Train blogging

I’m typing this while riding on the X 2000, SJ´s electric train, travelling quietly at up to 200 km/h (125 mph). We just had a delicious meal, including “easy beer” and surprisingly good coffee.

Thanks to the SJ site for the photos, which represent very well what we’re seeing, both outside and inside the train, except that the train is full.

Our journey to Göteborg will take less than 3 hours for the 398 km, exactly on the schedule. It’s a beautiful, modern train, with comfortable seats, good leg room, sockets for radio and music, electric power outlets, and full access to fast wifi, which makes this post possible.

SJ stands for Statens järnvägars, as explained on the SJ website:

Soon it will have been 150 years since the first train from Statens järnvägars (SJ) departed from Gothenburg central station. On arrival ecstatic passengers could testify to how they had ”been thrown forward” at 30 kilometres an hour.

Our fellow passenger across the aisle explained that this is not the best time to visit Sweden, but I have to differ. The weather is great for walking, and on this train journey, we’re seeing quaint old farmhouses, interesting little towns, spruce forests, birch tree stands, and occasionally, glorious fall foliage.

“Free” as in free enterprise?

When Clear Channel has a station at the DFW airport saying “FREE Charge and Internet™”, would you think that it offers free charging AND free Internet”? I foolishly did, in part because I thought the ™ applied to “FREE Charge and Internet” and that they hadn’t actually trademarked “Internet”.

It’s possible that they meant that you could get free Internet if you were already a home Clear Channel subscriber, but for me, it was $7.95. I know, it’s less than two medium lattes, but that still fails to add to my already incalculable love of flying.

This is from a press release on their website:

“FreeCharge™ has, not surprisingly, been very popular with passengers flying in and out of our busy airport. They provide not only free power but also free internet with CAT 5 and USB ports.”

On network neutrality

Today’s News From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

ON NETWORK NEUTRALITY: A MINUTE WITH U. OF I. EXPERT CHIP BRUCE

Editor’s note: The proposed deal between Google and Verizon to create two tiers of service for Internet traffic has made waves throughout the technology and telecommunications industry. It also managed to rile network neutrality and privacy advocates, who see the proposed partnership in much starker terms, with some even going as far as calling the deal the end of the Internet as we know it.

Chip Bruce, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois, was interviewed by News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora about the Google-Verizon partnership and its impact on network neutrality.

What makes the proposed partnership between Google and Verizon so scary for consumers? Why should this give the average person pause?

Today, you can go online to see content offered by Google or Verizon, but also that of other large computer and communications companies, small businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations, and potentially any of the world’s 2 billion Internet users as well as content produced originally offline. Google says that this partnership won’t endanger that, but the loss of net neutrality is a first step away from open access to information and toward pre-packaged service.

Verizon wants to be able to serve its content faster or even in lieu of any of its competitors’ content. You’d be able to get news, music, videos and sports as always, but Google-Verizon could say which version you’d see. This immediately endangers free speech and the free flow of information, because private companies would essentially have the final say on what gets out. It also has implications for privacy of Internet use, since the providers will need to examine Internet content in order to control it.

There are also major risks for innovation on the Internet. Suppose that someone in a dorm or a garage devises a better way to deliver television and movies. If major providers control which information flows in what way, those young entrepreneurs may never get the chance to enter their idea into the marketplace.

Net neutrality advocates would argue that the increasing corporate control over the Internet essentially has privatized a service that was developed at public expense to serve public needs. Does that line of reasoning also hold for wireless networks?

Much of the basic technology for both wired and wireless systems has been developed at public expense to serve public needs. The communications corporations would argue that they’ve invested a huge amount on top of that, and in absolute dollar terms, they have.

But beyond any argument about who paid for what, we should remember why public funds have been used to support basic communications. The primary reason is the understanding that a viable democracy requires free and open communication among an educated public. In addition, an open system fosters economic development, cultural exchange, education and many other public goods.

Corporate control over the Internet offers no assurance that these public values will be served. In fact, by law, corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to serve their stockholders, not the public.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently has argued against the “sheer impracticality” of net neutrality on wireless networks. Is he correct?

There has never been nor will there ever be full and absolute net neutrality. Money and power speak in many ways to ensure, for example, that an ordinary person does not have the same access as a major multinational corporation does. With demand exceeding capacity, it may be difficult in the short run to maintain net neutrality on wireless networks. However, the bigger question is what policies we should strive to maintain. Do we want communications systems that afford the greatest possible freedom of access and use for all, or do we want a small set of closed systems, offering controlled and pre-packaged content?

It seems like corporations are increasingly setting the terms for the net neutrality debate. What should the FCC do to re-assert its jurisdiction and authority?

A key issue is whether we want to allow the major means for Internet access to become a set of packages of controlled information, like an individual book or magazine in print form. That’s what the loss of net neutrality could mean.

But I see the Internet as a communications system, and major communications companies as common carriers of those communications. As such, it’s crucial that they be required to deliver communications without tiers for special services, favoritism or control of content. In that sense, the Internet is more akin to the print publishing world, not to a single book.

This means that the FCC needs to “reclassify” broadband from being an information service to a telecommunications service, which would then require communications companies to ensure open use.

What would an Internet without net neutrality look like?

We don’t know for sure, and there are many reasons why – corporations may react in different ways, the public may acquiesce or rebel, and the technologies may change in radical ways we can’t foresee today.

It’s increasingly likely, however, that the Internet experience will become one defined by the specific service one purchases, whether that’s through Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, or some other company. Each corporation will seek to meet consumer needs, but in a way that maximizes its profit. For example, every service will offer movies, but the cost, terms of service, and so on, will be those of that provider. There will be a financial incentive to deprecate services that don’t generate revenue. What’s being sold is then a package of services, not general communication access.

The ordinary user will see some enticing new services, as each corporation tries to lure customers. But she or he will not find some content they find now, because it won’t support the business model. A recent example is Comcast’s undermining of net neutrality by shutting down peer-to-peer networking – in particular, BitTorrent. A U.S. Appeals Court ruling in April allowed that under the assumption of the Internet as information service.

And it’s not just cheap entertainment that will be lost. About the same time as the U.S. Appeals Court ruling, WikiLeaks released a classified U.S. military video showing the killing of more than a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters news staffers. What guarantee do we have a profit-seeking corporation will provide open access to independent media?

Suppose you think BitTorrent and WikiLeaks are wrong. Do you want your Internet provider to decide what you can and cannot see? Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech and innovation, the big question is, “Who should decide Internet policy?”

Visit the News Bureau for more U. of I. news.


See also:

Network neutrality notes

Network neutrality means no restrictions by Internet Service Providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, attached equipment, or modes of communication. This includes neither blocking sites nor offering tiered service models. It can be viewed from the perspective of users wanted to access particular content, such as peer-to-peer sites for video or music, or from the perspective of producers seeking to deliver their content more effectively to users.

History. Concerns with telegraph: “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception. (Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860)

In 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the purpose “to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States… A rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.”

The Internet developed out of public funded services, such as Arpanet, NSFnet, TCI/IP. Eventually centralized routing aspects were removed, allowing the free-wheeling Internet we use today. But in recent years, corporate control over key aspects of the Internet has grown, essentially privatizing a service developed at public expense to serve public needs.

Tiered service. Opponents of net neutrality see it as “a solution in search of a problem”, arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Yet, Comcast, for example, “intentionally and secretly blocked access to lawful content on the Internet,” e.g.,  peer-to-peer (P2P) communications, such as BitTorrent. The FCC attempted to block that, but lost that authority after a US Court of Appeals decision on April 6, 2010.

Google may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.

Issues.

  • Innovation: The Internet has been a striking incubator of new ideas, enterprises, products, services, and jobs. This is to a large extent based on its open practices.
  • Privacy: An Internet with built-in nonneutrality would require an additional level of monitoring, i.e., surveillance, so that packets of information can be routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged. (Cohen, 2010).
  • Free speech: The more service is based on the ability to pay, the less access will ordinary people have to the public forum. ISPs, with a legal responsibility to their shareholders alone, have no incentive to guarantee high quality access to all, and in fact, are legally bound not to do so. They could degrade or block any Web site that was critical of them or did not support their political views.
  • Secrecy: In a Kafkaesque mode, there is no provision for corporations to reveal their selective control of content, including whom they target for preferential or degraded service, why they do so, or even whether or how much they have done. Nearly all major phone and cable companies have promised their shareholders that they plan to block or degrade the content and services of their competitors.
  • Access to information: The other side of free speech. Access suffers when what’s available is based on how much someone paid to put it there.

Who decides. Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech, innovation, etc., the big question is “Who should decide internet policy?”

References

Cohen, Noam (2010, August 15). Internet proposal from Google and Verizon raises fears for privacy. The New York Times.

Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.

US Court of Appeals (2010, April 6). Comcast Corp. v. Federal Communication Commission..

The death of net neutrality

This is bad news.

Google, once a defender of net neutrality and a company whose informal motto was “don’t be evil,” may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.

WASHINGTON — Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege. via Google and Verizon near deal on pay tiers for web

Essentially this means large corporations and governments will have access to the high-speed lanes; their content will be seen first and fastest. The Internet will become a reserved lane system with the on-ramps blocked for those who can’t pay. A system built with public funds will increasingly become a means to fill the pockets of the few at the expense of the public.

Let’s push that metaphor a bit more: Internet corporations are legally responsible to their shareholders and not to the public. We will soon see them devoting virtually all of their resources to improving only the high-speed lanes leaving potholes for the rest of us.

Save the Internet and others are pushing Google and Verizon to be more socially responsible, but that’s at best a short-term fix. Net neutrality, including our access to information, requires legislative and judicial protection. Otherwise, we’re facing a serious compromise of the First Amendment.

References

Silver, Josh (2010, August 5). Google-Verizon deal: The end of the Internet as we know it. Huffington Post.

Tady, Megan (2010, August 5). Google turns its back on net neutrality. Save the Internet.

Wyatt, Edward (2010, August 4). Google and Verizon near deal on pay tiers for web. New York TImes.

Self control

I recently met with Charlie Stigler, a very creative, rising HS senior, who’s written various iPhone apps and open source software gadgets, including SelfControl.

SelfControl is for those sorts of people who can’t control their use of email, facebook, web surfing, solitaire, and other invitations to procrastination. I would never presume that you were vulnerable to such distractions, or even had close friends who were, but you may someday encounter someone who is.

One thing I can guarantee is the time you spend reading about it, downloading and installing it, setting it up, and remembering to use it won’t be wasted on real work!

Libraries for netroots activists?

Netroots is a term that describes political activism organized through blogs, wikis, social network services, and other online media. Jerome Armstrong used it first in Netroots for Howard Dean (2002) on MyDD.

The netroots can be a powerful alternative to traditional media and organizations. Often though, the change that activists promote never happens, can’t be sustained, or can’t scale. Netroots talk doesn’t always lead to action.

It may seem to strange to turn to libraries as a solution. Aren’t libraries all about books and old stuff, not the new participatory culture of the net? Aren’t they determinably neutral, both unwilling and unable to engage with the kinds of change activists seek?

In fact, libraries already play a crucial role to support activism of various kinds. And they’re already deeply entangled both with how we go online and with how we find what’s not available there. They’re not only a supplement to the netroots, but a necessary resource to bring netroots activism to life.

If you go to any public library in the US at opening time, you’ll see a group of people waiting to enter. They’re of all ages, ethnicities, and genders, dressed in formal business attire, sports clothes, or old rags. Some may be waiting to check out a book or video, but most are waiting to go online to read their mail, connect with friends, check the news, hunt for a job or apartment, shop, book travel, or do any of the many other functions that reveal how much the net has infiltrated our lives. For them, the library is the face of the net, and the only, or at least the best, way of connecting with it.

Moreover, libraries can provide substantive data, e.g., on the climate, business trends, local history, political processes, art, and more, which is not always available online; text resources, including books, journals, magazines; videos and software; and repositories or archives of local activities. They also offer meeting spaces, and sustainable local points of contact. These resources can expand enormously the knowledge base for netroots activism, something that can turn strongly held views into evidence-based arguments and uncover duplicity in corporate or government bodies.

Libraries also offer reference services, which is important since the deep web holds several orders of magnitude more information than the surface web, and non-web information is much more than that. Libraries also offer instruction on accessing all of these resources, data, and services.

Beyond finding information, libraries increasingly offer opportunities to create and house community-designed or collected resources. For example, a collaboration between Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Newberry Library in Chicago led to a student-curated Puerto Rican history exhibit at the Newberry: Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.

As a means of finding information and tools, a venue for creating resources, a place to learn, and access in the first place, libraries can help turn netroots talk about activism into real action in the world. Of course, most libraries are devoted to principles of open access for all. As a result, what they offer is available to groups large and small, but also to groups on opposing sides of an issue. This means that despite all the power and innovation of the net, much of the action is still, if not increasingly, found in the library.

Open world learning

People often talk of the Internet as a venue for open learning. But this openness often means simply that students can explore a vast array of resources, perhaps coming across sources that neither they nor their teacher expected.

It’s useful to think about the various ways that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) create additional possibilities for open learning, including both its benefits and costs. Several years ago, Umesh Thakkar, Eric Jakobsson, and I along with others developed such an analysis for the case of Biology Workbench (see Molecular Science Student workbench and Swami). The general idea is that Biology Workbench could facilitate open world learning.

Biology Workbench is a suite of computational tools and data sources, which is used by scientists across a wide range of disciplines to explore and analyze protein and nucleic acid sequence databases. There is a wide variety of analysis and modeling tools, within a point and click interface that ensures file format compatibility.

Thus, Biology Workbench is not an alternative tool for teaching biological concepts, although students who work within it can expand their understanding of biology significantly. Rather, it is an exemplar of a venue for learning, one in which students explore genetics, protein structure and function, physics, chemistry, and other domains of inquiry, invoking processes of pattern-matching, probabilistic reasoning, and both inductive and deductive analysis. Its potential significance for learning relates to three major ways in which it is an open system.

Open Data and Problems

The Workbench architecture provides the potential for using information technology to provide an open world of learning and exploration. Previous approaches to using computers in education have focused on the creation of closed worlds in which students could navigate and explore. Many of these computational environments are excellent and useful, but they are limited. Students are not encouraged to investigate the unknown. In general, students cannot investigate phenomena that the creators of the environment themselves do not know.

The open environment of the Biology Workbench is fundamentally different. By providing access to essentially all that is known about biomolecular sequences and structures, together with powerful analysis and visualization tools, the Workbench makes it possible for students to learn more than what their mentors and teachers know, and even to generate new basic knowledge. The key idea here is not only that there is a large amount of material, but that the data are constantly changing as a result of scientific work. This is true of course for the Web in general, but appears more striking in the case of rapidly changing molecular data (see point #2 below).

This aspect of the Workbench was exemplified by one instructor who was using the Workbench in a university class. She commented that once the students went beyond working through specified exercises, they were essentially doing original biological research, doing analyses that perhaps had not been done before, and she was hard pressed to know how to grade their work.

