Thursday, March 17, 2011

North Carolina House Bill 129

I do most of my research work in networking and I am constantly amazed by how far behind the US lags in comparison to other developed countries in providing affordable high-speed Internet access.  As a consumer I am more often frustrated by my lack of options and how the price continues to climb even as service quality declines.  

The stark reality is that being an ISP is not glamorous nor is it as lucrative as being a content provider.  Your cable Internet provider charges the same amount if you watch streaming video every night or if your connection sits idle.  As more and more people use the Internet for more things their connections are idle less often.  For the providers this means that it is getting harder and harder to borrow from Peter to pay Paul.  Think about it this way, if the cable service promises you and your neighbor that you can have a 10Mbps connection to their house, historically they could get away with only providing a touch over 10Mbps for both of you under the assumption that it is unlikely that you both use 10Mbps at the same time.  In the past this wasn't an unreasonable assumption, because it was unlikely that we would both download a large file at the same time.  Times they do change, and now it is very likely that we both are trying to watch a show on Hulu or Netflix at 8:00 in the evening.  Now the cable companies can do one of two things, they can make the improvements to their network that were long overdue to keep customers happy, or they can rely on the fact that there isn't a viable alternative for most people and allow service to degrade over time.  It seems that there has been a move towards the latter outside of large cities where it is more common to have competing vendors.

I am not going to get into a debate about the value of competition and how that will effect the level of service etc, but I will say that the state-of-the-art is broken.  Something needs to be done soon.  A handful of municipalities have taken matters into their own hands and deployed their own networks to provide competitively priced Internet access, but for the last four years in North Carolina the cable companies and telecoms have been lobbying for a bill that would prevent cities from developing their own networks.  You should decide for yourself about this and I encourage you all to write (not email) and call your representatives to let them know how you feel about this.  

To be clear this is not about more or less government.  This isn't a partisan issue.  This is about giving people choice and encouraging competition in a market that has become stagnant.  As consumers we need to demand more and this seems to be the only way to get the Internet providers to listen.  Their greed has led them to this point and if they continue to be greedy it will lead to their decline.  I hope that you agree that this bill will do a lot of damage to progress in North Carolina, and that the cable company has been taken enough of your paycheck in exchange for crappy service!  But if you don't feel that way that is your right...

Please help in making sure that all of our representatives receive a very clear message that we want them to vote NO on House Bill 129.  Here is what to do...

  • Review the information on the best way to contact your representatives at
  • Look up your representatives here (I suggest looking by zip code).
  • Get the mailing addresses and/or phone numbers for the above representatives.
  • Write a simple polite message to the representative (even if you plan to call) making a couple key points:
    • First clearly state that you live in their district.  Back this up by providing your address and phone number.
    • State that it is important that they vote No on "House Bill 129" (Senate Bill 87 if you are writing to your State Senator).
    • Only after you have done the preceding provide any reasons or argument for your feelings.  Please be concise and polite throughout.  The longer or more argumentative your writing the less likely it is to be read.
  • Mail or call your representative with the above message.
  • Follow up by encouraging others to do the same.  Use Facebook, Twitter and email as a way to let friends and family know that this is something we can have an effective impact on that affects us all.
Above all please remember that no matter how you feel it should be expressed calmly and logically.  Here's hoping that your Internet connection will be fat and low latency for years to come.

Want to know how bad your Internet connection is...
Visit and run the tool.  You will be amazed at the results when they are not being influenced by the large ISPs.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Are you making a better world for your kids?

This is the question that I asked myself the other day while sitting at a desk and lamenting my present employment situation.  Since I work for a big company (one of the biggest of the biggest) there is a lot of overhead involved in my work.  Imagine if your workday were like Groundhog Day (the film) set at Initech...

Studying computers at a theoretical level to solve all kinds of interesting problems that have the potential to offer great benefit to society is a legacy that I can feel good about.  A lot of the work that is done in academia is done with the sole purpose of making the world a better place.  A few projects in our department that come to mind are medical image analysis, scientific visualization, and motion planning algorithms for micro-surgery.  This is all to say that computers can and should be used to make the world a better place.  

Though the United States and its fine universities have long lead the field on innovation in the sciences, this may not always be true and it is looking like the future of pure research is limited at best.  Pure research is not easily incorporated into a profitable business model, and in a profit driven capitalistic to a fault society where money talks academia is losing the good fight.  Some may argue that corporate research is a viable alternative, and that it has the added benefit of being privately funded -- not a burdon on the tax payers.  You shouldn't believe for one minute the corporate pretense that they are working to make the world a better place.

Private research groups used to be among the most innovative think tanks that the world has ever known, but those days seem to be but a distant memory.  While there are sure to be exceptions, today's "research" groups at major corporations have been reduced to nothing more than prototyping groups.  Where research used to be concerned with 10-20 years into the future, they now look at projects that are a mere two years out at best.  What is worse is that the big players of the golden years have been hobbled by top heavy management oversight who are risk averse and care little about the long term viability of a company.  

These companies develop their projects by selling them first, and only after they have a buyer they then target the project to the buyer's wants.  This limits the exposure of the company to the risk of expending resources on research and development work that may never turn into a profitable product.  The flip side of this is that the products tend to be mundane rehashes of existing technologies crammed into the latest buzz worthy fad of a template.  Today that means "the cloud."  Take the same applications that we have been writing for decades and do the same things in a browser instead of a desktop client.  Don't get me wrong I am a big fan of software as a service and while I have grown tired of hearing the word cloud tossed around as a catch all phrase for something that runs on a server, I do like the possible benefits.  Alas I digress...

The point is that these companies are not innovating and yet our research institutions are shrinking and dealing with massive budget cuts.  In the midst of these budget cuts the companies that are repackaging old ideas with clouds and calling it new want to charge municipalities and businesses exorbitant fees for using this "new" software with the promise of saving them lots of capital.  They want to sell your city management software that an undergrad with some PHP and mySQL could write in a summer for the wages of an internship, but they want to charge upwards of a million dollars for it!  Now that you bought the software the system is designed so that you are not going to be happy with the performance of the system, because it was written to run in a data-center and not on existing hardware.  Then they tie you into a service contract or into buying more servers (which they luckily sell).  

You might be saying that the big company hires lots of people who need to work too, and you are right.  The people that work on this software are very deserving of the jobs, and generally they do a pretty good job at it.  What they are not telling you is that they are off-shoring the jobs as fast as they can to make the company more profitable.  I wish I could say that the developers in these foreign countries are not being taken advantage of, but they are discussed as commodities.  You hear managers talking about them like heads of cattle, "did you hear that we are getting 3 to 1 in Ireland right now?"  "Yeah, but I am getting 10 to 1 in India!"  Those people deserve to get the same level of compensation as the developers with similar skills in the US.  What is not right is that these companies are using tax dollars (directly or indirectly) to pay the foreign developers after they fire the more costly developers in the US.

So my job is actively sending jobs and our tax dollars overseas, and as a computer scientist a large application of the technologies that we develop is used to automate repetitive processes.  This means that the jobs that were available to those people with low to moderate intelligence are disappearing quickly.  That software that is used to reduce labor costs just put a middle manager out of work, but the guy who empties his trash is still needed because he works for less than what it would cost to build a robot to do his job.  Where we are going with this is a ever widening wealth gap.  Even as a engineer that designs the stuff it is hard to stay on the right side of the gap, the non-unemployment side.

I was interrupted in writing this by a very good friend that reminded me of a recent talk that we attended by Srinivasan Keshav and a very nice essay on the goal of systems research.  I will not attempt to reduce an already concentrated essay here, but I will say that if you have made it this far in reading this post that you should read the essay in its entirety.  Though you probably will not agree with everything that he says, he has a very honest and straight forward style that can be refreshing, and what is the point of reading something that you agree with without some sort of mental accommodation anyways?

While I don't feel like I am doing very much to make the world a better place for my kids right now, it is important that I view this as a means to an end and not the entirety of my life.  I just need to get out of school and not chase a paycheck.  At least I can set an example of not being motivated by profit right?