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

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 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, it is redirected to, 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

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?


* 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.

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 Going to their Chinese news page, I noted that the general tenure of the posts is negative, perhaps indicating some bias:

The 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, a URL shortened using the 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, it displays the original full-length URL in the address bar, but in this case, it displayed the shortened version,

When I refreshed that page, it went first to then redirected back to

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).


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.

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.

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?

Update 9/27/2014

DHL is also experimenting with drones for packet delivery.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler a sheep in wolf's clothing?

John Oliver wonders whether Tom Wheeler is
a dingo, but maybe he's a sheep.
President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, who had headed national organizations representing the interests of the cable and wireless telephone industries and lobbied on their behalf, as FCC Chairman.

Cynics (and realists) saw that as a payoff for the ISP industry. Comedian John Oliver characterized it as "the equivalent of needing a baby sitter and hiring a dingo."

But, maybe Mr. Wheeler is not in the ISP's pocket after all.
  • He was an invited expert by the The President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which issued a report calling for the use of smart radios and sharing federal spectrum. The executive order which followed cannot have pleased Wheeler's pals at AT&T who like exclusive spectrum licenses.
  • When asked to comment on John Oliver's comedy sketch, he said it was good that the public was taking an interest in net neutrality and the ISP industry and denied that he was a dingo.
  • He has spoken out against state laws that keep local governments from providing Internet connectivity.
  • More recently, he has responded to requests by legislators urging the FCC to take action against those restrictive laws, saying that laws restricting community broadband "have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition" and acknowledging that "state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances." Again, not something his ISP friends or politicians receiving donations from them want to hear.
Actions speak louder than words -- time will tell if he is a captive of the ISP industry or a sheep in wolf's clothing.

update 8/20/2014

Perhaps Tom Wheeler has decided to shift his attention from net neutrality and Internet fast lanes to local broadband networks. (It seems to me that the latter is a more important issue -- broadband competition is severely lacking in the US and the cost of fixing the blockage that is fueling the net neutrality debate between Netflix and the large ISP is small).

Regardless, a battle seems to be brewing over the right of states to restrict municipal broadband.

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, argued that the FCC has no authority to invalidate state laws governing local broadband networks in a speech to the National Conference of State Legislatures. He evidently sees it as a states rights issue.

It would be nice to think that Mr. Pai and the other commissioners would decide this issue on the basis of broadband competition and investment rather than partisan politics and campaign contributions. Who is the FCC's constituency -- the ISP industry or the companies providing Internet services and the public which consumes them?

Unfortunately, I bet that even if Mr. Wheeler prevails, this question will be tied up in court until the next presidential election. If that is the case, folks like Google, Facebook and John Oliver better make Internet policy a major campaign issue.

Monday, August 18, 2014

IBM's "TrueNorth" neural net chips -- increased density and decreased power consumption will lead to surprising applications.

Big Data led to qualitative improvement in search -- will Big Neural Nets lead to qualitative improvement in artificial intelligence?

The field of artificial intelligence (AI) has two historical roots, dating from the 1950s. The first is information processing models like the chess playing program of Newell, Simon and Shaw, who sought to understand how people did things like play chess by interviewing experts, then programming computers to emulate them.

Herbert Simon and Alan Newell asked chess
experts to think out loud while playing and wrote
programs that used the same heuristics.

The second branch of AI was exemplified by the self-organizing neural networks of researchers like Clark and Farley, who sought to build programs that could learn to recognize patterns by emulating the neurons of a brain. For example, their programs could learn to discriminate between horizontal and vertical images.

(For a lot more on the history of AI, see The Quest for Artificial Intelligence, a History of Ideas and Achievements by Nils Nilsson).

We've come a long way since then, and neural nets have been applied to many "subconscious" pattern recognition problems like speech and character recognition, robot control and spotting cats in images. The logical, algorithmic approach to AI has led to expert systems that emulate conscious thinking processes. IBM AI researchers characterize the difference by saying traditional AI programs are left-brained and neural nets are right-brained. Their goal is to create holistic systems that combine both approaches.

Those same IBM researchers have announced a dramatic improvement in neural net hardware -- they have sharply reduced the size and, equally important, the power requirements of simulated neurons and synapses.

The IBM researchers are able to tile their "TrueNorth" chips to create larger systems, as shown here:

Their next goal is a 4,096 chip system with 4 billion neurons and 1 trillion synapses while consuming ~4kW of power.

That is still not comparable to a human brain, which has roughly 86 billion neurons and 10^14–10^15 and consumes only 20-40 watts of power, and even if they could build a system of comparable complexity, it would not be a brain -- it would be a system inspired by the architecture of the brain.

We will not be able to follow the "reasoning" of neural nets as we can the descendents of early chess-playing programs, but, if they succeed, we will be surprised by the performance and applications of systems containing massive, low-cost, low-power neural nets.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The White House forms USDS and 18F to improve e-government.

The government has formed two new IT organizations in response to the HealthCare.Gov fiasco -- was HealthCare.Gov a blessing in disguise?

The White House just launched the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), headed by Mickey Dickerson, who led the team that bailed out the troubled HealthCare.Gov Web site and earlier worked on President Obama's campaign.

USDS is a management consulting firm for federal agencies, but they do not sound like typical management consultants. They are young technologists and entrepreneurs from startups, Internet companies and and e-government projects. I'm not sure, but I bet none are Harvard MBAs. (Maybe a few from Stanford).

USDS favors lean startup methods, open source and agile development by small teams. They seem more like folks who wear t-shirts to work than wear suits -- reminiscent of an earlier group of young people the government found to develop the ARPAnet.

This list of "plays" from their "playbook" gives you an idea of their development and management style:

You can see more (and comment) on the the playbook here.

USDS will complement 18F, a government agency that was formed last March. (Their office is at the corner of F and 18th in Washington). Both groups are largely staffed by former Presidential Innovation Fellows and they have a common point of view. Unlike USDS, 18F actually builds tools and implements government systems. I am sure they will work closely together.

President Roosevelt (radio) and Kennedy (TV) were leaders at using new commuication media and President Obama was the first succesful Internet campaigner. Now he hopes to modernize government IT -- he might be remembered as the Internet President.

Update 8/13/2014

USDS is also offering suggestions for addressing problems with the federal procurement process that leads to IT failures like HealthCare.Gov -- the TechFAR Handbook, which highlights the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that can help agencies implement “plays” from the Digital Services Playbook that would be accomplished with acquisition support — with a particular focus on how to use contractors to support an iterative, customer-driven software development process, as is routinely done in the private sector.


18F is building tools and expanding -- hacking bureaucracy and promoting open source. They've reduced the hiring cycle from six to nine months to six to eight weeks by making Schedule A hires, which are limited to four years. That is sufficient for people used to working in "startup mode" and reminiscent of the grad students who worked on short-term grants to build the ARPANet and NSFnet.

Update 9/9/2014

F18 is building a new system for processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Since the passage of the FOIA in 1966, journalists and other citizens have been able to request copies of government documents, but the system is often slow and fails to find relevant documents. 18F hopes to fix that with a consolidated FOIA request submission hub.

They began the project by meeting with stakeholders, both inside and outside the government, to discuss some of the practical obstacles impeding the current FOIA experience. They are now have a rough prototype of the FOIA request system running and the development process is open to public scrutiny and participation. You can follow, comment and contribute to the project here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

An estimate of Netflix's "fast lane" fee to Comcast -- $.86 per subscriber per month

Netflix, ISPs and transit providers blame each other for poor Internet performance. The public would be well served by transparency -- seeing the cost and traffic data underlying the debates on network neutrality and, more important, the high cost of US Internet service and lagging investment in US Internet infrastructure.

Generator Research has estimated the cost of delivering Netflix content in their report Over-the-Top Television, 2014, which includes an estimate of the cost to Netflix and Comcast of delivering Netflix content and of the fee Netflix is paying Comcast.

They begin by noting that Netflix's total cost of revenue (including content, delivery and other costs) was reported as $1,849 million in 2013 and they had an average of 29 million US subscribers for the year, then make the following assumptions:
  • The cost of content is 80% of the total cost.
  • The cost of delivery is 80% of the remaining cost.
  • 75% of delivery cost is in the access network, 25% in the ISP network.
  • Comcast earns $30 per month per subscriber, $24 of which is as a result of delivering Netflix traffic.
  • 80% of Comcast traffic is due to Netflix.
Based on this, they estimate the total cost of delivering Netflix content as $2 per subscriber per month, with Netflix paying $.86 and Comcast $1.15. Assuming they split the cost in proportion to their monthly revenue ($7.99 for Netflix and $24 for Comcast), Generator guesses that Netflix's fee to Comcast is around $.28 per month per subscriber -- less than 5% pf the cost of a subscription. (Compare that to my ISP increasing my bill by 5-10% every year because, as a monopoly provider, they can).

