Thursday, October 30, 2014

A quick look at CBS All Access video streaming

The technical problems will be resolved, but I don't want to watch commercials, so I will pass.

Last week, CBS announce the availability of CBS All Access, allowing subscribers ($5.99 per month) to watch CBS TV shows online. You can stream episodes of CBS series using a browser or portable app and, in selected markets, you can watch live programs as they are broadcast. Broadcast episodes are available the following day for streaming.


I signed up, and streamed an episode of the Big Bang Theory as my first test. As you see below, I viewed it on my phone (a Nexus 5) and mirrored the screen on my TV set using a Google Chromecast.


The video quality was decent, but not super sharp and from time to time it jittered or the audio got a little bit out of synch. Still, it was definitely watchable. That was the good news. The bad news is that in addition to the monthly fee, you see tons of commercials -- before the program starts and at commercial breaks -- just like broadcast TV.

Next, I tried watching in the Chrome browser on my laptop. The picture quality was fine as long as I watched it in a small window, but, when I went full screen on my 15-inch, 1920x1200 pixel display, the quality was very poor, as you see below. (Click the image to see it in its blurry full size).


But wait, it got worse. After a few minutes of viewing, my (admittedly slow) laptop fan started running and the video stuttered and eventually froze. I restarted the video and watched the task manager as it ran. This is what I saw:


It was using about 3 GB of 8 GB of memory and the CPU load was highly variable around an average of about 50%. Then the CPU load jumped to 95-100% and stayed there, rendering the video unwatchable.

I'm not sure what caused the change of state -- perhaps it tried to raise the frame rate and and overwhelmed my laptop. I have an 802.11 ac access point, but the laptop radio is a/b/g. Perhaps it had exhausted an initial buffer, but there was not a noticeable pause for buffering when the stream started.

Next, I tried watching a live stream. The live stream is only available in certain parts of the country, but the small map on their site seemed to have a dot over Los Angeles, where I live. It may have been a temporary outage, but all I got was a message saying to wait:


I gave up after about five minutes of watching the little animated circle rotate.

My test went poorly, but the technical problems will be solved. I'm sure they will get live streaming working soon and improved video algorithms and my getting a new phone and a new laptop will take care of my quality complaints. But, even if the video is rock solid and high definition, I will not subscribe if they continue to run commercials.

I don't want commercials (but maybe you do)

Major content providers like HBO and CBS offering Internet service marks the beginning of the end for cable TV as we know it. Eventually, we will all cut the cord and get our video online, but regardless of the technology, we have four video business models:


I suspect that in the future, most of our viewing will be on demand and scheduled viewing will be mostly used for sports and other events. I can wait to see the current episode of Big Bang Theory until the day after it is broadcast.

When I asked my students whether they would pay $5.99 a month to watch CBS TV with commercials, they all said "no." When I asked if they would watch if it were free, but had commercials, they said "yes." Before the courts put them out of business, Aereo also showed us that there is a market for on demand local TV with commercials. My students are young and on limited budgets, but, as Netflix and Amazon Prime have shown, there is also a substantial market for paid, commercial-free video.

I've no idea what the prices of these video options will be in the future, but I doubt that we will be paying less after we cut the cord. Our ISPs are also our video providers, and, since we generally have only one or perhaps two ISP choices, I expect them to raise broadband prices to compensate for any lost revenue. We will end up with ala carte video and higher monthly bills.

But, that is the speculative future. For now, I will stick with Amazon, Netflix and Hulu Plus, and watch an occasional CBS program over the air with my trusty rabbit-ears antenna.

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Update 10/31/2014

There is a fairly long discussion of this post on Slashdot.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Steven Pinker: what college students should learn

Steven Pinker, a well-known professor of psychology at Harvard recently stated what he thinks a college student should learn:
It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
The above quote is from the middle of a New Republic article by Pinker. Let me tell you about the article and its context.

In July, The New Republic ran an article called "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League by ex Yale professor William Deresiewicz. The subtitle of the article was "The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies" and it was the most widely read article in the magazine's history.

In September, professor Pinker wrote a strong rebuttal to Deresiewicz entitled The Trouble With Harvard, with the subtitle "The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it." Pinker disagrees with pretty much everything Deresiewicz says, but they do agree that the admissions process at elite universites is broken.

If the articles sound interesting or you are involved in college admissions or know someone who is applying to college (like your kid maybe), by all means read them, but I would not have written a blog post on them if it were not for Pinker's definition of a college education.

Do you agree with Pinker? How did your education stack up against his goals? Do the same goals hold for students at "not elite" schools?

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Credits -- I found this quote in a post by Rodney Van Meter on Dave Farber's IP email list and the cool picture is from shutterstock.com.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nobel laureate Jean Tirole's lessons for Internet industries

I am not a game theorist or an economist, but it seems that the work of economics Nobel Prize winner Jean Tirole has two Internet industry applications, one regarding two (or more) sided markets, the other in regulation of monopolies and oligopolies.

Two sided markets

The iPhone is a product for consumers and a platform
for developers. The optimal price is not obvious.

The Apple iPhone is an example of a product with a two-sided market -- they sell iPhones to end users and also profit from app sales by developers. In Econ 101 we learned that a company maximizes profit by setting a price at the point where marginal cost = marginal revenue. But, that is too simple because the iPhone is both a consumer product and a developer platform.

Apple wants to attract application developers as well as sell iPhones and the more iPhones they sell, the more attractive the platform is to developers. More developers means more apps, which means more revenue for Apple and it also makes the iPhone more attractive to end users. So, the optimal price for an iPhone is not the point at which marginal cost = marginal revenue, but something lower.

Google's pricing provides an extreme example. They supply search and other services to end users and they sell advertising. The more services they supply, the more they learn about users and the more valuable they are to advertisers. This has led them to an edge case -- they price their consumer services at zero, relying solely on revenue from advertisers.

On the other hand, they charge businesses $50 per user per year for Google Apps for Work ($120 with unlimited cloud storage). The business services have a few extra management features, but the marginal cost for a new user is essentially the same. Why the price difference? Business users can turn off ads and Google does not scan their email to learn about them. It is a one-sided market.

How about Google apps for education? There are no adds, but the service is free. Why does Google give schools a break? Students who are used to Gmail and Google Drive applications will tend to use them after they graduate, generating long run profit for Google. (They did not need a Nobel Prize for that one -- when I worked for IBM we gave universities an 80% discount on computers in order to get students used to IBM equipment and systems).

Tirole and co-author Jean-Charles Rochet give many more Internet-related examples of two-sided markets in this paper, (There is some beyond-me math in the paper, but the mini case studies near the end are straight forward).

Monopolies and oligopolies

US ISPs like Comcast are able to charge content providers
delivery fees and set high high prices for end users.

In awarding the prize, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Tirole for clarifying "how to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms." Well, that sounds a lot like the network industry.

We have two regulatory conundrums in the US. The first has to do with consumer prices. The incumbent telephone and cable TV companies own the "last mile" infrastructure connecting homes and offices to the Internet, enabling them to set high prices for end users. The second is getting network operators to invest in infrastructure.

Let's consider investment infrastructure first. Joshua Gans, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto with close ties to Tirole notes that end-to-end connectivity requires cooperation between competing firms like Netflix and Comcast, but "if you leave firms to come up with the terms of the cooperation themselves, they are going to find a way to remove the competitive parts as well."

Gans says Tirole solved that problem "with a set of rules and practices that would regulate interconnection terms amongst telecommunications companies for decades while ensuring there were adequate incentives to compete — and not just on price — but on investment in infrastructure." His advice to US regulators: "open one of Tirole’s books; it is time you listened."

How about the consumer price problem? Gans says:
The issue in telecoms arises with what is termed the last-mile problem. You only have one set of cables or copper coming into your house. The solution adopted around the world has been to say, okay, one firm owns this cable, but what they have to do is provide access to these cables. So If I want another firm to provide me with TV or Internet, they have to allow that firm to effectively rent the cable from the other firm.
That strategy worked well in the Netherlands, according to Ad Scheepbouwer, CEO of the Dutch telephone company KPN:
In hindsight, KPN made a mistake back in 1996. We were not too enthusiastic to be forced to allow competitors on our old wireline network. That turned out not to be very wise. If you allow all your competitors on your network, all services will run on your network, and that results in the lowest cost possible per service. Which in turn attracts more customers for those services, so your network grows much faster. An open network is not charity from us, in the long run it simply works best for everybody.
But it failed in the US. Congress anticipated the same sort of infrastructure sharing when they passed the Telecommunication Act of 1996, but the incumbent operators were able to thwart that effort in courts, statehouses and local government.

This frustration was expressed by William Kennard, who, as chairman of the United States Federal Communication from 1997-2001, was charged with implementing the Telecommunications Act. Near the end of his term he said “all too often companies work to change the regulations, instead of working to change the market,” and spoke of “regulatory capitalism” in which “companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service.” He went on to remark that regulation is “too often used as a shield, to protect the status quo from new competition -- often in the form of smaller, hungrier competitors -- and too infrequently as a sword -- to cut a pathway for new competitors to compete by creating new networks and services.”

If regulators are not able to get ISPs to share their infrastructure, there is another alternative -- government ownership of infrastructure. While the US cable and telephone companies have fought vigorously against municipal networks, they have worked well in other places, like Stockholm, where the municipal government provides wholesale infrastructure and invites retail ISPs to compete. (It is noteworthy here that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says he wants to invalidate state laws prohibiting local governments from providing Internet connectivity).

In a column on Tirole's contributions, fellow economics laureate Paul Krugman says that Tirole recognized that there are no comprehensive theories of oligopoly and monopoly and
Basically, [Tirole] made it OK to tell stories rather than proving theorems, and thereby made it possible to talk about and model issues that had been ruled out by the limits of perfect competition. It was, I can tell you from experience, profoundly liberating.
My guess is that the executives at companies like Apple and Google were dealing in stories, like the ones described above, without reading Tirole. Thinking about and elaborating on the story had more to do with Apple's iPhone pricing than the results of a game theoretic model. It also sounds like economists like Krugman and European regulators took Gans' advice -- they read Tirole's books.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Annals of sleazy domain name squatting

The Washington post published an article on a domain name "squatter," who specializes in buying and reselling, at the right time, disease domain names. He owns ebola.com and wants to sell it before its value drops because “Ebola ... is something that could ameliorate and not be a big news story for that much longer.”

While he waits for the bids to roll in on ebola.com, it is redirected to ebola.org, where you can see links to frightening articles:


Get a book on BHT, a food supplement that could help with ebola:


And, of course, purchase some BHT from the optimistically named Life Extension Foundation.

Oh, and note that, if you are so inclined, you can make a bid on the domain name ebola.com.


I don't know which is more depressing -- the fact that someone would try to exploit the ebola epidemic this way or that there are enough people who would pay for BHT to fend off ebola to make squatting on disease domain names a profitable business.

Friday, October 10, 2014

NIH announces big data research and education grant recipients

Vannevar Bush and an artist's rendition of his hypothetical scientific
collaboration work station, dubbed the "memex" -- memory extender

In the 1940s, Vannevar Bush envisioned scientists collaborating using networked desktop machines he dubbed "memexes." That was science fiction, but 70 years later, the Internet has opened the possibility of medical researchers creating and sharing massive clinical and health science databases. (For an early example, check out the Personal Genome Project, which is compiling individual's genome data and detailed medical records for analysis).

The National Institutes of Health has established a program called Big Data to Knowledge with the goal of advancing health and discovery through big data, and they recently announced the recipients of the first round of their big data funding:Government research -- agency funded, as in ARPA's funding of the ARPANet, or through presidential science initiatives -- is crucial to advances in science and technology.




Thursday, October 02, 2014

Dictators versus the Internet -- whack a mole

Since the time of the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt, dictators have played "whack a mole," trying to stem the flow of political information on the Internet during times of protest.

The Internet was a major factor during the Arab Spring and demonstrations in Turkey and Venezuelan earlier this year.

Today, the Chinese government is censoring news about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the dissidents are finding new ways to communicate.

Chinese censors are also trying to erase news of the past, as we learned at the time of the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests.

In the early days, we were optimistic that the Internet would end up a great force for democracy, but it is clear now that we were naive -- it is a tool used by both dictators and the people. Who gains the most?

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Update 10/6/2014

The Economist reports that the Chinese are censoring posts on Weibo at more than double the rate of censorship for the Tiananmen Square anniversary protests.

Increased censorship of the Hong Kong demonstrations

Relcom's "kremvax" relayed USENET news during the Soviet coup attempt.

Protesters used Facebook during the Arab Spring.

Turkish dissidents painted DNS server addresses on walls

Venezuelan protesters used the Zello walkie-talkie app.

The Chinese government is censoring news of today's Hong Kong protests.

Many Chinese are unaware of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests