Politics and Technology: Seldom a good match

People who were appalled to hear the Internet described as a system of tubes by the man in congress charged with overseeing said tubes may take some comfort in the fact that said man, Republican Senator Ted Stevens, is currently under investigation for corruption. But Democrats cannot claim to be great technologists either.

Consider the mess that politics is making of technology in the Democratic state of New York. Many Americans don't realize that New York state, when considered in terms of land use, is largely a rural state. In other words, most of the state is countryside, dotted with farms and populated at low densities. Many of these rural communities struggle to provide enough jobs at sufficient salary levels to prevent young people from moving away. There is considerable economic blight.

Technologists may look at this situation and see a chance for technology to come to the rescue.
Let's install broadband Internet access so higher paying tech jobs can be located in rural communities and the agricultural sector can reap the productivity benefits that come from Web 2.0 services. Great idea. Proven to work in numerous places around the world. Except that the free market does not like providing capital intensive technology to rural areas. The only reason that rural communities in America have phone services is a Federal program of subsidy to enable "Universal Service" (financed by a small charge on your monthly phone bill). But there is strong resistant among broadband providers (now mainly phone companies) to expanding that program by defining broadband as essential. See Universal Service.

But surely liberal New York state could do something about this, offer subsidies, lobby for access to FUS funds. But no. The state politicians are opposed to expanding FUS to cover broadband because a. New York might be a net loser of FUS funds and b. FUS broadband would be federal, available in all states, not just New York and "thus deprive New York of any advantages in might gain from having a state scheme to increase rural broadband access."

Now, are you ready for a big cynical dose of irony? There is no state scheme to increase rural broadband access. Why? Could it be because state officials and politicos have been feeding at the trough of the big telcos, companies that can't be bothered to serve those very communities through which they route their trunk lines to connect big cities, where there are large pools of customers?

One ironic twist in the teclo lobbying fandango is that they have been selling politicians [who think the Internet is a series of pipes, remember] on satellite Internet service as a way to fill the gap for rural areas. How altruistic is that? Let rural users eat broadband via satellite, hence there is no need for use to wire them. Except satellite is NOT competitive with wired broadband. So it is not altruistic at all. Telcos pushing satellite in rural areas is not a conflict of interest because satellite is a dead-end for serious broadband.

Why? Two words. Latency and cap. Satellite Internet users have a bandwidth cap. Even if you pay Hughes Net $199 per month they won't give you more than 450 megabytes of bandwidth per day. If you watch streaming video over broadband you can easily consume 60 megabytes an hour. Imagine a family of four. They each could watch a few hours of streaming video in a day. Boom, there goes your limit. And the consequences are dire if you exceed that limit. You are throttled back to a plain old dial-up pace of connectivity for the next 20 to 24 hours. And don't think this is just about unfairness to YouTube addicts. These days we get clients asking use to download hundreds of megabytes of code and documentation per day.

Then there is the latency. It renders VPN use almost impossible. And VPN is the single most important technology for enabling telecommuting from rural areas!

And we haven't even talked about what happens when you get bad weather (you get bad connections, dropped packets, total loss of connectivity, snail pace response times). Then there So, satellite is amazing technology, no doubt about that, but is not at all comparable to wired broadband.

So, what are rural users to do? I expect that some of them will organize and lobby. Others will simply build their own alternatives and, hopefully, deprive the telcos of revenue. If you light up the valley with WiFi, for example, you could steal a bunch of revenue from cell and land line providers. Maybe then those land line owners will be more appreciative of the folk of who allow them to run their fibre through their valley without bothering to give the locals a taste.

Covering Off the Coming of Words

One of the things I love about language is the emergence of new words and phrases. Recently my brother [who is more English than me, what with being born and raised and living there] started using the verb cover-off, as in "We need to cover off these items at our next meeting." And also, "I think all the important stuff has been covered off."

Thoughts Prompted by the Jena 6

I posted some thoughts about racism in America today over on the DNWA site.

These were prompted by the case of the Jena 6 and the fact, made evident by this case, that the form of institutionalized racism we are dealing with in America today is a lot harder to identify and target with clarity, particularly when compared with forms of racism that existed forty years ago. We need new strategies of protest and change-making, new ways of seeking justice and new alliances with which to advance them.

You don't have to spend much time dealing with the justice system to realize that there is considerable racial injustice. But at the end of the day it was a lot easier to rally the world to the cause of the Greensboro 4, jailed in 1960 for peacefully refusing to leave the Woolworth's lunch counter, than the Jena 6, jailed in 2007 for beating someone up.

Brother Ink Jet Ripoff: Class action coming

Here's an update on the the Brother inkjet ripoff, namely the fact that:

a. Cartridges are declared empty when there is still ink in them.
b. You can't print anything when any of the four cartridges are declared empty.

I have now documented this in two models and comments indicate others (mine are the MFC 3820CN and the MFC 420CN). I have also found a law firm that is considering a class action law suit.

