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ESPN & Net Neutrality

May 14, 2013 Comments off

 

Stories going round today about a putative ESPN deal to pay wireless providers so that access to ESPN content is essentially free.  Salon.com puts it this way:

 

 

 

The defenders of “competition” and a “free market” have it all wrong. The pay-for-unlimited-bandwidth option actually restricts competition. That up-and-coming app developer with the cool new video streaming product who can’t afford to pay off AT&T or Comcast or Verizon ends up losing out. Entities with access to capital get a preferred position on our phones.

On the other side, there’s MediaFreedom.org, who sounds a free-market-based warning:

You get the point.  Wouldn’t it be pretty darn terrific if Internet companies could be treated just like regular companies, allowing them to ”discriminate” or prioritize their services as consumers demand?

Net Neutrality hogties the whole ecosystem – from the network providers on down to the content, app, service and device makers.  Man, what a waste of a policy lever based on nothing more than fear.  We pay for “discrimination” / priority in every segment of our economy, like the mail, the airlines, shopping clubs, hot lanes, etc.  It makes these services better.

I’m not so sure about this particular case and net-neutrality.  By way of analogy, if ESPN put its content on thumbdrives and then courier-ed those to peoples’ houses, the result would be the same, people get the content for free.  It would be goofy, but no one would protest; why then do people get exercised over a virtual method of doing the same thing?

Note that the proposed deal has nothing to do with priority – users don’t receive the ESPN content faster or cleaner than any other content, they just receive it for free.

Yes, I get that we want to separate content-providers and network-providers, and that there is a risk of a kind of "McDonald-zation" of internet content — i.e. mega-providers with money to pay for priority lock out worthwhile content from small providers who don’t have that money.  But to take the McDonald’s idea one step further – McDonald’s and its kin monopolize many key locations across the US, like highways rest stops, airports, malls, etc., yet independent restaurants have not been wiped out.  They are under pressure, but surely no one thinks independent eateries are going away – in fact people are willing to pay more to eat at an indie restaurant.  The real problem that indie eateries have is not access – it is marketing.  So, coming back to Salon.com’s comments, net neutrality will never help that “up-and-coming app developer” – that guy’s problem is not access to his app, it is marketing his app, which no amount of net-neutrality will ever do for him.

My net on this particular net-neutrality kerfuffle: Assuming access to all other content is unchanged, I don’t see the logic in trying to stop ESPN from paying peoples’ phone bills.  On ESPN’s prospects for success with this strategy, I suspect people will quickly conclude the content is worth what they are paying for it.

Categories: Technology

Silver lining … or not?

May 8, 2013 5 comments

Cape Cod clouds

Ars Technica relates how Adobe’s Creative Suite – Photoshop, Dreamweaver, InDesign and others – is “moving to the cloud”.  As Adobe says here:

Creative Cloud changes everything.

We believe the creative process can be better. New, more connected tools. Fonts, files, and projects always in sync. Your creative community just a click away. It’s all coming to Creative Cloud this June.

The technical net of this is:

  • The apps themselves are unchanged.  Your Photoshop filters still run on your hopped-up 8-core Alienware overclock job.
  • The way you pay is subscription.  For $19 a month you get 1 app, 20 GB storage, and some access to the “cloud services”.  There are bundled deals of multiple products, a complete bundle is $600 per year, actually somewhat less than the $699 for a boxed license to Photoshop alone.
  • Don’t know what the services all are yet … seems to focus on assets like fonts, templates, etc.

Response seems mixed.  Looking through the Ars Technica comments there is a positive contingent, as represented by “Korgoth”:

Korgoth Wise, Aged Ars Veteran

for people without a couple grand to get all the tools. Not everyone has $2500 lying around, but most can manage $50 in a month.
Cost wise it might work out to be more in the long term, but it does offer some extras over the boxed version; and allows more people to afford it.

But a lot of folks on the other side observe that this is really a massive price increase, as bluntly described by “Voix des Airs”:

Voix des Airs, Ars Scholae Palatinae

Absolutely not. I upgrade software when the developer provides me a compelling reason to do so. Features that make it worthwhile for me to upgrade. I positively do not want to pay a subscription for a stream of "upgrades" that might be of no value to me.
Screw you Adobe. This dude will not abide.

 

The logic here is, if I buy PS for $699 now, and say I can use it productively for 4 years, under the new scheme that would cost me $960.  I guess if I really cared about the latest-and-greatest, I’d go for cloud, but I think for 90% of users, PS already has more than they ever need, so what’s the value of these “continuous improvements”?

    I guess I don’t get Adobe’s rationale.  I get they want more money, and constantly flowing money.  But, surely they know a great many customers will use the same reasoning as Voix des Airs?  Why don’t they keep the boxed model and offer the cloud as an option? 

      I gotta believe that tons of users will use this inflection point as opportunity to look at a free alternative, like GIMP.
      If you follow this stuff you probably know that Microsoft is already in the same place Adobe is now going to, with Office 365: $100 per year for rights to install Office on 5 computers, plus 20 GB SkyDrive storage.  Unlike the Adobe thing, the MS thing is a good deal.

    Thoughts?  Rental software good, or bad?

    Categories: Technology

    Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

    May 4, 2013 3 comments

    click-here-save-1

    My job is building software.  Of course I use technology every day, for work, education and entertainment.  I like to think, at least,  that I’m pretty good at building and using this stuff.

    But, for all that, I have a strong luddite streak; maybe folks got that from my post on Summly.  I use Facebook but I am intensely suspicious of it.  Of the 100 or so apps on my smartphone, I rarely use anything beyond Maps and Alarm Clock.  An app like Foursquare – which bills itself as helping  “… you and your friends find great places and make the most of your visits” – is to me a bizarre surrender of privacy and security for no return whatsoever.  Yet these and other “innovations” have constant command of the business and technology limelight and, despite their dubious value propositions, are all making money in very large buckets indeed.  Why the heck is this?

    Evgeny Morozov apparently shares my curmudgeonly suspicions.  His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, while flawed in several ways, captures in one word the cognitive dissonance of the distinctive Silicon Valley brand of improvement through technology:

    Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.  I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.

    So what is solutionism?  Morozov relates how researchers in Japan are prototyping “augmented reality” for cooking.  In this system, cameras are mounted in the ceiling and walls of your kitchen then, for example, if you are about to filet a fish, the system visually senses your intent and projects light indicators to guide you through the activity – for example with projected laser lines that indicate where to cut into the fish.

    Or how about this: Bin-Cam, a system with a camera mounted inside your trash bins that records a snap every time you open and close the lid, then passes on the image to a pool of human evaluators who in turn count your recyclables, wasted food, etc. to derive a “score” for your trash.  The ultimate aim is you and your neighbors will compete for badges over who has the most eco-friendly trash.

    So, what problems are these things solving?  Morozov’s contention is these sorts of “innovations” are both arbitrary and hurtful.  Can anyone believe the augmented kitchen reality will lead to better-cut fish?  What we as users need to do is just what our ancestors did: Learn how to actually cook.  Bin-cam can have worse consequences.  Recycling and waste are real problems, but by declaring this trivial “solution” we actually move ourselves further away from doing what needs to be done, like enacting market-drivers and regulations that generate real improvement.

    Solutionism comes together with Morozov’s other bête noir, “The Internet”, when he critiques liquid democracy.  In a nutshell liquid democracy purports to generate better public decisions through delegation of votes to “experts”.  Should we have a carbon tax?  Don’t ask me, I know little about carbon and even less on taxes.  With liquid democracy what I would do is delegate my vote on the matter to someone who is such an expert. Suppose the next issue is access to emergency contraception.  All I need to do is delegate to another, appropriately qualified expert.  And so on.  (Note to future self: If this dorky idea ever gets enacted in the USA, delegate everything to Paul Krugman.)

    Morozov’s point – which seems evident to me – is that the “openess” of the “the Intertnet” does not somehow make everything that happens on it  good, and that we can’t take the problems that thinkers and writers from Socrates to Voltaire to Churchill to Oakeshott all have pondered over and just “make an app for that”.  Morozov writes:

    Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human  freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well.  if we don’t find the streng5th and the courage to escape the silicon mentality that fuels much of the current quest for technological perfection, we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster (if not moribund) cultural institutions that don’t take risks and only care about their financial bottom lines, and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable.

    I said there were flaws in the book.  One is that Morozov is really a philosopher and as such likes to quote and reference other philosophers – a lot of them; the book includes 55 pages of citations.  He also comes across as really grumpy and tees off on harmless tech P-R phenomena like Clay Shirky and the TED Conference.  Shirky has little cause to complain, though, here’s the #2 hit I got when I Googled Clay Shirky:

    clay-shirky-hit

    I guess Google doesn’t like Shirky either.

    Denizen’s of “the Internet” have mostly harsh woods to offer on this book.  Tim Wu writes:

    “To Save Everything, Click Here” is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.

    Slashdot has a review that focuses on the kitchen augmented reality thing, striving mightily to show how “the Internet” really can teach you how to cook, if only we could incentivize authors to write better directions.  Maybe badges for authors … you see where this is going?

    There’s a lot more ground Morozov covers – like how algorithms used by Amazon, Google and Facebook are obviously designed for maximum revenue generation, and not for our collective, transparent benefit – or how lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, while mostly harmless, also trivialize the productive flaws of human memory and tradition.  Some of that is valid observation, some just grumpiness, less of which would have benefited the book.

    In closing, while few people have ever heard the word solutionism, a great many intuitively get the point – which you can see in parodies like this:

     

    Technology mocking itself – a good sign.  Maybe I should make an app for that … ?

    Categories: Books, Technology

    Programming Worms

    May 3, 2013 2 comments

    No, not as in malware – a program that replicates itself as it moves from machine to machine – but as in an actual dirt-loving, squirming-about, icky-spaghetti worm.

    This link comes off of Boing Boing.  The project is called OpenWorm, and it self-describes as:

    OpenWorm is an open source project dedicated to creating the world’s first virtual organism in a computer, a C.elegans nematode. We plan to achieve this goal by 1) bringing together highly motivated scientists and engineers 2) pushing away all the red tape 3) fostering growth of a completely open computational biology community.

    So, its not building a real worm – a virtual worm.  The worm they are hoping to replicate – Caenorhabditis elegans – is a nematode worm about 1 mm long; there’s about 1,000 cells in each one of these tiny critters.

    How is this being done?  Hard to say.  The project milestones are here … here’s an example:

    Muscle Cell model output closely matches that of real data

    We will show that we have built a model of C. elegans muscle cell that matches data recorded from the nematode muscle cell. In part, we will use techniques of model optimization to fill in gaps in the model parameter space (deduce unmeasured parameters). The main technical challenge is tuning muscle cell passive properties and building a larger data set (more cell recordings). Mike Vella will take the lead on this.

     

    Do we need virtual worms?  No, not as such – but we need these types of projects, that’s is what science is, right?  There’s too much of the attitude these days that all R & D needs to be dedicated to obvious needs.  I for one think we need more scientia gratia scientiae.

    Categories: Technology Tags: ,

    India in Pictures

    April 27, 2013 Comments off

    India excess female mortality

    No, not pictures as in tourist snaps … pictures as in data visualizations.

    Wife Kim sent me a link to an interesting site, Data Stories (India).  This is the blog of Avinash Celestine, a journalist with India’s The Economic Times.  The idea of Data Stories is it shows interactive visualizations of different types of Indian economic and socio-metric data.

    What sort of thing is Data Stories showing?  The map below shows ownership of TV, Computer, Phone and Vehicle (either 2- or 4-wheeler).  The darker the color the higher the percentage of households who own all those things in that area:

    ownership-map-1

    Where I live in Pune about 18% of households have all these things.  The message here is how wealth in India is concentrated in a small number of urban centers.

    These maps show worldwide per-capita income from perspective of both India (on the left) and China, on the right:

    india-china-income

    India and China are represented by flat lines in their respective graphs.  The other lines represent the relative proportion of that country or region’s per capita income to the base country at that point in time.

    In 1975 USA per-capita income was about 18 times that in India, and  maybe 19 times that of China.  But notice how in the China chart the USA line starts sloping down steeply starting in around 1977?  By 2005 the USA:China ratio has dropped from 19:1 to 6:1, but in India with its more gently sloping line, the ratio has not dropped much, from 18:1 to 12:1.

    What to make of these visual presentations?  I’ll leave the public policy aspects of these to the side and just say: We need more of this stuff.  Thinking I might make my own geographic visualization I did some quick Googles on the topic.  Conclusion: There’s not that much out there that can do this quickly.  Microsoft sells an add-on for Excel called MapPoint that looks quite powerful, but at $300 list for the North America edition, it’s not going to get my vote.  There’s some Flash- and/or web-based tools out there, like StatPlanet and BatchGeo, but tools like these definitely have a learning curve.  Isn’t there something easier?

    <shameless-plug>My employer IBM has an answer, ManyEyes.</shameless-plug>  ManyEyes is a free system where you can create visualizations from existing data-sets, or upload and visualize data-sets of your own.  I found many India-related visualizations there, like this one:

    india-crops-1

     

    Note to self: Government of India has many data-sets available online.  Try to find a likely one and then make a ManyEyes visualization of it.

    Dragon Island!

    April 7, 2013 Comments off

    DragonIsland screenshot

    Here’s some tips tip for those contemplating a stint as an ex-pat: #1, Plan to immerse yourself in local culture, food, shopping, sightseeing, travel, meeting and conversing with new people.  Don’t be isolated – connect.

    Tip #2: Get some video games.

    Seriously, you and your family won’t be able to do the cultural ambassador thing 24 x 7.  You need some downtime, some alone with your family time – you need games.

    The game that has swept the Salazar household this past weekend is Dragon Island, free for iPad.  This game is like Pokemon … turn  based combat, with really cool monsters organized into the traditional air-water-earth-fire model.  There’s a role-playing aspect as your hero character – a “monster trainer” – travels around doing the bidding of the Trainers’ Guild and piecing together the also-traditional story of a lost father and mysterious doings at the highest levels of something or other.

    Who cares?  It’s the planning and the combat that make this game.  Seriously, once you start it is hard to stop.  First, the monsters are very clever – thus far among the enemies I’ve faced are Bitewings, Mutations, Giant Crabs, King Penguins, Cult priests, Blood Priests, Baby Nessie, plus something called an “Abomination” that is animated as a fat opera singer.  Second, your own monsters gain new abilities fairly quickly, and even “evolve” into new  forms – for example, a “Fairy”, an innocuous Tinkerbell-like thing that puts 1 enemy monster to sleep, evolves into a “Fairy Queen” which puts many monsters to sleep, and is, shall we say, very attractively rendered.

    Here’s another look at the combat screen:

    DragonIsland screenshot

    There’s just the right amount of animation here, the  enemies slowly floating up and down, with animated question-marks, or ZZs to indicate different conditions, and slashes or explosions to mark each attack.  All this is squarely in the Dragon Quest style. and takes about 30 seconds to figure out.

    Finally, this game is very forgiving.  You lose lots of battles, but there’s no effect on your progress in the game.  You just re-spawn in the last town you visited, your battalion of little horrors all healed-up and ready to try again.  If you can’t get past a certain boss fight, no problem: Just wander around, level up your monsters, maybe capture some more, then after a while go back and try again.

    Net-net: Dragon Island for iPad, super-game, get it.  Now sorry, have to go – need to find out what my 20th level Bat Fiend is evolving into …

    More on Summly

    March 28, 2013 Comments off

    After yesterday’s post on Summly I’m seeing more folks talking/posting about it, such as a writer for Time who asks, Why Is That 17-Year-Old’s $30 Million News App Even Legal?  The key bit:

    The issue now isn’t what fancy car the teenager plans to buy with his millions. The real question is whether Summly, and now Yahoo, can take news stories from around the Web, present altered versions of them, and not run afoul of copyright law.

    The precedent here – that GoogleNews uses, for example – is that search or aggregation services can display article titles and lead sentences – that is deemed fair-use.  Content creators *want* such services to do this because it ultimately drives traffic to their sites.

    However Summly does more than show a title.  Through its wondrous algorithms it creates a 400-word news summary that is supposed to contain the essence of the source news item.  While I haven’t directly experienced Summly (and probably never will) it seems clear to me that this will take traffic away from content creators – why read the original 1,000 word news item on Kim Kardashian when Summly can quickly give you the 400 words with the tastiest bits?

    A US Court has already ruled, in Meltwater vs. A.P., that this type of abstraction goes beyond fair-use.  A key part of the evidence there was the contention that a lede – the key summary paragraph of a news story – takes substantial skill and effort to craft, and that Meltwater’s summary services was taking ledes and offering them separate from the original content.  Certainly sounds wrong to me.

    I’m sure Summly will continue to make the rounds another day or two … the world will then get back to cat pictures and Boromir memes.  Meanwhile the winner of cleverest Summly headline so far goes to Reuters:

    Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

    Categories: Technology Tags: ,