The FCC moves into action on Net Neutrality

Historically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been have been able to provide their services without any real regulation targeted specifically towards the conduct of this business.   This situation is about to change. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided that the broadband Internet will be regulated going forward (link) under the umbrella of Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The concept is called Net Neutrality. The ISPs will not be allowed to manage their Internet resource in such a manner as to discriminate against users, whether they are companies that use the Internet or consumers. This is huge!   You might wonder why this is happening and what all the fuss is all about. Let me give you my own take on this.

For the past several years the growth of the Internet has been primarily driven by the Internet Service Providers who happened to have access to customers because they have traditionally provided other services to such customers such as cable TV and voice services. This service might have been provided via a traditional landline connection to the home, or through a mobile phone connection using a wireless cellular network. There have been a few exceptions, but the big players today not surprisingly happen to be companies like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, etc.. In the case of services to the home, these companies started out by taking advantage of existing infrastructure, and then building on this infrastructure (coax or copper-based) or moving to new infrastructures (such as fiber optics) as the demand for greater levels of service grew.   The growth in the mobile area on the other is being spurred on by new technologies from the ground up, including use of new wireless bandwidth resources that have been assigned for this purpose, and development of advanced transmission technologies that are able to support higher speed data service (as opposed to voice service) requirements more effectively.

In the early years, the applications that drove the use of the Internet were fairly simple, starting out with basic point-to-point requirements across the network infrastructure (think e-mail), and gradually evolving towards more client-server type interactions. The amount of data being transferred across the internet kept increasing as this was happening. The primary flow of data that came with functions like browsing were primarily unidirectional – to the home. The data movement patterns became less uniform in a certain sense from the early day. But the type of applications running in the home have also further evolved significantly in the last few years, with applications that involve significant downloads of data from the home to network servers, and also significant peer-to-peer traffic. People can now even stream videos from devices like smartphones to others, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. The traffic patterns in the network are a constantly changing story because of the innovation that is going on.

New kinds of applications are also increasing the traffic in the Internet further in many different ways. Video streaming services such as Netflix dominate bandwidth usage to the consumer these days. (link)

These days, Internet traffic is not necessarily driven by the customer. You have data that is being pushed to people who even do not know that something like this is going on.  Then there is advertising data that is being pushed to customers based on data that is being collected about you on network connected devices that monitor your Internet behavior. Then you have routers on the networks that are intercepting data traffic and taking actions based on what is being seen – such action including sending of additional data to the customer. In many cases, the Internet Service Providers are themselves affecting the amount of traffic in the system. When customers interact with vendors across the Internet, such interaction can initiate further communication between these vendors and one or more third parties that will now form a part of the transactions that are going on. And then we have the data traffic from illegal or semi-illegal goings-on on the Internet where entities, unknown to end-users, bury software in their computers, that will generate traffic to and from these computers without the user’s knowledge. (Such is the danger of always being connected to the Internet.)

And all of this is only a viewpoint only from the consumer applications. All networking for commercial interactions also use the same resource that the consumer applications are sharing.

Essentially, the Internet is the Wild West out there in terms of the nature of the data traffic. This was the promise of the Internet and I am not sure if it will also become its bane. I am not certain exactly how the ISPs keep a handle on the traffic on the network links today. Innovations in Internet applications happen constantly and each one of these has the potential to change the nature of the traffic on the network and the manner in which ISPs manage their bandwidth resource. In such a happy circumstance of innovation, one has to ask why anybody would think there is a need for regulation. There is a need to look at all of this from a different angle.

First of all, here is something going on in the global picture that might be shocking to some people.   The US is far behind some other countries when in come to the Internet. If one were to just look at the average speed of Internet connectivity available to customers, several countries in Asia appear at the top of the list while the US is nowhere near the top.  Also, according to one study of Internet penetration done in 2013 the US ranked 29th in the world, with a penetration rate of 84.2 percent (link­).

What is probably happening is that in a completely market driven environment the ISPs are selectively focusing their efforts and attention to where they can get the most bang for their buck. At the end of the day they have to make money for the stockholders. It turns out that there are still underserved and unserved areas in the US as far as mainstream broadband Internet access is concerned, and it would appear that this situation is not about to change on its own. The other aspect to consider is that the Internet can no longer be considered a luxury for the common man. It is becoming a basic necessity just like any other public utility. Our lifestyles have changed significantly during the last few years, and it will continue to change because of the Internet. It is not just the new applications that are made available on the Internet that move us in this direction. More and more of the traditional service providers are trying to adjust their operations so that more and more of their interactions with the customer happen through the Internet. In fact, people who do not keep up with this rapid change in the way business is done are in danger of being left behind. It is now beginning to make sense to consider the Internet as a basic necessity. This is a point at which government has to begin playing a role in what is going on so that people are able to get what they need. This aspect of the development and use of the Internet has already been recognized by more forward looking countries. Governments have taken a more active role in helping shape the development of this resource.

The ISPs have also become smart to the game and have determined that there might be additional money to be made by not just charging the customers, but by also selling vendors that use their networks access to these networks. If they do so, they will be able to influence and control the experience of the customer to services from these vendors directly. This is already happening (link)! The ISPs can now have control over how businesses that use the Internet may succeed and fail, and ISPs may themselves even try to get into the business of providing such services to customers while giving themselves an advantage (e.g., Comcast might stream NBC programs with better Quality of Service (QoS) simply to give Netflix, HBO, ESPN or ABC a bad name).   Companies like Google and Netflix support Net Neutrality while those like AT&T and Verizon do not.

But the tricky part about regulating the Internet is that it is still an evolving mess. Any regulation that is put into place has to be done with a light hand. If not done properly, this can basically stifle the industry. There has to be room for the Internet to continue on a path of development. ISPs will need to continue to improve on their networks to support new capacities and capabilities that are yet to be determined, and applications and traffic patterns that continue to evolve. There should really be no issue if network capacities are always beyond the data loads being carried. But there does come a point where traffic needs to be managed, either when there are temporary bursts of traffic due to the nature of the applications running across the networks, or if the networks are themselves not properly sized to support all the traffic that is allowed to connect into it. The ISPs should be free to manage the data flow, even slowing it down as needed in order to manage the bottlenecks, but they must do it in a way that is fair. But how does one define what is fair? Should one type of traffic fundamentally have priority over others or is all traffic equal? For example, is Netflix streaming more important than regular data transmitted to a browser (e.g., a Skype session), and, if so, what speed of Netflix streaming must be allowed. Do different kinds of browser traffic have different priorities? One has to try to find a way to find non-specific and generic answers to such questions like this. It can become quite messy and dirty if one tries to solve each of the problems individually by jumping into the weeds in each case. If the FCC thinks it already knows the answer, they are fooling themselves. Hopefully they will keep an open mind and make sure they have some intelligent and experienced people working on this. Regulators need to have insight about the global implications while dealing with the specifics of each element of regulation carefully. And they have to do all of this even while they are being harangued by the lobbyists from various factions of the industry who have their own differing interests at heart.

Some say that regulation will stifle innovation. My take is different. I believe that it will shape the nature of the innovation rather than stifle it. It might even shape it in a very significant way. It could impact the businesses that end up being successful in the industry. And what is wrong with that? The truth of the matter is that a lot of the technological innovation in industries like this happens today because of the rules that the industry lives by, not necessarily all related to improving service to the customer, and sometimes because of regulation. The entertainment production and distribution system is a prime example of such an environment. As an example, a fundamental element in the conduct of the entertainment distribution business is copyright protection. Rules of the game come from the both the government and the industry in this regard. Many unique systems are in place from the perspective of content protection, not necessarily all for the benefit of the customer. Regulation does not necessarily drive away all innovation, sometimes it creates opportunities.

Will regulation lead to more cost to a customer? Will regulation be such that ISPs and users of the Internet are able to continue to innovate and grow their businesses and provide an adequate and fair level of service to their customers? I think we do not need to be afraid in this regard, but only time will tell if I am right or wrong.

http://business.time.com/2013/01/09/is-broadband-internet-access-a-public-utility/

Just for fun

There are a lot of fun things you can do with photography.  Here is an effect that I got when taking pictures while it was snowing.  The first picture was taken with the flash turned on.  The camera was focused on the background, but, as you can see, the light from the flash was being reflected by the snowflakes.

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For the second picture I turned the flash off but all other parameters of the shot were nearly the same.  The snowflakes do not show up in this picture, but I do think they impact the nature of the picture in a way that I cannot define too well.  Perhaps it is a little softer and smoother than normal.

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Which picture more closely reflects the perception of the human eye?  Does the human perception vary from person to person?  Which picture do you prefer?

What Happens to Aging Rock and Roll Bands?

The short answer is that they end up performing on cruise ships.

But this blog is about much more than the answer to the above question. A couple of days ago I got a call from my friend asking if I was interested in seeing Uriah Heep perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.   An old rock-and-roller like me cannot even keep his bands straight, and my mind gravitated towards Jethro Tull, the name of another band from the same era! I was thinking of the music from Heep while thinking Tull. Go figure! But it would not have mattered. I said yes.

For those of you who do not know, Uriah Heep is a band from the 1970s that used to create music that would not have  necessarily been considered mainstream. Their heavier brand of rock music was actually quite innovative and catchy at the same time. Songs like July Morning, Easy Living, Lady in Black and Sunrise are all unique in their own way, with great vocals (including occasional notes up there in the stratosphere), fantastic extended guitar and keyboard riffs, and awesome drum solos. They were also one of those bands that were not afraid to make songs that were long. (This was not unusual for that time.) You could find yourself taken on a roller coaster of a musical ride that could last 10 to 15 minutes. Needless to say, the music was not necessarily targeted towards those with short attention spans.

I was surprised to find out that the band was still together.   A quick search on Wikipedia revealed that they have come out with new albums in both 2013 and 2014. While personnel changes happened very frequently during their earlier days, more recently there has been more stability in the group, except for the death of their bass guitarist in 2013. One has to remember that the older members of the band are now in their 60s!

Birchmere is small but a well-known musical venue that has been hosting music groups since the 70s. It is a somewhat more intimate setting than a concert hall or a stadium, with the audience sitting at dining tables not too far from the stage enjoying their food and drink. It makes for a great set up.

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The band started promptly at 7:30pm. There was no mistaking the age of the people who were on stage. The vocal lead was even displaying a nice paunch. They still had the long hair that was typical of bands of the 70s, as if they were trying to still keep some the reminders of their youth.  But they need not have worried about the hair. Their music instantly took us back to the old days. They rocked! Even the music from their newer albums had the same flair and style as the music of our youth.  The group had the same energy as a bunch of young rockers, and we even got our loud guitar, keyboard and drum solos.   The lead singer even hit the high notes that are unique to some of their songs with ease (he could be excused for losing his voice during the encore). This was great after my previous disappointing experience with BB King!   They did not play too long but they gave it all they had while they were on stage. They did not take a single break during their set.  (This could not have been easy for people at their age.)  One of the things I like about these type of shows is that it is less about the staging and the choreography and more about the music. I had a great time with the music, the food, and the drink.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne could not help but wonder what it takes for bands like this to stay together, and why they would choose to remain as a group for this long.   They are obviously not a mainstream band today (they tended to be a fringe band even during their heydays), and life cannot be that easy when you are performing in smaller venues like the Birchmere or on cruise ships. (Here is a piece of trivia. The band apparently performed at OAT in IIT Madras in 1983.) But these guys continue to come out with new albums with good music. They still appear to have their creative juices flowing. Is that all there is to it, or do they do this in order to be able to make a living and survive? But how can they manage something like that under the circumstances? They still seem to have most of the overhead of a regular rock band, but their audiences have surely shrunk from the days when they were better known.

There is probably no point to my wondering about questions for which I will get no answers – unless one of the band members decides to write a tell-all story.  For now one must just enjoy the music, and the nostalgic feeling that comes with the process of being taken back to a previous time in one’s life, in another century, when one was still young.

In Winter’s Icy Grip

We have seen temperatures in our neighborhood recently that have not been experienced in recent years. With temperatures in the vicinity of zero degrees Fahrenheit, and wind chill factors making it feel even colder, it is almost as if we were living somewhere in Canada. Thankfully we have been spared the storms that have hit the New England area. The winter has disrupted our weekly routine of going out into the woods every weekend.

It is beautiful outside the house. Looking out from the kitchen window one sees the swarms of small birds that are flying around undeterred by the cold. There are blue jays aplenty alighting on the crepe myrtle behind the house and then there was this one looking back at me from its seat on the fence behind the house.

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Beautiful patterns of crystals form on the cold windows.
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The stormy winter nights lead to sights like this outside our front door.
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Sunsets do not look too bad either.
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The deer are getting desperate with the cold and the snow on the ground and they are eating the stuff that they normally would not touch. I need to keep them away from the plants.

Seneca Creek at Riley’s Lock is frozen over.
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The Potomac River is also frozen over at Seneca Creek. One can cross over to Virginia if one wanted.
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Huge chunks of smashed up ice line the side of the river.
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And then there is this view at Violette’s lock.
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You cannot blame me for thinking that winter can be enjoyable in its own way.

We have snow falling outside right now, and it is expected to eventually change to ice and rain. The temperatures are eventually expected to rise to around freezing. It is going to be a different experience. Wonder if I will get a chance to go outside tomorrow!

Scene in the Middle of Winter

We have a routine these days of going out for walks in the woods every Sunday morning, but this weekend has been too cold for that activity.  The temperature out here was 7 degrees Fahrenheit this morning and the wind chill factor -14 degrees, too extreme even for crazy people like myself.  I happened to step outside last evening to some really strange evening lighting due to the stormy skies.  Here is a picture.

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The more things change

The more they remain the same…

I read somebody’s blog article recently about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and about how human intelligence will in the not-to-distant future be surpassed by artificial intelligence, which will then fuel a development pace that we have not seen in the past.  There was an interesting introductory section of the article that talked about how technology was basically developing exponentially.  It would have taken lifetimes in the past to see the kinds of changes that we have seen within our own lifetimes.  In fact the changes today seem to happen rapidly enough that people are left behind.

But I have a hard time tying the rate of development to the topic of AI.   The logical capability that constitutes the core of a machine is very different from the core of a human brain, and I am not sure that this can be replicated. One has to have sufficient speed in the machine to be able to build an emulation of the core of the human brain that works in real time. The approach for developing AI capability in its limited form today is very focused and still limited in the capability to really learn.  Of course, one could come out with new versions of software encompassing the lessons from the use of the earlier version of what one can call AI software, and call this an AI implementation, but this is still an development that is directly dependent on human intelligence.  So some additional big breakthrough in technology is needed, something that can apparently lead to “super-intelligence” as discussed in the article I mentioned.  Also, in addition to “learning” software, we perhaps need hardware that can self-promulgate and grow in order to make this concept a reality.

So what, I think to myself.  While the changes in lifestyle during our own lifetimes has been astounding, where is this leading us? We have developed the tools to improve our efficiency of operation, we have created lots of functionality that simplifies life, we can communicate at speeds and across distances that would have been considered astounding even a couple of hundred years ago ago, we can cover vast distances in short periods of time,  we have increased food production to levels that would have been unthinkable in the past, etc…  We regularly have new technologies that come into place that quickly form the basis of our future experiences in all facets of life. People are living longer, enjoying more comfort, etc.., but so what.  We still are born, eat, sleep, and poop, and eventually die.  While lifetimes have increased, is this increase proportionate to the level of increase in technology? Is somebody thinking that AI will eventually change the fundamental elements of the paradigm of life.

I am not saying that development is a bad thing.  I am just thinking that we have not thought through its impact at a fundamental level. Every advantage that we appear to gain seems to be balanced by an advancement of some negative sort (including sometimes stupidity) at some level.  AI, even if it lives up to its hype, could turn out to be one of these things that adds to this unfocused sense of advancement and speeds it up.  I suppose that the most dangerous thing possible is that if this concept really becomes a reality in its truest form, we would have found a way to speed up the progress to such an extent that what we really achieve turns out to be completely destructive.

I might have saved a Turtle’s life today (6/12/04)

It is Saturday morning here in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and it is just beautiful outside – the sun is up but it is not too hot.  I usually try to either help with the Church furniture program on Saturday mornings, or go down to the C&O canal towpath by the Potomac river for an early morning run/walk.  Today’s morning plans have been thrown slightly askew.  Another meeting that had been planned  has not materialized and the morning could be free, but it is too late to do the usual stuff. Being the nice guy I am (he! he!), I volunteer to take Christina to her dance class at 8:00 am.  After dropping her off, I decide to explore the byways of Montgomery County by motorized means.  I take to the back roads that parallel The Potomac River, heading north towards Edwards Ferry and Whites Ferry.  The goal is to find parking lots along the river where I can park the car at some future date and explore the canal towpath (which winds its way all the way up to Cumberland, MD, 184.5 miles of hiking/biking trails in all).  The scenic countryside of Montgomery County, and its hidden woods, are seldom seen by us folks living in Suburban Paradise. We scurry around like ants taking care of our businesses and experiencing the hustle and bustle of daily life. We very rarely make a serious effort to learn about the place we live in and become familiar with what surrounds us.  So here I am on the back roads of America, bouncing around on the gravel pathways that we seldom experience, the roads that we always find a reason to avoid in our rush, for God knows what reason, to get from point A to point B.

What about the turtle, you ask?  Heading north on River Road from Riley’s Lock, on a reasonably fast road (40 mph), (not one of the gravel roads that I noted earlier),  I encounter a turtle crossing the road.  The turtle is on the opposite lane, which is a good thing because I could have killed it otherwise.  I quickly pull over to the side, turn around and drive back to where I had seen the turtle.  Luckily there is not much traffic around.  This is not a well-traveled road, and it is also a Saturday morning at that.  Mr. Turtle is still trying to make his way across the road.  (Wait a minute – I guess it could be a female!  I am going to call her Mr. Turtle anyway.)  A couple of cars zoom by on the opposite lane.  Mr. Turtle appears to hesitate with the noise and the gusts of wind from the passing cars.  I look around, make sure there are no cars coming, get to Mr. Turtle in the middle of the road, and pick him/her up.  All four legs and head are out, and I stare into Mr. Turtle’s eyes.  I think I said something along the lines of  “How are you doing”, or “What are you trying to do”.  Mr. Turtle quickly disappears into his/her shell (not very friendly, I thought!).  I  take Mr. Turtle across the road to where I guessed he/she was going, and put him/her down by the bushes facing the approximate direction in which I thought he/she was headed.  When last I left Mr. Turtle, he/she was still under the shell.  All the best, Mr. Turtle!

Now, I do not know if I really saved Mr. Turtle’s life, because, for all I know, he/she could have just turned and headed back for the road, and gotten hit by another passing vehicle.  Does it matter what I did?  Was the risk I took of getting hit by a vehicle myself worth it?  Maybe it does not matter in the big picture whether a turtle survives or not.  But it felt good!!!!

Boys and girls, that is my story for today.   If you have not been bored, I might even be tempted to tell you about turning the other cheek – a very naughty story indeed!   Or about the other day I saw a big snake on the towpath (it gets bigger with every week that passes!).

S’all for now.