Generator's conclusion is based upon several assumptions, which you may question, but it is a starting point in estimating cost of content delivery.

Update 8/26/2014

Whatever the marginal cost, someone has to pay for investment in Internet infrastructure. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says it would cost the ISPs very little to upgrade in order to provide the level of service they advertise to their customers.
It's worth noting that Netflix connects directly with hundreds of ISPs globally, and 99 percent of those agreements don't involve access fees. It is only a handful of the largest U.S. ISPs, which control the majority of consumer connections, demanding this toll. Why would more profitable, larger companies charge for connections and capacity that smaller companies provide for free? Because they can.
Hastings' post is one in a series on How to Save the Net running at

Update 9/24/2014

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was on a panel at the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing EuroSummit Conference in Copenhagen last week. Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global was a fellow panelist. Hastings "jokingly" offered Fries the following deal:
Consumers are choosing Netflix and if we’re supposed to pay some of the cost of the network, maybe we should get some of the broadband revenue ... we’ll pay 10% of your network costs if we get 10% of broadband revenue. Or we’ll pay 10% of your network costs if you want to pay 10% of our content costs.
Hastings also stated that
The crazy thing in this whole debate is the actual amount of money being talked about is trivial to both of us – but we’re both worried on both sides about the precedent and what does it mean in the longterm?

Monday, August 04, 2014

A visit to podcast Mecca -- the TWiT Brickhouse studio

Zen and the art of podcasting

I visited Podcast Mecca last week -- Leo Laporte's TWiT Brickhouse broadcast studio in Petaluma, California.

I got there just as Leo was starting Windows Weekly, Episode 373. There are several sets in the studio, and Windows Weekly is broadcast from one in Leo's office.

The start of the program

Here are some random impressions of my visit.

Seven of us were crammed into the office, facing Leo, as he did the show. There were two couples and three fan boys. (My wife was wandering around Petaluma -- not interested in coming in). The audience demographic surprised me -- several of us had gray beards. That was just the people in the room -- Leo's dog Ozzie was also a member of the office audience.

My first impression in seeing the small set/office was of clutter -- all sorts of geek brick-a-brack, old tech books, and tons of monitors, mobile devices, keyboards, cameras and lights. A box with a Harry's shaving kit was also on Leo's desk -- ready to be shown in a commercial.

Leo's cluttered office/set seen through the window

Leo is super friendly and informal -- "flirting" with the small audience in his office. One of the guys had a full beard, which his wife didn't like. Leo teased them and, after the show ended, he gave her the shaving kit. (I overheard one of the staff complaining that he had given away their only kit).

It seems like Leo is just shooting the breeze with his co-host (Paul Thurrott in this case), but he is watching monitors showing the co-host, chat room, on-the air stream, topic rundown, queued stills and videos, his large-screen Mac, etc. He juggles all this effortlessly with his right hand on the console shown below.

Leo controls the show using the console on the right.

Leo multi-tasks during the program. The console on his right has a button that toggles the studio on/off the air and he is constantly going off the air to do things like unpack a new phone that arrived during the show, fiddle with a tablet, order lunch, eat bites of lunch, yawn, drum his fingers on the desktop, etc.

At first, you wonder if he is bored or not paying attention while off the air, then he toggles on and offers an astute comment or asks a good question -- he is attentive to the on-air conversation at all times.

Leo fidgets a lot, but is not nervous -- he seems totally relaxed while he rolls around or bounces on the large rubber ball he sits on. That relaxation shows through in the show.

Leo is meticulous -- after unpacking his new phone or the Harry's shaving kit, he carefully repackaged them during off-air moments. He (and therefore TWiT) does things properly, without loose ends.

As soon as he finished Windows Weekly and posing for souvenir photos, Leo switched his attention to the upcoming episode of This Week in Google -- he had switched context as completely and quickly as when he went off-air for a bite of lunch. He seems laid back, but is focused and mindful.

The guy is a total broadcasting pro.

The TWiT studio is also highly professional. It is filled with workstations for monitoring and controlling broadcasts and editing video.

