Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Net Neutrality and Obamacare: Are There Similarities?

So Senator Ted Cruz claimed that Net Neutrality was like Obamacare. That spawned a number of comments about how he wrong. I even read one article "hoping" that he was right because Obamacare was a success.

Not to wade too much into the polarized politics of it, I suspect that whatever comes out of the current Net Neutrality debate will actually be a lot like Obamacare -- but I mean that in an entirely different way. When Sen. Cruz talks references Obamacare, what he's talking about is government involvement in health care, the regulation bogeyman, and "government overreaching". Remember the message, "regulation bad. Evil." with the subtext of, "our friends can't make as much money." When I reference Obamacare, I'm thinking more about the evolution of the legislation and the interests that must be addressed.

If you remember back in the early negotiations around Obamacare, one of the first things that they did was to sign an agreement with the big pharmaceutical companies to limit the impact of the legislation on drug companies. Why? Well, for the drug companies, this "concession" meant that they could count on their profits even if the legislation went through. Big pharma has big pockets, and they were part of the reason that healthcare reform was quashed back in the 1990s. This agreement was an attempt to take them out of the game.

Then there was another aspect of healthcare reform -- a single payer universal system. Medicare for all. It never even got to sniff the paper the legislation was printed on because most people understand that it would kneecap the for-profit health insurance industry. Instead, they kept it off the table and pushed through "everyone must buy health insurance", a broad concession to the insurance industry. Not that those guys weren't making money before, and not that they didn't complain through the process. The net effect was designed to be, we give you guys more business so you don't lose money.

What these two aspects of Obamacare have in common is the idea of finding ways to appease the moneyed lobbying interest while putting a public "we're taking care of you" wrapper on it. For years now, that's the same solution that they've been trying to find for Net Neutrality. To find a way to support the telecom and cable lobbying, to ensure that they can take whatever profits they want, all while finding enough of the right words to make you feel like you got things reeled back from Comcast being able to say, "whatever, I do what I want".

This is why they floated the more recent regulation saying in essence, "mostly net neutrality for the stuff that goes into your house, but big money companies like Comcast and Netflix can negotiate fast lanes." See Mom and Dad, you won't have to pay a premium to send grandma and grandpa that video of the school play. It just may take a couple of hours.

So when Ted Cruz says Net Neutrality is like Obamacare, he's not far off. That being said, Cruz isn't really playing to your interest -- unless your name is Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T.

And how about President Obama -- why weigh in on this now? I think that this was a, "we've crossed the threshold of the midterm elections, it's not like I have anything to lose one some of these issues." Thus, net neutrality and immigration.

Meanwhile, back at the "independent" FCC, they're going to have to look for some sort of path that can answer the issue while keeping "the industry" happy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Phones, Tablets, and Tokyo Rush Hour

During rush hour in Tokyo packed in a train car, you'll also find yourself surrounded by electronic devices. While there are some people who still read the newspaper or books, most (by my observation) were engaged with electronic devices. More specifically, phones.

You'll see a lot of different types of phones on the trains in Tokyo these days. While you still see some people with the older Japanese version of flip phones, the majority of phones that I saw were touchscreen smart phones. Lots of different brands -- Samsung, Sony, Apple. And it goes without saying, lots of different colors, cases, and attachments. I even saw one young woman one morning using a phone with a cracked screen. Wherever you go, phone frustrations are universal.

One thing that surprised me though -- with all of the electronic devices that you see on the train, I saw very few iPads. Or any other brands of tablet for that matter. I think I could probably count on one hand the number of times that I saw somebody use an iPad on the train over the course of the week. It's just too big. Even the iPad Mini.

I think that the majority of phones that I saw looked about like the iPhone 6 size -- either new iPhone 6 phones, or Samsung/Sony/misc other Android equivalents. I saw some of the larger 6 plus / Note models, but that didn't appear to be the preferred size in Japan either.

Here in the states, the iPhone 6 is outselling the 6 plus 3:1. While they are clearly selling some of the larger sized phones, it still seems to me like Apple was chasing an over-hyped competitor niche more than designing the perfect product -- like so many of the "Designed by Android" features in iOS and Yosemite.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Net Neutrality, Title II and the Looming Battle to Reframe the Debate

I was deeply surprised when I read that Obama had weighed in on Net Neutrality and had come down on the side of reclassifying broadband as a regulated service. Initially, my thought was, "finally, someone on the government side weighs in on the side of common sense." I actually expected the No Drama team to take a more nuanced, less sided approach, common sense and millions of public comments to the FCC be damned. "This," I thought, "might be the defining moment when we take back the initiative on the Internet and return it to a free and open communications platform." If, despite all of the lobbying and industry money aimed at sanctioning Comcast's "right" to manipulate the bits flowing into your computer, Obama could get behind reclassification, perhaps there was hope.

And then I began reading some of the articles being published, like this interview with Tim Wu in the Washington Post.
So what does Obama's statement do to the politics?
The FCC was leaning toward a slightly more compromised approach, and I suppose having the White House do this could leave them feeling like they have no allies and are unwilling to act for a while. I imagine they're not very happy over there.

Chairman Wheeler's statement on Obama's move actually, seemed, well, pretty sassy. It emphasized how the FCC is an independent agency...
I think the FCC had settled, and may still be settled, on a different way of using Title II. And without the White House on its side and with Congress against it, they're kind of in that middle of the road area where you get run over. Politically, they're stranded right now, and I'm not sure what that means from them. Wheeler seems to be indicating that they're going to push the hold button on net neutrality, which could be a disappointing outcome if that hold button stays there for a very long time.

Their argument seems to be that they haven't developed the record to be able to defend a Title II-based approach in court. But Title II has been around for 80 years.
"We don't have the record yet" is agency-speak for, "we gotta figure out what to do next." They can act without the White House and without Congress, but no one one in Washington likes to go it alone. It's very precarious.
There's been a persistent effort for more than decade to stigmatize Title II, to make it unusable and unmentionable. The fact that the president's talking about it and that the Commission has also been talking about it, at least in hybrid forms, means that Title II is back alive. There's been millions spent to make Title II dead and buried. And there it is. It has risen. It's a live law again. Title II is back.
After reading this piece, the next thing that happened was that I started noticing a incoming tide of media appearances by more people talking about net neutrality, The funny thing about it is, while the Republican-linked opposition also likes to stand up on soapbox and tell us that we stand on the precipice about to step into our doom, they usually follow the dark picture with "Regulation equals the anti-Christ, that it is so evil that it will destroy everything that we hold dear". When it comes to the anti-net neutrality lobby, they then begin a shift into telling us how lucky that we all are.

I heard one guy talking about how incredible our Internet access was and how lucky that we were compared to the rest of the world -- that we have LTE wireless broadband service available in most areas around the country -- way more wireless broadband deployment than any other global region. He then used this as a basis to say that we have lots of choices when it comes to broadband. The politics of disinformation -- it's good to see that our horseshit manufacturing industry continues to thrive.

The Bottom Line
Despite millions of people commenting to the FCC and a broad, popular understanding that the Internet is breaking / broken, the moneyed interest want an Internet that benefits them, one where they can profit on every packet of data, where they can control content and ensure that all of your content incoming content comes from them at a low low monthly price of $200-300 per month, perhaps with an optional $100 per month for a premium package with movies or sports. These are the guys spending on lobbying, on congress and the FCC. They are buying opinions.

The anti-network neutrality folks want to have to create a different kind of internet. Several years ago, people wanted to charge ISPs with being complicit with users who did illegal things. Downloaded something illegal, maybe provided the infrastructure for someone pirating movies and music. But, with the big guns of a lawsuit facing them, most of the ISPs stood up and said, "hey, we're not responsible for what our users do -- we merely provide an access platform. We have no control over what goes through that pipe. Now, as people start using that pipe do deliver services that are competitive to their content industry and they're like "oh no, this is no good. Somebody should be paying for this..." The reality is that they have been monitoring your traffic and they've even been inserting packets into your traffic. They are not just providing an access pipe.