Open Computational Environment

In addition to providing a window to the entire world of molecular biology, the Biology Workbench is open in a second sense. It is continually growing, adding new features that extend its capabilities and domain of applicability. New domains of applicability include the ability to reconstruct metabolic pathways by utilizing data from newly developed microarrays (gene chips and metabolic flux chips) and the ability to do molecular simulations. The Workbench continues to grow as the whole field of computational molecular biology grows, because it is more than a computer program. It is a computational environment that integrates tools for exploring and learning about all aspects of molecular biology. This dynamic growth is both a plus and a challenge for teachers or curriculum designers who might reasonably seek consistency in their curricula.

Open Community

The Biology Workbench exists within a community of investigators working across a variety of areas within molecular biology. These investigators are not only users, but creators of the system, as they add their research results to the available corpus of articles or their findings result in additions or other modifications of the databases. This community is a powerful resource for education, but it does not exist to meet educational needs per se.

Students who attempt to learn through the Workbench are able to enter into that community of investigators. In so doing, they have stepped outside of the protected world of the classroom. Their learning becomes much less structured, even potentially hazardous without the assurance of carefully vetted curricula, but it can also be far more engaging and applicable to learning beyond the classroom.

Search engines’ dirty secret

I just saw a reference to a New Scientist article, Search engines’ dirty secret – 31 March 2010 about the energy use of search engines, such as Google. The author, James Clarage, who is a physicist at the University of St Thomas in Houston, does some rough calculations to show alarmingly high energy costs:

Google serves up approximately 10 million search results per hour, so one search has the same energy cost as turning on a 100-watt light bulb for an hour…We’ve all heard the future of information architecture is cloud computing. It just might be a cloud of carbon dioxide.

Tim Rustige had the same reaction I did: Yes, web searches use energy, but it can’t be that much. In New Scientist 3rd April 2010 ‘Search’s dirty secret’ he runs through some more detailed calculations to show that the energy use by Google is much less, perhaps 1% of what Clarage estimates.

Neither author takes into account the energy us of the home computer or smart phone that access Google. That’s likely to be many times the cost of what Google does. When that’s factored in, along with the costs of manufacturing, servicing, shipping, and disposing computers, it’s clear that Clarage’s basic point is still valid. There is a serious environmental impact of search engines and computers, and much needs to be done to improve their efficiency.

Should we subsidize good journalism?

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again, by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, has just been published. It makes a convincing case that journalism is a public good, with broad social benefits, including being necessary for democracy.

They also show how good journalism is under threat from a variety of forces. One is media consolidation, meaning that a few huge corporations control most of our media. Another is that our reliance on the Internet is radically changing business models, making it increasingly difficult to support investigative journalism. Moreover, whether the Internet can remain open, diverse, and democratic is very uncertain. Meanwhile, support for public media is waning, especially in the US, which spends only a tiny percentage of what other nations do for non-corporate media.

To address these problems, they propose what some might consider to be a radical proposal. But it’s actually quite in line with traditional government initiatives in areas such as defense, education, transportation, etc., which support vital services that the market can’t supply. Moreover, their proposal operates through free market mechanisms, without requiring, or even allowing government control over media content. It’s an innovative idea, one whose importance goes far beyond just saving the local newspaper.

Their proposal contains four key elements:

  1. free postage for any publication, with less than 20% of its pages in advertising
  2. up to $200 individual tax deduction for a newspaper subscription
  3. a viable school newspaper and radio station for every middle school, high school and college, so that young people not only read the news, but also produce it
  4. increased spending on public and community broadcasting

I might add other items, such as broadening the youth production aspect to include other sites in which that occurs, such as community centers and libraries, or find some way to support local book production as well.

The proposal could ensure a diversity of news sources, with support for those who produce the news. It would immediately move us beyond reliance on a handful of media conglomerates, while still allowing their operation, for those who so chose. The cost is no more than that supported by other nations with advanced economies. It’s well worth considering for anyone concerned with maintaining a modern democracy.

Nichols and McChesney, are co-founders, along with Josh Silver, of Free Press, which works for net neutrality and has launched a major campaign to save the news.

References

Nichols, John, & McChesney, Robert W. (2009, March 18). The death and life of great American newspapers. The Nation.