The Net

Articles about the Internet and the Web.

Dear Senator Franken, Please Oppose PIPA

Dear Senator Franken,

I am not your constituent, but since I receive periodic fundraising appeals from you, I thought I might impose on you with a request: Please withdraw your sponsorship of S968, the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

You've been in the forefront of protecting online networks through initiatives such as net.neutrality. That's why it troubles me deeply to see you supporting PIPA.

I know you are probably hearing a lot about the First Amendment implications of allowing bureaucrats to shutdown Internet resources without due process. I'd like to raise another issue.

Implementing PIPA would break some of the fundamental mechanisms of the Internet. The future of the DNS (the directory service that maps to host address is one that is secured end-to-end, to protect users (and publishers) against against forgery or spoofing. This is incompatible with the sort of filtering and delisting that is required by this legislation.

That's one reason why you see so many well known Internet engineers signing onto a letter protesting this legislation.

I hope that as a media person you would be in a particularly good position to help find the balance between protecting the property rights and free speech rights of the content producers. I hope that as a smart person, you would recognize the importance of listening to the subject matter experts, such as distinguished Internet engineers.

Thanks for your past advocacy for Internet users and content producers. I hope you will choose to help them on this issue as well.

The Untold Story of the Google Gigabit Network Project

Have you heard the one about Google wanting to come to your hometown to build a gigabit fiber network?

Google says they want to do this as an experiment. They want to trial new methods for building networks. They want to see what emerges where high-bandwidth networks are available.

That's what they say. Don't you believe it for a second.

Yes, this is indeed a trial, but what Google is trialing here isn't technology so much as policy.

The incumbent broadband providers have told the regulators that they are hobbled by old infrstructure, and can't afford to deploy new technologies such as "fiber to the home" and DOCSIS 3.0. The incumbent providers are saying that bandwidth is scarce and consumers are eating too much, so networks must be monitored and metered and managed. They are saying they cannot open their broadband networks to competitors and remain economically viable.

Google is calling bullshit on them.

I Heart IMAP

I am finally ready to leave the email technology of the 80s and embrace the technology of the 90s.

I was, many years ago, a prolific contributor to the Elm mail project. Elm was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first, user-friendly, "screen oriented" email programs. Although it was text based, you could arrow around the screen to read your mailbox and page through messages.

Elm spawned two main successors, the Pine mail program (which tried to dumb down Elm) and the Mutt mail program (which tried to smarten it up). I have, until recently, been using Mutt.

(Interestingly, the Mutt email program appeared because Michael Elkins offered changes to Elm that were not accepted. It's not that the changes were bad. The problem is that they needed memory, and that would have prevented Elm from working on small memory machines. That was a big deal in those pre-virtual-memory days, but probably sealed the deal for Elm's doomed future.)

Bandwidth Cap Red Herrings

Time-Warner Austin has announced that later this year, it will implement a tiered set of bandwidth caps for its broadband customers. That's been a controversial and hotly debated proposal. I see some things frequently mentioned in the debate that I think are distracting, not helpful.

First, I see people frequently trying to draw a parallel between broadband tiers and cell phone usage plans. This makes sense only on a superficial level. Yes, in both cases you buy a certain amount and pay extra when you go over.

This analog does not hold up under scrutiny. The usage patterns of cell phones are pretty stable. There continues to be some migration away from landline service and towards online (VOIP) services, but for most of us our cell phone usage a year from now won't be that much different from what we do today.

This is completely untrue for broadband usage. New, innovative services are being created as we speak. Our broadband usage patterns may be radically different a year from now than they are today. Broadband caps lock in current usage patterns, which is detrimental to innovation.

Twitterspam Comes to Facebook


One of the biggest problems with Twitter is that a single blathering user can monopolize the discussion. This week, Facebook rolled out a new home page design. In this change, they introduced this Twitter misfeature to Facebook.

