Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

March 28, 2008

Digital Amway

Filed under: Security,Social,Technical — cec @ 9:22 pm

A few years ago, I was accused of using the word “interesting” in subtle ways.  Sometimes it means a truly novel idea that I would like to learn more about, other times, it’s a novel idea of which I’m more than a little skeptical.  In both cases, I stand by the description, to me, both are interesting – but it can make it a little hard to know what I’m really thinking.  So take it with a grain of salt that I just read an interesting article in the February 2008 issue of IEEE Computer on how to turn music lovers (particularly teenagers) into music distributors.

The idea assumed a secure hardware architecture using digital certificates (for an idea of how this might work, read the novel “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge). Customers would buy music directly from the industry and would have the option of buying redistribution rights (at say a 10% discount).  The authors imagined that in addition to buying the song for personal use, customers could buy a 10 pack of redistribution licenses for maybe $8.99.  This 10 pack could be resold either as an end user license or a redistribution license so that the customer’s customer could resell it too.  Unsold licenses could be returned to the industry distributor for credit.

Having dealt with Microsoft Windows Server licensing at the office, I’m a little skeptical that any end user would want to get involved in such a scheme.  But then again, the office is paying MS, so what do I know.  The biggest problem that I see with the redistribution scheme is that customers have to pre-purchase redistribution licenses without knowing whether or not they could be resold.  Here’s my suggestion (perhaps I should get it published in IEEE Computer 🙂 ), the redistribution should be in an Amway style.  For example, person A purchases the song for full price (say $0.99).  Person A can give a copy of the song to a friend, Person B, who can play the song for only a limited number of times.  If they want to keep it, B does not go and buy it from the original retailer, they activate it instead.  They pay the retailer the full amount ($0.99), but person A receives 10% maybe in credit, maybe in an account that pays out on occasion.  If Person B distributes to Person C, then both A and B get paid (A gets less than B being one removed).

The industry would go along with this due to the significantly reduced bandwidth costs for distribution.  Users (might) go along with it because it’s a more natural distribution method and there’s a direct payment with low effort ovehead.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating this, I’m not a huge Digital Rights Management (DRM) fan – too much potential to restrict fair use; however, it does seem like a more natural approach to turning consumers into distributors.

March 22, 2008

Beat up the economists

Filed under: Social — cec @ 1:19 pm

It’s apparently “beat up the economists” week and no one thought to tell me in advance.  Over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies posts about Greg Mankiw’s recent NY Times editorial and suggests that the reason economists are so patronizing is bitterness over being stuck in a low paying academic job whose sole purpose is to justify the inequities in a capitalist system.

In Scientific American, we have Rober Nadeau’s editorial on the problems with the views of economists.  Nadeau notes that economics is a social science that tried to pattern itself after physics.  Unfortunately, a) it used 19th century physics and never updated itself as the physics changed; and b) economists never realized that they can’t treat people as elemental particles.  Nadeau goes on to note some of the basic assumptions made in economics that don’t stand up.

In the interests of piling on, I’ll say that I agree with Nadeau, but think that he doesn’t go far enough.  Social sciences are extremely valuable and in a certain sense are much more difficult than the so-called hard sciences like physics and chemistry.  People don’t behave the same way, you can’t always re-run an experiment, etc., etc.  However, in the academic world, the hard sciences have been able to claim greater status because they are more rigorous and because, in essence, they are simpler.   So it’s not surprising that economists would want to claim the status of hard, reductionist, sciences.  However, it’s worse than that.  We expect physicists to explain the world.  We expect economists to make predictions and tell us how to fix things.  We’ve taken them out of the role of reductionist explainers and put them into the role of designers.

In other words, economists are social scientists with physics envy who are called upon to do the work of engineers.  It’s amazing the economy isn’t in worse shape than it is.  🙂

March 19, 2008

Pros and Cons of VoIP

Filed under: Technical — cec @ 9:45 am

We’ve got voice over IP phones at the office.  For the most part, they are a very smart way to handle our communications.  We’re too large to want to use individual analog lines through the local telephone company – their rates would be prohibitively expensive.  We’re too small to make a private branch exchange (PBX) worthwhile.  So sending our voice data over the internet is a good approach.  When the phones work, the sound quality is excellent, the cost is relatively inexpensive and the system is fairly reliable.  Unfortunately, when the phones don’t work the challenges begin.

The biggest problems with the VoIP system is that the people that sell them, the same company that supports them, don’t really understand them.   Two recent examples of this:

All of the telephones connect to a regular networking switch.  Yesterday, that switch (which we own) died.  No lights, no power, no fan.  It went to silicon heaven (where all the calculators go).   Okay, no problem.  I call our technical support folks and they find us a spare switch – a Cisco Catalyst 2924 which must be about 12 years old now.  The tech brings it out, he and I rack mount it and move all the phones over.  Most, but not all, of the phones refuse to work.  The only phones that seem to work are those which were somewhat isolated from the original switch and didn’t notice it change.  All of the other phones failed to get their software from the network and just sat there trying to connect.

I tested my laptop in the switch.  That worked just fine.  So I punted and called the company that supports sells the phones.  I explained the problems, explained that my laptop worked, etc.  They had me take a phone and bypass the switch (arguably something I should have done myself) and when that worked, they said it was a switch problem and I should try a new switch.  Odd, since my laptop worked, but okay.

I called the other guy in the office who knows something about the phones, he was in Orlando for a conference, and he had seen a similar problem on another “smart” switch.  So we figured we should buy a dumb switch – maybe a netgear unmanaged switch that’s similar to the little 5 port version we had been testing with earlier.  Before I did that, I borrowed the same smart switch we had tried before.  Sure enough, it also didn’t work.  Fortunately, unlike the Cisco, I could get at the management interface without a dumb terminal.

It occurred to me that maybe the problem was that we weren’t passing phone traffic because the phones were on a VLAN.  I got into the interface, turned on the right VLAN on all of the ports and sure enough, phones plugged into the switch worked.  Woo hoo!  We were back online.  Of course, after the fact, I was annoyed that our provider just said “switch problem” without actually suggesting what it could be.  If I had purchased a new switch and it still didn’t work, I’m not certain what they would have said.  It’s like they don’t know how their own products work.

The second example of this has been ongoing for several months.  On a call, you occasionally lose parts of what the other person is saying.  Random half second parts of the conversation are completely lost.  The other person can always hear what you are saying – no trouble there.  It’s only a problem for voice traffic you are receiving.

The provider has been worse than no help on this one.  They first tried blaming it on our using a lot of data.  Well, sure, but we’ve got the quality of service QoS router they required – it limits the bandwidth for data to ensure that you’ve got enough for voice.  So they tried lowering the absolute limit on data from just giving priority to voice to 2.5 Mb/s for data (out of the total of 3).  That didn’t help.  So then, without telling us, they lowered it to 2 Mb/s.  Still didn’t help.  Essentially, our provider can’t understand why the QoS router wasn’t working to prevent the voice loss.

So we started thinking about it and doing some testing.  I spoke to a friend that does networking and he reminded me that the bottleneck for bandwidth is our 3 Mb/s connection to the internet.  On our side of that we’ve got a gigabit on the internet side, the ISP’s router probably has gigabits.  Moreover, our QoS router can only limit our *outbound* traffic with any certainty.  It can *try* to limit inbound traffic by dropping packets and hoping that TCP/IP will negotiate the speed downward.  But that negotiation takes time and is only good for 1 connection.  What we really needed, according to my friend, was QoS on the ISP’s router in order to limit inbound traffic on our 3 Mb/s bottleneck.  So we tried a few things.  We tried saturating the inbound line, and sure enough, the voice got terrible.  We monitored inbound traffic and saw that poor voice correlated to high inbound traffic and that the inbound traffic definitely “burst” over the QoS limits.  Then we tried the same things for outbound.  Sure enough, for outbound traffic, the QoS router did exactly as it should.  Even when we were uploading huge amounts of data, the QoS router ensured that we had enough available for voice.

We contacted the provider about QoS on the upstream router we’re connected to (since this would solve the problems).  Unfortunately, the ISP won’t turn on QoS.  Our VoIP provider suggested that we add a 3rd T1 to our data connection bringing out total bandwidth up to 4.5 Mb/s and that this would help.  WRONG.  The internet, heck CNN, is fully capable of saturating our link, be it 3 Mb/s or 4.5 Mb/s.  What we need is a 3rd T1 that is dedicated to voice only.  Our VoIP provider didn’t (and doesn’t) seem to understand this, and they’ve made it difficult to order, but we finally got through to them and it should be installed in a few weeks.  At that time, we’ll finally have a pretty good, reasonably priced, phone service.  Even if the provider doesn’t understand QoS, VLANs or for that matter VoIP and VoIP management.  Why are we paying these guys again?

March 16, 2008

Power company balanced bill plans – banned

Filed under: Social — cec @ 7:43 pm

As mentioned last month, the North Carolina Utilities Commission has banned the expansion of Progress Energy’s Balanced Billing Plan and Duke Power’s Fixed Payment Plan. These are the plans that charge you roughly 11% in order to have a guaranteed power bill. Unfortunately, it’s not a full ban, it’s just a prohibition against enrolling any new participants. The reason for the ban? [drum roll please] The plans encourage participants to increase their power consumption.

March 10, 2008

Welcome to your crappy low-rent future

Filed under: Social — cec @ 2:37 pm

Last week I was having lunch with a colleague (of sorts) and we were on the topic of the economy, outsourcing of jobs, etc. I mentioned that we were living in, what I’ve taken to calling, a crappy low-rent future*. He pointed out, and I agree, that this is largely because corporations have broken the social contract. It turns out he had been reading Robert Reich’s “Super Capitalism” while I had been reading “The Global Class War.” In their own ways, each of these books tells the story of how corporations from the end of the WWII with the New Deal until the late 1970s were bound by something of a social contract. Corporations recognized that their customer base was their employee base and that while you might not want to pay your employees, not doing so would spiral out of control so that your own customers couldn’t afford your products. Corporations began to slip the social contract in the late 70s with the Regan Revolution. The trend continued in the 80s and 90s as companies began to achieve transnational status: i.e., their customer base and their employee base were no longer the same. NAFTA and the follow-up “free” trade agreements accelerated this trend by allowing companies to shift labor and production to the places where it was cheapest without actually requiring labor or environmental standards that would level the playing field.

These “free” trade agreements began a great race to the bottom. The factory farms of the U.S. put hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers out of business. Seeking work, these former farmers immigrated to the U.S. to work our farms and to clean our hotels and build our houses. The glut of relatively cheap labor, accompanied by a disgraceful minimum wage in the U.S., led to an increasing large number of people whom have dropped out of the work force. As an aside, don’t be fooled by the unemployment rate. There are two ways to decrease the unemployment rate, you can either increase the number of working people or you can decrease the size of the labor force. Over the past 7 or 8 years, we have not increased the number of working people, but we have decreased the size of the labor force. One simple rule of thumb: every month when the number of new jobs created is less than 150,000 or so (the increase in working age population times the current participation rate), the unemployment rate *should* get worse. If it doesn’t, it’s because more people have stopped participating in the work force.

People often talk about democracy and capitalism as if they were one and the same thing. News flash – they aren’t. For some time, the Chinese have been interested in capitalism as a way to raise living standards in order to keep democracy out of their government. To date they’ve been pretty effective at it, using the tools of capitalism to build instruments of oppression (e.g., the Great Firewall of China). In the U.S., we’ve had both democracy and capitalism for so long that we don’t recognize the differences. However, the founders of the country did recognize the differences. The founders were concerned that naked capitalism would evolve into aristocracy which would kill a new democracy. At times, that prediction has almost come true. That was certainly the case in the first gilded age. Fortunately, FDR’s New Deal pushed back the growth of that aristocracy up until the late 70s. Now we are once again seeing the results of raw capitalism and its ability to direct the efforts of the government to its own end – away from its founding purposes (protecting the rights of citizens).

What bothers me most about this crappy low-rent future is not just that things are worse for people that work for a living; it is the opportunity cost of spending the past three decades increasing corporate profit at the expense of investment in the future. Some of that investment would just have been growing wages at the same rate as corporate productivity, instead of rolling the productivity gains into corporate profits. If we had done that for the past 30 years, you would probably be earning more than twice your current salary. I believe that a true wage increase (instead of just keeping up with inflation) would allow people to think about other important issues such as the environment.

If we had spent the past 30 years focusing on the environment, in particular, developing alternative fuels and higher efficiency cars (or better yet, high efficiency, convenient public transportation), we wouldn’t be seeing the record high oil prices of today. Considering how little (relatively speaking) we’ve put to nuclear, solar and wind power, we have made a lot of progress. I was reading where some engineers have found a way to use ink jet printing technology to print solar cells. If we had been working on this for 30 years, solar power would be cheaper than coal/oil power generation. In just the past 5 years or so, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the efficiency of wind turbines. They are able to produce power in lower wind conditions reducing the overall cost per kilowatt hour. I also don’t have a major problem with nuclear power, but having sat on our hands for 30 years, it is the Europeans who have all of the experience with it; but if we had spent time and money developing nuclear, we could have had a nice bridge from fossil fuels to renewables. And of course, what can you say about cars. After the oil embargo of the early 70s, we passed the CAFE standards and achieved their goals. But after the crisis passed, we stopped paying attention and as people began to drive trucks and SUVs as personal vehicles, we saw the average fuel economy in the U.S. drop. As an example, K is the original owner of an ’87 Volvo which gets about 25 mpg and I own a 2000 Toyota that gets about 32 mpg. I’ve seen new cars advertised that are less fuel efficient than either of our cars! We developed hybrid technologies in the late 90s and ten years later, there is minimal penetration into the broader car market and about half of the hybrids out there are using the technology to boost horsepower, not efficiency. There is no reason we couldn’t have cars today that get 100 mpg. No reason except that it hasn’t been a concern for the past 30 years.

The world has a limited supply of fossil fuels. We can argue about how large that supply is, but if you don’t think it’s limited, then you haven’t thought it through. That supply of fossil fuels was not all bad. We would have never achieved a technological base without it – it is easy and cheap power. However, we should have used that limited supply and the technological base we built from it to develop new technologies that are unlimited (or at least only limited by the life of the sun). We should have developed nuclear power and hybrid cars in the 70s and 80s as a bridge to completely renewable power and electric cars. But instead we’ve squandered much of the “gift” of fossil fuels and in the process are pumping enough CO2 into the atmosphere to significantly alter the temperature of the planet.

I don’t have much of a point here except to vent about being stuck in this crappy low-rent future. I don’t want flying cars, I want fuel efficient cars. I don’t want billionaires, I want everyone to have enough to eat. I don’t want global warming, I want renewable fuels. And I don’t want trade deals than protect corporate profits, I want trade deals that protect the environment. My guess is that it’s probably too late to avoid many of the problems we can see on the horizon. We’ve got billions of third-world peoples looking for a first-world lifestyle. We don’t have “clean” technologies for them, so we’re going to have billions more people burning coal and oil, making the global warming problem even harder to deal with. The U.S. economy is up to its eyeballs in credit card and mortgage debt, in part due to the lack of wage increases for 30 years. We’re starting to see the effects of this in the mortgage meltdown and the upcoming (ongoing?) recession. I’m sure we’ll muddle through, but that’s about all it’ll be.

In short, welcome to your crappy low-rent future. **

* I blatantly stole the term low-rent future from Shaenon Garrity who was complaining about spam and the “Stupid low-rent world of the future” in her Narbonic director’s cut commentary.

** I’ll try to post some later on possible solutions. For right now I just needed to vent about the problems we’ve caused for ourselves.

March 6, 2008

Who could have guessed?

Filed under: Security,Social — cec @ 7:27 am

Gee, nobody could have predicted this I suppose:

The FBI improperly used national security letters in 2006 to obtain personal data on Americans during terror and spy investigations, Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday.

Admittedly, Mueller goes on to say that the reports were prior to new policies being put into place, but somehow that doesn’t make me feel much better.  It’s things like this that have always made me very nervous about partnerships between law enforcement and industry.  I’ll try to post something about InfraGard one of these days.  It’s a little scary in its own right.

March 4, 2008

Lessons learned

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 3:13 pm

For the most part, the old roof has been ripped off and we’re looking to start laying down the new roofing on Thursday.

Several lessons learned so far in getting the roof replaced:

  • all contractors have different prices, shop around
  • drought is bad for roofers (and for that matter gravel driveway repair folks)
  • having your roof torn off is LOUD. Between the guys tearing shingles off to the dogs barking like crazy, I had a splitting headache when I stayed home
  • metal ridge vent covers from 20 years ago suck
  • the leak we had in the den actually had its own pool of standing water under the ridge vent cover

Looks like it’s going to rain tonight.  Hopefully we won’t be learning the lesson about the maximum wind speed that roofing underlayment can take before blowing off.

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