Election not tightening

FiveThirtyEight.com is the most interesting election horse race site. It’s run by Nate Silver, the Baseball Prospectus stats guy, who does the most thorough analysis of polling data, sophisticated in a way that only a Sabermetrician can fully appreciate. Silver rejects the “tightening race” narrative that we’ve started to hear, as he looks at state polls and projects the Electoral College outcome:

If the state polls aren’t showing movement toward McCain, then it is probably the case that any perceived movement in the national polls is sampling noise. If anything, in fact, the state polls are showing movement toward Obama on balance, not just in battleground states like Virginia, but also in non-battlegrounds as diverse as New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Arizona.

Movement in the popular vote in non-battleground states is not significant, so let’s not get distracted. But let’s not forget to vote, either (I’ve already voted, thank you very much.)

The Trouble with White Spaces

Like several other engineers, I’m disturbed by the white spaces debate. The White Space Coalition, and its para-technical boosters, argue something like this: “The NAB is a tiger, therefore the White Spaces must be unlicensed.” And they go on to offer the comparison with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, arguing as Tom Evslin does on CircleID today that “If we got a lot of innovation from just a little unlicensed spectrum, it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll get a lot more innovation if there’s a lot more [unlicensed] spectrum available.”

According to this argument, Wi-Fi has been an unqualified success in every dimension. People who make this argument haven’t worked with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth systems in a serious way, or they would be aware that there are in fact problems, serious problems, with Wi-Fi deployments.

For one thing, Wi-Fi systems are affected by sources of interference they can’t detect directly, such as FM Baby Monitors, cordless phones, and wireless security cameras. Running Wi-Fi on the same channel as one of these devices causes extremely high error rates. If 2.4 and 5.x GHz devices were required to emit a universally detectable frame preamble much of this nonsense could be avoided.

And for another, we have the problem of newer Wi-Fi devices producing frames that aren’t detectable by older (esp. 802.11 and 802.11b gear) without an overhead frame that reduces throughput substantially. If we could declare anything older than 802.11a and .11g illegal, we could use the spectrum we have much more efficiently.

For another, we don’t have enough adjacent channel spectrum to use the newest version of Wi-Fi, 40 MHz 802.11n, effectively in the 2.4 GHz band. Speed inevitably depends on channel width, and the white spaces offer little dribs and drabs of spectrum all over the place, much of it in non-adjacent frequencies.

But most importantly, Wi-Fi is the victim of its own success. As more people use Wi-Fi, we have share the limited number of channels across more Access Points, and they are not required to share channel space with each other in a particularly efficient way. We can certainly expect a lot of collisions, and therefore packet loss, from any uncoordinated channel access scheme, as Wi-Fi is, on a large geographic scale. This is the old “tragedy of the commons” scenario.

The problem of deploying wireless broadband is mainly a tradeoff of propagation, population, and bandwidth. The larger the population your signal covers, the greater the bandwidth needs to be in order to provide good performance. The nice thing about Wi-Fi is its limited propagation, because it permits extensive channel re-use without collisions. if the Wi-Fi signal in your neighbor’s house propagated twice as far, it has four times as many chances to collide with other users. So high power and great propagation isn’t an unmitigated good.

The advantage of licensing is that the license holder can apply authoritarian rules that ensure the spectrum is used efficiently. The disadvantage is that the license holder can over-charge for the use of such tightly-managed spectrum, and needs to in order to pay off the cost of his license.

The FCC needs to move into the 21st century and develop some digital rules for the use of unlicensed or lightly-licensed spectrum. The experiment I want to see concerns the development of these modern rules. We don’t need another Wi-Fi, we know how it worked out.

So let’s don’t squander the White Spaces opportunity with another knee-jerk response to the spectre of capitalism. I fully believe that people like Evslin, the White Space Coalition, and Susan Crawford are sincere in their belief that unlicensed White Spaces would be a boon to democracy, it’s just that their technical grasp of the subject matter is insufficient for their beliefs to amount to serious policy.

Christopher Hitchens at this best

In Slate, see The GOP ticket’s appalling contempt for science and learning

This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just “people of faith” but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity.

Quite so.