There are several sets and control stations in the studio.
There are other sets -- for groups of in-studio participants and other shows. A few minutes after the end of Windows Weekly, Leo had moved to another set where he was preparing do This Week in Google with Jeff Jarvis and Gina Trapani. As shown here, the audience sees Jeff and Gina in monitors behind Leo and he sees them on monitors behind the audience.

Leo on a different set, ready for This Week in Google

Leo's professionalism was underlined at the end of Windows Weekly. If you are a TWiT fan, you are used to the format in which programs begin with a brief summary of the upcoming episode, its title and a short promo for each of the sponsors. As soon as the show went off the air, Leo asked the chat room to suggest a show title -- and then extemporaneously recorded what would become the intro to the show when it was posted online. No effort, totally natural and done in a minute.

If you are interested in seeing a state of the art podcasting facility and having some fun, I heartily recommend a visit to the TWiT Brickhouse. The technology and buzz are reminiscent of the pre-slick, early days of live television, when you felt the sense of good humored, spontaneous experimentation and often saw the technology -- the cameras, cameramen, lights, etc. on screen.

It felt like the early days of live television.

Just in case you think I am making this up -- check out this picture with Leo after the show -- wearing the obligatory TWiT fezes.

After the broadcast

Update 8/10/2014

I've noted Leo's ability to multitask and remain present in the on-air conversation. I just listened to TWiT 468, the episode recorded the week after my visit to the studio, and Leo confirmed my observation by discussing his attention deficit disorder (ADD). He told his on-air guests (who also claimed to have ADD) that when he is on air "I've got people in my ear, i've got things going on -- I just took a walk around the block while you were talking ..." (About 1 hour 10 minutes into the recording).

He and the guests seemed to agree that having ADD was helpful in their work in tech journalism, and Leo wondered about causality, asking
Are ADD people naturally attracted to tech or, and I think there might be some evidence for it, is all of this stimulus making us all a little bit ADD?
There is some evidence that the latter is true -- -- I know it is for me -- but I am not sure about the former.

This focus on ADD and multitasking reminded me of a biography I'd read of the writer D. H. Lawrence, who was said to be able to write and carry on conversations at the same time. (Conversing and drawing at the same time is pretty easy -- try it). Was Lawrence a super ADD multitasker? Is Leo? Is the Internet giving us all a bit of ADD?

Monday, July 28, 2014

NBC's Tour de France app -- three stars and five suggestions

NBC is learning how to present live sporting events on the Internet, but still has a way to go.

I've been commenting on the online coverage of the Tour de France and the Olympic Games for several years. The BBC and IT4 in England have done a better job than NBC, but NBC is improving their sporting event coverage and I enjoyed this year's Tour using their iPad app. (They also have Web and Android versions).

Let's look at the app. The user interface has five modes -- live video, standings, stages, riders and more:

Five viewer modes

You spend most of your time in the four-frame live video mode:

The four-frame live video user interface

Live video is shown in the upper left, and one can toggle the video to full screen. The text column on the right has frames showing the peloton and other rider groups and a curated, Twitter-like news feed. The graphic frame at the bottom has five optional modes, as shown here:

Options for the bottom window

The user can zoom or pan the bottom frame, as shown here:

Bottom window zooms and pans

The text windows on the right scroll and nearly every object on the screen is a hot link. For example, touching the word Peloton below popped up a scrollable list of the names of the riders in the peloton. Touching the rider's name, would bring up data about him.

Most objects are hot links.
I spend most of my time watching live video, but frequently switch to one of the other modes to check the standings or to see how a particular rider, team or nation is doing.

The stages mode is most interesting. It has facts about each stage and, more important, archives of the completed stages. Shortly after a stage is completed, you can go back and watch highlight clips or the video of the entire stage and review the standings and other statistics.

Finally, The biggest improvement over last year was not in the data presentation or user interface, but in NBC's offer -- I paid $14.99 and there were no commercials!

Suggestions for next year

The viewing experience was better than last year, but I'd still like to see several improvements.

1. As we saw above, the live presentation consists of a video stream and three data panes. The data panes and video are synchronized as long as you watch it in real time. If you pause the video for a short time, it "fast forwards" to the current live point, where it is in synch with the ancillary data. But, if you pause for a relatively long time -- maybe half an hour or an hour -- the video resumes where you left off, but the data stream reflects the current state of the race so they are out of synch.

Check the following screen shot. The riders in the video pane are climbing a steep mountain, but the course-progress pane at the bottom of the screen shows them on the subsequent descent (blue). The text on the right is synchronized with the course-progress map, so it is also out of synch with the video.