But this is a great story. Netflix is a Data Hog And other myths about Net Neutrality provides you with a simple reminder about the core lie that's driving the anti-network neutrality folks. From this article:
Some people use the Internet ten minutes a day to check their email. Some people leave their computers on 24/7 to download entire video libraries. None of them are data hogs.
How can I say this so unequivocally? Because nobody gets a drop more data than what they pay for. The ISPs make damn sure of that. If you pay for, say, a 10 megabit per second connection, you are not getting any more than 10 megabits of data per second even if you have Bittorrent set to “Stun” all day every day.
And this also points to another fundamental lie underneath the whole anti-network neutrality side of the argument. If we all downloaded our 10 megabits at the same time, we would cause tremendous problems for our ISP. Comcast would crash. We would break the Internet. Why? Because even while they've promised you 10 Mbps, they have oversubscribed their line. They've sold you capacity that they can't guarantee, driven by the idea that most of the time, everyone won't need all of it. But do you get a rebate for all of that bandwidth that you don't use? No, because that wouldn't maximize their profit.

But, in the same way that by framing "lots of competitive broadband options" if you count your phone as being equal to the wired connection coming into your house or your office, framing Netflix as a data hog makes you feel like somebody watching Orange is the New Black is taking something away from you because all you want to do is check your email.

And so, the "independent" FCC needs to keep working in order to find a find a way where that can sell you no net neutrality with kind of like net neutrality wrapper.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Rush Hour: Silicon Valley vs Tokyo

I'm back from a week in Tokyo. It's often strange to visit there, being so wired and so off-the-grid at the same time. With internet access and mobile phones, it's easy to remain connected and yet, with the timezone differences and the language disconnect from the TV and news media, "current events" in the US seem like trivial pursuit facts. Life is those moments that you are immersed in.

For me though, the great inescapable reality driven home by time in Japan is how much our transportation system sucks. Imagine trying to explain our lack of trains to someone from Japan whose never been here. We have one that goes up and down the Peninsula, we have BART that connects points in the east bay to San Francisco, and we have a light rail connecting a few points in San Jose, Muni connecting a few areas in San Francisco... oh, and Amtrak running a line in from the central valley. And that's it. Else bus. Or car.

Millions of people live and work in the Tokyo area. Rush hour in Tokyo is this crazy sea of people moving through trains and their metro subway system. Train cars get so crowded that people literally squeeze into them. Lines and lines of people flow through stations, up and down escalators, flood over stairs. Wide hallways and tunnels that are virtually empty during off-hours flow packed with people during rush hour. Millions of people go from their residence to their place of work and back each day.

Contrast that with our rush hour. Thousands and thousands of cars crawling through stop and go traffic, sometimes three or four lanes wide. Mistakes -- trying to shift direction too quickly or move a little faster than a less rushed portion of the crowd -- result in crumpled steel and plastic, thousands of dollars in damage. It's not like bumping into a human in a crowd.

Pedestrian crowds do a much better job of coordinated navigation that car crowds. Even as they study pedestrian crowd dynamics, they could probably benefit from the amazing dance that is the crowd flow in rush hour Tokyo. There are no horns, no yelling. It's a mostly quiet shuffle, complemented by the background noise of various train announcements. While most might find rush hour Tokyo very stressful, for me it was a relaxing break from what rush hour has become here in the bay area. It was also a strong reminder of how totally screwed up our transportation infrastructure is here.

An Innocent Question
When you're abroad, it's not unusual for you to find yourself answering questions about home. One night during dinner, we were asked a question that was so simple on the surface -- and yet, provided a telling story of the underlying mess. The question was simply, "does the magnet strip on your train ticket work on all of the trains in California?"