Next step to post my video of this problem and the weight readings that indicate how much ink is left when Brother says the cartridge is empty (hint is more than 5%).
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Living in Fear of GPS: Sat-nav nightmares

As a species we like to think that technology holds the answer, that technology offers advantages. But does technology offer more advantages than drawbacks? I have always argued that technology itself is neutral. Whether or not the net effect of its development is positive depends upon its users, we humans.

Case in point: GPS. On a recent trip to Britain I found a phenomenon that illustrates my point rather well: sat-nav blight. This is the appearance of an increasing number of large vehicles in small towns due to lorry [truck] drivers using GPS devices that direct them on shortcuts which may, or may not, be appropriate. Here are some examples:

Sat nav leaves cheese truck stuck.
First 'ignore your sat nav' roadsigns go up.
Traffic analysis of heavy lorries on the B1078.
Sat-nav drivers land in deep water again.
End to sat-nav blight.

Sat-nav stories.

Dieselization? The devil's in the details

As a fan of diesels--the cleaner ultra, ultra, low sulfur diesels--I thought this was an interesting article on the dieselization of Europe, written circa July, 2007. Quote: "Europe has been moving towards a majority diesel fleet since the European Commission encouraged lower taxes on diesel fuel to encourage its spread at the pump. This is because diesel engines are more fuel efficient and therefore more economical burning less CO2."

This is the point at which some 'greens' will jump in and shout about diesel pollution and soot and carbon black, but I just don't buy the argument that Europeans are blindly killing themselves with diesel cars while states like California and New York are saving lives by preventing their residents from owning diesel cars. Just doesn't add up. Why aren't Calif-orkians pushing to ban all diesels, including semis, which are almost universally diesel? Probably because a. those trucks truck in many goods and foods that the Calif-orkians consume, and b. diesels really are more efficient and, overall, less polluting.

Furthermore, while it is possible to argue that a person who needs a car to get from A to B should choose an electric or hybrid over a diesel, it is NOT possible to argue that a person who needs to haul a couple of tons of stuff from A to B over hilly terrain should buy a hybrid, because there are no hybrids than can do that (yet?).

There is no escaping the fact that diesels extract more power from fuel than gasoline engines. You only have to compare the two on a hilly country road. A diesel can maintian speed with fewer revs and fewer downshifts than a gas engine of comparable displacement. It is simply more powerful. Articles and blog posts in the US that compare a big Mercedes sedan with a teeny gas or gas/hybrid car are missing the point, largely because they are written in the absence of small diesel cars for comparison. The big Mercedes is hauling around a lot more weight. The real comparison is the sort of small diesel family car people buy by the millions in Europe, regularly getting 50+ miles to the gallon (like the Citroen I bought in 1992--great performance, great handling, a smooth and quiet highway cruiser at better than 50 mpg).

That is why, according to PSA, the collective Peugeot and Citro├źn brand, "the percentage of the European fleet [18 EU countries including France, Germany and the UK] of new car registrations has risen from 22.3% in 1997 to 50.8% in 2006."

Note that the country with the highest percentage of diesel cars is France with 71.4% of new cars registered in 2006 being diesel (over 1.4 million). According to California green thinking, the French must be hell bent on mass suicide.

Steve Donnelly and the Soaring Seventies Guitar Solo

Last month's post about guitarist Steve Donnelly [Great Guitarists Never Die--My roomie from uni lives on] was perhaps a little too cryptic even for a blog post. So let me explain, Steve was my first year room mate at the University of Leeds. The day that I arrived at the flat, assigned to me by university housing, Steve was practicing on his Fender Telecaster, feet up on his Marshall amp, surrounded by every cup and mug in the place, all of which contained various amounts of coffee dregs (to his credit, Steve quickly rounded the mugs up and set about washing them).

The point is, he was a dedicated guitarist, even back then, and already very good. He had been playing the pub scene in London for several years and when he told me that Mick Fleetwood had asked him to be in the new line-up it was not hard to believe. But Steve found that being in a band has its downsides, like getting paid in relation to effort. So he does session work, paid for every hour of his time. Over the years he has developed a reputation as the go-to guy for great guitar work, appearing on albums by Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, John Wesley Harding, Nick Lowe, and Sheryl Crow. He was also a member of Suzanne Vega's stage band on the Nine Objects Of Desire tour.

One of Steve's specialties is the soaring seventies guitar solo and so when the late Brian Gibson decided to make a movie that revolves around a mythical seventies super-group, he turned to Steve for the guitar work, and the job of teaching actors to look like they are playing great guitar. The result was Still Crazy, a very enjoyable movie, particularly if you are a fan of Billy Connolly, Jimmy Nail, or the quietly brilliant Bill Nighy. In some reviews I have seen various musicians from Foreigner and Squeeze credited with the music, but there's no doubt Steve created the film's musical centerpiece: Brian's Theme. Check it out on Amazon.

We Are The Knights Who Say Ning?

I don't think of myself as easily impressed, so please check out this social networking site and see if you agree with me that it is awesome: ning.com.

I used this site to create a social network in about 15 minutes, complete with custom colors, video and audio uploading, slide show, forums, and membership invitations.

Did I miss something or is this not an amazing bargain (it's free) and a great leap forward for people who want create content rich communities to serve their needs?
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