Conventional Twitter presentation (such as your personal landing page) is a zero-sum game. (That's a mathematical term that says for every winner there is a loser.) Each "tweet" update you post on Twitter pushes somebody else's update off the page. Each time you win a space on the page, somebody else loses theirs. This means that a single blathering user can displace numerous other people.

The problem is compounded by the realization that the value of a person's updates often are inversely proportional to the frequency of their updates. Now I'm in the hall; Now I'm in the room; Speaker A said, 'this'; Speaker B said, 'that'. Thus not only do blatherers displace a proportionate number of other people's messages, they often do so with low value messages.

Twitter, Without all the Suck (continued)

Twitter "fail whale" graphicYesterday, I started a discussion of things I don't like about Twitter. I pointed out that lack of message prioritization in the client was a problem. I also noted that since Twitter has an API, that should be easy to fix, and I wouldn't be surprised if somebody already has.

The problem I want to talk about today is tougher to fix, and the fix basically entails throwing it away and starting over.

The term "microblogging" has been invented to describe what Twitter does. I strenuously object to that name. That which makes blogging so excellent and so important is exactly what's lacking in Twitter.

Blogging is a decentralized, user-hosted service. Anybody can host a blog—or designate a service to host it for them. Anybody can access and read blogs using a standard protocol suite. It's an open, distributed environment.

Twitter, Without all the Suck

Twitter "fail whale" graphicMy initial impression of Twitter was unfavorable. It struck me then as a bad implementation of multicast IM. Maybe I should learn to trust my initial judgments.

(The term "multicast" means a single message is transmitted to multiple receivers. Most Internet applications, such as conventional IM, are unicast applications: they transmit to a single receiver.)

I remember when Twitter became a big, smash hit at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive festival. I resisted joining for a long time. Early this year, I finally gave in.

I'm burned out on social networks. You invest all this time and effort into building your network, and six months later it's like living in the cavern of an abandoned ant colony. What a waste of time.

Dwight Silverman: Comcast has Moral Obligation to Provide a Meter

Dwight Silverman, technology columnist for the Houston Chronicle, has a damn good idea.

Comcast recently announced that they are formalizing the bandwidth cap on their residential service at 250 GB/month. The cap isn't new. What's new is that they are letting customers know what the policy is, instead of just mysteriously disconnecting service when they want.

(To get a handle on what 250 GB/month means, I calculate we use 1.45 GB to watch a 90 minute movie with the Netflix Player by Roku. So this would allow 170 movies/month. The catch is that's all standard def video. That number would drop significantly if high def comes available.)

The big problem I have with the Comcast plan is, how can you know what your Internet usage is and when are you in danger of hitting your cap? They won't tell you. That's like the electric company charging you by the kW/H (which they do) but not giving you a meter.

Dwight says:

Irritating Twitter Behaviors

Twitter reminds me of MySpace a year ago: it's a fundamentally bad application and worse implementation that's won on the basis of capturing critical mindshare. All the cool kids are there now, but someday they will begin to leave Twitter—just as many groups have migrated en masse from MySpace for Facebook.

There is only one compelling reason to microblog at Twitter as opposed to some other place, such as It's not the features. It's simply because the people are there now. That's the only thing keeping people from leaving for a better platform or service. So, someday, when that "better enough" service emerges, they will. Community lock-in is not a viable long-term strategy. MySpace learned that lesson the hard way.

Sensible Podcast File Names

Please give your podcast files sensible names. By sensible, it means I should be able to look at your podcast files on my MP3 player or server, identify they are yours, and easily sort them chronologically.

Here are some guidelines to help do that.

Briefly identify the podcast source. And I do mean brief. It only needs to make sense to a person who knows they've subscribed to your podcast.

The "Science Talk" weekly podcast from Scientific American, for instance, names its files something like sa_podcast_080813.mp3. The simple "sa" is good enough to identify the file as a Scientific American podcast episode. I'd argue the "podcast" part of the name is redundant, and thus noise. I think a better name would be scitalk_080813.mp3. (But probably not better enough for them to bother changing.)

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