Lack of Net Neutrality will be a competitive liability in the future for the US

Net Neutrality could be dead in the US¬†and I think that this creates problems for companies that do business in other parts of the world. Or rather, it creates incentives for companies based in the US to focus on non-US markets for conducting business. There are several reasons for this. Let’s take this from a Netflix perspective, assuming they were able to get the same catalog they currently have in the US and took it into Europe (this has been difficult for US companies while it’s been easier for EU companies to come into the US – see Pandora and Spotify as references). Let’s assume that can happen and they have they opportunity to continue to work in one region or the other.

The EU has recently enacted end-to-end Net Neutrality as the law of the land. So, Netflix traffic cannot be slowed down because of the volume. It cannot be slowed down because it is Netflix traffic, all traffic if it needs to be groomed happens at the same time (likely random or everything gets slowed down). Netflix cannot be charged by the ISP to ensure specific speed to guarantee quality of product, if Netflix wants to control this, it’s up to them (they could manage this through increased buffering before the video starts, for example). The average internet speed is significantly higher than in the US, so the quality will be higher and the need for buffering lower, because the speed can account for dropped packets much more effectively. This means if they charge 8 Euros a month, they are able to keep more of that.These conditions would also apply in Argentina.

In the US, Netflix traffic is now subject to the whims of the ISP. the ISP can slow down traffic based on the time of the day, based on the source of the traffic (using deep packet inspection). They can and have charged Netflix for equal access as, for example, Comcast Xfinity’s streaming service. The US has some of the lowest average internet speeds in the industrialized world. Netflix charges $8/month they have to pay Comcast to ensure that their service meets their end users requirements.

As a company that makes money based on the fact that they are able to deliver high quality content (where the price of said content is continually rising), I would prefer to operate in the EU rather than the US. I will have significantly less issues with the ISPs because they can’t discriminate my traffic and I won’t have to pay to make sure that they do not discriminate my traffic. This means that my quality will increase and my cost per user will not increase as it will in the US. I would begin focusing on providing local language content as well as the best content I can provide from the highest quality sources in the world.

As we start moving towards higher speed requirements in our applications, this will become a larger problem. I know of people online that have issue streaming up to Twitch and Mixify as well as streaming the content to their computer. This is a problem now. We will be moving into significantly higher quality video and games (PS4 streaming a game to your console, that will require a lot of bandwidth and low latency $$$$$). Furthermore, if we start having more tele-medicine we’ll need higher quality video feeds to ensure best results.

These are all examples of applications we know of that will suffer from a lack of net neutrality. As we get people that develop applications for gigabit connections, we’ll start to see net neutrality as paramount. These companies will not be able to afford the required costs for the internet speeds required for effective applications.

This means that the EU and other net neutral countries may become the source of innovation for these applications or companies that create them in the US will need to move to markets like the EU for a user base that can fully exploit their application.

We’ll effectively be playing on an Xbox 360, when high quality PCs are out there. We’ll be at a serious disadvantage.

Russia and the prisoner’s dilemma

For the past few years we’ve been playing a prisoner’s dilemma with Russia. In fact, I’d argue that this goes back farther than just a few years, it might even go back to our two wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan. The US essentially was able to convince through a mixture of sympathy, arm twisting, and out right lies as we know now.

Since then at every turn Russia has been a balancing force or antagonizing force depending on your perspective, to US goals in different parts of the world; specifically in places like Liberia, Syria, and Turkey. In none of these cases was Russia in a position to really push back against the US and definitely could not have pushed for Sanctions against the US.

Now, with the Ukraine crisis it’s not longer through proxies. This is a head to head game against some of the most corrupt politicians on earth. These politicians make our “corrupt” politicians look like kittens. They are not afraid to lock up someone for political dissent, like Pussy Riot or many others. Furthermore, there are a lot of accusations of out right poisoning or murder as well. In the US, there might be calls for sending someone to prison, but truthfully, I don’t think that anyone would be happy if it was incredibly easy to send a duly elected official in the US to prison. We might like it to be easier or whatever, but it’s not and it’s even better that it’s hard for dissenters to be sent to prison.

Obama likely has gained some experience with the brinkmanship that’s happened in the US in the past few months, but that’s really nothing compared to Putin’s experience as a KGB agent and running Russia for the past 15 years. For the Crimea (where Russia has “invaded or not”) this has some serious implications. At this point the US can do a few things, commit militarily, push for sanctions – likely including removing Russia from UN and other international bodies, and little else. To preempt any discussion on sanctions Russia has already said that happens they will simply shift away from the Dollar and stop repaying any US banks.

This is what we have to look forward to with this Crimea Crisis. Russia and the US are both in a no-blink position over this. The US believes that Russia is in the wrong with their actions in Crimea and Ukraine, while Russia believes it is doing nothing wrong.