For most of us here in the bay area, this question doesn't touch on our commute. For many, we may not even have the experience to provide an accurate answer. But the question and the underlying assumption is actually a more interesting story than an accurate answer. Put simply, if you live in a world filled with trains, can you imagine a virtually trainless world like the San Francisco Bay Area?

Before we could answer the train ticket interoperability question, we really needed to frame the world that we live in, a world with one train running up the Peninsula, one up and down the East Bay, and a couple of rounds of municipal light right connecting a few parts of San Francisco or San Jose. Oh, and the ACE train. That's it. You can't imitate the week I spent in Tokyo, traversing the city from one side to the other, on a combinations of municipal trains and metro subways. 

In the bay area, any attempt to go anywhere other than one end or the other on a line will probably leave you waiting at a station for a long time, riding for a while, then walking, taking a bus, or just not going anywhere further than a few blocks from the station. Our trains are not interwoven into our transportation fabric. Instead, we now suffer under the traffic of a transportation infrastructure crafted by the same geniuses that brought you LA traffic. You know what we need? More houses, more people, and more freeway lanes. Bah.

If nothing else, experiencing Tokyo rush hour that we really need to transform our transportation infrastructure, and that's not exactly a high-speed train line to LA. Most of us might be satisfied if we could get on VTA light rail and make it from one side of San Jose to the other in less than two hours. Or if Baby Bullet trains ran up and down the peninsula line all day long, supplemented by local routes that could pick up stops along the overall route. Express lines running parallel to local lines. Imagine trains running along Lawrence, Page Mill, Sand Hill, and everywhere.

Of course, even as I write this, I know it's a crazy pipe dream. All you have to do is look back to the BART extension into SFO and the great BART versus Caltrain battle over which could best service the airport. After years and years of construction, they managed to build a train that charges a surcharge, delivers poor service (who wants to go to Daily City in order to go to downtown San Francisco -- it's nearly an hour on BART), and makes it nearly impossible to connect with Caltrain. Why couldn't we have both connections? Or a master plan that made it easier to bridge the two?

No, instead of the infrastructure we need, we must live in the ad hoc transportation network we've got -- the world's "most brilliant people", left to rot away in gridlocked automobiles, shaking their fists at one another and while trying to understand the lane change logic of the people in front of them. We're doomed.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Apple: Yosemite's Transparency Effect Sucks

If I sound like a broken record, it's because I'm confronted with aspects of the stupidity that is the new Apple UI on a daily basis. Rather than getting used to it, each of these moments serve as a reminder that the design team has gone off the rails. I discussed a few of the elements in the Yosemite UI that drove me crazy in my post, Yosemite the Horror, and I'm still fighting the stupid redesign of Safari on a daily basis.

But here's another example of why this transparency look sucks. I happened to capture this screen while downloading a file.

I've blurred the file name, but you don't need to that to see that the screen is essentially unreadable. Thin dark gray type on a light gray (due to transparency) background equals a puddle of gray, inky colors. Functional? Hardly.

You might argue that this is designer narcissism, but I happened to see a colleague with an Android phone with similar image elements. Perhaps a better rename of this interface should be, when plagiarism attacks. It's kind of like the UI team at Apple saw somebody wearing 6" platform shoes with goldfish in them and said to themselves, "those are so cool, everyone should wear them."

If I could wish for one product to hit the market, it would be a tool that would enable me to reskin the entire interface back to the time before all of this design style took over. Skeumorphism be damned, I'd much rather put up with an electronic calendar with a fake binding that an unreadable screen using modern "flat" colors.

Perhaps the worst aspect of all of this crappy UI design is that, it makes you seriously question the underlying code and framework of the OS. Put differently, if this kind of crap gets through the design filters, what kind of crappy code is escaping through the technical teams?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Celebrity News: Lessons for a Polarlized World

Some time ago I was thinking about politics, our news media, and the stupider aspects of polarization. In politics, the news about politics, and the media that surrounds it, everything seems to pull to one pole or another. Often, this need to align with a pole will transform positions and reasoning into an idiotic farce. What I mean by that is, if you start with a basic story like "President Obama Kisses Baby", before ink has hit the presses groups of people will find the need to author "How dare he kiss a baby", "Presidential baby kissing is destroying our economy", or perhaps even "Obama kisses baby and ignores the dangers of Ebola pandemic". It's a constant game of "I'm Rubber, Your Glue" and for most of us, it can be exhausting.

It's particularly relevant as we swirl through the election season. As election season nears, the madness of all of this polarity comes to a boil. If one candidate uses a serial comma, there will be widespread backlash against serial commas and anyone that uses them. Soon you'll find yourself needing to align with the comma users or against them -- but choose carefully, because the other side is hell-bent on evil.

What makes it worse is that there are ecosystems devoted to echoing and amplifying the two poles. From the cable channels to the papers and the radio stations, the media aligns with an audience and, before you know it, your feed is saturated with one pole or the other. And these ideologies live like religions, with us in the midst of an epic, never-ending holy war. It's so pervasive, that it seems almost a natural part of our existence.

But it's not.

I realized that one day while reflecting on lessons from the celebrity/gossip media. In the celebrity gossip world, you don't really have poles. There is no liberal/conservative split in the news about celebrities. When you get "Justin Bieber Arrested for DUI in Florida," you don't see a knee-jerk response from some other side. There are lots of "Bieber is an asshole/jerk/idiot" stories. Perhaps some teen girls with the "Leave Justin Alone". Even a certain number of publicist-driven, "Ah come-on guys, it wasn't like that" stories. But there is no "other half" of the media saying, "Justin Bieber is not an asshole/jerk/idiot" or "Why do they always bust white Canadian men, nobody says anything about Rihanna being drunk" stories. Or even the "They're just trying to destroy our traditional street racing culture. This is a classic American value. Did everyone forget about American Graffiti? American Graffiti should be mandatory in every high school."

Regardless of where you look in the celebrity media coverage -- if you parse it by celebrity, by communications outlet, or even as a broader sort of survey -- you won't see the kind of polarization that you see in anything that touches politics. That's probably why politics and political news is so disheartening. Put a different way, if every time you opened a story about your favorite celebrity, you knew that somewhere, there was a corresponding series of stories from the side of a "competitive" celebrity" saying that you were an idiot for showing interest in the first celebrity. Odds are, you'd probably buy less product, go to fewer movies, download fewer songs -- and you'd certainly only want to buy, download, or support the appropriate side.

The world we live in... strange, but not as polar as you've been lead to believe.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Apple Yosemite Release: The Horror

So yesterday I went ahead and installed Yosemite on one of my systems. Normally, I'm skeptical of installing a newly released Apple OS as history tells us that critical functions tend to break (like printing a few releases back). In this case, however, I was drawn in by some of the continuity features. Even then, I did some research online and came across few people expressing concerns about the potential for buggy behavior.

Overall, the install went smoothly -- I didn't encounter any hick-ups -- and so far, I haven't come across anything that you would consider a bug. And yet, I have no glowingly positive things to say about Apple's Yosemite release. Instead, and let this be a warning to you before you update, my list of really stupid, sucky stuff that Apple is doing continues to expand.

Here are just a few of the things that are wrong with Yosemite:
It's a reskinned OS that looks a lot like iOS7/8. While somebody somewhere may like this design, it makes me wretch every time I look at the screen. It looks like somebody stole the color palette from a pastel parrot. Apple and much of the publishing world refer to this as a more modern, flatter look. But for me, if it doesn't do anything else, the desktop version really magnifies and drives home how terrible this approach is.

