Category Archives: Networking (computer)

Net Neutrality

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech about what is popularly called ‘net neutrality.’  While I’m not sure that the solution he proposes (giving the matter to the FCC to regulate–partially) is a good answer, he is at least pointed in the right direction.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The essential thing that makes the Internet wonderful is that it is unregulated.  Put a properly formatted packet in at one end, and it comes out at the other.  And for the most part, other than satisfying the technical element of ‘a properly formatted packet,’ there is no other requirement.  The packet can contain anything at all.  Moreover, there are no ‘first-class packets’ or ‘second-class packets:’ they all get routed and forwarded the same.  This equality of packets is not established by government regulation: it’s configured into the Internet itself, as that was what they started with, and until now, there had been no compelling need to change it.

But some people would like their packets to have priority.  Should they be able to pay for the privilege?

Well, maybe.

If a company like Netflix wanted to build its own network alongside the Internet to distribute its videos, and interconnect with Internet service providers to distribute their content to people’s houses, that would be cool.  In this case, Netflix would be building infrastructure to better serve its customers, and they aren’t taking access away from anyone else.

But that’s not what the concept of ‘Internet fast lanes’ seems to be about.

Instead, the thought seems to be to maximize revenue from the infrastructure in place.  So the bandwidth that is allocated for an ‘Internet fast lane’ is necessarily taken away from someone else.

So a content provider could pay extra for ‘fast-lane access’ and provide (in theory) superior service to a competitor who didn’t.  Big content providers could roll the additional cost of ‘fast-lane access’ into their prices.

And smaller content providers who didn’t pay extra would be left at the mercy of Internet service providers and the bandwidth they cared to allocate for ‘non-premium access.’

The effect of this is very similar to government regulation: it favors the bigger firms, who can pay for priority access, while discouraging competitors.

And it might ultimately lead to a more difficult set of government regulations aimed at protecting some level of ‘non-premium access,’ and new criminal laws for the act of forging packet headers to secure priority access for packets without paying extra.

So net neutrality, where all packets are created equal, is the simplest approach.

This doesn’t mean that consumers can’t choose to pay more for faster Internet access.  That has always been the case, and will continue to be.  But that relates to the rate at which packets can be transferred from your home to the Internet, and not what happens beyond that.

Getting Gigged

Yesterday, I came across…

Fiverr.com

It’s a marketplace where people offer services for a base price of $5.  Of the $5 the client pays, the Web site keeps a buck, and the seller gets $4.   At first, I thought it was rather cool: it’s a way for someone to go into business and tap a worldwide market without upfront costs.

The site included a link to an article from a Wired blog about ‘the Gig Economy’ and how it is the wave of the future:

Slowly but surely, a revolution is taking shape –– an entirely different kind of economy. The labor force of new entrepreneurs, which we call the Gig Economy, is growing rapidly around the world and could soon represent as much as 50 percent of the U.S. workforce.

It almost sounds like fun.  But what sort of work can one get done for $5?  Flipping through the site, some samples…

  • I will make your PDF into a flash flipbook for $5
  • I will do a book cover or a movie poster for you for $5
  • I will record your voice over message in the awesome voice of Sean Connery for $5 [presumably a close approximation….]
  • I will write a high quality, 300 word article in 24hours for $5
  • I will type up to 2000 words/6 to 7 pages or audio transcript any video max 10 mins for $5
  • I will translate 1000 words from English to Spanish for $5

Ouch.  At the Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, $5 buys a little over 40 minutes of effort.  The $1.60 Federal minimum wage of the 1960s, adjusted for inflation, is about $10 in today’s dollars: $5 would buy a half-hour.  But Fiverr keeps a dollar for itself, so one would get less time: a little over a half-hour at $7.25/hour, or 24 minutes at $10/hour.

Most of the services described on Fiverr would seem to require between 15-30 minutes to complete, given someone with the expertise and the necessary tools.  So $4 for a task works out to an hourly rate of $8-16 hour… if one has a steady stream of tasks.

But then again, there are some parts of the world where $8-16/hour is actually pretty good.  And global labor arbitrage is clearly at work: while a plurality of the sellers on Fiverr identify themselves as being in the US, there are many sellers from elsewhere.

So this is what the Gig Economy means: the chance to compete with hungry people from all around the world, doing dreary tasks that barely pay enough to keep the lights on.  (And any task becomes dreary if you have to do it over and over again to survive.)  Unlike normal employment, where your boss is responsible for assigning you tasks, and accepting that you might still be on the clock even if you don’t have a task (and even if you have to go to the bathroom!), in the Gig Economy, if you don’t have a task, the meter stops immediately.

Heaven help us….

Musings on the NSA

  • Growing up in the US, I heard about how Russia and China were totalitarian states, with the government listening in on everyone and–this is the important part–taking action.  It wasn’t just that the state was listening in on your conversations, if you said the wrong thing, you really would get the dreaded midnight knock on the door.  For now, in the US, that isn’t happening… yet.  And that’s perhaps the most dangerous part.  Some time, probably not too far away, the government will start jumping on what people say.  And then it will be too late.
  • I have to admire Edward Snowden, the consultant who brought the secret of NSA snooping out on the world.  He has brought a world of hurt upon himself: I hope that I would be able to do the same if pressed with similar circumstances.  The New York Post suggested that he could face espionage charges if caught.  Yeah, right: we’ll hear all about it at trial.  If our leadership ever gets their hands on him, he’ll simply disappear.
  • OK, now that the cat is out of the bag, why don’t we simply stop it?  No, it isn’t that we’d leave ourselves open to the terrorists.  If someone is really a terrorist, the government can get a warrant like they’re supposed to.  The other problem, that nobody dares breathe a word about, is that there are billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs associated with this effort.  It drives research that maintains what’s left of our technological primacy.  Do we really want more unemployed hordes?
  • The presumption of privacy for a telephone call had its origin in another time, and the telephone networks were designed and built around that premise.  There is no presumption of privacy on the Internet: when you have an encrypted communication, perhaps to buy something or review your bank records, it’s the functional equivalent of having a conversation in a public park speaking, say, Inuit.  You’re relying on the premise that nobody else can understand your conversation, and you accept the risk that there just might be another Inuit speaker in the park with you.  (In fairness, with encryption you have a mathematical justification for your premise.  But the risk is still there.)  And even if the outsider cannot understand the content of the message, the fact that you’re meeting and the length of your conversation (the ‘metadata,’ to borrow a phrase) are still available for inspection.  Anyhow, the telephone networks of years ago are largely history: now most telephone calls travel, for some part of their route, over IP networks, if not the actual Internet.  And there isn’t any privacy over the Internet.

HicyacixGar

One of the Web sites I follow regularly is the Barbara Ehrenreich forum from her book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.  The book describes her unsuccessful efforts to secure a ‘middle-class’ job in corporate America, and the people she meets along the way.  The book came out before the financial crisis of 2008, and it was already clear that the corporate job that we once took as a mainstay of American life was going the way of the dodo.  When it came out, I had recently started my own business, and it was comforting to find out that I was not the only one who had been stomped on by my last employer.

There are about a half-dozen people on the forum who post regularly about the sorry state of employment in the US, and up until a month ago, that was OK.  But for the last few weeks, the forum has been taken over by ‘HicyacixGar,’ who generates useless posts about 50 times a day.  We’re down to one thread, as everything else is flooded by Hicaycix.

But I’m compelled to wonder: who or what is HicyacixGar?

OK, a spammer, but to what end?  The posts appear to be illicit ads for prescription drugs, but the Bait and Switch forum seems a thoroughly pointless target for a marketing effort.

Looking at the other fora on the Barbara Ehrenreich Web site, there is some spamming going on, but nowhere near as bad.  The Bait and Switch forum had been the most active, with the most interesting discussions.

So I wonder: is Hicyacix just a spammer, or does it represent a person or agency bent on suppressing discussion about the crappy state of the economy and employment?

ACTA: How Evil Is It?

In recent weeks, Congress has at least temporarily dropped efforts at preparing a law to address intellectual property (IP) and trade piracy: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) have been dropped in response to widespread online protests.

That isn’t to say that IP piracy isn’t a  serious problem: it is.  But SOPA and PIPA were the wrong way of dealing with it.  Essentially they gave the government the power to subvert the normal operation of the Internet by making Web sites unavailable, to require Internet service providers (ISPs) to support such efforts, and the ability to do so without due process.

Now we find out that, a few months ago, the President signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), that supposedly requires all these things.  It requires ISPs to be the copyright police, interferes with efforts to import generic drugs, and all other manner of evil.

Well, maybe.

I’ve read the actual ACTA, as it was agreed to by various countries of the world, twice.  (It’s not terribly long: about 30 pages.)  I didn’t find any reference to ISPs having to be the police, or of any of the other evils that I had read about.  All it says is that member countries shall have laws in place to deal with trade and IP piracy.  The requirements for these laws are eerily similar to current US law.

Earlier versions had more troublesome requirements, but they didn’t make it into the final version.  Our leadership may go and enact more Draconian restrictions, but they could do that anyway.

So, yes, Internet freedom is under attack, as a long-term trend.  SOPA and PIPA may return in some form later this year, and there may be future versions of ACTA that will require ISPs to function as police.

But the current ACTA, not so much.

Oops!

From time to time, I get a message that someone has registered with this Web site to post comments.  Most of the e-mail addresses seem genuinely strange, as if not actually belonging to a person, and I’ve never received any actual comments.

The other day I tried to register and post a comment, and found that I couldn’t, or at least I couldn’t find the magic link that enabled one to post a comment.  I could register, and sign in, but then I couldn’t actually do anything.

So we’ll have to use an old-school fix.  Long ago, before magic blogging software, I kept what was known at the time as a ‘Web journal,’   and I posted an e-mail address for comments.

And indeed, I got comments; I also got vast quantities of spam.  To avoid the spam, I now have to play a stupid little game:

Please write me at some_guy _at_ harderworld.com.

If I include the actual @ in the address, the robots of the world conclude, ‘Aha! An e-mail address!’  and proceed to send me dubious ads for Canadian drugs.

And I’ll see about getting the magic blog software kicked in the pants so that you can send real comments.

Phone Issues

For about the last month, I’ve had a problem with the phone in the office.  The keypad works for making phone calls and checking its own voice mail, but not for checking other voice mail or accessing extensions or access numbers at places that I call.

A brief test confirmed the problem: I called my own cell phone and poked the keypad: the tones from the keypad weren’t getting through to the other end.

OK, I know at this stage I’m supposed to call for tech support, but I’m an engineer, and tech support is for losers.  The phone is an IP phone, so I started with the phone’s IP address.  Looking it up revealed a Web control interface.  I diddled around with a couple of parameters; no luck.

The next step was the instruction manual.  Rummaging around, I found the following passage:

The phone supports in-band and out-of-band DTMF functionality. It prefers out-of-band DTMF, but, if the other party does not support it, the phone falls back to in-band DTMF. This standard phone behavior cannot be changed.

Oh, so it ‘prefers’ not to send the tones down the wire with the audio.  So nice of it!

More practically, this suggested that the problem originated not with the phone, but with the network, as the keypad worked just fine in the past.  Perhaps a firmware upgrade might help, but that could cause further trouble, and possibly get me in trouble with the Phone Police.  Time to heave a sigh and write a note to tech support.

Fifteen minutes later, a smiling techie visited my office, changed out my phone, and all is well. “We’ve had a bunch of complaints about this in the last couple of months,” he told me.

So now I have a new phone in my office.  It looks sexier, with multicolored indicator lights and a more detailed display, and it doesn’t require me to push an ‘enter’ button after dialing a phone number.  Other than that, it’s still… a phone.  It’s not going to cook my breakfast, or write my e-mails, or do anything like that.

And so I wonder: why replace a perfectly good phone to fix what is properly a network problem?  Was it really less expensive to replace the phones for everyone in the space?  Do they replace the phone because it looks like customer service?  Or is it just the modern way of doing business?

Is buying new stuff really that much cheaper than actual mental effort?

In a Funk

Last week, I was on a most remarkable business trip.  I was sitting in a park there, starting to write up my observations, when something happened that caused me to reconsider everything I was thinking.  I’m going back again in the near future, and will write about it then.

But since returning on Monday, and in spite of the business-class seat on the airplane on which I could actually sleep, I’ve been in a funk.  I’ve been tired and not wanting to do very much.  And in all, it’s been a crappy week:

  • My PDA phone seems to have failed.  The battery, which used to be good for 3-4 days, barely lasts one day now, and about 70% of the time that I try to make a call, it fails.  I’m back to using my old phone for communication.  I know that I can probably get a replacement if I go to the AT&T store in midtown, but beyond that, the PDA phone hasn’t been as useful as I imagined it.
  • New York State is going broke, but the Legislature doesn’t want to do anything about it.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans are beholden to the public employee unions, and so will not do anything that would inconvenience the civil service.
  • It was another barf bag week for Dow Jones, with the Industrials closing below 8,000 on Wednesday and Thursday night before gaining ground on Friday.
  • In yesterday’s paper, there was a report of something that I knew would happen someday, but hoped never would: a young man killed himself while broadcasting the experience over the Web.  He took an overdose of sleeping pills and tranquilizers, and it was only after a few hours of watching him immobile in his bed that something seemed wrong.
  • And the Sunday Daily News, which cost $1 since the 1980s, went up today to $1.25.

This week can only be an improvement!

Flaky Networking

The Internet connection at home recovered a bit in early August, and then got flaky again, being down far more often than it is up.  My wife and son keep odd hours and use the connection when it’s working; I have a cellular modem that I use for business, and avoid idle Web surfing.  It’s a bad habit; almost as bad as watching the tube.

All of our computers are networked, with a wireless network and a shared printer in the living room.  Last night, the Internet connection was down, but I needed to print something.  But when I tried to connect to the network in order to print. the Wi-Fi card in my laptop wouldn’t work.  Not only would it not connect with my home network, I couldn’t see any of the wireless networks in the neighboring apartments.  Indeed, it was as if the wireless card wasn’t even there.

This is not good news: I’m going on vacation this week, out of reliable cell phone range, and need working Wi-Fi.  I tried taking the card out of the computer and reseating it: no dice.

Eventually I gave up and hooked up my computer with the cable that is still under my desk from before I had Wi-Fi, but I was in a really bad mood: I don’t like to fail.

This morning, having contemplated the situation overnight, I was suspecting that Windows had changed something during the last update, yesterday morning.  But there’s a way out: every time it does an update, it records the previous state of the system so that one can roll back the change.  Great!

Except that when I tried it, the rollback failed due to some ‘unspecified error.’  (Yes, the error message actually said ‘unspecified error.’)  Forgive me, but what is the point of saving a restore point if you can’t actually restore to it?

I headed in to work today (my wife is a choirmistress, and she works Sundays), and tried booting my laptop off a Linux CD.  Linux asserted that there was no wireless networking card on the machine, so I sighed, accepted that it was really thoroughly dead, and decided to buy a new one at lunchtime.  I loaded the drivers and it seemed to work, but I don’t use Wi-Fi in the office.

This evening, I prepared to give my new Wi-Fi card an operational test, but found that the internal Wi-Fi was back up.  Indeed, that’s how I was able to prepare this post.

I guess anything can be brought back to service if you swear at it enough.

Does anyone want a new Wi-Fi card?  I’m selling one, really cheap….