We’re entering a pretty terrifying time with these stand offs. At this point we don’t know how the people are playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Are they all playing the game as if we’re going to have another turn? In all the other cases I’d say that yes, we’ve played as if there will be more turns. However, people are arguing we’re on the brink of another cold-war. I can’t make a claim either way for that – I look back at movies from the 80’s and at times have difficulty remembering the context that movie was filmed in. However, thinking about the tension in this situation and the fear that the other guy is only planning on one interaction that it’s this and never another move, that’s pretty terrifying – especially since I want to keep playing.

Book Review: Idea Factory, the history of Bell Labs

Yea, I know I’ve just been doing book reviews.

This book was amazing. I had no idea of all the different things that Bell Labs produced from the mid 1920’s until the 1970’s and later. The book focused on the high point of Bell Labs innovation run. It followed the career of several, at the time, famous and prominent scientists that were employed at Bell Labs. Please such as Mervin Kelley (vastly improve the vacuum tube and was a long running director, VP and President of the Labs), William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) Brattian (inventor of a different kind of transistor), Claude Shannon (inventor of the field of Information Science), John Pierce (inventor of passive and active satellite). These there were many others, however, they each had significant impacts on how our modern society works.

The book does an excellent job in explaining some of the basics of how the research was conducted, what work needed to be done to make it work on an experimental level, the method of transferring the invention into innovation or a full product and the goal of each of these inventions. Mervin Kelley was famous for saying that to implement a change in AT&T’s network the new technology must be “better or cheaper or both.” This prevented a great deal of frivolous technologies from being implemented into the telephone network. Additionally, this was required to ensure that AT&T was always able to work towards reducing rates for subscribers as they were a “natural” monopoly.

This was a time when research was done to ensure that the network would be operational for 30 years without malfunction. This required huge investments in quality control and required that additional costs were built into the network for redundancies and protection. In fact Statistical Process Control was invented at Bell Labs to ensure proper quality.

How did all of this work? Well, there were two factors going on here. First, Bell Labs was able to hire the best and brightest to work on interesting problems. Second, the scientists had a continually evolving project that always needed more innovation. These two combined with a freedom to explore allowed the scientists to delve into basic and applied research. In some cases they did not know how or why something would work, but felt that it would improve the quality of the telephone network.

One of the goals of AT&T was to create a coast to coast network with universal service. This required the company to figure out how to address signal decay due to distances over several miles. To address this the company developed the vacuum tube repeater, which significantly increased the distance a voice call could travel. The manufacturing of a tube was extremely difficult and expensive. Bell Labs felt that there had to be a different way to create a repeater. Over the next 20 years they investigated off and on (with a break for WWII) how to make semiconductors work as a repeater. Bell Labs was capable of making this sort of investment because it had a guaranteed revenue stream and a mandate to continually improve the network. These two together allowed the Labs to do work that they otherwise would not have been able to investigate.

This is a very different model for innovation than we currently have in any organization. Universities come close, but they fall short in the fact that the professors are continually required to apply for more money and seek permission from someone to pursue their work. Bell Labs was much more relaxed about this.

This innovation method is also very different than some of the historic events in the US, such as the Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing. Those were single goals which allowed the focus of a great group of minds.There was never any intention of keeping those minds together for the next big project. Bell Labs had the ability to do this.

There are some organizations that should be able to do something like this. The National Labs are one, but there’s no direct business need so even this doesn’t exactly work. An organization like TNO in the Netherlands, which focuses more on practical matters could increase the amount of basic research they conduct in various different areas. TNO is structured differently than the National Labs in the US, because they are expected to work closely with both industry and universities. This gives each of the groups a strong business focus and could serve as a pipeline from basic research into business activities for the companies that work with TNO. However, at this point TNO does not perform these activities.

I give this book a 4.5/5. It was extremely well written, well organized and dealt with some amazing subject matters.

Can technology Save us: Energy Problems

Energy is one of our largest concerns moving forward. We know, at least on some levels, that the technology that is feeding us power isn’t exactly the cleanest technology or power sources. For the most part, the US is powered through coal and natural gas. Between these two roughly two thirds of our power is generated. Both of these power sources need to be extracted from the ground. There are several ways to extract coal from the earth, those of us from Pennsylvania know of both of these. The first is the old fashioned digging of huge mines. In some cases these mines catch on fire and can burn continually until all the coal is burned through. This can take decades or centuries. Not only that, but if you’ve seen ads or the show Coal on Discovery, you know that it’s horribly unhealthy for the miners and can lead to black lung. The other method is mountain top removal, which is less well known but equally destructive. According to a recent study it has removed 500 peaks and eliminated 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia mountain range.

Natural gas extraction is equally destructive, but it’s talked about less frequently than mountain top removal. Fracking has been banned in several countries and regulation in US states has been mixed (Ohio very strict PA very lax). However, the US is being compared to Saudi Arabia in terms of the quantity of Natural Gas in the ground (these estimates are highly contested). Because of the abundance natural gas is being touted as the clean alternative to coal. While it is true that natural gas does burn cleaner than coal it still is not a clean reaction. As it is a hydrocarbon molecule it’s reaction does not lead to 100% efficiency and only water as a resultant material. It still produces Carbon DiOxide but at a much lower rate than coal or gasoline (benzine).

While it is strongly debated among politicians the use of coal and natural gas are causing climate change (Obama compared them to Flat Earth Society members), it’s fairly obvious that they cause local pollution levels to increase. However, as we saw from the Iceland volcano ash and other pollutants are able to enter the jet stream and move around the world. This same affect can happen with coal and natural gas power plants.

However, as technology caused a great deal of these problems perhaps it can fix them. One of the first technologies that we should look at is captured carbon sequestering (CCS), which I’ve discussed before. This could help remove the excess carbon in the atmosphere now. However, there are risks it does reduce housing values and can leak to the surface in a similar manner as smoke from a coal fire. However, there has been success in countries like Iceland. While this is small scale, its the appropriate level to be testing in the US. There are several different technologies for CCS and many states in the US could experiment with different technologies. This will allow the selection of the best technology. The US government should encourage testing different technologies through programs at the state level to designed to increase testing different technology. This could include highest capture and lowest leakage rate from the captured location. Companies could then bid on the right to use their technology for the projects. Additionally, as this can be tied to economic benefits such as job creation and pollution reduction, without impacting current power production, it should gain bipartisan support.

Io9 recently had an interesting article about using caves as a method for batteries. This technology, while very very young, would be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave (when that matures more). This would allow for a massive storage area for extremely windy or sunny days to effectively smooth the energy production for a region. In addition it also could be used to buffer from over production for traditional power plants as well. It is difficult to plan for excess demand, but if these caves could be used to store energy from a colder time of the year until the summer it could be used to buffer against increased demand during the hot summer months.

Renewable energy sources must be part of any plan to create a national energy plan for any country. Without these energy independence would be impossible. Creating incentives for home owners and removing barriers, such as home owner associations that are against solar panels, should be a goal of government at several levels. Austin currently has a huge push for renewable energies where something lie 35% or more of the city energy needs should be generated by renewables in 2020. Including individual home owners in this plan will make it easier to reach.

Finally, nuclear reactors will also be required for wide area energy generation. Currently nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of US energy production. Developing safer techniques for nuclear energy generation is extremely important with Fukashima and the risk for using the same technology for creation nuclear weapons. Fortunately there are safer materials to use. One of them is called Thorium. This material reacts more safely and cannot be used to create weapons. This type of reactor would also be extremely useful for desalinating water.

To achieve true energy independence we will need to use all of the available materials for energy production. It will likely require a transition period from coal to natural gas to a combination of renewable energy sources and nuclear reactors. This will likely take 20 to 30 years. However, we need to use economic and national security as much as environmental concerns to win the argument. With the current mentality in the US government environmental arguments are not likely to win over many converts. Using job creation, through construction and managing the facility, and the long term economic benefits will likely win over more converts than any other method. Including in the argument a way to capture the pollution as a method of reducing pollution rather than simply require cleaner burning is also likely to win over converts as the GOP tries to defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is likely to be a difficult fight to get the US to be independent of foreign energy sources, but it is possible. To do so will require a clear plan of action. Sadly, the US has been lacking that for the past few decades.

Impressions of a repatriated ex-pat

So, in my last blog post, I discussed the difficulties of saying good bye to my adopted country and all my friends. Today, I’m going to give my first impression of being back home and how things feel different than when I left.

I moved to a part of Austin, I’m not really familiar with, I’ve been on many of the major streets in the area, but not the specific neighborhood I’m in. The first time I noticed anything I was walking my dog during the morning rush hour, and there were so many cars, so many cars with one person driving them. These weren’t your small compact cars like I would see in Europe, most of them were trucks. This to me was really different, because for the past year and a half there were few if any trucks or jeeps around Eindhoven. In the Netherlands a driver pays taxes based on the weight of the vehicle. That and gas costs around $8/gallon as I’ve mentioned before. These two combined changes vehicle selection and pushes people to drive smaller fuel efficient vehicles. Of course there were less bikes on the road. Even though the neighborhood I’m has bike lanes on every street big enough to use them. There are few bikes. I did not see many. Most of them were on a single street and many of them were obviously being used for exercise rather than transportation.

