Boolean Brake Lights Just Aren’t Enough

Have you ever driven behind a car that had its brake lights on for a really long time? Eventually, you conclude the driver is driving with both feet because the car keeps accelerating. Sure enough, as you pass the 1972 Cadillac, you realize that the 900 year old man driving it probably thinks the brake pedal is comfortable place to rest his foot.

Or, have you ever been behind one of those massive SUVs when the driver taps the brakes and you have no idea why? These 5 ton behemoths are hard to see around. In fact, the only way to see around them is to buy an even bigger SUV! But that is a different story. When the driver hits the brakes in front of you, it is usually not possible to tell why – even if you aren’t tailgating.

Lastly, have you ever been in a really bad traffic jam and just watched drivers’ brake usage patterns? In heavy traffic, you’ll see there are 3 basic types of drivers. There are those that use the brakes constantly, those that use the brakes sparingly, and a third group that seem to tap the brake pedals at fairly random intervals. I suspect these are individuals that are being cautious and careful. But because the lights on the back of their car are either “on” or “off”, the following drivers have no choice but to brake too. You just can’t discern what the driver is really thinking.

All of these examples showcase the fact that our system of boolean on-off brake lights is inadequate. While the cockpits of our cars have added MPG gauges and all sorts of bells and whistles, the driving indicators on the outside of the car remain completely un-evolved since their inception!

Here are some ideas for things we could do better.

First off, let’s start using more signals on the back of each car. Rather than knowing whether the driver has their foot on the brake pedal, I’d like to know if the car is accelerating or decelerating. If the driver has his foot on both pedals, who cares if one is on the brakes- the driver still may be speeding up. So how about a system which has:
– GREEN – accelerating
– ORANGE – decelerating 5%

I thought about making the third brake light be a differentiator to distinguish between mild brake usage and heavy brakes, but that would be incompatible with existing cars such that other drivers just wouldn’t know. The same argument could be made for my use of “red’.

Another thing I’d like to see on every bumper is a digital readout of two things. First, how fast the car is going, and second, the average speed of the car over the last 5 minutes. This somewhat assumes that speedometers are accurate, and these would be obviously ugly and prone to tampering. But, wouldn’t this be useful? Immediately, when you get behind another vehicle you’d be able to determine his approximate speed, and his “typical” speed in the last few minutes. Don’t think for a second that police officers wouldn’t start keying in off these things too.

Anyway, I think we should have better brake lights and gauges on the exterior of vehicles. In a traffic jam, being able to differentiate between silly brake pumping and real braking could really help us all drive more efficiently and more safely.

Firefox – Not as safe as you may think

Building browsers is hard to do. There are a lot of features in there for attackers to exploit. IE has certainly had it’s share. As Firefox’s popularity increases, it is getting more of them too.

If you’ve got Firefox 1.5, it contains some serious security regressions. You may want to upgrade to

I think the most interesting question is – how will Open Source projects like Firefox adapt to avoid security regressions like these? For as much as people gripe about Microsoft’s security (myself included), I have to admit that Microsoft is doing more than any company on the planet to prevent security problems. Here are some things that you get from Microsoft that Open Source will have a tough time beating:
1) All released software goes through a mandatory security review process. Does this slow down the process of shipping software? Yeah. We’re trying to fix that part. But this does catch real issues.
2) Every developer at Microsoft goes to security training. You can argue that this is a bit lame, but does every open-source developer do this? If nothing else, it brings security to the forefront of everyone’s mind.
3) When security flaws occur, software can be updated via Microsoft Update. IT managers can use SMS/WSUS to be notified of patches instantly, get details on the risk, and apply them to their desktops within hours.

The 3rd bullet sounds simple, but actually represents a massive undertaking. When will any open source project be able to track all their customers via a service, and proactively send them updates and allow IT managers to selectively rollout their fleet?

Hopefully we can solve this problem for both commercial and open-source software.

Microsoft Money

I’ve been using Quicken for years. I’m currently running a very old copy – version 2001. It worked pretty well until they cut off their service entirely earlier this year, and it now throws warnings all over the place. I looked into upgrading, but the $80 price tag combined with mediocre online reviews and potential loss of QIF import scared me away.

There are a couple of big things I look for in my checkbook program:
– Ease/Flexibility of data input. I need to be able to periodically import data from investment accounts, but mostly I manually input. So while I need the QIF import feature, mostly I need quick type-aheads.
– Great reporting
– Good investment tracking. I really like my instant quotes, and I’ve been living without them for far too long.

And of course, I’ve been pretty annoyed with Quicken’s move into the online space. Their product just got bogged down, and lost a lot of it’s snappiness and trustworthiness.

So, while standing at Best Buy last week looking to buy my Tax software (I bought TaxCut for the 3rd year in a row – $10 cheaper than TurboTax), I found myself drooling over a new financial program. I decided I needed the “premium” version of Quicken – to get the online quotes. Amazingly, the packaging and feature breakdowns with Microsoft Money was nearly identical. And since I work for Microsoft, I decided to get that one instead.

Today I finally got a chance to try it, and I have to say, its really great so far. It imported all my quicken data with almost no trouble. (It did lose a couple of minor categories). But the investment tracking is far more accurate – it immediately pointed out a few accounting errors I had, and I was able to fix them after getting acquainted with the new layouts and terminology. I was also impressed that it auto-detected several of my recurring payments, and figured out a rudimentary monthly budget for me. On more careful glance, though, I did discover it wasn’t very smart about it and sometimes misses payments.

The online integration seems a lot smoother than Quicken’s was too. Maybe its just 5 years of product updates, but they managed to make the interface pretty clean. I do actually trust Microsoft to respect my privacy a bit more than Intuit as well. The one big annoyance was a flash-based Geico ad in the middle of the Investments page, but I think I’ll just not use that page very often.

Anyway, if you are like me and tired of Quicken, it might be worth trying Microsoft Money. The Premium version retails for about $75, but it has a $40 mail-in rebate. That is almost exactly the same price as Quicken’s equivalent version. So far, I like it.

Visual Studio 2005!!

I finally bought myself a copy of Microsoft Visual Studio 2005. I’ve been very excited to get the updated version (I was running Visual Studio 2003) becuse it’s chock full of great new features. In particular I am excited to try out the auto-update that is built in as well as the refactoring features.

Alas, my install will have to wait, as I just received the error message, “You must install Microsoft Office 2003 in order to proceed.” Huh? The development environment is now dependent on Office being installed? Ack! I guess most folks installing VS2005 have a universal subscription, so this isn’t an issue. And it does tell you this on the box, but I still didn’t expect it and was too dumb to read. You know, I really do like Microsoft software… That is why I was so excited to install. But these interdependencies sometimes just don’t make sense. When it works, it works great. But it sure would be a lot better if it were lean-and-mean too.

I’ve been perfectly happy without Office on my system for the last two years using OpenOffice. I never upgraded to the latest versions of OpenOffice, and from what I hear, it’s improved quite a lot. And, I’m still grumpy about not having a free version of Office available for home users.

Oh well, I’ll get over it. I’ll go buy Office 2003 now because I want my VS2005 that badly. More to come!
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