Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday, June 13, 2014

Short Takes

Iraq: President Obama ruled out sending troops but took nothing off the table.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl returns to U.S. soil.

House delays vote on school meal standards.

Ya, mon — Jamaica to relax some rules on pot smoking.

Tesla to open-source its patent portfolio to encourage electric car development.

R.I.P. Ruby Dee, 91, actor and civil rights activist.

The Tigers beat the White Sox 4-0.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Short Takes

Iraq veteran kills himself and three others in shooting at Fort Hood.

Supreme Court strikes down campaign donation limits.

U.N. reports the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is 1 million.

Aftershocks cause more evacuations in Chile.

Yahoo adds more security to thwart surveillance.

The Tigers beat K.C. 2-1 in extra innings.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Code Talking

David Auerbach at Slate clears up the clutter of reporting on the Healthcare.gov website mess.

Last weekend, some anonymous “specialist” told the New York Times that “5 million lines of software code may need to be rewritten” in order to fix the mess that is healthcare.gov. (The good news, according to the source, is that the project has a total of “500 million lines of software code,” so only 1 percent has to be rewritten. So the code’s 99 percent good—or something.)

I don’t mean to jump back on my hobbyhorse of complaining about lack of knowledge in tech journalism, but printing a claim like that is egregious.

Why? Well, here’s a line of C++ code:

}

The close curly brace signals the end of a block of code. It could be put on the same line as the previous, more substantive line, but for the sake of cleanliness, programmers tend to put it on a line of its own. When it comes to coding in HTML, Perl, and AJAX, different programmers have different styles. Some will split code up into many lines; others will compress it into a handful of lines. I’ve seen nearly identical segments of code written in 10 lines or in 50.

Here’s another line of C++ code.

// TODO: make sure this code doesn’t crash!

That’s a comment. It doesn’t do anything—those two slashes at the beginning tell the compiler (which converts code into actual computer instruction) to ignore the line. It’s there to explain things to people reading the source code, or in this case to remind the programmer to fix whatever lies immediately below. I’ve written cryptic bits of code that required more lines of comments than lines of actual code, simply to explain what on earth was going on.

[...]

So not all lines of code are created equal. As a programmer, I had weeks where I produced 1,000 lines of code. I had weeks where I produced 20. Usually the latter weeks were more grueling, because any 20 lines requiring that much time and effort are going to be a) important, b) complicated, and c) bug-prone. The 1,000 lines were far more likely to be simple stuff that I could code by rote. I even had weeks where I removed 2,000 lines of code by removing redundancies between similar blocks of code. Those were the best weeks of all, because less code means fewer bugs.

Programmers who do user interface code—which is responsible for the visuals and input components of software—tend to produce far more code than other programmers, because user interface code requires a lot of boilerplate. I knew programmers who wrote 10,000 (good) lines of user interface code in a week. Many of them were copied and slightly modified from other projects or example code.

Consequently, it’s rather silly to say, as the Times article does, that “a large bank’s computer system is typically” 100 million lines of code. Investment banks have far more complex code than commercial banks—they need more in order to do all their clever, sneaky trading. Assuming the Times is referring to commercial banks, there is such variety among implementations and coding standards that speaking of an “average” amount of code is meaningless. Bank code written in FORTRAN will be far longer than bank code written in Python. Does it make a difference? Not really.

But while the numbers in the Times article don’t tell us much about the healthcare.gov codebase itself, they do tell us something about the “specialist” sources that inform the article. The sources are not programmers, because programmers would not speak in terms of lines of code with no further context. We hear that “disarray has distinguished the project” in part because government “officials modified hardware and software requirements for the exchange seven times.” The officials probably modified them 70 times—requirements for any software project are constantly in flux, and it’s expected that project managers and software engineers will adapt. Modifications alone do not signal a project in disarray.

On top of the fact that writing code for anything is complicated and error-prone, there’s the simple fact that working for the federal government’s IT system is complicated, as this fellow at World of Pie explains.

I’m writing this post as a rant. I am tired of hearing people who have never worked in Federal IT try and come forward with ideas about what was wrong about the way Healthcare.gov was developed. I have one statement for all of you who think you could have done better.

You would have ALL failed miserably.

Federal IT is broken. Hell, all of Federal contracting is broken from what I’ve seen, but I want to focus on the IT side for now.

Before I get started, a quick reminder of my background. My first Federal project was back in the late 90s as the tech lead for the Secretary of the Air Force’s correspondence tracking system. Over the years, I have worked on a multitude of projects and managed many more while I was the Director of Technology Solutions for Washington Consulting . I’ve responded to many proposals and run Federal IT projects through the wide variety of hurdles that they face.

I can tell you right now, I am impressed that Healthcare.gov even boots up.

[...]

Let’s forget the obvious facts surrounding a system that is interfacing with over 36 states, a multitude of insurance carriers, and several federal agencies that think they have the best IT shop in the land. I want to talk about the over-arching process.

In Federal IT, typically nobody with both knowledge and authority owns all the components of a system. Even on smaller efforts, one contractor owns the data center, another runs the database infrastructure, one is developing the actual system, and a fourth contractor is in charge of making sure all the rules are followed.

Also take into consideration that we’re dealing with a website that deals with a very complicated industry — insurance — in the first place.  Getting a quote for car insurance online isn’t as easy as they would have you believe.  Try it and see.

Finally, in the effort to make a system that is open and accountable to the people and Congress, the federal government has set up so many checks and balances that it breeds red tape like minks in heat.

Try writing the code for that.

PS: It’s nostalgic to see FORTRAN mentioned.  That was the computer language I learned when I was a freshman in high school in 1967.

HT to CLW.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Not As Seen On TV

Marco Rubio has a lot to learn about the intertubes.

Mr. Rubio expressed disappointment in his fellow Republicans for not “uniting” in the fight to defund Obamacare.

He criticized the Affordable Care Act’s rocky start, blaming the Obama administration for hiding the fact that not many Americans are signing up for the health care exchanges because of glitches on the website.

“Setting up a website where people can go online and buy something is not that complicated,” he said. “People do this every day.”

Mr. Rubio and the other talking heads are amazed that the Obama administration, which was so tech-savy during the campaigns, is having such a hard time with the healthcare site.  But just because there’s an ad on TV at 3:30 in the morning telling you that setting up your own business website is free and easy doesn’t mean that you can set one up to run the healthcare exchanges.  There’s a huge difference.  For one thing, a campaign isn’t a government-run operation and it can be done by the best and the brightest, not the lowest bidder weaving their way through the federal procurement and vendor process.  Second, it’s not just “buying something.”  As Jamie at C&L explains, it’s more than just a website.

There have been tons of articles speculating what went wrong, but being in this industry they just didn’t seem to add up. That’s until now. Thanks to the Sunlight Foundation, we now see that the major problem is one we all know too well. That would be cronyism, and cronyism is never as prevalent as it is in federal procurement.

According to the report, there were a total of 47 contractors that worked on the project. Now let me be clear that something like this isn’t uncommon. Healthcare.gov is more than just a website.

As matter of fact, the website is one of the smaller parts. Behind the scenes you’ve got this new hub that the website connects to to verify income, residency and a bunch of other things. That “hub” connects to numerous government agencies to determine this. That means the hub had to be developed, then integrated with systems in DHS, Social Security, the IRS and a bunch of other agencies. Once all that was done, the website’s back-end got developed to communicate with the hub and get this data. There’s a lot of moving parts here and if one goes down, everything goes down.

Or, put simply, it’s not whether or not you know how to build a website, it’s whether or not you know how to manage the game.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Republican Flying Monkeys Triumph — Charlie Pierce on the defeat of the farm bill by the GOP.

They do this to demonstrate that government cannot work. They do this so that they can go home and talk at all the town halls and bean suppers to audiences choking on the venom that pours out of their radios and off their television screens about how government doesn’t work, and how they stood tall against it, and against Those People who don’t want to work for a living. (When Stutzman says he’s a “fourth-generation farmer” who doesn’t want the Farm Bill to be a “welfare bill,” the folks back in LaGrange County don’t need an Enigma machine to decode what he’s saying.) They do this out of the bent notion, central to their party’s presidential campaign last fall, that anyone on any kind of government assistance is less entitled to the benefits of the political commonwealth. And they all believe that; the only difference between Paul Ryan and Marlin Stutzman is that Ryan has been a nuisance for a longer period of time. That the country rose up and rejected that notion in a thundering manner is irrelevant. What does the country matter in the Third Congressional District of Indiana? There, they believe government cannot work, and they elect Marlin Stutzman to the Congress to demonstrate to the world that it cannot.

Our Congress is now a cut-rate circus with nothing but eunuchs as performers. Some of these people, like Stutzman and his colleagues in the flying-monkey caucus, become eunuchs by choice. Some of them, like John Boehner, are drafted into the position. Their job is to be forcibly impotent so that the government itself becomes forcibly impotent. They are proud of what they do. They consider it a higher calling to public service that they decline to serve the public. They sing a soprano dirge for democracy in Jesus’s name, amen.

Smartphones Underground — Gerry Smith of the Huffington Post on the trade in stolen smartphones.

Before a federal SWAT team descended last summer, one storefront in a Detroit suburb attracted so many people bearing shopping bags stuffed with iPhones and iPads that managers installed a port-a-potty on the sidewalk.

Once inside, people deposited their electronic wares into a rotating drawer below a bulletproof glass window and waited for the cashier to deliver stacks of cash.

So much money changed hands in this fashion at the Ace Wholesale storefront in Taylor, Mich., that an armored truck arrived each morning to deliver fresh bundles of cash, according to an undercover investigator for the wireless company Sprint and an employee at the Mattress World outlet next door.

“It was like Fort Knox over there,” said the Mattress World employee, who asked not to be named for fear of making enemies inside what police say was a locus of criminal activity.

Many of the mobile devices swapped for cash at Ace Wholesale had been stolen at gunpoint in an escalating wave of gadget-related robberies, police say. Ace Wholesale had become a key broker in the underground trade of stolen phones, a global enterprise that often connects violent street thieves in American cities with buyers as far away as Hong Kong, according to law enforcement and the wireless industry.

“These companies fence the stolen phones for them, no questions asked,” said Jerry Deaven, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with preventing the trafficking of stolen goods. “You can walk right into one of these storefronts and sell all the phones at once and walk out with $20,000.”

The Hut Where The Internet Began — Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic traces the web back to 1945.

Let’s start at the end point: what you’re doing right now. You are pulling information from a network onto a screen, enhancing your embodied experience with a communication web filled with people and machines. You do this by pointing and clicking, tapping a few commands, organizing your thoughts into symbols that can be read and improved by your various correspondents.

There was a beginning to all this, long before it became technically possible.

Well, actually, there were many beginnings.

But one — maybe the most important one — traces back to Douglas Engelbart, who died last week, and his encounter with a 1945 article published here at The Atlantic, “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush, an icon of mid-century science.

The essay is most famous for its description of a hypothetical information-retrieval system, the Memex, a kind of mechanical Evernote, in which a person’s every “book, record, or communication” was microfilmed and cataloged.

“It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory,” Bush wrote. “It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.”

Bush did not describe the screens, keyboard, buttons, and levers as a “user interface” because the concept did not exist. Neither did semiconductors or almost any other piece of the world’s computing and networking infrastructure except a handful of military computers and some automatic telephone switches (the latter were, in fact, one of Bush’s favorite examples).

A crucial component of the Memex was that it helped the brain’s natural “associative indexing,” so “any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.” The Memex storehouse was made usable by the “trails” that the user (another word that did not have this meaning at the time) cut through all the information, paths that could later be refollowed or passed onto a friend.

Texas Bans Women — Andy Borowitz reports on the Lone Star state’s latest move.

Republican lawmakers in the Texas State Senate are proposing a precedent-setting new bill that would make it illegal for women to live in the state.

Senator Harland Dorrinson, one of the many pro-life lawmakers backing the woman ban, crafted his bill after witnessing Senator Wendy Davis filibuster an anti-abortion bill last month.

“That was our moment to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he said. “This comes down to a choice between life and women, and we choose life.”

Senator Dorrinson said his bill would call for a twenty-foot woman-proof fence to be constructed along the borders of the state.

“Women are great at talking, but not at climbing,” he observed.

But another G.O.P. state senator, Cal Jamson, believes that the total ban on women goes “too far” and is proposing a less draconian bill that would allow some women to remain in the state as guest workers.

“Texas needs women to cook, clean, and cheerlead,” he said. “If they show that they can do those things and stay out of politics, there could be a pathway to citizenship.”

Doonesbury — Bringing in help.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Hit Parade

The Guardian says the N.S.A. went for more than just phone records.

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.

Although the presentation claims the program is run with the assistance of the companies, all those who responded to a Guardian request for comment on Thursday denied knowledge of any such program.

As I noted on Twitter last night, I look on the bright side: now I know my readership is actually higher than StatCounter says it is.

I understand that a lot of people are upset by this news.  I refuse to be one of them.  It’s not that it doesn’t concern me that there is an agency out there that is gathering information and that there is every possibility that they’re doing it at this very moment.  But anyone who thinks that it hasn’t been going on for a very long time in a very systematic method and that it doesn’t matter whether there’s a Republican or a Democrat in the White House needs to take a cold shower of reality.

It’s not that the folks in the tin-foil hats are right and the secret government agents are out there to spy on each one of us individually and that they’re up to no good.  Anyone who’s ever worked in any sort of bureaucracy, be it a government entity or your local Wal-Mart, knows that they gather information.  That’s life.  It’s a part of the bargain we make in living in what we hope is a free society that is also protecting us from those who want to harm us.

So unless you plan to live completely off the grid and don’t plan on buying anything, making a phone call, or Googling yourself, then you can expect this kind of news.  As a lot of the people who knew about it said, it’s old news: a lot of other people know what you’re doing with your car, your computer, your TV, and your grocery list. But not your guns.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, Cellphone

It’s a day late, but I couldn’t get a signal.

On 3 April 1973 when Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive, made the first mobile telephone call from handheld subscriber equipment, placing a call to Dr. Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs.[1][2] The prototype handheld phone used by Dr. Cooper weighed 1.1 kg and measured 22.86 cm long, 12.7 cm deep and 4.44 cm wide.. The prototype offered a talk time of just 30 minutes and took 10 hours to re-charge.[3]

My first cellphone was the Uniden bag phone that was in the Pontiac, mounted on the floor between the front seats.  I still have it, keeping it as a part of the car’s historic preservation.

Since then I’ve progressed, so to speak, to a Samsung phone with a slide-out keyboard so I can text.  I have yet to try or even consider a smartphone.

So, what was your first cellphone and when did you get it?  Or are you still wired in?

HT to NTodd.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Short Takes

President Obama heads to the Middle East.

Seven Marines killed in Nevada training exercise.

Rescue workers reach 19 trapped miners in Poland.

Cyprus bailout deal collapses over taxing savings.

Computer networks crashed in South Korea.

The assault weapons ban is out of the gun control bill in the Senate.

South Carolina — Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch get primary wins for Congress.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Reading

Far Less Hokey and Weird — Recovering conservative wunderkind Jonathon Krohn returns to CPAC.

Does being back at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives from all over the country, feel weird?

That’s the question I got everywhere I turned these past few days. I suppose it was a natural question to ask, seeing as I had been a high profile speaker at the conference in 2009 as a thirteen year-old conservative wunderkind, before renouncing conservatism last year. So my return this year was an object of fascination to many.

The answer to the question is: No, it didn’t feel weird. I mean, I guess it should have, but it didn’t. In a way going back to CPAC seemed like going back home and visiting your old libertarian friend from high school: it’s pretty predictable, there’s a familiarity to the situation, you know the kind of stuff she’s going to say, you never know exactly how (or why) she says the stuff she says (and neither does she, in all likelihood), and so long as you don’t talk politics and just listen, you’ll be fine.

Still, there definitely were differences between this year’s CPAC and the conferences of the past, which may signify larger differences in the conservative movement more broadly.

Last time I attended CPAC, I remember seeing the Ron Paulers in full force. As soon as Congressman Paul (R-TX) arrived, it was like something out of A Hard Days Night: security had to escort Paul to the green room and then back out of the building afterwards. The room was packed whenever he came on stage, but, to be honest, his Young Americans for Liberty group seemed kind of too far-out for a lot of people — even though they came in force the second time I went, even bringing along a pair of those inflatable Sumo-wrestling suits for their booth (don’t ask…I know I didn’t).

This time around, Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), his “Stand With Rand” campaigners and today’s YA for Liberty all seemed far less hokey and weird, and much more a part of the mainstream.

The sleeker, more polished member of the Paul political franchise, Rand showed himself to be a more than capable campaigner. With his new (and free!) Stand With Rand t-shirts, buttons, wristbands, and campaign signs (which all look strangely like the cover art one might see on a White Stripes album) Rand Paul brought down the house at CPAC with arguably the best speech of the convention to one of the biggest (if not the biggest) crowd of the weekend. His insistence upon using the “stand” line over and over again (“stand for righteousness,” “stand with me”) gave it the sound of a campaign announcement or stump speech, while the abundance of overly-enthusiastic Paul staffers gave it the feel of a convention speech.

But most interestingly—to me anyway—was the fact that while the base of the Paul family’s support is almost entirely composed of young people, most of the Young Republicans I spoke to who voted for Rand in the straw poll actually told me they had never been (and still aren’t) fans of Ron Paul. When I asked them their reasoning, the almost universal reply by a country mile was: Rand is more polished and electable.

Phone Hangups — Ian Bogost laments that you can’t slam down the receiver on a Smartphone.

Desk PhoneWhen I was a kid, we had a bright yellow, rotary Western Electric model 554, the wall-mountable companion to the 500 desk set. Before answering machines, caller id, *69, and eventually smartphone address books allowed us to screen calls quickly, a ringing phone was a pressing matter. It could mean anything: a friend’s invitation, a neighbor’s request, a family emergency. You had to answer to find out. Telephones rang loud, too, with urgency and desperation. One simply did not ignore the telephone.

In the context of such gravity, the hangup had a clear and forceful meaning. It offered a way of ending a conversation prematurely, sternly, aggressively. Without saying anything, the hangup said something: we’re done, go away.

My father took great pride in hanging up our model 554 phone violently when something went awry. An inbound wrong number dialed twice in a row, or an unwelcome solicitor. Clang! The handset’s solid mass crashed down on the hook, the bell assembly whimpering from the impact. The mechanical nature of telephones made hangups a material affair as much as a social one. A hangup is something your interlocutor could feel physically as much as emotionally, and something you couldn’t downplay either. Like slamming a door or yelling at a child, hanging up a phone couldn’t be subdued or hidden.

Unlike today’s cellular network, the public switched telephone network was robust and centralized thanks to monopoly. Apart from flukes like my son depressing the hook switch, a disconnected landline call is almost unheard of. By contrast, it’s not possible to hang up on someone via smartphone with deliberateness, because it’s so much more likely that the network itself will disconnect of its own accord. Every call is tenuous, constantly at risk of failing as a result of system instability: spectrum auctions, tower optimizations, network traffic, and so forth. The infrastructure is too fragile to make hangups stand out as affairs of agency rather than of accident.

Today a true hangup — one you really meant to perform out of anger or frustration or exhaustion — is only temporary and one-sided even when it is successfully executed. Even during a heated exchange, your interlocutor will first assume something went wrong in the network, and you could easily pretend such a thing was true later if you wanted. Calls aren’t ever really under our control anymore, they “drop” intransitively. The signal can be lost, the device’s battery can deplete, the caller can accidentally bump the touch screen and end the call, the phone’s operating system can crash. The mobile hangup never signals itself as such, but remains shrouded in uncertainties.

Bird Foodies — Ethan Kuperberg eavesdrops.

Two jay birds, a crow, and a raven sit on the branch of a large tree. Dusk.

EURASIAN JAY: I was thinking we could all go for thistle seeds tonight.

BLUE JAY: Oh, thistle seeds. Cool.

EURASIAN JAY: Something wrong with thistle seeds?

BLUE JAY: No, that sounds great. It’s just that I had thistle seeds for lunch, so…

EURASIAN JAY: Do you want something else then?

BLUE JAY (sighs): What I want is for you to know what I want.

EURASIAN JAY: Jennifer, please. We have guests.

Silence. Various feather rufflings.

RAVEN: Courtney and I would be down for some carrion.

CROW: Carrion is exactly what I feel like right now. How’d you know, babe?

RAVEN: I just know you, babe.

EURASIAN JAY (coughs): Do you want carrion, Jen?

BLUE JAY: You know I’m vegan, right? Vegans don’t eat carrion.

EURASIAN JAY: Oh, that’s right. You’re vegan. Weird, because I thought vegans aren’t supposed to eat insects.

BLUE JAY: That was like two months ago. I’ve recommitted since then. You try being vegan, it’s harder than it looks.

EURASIAN JAY: Somebody get her a medal.

RAVEN (stretching): Carrion’s pretty good, Jen.

BLUE JAY: I don’t eat carrion. I don’t want carrion. Carrion is off the menu.

Silence. Someone chirps.

BLUE JAY: Why don’t we go to that bird feeder on Elm?

EURASIAN JAY: That place will be packed at this hour.

BLUE JAY: Then we’ll wait. It wouldn’t hurt us to wait. And talk.

All grumble.

EURASIAN JAY: I don’t see what the problem is with thistle seeds.

RAVEN: Here’s the problem: some of us like flavor.

BLUE JAY: Thank you, Steve.

RAVEN: What about some snails? Have you guys ever had invertebrates?

CROW: College boy over here.

RAVEN: I’m trying to be helpful.

BLUE JAY: Hey, we all like nuts. It’s been ages since I’ve had a good nut. I know a great tree.

EURASIAN JAY: Why don’t you guys get nuts and I’ll get thistle seeds?

BLUE JAY: That ruins the whole point of eating together, David.

Silence.

Doonesbury — Twits galore.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

WiFi Everywhere

The FCC is proposing to take WiFi national, blanketing the country with free service to places the current coverage can’t reach.

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say. That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all WiFi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.

The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, con­nections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public WiFi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

Google and Microsoft are very much in favor of this plan.  Cell phone providers like Verizon and AT&T not so much.  They argue that the spectrum should be sold to them so they can make money off it.

This is roughly equivalent to the Rural Electrification Administration set up by FDR during the Depression to get electrical service to parts of the country that didn’t have it in the 1930′s.  The government, much to the chagrin of private utilities, stepped in to provide the service when the private companies would not because they didn’t see a profit in it.

In the end, everybody got something good from it; the rural areas got power and the utilities got new customers after the government did all the heavy lifting.  The same thing will happen here: cheap broadband will help the public, and Verizon will still find a way to make a buck.  They always do.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Internet vs. Reality

CLW ponders the way technology promises a bright future for us if only we can overcome our human nature to make the worst of it.

Back in 1995 I was fortunate enough to be one of the executives in the room when Bill Gates introduced his landmark “Internet Tidal Wave” memo.  It changed the direction of the company instantly and led the way to the huge success Microsoft saw in the dot com era.

If you read that memo, it’s filled with a bunch of business-related content.  But in the chat we had with Bill that day, just the few dozen of us in a circle of chairs around the room, he talked much more as the visionary.  He saw the Internet changing the world, and it was a glorious vision.  Not all of it was right.

One thing I remember distinctly was how he was sure that addresses on the Internet would be SO much simpler.  At the time we had addresses for documents that were like \\mcp\intel\dev\user\files\userfile.doc and he was saying “it’ll all be so easy, they will all be simple, like just ‘amazon.com’”  Well, all that really changed was the direction of the slashes (from “\” to “/”), they are all still just as long and silly, maybe even more so…

One thing he did say that day that was right about addresses was that soon everyone would have their internet address on their business cards, and they’d even be shown in TV advertising.  I remember the audible chuckle through the room.  He was right, within a year it was pretty common on TV ads.

But the thing that stuck with me the most from that day was how elegantly Bill talked about how the availability of nearly limitless information would make the world a better place.  With everyone able to get to all kinds of great information from anywhere, so many things would be better.

Commerce would be so much better because everyone would have “perfect information”.  No longer would I be limited to what I found on my local store shelves.  No longer would the little store in a tiny town be able to take advantage of people because they had no other options.  And sellers would have easy entry to the market that included the entire world.  What he didn’t see was people killing brick and mortar stores by using them as showrooms for Amazon.  Or the rampant scammers and phishing schemes.  In short, the dark side of e-commerce.  He didn’t realize that by removing the barriers to entry — whether those barriers were in starting a business or to your inbox — it made it easier for the bad guys and harder to tell them from the good guys.