The video and ancillary (bottom and right hand) material are out of synch.
After pausing, you should have the option of picking up where you left off or jumping to the current point in the race. Either way, the video and ancillary material should remain in synch.

2. A complete archive copy of the video of a stage is posted shortly after it ends. That is good, but the ancillary material -- group positions and news posts -- is not available. Viewing the archive video is like watching a TV broadcast -- not an Internet performance. They should archive the synchronized data stream along with the video.

3. While watching the live stream or an archive stream, I'd like to have a single-touch, 15-second video rewind, as in the UK ITV4 viewer.

4. Similarly, I would like to be able to jump to the start of a video "chapter" with a single click or tap as you could with the BBC's player from the 2012 Olympic Games. A chapter might be something like the finals of the 100 meter dash in the Olympics or the sprint to the top of a mountain during the Tour de France. The person who is maintaining the ancillary news feed would create the chapter entry points as they posted the news updates.

5. The tablet interface is suitable for "leaning forward" -- switching modes and looking things up, but the small screen in your hands or lap is not so great for just "leaning back" and watching the race. I want to be able to mirror the video on my TV screen with a single touch.

I was watching on an iPad, so could have done that if my TV set were equipped with an Apple TV interface device. I don't have an Apple TV, but I do have a Google Chromecast, and Google just announced the ability to mirror the screen of selected Android phones and tablets on a Chromecast-equipped TV set. The updated Chromecast app is labeled "beta," and it took me two reboots to get it to work, but as you see here, I can now cast my phone video to my TV set:

Mirroring a phone on a Chromecast-enabled TV set
(This video is not from the NBC app because I have that installed on an iPad, not my phone).

The video quality is good, though not excellent. The imperfection is most noticeable on text which is part of the video stream -- it is a little blurry around the edges. Static text looks fine from across the room. Chromecast mirroring works if you have a compatible phone or tablet, but, hopefully by next year, NBC will Chromecast enable their app, allowing for switching between leaning forward to display data, post tweets, etc and leaning back to watch the race on a TV screen.

At first, new media mimic old media and NBC's earlier attempts at covering live sporting events online was shaped by their traditional TV coverage -- shoot video and insert commercials. This year, they have developed good ancillary data capability to go along with their video and dropped the commercials for a flat fee. Once they get the video and data synchronized and archived and I can lean back and watch the video or lean forward and play with the data, I'll give them five stars.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kids are not waiting for schools to go online

My grandson Oscar will enter the 9th grade this fall and he and a friend are working their way through Algebra II at the Khan Academy this summer. No one told them to do it -- no one assigned it – they just decided to do it on their own.

It turns out that Oscar and his friend may not be all that unusual. UCLA conducts an annual survey of incoming first-time, full-time college freshman and they included two questions about student's experience with online classes in the 2013 survey:

  • Have you used an online instructional website (e.g.,Khan Academy, Coursera) as assigned for a class?
  • Have you used an online instructional website (e.g., Khan Academy, Coursera) to learn something on your own?
The following table shows the percents of students who answered frequently or occasionally:

Overall, more than 40 percent of the incoming freshmen were frequently or occasionally assigned to use an online instructional website during the past year and nearly 70 percent had used online sites on their own.

Digging a bit deeper, we see that students entering public schools were a little more likely to have online experience than those entering private schools. (Public colleges and universities also offer more online instruction). To me, the most interesting finding was that students entering historically black colleges and universities are much more likely to have online education experience -- on their own or assigned -- than the typical incoming freshman. I could speculate on the cause of this discrepancy, but it really requires further research.

College expectations correlate with high school experience -- students who are going to historically black and, to a lesser extent, public schools are more likely to expect to take online classes in college:

The survey also yields some insight into the importance of having used online classes. They correlate online participation with a multi-dimensional positive habits of mind index and conclude that
Students who chose to independently use online instructional websites are also more likely to exhibit behaviors and traits associated with academic success and lifelong learning.
My grandson Oscar and his friend may be ahead of the curve, having been assigned Khan Academy lessons while in junior high, but it looks like today's kids know the Web is good for school work as well as playing games, posting selfies and building Minecraft worlds.

1. Note that I have focused on the online instruction portion of the survey, but it covers many other characteristics of incoming freshmen.

2. Components of the habits of mind index: