Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Internet damage caused by hurricane Sandy

As GigaOm points out, many data centers are flooded and are running backup generators for power. There has also been some damage to transatlantic cables.

This is reminiscent of the Internet damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Only one New Orleans Internet service provider, DirectNIC, remained online during and after the hurricane. Shortly after the hurricane, Doc Searles conducted a 40-minute interview of DirectNIC CEO Sigmund Solares. Solares tells a fascinating story of the effort it took to find deisel fuel for their standby generators and keep the data center running. If you are a data center geek -- even a little bit -- you will enjoy the interview.

It also reminds me of one of the initial motivations for the invention of packet switched networks -- that they would be able to route around damaged equipment and continue to function in case of a disaster. The figure below is from one of Paul Baran's 1964 RAND reports outlining the rationale and design for a distributed packet switching network.

The problem here is that too much equipment was located in a small area. You can understand why -- there are many large businesses in lower Manhattan and a lot of cable landing points near New York City.


I've added a second post on the damage caused by the hurricane. It talks about ways the Internet senses and reports its own state.

The times they are a changing -- HTwins "Scale of the Universe" updates Eames' "Powers of Ten"

In 1977 the designers Charles and Ray Eames made a film called Powers of Ten, "dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero." It begins with a picnic scene then zooms out to 100 million light years (10^24 meters) and back in to .000001 angstroms (10^-16 meters).

The film was very popular at the time and it has been viewed over 1,728,000 times on Youtube. In 2010 the Eames Studio created a Web site based on it. The Web site adds a bit of interactivity and sharp still images like the one shown here, which depicts a view of the picnic from 10^26 meters.

But, it is re-purposing of old material and it shows.

Contrast that with HTwins' interactive site "Scale of the Universe 2" (Scale2), which was born digital. Here we see some objects that are around 1 meter in diameter.

Instead of watching a video, the user zooms in and out using a slider that ranges from the size of the strings of string theory (10^-35 meters) to the observable universe (10^27 meters). The user can also click on an image to open a small text window describing the object. The text is at least partially available in 20 languages.

Unlike Powers of Ten, Scale 2 is extensible. The translations are provided by volunteers and new images and text descriptions can be added. Powers of Ten has not changed since it was filmed.

While I like the interactivity and extensibility of Scale2, it lacks the interesting and compelling narration that accompanies the Eames film and provides for transitions between the images. The two have their place, and if I were teaching the topic, I would have the students watch Powers of Ten then play with Scale2.

There are two other notable differences between Powers of Ten and Scale2.

Powers of Ten was sponsored by a major corporation, IBM, and Scale2 is sponsored by Google Ad Sense ads. One big client versus a lot of minuscule clients.

Another difference is in the project organization and cost. Powers of Ten was produced by what was arguably the most famous design firm in the world. They had a large studio with many employees and were known for projects like the Eames chair, IBM's World Fair pavilion and the design and colors of IBM's "big blue" mainframe computers. Scale2 was created by Cary Huang, a 14-year-old ninth grader with technical help from his twin brother Michael. (I wonder if their parents helped). Here are the Htwins:

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

News 2.0? Reporting with Google hangouts.

California gasoline prices jumped to record highs this week, and the Los Angeles Times covered the story in their print edition. But, when I asked a class of 25 students how many read the LA Times, only three said they did.

I can also imagine this being covered on TV news -- a reporter standing in front of a gas station ... the camera pans from her to the price sign and back ... she comments that prices have risen by a dollar a gallon in a short period of time ... she interviews a customer who complains about the price hike ... It ends up being a 60-second spot, then on to the next story or a commercial.

I also asked my students how many watched TV news regularly. Again three said yes.

It turns out that the LA Times also covered the story in the following 8-minute Google hangout between two Times writers and an expert on energy and gasoline prices.

During this interview/discussion we heard why the prices shot up, how high they might get, when we might expect to see them come back down, why gas does not come in from out of state, tactics of the gasoline station owners, the global determinants of oil prices, etc.

Is there a demand for this sort of relatively in-depth reporting? Will this sort of coverage become common in the future? If so, how will people discover the stories they want to focus their attention on?

And, what about the business model? How much did this hangout cost to produce? Perhaps the two Times writers spent half an hour planning the interview and getting in touch with the expert. The participants all stayed in their offices and the call itself took no more than 15 minutes. When the hangout ended, it was automatically posted on YouTube. That is the good news. The bad news is that the three people were well-paid, articulate professionals so their time is valuable.

Can we find a viable business model with revenue from ads, subscription fees, pay-per-view fees, etc. to cover the cost?

Inverting classes and outsourcing teaching material

Last week, I sent my class a copy of the announcement of Stanford's forthcoming MOOC An Introduction to Computer Networks.

One of the better students replied immediately, thanking me and saying it was just what he had been looking for. Since our on-campus introduction to networking involves some lab work, the two classes will not be identical, but could they be complementary?

This morning I read that NYU will run an inverted class in programming. The students will work through online teaching material at, then come to class to address problems and ask questions. The weekly class will also have guest lectures from technology industry leaders.
I find myself running an increasingly inverted class, expecting students to study my online modules on their own, freeing up class time for questions over the material and feedback based on their weekly assignments and quizzes. We also discuss current events that are pertinent to the class, which I describe in blog posts and Google Plus posts during the week.

Are you using any "outsourced" teaching material? Inverting your classes?


San Jose State has reported improved test scores in a pilot comparison of an inverted class section using MIT material. It was just a midterm result from one section, so is far from conclusive, but we will keep an eye on the project and hope others do similar comparisons.

#digilit #jiscdiglit #highered #edreform #MOOC #pedagogy #EDUCAUSE #bonkopen
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Monday, October 08, 2012

Software and plumbing patents

Gary S. Becker,a Nobel laureate in economics, and Richard A. Posner, a prolific and renowned Federal Judge, are co-authors of a blog, in which they discuss a wide variety of topics.

The patent and copyright systems was a recent topic, and both men commented on software patents.

Posner wrote "pharmaceutical drugs are the poster child for patent protection" -- expensive to develop and cheap to copy -- and the "problem of excessive patent protection is at present best illustrated by the software industry."

Becker agreed, writing "I admit it is not clear where to draw the line between what should and should not be patentable. However, one can start by eliminating the ability to patent software."

I recommend their posts on patent and copyright as well as the comments that accompany them.

Professor Becker says it is not clear where to draw the line as to what should be patentable, but you know innovation when you see it.

Here are two examples. I agree with judge Posner that issuing a patent on the idea of swiping the screen to turn your phone on is "silly" -- incremental and obvious. Contrast that with the LDR 506 7041BK sink trap.

I've used a pipe wrench and plumber's tape to install and adjust a lot of sink traps over the years, but this morning I installed an LDR trap with no tools, no plumber's tape and little effort. You assemble the trap and snap the parts together with a twist. They click into place, there are no leaks and the assembly costs only $4.95. That is a patent-worthy invention.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Yet another way to cover live events

Louis CK made a lot of money and made a lot of fans happy by producing his own video of a recent comedy show and distributing it on the Internet.

This evening, Bill O'Reilly vs Jon Stewart will be on stage at George Washington University for a political/comedy show.  If you can't or don't want to be there, you can still watch it on the Internet.

Nox Solutions will stream the event on the Internet, and for $4.95 this is what you get:
  • You can stream the event up to three times, including the live stream
  • After that, you can watch it on demand (for a limited time)
  • You get a downloadable audio (mp3) file or downloadable high-definition video file (H.264 encoded in an MP4 container), which will be available at a later date. 
  • You can watch it on any phone, tablet or computer and on your TV if you have a Roku, Google TV, Apple TV, etc.
They ask that you not redistribute and half the profit goes to charity.

You see the event where and when ever you want for $4.95.  Does that sound good to you? What other events would you like to see given similar terms?


More versions are now available for download or streaming -- 240p, 360p, 540p, 720p and 1080p. The file sizes are 238 MB, 548 MB, 882 MB, 1.8 GB and 3.4 GB respectively. It seems like they could have produced the hi-def version faster, but in the case of an entertainment event like this, waiting a few days is not a problem. (They will improve their work flow and get hi-def versions out faster in the future).

Friday, October 05, 2012

Improving African infrastructure -- Internet exchange points come online

Russell Southwood of Balancing Act, who has been tracking and encouraging the growth of the Internet in Africa since the 1990s, reports that Africa’s future data architecture is beginning to fall into place. In recent years, several undersea cables have gone online, linking Africa to the rest of the world, and now Africans are beginning to deploy Internet exchange points.

Undersea cable that are online or soon will be
In the very early days of the Internet, virtually all international traffic was routed through the National Science Foundation backbone in the United States. An email from the University of Chile in Santiago to Catholic University in Santiago, was routed to Florida then back to Santiago. The US National Science Foundation gave free service and even offered connectivity subsidies to foreign research and education networks. (There was no commercial traffic -- it was all for research and education).

As usage expanded, ISPs in Europe, Asia and South America cut costs by creating domestic Internet exchange points. Traffic remained local -- it was no longer routed through the United States.

As you see on this map of Internet exchange points, Africa is now starting down that path. An interactive version of the map is online at the University of Oregon Network Startup Resources Center which has been tracking and encouraging the spread of the Internet in developing nations since the late 1980s.

Internet exchange points in Africa
Southwood points out that Africa still has a long way to go, stating that "on a recent visit to a Central African country, I discovered that an mbps of international bandwidth still costs over US$1,500 compared to the low hundreds or lower in more competitive countries." (And that is still around 10 times the cost in developed nations).

African connectivity trains the rest of the world, but is improving
Indeed, Africa lags far behind other continents in Internet connectivity and utilization, and the relative gap continues to grow, but the absolute level of service is improving. That will benefit Africa and the rest of the world as well.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Governor Brown signs California open source textbook bills

Spurred by the rapidly rising cost of textbooks, California Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills designed to provide Creative Commons textbooks and other teaching material to students in large-enrollment lower division courses. Senate Bill 1053 establishes the California Digital Open Source Library and Senate Bill 1052 establishes the California Open Education Resources Council to oversee and acquire material for the library.

As I read it, the nine member Council will be composed of three faculty members from University of California, the California State University and the California Community Colleges and this is what they will do:
  • Determine a list of 50 lower division courses in the public post secondary
    segments for which high-quality, affordable, digital open source textbooks
    and related materials would be developed or acquired
  • Review and approve developed open source materials and to promote strategies for production, access, and use of open source textbooks to be placed on reserve at campus libraries in accordance with this section
  • Regularly solicit and consider, from each of the statewide student associations of the University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges, advice and guidance on open source education textbooks and related materials, as specified
  • Establish a competitive request-for-proposal process in which faculty members, publishers, and other interested parties would apply for funds to produce, in 2013, 50 high-quality, affordable, digital open source textbooks and related materials, meeting specified requirements
  • Submit a report to the Legislature and the Governor on the progress of the implementation of these provisions by no later than 6 months after the bill becomes operative and to submit a final report by January 1, 2016

This sounds good, and I am optimistic, but have a couple of questions:

Is the bill funded? The act states that all of this is conditional upon funding with State, Federal or Private funds.

At first, publishing companies opposed the bills, then removed their opposition. I wonder what they are thinking. Will they be applying for funds to produce these textbooks? How big a business might that end up being?

Finally, will these end up re-purposed versions of traditional textbooks, or will the library also acquire born digital teaching and learning materials?

It will be interesting to see how the funding goes, who ends up providing the textbooks in 2013 and how much it costs the tax payers.

#digilit #jiscdiglit #highered #edreform #MOOC #pedagogy #EDUCAUSE #bonkop