward submitting their own ideas to the forum.  Perhaps they are venture capitalists looking for people and ideas to fund.  Perhaps respect in the community that leads to people soliciting your opinion – "hey, if OneCoolUser likes your idea, it means you’ve got a real shot at success!

What about protecting the ideas so people can’t just run with them?  What if an idea that started here turns in to a very profitable business – are the people who commented on it and helped shape it entitled to a cut?  Does posting the idea on the site count as trademarking it/copyrighting it?  Now we’re getting past the "hey, that’s a great idea" to the nitty-gritty logistics.  These questions and a hundred others like them would have to be answered before something like this was put into use. 

And no, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was already a site out there like this, and I’m just late to the party again.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | You should totally write that! | Comments Off on Idea Incubation Site

100% chance of rain (at some point in the future)

For the longest time, I’ve maintained that meteorologists just throw darts to figure out what tomorrow’s weather is going to be.  It’s amusing, but it’s an unfair characterization.  Meteorologists can tell you a tremendous amount about how weather works, but it’s such a complicated subject that there is a very steep drop-off in the accuracy of predictions even a few hours into the future.  Case in point – why do we still have tornado sirens?  Those are only good to tell you when one’s actually been sighted.  Why can’t we predict even 15 minutes from now when one will form?

At any rate, the few occasions in the past where I’ve actually paid attention to the weather forecasts a week or so leading up to some outdoor event, it seems like the "it’s gonna precipitate / it’s gonna shine" switches at least twice before the day arrives.  I write software for a living so I’m all for updating estimates when it’s clear that they are no longer valid.  However, when a weather forecast changes daily – or at least it seems to – what’s the value in anything other than a 4 HOUR, not day, forecast?  Or, to put it another way, how accurate ARE 1-day, 2-day, 1-week, etc. forecasts?

To find out, I propose an application that pulls together forecasts and actuals from a variety of sources, and then does a statistical analysis to see how well each source actually does at forecasting the weather.  Here are some questions I think an application like this could make:

  1. How accurate are source X’s 1-day, 2-day, 3-day, 1-week (etc.) forecasts? 
  2. How closely does X get to the actual high and low temperature for the day? 
  3. How well do they predict when the sun will shine versus when it will rain/snow?
  4. How does source X compare to other sources? 
  5. Is source X’s 2-day forecasts more accurate than source Y? 
  6. Does source Y’s 1-week forecasts more accurate than source X?

The forecasts and current conditions are available from several places now in the form of RSS and other feeds. The bulk of the gathering piece to this application would be building the interfaces to those sources, and merging the data together into a common storage structure.

This kind of data gathering could lead to habits such as "if you have to look more than 3 days out, look at Source Z’s forecasts – they are the most accurate.  Once you get to the day before, however, then Source W’s forecasts are actually more accurate than Z’s."  Then, you could use the data and analysis from this first program to feed into a second that always displays the most accurate information at any given time.

Now, to spice things up a bit, let’s introduce a forecast of our own, and see how it stacks up to the professional ones.  These forecasts would be based on some relatively arbitrary formula, taking into account things like month of year, the previous day’s weather, and some random number used to vary the temperatures and probability of precipitation.  In other words – would throwing darts be just as accurate after all?

November 16, 2011 Posted by | You should totally write that! | Comments Off on 100% chance of rain (at some point in the future)

Congressional Time

The inspiration for the "You should totally write that!" series stems from an article I read this past weekend in the Kalamazoo Gazette.  The House passed a resolution that reaffirmed "In God We Trust" as the national motto.  And by "reaffirmed" I mean this is the third such resolution made by the House – the first being in 1956 and the second in 2002.  The Washington Post has the story as I saw it appear in the Gazette.

The thing that really got me going was that they spent 35 minutes debating this topic.  Assuming the full House was in the house, that’s 435 x 35 person-minutes of time, or over 10.5 person-DAYS spent talking about this.  10.5 days.  Do we really believe this is the most important issue right now?  You’d think in an election year, something like, oh, I don’t know, the economy, two wars, even healthcare might take priority.

And that got me thinking.  How much time do our elected officials spend debating a given category of topics in a given day, week, or session?  For example, the Washington Post article above mentioned that the Democrats sponsored 250 "commemorative" bills in Congress last year. (I’m sure the irony of Republican Trent Franks from Arizona sponsoring the motto resolution will not escape you.)  How much time did they spend debating and working through bills like those compared to debating funding bills?  What topic gets the most attention?  What topic gets the least?  Is there a correlation between who controls the House (Democrats or Republicans) if you were to look at the data year over year?

I realize that the floor activities represents only a portion of the time spent on any given bill – officials and staffers have to research the topics (at least I HOPE they do), they have to draft and revise the bills, there’s time spent discussing and polishing the bills in committees, and so on.  However, the time spent on the Floor is generally what Joe Plumber or Mark Programmer can see.  If an elected official wanted to keep their job, you’d think they’d be very conscious of the face they are displaying to the people who put them there.

To get some of these answers, I started poking around the site to see if I could find transcripts (or at least summaries) of the House floor proceedings – and I found them.  Even better, they are available in an XML format, by day:

They don’t go back to the beginning of time, unfortunately – at the time of this writing, January 2011 was not available, but April 2011 was – but they go back far enough that you build a decent history right out of the gate, and then update it with daily pulls.  The other key piece included with these feeds are the timestamps – critical if we’re to calculate total time spent. The specific bills are also included in the text of the individual actions, so there would need to be some work done to extract those, and then categorize them into some logical buckets – the wars, jobs-creation, healthcare, pointless commemorative bills, etc.  My idea is to build an app that pulls down yesterday’s summary, parse it, and then tally up the time spent on each.  I think it would be eye opening to see what our elected officials are really spending their time out.

I then looked to see if there was a similar feed available for the Senate, but wasn’t able to find one that included timestamps of any kind, so unless you watching C-SPAN with a stopwatch, I don’t think this is possible right now.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | You should totally write that! | Comments Off on Congressional Time

You should totally write that!

I’m starting a new, open-ended thread today called “You should totally write that!”.  As I’m sure many of you can relate, I have more ideas about software that should be written than I have time to write that software.  So, I’ve decided to put those ideas down in the hopes that someone will make the time to write them. 

Some of these will be  one-liner like “an app that lets me geolocate my dog’s favorite neighborhood spots”.  Who knows, maybe dogs have been constructing neighborhood-sized connect-the-dots games, and no one was aware until this app got written.  In other cases, I spend a fair amount of time researching the idea, possible ways to implement it, and questions that I want answered.  All of that information and thought-process will go here now.

Finally, if someone does implement one of these, please let me know.  I’d love to update that particular post to include links to your work.

My first “You should totally write that!” should be published later this week.

November 8, 2011 Posted by | You should totally write that! | Comments Off on You should totally write that!