When they rolled it out on iOS, the bullshit that they were spewing was that "it's designed to show off the awesomeness of our Retina displays." But it doesn't. That's why they came back around with bigger fonts and stronger colors post iOS7 release. With the desktop version, what you get is a wash of white, washed out colors. There is no contrast, no definition. When I fired up my laptop this morning, my Apple email client made the screen look like one big white screen.

Contrast this interface design with virtually any video game you've seen. The majority incorporate 3D graphic elements designed to add to an encapsulated, immersive experience. The problem with the current interface -- regardless of how they push it -- is that it's not easy to distinguish different elements in the interface. Your eyes don't know where to go. You can't just tell the difference between one element and another. The bullshit that they want to tell you is that, "you get used to it", but we've have over a year of iOS7 to disprove that notion. With Yosemite, they've doubled down on this line and it's horrible for the desktop experience.

When Steve Jobs passed and they put Jony Ive in charge of software design, one of the things that they talked about was more of a unified hardware/software design. To me, this feels like designer sans editor. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the purpose of the interface design is to show off how elegant that the hardware design is -- rather than a platform that makes interacting with software easier.

But, beyond the overall interface rant, let's dive into a few specifics.
A simplified Safari interface. I guess the browser interface has just become too crowded or too complicated for some people. With Yosemite, they've removed all of the old bookmarks, search windows and other stuff associated with it. It's so empty that, when you first look at it, you'll swear that important stuff is missing, like you've been popped into one of those windows where you no longer have navigation control.

But for me, the worst thing about it is the way that they've changed private browsing. On most of my systems, once I launch Safari, I turn on private browsing. I use this to prevent cookies. I also use the "reset Safari" regularly to purge the browser of any auto-executed chunks of code that I might have picked up. Now, you can selectively launch either a normal Safari window or a private window, but it's harder to launch a private window. Even if you are in private browsing, if you open a new window, it's not private. While there is a preference pane that tells Safari to launch with a private window, it appears that that only works on launch. After that, you're back to tracked. Brilliant.

Put into more basic terms, you need to actively monitor your state or you may find yourself surprised by an unintended state change.

Another one that, admittedly, is a carry-over from Mavericks version is this idea of getting rid of scroll bars on windows. It's as if, after 20 years of computing and using this tool that helped us get through extended pages of content, some genius designer said, "I hate them. They are ugly. They ugly up my beautiful window design. Let's make them go away. Damn the utility." Fortunately, this is one of those features that you can change behavior on in the interface controls, but why we had to go there is really beyond me. What is it with scroll bars that seems so maddening that the designers just keep wanting to change it?

Transparency is kind of overrated. A perfect example of this is in Safari, again. Opening multiple tabs in Safari now means that you have several transparent tabs at the top of the window, but with the active one just a bit more white than the rest. While some might argue that it makes the tabs more background, what it also does it make it more difficult to tell which one is active. At a glance, it's not exactly straightforward which window you are in -- and that means you're concentrating on the interface instead of using it as a tool.

Perhaps equally annoying, somebody decided that Safari should simplify the URL shown in the navigation/search window. Instead of showing the full URL of the page you are on, the browser window only shows the top level domain -- in case you forgot what it was. It's like "web browser brought to you by the branding board of the Internet". Let's not forget that monitoring your prage URL is not only a good security practice, it's one of those things that's kind of essential for a lot of web development work. Fortunately, there's a check box to disable this bit of brilliance. Come to think of it, I think the guys over at Mozilla first started doing this and I had to disable it in Firefox as well. So -- original idea, no... doing the same stupid thing when somebody else already did it... again, Apple, I expect better.

If you can't say something nice...
In one of the creative writing classes that I took, the teacher insisted that we open our comments about a specific piece by saying something positive about the work. Since I've already opened and commented, I'll close with a positive. I like aspects of the way that they've updated they've updated the dock in Yosemite. Now, it's easier to actually tell if an application is open. Before, they used a white dot underneath the app to indicate open, now they use a black dot. Finally, something I can see.