The ‘end of Internet’

5 Jan

Internet is under threat from network companies that are increasingly inclined to engage in ‘traffic shopping’. ‘Traffic shopping’ or prioritization of certain data (traffic) over others is creating what scholars have called a ‘two-tiered Internet’. The move to craft a tiered arrangement is largely driven by the narrow profit motives of telecommunication firms, that cross own telephone companies, which are trying to protect their revenue stream under assault from Voice Over IP (VoIP) applications like Skype and Vonage by delaying or even barring these services from their networks.

Michael Geist
, researcher in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law in his BBC article says –

“In the developing world, where there is frequently limited telecommunications competition, many countries have begun blocking internet telephony services in order to protect the incumbent telecoms provider.

This approach, already being followed in countries such as Panama, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Mexico, reduces competitive choices for telecommunications services and cuts off consumers from one of the fastest growing segments of the internet.

In Europe, some ISPs have similarly begun to block access to internet telephony services. For example, this summer reports from Germany indicated that Vodafone had begun to block Voice over IP (Voip) traffic, treating the popular Skype program as “inappropriate content.”

European ISPs have also faced mounting pressure to block access to peer-to-peer systems such as BitTorrent, which are widely used to share both authorised and unauthorised content. ”

There are also reports that Hotels providing high-speed internet access are blocking VoIP. “Cable operators have already prioritized their own network data such as Internet telephony over the data of other services.” ( Read More.. )

FCC has taken on the role of good Samaritan – “As a condition of many of the recent mergers, the FCC has made sure that companies agree to observe “Net Neutrality” which argues that “owners of phone and cable networks can’t dictate how a consumer uses the internet or discriminate against any internet content, regardless of source” (WSJ).

“To drive this point home, a Bellsouth spokesman in this WSJ article complains about Google’s freeloading ways as follows: “During the Hurricanes, Google didn’t pay to have the DSL restored. We’re paying all the money.”

If like me you thought that the $30-$80 you send to your phone company every month for basic service constitutes “paying for it”, think again. What telecommunication companies want to do is start charging services like Google and Vonage big piles of money so that their content gets to consumers in a fast carpool lane while the content providers that don’t pay up (and their customers) gets stuck on a less glamorous road with more traffic, fewer lanes and perhaps a few potholes.

Telecommunication companies are also looking into other ways of generating revenue including charging for free roaming application layer applications like Google that sap network bandwidth.

Today the technology exists to actively identify, select and prioritize Internet traffic. This model of prioritizing “traffic” can have vast ramifications on application level development and overall creativity. Application level development has been fueled by the guarantee of network neutrality. “Websites, e-commerce companies, and other innovators have also relied on network neutrality, secure in the knowledge that the network treats all companies, whether big or small, equally. That approach enables those with the best products and services, not the deepest pockets, to emerge as the market winners.”? BBC: Towards a two-tiered Internet

Dr. Barbara Van Schewick, working at Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Law School, in her paper on the topic of Two-tier Internet, “Towards an Economic Framework for Network Neutrality Regulation” argues that

“calls for network neutrality regulation are justified: In the absence of network neutrality regulation, there is a real threat that network providers will discriminate against independent producers of applications, content or portals or exclude them from their network. This threat reduces the amount of innovation in the markets for applications, content and portals at significant costs to society.

While network neutrality rules remove this threat, they are not without costs: Apart from creating the costs of regulation itself, network neutrality rules reduce network providers’ incentives to innovate at the network level and to deploy network infrastructure. Thus, regulators face a trade-off. As the paper shows, due to the potentially enormous benefits of application-level innovation for economic growth, increasing the amount of application-level innovation through network neutrality regulation is more important than the costs associated with it.”

Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Highway to India

5 Dec

Amy Waldman, of the New York Times, recently wrote a series of four articles about the socio-cultural impact of highways and the burgeoning number of cars.

Here are the links:

The articles include interactive features with audio commentary and slide shows. While the photographs are well shot, Waldman’s hurried narration leaves much to be desired.

Brief comments and caveats: Waldman puts far too much emphasis on the posited transformative cultural power of both the highways and the increasing number of cars. Waldman repeatedly paints the “old India” in stereotypical terms (like the land of dharma etc.) and then talks about the “transformation” that these new things are wrecking on the cultural landscape of India.

The art of reading

27 Nov

The value of reading is constrained by how one chooses to read aside from what one chooses to read.

Reading is anti-evolutionary. Neither our brains nor our eyes were designed to excitedly decipher small symbols printed on a paper. But then reading is much more than deciphering symbols. Words provide wonderful abstract worlds in which we can embody the characters that are described in the book. But to live with them, in them and empathize with them, we need to spend time with them and nurture them carefully in our minds. A character in a novel is truly subjective (it is often left deliberately open to manipulation). The emotions, the pitch of the scream, rationality of action and the sinister atmosphere are all amplified or mellowed, tampered with or abandoned in our minds. The true pleasure of reading lies in reading slowly to go over the nuances and the phraseology. Of course, not all novelists and all passages invite this cohabitation. In fact, some novelists will go out of their way to create atmospheric dread that pushes you away from the analysis but then you are living through the temporary paralysis of emotions that comes when environment overwhelms you. But then you need to pause and introspect for that is when you can empathize with the character.

Reading slowly can help one introspect and come to a better understanding of oneself and the world around us. If one chooses to look at a novel merely as a teleological progression towards the resolution of some quibble, then it merely becomes a tool for entertainment.

Perhaps a more important virtue, as compared to reading slowly, is reading critically. A novelist imposes his or her world view on you and you need to be able to critically think through the points that s/he makes, and separate out the chaff from the wheat.

The lost art

Today, reading slowly is a lost art. Leisurely reading a passage and then mulling over its contents seems archaic. Inarguably pointless drivel camouflaged as writing has taken much away from the pleasure (and motivation) for reading slowly. The other obvious villain is television with its increasingly crazed editing. Once upon a time a shot lasted 90 seconds, now it lasts for less than 6 seconds on average. The reader today needs a more action packed story that relentlessly moves across scenes, countries, and emotions – all in a hurried progression to the ‘end’. So not only are novelists concocting stories that encourage hurried reading, readers are actually reading books the same way as they watch telenovellas or sitcoms – mindlessly.

Let me end with a caveat – I am not saying that speed reading is necessarily bad. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it is a very important tool for academics and few other people who need to consume a lot of information in a very limited amount of time.

End of information hierarchy

11 Nov

Today, people have a variety of ways to explore a collection via Internet as opposed to carefully orchestrated explorations in a brick and mortar museum with a curated exhibition (Tang XXXX).

A curator comes up with a story along with other contextual information about the exhibit and arranges the exhibition so that the person exploring it has only a few chosen entry points and few ways of exploring the collection. Some of the impediments are put in deliberately while others are a result of hosting an exhibition in the real world where the design of building etc. still matter.

Cut to the online world and the user is untethered from most of curated connivances. This in turn maybe a result of the fact that people haven’t really understood how best to present a virtual museum but that is not the point I want to get into. The result of the untethered experience is that these cultural objects are seen in a twice removed setting -e.g. a pot taken from an archaeological site and then photographed and put on the Internet. So what is the result of all this? It is hard to give an objective listing but one can see that some of the “meaning” is lost in this journey of an artifact from the ground to the Internet.

What happens when information that was once tethered in a context or a story is made available virtually free of context over say Google. Is storing information in hierarchical networks or associations obsolete? How do you maintain integrity of information when context-free snippets of information are freely available?

Say of example – once upon a time people learned about history via a scholar who chose carefully the specific issues about history. Today, a teen gets his/her history by searching on the web often encountering a lot of miscellaneous information. I would argue that the person then can come away, from such a scattered exploration, with a bunch of miscellaneous trivia and no real understanding of the major issue at hand. The key idea here is that for transmission of “knowledge” – the integrity of information is of prime value.

Life expectancy in the war zone: gendered perspective

11 Nov

War is deadly for both sexes. A missile doesn’t differentiate between a man and a woman. Then, what is the role of gender in war?

Nearly all active militaries in the world have substantially more male soldier than female soldiers and far more men die on the battle fields than women. But the impact of wars is never limited to artificial battlefields. War enters civilian life through hunger, inadequate health care, decline in availability of potable water, rape, pillage, and many other ways, reducing life expectancy drastically for both men and women. For example, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 46 years (men), 46 years (women) according to UN figures. The figures hide an important fact that on an average women will generally live longer than men. These figure mean that more women are dying as a result of war than men. These figures still don’t take into account the large number of crimes like rape that are committed predominantly against women.

Facts on South Asia

19 Aug

In response to some flawed rhetoric by ‘flat-world’ Friedman, and ‘shining-India’ Advani, here are a few numbers that put South Asia’s situation into perspective. South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and about 40% of the world’s absolute poor – people living on less than $1/day. Imagine the life-style of an American earning $1/day and you will get a window into the poverty described by these figures.

