Desert of My Real Life

{December 27, 2010}   Popular Culture and TIA

I just finished watching the five episodes of the BBC miniseries The Last Enemy.  Ann had recommended it because it is about computers and privacy and also because Benedict Cumberbatch (of recent Sherlock Holmes fame) is the star.  I mostly liked the series but there were a couple of things that really bothered me about it.

The plot begins when Stephen Ezard (played by Cumberbatch) returns home to England after living in China for four years.  He’s coming home to attend the funeral of his brother Michael, an aid worker who was killed in a mine explosion in some Middle Eastern desert.  Ezard is a mathematical genius who went to China to be able to work without all the distractions of life in England.  He is a germaphobe (at least in the first episode–that particular personality trait disappears once the plot no longer needs it) who is horrified by the SARS-like infections that seem to be running rampant on the plane and throughout London.  After his brother’s funeral, Stephen goes to Michael’s apartment and discovers that Michael was married to a woman who was not at the funeral and who appears to be in hiding.  She’s a doctor who is taking care of a woman who is dying from some SARS-like infection–and that woman is in Michael’s apartment.  Despite his germaphobia, Stephen immediately has sex (in this germ-infected apartment) with his brother’s widow.

Meanwhile, Stephen’s ex-girlfriend is an MP who is trying to push through legislation that would allow the use of a program called Total Information Awareness (TIA).  TIA is already largely in place but the people of England are not happy about it.  So Ezard is recruited as a “famous” apolitical mathematician who will look at the program and sell it to the public.  What is TIA?  It’s a big database that collects all kinds of electronic information.  Every credit card purchase, building entry with an id card, video from street cameras, and so on is stored in this database.  The idea is that by sifting through this information, looking for certain patterns, English authorities will be able to find terrorists before they strike.  The interesting thing about this idea is that it isn’t fiction.   In 2002, the US government created the Information Awareness Office in an attempt to create a TIA system.  The project was defunded in 2003 because of the public outcry.  At the time, I was concerned about the project both as a citizen with rights that would potentially be threatened and as a computer scientist critical of the idea that we could actually find the patterns necessary to stop terrorism.

This is where the plot of The Last Enemy became problematic for me.  Michael’s widow, Yassim, who is now Stephen’s lover, disappears.  Stephen takes the job as spokesperson for TIA primarily so he’ll have access to a system that will allow him to track Yassim.  We see many scenes of him sitting for hours and hours wading through data with the help of the TIA computer system.  At one point, he tracks the car that Yassim had been riding in by looking for video footage taken by street surveillance cameras and finding the license plate of the car in the video.  This is completely unrealistic and one of the main reasons that, with our current technology, a TIA system will never work.  We don’t yet have the tools to wade through the massive amounts of irrelevant data to find only the data we’re interested in.  And when that data comes in the form of photos or video, we don’t really have quick, efficient electronic means of searching the visual data for useful information.  Since so much of the plot of The Last Enemy hinges on Stephen finding these “needles in a haystack” in a timely manner, I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief.  The problem is that it is very difficult to find relevant information in the midst of huge amounts of irrelevant information.  Making this kind of meaning is one of the open problems of current information technology research.

The second major problem that I had with the plot of this series has to do with Stephen as a brilliant mathematician and computer expert not understanding that his electronic tracks within the system would be easy to follow.  He makes no attempt to cover those tracks and so as soon as he logs off, his pursuers log on behind him and look at everything he looked at.  And many major plot points hinge on his pursuers knowing what he knows.  He doesn’t even take minimal steps to cover his tracks and then he seems surprised that others have followed him.  This is completely unrealistic if he really is the brilliant computer expert he would need to be in order for the government to hire him in this capacity.

I won’t ruin the surprises of the rest of the plot of this series.  But let’s say that much of the premise seems pretty realistic to me, like we’re not too far off from some of these issues coming up for consideration soon.  For that reason, I recommend the series, despite the problems I saw and despite the unbelievable melodrama that arises as a result of Stephen’s relationship with his brother’s widow.  There is a particularly laughable scene between the two of them when she tries to teach him how to draw blood by allowing him to practice on her.  It’s supposed to be erotic, which is weird enough given the danger they’re in at that point, but the dialog is so bad that I laughed out loud.  Despite these problems, the series explores enough interesting questions that I kept watching, wanting to know how the ethical questions would be resolved.

{December 26, 2010}   More About Net Neutrality

This entry was inspired by Meg, who asked some great questions after I posted my last entry.  In that entry, I explained what the net neutrality debate is about and why consumers should care about the FCC’s recent ruling requiring that traditional ISPs cannot discriminate the traffic that they carry over their wires.  This is a good thing for consumers (IMHO).  Near the end of the post, I also suggested that the ruling didn’t go far enough because it didn’t apply the same rules to wireless providers.  I didn’t explain what I meant by that and so Meg asked some great questions.  So here’s a further investigation of the FCC ruling, as it applies to wireless providers.

An article from Wired summarizes the three rules that the FCC passed for wired ISPs: 1. They must be “transparent about how they handle network congestion”; cannot block any particular traffic on wired networks, and cannot “unreasonably” discriminate on those networks.  This last rule means that the speed of data transmission must be the same regardless of the source of that data.  So Time Warner (as an ISP) cannot make your connection slower to Netflix‘s online video service than the connection to Time Warner‘s own online video service (if they had one).

Despite these consumer protections, the ruling is being thrashed because it does not apply these rules to wireless providers of Internet access.  What does that mean?  It means that if you access the Internet on your phone, your phone company can charge you different rates to access different sites.  If Facebook is particularly popular, for example, your phone company can charge you more to access it than it charges to access MySpace.  Or worse, if your phone company creates their own social networking site, they can charge you more to access all competitors’ sites than they do to access the more well-known sites.  Or even worse yet, they can prevent you from using their wireless network to access the competitors’ sites at all.  This is clearly not in the best interest of consumers.  It’s also not in the best interest of innovation since most innovation does not come from the biggest companies and small companies could get squeezed out if no one is able to access their sites.

Right now, these (non)rules concerning wireless providers apply mostly to cell phone companies who provide Internet access.  Most other access is wired access.  Even when we have wireless networks in our homes and places of work, we have wired access that comes into the building and then we have a local wireless network set up.  So the ISP isn’t providing the Internet access wirelessly.  And so they would be governed by the stricter rules imposed by the FCC ruling.  But that may not always be the case.  In the future, more and more ISPs may figure out ways to effectively and efficiently provide wireless access into our homes and businesses.  And if that happens, those new networks will be governed by the softer rules.  This seems short-sighted to me.  And it seems like it happens because the folks on the FCC are not tech people and so don’t really understand what is different and what is the same about different kinds of technology.  Let’s hope that changes.

The debate about net neutrality has been around for a while.  I taught my students about it back when I was still in the Computer Science Department, during the Bush administration.  Today, finally, we’ve gotten a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission about this “controversial” subject.  But to understand the FCC ruling, we first have to understand the debate.  And that means that we have to understand what the Internet actually is.

So, what is the debate?  It’s about your access to the Internet.  The Internet was founded as a decentralized network of computers.  That’s right.  The Internet is  a network of computers.  Each of these computers provides some service.  So when you connect to the “Internet,” you are connecting to a bunch of computers.  And you ask those computers to provide you with some sort of service.  Like viewing a web page.  Or looking at your email.  Or listening to music.  Or watching a movie.  Each of these services involves sending your computer data in the form of a bunch of zeroes and ones that your computer then translates into something that you (as a human) recognize.  Some of these services involve a few zeroes and ones while others involve MANY zeroes and ones.  The Internet was founded on the idea that zeroes and ones are zeroes and ones.  That is, we should not make any distinction between THIS set of zeroes and ones and THAT set of zeroes and ones.  That’s the idea of net neutrality.

How does this relate to you and your everyday, online life?  It means that when you use your Internet Service Provider (Time Warner Cable or Netzero or Verizon or whoever) to connect to Google (or Microsoft or LL Bean or YouTube or Hulu whoever), the zeroes and ones are not discriminated.  All zeroes and ones are treated equally.  So, for example, Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to make Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) run faster than Google (Bing’s direct competitor).  And Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to charge you more to access Google than to access Bing.  AND Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to completely block your access to Google so that you MUST use Bing as a search engine.  THAT is net neutrality.