He also said politics and elections would be much fairer with everyone’s voice able to be heard, people able to seek out great information, and it would be impossible for just a few people to own the information channels.  At the time, most people got their information from a very few sources: the major TV networks, a few major newspapers.  He was sure more information would make elections better.  He even waxed philosophically about these things called “weblogs” where people could easily post their thoughts, and that would make sure everyone’s voice got heard.

What he didn’t see was the way having two million sources to choose from wouldn’t expand people’s information, but drive them into the corners where they are most comfortable.  He didn’t see that having incredibly easy access to publishing would give voice to people who, frankly, were better off hidden.  The conspiracy theorists, the vile and degrading, the truly hateful, and the trolls.  And given human nature, we wouldn’t turn away from them, we’d be drawn to them like gawkers at a car wreck.  And he didn’t see that a huge number of people don’t want to have to figure things out, they want to be spoon-fed, and that there are plenty of people willing to do that.

Key to all of this is that he didn’t see that making information free also removed its value.  Gone is investigative journalism and the foreign bureau, replaced with TMZ.  Gone are literally all the good newspapers, replaced with a million news aggregator web sites each slanted in the direction you choose.  And gone is a world where people were likely to run into people or opinions they don’t want to.  Everyone is just hiding in their own silos.

Maybe this explains why Washington is broken.  Maybe it explains all the hate on both sides of every argument.  And maybe it’s hopeless, destined only to get worse as information flows at a faster and faster rate.

I hope not.

It’s very telling that with every advance in human communication – from the classic Greek theatre to the internet – the first thing that usually happens is that someone figures out a way to separate other people from their money; the second is to sell pornography.  For every “great big beautiful tomorrow” promised by GE and Walt Disney, there’s someone sending you an e-mail from Nigeria.

Technology can improve our lives immeasurably, but it also highlights the ying and yang of our very human nature.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Short Takes

U.S. and Afghan forces clash, leaving five dead.

Bombs target Shiite sites in Iraq, killing 26.

Cyber attacks on 6 banks interrupt service for a lot of customers.

Two people were killed in a shooting at a VFW hall in Winter Springs, Florida.

The Dolphins lost in OT for the second week in a row.

Tropical Update: Hurricane Nadine keeps on going and going; there’s a new disturbance in the North Atlantic; Tokyo gets hit by Tropical Storm Jelawat.

The Tigers beat the Twins; the magic number is one.

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

There’s An Oops For That

From the New York Times:

IPhone users grew more annoyed all week. When they used Apple’s new mobile maps, they found nonsensical routes and misplaced landmarks. Bloggers and talk-show hosts mocked the sometimes bizarre errors.

Apple’s new mobile maps show the Washington Monument across the highway from the actual monument, which appears correctly in the satellite view.

Nine days after the maps’ release, the Washington Monument was still on the wrong side of the street. But something else changed.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, released an apologetic letter to customers on Friday, making the remarkable suggestion that they try alternative map services from rivals like Microsoft and Google while Apple improves its own maps. “We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers, and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better,” Mr. Cook wrote.

I just wish someone would come up with a way to find my phone when I put it down somewhere in the house and forget where I left it.  (It doesn’t help trying to call it and listen for the ring when I’ve set it on “vibrate.”)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Short Takes

Power is restored in India after two days of massive blackouts.

Tea Party candidate wins a runoff for the GOP senate nomination in Texas.

The House and Senate leaders reach a deal on not shutting down the government.

Polling shows President Obama has an edge in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania,

Going to pot — Australian authorities made a record drug bust, seizing the stuff being shipped in terra cotta pots.

Tropical Update: Invest 99L could head toward Florida… or not.

The Tigers lost to the Red Sox in a rain-shortened game.

Short Takes

Power is restored in India after two days of massive blackouts.

Tea Party candidate wins a runoff for the GOP senate nomination in Texas.

The House and Senate leaders reach a deal on not shutting down the government.

Polling shows President Obama has an edge in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania,

Going to pot — Australian authorities made a record drug bust, seizing the stuff being shipped in terra cotta pots.

Tropical Update: Invest 99L could head toward Florida… or not.

The Tigers lost to the Red Sox in a rain-shortened game.