Monday, September 28, 2009

Net Neutrality: Wireless Too?

A week ago today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski started a kerfuffle when he called for net neutrality in wireless as well as wired Internet services. To understand why this has upset a number of Internet service providers, and why they're upset, we need to review a few terms.

"Net neutrality" is the idea that service providers shouldn't discriminate among different uses of the Internet. That is, if I sign up for Internet service with Company A, I should be able to use the Internet to look up recipes for Hungarian goulash, or use voice-over-internet to call my aunt in Poughkeepsie, or legally download "Up" (whenever that becomes possible), and Company A should let me do any or all of these things. Why should Company A care, and especially, why should they care if I'm using an iPhone or other wireless device connected directly to their wireless network?

The short answer is, bandwidth. Bandwidth is to the Internet as pipes are to a water-supply system. You want more water, you need more and bigger pipes, and the same goes for the Internet. And there's a big difference in bandwidth between so-called "wired" service (really it should be called "fibered" since fiber cables carry most of the traffic), and wireless service that goes directly from the user's device to a service provider's cellphone tower or other wireless hub. (If you are using your own little wireless network around your home, as I do, that counts as wired service since it goes to a cable once it leaves your house.)

The bandwidth of wired services is limited only by what physical cables can be put in place between you and the main Internet. In most parts of the country served this way, there is plenty of bandwidth around on cable TV systems (most of which are mostly using fiber-optics anyway for a good part of their links) and especially if you are at a company or institution that has direct fiber connections. So although you may pay more to get a lot of bandwidth, it's out there and there's no particular reason your service provider should be chintzy and keep you from using bandwidth-hog services such as downloading peer-to-peer movies.

But if you try stunts like that on your iPhone, the service providers have a least a technical case in their favor. Unlike wired services, wireless services use limited slices of the airwaves, including some which the government recently auctioned off as a result of the switch to digital TV. The service providers paid billions for these wavelengths, because it was a little like when the Dutch paid the Indians for Manhattan. They aren't making any more Manhattans, so when it came up for sale they were wise to buy, at least from a real-estate perspective. (I won't get into treatment of indigenous peoples here—one ethical problem at a time!) There's only so much spectrum bandwidth out there, and when it fills up, the only way you can squeeze more data through it is to get more clever technology, and even that has a limit called Shannon's information theorem.

So when AT&T and company read about Chairman Genachowski's call for net neutrality even in wireless services, they set up a howl. Genachowski, an Obama appointee who worked closely with the candidate on telecommunications issues, is a Harvard-trained lawyer with experience clerking for Supreme Court justices and working for internet firms. Given his rather rarefied background, he has had at least an opportunity to see what private enterprise is like. But like most government agencies in the executive branch, the FCC is a pseudo-democracy. When they propose rules they allow time for comments and so on, but there is no law requiring the Commission to take comments into account in their rulemaking. So when Genachowski talks, companies listen.

In his speech, which actually does a good job of portraying the current situation in historical perspective, Genachowski cited the long tradition of openness and transparency of the Internet, right down to its technical structure that pushes applications to the edges and makes the main system act pretty much like a "dumb pipe." This is an example of how technical structure can influence behavior. For instance, if there were an easy way to monitor and bill Internet users for each particular use of the Internet over a certain provider, the way the old POTS (plain old telephone service) used to work, things would be vastly different, and arguably not near as far along as they are today. Placing approximately zero marginal cost on transactions encourages greater and more innovative use of a resource than if you knew you were going to be out a quarter for every time you queried Google, for instance. If that were true, I'd be broke a long time ago.

On the other hand, excessive government enforcement of egalitarian principles can lead to problems as well. Take the Cuban health system, for instance. Yes, it's free for all Cuban citizens, but outside of a few friends of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore who took their illnesses to Havana after they ran into problems in the U. S., I'm not aware of too many medical tourists who are drawn to the Cuban health-care system like flies to honey. The present fuss over wireless net neutrality is more likely a pro-forma complaint about something that the service providers were already figuring out how to do. And Genachowski himself allowed as to how in exceptional cases (periods of high demand, etc.) providers might have to restrict access to some services simply to maintain the stability and integrity of their networks. So they have an escape clause, so to speak.

The FCC is going to go ahead and do what it likes, and as in the past, the service providers will find a way to deal with it. Sometimes government regulation can even encourage innovation, as Genachowski appears to hope will be the case here. I hope and trust he's right.

Sources: I used material from an online editorial by Lynette Luna at the website FierceMobileIT, Chairman Genachowski's speech can be read in its entirety at

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Internet's Threat to Civilization and Two Kinds of Ham

Among the moral and social implications of technology we have considered in this space over the years, the Internet looms large. You wouldn't be reading this blog without it, yet there are studies and articles out there that show how students are losing the ability to read sequentially, follow arguments, and write more than a sentence or two without the uncontrollable urge to use an emoticon.

At times I'm sympathetic with this trend of thought. After years of looking up material on search engines, I've caught myself reading ordinary text in the Internet way—hastily skimming through paragraphs of carefully assembled prose like a motorcycle gang blasting through Central Park. When I realize what I'm doing, I try to slow down, but the habit is still there. And some of the uncomfortable side effects of mass digitizing of information are disquieting. For example, libraries around the world are looking at their now-digitized piles of paper and microfilm and asking, "Why should we keep paying for all this expensive space to store something that we already have on a few dozen mainframe hard drives in one room?" And we won't even mention what's happening to newspapers.

But sometimes it takes a person with a longer perspective to show you that things are not as bad as they seem. Dennis Baron, a professor of linguistics at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has written a book showing that the same mixture of hope, fear, and nostalgia has accompanied the advent of every novel communications technology, all the way back to the invention of writing itself. I have read only an interview with the author, not the book itself, but Baron views the current anxieties over an Internet-overdosed society to be overblown. He thinks at least as much good as harm comes from the social-networking activities on Facebook and so on, and points out that students themselves—at least the better ones—treat overuse of emoticons as a phase to be grown out of as they learn how the adult world expects them to communicate.

A similar view comes from my experiences, now largely historical, in the rarefied world of amateur radio. Ever since the birth of radio itself, there has been a small cadre of individuals who have used the medium, not for commercial purposes (in fact the laws pertaining to amateur radio forbid it), but for the fun of it. So most countries have set aside bits of the radio spectrum for these hobbyists, known as radio amateurs or "hams."

I joined the ranks of hamdom while still in college, and for a number of years was quite active with a roomful of largely surplus radio gear and antennas sprouting from the roof of our house. As time went on, I came to realize that all hamdom is divided into two kinds of ham.

The first kind, of which I was one, delights in the technology itself. These folks are constantly building new rigs or buying the latest gear to try out new features. The presence of a live person on the other end of the communications link is merely a convenience to them, to prove that the system itself works over the distance required. To somewhat misapply Marshall McLuhan, the medium becomes the message—the way a thing is communicated overwhelms the content of the communication. This attitude does nothing to further human community, in the long run.

The second kind views ham radio as simply a means of communicating with other people. Their delight is not in the technology, which they often learn rather grudgingly, but in the ever-new surprise of who might be sitting at the microphone, key, or keyboard at the other side of the ionospheric link. Think of an ongoing party with members from every part of the world, and that's what attracts the second kind of ham. I understand that the late Marlon Brando was an enthusiastic ham radio operator at various times in his life, and I suspect he was this type of ham. Although I have no surveys to back me up, I suspect that this type of operator tends to stay with the hobby longer, since the novelty of getting to know new people is truly inexhaustible.

The microcosm of ham radio prefigured the macrocosm of the Internet in many ways. Both are basically global means of communication; both impose certain restrictions on the style of communication, the length, and how the other party can be accessed; and both require at least a minimum knowledge of technology. On the Internet, the vast majority of users couldn't care less about the technology unless it gets in their way. Most users are interested in the content, not the method. The few hackers and geeks who play with the Internet simply because it's technologically neat are welcome to their amusements, but I haven't run across any lately. Of course there are those who use it for nefarious purposes, but you will always have a few bad apples in every crop.

As time went on my interest in ham radio waned. I still have my rig sitting on my desk here in the study, but it's been years since I fired it up. In the meantime, the Internet has become as much a part of my life as using electricity, as it has for billions of others around the globe. I will not commit the error of saying the Internet is neutral and it's how you use it that makes it good or bad. Like any other technology that humans use, it tends to incline our actions in certain directions, and these directions are almost never exactly neutral. But on the whole, the Internet has allowed more people to communicate at less cost, and that tends to benefit society, whatever bad habits they pick up along the way.

Sources: An interview with Dennis Baron appears in the online edition of at His book, A Better Pencil, has just been published by Oxford University Press, which still believes in paper, for the time being anyway. And for those hams who are curious, my call letters are KD5DC.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Albert Gonzales: Two-Faced Hacker

An adage says there is no honor among thieves. U. S. Secret Service agents who employed a self-taught 28-year-old computer genius named Albert Gonzales to inform them of the activities of other hackers may now wish they'd never heard of him. Not only was Gonzales tipping off hackers that they were targets of federal investigations, Gonzales went on to break all records, not once but twice, for the largest amount of stolen credit-card and debit-card data: some 130 million numbers he amassed with the help of unnamed foreign cohorts, many in the former Soviet Union countries. Placed under arrest in 2008, Gonzales at first pled innocent, but as charges mounted up, first in New York, then in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and as he finally faced federal charges, on August 28 he decided to plead guilty. He will be behind bars at least until middle age, by which time his hacking skills will be hopelessly out of date. But will there still be hackers in 2034? My guess is: almost certainly.

I could dwell on the details of Gonzales's high lifestyle in his native town of Miami, but it is like the high-living stories of most other thieves: spend it while you got it, because you don't know when you'll ever have it again. You wonder if the Secret Service folks paying him for information ever noticed the BMW and the Rolex, but maybe he'd quit dealing with them by the time he was rolling in dough from more profitable employment.

This raises an ethical question that everyone who deals with computer security has to face: when does trying to think like a hacker in order to outwit other hackers cross the line into the gray area when you become a hacker yourself?

The term "hacker" means different things in different contexts. Back in the Middle Ages of electronics, I used to take apart old stereos and radios and put them back together in screwy ways. This was what many people would now term a type of hacking, which in its most general sense means using technology for a purpose that its designers did not originally plan on. But (except for the occasional prank) my purposes in hacking were innocent. Gonzales clearly intended to make a lot of money illegally by collecting tons of computer-record identities and selling them to the highest bidder. In this way he stayed in the background and got the advantages of wholesale crime without having to mess with the retail variety. And clearly he did it for the money, or for what the money could buy.

Now that computer hacking is an ongoing, large-scale criminal activity, the air of playful innocence that used to characterize its aficionados has largely dissipated. Perhaps justly, most organizations and government agencies assume that anyone hacking into their system is doing it to steal, or worse—there are always terrorists, and we have written occasionally about the danger of cyberwars waged by militant hackers.

For those interested in fighting crime, it will always be necessary to learn how the criminals do it in order to fight back. And in the case of hackers, agencies without enough homegrown talent will often look for a turncoat, but the possibility of double-agenthood—exactly what Gonzales did—is always present in such cases.

One of the best ways to keep good hackers from going bad is a thing that is becoming hard to find these days—or at least, I wouldn't know where to start looking for it, unless you could try the U. S. armed forces. What I'm talking about is a deep level of commitment to the good of a nation or organization that becomes the core of one's professional life. But it requires a stable lifetime of commitment on the part of the organization to achieve that, a stability that is increasingly hard to find these days.

One night, years ago, back in Massachusetts, I attended a talk given by a fellow who for years had been a supervisor in the New England Power Pool. This was the organization that coordinated operations of the Northeastern power plants and utilities to make sure everybody's power was reliable, stable, and there when they needed it. Power failures in the dead of winter in New England can be life-threatening, and as I listened to this guy talk, I realized that he was dedication incarnate. He wasn't blustery or table-pounding or anything—but he gave the impression of solid, firm, intelligent commitment to the high calling of keeping New Englanders' lights on, no matter what.

This was back in the days before utility deregulation, when power companies were quasi-governmental entities with more or less guaranteed profits. Perhaps it is just the nostalgic faulty memory of an aging engineer remembering a scene from his younger days, but it does seem to me that the stability engendered by the regulatory environment back then allowed the development of people who could really dedicate their lives to a good cause professionally, without worrying about layoffs and changing careers four or five times in their lifetimes. And, yes, it also allowed for incompetents to featherbed (goof off) for years in companies that didn't care about such things. Was the good worth the bad? I don't know, but I tend to think so.

The computer industry seems never to have been stable enough to produce a cadre of dedicated people whose entire careers could be given over to enforcing computer security for one firm. I'm sure there are such people, but in the nature of the business they've changed jobs several times, especially if they're good, and being dedicated to the good of an industry is a different thing from dedication to a stable group of people in one organization. But my metaphorical hat is off to those guardians of our credit card numbers, whoever they are and whoever they have worked for, who are constantly on the lookout for the activities of people like Albert Gonzales. May their numbers increase—securely.

Sources: Lately the Associated Press, with reasons that are not hard to imagine, has taken to putting sternly-worded copyright notices at the end of their articles, almost no matter where they appear. While they have every right to do so (and since this is a blog on engineering ethics I will attempt to honor their intentions), avoiding any piece of news that happens to appear under an Associated Press byline may get rather dicey at times. At any rate, this blog used material posted on August 18 at at, and background from other sources.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Engineering and Labor: A Road Not Taken

On this Labor Day (as observed in the U. S.), let's consider how engineering has affected the way people work to earn a living, and how the way things have turned out may not necessarily be the best of all possible worlds, at least not for everyone.

Since its inception in the 1800s, modern engineering has assumed the characteristics or goals of the age which gave it birth: "individual achievement, efficiency, progress, faith in science, material comfort, equality, and freedom." This list was taken from a sociological study of families in modern society, but it applies equally well to the goals toward which much of modern engineering strives. Last Saturday I visited a place where these values are not ignored, exactly, but subordinated to a different set of values: "respect for human life, sexual restraint, patriarchy, devotion to family, and love of neighbor." This second list comes from the same source as the first, and despite some negative connotations that some of the terms such as patriarchy have acquired, I think they apply fairly to the place I visited, with some exceptions.

On a few hundred acres of land west of Waco, Texas, a Christian community called Heritage Ministries is trying an ongoing experiment in how to live out the Christian life in a way that puts people, relationships, and family ahead of efficiency, economics, politics, and productivity. That may sound easy, but it's not. The path these folks have chosen is similar to the way the Amish communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere live, but without many of the rigidities and divisive religious infights that have characterized the Amish. I'm sure the Heritage folks have had their family arguments, but in my very limited exposure to them (a few visits and the reading of one publication), I haven't seen any. Instead, what I see is a way of life that both appeals to me and denies most of what I as an engineer live for.

Let me explain with an example or two. Unlike some Amish communities, the Heritage community welcomes visitors to their retail establishments where they sell samples of what they make: everything from handmade soap to five-thousand-dollar handcrafted rocking chairs. On the day we visited, a team of young men and their sons was squeezing sorghum cane in an old-fashioned mule-powered mill. The juice ran downhill through a pipe to a boiling vat tended by six or eight young ladies and a man who fed the wood fire under the boiler. He told me they had farmed about three acres of cane and expected to make several thousand pints of finished sorghum.

Now I don't know much about sugar cane processing, which is a somewhat different operation, but I'm sure that if you threw a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of capital at this situation, you could easily eliminate all but maybe a tenth of a worker by scaling up the operation to industrial size. A large, modern, efficient sugar processing plant could handle what the little Heritage crew took all day to process in about half a minute. As an engineer, I couldn't stop myself from thinking these ways-to-do-it-better thoughts as I watched the laborious process before me.

It's not that the Heritage people are ignorant, or arbitrarily rejecting every advance in technology made after 1850. They drive cars, use computers, and while I was walking the grounds I nearly tripped over some CAT5 computer cable left over from when they networked their cash registers during one of their semiannual fairs. But their strong belief in " a certain simplicity of lifestyle, a rootedness in the land, [and] an emphasis on family and intentional community" makes them eschew large modern capital investments whenever it tends to separate the worker from the thing worked, and from other workers.

As Heritage leader Blair Adams says in the booklet What We Believe, "a craft, as distinct from a manufacture, can express the inner person for the very reason that he becomes so directly involved in it. And as far as what constitutes 'a waste of time and effort,' money doesn't seem to us the best cirterion for establishing the worth of one's 'time and effort.' To us, meaning and fulfillment provide much better criteria."

In recent years, Heritage and similar communities have benefited from the increased popularity of organically grown foods, the urge to buy local produce, and renewed interest in crafts and other off-the-grid attempts to be less dependent on the global economy. These things are good as far as they go, but a simple analysis shows that they can only go so far. If everybody tried to buy local produce, thus reducing the distance food is shipped, historian James McWilliams has shown that the carbon footprint of food production would actually increase overall because of differences in climate, agricultural technology, and other factors, not to mention the market disruptions it would cause. So for that and many other reasons, it would not be practical for everyone, or even most of the world's urban population, to live the way the Heritage people live. But does that mean it's wrong?

I don't think so. The Heritage community views the way they live as a silent witness to the power of God in Christ Jesus—a way of preaching without words. But regardless of one's beliefs, they show that many of the things we as engineers regard as vitally necessary—labor-saving machinery, cost-effectiveness, and the latest technology—do not play a big role in a whole way of life that, from all outward appearances, is at least as satisfying and enjoyable as our modern, individualistic, grid-dependent one is. And that is a reminder worth bearing in mind.

Sources: The two sociological quotations are from p. 85 of Allan Carlson's From Cottage to Work Station (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), in which he cited the work of sociologist William D'Antonio. The quotations in the paragraph that mentions What We Believe are from the booklet of that title by Blair Adams (Elm Mott, Texas: Colloquium Press Trust, 2005). An article by James McWilliams describing the problems of being a "locavore" can be found in the online edition of Forbes Magazine at