Monday, November 24, 2014

RAND Corporation's contributions to computer science

What comes to mind when you hear the word Rand? Ayn Rand? Rand Paul? For me, it is the RAND Corporation. Project RAND (research and development) was housed at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California immediately after World War II, and became an independent, nonprofit organization in 1948. Perhaps the first "think tank," they spun off their development work, creating the the System Development Corporation in 1957.

I don't know how one ranks research institutions, but, for me, RAND ranks right up there with Bell Labs, IBM Research and newcomers Microsoft and Google research. The following are summaries of a some of the computer science advances made by RAND researchers and consultants.

Communication satellites: Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark outlined the vision of geostationary communication satellites in a short article published in October, 1945. Five months later, Frank Collbohm and James Lipp published a comprehensive engineering study on a "Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship."

Arthur C. Clarke's vision (left) and RAND's design 

Artificial intelligence: Herbert Simon, Allen Newell and Cliff Shaw did early work on artificial intelligence at RAND and Carnegie Tech. They asked people to talk out loud while proving theorems and noted that their strategy was to apply operations that reduced the differences between the current state of the proof and the theorem they were trying to prove. Their programs, Logic Theorist and General Problem Solver, did the same -- and so does this pigeon:



A pigeon solves Wolfgang Kohler's box-and-banana
problem by applying the Box Move operator.

Operations research: George Dantzig and Richard Bellman invented mathematical techniques for finding optimal or near-optimal solutions to complex, but well defined problems. This work has applications in network design and you use Dantzig's simplex algorithm whenever you build an Excel spreadsheet to solve a linear programming problem.

SIMSCRIPT: Harry Markowitz and Bernard Hausner invented the SIMSCRIPT programming language for simulating systems like customers moving through checkout stands at a market. SIMSCRIPT was an early object-oriented language in that it modeled the world as sets of entities and their attributes. Entities could be created and destroyed and their attribute values and set memberships changed when events in simulated time occurred. (SIMSCRIPT is close to my heart because it was the subject of the first class I ever taught. Unfortunately, my wife threw out my SIMSCRIPT t-shirt years ago).

T-shirt -- Entities, Attributes and Sets

An early research computer: Early computers were built as research projects at universities. You can recognize them by their names ending in "AC" for automatic calculator. RAND's JOHNNIAC (named in honor of mathematician and computer architect John von Neumann) was a stored program computer. It was used for applications including the early artificial intelligence research and operations research mentioned above.

JOHNNIAC

Timesharing: Terminals and drum storage were added to the JOHNNIAC, enabling Cliff Shaw to create JOSS (JOHNNIAC Open Shop System), one of the first interactive time sharing systems. JOSS was "open shop" in that users interacted directly with the computer rather than dropping off jobs to be run at a later time by a computer operator.

Programmer at a JOSS terminal

Large, packet-switching networks: I've saved the best for last. Paul Baran published a series of eleven reports on Distributed Communications Networks in 1964. In Volume 2, he described the network architecture:

Traffic to be transmitted is first chopped into small blocks, called Message Blocks or simply messages. These messages are then relayed from station to station through the network with each station acting as a small "post office" connected to adjacent "post offices."
After simulating this system and considering the technology of the day, Baran concluded in Volume 11 that
It appears theoretically possible to build large networks able to withstand heavy damage whether caused by unreliability of components or by enemy attack.
He was right!
Paul Baran's distributed network arhitecture

Two of the people cited here went on to win Nobel prizes. Harry Markowitz received the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on portfolio theory -- perhaps not tied to his work on digital simulation.

Herbert Simon also received the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on decision making. He noted that we do not make optimal deisions when choosing among alternatives because information about outcomes is incomplete, gathering more information has a cost and outcomes are multidimensional. In real life we make satisfatory decisions. This realization no doubt guided his studies of the thought processes of chess players and theorem provers and therefore his work on artificial intelligence.

(A personal note: I took a class from professor Simon as an undergrad. All I recall was that I liked him a lot and he told us about the chess game his "computer" -- whatever that was -- was playing with a computer in Arizona. I also met him much later, and he was modest and helpful -- told me he stored most of what he knew in his friend's heads).

You can learn more about any of this work on Wikipedia or using Google, but -- better yet -- download the historic reports by these researchers from the RAND Web site.














Monday, November 17, 2014

18F is doing e-government and gaining traction

18F: Open source and transparent processes -- who says government has to be old fashioned, slow and inefficient?

In an earlier post, I described USDS and 18F, new government agencies that are intended to improve US e-government in the wake of the HealthCare.Gov debacle. USDS is a management consulting firm for federal agencies that favors lean startup methods, open source and agile development by small teams. 18F complements USDS -- they build tools and implement government systems.

You can check 18F's open source projects at the "alpha" version of their project dashboard. As shown here, they currently have twelve projects in various stages of development.


Scrolling down, one sees the entries for each of the 12 current projects. For example, they are building a portal for submitting and searching for Freedom of Information Act requests for the Justice Department. (Note that the department is a partner not a client).


The project descriptions have links to pages where you can see and contribute to the code, discuss the project with the developers and the public, and read a news release describing the project.

18F is not unique. The UK Government Digital Service has the goal of "transforming government services to make them more efficient and effective for users." They were formed several years ago in response to dissatisfaction with the British Health System Web site. You can learn more in this NPR story.

18F and the UK Government Digital Service have something very important in common -- they are staffed by skilled experts who could be making more money in the private sector but have elected (perhaps temporary) government service. I saw the same thing in a study of the Internet in Singapore where the "best and the brightest," went to government service.

How great would it be if all of government were staffed by the same sort of people?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Elon Musk and Greg Wyler's plan for global satellite connectiivty

Routers in orbit

In the early 1990s, cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal founded Teledesic, with the intention of providing global Internet connectivity using low-earth orbit satellites. The satellite and launch technology were not good enough and the company failed.

Teledesic animation showing a satellite
constellation that would cover the planet.

But satellite and launch technology have come a long way since that time. In an earlier post, I asked whether Google could connect the "other three billion" in developing nations and rural areas. The post surveyed Google projects involving high altitude platforms like blimps, drones or balloons that hover or circulate in the stratosphere, low-earth orbit satellites used for imaging and telephony and medium-earth orbit satellites used for communications and navigation.

One of those projects was a collaboration with O3b (other three billion), a company founded by ex-Google executive Greg Wyler. O3b had four satellites in 8,000 kilometer equatorial orbits and planned to serve all parts of the Earth within 45 degrees of the Equator.


In describing the O3b project, I wondered "whether they are considering a low-earth orbit constellation" and it seems they were. Mr. Wyler subsequently left O3b to found WorldVu, which planned a constellation of 300 satellites at between 800 and 950 kilometers in altitude and has acquired Ku-band spectrum.

That takes care of the improved satellite technology, but how about launch technology?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article saying that Mr. Wyler would be teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX to provide global Internet access using a constellation of 700 satellites, each weighing less than 250 pounds. Musk confirmed the plan in a couple of Twitter posts, but also criticized the Wall Street Journal reporting.


I hope they will be able to realize Teledesic's 1990 vision using 2020 technology.

I concluded my earlier post on this topic by "wondering whether Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Brnason, founder of Virgin Galactic are eyeing those other three billion people." I still wonder about Bezos and Branson.

-----
Update 11/13/2014

After writing this post, I attended a session at Rand Corporation's Politics Aside conference and had a chance to ask Simonetta Di Pippo, the Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, about her take on this proposal. She did not give a direct answer, but said that Elon Musk is a very smart man and he has never failed to succeed at anything he committed to do.

A SpaceX executive overheard my question and said he could not comment, but he reiterated Elon Musk's tweeted statement that the Wall Street Journal article had errors and we would have to wait a couple of months for the full announcement of their plans.

I guess we will have to wait to see, but this could be a Big Deal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Roku has made my Google Chromecast superfluous

Do you still need a Chromecast device?

I am a cord-cutter -- I use a Roku streaming device on my TV set and do not receive regular cable channels. (I have a trusty rabbit ears antenna for local over-the-air broadcasts, but that will not work for many people).

I also have a Google Chromecast, which I said I loved in a review a little over a year ago. But, a year later, it turns out there is nothing in the Chromecast app library that I want to see that is not also available on my Roku. In fact, I watch several Roku channels -- like PBS -- that are not currently available for the Chromecast. I guess Bill Clinton would say "it's the content, stupid."

But, I kept my Chromecast around for screencasting -- mirroring my computer or phone on the TV set -- until now.

It is now superfluous because Roku has released the beta version of Miracast screen mirroring for Windows 8.1 and selected Android devices.

As you see here, when I open the Screencast setting on my Android phone, I have two target destinations -- the Chromecast and the Roku streaming stick. (Both are connected to the same TV set).

I did an informal test of the two devices using the CBS All Access video streaming service. I watched episodes of "Big Bang Theory" using both devices, and did not notice a significant difference in quality. The video did occasional half-second stutters a few times and the audio would also drift out of synch from time to time, but the program was watchable on both the Roku and the Chromecast. I have no doubt that next generation hardware and improved video and compression algorithms will take care of those small glitches (as long as my ISP keeps the bits flowing smoothly).

Miracasting is only available on two Roku models -- the Roku 3 and the Streaming Stick -- and selected Windows 8.1 and Android devices, but no doubt wider support is coming. If you have a miracast-compatible device, you might as well unplug your Chromecast.

-----
Update 11/20/2014

A couple days ago, I got the Android Lollipop update for my Nexus 5 phone and CBS updated their All Access application, so I decided to retest the streaming video quality. I used this as an excuse for watching another episode of Big Bang Theory and (subjectively) noted that the video had smoothed out -- there were no stutters -- but the audio had deteriorated -- it was out of synch the entire time. I don't know whether this is attributable to Lollipop or the app or a combination of the two.

I ran this test twice -- once streaming to a Roku Streaming Stick and the other to a Chromecast -- and the subjective experience was the same.

I'm disappointed by this step in the wrong direction, but I faster hardware and better algorithms will smooth out video glitches and synch the audio.

One other cosmetic change -- the Lollipop screencast screen has changed to black on white:


Monday, November 10, 2014

Google testing high-speed wireless -- the last kilometer for Google Fiber?

Google could even take the Android approach -- make the technology available to municipal governments and others and watch their advertising business grow as it is deployed.

In 2012, Goldman Sachs analyst Jason Armstrong looked at Google Fiber and estimated that it would cost them $70 billion to connect less than half of all US homes. He also estimated that it had cost Verizon $15 billion to bring FIOS fiber to 17 million homes. Armstrong concluded that he was "still bullish on cable, although not blind to the risks." (Armstrong has since left Goldman Sachs and works at Comcast and Verizon has cut back on FIOS).

That sounds grim, but what if wireless technology could significantly reduce the cost of connecting homes and offices?

Google has asked the FCC for permission to conduct tests of millimeter wave-length wireless communication for 180 days.

As shown below, short wavelength, high frequency (E-band) signals travel relatively short distances and can not pass through walls or other obstructions, but they enable gigabit and faster data transmission rates:

E-band wireless in context: The current market is dominated by a few companies selling equipment for cell phone backhaul and other point-to-point applications, but what if the smart guys at Google could figure a way to use it for neighborhood links? (Image: E-band communications.)

How much of Armstrong's $70 billion estimate would Google (or anyone else) save if they could run fiber to the block or neighborhood and reach individual homes using this radio technology?

Google Fiber started in Kansas City and today it is available in two other cities (and some surrounding areas). They are currently evaluating 34 additional cities and those cities would look a lot more attractive if they were able to use wireless links to reach homes from neighborhood poles. Google fiber could also provide backhaul for mobile communication.

If this dream materialized, Google would provide stiff competition to the incumbent phone and cable companies and drive connectivity prices down, but would that be the best solution for the public?

In the US, most of us have only one or perhaps two competing Internet service providers. Google would be a second or third, but we would still have an oligopoly and, while Google may not "do evil" today, who knows about the future?

Google, Comcast or any other ISP must deal with local government for things like access to tunnels, phone poles and utility boxes. Might we not be better off in the long run if local government owned the infrastructure regardless of the technology? This solution has worked well in Stockholm, Sweden, where the municpality owns the infrastructure and sells wholesale access to ISPs who service customers.

What will Google do if this technology works out? They could become nationwide wholesale or retail ISPs or even take the Android approach -- make the technology available to municipal governments and others and watch their advertising business grow as it is deployed.

All of this is highly speculative, but if the technology and business model work out, we may be able to get low-cost gigabit connectivity without moving to Kansas City.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Harvard study of variance in lecture attendance

Attendance varies between courses, with the day of the week and with special events like exams and guest speakers.

Samuel Moulton, director of educational research and assessment for the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching gave a presentation on their preliminary research on lecture attendance. He reported on attendance from 10 classes, and found that attendance varied depending upon day of the week:

Attendance soared on exam days and dropped the Friday before Spring break:

(Attendance can be over 100% since student drop classes after enrolling and attending the first few lectures).

He also saw that special events like an optional movie or a guest speaker had an impact on attendance:

Moulten further analyzed the data by dropping events like exam days and fitting fitting a line to the data:

He concluded by showing the plots for all of the courses in his sample:

As you see, there is significant variation in attendance.

How do these results compare to your experience? What factors contribute to attendance variation?

Watch Moulton's presentation:




Thursday, October 30, 2014

A quick look at CBS All Access video streaming

The technical problems will be resolved, but I don't want to watch commercials, so I will pass.

Last week, CBS announce the availability of CBS All Access, allowing subscribers ($5.99 per month) to watch CBS TV shows online. You can stream episodes of CBS series using a browser or portable app and, in selected markets, you can watch live programs as they are broadcast. Broadcast episodes are available the following day for streaming.


I signed up, and streamed an episode of the Big Bang Theory as my first test. As you see below, I viewed it on my phone (a Nexus 5) and mirrored the screen on my TV set using a Google Chromecast.


The video quality was decent, but not super sharp and from time to time it jittered or the audio got a little bit out of synch. Still, it was definitely watchable. That was the good news. The bad news is that in addition to the monthly fee, you see tons of commercials -- before the program starts and at commercial breaks -- just like broadcast TV.

Next, I tried watching in the Chrome browser on my laptop. The picture quality was fine as long as I watched it in a small window, but, when I went full screen on my 15-inch, 1920x1200 pixel display, the quality was very poor, as you see below. (Click the image to see it in its blurry full size).


But wait, it got worse. After a few minutes of viewing, my (admittedly slow) laptop fan started running and the video stuttered and eventually froze. I restarted the video and watched the task manager as it ran. This is what I saw:


It was using about 3 GB of 8 GB of memory and the CPU load was highly variable around an average of about 50%. Then the CPU load jumped to 95-100% and stayed there, rendering the video unwatchable.

I'm not sure what caused the change of state -- perhaps it tried to raise the frame rate and and overwhelmed my laptop. I have an 802.11 ac access point, but the laptop radio is a/b/g. Perhaps it had exhausted an initial buffer, but there was not a noticeable pause for buffering when the stream started.

Next, I tried watching a live stream. The live stream is only available in certain parts of the country, but the small map on their site seemed to have a dot over Los Angeles, where I live. It may have been a temporary outage, but all I got was a message saying to wait:


I gave up after about five minutes of watching the little animated circle rotate.

My test went poorly, but the technical problems will be solved. I'm sure they will get live streaming working soon and improved video algorithms and my getting a new phone and a new laptop will take care of my quality complaints. But, even if the video is rock solid and high definition, I will not subscribe if they continue to run commercials.

I don't want commercials (but maybe you do)

Major content providers like HBO and CBS offering Internet service marks the beginning of the end for cable TV as we know it. Eventually, we will all cut the cord and get our video online, but regardless of the technology, we have four video business models:


I suspect that in the future, most of our viewing will be on demand and scheduled viewing will be mostly used for sports and other events. I can wait to see the current episode of Big Bang Theory until the day after it is broadcast.

When I asked my students whether they would pay $5.99 a month to watch CBS TV with commercials, they all said "no." When I asked if they would watch if it were free, but had commercials, they said "yes." Before the courts put them out of business, Aereo also showed us that there is a market for on demand local TV with commercials. My students are young and on limited budgets, but, as Netflix and Amazon Prime have shown, there is also a substantial market for paid, commercial-free video.

I've no idea what the prices of these video options will be in the future, but I doubt that we will be paying less after we cut the cord. Our ISPs are also our video providers, and, since we generally have only one or perhaps two ISP choices, I expect them to raise broadband prices to compensate for any lost revenue. We will end up with ala carte video and higher monthly bills.

But, that is the speculative future. For now, I will stick with Amazon, Netflix and Hulu Plus, and watch an occasional CBS program over the air with my trusty rabbit-ears antenna.

-----
Update 10/31/2014

There is a fairly long discussion of this post on Slashdot.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Steven Pinker: what college students should learn

Steven Pinker, a well-known professor of psychology at Harvard recently stated what he thinks a college student should learn:
It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
The above quote is from the middle of a New Republic article by Pinker. Let me tell you about the article and its context.

In July, The New Republic ran an article called "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League by ex Yale professor William Deresiewicz. The subtitle of the article was "The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies" and it was the most widely read article in the magazine's history.

In September, professor Pinker wrote a strong rebuttal to Deresiewicz entitled The Trouble With Harvard, with the subtitle "The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it." Pinker disagrees with pretty much everything Deresiewicz says, but they do agree that the admissions process at elite universites is broken.

If the articles sound interesting or you are involved in college admissions or know someone who is applying to college (like your kid maybe), by all means read them, but I would not have written a blog post on them if it were not for Pinker's definition of a college education.

Do you agree with Pinker? How did your education stack up against his goals? Do the same goals hold for students at "not elite" schools?

-----

Credits -- I found this quote in a post by Rodney Van Meter on Dave Farber's IP email list and the cool picture is from shutterstock.com.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nobel laureate Jean Tirole's lessons for Internet industries

I am not a game theorist or an economist, but it seems that the work of economics Nobel Prize winner Jean Tirole has two Internet industry applications, one regarding two (or more) sided markets, the other in regulation of monopolies and oligopolies.

Two sided markets

The iPhone is a product for consumers and a platform
for developers. The optimal price is not obvious.

The Apple iPhone is an example of a product with a two-sided market -- they sell iPhones to end users and also profit from app sales by developers. In Econ 101 we learned that a company maximizes profit by setting a price at the point where marginal cost = marginal revenue. But, that is too simple because the iPhone is both a consumer product and a developer platform.

Apple wants to attract application developers as well as sell iPhones and the more iPhones they sell, the more attractive the platform is to developers. More developers means more apps, which means more revenue for Apple and it also makes the iPhone more attractive to end users. So, the optimal price for an iPhone is not the point at which marginal cost = marginal revenue, but something lower.

Google's pricing provides an extreme example. They supply search and other services to end users and they sell advertising. The more services they supply, the more they learn about users and the more valuable they are to advertisers. This has led them to an edge case -- they price their consumer services at zero, relying solely on revenue from advertisers.

On the other hand, they charge businesses $50 per user per year for Google Apps for Work ($120 with unlimited cloud storage). The business services have a few extra management features, but the marginal cost for a new user is essentially the same. Why the price difference? Business users can turn off ads and Google does not scan their email to learn about them. It is a one-sided market.

How about Google apps for education? There are no adds, but the service is free. Why does Google give schools a break? Students who are used to Gmail and Google Drive applications will tend to use them after they graduate, generating long run profit for Google. (They did not need a Nobel Prize for that one -- when I worked for IBM we gave universities an 80% discount on computers in order to get students used to IBM equipment and systems).

Tirole and co-author Jean-Charles Rochet give many more Internet-related examples of two-sided markets in this paper, (There is some beyond-me math in the paper, but the mini case studies near the end are straight forward).

Monopolies and oligopolies

US ISPs like Comcast are able to charge content providers
delivery fees and set high high prices for end users.

In awarding the prize, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Tirole for clarifying "how to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms." Well, that sounds a lot like the network industry.

We have two regulatory conundrums in the US. The first has to do with consumer prices. The incumbent telephone and cable TV companies own the "last mile" infrastructure connecting homes and offices to the Internet, enabling them to set high prices for end users. The second is getting network operators to invest in infrastructure.

Let's consider investment infrastructure first. Joshua Gans, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto with close ties to Tirole notes that end-to-end connectivity requires cooperation between competing firms like Netflix and Comcast, but "if you leave firms to come up with the terms of the cooperation themselves, they are going to find a way to remove the competitive parts as well."

Gans says Tirole solved that problem "with a set of rules and practices that would regulate interconnection terms amongst telecommunications companies for decades while ensuring there were adequate incentives to compete — and not just on price — but on investment in infrastructure." His advice to US regulators: "open one of Tirole’s books; it is time you listened."

How about the consumer price problem? Gans says:
The issue in telecoms arises with what is termed the last-mile problem. You only have one set of cables or copper coming into your house. The solution adopted around the world has been to say, okay, one firm owns this cable, but what they have to do is provide access to these cables. So If I want another firm to provide me with TV or Internet, they have to allow that firm to effectively rent the cable from the other firm.
That strategy worked well in the Netherlands, according to Ad Scheepbouwer, CEO of the Dutch telephone company KPN:
In hindsight, KPN made a mistake back in 1996. We were not too enthusiastic to be forced to allow competitors on our old wireline network. That turned out not to be very wise. If you allow all your competitors on your network, all services will run on your network, and that results in the lowest cost possible per service. Which in turn attracts more customers for those services, so your network grows much faster. An open network is not charity from us, in the long run it simply works best for everybody.
But it failed in the US. Congress anticipated the same sort of infrastructure sharing when they passed the Telecommunication Act of 1996, but the incumbent operators were able to thwart that effort in courts, statehouses and local government.

This frustration was expressed by William Kennard, who, as chairman of the United States Federal Communication from 1997-2001, was charged with implementing the Telecommunications Act. Near the end of his term he said “all too often companies work to change the regulations, instead of working to change the market,” and spoke of “regulatory capitalism” in which “companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service.” He went on to remark that regulation is “too often used as a shield, to protect the status quo from new competition -- often in the form of smaller, hungrier competitors -- and too infrequently as a sword -- to cut a pathway for new competitors to compete by creating new networks and services.”

If regulators are not able to get ISPs to share their infrastructure, there is another alternative -- government ownership of infrastructure. While the US cable and telephone companies have fought vigorously against municipal networks, they have worked well in other places, like Stockholm, where the municipal government provides wholesale infrastructure and invites retail ISPs to compete. (It is noteworthy here that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says he wants to invalidate state laws prohibiting local governments from providing Internet connectivity).

In a column on Tirole's contributions, fellow economics laureate Paul Krugman says that Tirole recognized that there are no comprehensive theories of oligopoly and monopoly and
Basically, [Tirole] made it OK to tell stories rather than proving theorems, and thereby made it possible to talk about and model issues that had been ruled out by the limits of perfect competition. It was, I can tell you from experience, profoundly liberating.
My guess is that the executives at companies like Apple and Google were dealing in stories, like the ones described above, without reading Tirole. Thinking about and elaborating on the story had more to do with Apple's iPhone pricing than the results of a game theoretic model. It also sounds like economists like Krugman and European regulators took Gans' advice -- they read Tirole's books.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Annals of sleazy domain name squatting

The Washington post published an article on a domain name "squatter," who specializes in buying and reselling, at the right time, disease domain names. He owns ebola.com and wants to sell it before its value drops because “Ebola ... is something that could ameliorate and not be a big news story for that much longer.”

While he waits for the bids to roll in on ebola.com, it is redirected to ebola.org, where you can see links to frightening articles:


Get a book on BHT, a food supplement that could help with ebola:


And, of course, purchase some BHT from the optimistically named Life Extension Foundation.

Oh, and note that, if you are so inclined, you can make a bid on the domain name ebola.com.


I don't know which is more depressing -- the fact that someone would try to exploit the ebola epidemic this way or that there are enough people who would pay for BHT to fend off ebola to make squatting on disease domain names a profitable business.

Friday, October 10, 2014

NIH announces big data research and education grant recipients

Vannevar Bush and an artist's rendition of his hypothetical scientific
collaboration work station, dubbed the "memex" -- memory extender

In the 1940s, Vannevar Bush envisioned scientists collaborating using networked desktop machines he dubbed "memexes." That was science fiction, but 70 years later, the Internet has opened the possibility of medical researchers creating and sharing massive clinical and health science databases. (For an early example, check out the Personal Genome Project, which is compiling individual's genome data and detailed medical records for analysis).

The National Institutes of Health has established a program called Big Data to Knowledge with the goal of advancing health and discovery through big data, and they recently announced the recipients of the first round of their big data funding:Government research -- agency funded, as in ARPA's funding of the ARPANet, or through presidential science initiatives -- is crucial to advances in science and technology.




Thursday, October 02, 2014

Dictators versus the Internet -- whack a mole

Since the time of the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt, dictators have played "whack a mole," trying to stem the flow of political information on the Internet during times of protest.

The Internet was a major factor during the Arab Spring and demonstrations in Turkey and Venezuelan earlier this year.

Today, the Chinese government is censoring news about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the dissidents are finding new ways to communicate.

Chinese censors are also trying to erase news of the past, as we learned at the time of the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests.

In the early days, we were optimistic that the Internet would end up a great force for democracy, but it is clear now that we were naive -- it is a tool used by both dictators and the people. Who gains the most?

_____
Update 10/6/2014

The Economist reports that the Chinese are censoring posts on Weibo at more than double the rate of censorship for the Tiananmen Square anniversary protests.

Increased censorship of the Hong Kong demonstrations

Relcom's "kremvax" relayed USENET news during the Soviet coup attempt.

Protesters used Facebook during the Arab Spring.

Turkish dissidents painted DNS server addresses on walls

Venezuelan protesters used the Zello walkie-talkie app.

The Chinese government is censoring news of today's Hong Kong protests.

Many Chinese are unaware of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Is Alibaba comparable to a US company?

Alibaba is this weeks hot news -- they have had a lengthy PR campaign (preceded by a documentary film) followed by a record-setting stock offering.

I went with the hot-news flow, posting a comparison of Alibaba's market capitalization to those of other prominent companies as a "current event" for my class, but then I began to wonder whether that was an apples-to-apples comparison. I think I know what companies like Apple or Intel or Amazon are and do, but, I am not sure about Alibaba.

This was driven home by a New York Times article on Alibaba and its relationships to other companies and its history with respect to Yahoo. A lot of the article is summed up in the accompanying graphic, which depicts Alibaba's corporate investments, corporate investors, including Yahoo and Softbank, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma's personal investments:


This graphic reminded me of a case study of the Internet in Singapore that I worked on several years ago. With the help of my nephew, who worked for Goldman Sachs in Singapore at the time, I made the following graph of the ownership relationships between Singapore info-communication companies and the Singapore government in the year 2000.


Both graphics depict a Web of business and ownership relationships, based on corporate and personal ties. (The tie between Yahoo and Alibaba seems to have been based in large part on the relationship between Jack Ma and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang). To a degree, US corporations are also parts of such webs, but is their interconnection as deep as that of Alibaba or the Singaporean companies?*

These graphics call to mind the stereotypical differences between US and Chinese (Asian?) cultures. For example, this pre-departure guide for Chinese students contrasts an individualistic US with a collectivist China.

I am surely not an organization theorist, political scientist or anything close, but I wonder about basic differences between a US company and a Chinese company like Alibaba. Is owning a share of, say, Apple, conceptually the same as owning a share of Alibaba?

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* This is not to imply that all Asian corporate cultures are the same -- for example, the venture-capitalist role of the Singapore government is apparent in the Singapore figure above. That being said, it should be noted that, when I was there, Chinese people dominated the Singaporean companies.

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Update 10/3/2014

There is a long discussion of this post on the Slashdot Web site. The discussion rambles quite a bit -- for example some comments talk about the structure of this particular offering rather than the nature of Chinese vs. US corporations. One exchange that I liked was:

Comment: At that high level, the line between corporations and the government becomes blurry, no matter which country you live in. Just look at Standard Oil, Boeing, Halliburton... The list goes on.

Reply: For sure, but are there differences in degree? For example, in Chinese dominated Singapore, the government is an explicit shareholder. I wonder if anyone has done a study of explicit ownership of stock by US companies --- e. g., does Haliburton own stock in Standard Oil?


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Censorship and being skeptical of things posted online -- an example for my class

This morning my Google Plus feed included a link to a video posted by Moshe Vardi on Chinese Internet censorship during the run up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

I am going to use it in class as an example of government censorship, but, more important, to illustrate the need to be skeptical of things one finds online.

Internet censorship in China is not exactly news, but I still wanted to check the provenance of the video. The video was produced by Vocativ.com. Going to their Chinese news page, I noted that the general tenure of the posts is negative, perhaps indicating some bias:


The Vocativ.com video presents a number of "man in the street" interviews showing people who are apathetic about or unaware of the 1989 demonstrations. At the 1:27 point in the video, a reportedly censored post from Weibo, China's version of Twitter, is displayed. The deleted post had allegedly contained a link to a Tiananmen democracy rally announcement at http://bit.ly/1kn6p3V, a URL shortened using the bitly.com service.


Following the link, I found a Weibo page with a bunch of posts, none of which seem to have anything to do with Tiananmen Square (thanks Google translate).


But, I noticed something strange. Normally, when you go to a URL shortened by bitly.com, it displays the original full-length URL in the address bar, but in this case, it displayed the shortened version, http://bit.ly/1kn6p3V.

When I refreshed that page, it went first to http://us.weibo.com/gb then redirected back to http://bit.ly/1kn6p3V.

This strange behavior indicates some sort of trickery, lending credence to the assertion that a rally announcement had been deleted.

One can not be sure, but I now have more confidence in the video, it's interview clips and the claim that over 50 people were arrested in the run up to the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen.

Shifting gears -- it was interesting to compare the Weibo site to Twitter. It is a lot busier, more colorful and loaded with ads, including animated GIFs. Definitely not a US style site.

Not only does Weibo have more ads, it has greater information density. I checked a 102 Chinese character "tweet" and Google translated it into 335 latin letters -- well over the Twitter limit. (We can re-take the advantage by attaching images of printed pages to our tweets).

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Here is the video:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Learning in an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including an On-Campus Class

Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Tsinghua University in China have published a study analyzing learning in a Newtonian Mechanics MOOC offered by edX.

The class was intended for students familiar with the topic at a high school level. Approximately 17,000 people signed-up, but, as is typical in MOOCs, most were browsers. Only the 1,080 students who attempted more than 50% of the questions in the course were included in this study.

They looked at pre-post test improvement for several student cohorts based on previous education level and math and physics background. There was also a cohort of high school physics teachers.

Obviously, students in some cohorts did better on the average than those in other cohorts, but normalized gain for the various cohorts was about the same. They state that "there was no evidence that cohorts with low initial ability learned less than the other cohorts," which "should allay concerns that less well prepared students can’t learn in MOOCs."

Furthermore, the MOOC students learned at a similar rate to MIT students who had taken the on-campus version of a similar course. The on-campus students had four hours of small-group, flipped classroom instruction each week, staff office hours, helpful fellow students and access to physics tutors the MIT library. In spite of those resources, they were surprised to find no evidence of positive, weekly relative improvement of on-campus students compared with MOOC students.

Bear in mind that even the students who had less than a high school education and were relatively unprepared in math were motivated to complete the MOOC -- they were not typical low-performing students. Still, this is the sort of research we can look forward to seeing as we study innovation in Internet-based education.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Recommended podcast: the women who programmed the ENIAC

How some math-savvy women helped win World War II and became the first computer programmers

Stephen Cherry of IEEE Spectrum interviews LeAnn Erickson about the women who were hired to program the ENIAC just after World War II. The ENIAC was at the University of Pennsylvania and, during the war, many of the women had been using calculators to compute artillery shell trajectories at the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground.


LeAnn Erickson is a professor of film and video production at Temple University and an independent filmmaker. She produced and directed Top Secret Rosies, a documentary on those early ENIAC programmers.

Here is the trailer:



Also, check out this post on the US Army Web site.

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Update 10/6/2014

NPR has done a segment (6:46) on The Forgotten Female Programmers who Crated Modern Tech -- the ENIAC programmers, Grace Hopper and Ada, Countess of Lovelace. It is based on a new book, The Innovators, by Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isacsson.


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Update 10/22/2014

Jean Jennings Bartik, one of the first seven ENIAC programmers, has written an autobiography. Her son, Timothy Bartick sent me a link to his review of the book, in which he highlights some of the recognition she has received and describes her effort to improve the standing of women in technology.

In the following six minute video, Ms. Bartik tells of her education, early work as a "computer" at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and later as an ENIAC programmer.



The video begins with a short clip (6m 9s) showing Ms. Bartik programming the ENIAC. (This was before the stored program computer -- the ENIAC was programmed by setting dials and switches and plugging in switchboard like wires).

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Update 10/23/2014

Yesterday I posted links to a short video interview of Jean Bartik and her autobiography.

She was an exceptional woman and had a significant career after her work on the ENIAC. The same can be said of other ENIAC programmers. Read more about each of them on their Wikipedia pages:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mobile service in the UK is cheaper than in the US

Minh Uong
New York Times
We've looked at the bad deal US landline Internet users get compared to places like Korea, Sweden, Japan or Latvia. (The list could be longer). How about mobile connectivity?

The New York Times just published a short article comparing the price charged by UK Cellular company UK Three (UK3) to that of Verizon in the US. The article compared prices for a two year contract with a subsidised Apple 5s phone.

UK3's price in this example is over $40 less than Verizon's. Furthermore, UK3 allows unlimited data transfer while Verizon has a 2 GB per month usage cap. Since UK3 is a low-cost carrier, I checked the prices of Vodafone accounts in the UK. A 3G Vodafone account with a 2 GB cap costs $72.31 per month. A 4G plan with a 4 GB cap is $79.60.

The author of the post cites one significant difference in explaining the price differences between the two nations:
Britain has forced companies to lease their networks to competitors at cost. The United States has not, allowing a formidable barrier against competitors.
The US Congress tried to spur competition in a similar manner with the Telecommunication Act of 1996, but the incumbent operators and their lobbyists defeated that attempt in courts and state houses.

William Kennard, who, as chairman of the United States Federal Communication from 1997-2001, was charged with implementing the Telecommunications Act, stated near the end of his term that “all too often companies work to change the regulations, instead of working to change the market,” and spoke of “regulatory capitalism” in which “companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service.” He went on to remark that regulation is “too often used as a shield, to protect the status quo from new competition -- often in the form of smaller, hungrier competitors -- and too infrequently as a sword -- to cut a pathway for new competitors to compete by creating new networks and services.”







Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who will be first to capture an Amazon package-delivery drone and other intriguing, drone-related questions

Check out the drone zoning illustrations on
Jacob Kastrenakesget's post.
I live in the flight path of a small airport and am bothered from time to time by the noise of planes landing. The folks on the take-off side have a worse noise problem. A few years ago, a small plane crashed on a house while landing at the airport. There seem to be no restrictions on small aircraft flying over my neighborhood.

This post by Jacob Kastrenakesget raises all sorts of difficult and intriguing drone-regulation questions that will arise when they are ubiquitous:
  • Do we need 3-D "zoning" laws?
  • Do we need privacy laws?
  • How could privacy intrusions be detected and the laws enforced?
  • Will we have automated detection and identification of drones?
  • Will we have automated anti aircraft weapons?
  • Who will be responsible for damage caused by crashes?
  • Will there be design safety regulations for drones?
  • What about drone-jackers?
  • Who will be first to capture an Amazon package-delivery drone?



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Update 9/27/2014

DHL is also experimenting with drones for packet delivery.
























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