- Entries : Category [ Internet & Wireless ]
Hey, the counterculture invented the Internet too...
Fred Turner, Professor at Stanford, spoke the other day at SCU on "Counterculture into Cyberculture: How the Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us "Virtual Community". Basically a history talk of the WELL and the organizing power of the hippie movement through the "whole earth" commercial powerhouse of the time. I found it curiously amusing - kind of like watching your mom in a "Granny dress" or your dad with a beard strumming a guitar.
While I'm not quite the age of the "summer of love" crowd (I think I preferred collecting Breyer horses then), I have watched the evolution of these communities from a technology standpoint, and have seen both their strengths and weaknesses as they grew (and in some cases died). As history and anthropology are an avocation and since I've been involved in developing and growing relationships using technology, it is a serious topic. So I went and listened.
One of the clear as bells problems stemmed from the willful misunderstanding of what the technology of the time provided and how it could be used. The WELL provided a novel community experience all right, but it was basically too limited to be of great use to build the kind of movement envisioned by the "counterculture" - it was just too early, and easily supplanted by the Internet.
The evolution, technology, and mechanisms which would become the Internet were actually quite separate in design and execution, rose colored glasses of the counterculture notwithstanding. I know a lot of folks (even Al Gore) would like to stake a claim to the Internet's success, or as the syllabus stated "the network technology of the WELL helped translate the ideals of the American counterculture into key resources for understanding the social possibilities of digital networking in the 1990s." But I'm afraid it just isn't so - it evolved independently and with funding from some of those guys - the DOD comes to mind - that the counterculture tended to protest against.
I've never found the hippie movement to be very progressive in using technology, except for television. It's understandable, given the paroxisms of the time.
But we should get real here - the right has used the Internet far more effectively to convey it's message until Howard Dean went against his own party's anti-tech bias and proved the Internet could be beneficial to the left.
It took thirty years, a lot of hard work, a ton of research funds, real tech visionaries like Cerf and Kahn and Berners-Lee to make the Internet the real world wide web. Not all the cute stores that sold wood stoves, guitars and granny dresses could make one TCP/IP connection or HTTP web page.
Posted by lynne
: "Virtual Communities
" at 23:42
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Reliable Wireless and Link Layers
Try solving the wired case first - if you can
It is often the case that a "different" puzzle presents an opportunity for a young scientist to say "Oh, I can solve this problem because it's different". Well, sure...but is it simpler, or simply different?
The question begs in a discussion of using reliable link layers in wireless to solve the problem of retransmissions and poor QOS. The problem is that artifact of retransmission distorts the use of the medium, because too many retransmits / congestion events occur, biasing the statistics and becoming unfair. The solution for the wireless approach is to use the same thing that causes artifacts of noise as an architectural solution.
In the wired case, the solution is smaller packet sizes, so that when congestion occurs, congestion recovery impacts fewer events. But the increase in the number of packets than distorts the results of reliable link layer, so you get the same problem, only it's less obvious, which is why I mention the wireless case first.
In the first case, it's a first order effect. In the second case, it's a second order effect dominating the first. But in neither case is it a "different" effect that can be solved independent of the other. And there's where the delusion lies.
An old physics trick - look at the really lossy case first, and then once you've figured out what's the problem, ask if a similar problem hides in the less lossy case. Given the scope of the Internet, little problems become big fast.
Of course, I got told last year that this wasn't a problem in wireless. Oh, and we'll eventually find weapons of mass destruction, too. Are you holding your breath? :-)
The Dying American Dream and Irrational Joylessness
Mike Cassidy on Dot-com Casualties
Mike Cassidy of the Merc wrote a nice essay on the casualties of the dot-com bubble selling out and leaving Silicon Valley. Not all of the people who worked hard here cashed out or got rich - actually, only a few did really well, although most everyone here likes to pretend they did better than everyone else. It's a peculiar SV conceit.
I'm fourth generation Californian, born in Fremont and went to Berkeley. I've always lived in the Bay Area. I remember the orchards, now long gone, and how I used to ride my bike through them coming home from Parkmont Elementary school.
But I don't resent other folks who came here trying for a bit of the gold. After all, that's part of the American Dream. Does anyone remember the American Dream anymore?
So it makes me sad that young people have to sell everything and leave, just because so many businesses have gone on a bender about outsourcing. It is "irrational joylessness", an almost armageddon wish-fulfillment. It is a maxim that a man who thinks he will die tomorrow will somehow make it so.
And all Craig Barrett can say is "life is tough", as John Paczkowski noted a few days back in his column. What a wonderful guy...
Mike also spoke of experiencing a lack of enthusiasm about google, as John's column quoted. Sounds like a few people will make out like bandits and it will assuredly be successful given it's backers, but it won't save that young couple Mike wrote about yesterday, nor a lot of others who have contributed to the success of the Valley.
Tommy, Can You Hear Me?
Shockwave Rider and a Japanese Hearing Aid
Norimitsu Onishi's article in the New York Times entitled "Japanese Find a Forum to Vent Most-Secret Feelings" is fascinating. According to Mr. Onishi, "In a society in which subtlety is prized above all, face-to-face confrontation is avoided, insults can be leveled with verbal nuances and hidden meanings are found everywhere, there is one place where the Japanese go to bare their souls and engage in verbal combat: Channel 2."
What is "Channel 2"? Simply an anonymous Internet BBS where secrets can be unburdened and read by others without retribution. Unlike American "talk radio", where people actually want to be known, Channel 2 is a way to reveal oneself and others with no concern for social or business status.
"In the United States and Europe, a community spirit was behind the growth of the Internet and remains a force. But in Japan, which was late to the Net, it has been almost exclusively business driven." And this explains why a BBS would have so much power in Japan.
John Brunner, in his 1975 book The Shockwave Rider described a repressed networked society who vented their frustrations by talking to "Hearing Aid", a one-way communication mechanism where real people would "just listen" and nothing would be recorded - somewhat like Channel 2. I read it while being driven to Berkeley to enroll in summer session before my freshman year.
Given the pending google IPO, is the info-futures betting pool - the "Delphi" of the future - actually a precient analysis of the advent of IPO dutch auctions on a mass scale?