So the issue has been whether to consider the Internet to be more like a communication network or an entertainment provider.   If the Internet is about communication, then it should be regulated in the same ways that phone communication has been regulated.  Phone companies must carry all phone calls at the same rate based on distance.  In other words, they can charge you more to call California than to call the town next to you, but they can’t charge you more to call Business A than to call Business B based solely on the fact that Business A is different than Business B.   And they can’t block your call to any place.  They must carry all calls.  On the other hand, if the Internet is about entertainment, then they should be able to make deals like your cable company makes deals.  For example, my cable company, Time Warner, recently failed to come to an agreement with an ABC affiliate out of Vermont.  As a result, I no longer get that channel in my cable lineup–I cannot access that channel no matter what I do (unless I change to a cable or satellite provider that gives me that access–but, of course, most cable companies have monopoly access in the towns where they provide service).  In addition, if I want access to certain channels, my cable company may charge me more.  I have access to The Sundance Channel but I don’t have access to the Independent Film Channel because I pay at the level that gives me Sundance but I don’t pay at the level that gives me IFC.

So the question has been, is the Internet a communication network (like phones) or an entertainment network (like cable TV)?  Another way to ask this question is: should Internet service provision be regulated to prevent differential access to certain sites?   Many Republicans have argued that deregulation, allowing companies to do whatever they want, promotes competition and is therefore good for consumers.  And so they have argued that we should allow Internet Service Providers to charge different amounts for different kinds of access and to actually block access to certain sites.  I generally believe that consumers are best served by rules that promote net neutrality.  So I have argued for a long time that the FCC should make rules that prevent situations such as what happened with my ABC affiliate and my cable TV provider.

So today, the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality.  THIS is a good thing (IMHO) for consumers–and THAT is why you should care about this.  Some Republicans have called this ruling “regulatory hubris.”  Many on the other side of the debate have also decried this ruling because it doesn’t go far enough in its regulations.  The ruling explicitly singles out cell phone operating systems, such as Android, as the reason that the FCC was softening its rules for net neutrality on wireless networks.  This is defintely something that consumers need to pay attention to.

{December 12, 2010}   Kid Poker

I am huge fan of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  It is an interesting mix of skill and chance with a bit of human unpredictability thrown in and as a result is an extremely difficult game to master.  My favorite player (when I watch the game on TV) is Kid Poker, Daniel Negreanu.  He is ranked second in all-time earnings, which I think is amazing for someone who was born in 1974 (of course, the person in first place was born in 1976).  I just discovered that Daniel writes a blog and wanted to share it.  Lots of useful insights about the game there.

{December 10, 2010}   Zero Views

Recently, my favorite NPR show, On the Media, had a story about an interesting blog called Zero Views.  The blog celebrates “the best of the bottom of the barrel” by posting the funniest YouTube videos that no one (NO ONE–hence the name “Zero Views”) has watched.  I found several things about this story that are worth commenting on. 

First, this is the kind of meta-site on the Web that I love.  It’s a site that highlights content from another site.  But here’s the thing.  As soon as this site focuses on a video that has zero views, it is HIGHLY likely that the video will no long have zero views.  And in fact, if the Zero Views blog is at all popular (and my sense is that it is fairly popular), any site that it talks about is likely to go viral and become incredibly popular with thousands of views.  That, to me, is a really interesting phenomenon.

The second thing that I find interesting about this story is an underlying issue about popularity.  This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.  What makes a blog, a site, a video “popular?”  The easy answer has to do with numbers of views.  But that somehow feels unsatisfying to me.  I’ve watched many videos and traveled to many links that were recommended to me, only to feel…dissatisfied with what I’ve seen.  This makes me think that popularity must have something to do with “likeability” or some other related concept.  How would we measure “likeability” and surely, the fact that someone “recommended” a particular site, blog, video to me must have some relationship to “likeability,” right?

There are sites such as Technorati that try to measure “popularity” by measuring the number of links that each site has to it.  That is, the more other sites link to your site, the higher you rank in Technorati’s popularity rankings.  There are many problems with this idea of “popularity,” the most obvious of which is that more tech-literate folks are more likely to link to other sites.  So if you are “popular” among less tech-literate folks, you are less likely to be linked to so you will be ranked as less “popular.”

I don’t actually know how to measure “popularity” of websites, blogs, videos and so on.  The proliferation of “top 100” or “top 10” shows on TV makes me think that “popularity” is a cultural phenomenon, something we are interested in as a culture.  But I’m curious about what various groups of people mean when they use the word “popular” when it comes to online content.  What do you think?  I’m also really interested in the kinds of activities and behaviors that can affect the “popularity” of online content.  What do you think about that?

et cetera