India is home to nearly half of the illiterate population in the world. The adult literacy rate in South Asia (49%) is behind sub-Saharan Africa (57%) as well as that of Arab states (59%). To make matters worse, South Asia’s current annual expenditure on education is 1.9% of GNP. In contrast, military spending in the region is 3.8% of GNP and is as high as 7% in Pakistan which has 50% more soldiers than teachers. A brief zoom in on Pakistan’s education system…. what indeed are people fortunate enough to afford an education are taught? According to a report by an independent government agency, SDPI ( Sustainable Development Policy Institute. See Link at Bottom), ‘facts’ like “Hindu has always been an enemy of Islam.” and “The religion of the Hindus did not teach them good things — Hindus did not respect women…” have been included with the general objective of inculcating “Love and aspiration for Jehad, Tableegh (Prosyletization), Jehad, Shahadat (martyrdom), sacrifice, ghazi (the victor in holy wars), shaheed (martyr)”

Due process of law is often quoted as a key ingredient for a free society. With over 20 million court cases pending at the end of 2002, India doesn’t even pretend. More stark crime statistics on India include – over 1 million persons in jail waiting for trial and a conviction rate of about 1 percent.

SDPI report on Pakistan Education System (pdf)
World Literacy of Canada

Gender Gap in IT

28 Jul

IT is dead, long live the geek

Contrary to what one might expect after listening about all the news on the downturn in IT, and worries about outsourcing, IT is still a very robust and very well paid field. Median annual earnings of computer systems analysts were $62,890 in 2002. Bureau of Labor Statistics states,

“Computer systems analysts, database administrators, and computer scientists are expected to be among the fastest growing occupations through 2012. Employment of these computer specialists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations as organizations continue to adopt and integrate increasingly sophisticated technologies. Job increases will be driven by very rapid growth in computer system design and related services, which is projected to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. economy. In addition, many job openings will arise annually from the need to replace workers who move into managerial positions or other occupations or who leave the labor force.”

IT is an extremely important cog of the American economy. Nearly all the increase in productivity over the past 15 years can be attributed to IT. IT will remain at the forefront of innovation and increase in productivity for years to come and with the convergence of IT and entertainment – the sector is poised for another spurt of growth.

Why do we need women in IT?

Recently, Microsoft chief, Bill Gates, lamented the lack of women working in technology and computer engineering. It is widely recognized that the skills of men and women need to be equally tapped in order to be successful in the global economy. We simply need more people to work in IT. One of the key drivers of outsourcing has been the relatively small talent pool in CS in the US. Some people are dismissive of the need for women in hard sciences like physics and computer science, but if the precedent in biological sciences is anything to go by where women play an increasingly important role – the computer industry is missing out on the talents of half of the population.

On the other end, the industry also needs women as consumers of technology. If gaming industry is anything to go by, it appears that technology companies may be at the risk of alienating half of the world’s population, an inexcusably moronic business decision.

IT companies and women

IBM Corp., one of the largest IT service companies in the world, is rated as the 10th best company in the country for women executives by National Association for Female Executives. HP, another computer giant, features among top 10 also. While both cases can be seen as a sign that technology companies are providing decent opportunities to women to climb up the ladder, the examples are not representative of conditions faced by most female IT employees. Most IT professionals work at either small IT firms, or in IT divisions of non-IT firms, where traditional attitudes continue to dominate. In addition, gender-blind structures post hiring shouldn’t be mistaken for gender-blind hiring structures.

Why IT market is so tough for women?
It is necessary to provide continuous training for upgrading skills. Women who have been out of the labor force for some time (due to pregnancy) find their skills obsolete. The counter point is that IT jobs can be done while telecommuting.

Outright discrimination against women

Discrimination in Academic Workplace:
A study commissioned by Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta in 2001 tried to analyze the career trajectories of women with PhD in science. The study, using data from the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, evaluated differences in employment outcomes for academic scientists by gender. It found that women were less likely to be promoted to tenure.

Why is it hard for women to pursue CS in colleges

Some of the engineering/CS classes are genuinely hard where there is a need for a “buddy system”- collaborating on assignments etc. With few women in CS classes, women feel reluctant to join CS classes. We need a critical mass of women in CS classes to really see a quantum jump in enrollment. A recent paper by Murphy and Steele, analyzing data from MSE classes at Stanford, found that Stereotype threat is more salient for women when the gender imbalance is more extreme.

Here’s are results from a survey:

A recent survey done by the Gallup Organization in conjunction with CNN, USA Today, and the National Science Foundation included 744 children in grades 7 through 12. “Telephone Interviews were conducted from March 20-27, 1997 from Gallup interviewing centers throughout the country. The focus of the survey was on students’ familiarity with and use of modern technology with special attention given to use of computers and the Internet.” (Gallup 1997) Some things that they found were that “American teenagers are very interested in and reliant on modern technology.” The paper gives a lot of information about findings regarding students usage of computers and other household technologies. The somewhat surprising facts to us came with the findings on comparisons of boys and girls. The similarities between boys and girls were staggering. “Boys and girls express nearly identical levels of confidence in using computer, with average scores (on a zero to 10 point scale) of 6.8 and 6.7 respectively. … One-third of both boys and girls feel their computer/technology education is on track…”(Gallup 1997).

Unfortunately, these numbers signifying gender equality do not represent the trends seen in boys and girls entering fields in computer science. According to Cynthia Lanius, author of an article, Getting Girls Interested in Computer Science, these results are encouraging because “increasing girls’ computer use may be necessary to increase girls’ interest in computer science”. However, she also feels that this is not enough. “Computer science (which really should be called computing science) is the study of computation; computers are merely the tool performing the computation.” (Lanius) Her basic conjecture is that saying that girls are using computers or even are comfortable with computers just as much as boys means nothing to how it will effect the computer science field. The fact is the number of girls entering computer science is dropping and we would like to figure out why.




Other Links:

Merchants of Art

26 May

“Shakespeare Wallah” was my introduction to the magic of Merchant Ivory Productions. An elegy to a lost era, a bitter-sweet tale of a traveling English theatre troupe in India right after the Indian independence, it is still vivid in my memory. The debonair Shashi Kapoor and Satyajit Ray’s beautiful score are the two other things that I remember from the film. Since then, I have seen many other Merchant Ivory productions. And their films have always left me simultaneously reassured and disturbed.

A constant in all their movies has been the excellent production values, largely a product of Mr. Merchant’s vision, and his acknowledged genius for creating beautiful, authentic sets on a shoestring budget. With the demise of Ismail, we no longer have a producer who fussed over each detail.

The troika of James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, and Ismail Merchant over the past four decades virtually invented a new genre of films. They showed that you don’t need to compromise on art to be successful. And to me, that is the legacy of Merchant Ivory.

I will forever be indebted to their patience, art, and virtue.

Further Reading:
BBC article on Ismail Merchant

Misspelt Universe

18 Apr

How many times have you typed something in Google to be asked “Did you mean: ….” Next time you reach this page, stay a little longer and take a look at the pages that Google did find. This is your gateway to the parallel universe of misspelled words. Well let me correct myself — these “misspelled” words can belong to a different language altogether or they even might be rarely used genuine English words with close resemblance to the heavily used ones.

An entire gamut of information is being denied to us due to mere errors in spelling. To deride these spelling mistakes as “mere errors in spelling” is to ignore a small minority of people who deliberately misspell words so as to make their pages less publicly accessible. This works as an effective low-tech solution for every underground society has demands obscurity.

Then there are people who exploit misspellings to make their living e.g. People searching auction sites like eBay for misspelled (or mislabeled) items, and hence hopefully underbid items. (* eBay now offers a spell-check utility but surprisingly few people still refuse to use it.)

Excepting eBay entrepreneurs, one thing that is clear is that we are “losing”‘ this increasingly vast pool of information containing misspelled “keywords” (words we type in a search engine). There is an argument to be made that the quality of information source with misspelled words may itself be poor and hence we needn’t worry about the “lost” information. Arguably, the frequency of misspelled words in a peer reviewed journal is much lower than say my blog. ;) The normative question is, Does that rightly consign my blog to obscurity?

Internet search is a classic case of finding needle in a haystack, and search algorithms are built of dispense with as much “clutter” (hay) as fast as possible, leaving a very small minority of websites that are given genuine value. What we are seeing are two trends implicit in Google’s search algorithm — most of our search needs are about “popular”‘ items (given a higher rank by Google), and it is progressively harder to find “unpopular” sources. On the face of it the trend is innocuous and even sensible but the wider ramifications include information hegemony.

Let us turn the discussion around to sites that use “syntactically correct but meaningless verbiage including commons search terms” (a sentence like “Indeed, a blind crenelation blasphemously a player inside the stictomys. For example, a whopper behind a ferrocyanide indicates that the saccharinity behind a casino tropez another euphausiacea from another modem.”) People also “Google bomb” (mass posting on blogs/lists associating a search phrase with online address). Some sites have in fact automated this by writing programs that automatically go to different blogs/lists and post entries/comments like “poker chips poker – [web address].” This problem is much worse as it is making it progressively harder for us to find “genuine” (or most popular/reliable) information.

So will there be too much seemingly reliable unreliable information or will we miss a lot of seemingly unreliable reliable information. Chances are that both will happen.