Brunner died in 1995, never achieving the real fame that soft scifi writers have received. The inventor of many of the terms, from worms to viruses to agents, of computer security, he's known by the people who bring you this stuff. He built up an Internet five years after the Internet was invented by Dr's Cerf and Kahn.
But that's old stuff right? Now it's bioengineering. Brunner covered that as well in his book - biogenetic manipulaiton of the gross form is done as part of a genetics cold war, to maintain an edge. Funny, that's also the big area in investment right now. Maybe he was on to something?
The Limits to Internet Media is the Content
Imedia Summit - Lincoln Millstein on the end of "Big Iron Publishing"
Fascinating little keynote at Imedia Summit by Lincoln Millstein, COO of New York Times Digital on the future of media.
Mr. Millstein sees "Big Iron Publishing" - the presses and paper and trucks and newsroom - as being nonscalable and noncompetitive compared to Internet media. Also, inventory of content is the burning limiting factor to encourage more interaction and stickiness with a site's audience.
Things I Hate About the Net
Unfair advantages don't mean much when everyone can do it!
Seana Mulcahy in today's MediaPost talked about "Things I Hate on the Net". Now, she's not a techgal - she a marketing / branding babe - so among her listed items the usual litany of email scams, popups / popunders, spyware, broken / dead links, site registration, poor integration (what else is new), audio surprises (you know, those suddenly singing or talking little bursts when you're on a conference call - it's happened to me), and click-happy sites. Most of these are products of bad site design that are easily remedied - fire the marketing department and get a good designer. But some of these are tech-derived marketing inventions (surprise!) intended to exploit weaknesses and loopholes in our crazy-quilt Internet. We wouldn't see much of the latter right now if a fundamental issue was resolved. And it's actually a business mindset, not just a marketing or tech mindset.
So, "What do I hate about the net?" Simple - you can't evolve anything new or tune something to get around problems, because everyone bets on failure and wants to exploit it for their own private purposes. I hear this all the time from technologists, inventors, and businessmen. "Take no risks". And it's betting on failure that spawns all these customer plagues today that Seana so loathes.
I've always found it fascinating that the same marketers and salesmen and bizdev types who whine and bemoan spyware, spam, and viruses overloading their PCs also want to keep those same loopholes for themselves. Hey, it isn't a spam - it's an "informational email". Hey, it isn't spyware, it's just collecting information on our customers in their "natural setting" like an anthropologist. And hey, it's not a virus, it's just a brochure with extras so we can serve the customer better.
Let's face it - you can't plug the holes without losing an "unfair advantage" over the customer - even if most people are too ignorant to play this game. It's the fantasy of using it that matters - not the reality.
The upshot - the smart crooks win, the techs play the filter and drop game, and the rest of the world gets overloaded with spam, spyware, and viruses until they choke.
Want to solve the problem? Simple. Make everyone play by the rules. No unfair advantage. No exceptions. No use of spam - ever! No use of spyware - ever! No use of built-in mechanisms to obtain even benign control / information of a personal computer - ever!
I'm not holding my breathe.
Why You Can't Buy SpamQuiz!
...And why your email can look like it's from "Spam Central" when it's not
I was puzzled recently when a friend couldn't get his email through to me. We have our own spam filter we called SpamQuiz which nicely takes care of Nigerian pleas and lottery solicitations. SpamQuiz is not a product - it's a project we did at TeleMuse Networks testing ISP correctness and email management. However, when I mentioned it on a special interest group email as part of our email changes a few months back, I found by the next day people were trying to piggy-back on our fame by "creating" a product called SpamQuiz for sale. Sigh. The world is full of crooks, isn't it?
So just for the record - don't buy SpamQuiz thinking that's what Lynne Jolitz, open source pioneer and co-inventor of 386BSD - the First Open Source BSD Unix Operating System, SiliconTCP and Massive Video Production (MMP) created and uses, because it's not from us! And it's not a product for sale because 1) we're not in the spam business and 2) we're not crooks. We just build cool technology. If you're a researcher or want to try it out for fun, I may help you - but that's not a product.
But back to my friend. Since he wasn't a crook, why was he getting trapped by SpamQuiz? Well, since the point of SpamQuiz is to catch nonconforming ISP's and their bad emails, it was likely that his ISP had some small issue that could be cleared up. It couldn't be all bad, could it? Or maybe not. So we traced the email. It's a wonder he get anything through anybody because his ISP looks like Spam Central.
Here's how it worked. Mail.localISPname.net traced to mx-v.mx-av.com, which looks like an unqualified audio-visual corp in Mexico according to Internet naming conventions. In other words, the forward and reverse lookups don't corrolate. There are a lot of companies that will silently drop email if the reverse lookup doesn't match the forward lookup, especially major corporations, investment firms, and banks. This can impact your business, because frankly you look just like a spammer. It doesn't matter for personal as much (who cares if it never gets through), but I've heard from some biz people who tell stories of being catagorized as spammers when they deal with venture firms, so it does matter.
Well, this was another interesting case for SpamQuiz, so we dealt with it creatively. Funny though - how many ISP's intentionally name themselves after spam sites?
He's not the only one with this problem. My brother, believe it or not, has an unnamed source for his email from China (Mexico, China, and South America are the three big monsters, and by our stats currently generate about %80 of automated spam), and he's with a major oil company! However, he looks just like Chinese spam sites, simply because his ISP was too lazy to complete the registration.
Customers should be aware of this issue and complain. After all, if they are paying for an ISP to provide them with service, they shouldn't be made to look like a spammer by their ISP.
And How Many Blogs Can a Blogger Blog if a Blog Could Log Words?
Tom Foremski, brand and credibility - perhaps it's based on google ranking...
Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher is one of my favorite "inside SV" reads. Tom pays attention to the action ignored by PR flacks and marketing spinners - the stuff that really makes a difference at the beginning, not the end of the product or deal. Tom addresses the hard nut of credibility - or the lack of such - in Internet postings, blogs, and news items. “We just have to remember that building a media brand is a long process. The New York Times was not built in ten years,” Tom reports Shelby Bonnie, CEO of News.com telling him last summer.
But separating the good from the bad is going to be difficult. "Growing numbers of media professionals within the blogosphere raises the bar for all because the competition for reader attention will be that much fiercer and editorial standards will be that much higher. Building a personal blogging brand and cultivating a key readership within such an increasingly noisy media landscape will become increasingly difficult for individuals." So how do we tell who's better?
So I responded to Tom (who posted my reply) as follows, and it depends largely on those search engines: "Actually, the credibility of bloggers, commentators, shills, and journalists may simply be based by the reader on where in the google popularity hierarchy that person appears. In other words, if you don't have a high google ranking on the first or second page, no one will read you no matter how fair and balanced you are. In an era where people live by "googling", media "brand building" takes on an entirely new meaning. Perhaps this is why an IDG exec recently said google was a media company, and hence a competitor.
First Outsource the Tech, than the Surgeons, than the Patients
Can't afford a tummy tuck? Travel to India! Telemedicine trends towards communications
Saritha Rai of the NY Times chats about how India, Singapore, and so forth are becoming low-cost surgery centers for global patients - including Americans. It's just too costly here for most folks. And it's the same doctors you'd see here, because most of them trained here in America. It's just the surgery center is a, ahh, bit remote.
I don't know if anyone has noticed, but this trend impacts the development and deployment of new techologies in health care significantly. Up until recently, the telemedicine craze has dealt with providing medical resources to poor areas more effectively, like an Indian reservation (common example). But the problem is there is no relationship with the doctors doing remote diagnostics, there is no high bandwidth connectivity, and there is no technical maintanance at the remote end. In other words, there are far too many other factors to make this work in practice at this time. William Jolitz spoke to this vexing dilemma in TeleMedicine Journal in the mid-90's.
But if patients are "outsourcing themselves" as Rai describes, telemedicine becomes very practical. The high speed lines exist, the monies to maintain the technologies at either end exist, and they could use telemedicine as a diagnostic / relationship building tool before the patient flies to India (or Singapore or whereever) for actual treatment.
I think this will be a real trend here. And it completely changes the orientation of the healthcare technology industry from records to communications!
Muse, Sing the Tale of the Reconstructed Scrolls
Ancient lost plays come to life with satellite scanning and search
In the midst of lots of work, a lovely article by David Keys and Nicholas Pyke of the Independent about bits and pieces of papyrus found in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump, reconstructed using a variety of satellite scanning and search technologies.
"The papyrus fragments were discovered in historic dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus ("city of the sharp-nosed fish") in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Running to 400,000 fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford's Sackler Library, it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world." And it took a tremendous amount of work to scan and reconstruct.
So the ancients threw away Sophocles, Euripides, and Hesiod like we throw away bodice rippers and serial killer novels. Or maybe the Hellenes would have preferred what we read now - and were stuck with "And the helmets are shaking their purple-dyed crests, and for the wearers of breast-plates the weavers are striking up the wise shuttle's songs, that wakes up those who are asleep."
Search Engine Quirks and Search Engine Jerks
Lynne Jolitz Byte article online now
Everyone talks about hot search engine companies, and the next big thing in search (currently locality, with video emerging). But how many search engines are trolling the web, gleaning bits and pieces of the Internet corpus collosseum, and how do they differ in the process by which they search?
Check out Byte Online for the latest Lynne Jolitz article Search Engine Quirks and Search Engine Jerks. Join me today as I give you the "inside the datacenter" view of different search engines, what they like and don't like, and how to tell the difference between a bona fide Google bot and a bad bot. See you there.
The Robots of Silicon Valley
It's really the GenY's that matter
There's been such a nice response to the Bots video by Ben Jolitz and Rebecca Jolitz (see Fun Friday: How Many Robots Can You Name?). Some folks just like watching a little movie about robots made by two kids who love them. Others saw it as just one of the ways GenY's can actualize their interests in an increasingly anti-science and anti-creative world. And finally, most folks recognized some robot or toy from their childhood or profession - we had a lot of NASA viewers who loved the "Mars with retractable lever arm" scene (hint why funny - did the little Mars rover have a lever arm?).
So in rereading East Coast, West Coast: Where Will We See the Future of "Robot Valley by Dr. Pete Markiewicz, where he argues (correctly) that a Hollywood styled "Matrix" is misleading to real robotics work, which relies on realtime systems programming and operation, I found his east coast argument well-honed, but missing the "big picture", in both realtime design (and yes, we have a bit of that experience over the years) and current media trends.
Fortunately, realtime programming, board design, and minimalism in operating systems is still alive and kicking. Ben Jolitz is currently on the robotics team at his local high school, is knowledgeable in programming and systems, and has participated in a number of competitions. His younger sister Rebecca Jolitz has become accomplished in media production, and also has a serious science and astronomy interest. Finally, they both avail themselves of talks and information that abound here in Silicon Valley and from NASA. There are tremendous resources available to those who ask.
Pioneers are always few. Believe me - I know, given my involvement in doing the first open source Berkeley Unix operating system for the masses. When we started out at Berkeley so many years ago working on an X86 version *no one* believed in Unix except as an expensive customized solution, especially Intel. It is very different nowadays, isn't it?
The fascination with massive multiplayer gaming and the Internet with the masses today stems from it becoming a mature market - it is no longer an emerging one. So look to the GenY's of tomorrow - the ones who go to the talks and enter science fairs and even (yes, even) create stories and movies about robots as they dream of tomorrow. Like rare roses in a field of weeds, you might find them hard to spot, but they are definitely there. You just have to look harder, and believe.
Fun Friday: You are a Fluke of the Universe, But Everyone Can Google It Now
How our little foibles follow us around in cyberspace
The Internet as memory is a very peculiar wraith. Entire swaths of human history are virtually absent from the search pages, while recent people, places and things thrive in overabundance. Irrelevent items, like what someone wrote on a long-dead VAX system 20 years ago suddenly pop up in a name search, as if someone found some old backup tar tapes and actually offloaded the bits into the archival dustbin. Noxious potions, irrelevencies, lies and deceits abound unopposed, because this memory is so disorganized that few can find every relevent link - much less correct the errors masquerading as facts. And even small trite embarrassing episodes from the past can suddenly appear on your Google dossier - sometimes funny, and sometimes tragic.
Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times prefers to laugh - but with a purpose. Her article discussing an unflattering picture that always seems to pop up whenever her name is searched is actually illustrative of the ubiquitous and uncontrolled grasp of random bits and pieces of our lives. "If it's damaging but it's accurate, it's not actionable" said John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "What if it's extraordinarily ugly?" she asked. "Extraordinarily ugly probably doesn't get it there - with information that's put on the Internet, you pretty much have to assume it will be around forever" he responded. Even if you're unhappy, you're probably out of luck.
But what about nasty and vicious things? Rosenbloom relates the recent headache of Cecilia Barnes, who's ex-boyfriend decided to get back at her by posting nude photos, her work phone number, and her email address on Yahoo. Apparently, Yahoo hasn't responded to demands it be taken down. A lawsuit is pending (and Yahoo isn't talking).
Ms. Rosenbloom talks of possible solutions, from paying listing services to gaming Google. But the fact of the matter is, the more current and open you keep your information, the better you will appear.
Programming Jobs Lose Luster - Live Free or Die
NYTimes tracks symptoms, William Jolitz Cnet "Misplaced Software Priorities" article tracks cause
The NYTimes today discusses why bright engineering students are leaving the major to move to business even if they love science. It's the jobs, stupid (to paraphrase James Carville). "U.S. graduates probably shouldn't think of computer programming or chemical engineering as long-term careers" since "The erosion of ''deep code'' and other technology jobs in the next decade is creating a high-stakes game of musical chairs for geeks, Silicon Valley recruiters say". Sounds pretty gloomy.
Where do we go from here? If you are totally committed to a technology career (because you've already got your degree or career in it, or you have it as a calling), you've got to think smarter. As William Jolitz said last week in his article Misplaced Software Priorities in Cnet:
" We are in danger of losing out in the best and most interesting part of the software market. I'm referring to the development of high-level components such as user interfaces. These deserve our attention because they increase the value of what we can do with technology. Instead, we're continually re-creating the same low-level infrastructure."
The big win here would be to kick software innovation into high gear by clearing the decks to focus the innovation segment on the "race to the top" (as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has put it). People with big dollars then can take big risks for big opportunities."
So as the motto goes, "Live free or die".
Opinion: Getting "Beyond Fear": A Security Expert's Prescription for A Safer World
Lynne Jolitz reviews Bruce Schneier's book on security in an insecure world
My review of Bruce Scheier's new book Getting "Beyond Fear": A Security Expert's Prescription for A Safer World is now online at Security Pipeline.
I must admit, I had a difficult time with this one. I've reviewed other security books, including one by Bruce before, but those are usually "insider" books on the hard tech aspects of security (see "Perspectives on Computer Security" and Under Lock and Key", Dr. Dobbs Journal). But Bruce took a different tact with this book - he wanted to talk to ordinary people about how they could deal with security. And he expressed to me privately that he was frustrated with how difficult it was to reach that audience.
And I could see why he had a problem. The marketing of security books is very masculine, very secret agent man, but opening it up Bruce wrote a very readable book about fear and security. Since secret agents and hackers are thought not to feel fear, this doesn't mesh.
Ironically, the audience I thought Bruce spoke best to inside the covers was women! Women are often neglected in discussions of security, because it is commonly viewed (even by women editors) that this subject is too "manly" and too "technical" to attract their attention.
But here we are, reading about security patdowns that seem like groping sessions and women terrorists from Chechnya blowing up airplanes. How women can be excluded from consideration or from the responsibility of informing themselves about security is beyond me - yet the publishing bias persists.
I originally tried to place a longer piece discussing security and the role of women in our society in more mainstream press, simply because the tech audience is decidely male. I hoped to reach the women and girls currently undergoing the humiliations of an overworked and underfinanced security grid. But after a lot of those cited rejections, I finally gave up and placed it (suitably modified) with an editor I know in a solidly male tech publication. I'm grateful to Mitch Wagner of Security Pipelines for allowing me to discuss Bruce's book in the context of recent security debacles. I only hope that the guys reading it will pick up a copy for their wives, mothers, and girlfriends, and encourage them to read it because a woman said so. Because despite what the mainstream press editors will tell you, women still need to know how to evaluate security before it becomes a danger to them and others.
Real Women and Men Like Technology
Google and Internet popularity bias
Well, I was planning to discuss why we don't need MAC addresses anymore, but then I ran across this little google search on "women don't like technology" and I was intrigued enough to check it out. Not surprisingly, even a small datacenter like TeleMuse Networks checks out some of the more interesting keyword searches once in a while.
While I certainly wasn't surprised that the Lynne's Blog entry entitled Why Women Don't Like IT? Ed Frauenheim of CNET and Anthro 101 is right up there on page one, I was bemused to find the rest of the entries didn't seem to have much to do with women and technology and what they think of it. In fact, except for the gizmodo reference to nagging robots, fluff about sex, health and humor (well, maybe humor fits) abounds. The whole page is singularly notable for its absence of relevence.
But wait - what if we change "women" to "men" and do another google search on "men don't like technology"? Will there be a marked difference in the results, with in-depth technology discussions instead of the frivolous stuff we see in the women's popularity domain? Are men taken more seriously than women in the world of Internet inquiry?
There is one discussion of "real men" and PASCAL, as in they shouldn't use it, with which incidentally I heartily agree - at one of those Silicon Valley get-togethers we have to honor Herr Professor Wirth, my husband laughingly whispered to me to not beat up on the old man for the sin of creating PASCAL as he would be "punished in the next life sufficiently". And there is a discussion of Windows, which "real men" don't use if they can use Unix. But aside from these few relevent references the listings again seem notably devoid of any discussion of men's feelings about technology. This is very odd, because I hear the guys I work with vent their feelings about technology all the time. "We've got to get the latest [cellphone, disk drive, processor, OS, app, camera, player...] immediately, because it has [more features, more memory, more pixels, more cycles] and less [wait states, power, sheer bulk] and this old stuff is [crap, obsolete, crap, broken (because I just broke it)]. Whatever else you can say, men are never neutral about technology.
So what do they talk about on page one of google? Well, there's sex again, and health (both metrosexual spa fun and avoidance of doctors), and humor. Oh, there's also creepy stuff about myspace that I'd rather not talk about.
So women, don't feel bad. It doesn't matter who you are or what you want to know in the world of Internet inquiry - all that matters is that you'll be given lots of sex, health, and humor references to mortify and entertain you. If it makes you a bit more ignorant, disoriented, and distracted from your original question, remember - you can't trust everything you read on the 'net! :-)
DSL Debacles and Competitor Cheats
Parables in installing DSL
OK, so I need DSL at a few locations, so I check out pricing, find a good reputable provider, and book the orders. We do this all the time, right? It's a no brainer.
But what happens if one of those locations just happens to be in an area your phone company just doesn't want to service? And worse yet, what if they don't want anyone else to service it either? Do they let their competitor take the business anyway, leaving them with the line maintenance? Or do they say the line is no good? Well, if you think you can get away with it, why not lie? And so we begin a saga of how keeping competitors from serving an area can be as easy as the magic words "load coils"... because how do you prove they don't exist, and that this is a ruse to keep out service (violating tariffs galore)? Well, I do know one way...
Load coils, for the uninitiated, were impedence matching transformers that were placed on telcom lines that exceeded 6,000 feet to correct the effective capacitance of the copper line, reducing the frequency spectrum of end devices and reducing bandwidth. Note I said "were", not "are". Load coils have been removed from most lines because they preclude the ability of the phone companies to sell DSL and digital service (and actually ISDN, since you barely can get 56kbps, and can't get a 2B+D true ISDN connection either -- like we used to tell telcom execs during those ISDN seminars we did in the 1980's). Impedence matching issues, once handled by load coils, are now handled in sophisticated software in the switch - so if you've got a modern switch, you're OK.
So now to the problem at hand. I needed an additional DSL line in a location (note the word "additional" - yes, we've already got one and it's been operational for many years). Load coils were removed a decade ago from this location so Verizon (then GTE) could sell DSL, and everyone on the street bought it. Sounds simple, right?
Well, it turns out that Verizon doesn't remember that everyone already got DSL in this location years ago, as they contracted through other ISPs at the time (although they supplied the modem kit). Verizon didn't have a DSL division then like they do now, but they did have a T1 service division who didn't like DSL and didn't want anything to do with a cheaper service. They washed their hands of the entire area and let competitors handle the business. The problem is, Verizon is a big company, and the side that repaired the DSLAM a few weeks ago on one line didn't mention to their now-established DSL online group that everyone here has packets slipping and sliding down the wire.
And this is where things get interesting. The ISP is told by Verizon that they cannot install DSL at this location because the line is 12,224 feet from the box and "load coils" are used. Hmm, first problem is I can see the box, and it isn't 12,224 feet. Second problem is that I know it's an up-to-date switch that doesn't need load coils. And third problem is that I already have DSL running on one of their wires (with a new DSLAM card installed only last week when the old one failed) and since no DSL can operate with load coils, and I have operational DSL, there cannot be load coils installed.
Yet, here I am, sending emails over a DSL link (paid for monthly) installed and maintained by Verizon that Verizon says cannot be installed. Why is that?
As the DSL market has become more competitive, it isn't a stretch for a phone company to move from dislike for a competitor getting the "cream" of DSL service (while they maintain the lines) to actively denying service. Of course, that does violate many tariffs (especially on equal access for customers). But, as this little load coil parable demonstrates, proving they are lying isn't easy unless you run into an outright contradiction. So what can be done?
Aside from presenting this issue to the competitor who has suffered, a consumer can go to the state public utility commission and file a complaint. But don't expect this practice to vanish anytime soon. It's just too easy for a phone company to lie.
Fun Friday: Social Media in Silicon Valley
Jane Austen, bandwidth bottlenecks, and redirecting short attention spans in a sound-bite world
The Social Media Club held one of their renowned discussions on trends in social media in Silicon Valley this week (at NBC11's new facilities). Discussions were held in a "round-table" fashion on topics such as ethics in Internet media, tracking accountability in reports, localization of reporting, the diminishing value of professional journalism, GenY's and community media, and many others.
I spent most of my time in ethics and youth media, but one of the topics fascinated me - the problem of enticing and overcoming resistance to viewing in-depth media (like news stories and thought-pieces) in a sound-bite Internet-minute world. It's no mystery that there's a lot of stuff competing for your attention, from screaming banner ads to link farms loaded with trash. On most portals (especially video portals such as YouTube) the flea market prevails - maybe you'll find something good, but mostly it's junk. And as junk rises to the top of the charts, more junk is tendered, crowding out works that actually might be good for you. The Internet, instead of appearing as a rich knowledge base of the world degrades to a monoculture of junk food media. So if you do have something of value, how do you convince a viewer that it is worthwhile to spend the time? And this is where Jane Austen and the telcoms come into play...
It's hard to get people to take any media on the Internet seriously when there is so much that clearly is not serious there for the taking. But this is likely due to the very recent bandwidth bottlenecks that kept good habits from forming early on. Think about it - if you were only allowed to eat quick nibbles of food, would you grab an apple or a bag of chips? If you were used to preparing and eating a good meal every night, you might be very hard-put to making due with a junk meal - you wouldn't want to give up your good habits. Same with the Internet, really. People got used to poor quality media transmitted in low-res formats over slow links. Telcoms in the US are so intent on milking the bandwidth that we've fallen behind most of the industrialized world in Internet access and usable bandwidth, and wireless has only very recently begun to erode this stranglehold, but we have a long way to go. This is likely one reason why the US is dropping in ranking of innovation - all you have to do is look at the countries ahead of us and correlate them to Internet access. The results are striking...
But perhaps we're not also thinking a bit more simply. As an example - this week I felt in the mood for a Jane Austen work, but I wasn't sure which one. I had recently reread "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility", and I ran out of ideas. So I searched on the topic and found a nice site which not only synopsized the books but also had the complete works online to read, so I read "Mansfield Park" (I hadn't read it for many years) on my laptop. Yes, I read the entire book over the course of several evenings, bookmarking where I left off for the next chapter. And I enjoyed it.
Perhaps in the rush to find a way to monetize websites with annoying ads and scams, we've forgotten there are many good sites out there that actually provide a value (what's the cost of an out-of-copyright paperback in stores - about $7-$10). Libraries also have these works, but the library was closed. This doesn't mean I won't go the library anymore or that I won't buy a book, but it did satisfy my craving for a bit of intellectual exploration. And maybe that's the trick for getting people to actually pay attention and stay on a site for a while. After all, junk food may indulge us, but a well-prepared feast is what truly sustains us.
When Bad Things Happen - Cellular and Internet Provide News, Experience Overloads
Virginia Tech tragedy illustrates pluses, minuses of communication technologies
Today a gunman at Virginia Tech went on a rampage, killing and wounding scores of people at two locations on campus. Details are still emerging, but there are some examples of how the use of Internet and telecommunications technologies has impacted both the school and the country.
There were four technology issues that have arisen over the course of this event: 1) problems with notification of the crisis via email to students affected, 2) overloading of the local cellular network, rendering student cellphones essentially useless, 3) the overloading of the university servers during the crisis, preventing students from learning in real-time what what going on from their school, and 4) individuals cohering conflicting information on news sites via Wikipedia and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
The murders occurred in two bursts, separated by about 2 hours. This gap is important, because it actually could have allowed for some appropriate notification to students. However, according to CBS News, "Students complained that there were no public-address announcements or other warnings on campus after the first burst of gunfire. They said the first word they received from the university was an e-mail more than two hours into the rampage — around the time the gunman struck again."
It is unfortunate that emails were delayed until students were in class and hence vulnerable targets. In an absence of header and routing information, there are two possibilities - either the emails were not sent promptly because they were not thought urgent (school authorities erroneously considered the situation under control), or the emails were sent but delayed due to server issues. The latter would be highly unusual, however, because email servers are considered specialized services and usually kept separate from informational webservers in datacenters.
Students in West Ambler Johnston, a freshman dorm which houses about 900 students, where the first shootings occurred were told to stay in their rooms in "lockdown". According to the NY Times, "details emerged from witnesses describing a gunman going room to room in a residence hall". According to the Roanoke Times, which has continually updated a real-time blog on the tragedy, "Richard Waldrop, a freshman who lives in West Ambler-Johnston, said he didn't know about the shooting in the building until he tried to go to class and was told not to leave."
As the crisis continued, cellular communications became difficult, if not downright impossible. "Pauletta Robins, a Blacksburg resident, said she'd spent the morning trying to contact her husband, Todd, a painter at Tech. Cellphone circuits were jammed and she hadn't been able to talk to him" (Roanoke Times). Telecommunications networks presume only a few circuits in use at any one time. The common image of cellphones is one of "instant communication, anytime, anywhere". However, the reality is any localized disaster, whether man-made or natural will likely result in an overload as those under siege desperately call out and those outside the area desperately call in to check on their family and friends.
One of the more provocative reports from ABC News states "Michelle Billman, general manager of student radio station WUVT, told ABC News that someone in the class got a text message around 9:50 a.m. indicating that something was going on. 'We were told to stay in the building, away from the windows' Billman said, describing a frantic scene. 'It really wasn't organized. Almost everyone else just left, and while the kids were running out, people said, 'Come back, come back.'" A private text message received via cellphone by a student might have resulted in a rapid evacuation, saving lives. What if this notification method had been used throughout the campus community when the first emergency occurred? At the very least, it would have allowed for caution and awareness.
The absence of good cellular communications once the crisis began left students with only one recourse - the Internet. Students who tried to find out what was happening from the university found it difficult, however, as the web servers were overloaded. "The campus web system was quickly overwhelmed by e-mail traffic, and concerned online visitors, after news of the shootings broke. Students said they could not get on Virginia Tech's site for information" (ABC News). Unlike large commercial sites which plan for large bursts in traffic, Virginia Tech probably had no contingencies setup to increase bandwidth and server capacity in the event of an emergency. Students thus turned to other sites like Facebook and MySpace (ABC News).
The other source of information for real-time news of this event were Internet news sites. The New York Times was one of the first national news sites to break the news, followed by ABC and CBS. The Roanoke Times blog was probably the best in terms of on-the-spot interviews. Due to the many slightly different reports, a Wikipedia entry was established referencing many different Internet news stories (Roanoke Times), and revised as the news (and death toll) was updated. And finally, the most widely distributed footage was reportedly shot by engineering graduate student Jamal Albarghouti on his "Nokia N70, a cellphone that costs $427 on Amazon" - another example of the power of personal digital media in the Internet age.
UPDATE: The gap in notification and lack of Internet and cellular notification emergency planning has now become an issue. See
WARNING CAME TOO LATE TO SAVE LIVES. THE QUESTION: Why did students go to class -- as if nothing happened? by Alec MacGillis and Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. Of note: "A campus spokesman said earlier this semester that the university was working with a company to provide a service that would send out text-message alerts to students' cell phones." However, cellular circuits became jammed with incoming / outgoing calls from a relatively small percentage of students. There would have to be considerable overcapacity planning implemented to handle 26,000 cell messages simultaneously transmitted and primarily locally received. This is because the same bandwidth used for voice communications is the same bandwidth used for cell alerts and to read messages. Priority is always given to voice communications, and text messages notification and access is postponed when bandwidth is limited.
This doesn't have to be the case for text communications, however. Text communications could be handled out-of-band. But this would mean always allocating a small amount of bandwidth to text. Text messaging does not make as much money for the telecommunications companies as voice communications, so there is always a bias towards voice. The gross amount of revenue (over 90%) is voice communication, so even a small amount of permanently allocated bandwidth for text impacts their bottom line by a few percent (or, to be more precise, that is the fear) for no appreciable gain. Text messaging is intended for idle time -- not in lieu of voice. In the case of emergency text message notification, this bias could be the difference literally between life and death.
Guilty Pleasures and Guilty Publishers
Dick Cavett and book publishing in the Internet age
OK, I admit it. The New York Times has gotten rid of their notorious "Times Select" racket, and I've been busily catching up on all the columns that didn't make the grade (the moderator likes politics) on Behind the Times. And so I've been glancing through Dick Cavett's blog, and found his difficulties at getting his best selling book shipped to eager bookstores very interesting. Apparently, he had to resort to threats of canceling the book tour that was generating tons of sales for the publisher unless they shipped books to Chicago!
The comments were also very interesting. Many authors wrote in with stories of how impossible it was to get the publisher to ship any books to any bookstores, but they lacked the star-power of a Cavett to get the ball rolling. Several cited disasters with liberal arts incompetents masquerading as businessmen and women mishandling their projects and yes, I've experienced this myself, particularly the idiot from Wiley who couldn't keep straight the project, the book, the times scheduled to discuss matters, and the communications. While I could cope with basic incompetence (I work in Silicon Valley, after all), I had to threaten legal action when she decided unilaterally wreck the project when it was essentially completed by contacting one of my business associates (who ran a lovely datacenter and was going to buy lots and lots of books) that she didn't want to do the project and he shouldn't deal with me. She then went on to sign a nobody to try and rip off the same manuscript (I hadn't given her the good stuff yet, so there wasn't enough to rip-off, because I had been clued in by my agent to be careful after my prior editor was off'd), and it went on to be a complete failure. Suffice to say she didn't last long, but I never did business with that publisher again.
But the primary reasons for this lack of execution are economic and global in nature. Yes, execution is CEO-speak for doing, or not doing, the job, and it's the executives that are ultimately responsible. Cavett found it almost impossible to get his publishing execs on the ball for executing on his agreement, even though executives are supposed to be the ones who make sure things go -- that was my job in the last four companies I co-founded. In fact, I remember when execution was always on the top-three lists for CEOs, but last time I saw John Doerr he apparently didn't think it was that important anymore -- hmm, do you start to see a pattern? Sometimes when people hear words like global, they feel they don't have to do anything because the problem is too large. This may explain the complete disinterest Cavett experienced -- they just don't feel they have to deal with any problem because it's too big.
So I guess we have to reduce the problem down to a level where they have to take responsibility. So I'll take a shot at it (anyone is free to comment on a better approach). The reason publishers blow it has much to do with how they have adapted, or not adapted, to Internet publicity and distribution. Book cycles are much shorter than 20 years ago, and demands for books are likely to be stochastic (a foreign word to most liberal arts publishers, but very understandable to technologists). If a publishing house is still doing publishing "the old fashioned way" (e.g. sign an author, wait for a complete manuscript and then do editing, get in-house art to handle the cover, in-house marketing to do the blurbs and publicity, recon the entire work into their own proprietary system, re-edit, rewrite, and finally, after much discussion, order inventory for storage from a book binder), then they're putting themselves at a great deal of risk because they can't respond to fluctuating demand easily. And the author loses out because the progression from signing to book takes a great deal of time -- perhaps missing a good window of opportunity to establish it before trends shifted. No wonder book publishers only want to sign "pet autobiographies" and "self-help memoirs", and fixate on block-busters. Perhaps instead of checks, publishers should just buy everybody in the biz lottery tickets, so that maybe somebody will make it big.
Of course, there are ways to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace. One approach is to embrace the long-tail, and not run away from it, perhaps by using some of the technologies available such as "instant book publishing" and software license arrangements (see Fun Friday - College Textbook Sticker Shock). But this would demand a fundamental sea change in how publishers relate to their authors and their business -- one that would require just-in-time inventory, Internet updates, Internet publicity (online video, for instance of authors chats), investment in new technologies like kiosks, and so on. Their revenues would be based on licenses to read, and not on tangible inventories, and their financials would look completely different. And that is the real bugbear in the bookselling business.
This will happen, whether publishers want to adapt or not. And the end result will be bankruptcies, mergers, failures, and ultimately a few successes. The real sufferers are the book-buying public who wants to see the long-tail of new book ideas and the authors, who just want to write and sell books to those who want to read them.
Cyberbullying on the Internet
Lori Drew, Judith Warner, and the Broad Scope of Actions
The Lori Drew case has hit the media this week, and the reaction is fairly universal - how could a mother behave in such a shameless narcissistic evil manner to drive a young girl to suicide? The anonymous use of the Internet and MySpace to bully this child provides the techno-grist for over-the-top analysis by doyennes of housewife journalism like Judith Warner (admittedly, I do like her style) who draws rather shaky lines between this nasty criminal weirdo and "helicopter parents" who dote on their offspring. Unfortunately, this trivializes and distracts from the centerpiece of this drama. Powerful technology like the Internet can be used by amoral predators to hunt down victims as efficiently and rapidly as normal folks use it to hunt for the best HDTV bargain.
The "good old days" mantra (oh sure, bullying didn't happen before the Internet? I've got a bridge to sell you too) that pops up during this public debate is relevant only in the sense that the way we interact in society is vastly changed and enhanced by technology. Social networks like MySpace and FaceBook and business networks like LinkedIn are poor substitutes for real friendship, collegiality and love. But what if you don't have any real friendship, collegiality and love? For whatever reason one would prefer to choose (consumerism, individualism, globalism, ...), these businesses would not exist and flourish economically if there weren't so many isolated people out there looking for validation of self. While technology like the Internet facilitates new forms of social interaction, it is not the sole catalyst for such interaction. That responsibility lies within ourselves and the way we treat others in the real world.
The major lament about the Internet is that it has no "controls" to prevent criminal behavior. Consider that the Internet (Arpanet for those oldsters who remember) was designed at a time when networks were few and conduct was scrupulously monitored. In the 1970's, I knew quite a few people who were very careful with their postings for fear of losing their prized university or corporate accounts. However, balancing this was the belief that academic freedom was equally important, and that disputed statements should be heard and debated - not suppressed - in other words "Cui peccare licet peccat minus" (Ovid).
But in the real world, we also view actions separately from words. When words are used to torment and destroy another person, it becomes a difficult matter of law. It forces us to look at our values and behavior. How many times have you, dear reader, met with a poison-pen email or posting notable only for its vacuous viciousness and then actually met the writer and found him or her indifferent or unaware of the venom dripping from the words? I actually have on occasion, and it is very disconcerting.
Anonymity on the Internet has always been a bit of a misnomer. The Internet provides for much better tracking and record-keeping than sending an old-fashioned letter and is far less regulated than phone conversations. Cookies and behavioral search give businesses like MySpace a "snapshot" on buying habits and trends worth billions of dollars. People who use these "free" services may believe they are "untraceable" but the entire focus of the business is one of tracing a caricature of the consumer. Identifying users in criminal or civil actions is simply incidental to their business, but as the RIAA actions demonstrate, the information is available.
DNA analysis has revolutionized identification of criminals, but that hasn't stopped all crime. The same goes for Internet tracking. Technology changes, but the desire for justice is timeless.
Myths and the Need for Innovation
The difficulties to remain calm when everything seems to fail
It all started when one person asked a very simple question: Why can't we reduce packet drops throughout the network during congestion events (thus reducing the impact of RTT) with a more intelligent network that is able to refer back to caches of such information from a prior hop and resend, so that transparently the drop in the fabric is repaired? This all seems pretty simple, and yes, I've proposed such a mechanism myself. It is doable. Why not try it out? The usual "old" answer is that we don't need to do anything. After all, everything we need to know about the Internet is already known, and this isn't a problem. But is this true? Nobody knows for sure, but it's a good way to stifle questions, isn't it?
This is not a trivial issue. I see these technology debates springing up all over the research and development landscape, from operating systems to networking to applications. And I see the same answer tendered: shut up, we've already solved the problem, and if we stomp out the questioners, the problem won't exist. This isn't really a debate between the "old" versus "new" (some "old" designers are among the most innovative and creative people I've ever met), but more fundamentally, centers around the ability to question fundamental assumptions in an intellectually open and honest manner. In other words, the battle centers on the purveyors of myth versus the questioners of myth. And reputations are made or broken on the results.
In Matt Miller's The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, Miller posits that Americans have become so unthinkingly accepting of their myths that they do not question things even when it defies their own experience. Miller views technology as one of the drivers out of this malaise. Unfortunately, the tendency to cleave to myth is not just the province of bankers, politicians and voters. And the consequences for abandoning reasonable discourse and proactive work can result in unanticipated disasters.
Scientists too are prone to this all-to-human tendency to discount uncomfortable data in favor of desired results, even if those results are based on faulty or incomplete data. And woe to those scientists who cater to the desperation of others in an attempt to aggrandize themselves. Witness the recent Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (aka "the virus court") ruling that MMR and thimerosal do not induce autism - the initial data presented by Wakefield stating autism and MMR shots were linked has been definitively demonstrated to have been fabricated for financial gain, yet there were some other published studies by other scientists that claimed the same results. Only after very large serious studies did this claim get disproved, but in the meantime children who did not receive the vaccines because of scientific validation early on have suffered or died from these very preventable diseases because of a bogeyman of autism (which to say the least doesn't kill the patient). People were desperate for a cause, and instead of saying "We don't know", some scientists told them exactly what they wished.
Homeostasis in ideas cripples independent action. People hold off and put down ideas which could be carefully tested and developed in a considered manner because they are threatened by their potential "success" and fear the dimming of reputations and connections. Only when things completely break do people reach for other ideas, and by then (as witness the current financial crisis) it is really very very difficult to repair matters with a reasonable assurance of success. The events are driven by fear and need. During these times of crisis, people are prone to extreme or under-justified ideas - so long as they are simplistic and appear to "solve the problem". Got a problem with autism. Don't get vaccinated. Who needs vaccines anyway? Got a problem with banks? Bail them out. Nationalize them. Eliminate them. Go right. Go left. Shoot the messenger. The nuances of medical studies or derivatives and financial instruments are not interesting to people who are fearful and angry. If you think you've been living in dangerous times, Miller points out you haven't even begun to experience how crazy it can get when people lose their mythic lifelines.
So what's this have to do with the Internet. The Internet is increasingly the *only* source of information for millions of people. Where people once read print magazines and newspapers, went to the library for books, joined clubs and organizations and kept up with letters over the course of years, now many read / view / communicate only via a browser abstraction. A collapse in the Internet due to years of denial and neglect about the nuances of its structure would be a catastrophe to hundreds of millions of people.
As such, it is important to ask how we can improve the Internet *now* without resorting to old myths and relationships that make us feel comfortable. Because the day will soon come when our old assumptions blind us to new issues, and we will allow this grand experiment to fail. And if that day comes, it will not be the reputable or reasoned scientists who's voices will be heard. It will be the ones who tell people what they want to hear. Is defending a myth worth this price?
It's Raining Cupcakes - And Losses
The downsides of Internet coupons for businesses
Internet coupons have been stuck in the dark ages of print. Instead of using modern techniques like social networking and clever psychology (yes, a few companies have done coupon apps for mobile and SN sites like FaceBook, but they're not very inspiring), most just create "print 'em yourself" coupons to be used at a store. And that's a hassle. So to compensate for the annoyance factor, coupons delivered in this manner generally offer steep discounts.
Groupon has taken this a step further - offering really steep discounts on premium items *if* they get a set minimum participation (like 100 customers). But what if *too* many people agree - like three thousand? This happened to a tiny boutique cupcake vendor in SF recently, and it was three weeks of agony and spot buying of supplies to satisfy people. Was it worth it? Probably not, since the vendor had to pay more to satisfy customers paying less.
It's ironic that a decade after the Internet bubble and burst, a simple thing like vending a coupon is an enigma to companies and customers. I've done work in this area, and believe me - the level of cleverness and innovation here is very very low. This is partially because of the demographics to which the old media group is wedded - older frugal housewives - and not the sexy 18-34 spendthrift guys dearly beloved by, well, most everybody selling high-priced junk and low-priced junkfood.
But for the poor cupcake vendor who got too much business for too little profit, I only have pity. No small business can scale to cope with flash sales nor offer the kind of personalized attention that creates recurring customer sales. And the customers don't see the boutique aspect of an artisan - only a cheap discount on cupcakes they might have bought at Safeway instead.
The Internet is a very powerful sales mechanism. Too bad people don't give it the serious consideration it deserves with respect to the simple coupon. I think there's a lot of money on the table and nobody wants to pick it up.