There are significantly less grocery stores in the city. In Eindhoven, Ablert Heijn’s (Dutch version of HEB or Giant Eagles) were all over the place. They were about as common as Star Buck’s in the US. However, this was driven by the fact that customers either walk or cycle to the store. It would be extremely frustrating if the closest AH was over 3 km away which is much more likely in Austin.

Aside from these I have a strong feeling of saying “Dank je wel” (Thank you) whenever I get a receipt from someone. I kind of got it ingrained in my head, that and saying “Alstjebleft” (Please/Enjoy). It’s also strange to be at a coffee shop (cafe) and not have people looking at me for speaking English when they first sit down.

I probably will always look at the US in a different perspective than I had before. I think this is a good thing. There is a lot of waste and excess in the US culture. The Netherlands showed me that the US way isn’t the only way, is not the best way and adapting ideas from both cultures could improve a lot of things.

Creationism coming to a school near you in the US

While the UK has effectively banned the teaching of creationism in sciences courses through an application of incentives, the US is going the other direction. Recently, Indiana’s Senate Panel just OK’d the teaching of creationism in science courses. It’s not completely confirmed yet, it still needs to be ratified by the full State Senate, but this is a step in the incorrect direction.

I’m not saying this because of any religious beliefs on my side, which I’m against creationism as a whole, but because it will have a massive impact on any scientific future for these students. None of these students will have the proper understanding of biology to be a doctor, biologist, virologist, biomedical engineer and the list goes on. These are just professions that they are being directly impacted on. The secondary professions will be most of science and engineering professions.

Why? Well as Neil de Grasse Tyson argues, the moment you start saying God did it, you’re useless in the lab. Not because you can’t research or you’re religious, but because that means you’ve lost the burning desire to know “why?” A researcher needs to have a desire to explain what has been unexplained. To investigate the how and what of making things work.

This can also have a chilling effect on entrance into science based universities. Essentially, these students, to the universities point of view, would have had no biology what so ever and the rest of their scientific education may be suspect as well. If creationism is allowed in biology, what sort of impact could this have on their physics and chemistry courses?

Will this ultimately pass in the larger Senate? I honestly don’t know. Should it pass, I hope that there will be an injunction before this is instituted and a case to determine the constitutionality of this law. While the law is likely written to be rather aspecific on what religions it is not supposed to be from, it is obvious to most observers that this is based on Christianity. Essentially, this would be a state endorsing a religion. Thus many people could object to this including Muslims, Christians that don’t support the Young Earth Creationist view, Hindus, and of course atheists.

Now, if you want to send your kid to a private school to learn about creationism then go ahead. That’s why there are options. But I know if I ever have children, they are not going to be educated in a public school system that allows creationism to be taught next to evolution.

Feds need warrant to get phone data

In a victory for cell phone users everywhere, A court says that the feds need a warrant to request phone data which includes location. We should be celebrating this victory even though it isn’t a total victory. This case will most likely go to the US Supreme Court. The Federal government is not going to give up on this easily. Especially since there have been other rulings that have ruled in favor of warrantless mobile phone tracking. So it’s still unclear what the end result of all of this will be.

Additionally, this may also have implications for some of the other tracking that the government is doing. Apparently, the governments don’t need a warrant to install GPS tracking devices onto cars. Which the police argue saves tax payers money. It raises serious privacy concerns though. What is the limit to the number of people the police can track at a time? Can they simply track anyone closely related to a crime even if they have nothing to do with any sort of crime? With polices officers required to track individuals this puts an obvious limit on the number of people the police and other law enforcement agencies can track. They are limited to the usefulness of the tracking and the number of officers they have available to track. With the GPS tracking they have the ability to simultaneously, continuously track any individual associated with a crime or a suspect of a case. This gives them a huge amount of data on people that may not have done anything illegal and shouldn’t be tracked in the first place.

With this data agencies are able to construct a network of frequent activities for the prime suspect and any other people they consider interesting. If these suspects go to a known drug hide out it can implement additional people in a crime that wouldn’t have been obvious without the tracking. It could allow for an increased ability to  crack down on crime. However, it can also send up a great deal of false positives and implement innocents.

Should we be concerned with this type of tracking? Definitely. The purpose of requiring a warrant, in a historical context, is to prevent the government for arbitrarily searching the house of a person. I find the ability to be remotely tracked terrifying. Just because I don’t have any thing to worry about doesn’t mean I’d want the government to have the ability to track me on a whim. I feel it’s important for there to be a check on the law enforcement. I think it’s clear from the UC Davis pepper spray incident that there’s a sense of unlimited power within many of our police forces. Warrantless tracking through cell phones or vehicles are incredibly similar.

The job of the court and our constitution is to protect the people from the excesses of the government through the actions of law enforcement. We need to work with our legislation to push for laws to address these issues if the courts don’t make the action in the manner to protect the fourth amendment and our privacy.