Glorified Piracy

Commenting in Spiked on the Lessig School of digital piracy enablement, Andrew Orlowski traces the odd course of progressive thought on creativity:

In polite company, sympathy for copyright is in short supply, while for politicians, the ‘creative economy’ is little more than a platitude. Such attitudes are most deeply held amongst people who consider themselves liberal, forward thinking or progressive.

Which is deeply odd, because for 150 years liberals and progressives have embraced the artistic creator as both an ally and a pathfinder. From William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement, to the many schemes devised by postwar social democratic governments, the creator was an aesthetic rebel, a political ally and a visionary, an ethos that owed much to Shelley’s view of the poet as the ‘unacknowledged legislator’. What many of these initiatives had in common was a creator’s economic independence, typically supported through the mechanism of copyright.

The progressive’s support of creator’s rights expressed an optimistic view of society and human nature. But ever since digital utopianism swept through the chattering classes in the early 1990s, this positive view has been replaced by one of misanthropy and paranoia.

At some point you’d hope these expropriators would realize that derivative works of pseudo-creativity can’t flourish without some original material to plagiarize.

Google open-sources Android

I lost my Blackberry Curve somewhere in England last week, so I ordered an HTC G1 from T-Mobile as a replacement. The Curve doesn’t do 3G, so it’s an obsolete product at this point. And as I’m already a T-Mobile customer (I chose them for the Wi-Fi capability of their Curves,) the path of least resistance to 3G goes through the G1. Just yesterday I was explaining to somebody that Android wasn’t really open source, but Google was apparently listening and decided to make a liar of me by open-sourcing Android:

With the availability of Android to the open-source community, consumers will soon start to see more applications like location-based travel tools, games and social networking offerings being made available to them directly; cheaper and faster phones at lower costs; and a better mobile web experience through 3G networks with richer screens.The easy access to the mobile platform will not only allow handset makers to download the code, but to build devices around it. Those not looking to build a device from scratch will be able to take the code and modify it to give their devices more of a unique flavor.

“Now OEMs and ODMs who are interested in building Android-based handsets can do so without our involvement,” Rich Miner, Google’s group manager for mobile platforms, told us earlier today. Some of these equipment makers are going to expand the role of Android beyond handsets.

This is good news, of course. I haven’t enjoyed the fact that T-Mobile sat between me and RIM for Blackberry software upgrades. The first add-on app that I’d like to see for the G1 is something to allow tethering a laptop to 3G via Bluetooth. I could tether the Curve, but as it only supports Edge it wasn’t incredibly useful.

In a more perfect world, I’d prefer the Treo Pro over the G1, but it doesn’t work on T-Mobile’s crazy array of AWS and normal frequencies, and is also not subsidized, so the G1 is a better deal. The Blackberry Storm is probably a better overall device than the G1, but it’s exclusive to Verizon so I would have had to pay a $200 early termination fee to get it. These phones are mainly for fun, so paying a fee to leave a carrier I basically like makes it all too serious.

Obama’s CTO short list

According to Business Week, Obama’s CTO will be one of these guys:

Among the candidates who would be considered for the job, say Washington insiders, are Vint Cerf, Google’s (GOOG) “chief internet evangelist,” who is often cited as one of the fathers of the Internet; Microsoft (MSFT) chief executive officer Steve Ballmer; Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeffrey Bezos; and Ed Felten, a prominent professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University.

I can’t see Ballmer taking this job when he’s having so much fun, but I imagine any of the others would bite. Trouble is, they’re mostly business guys rather than tech guys, so it’s not an elite group. I’d have to go with Felten, for the fact that he has actual technical knowledge as well as a blog. I’ve debated him about net neutrality, of course.

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Europe’s Choice

Andrew Orlowski explains the state of Internet regulation in both the US and Europe in The Register:

For almost twenty years, internet engineers have persuaded regulators not to intervene in this network of networks, and phenomenal growth has been the result. Because data revenues boomed, telecoms companies which had initially regarded packet data networking with hostility, preferred to sit back and enjoy the returns.

But that’s changing fast. Two months ago the US regulator, which scrupulously monitors public radio for profanity, and which spent months investigating a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipples, decided it needed to start writing technical mandates. And so off it went.

Unnoticed by almost everyone, so did the EU.

“It’s the revenge of the unemployed Telecomms Regulator”, one seasoned observer in Brussels told us this week. “The internet really put them out of business. Now they’re back.”

The Internet is indeed the most lightly-regulated network going, and it’s the only one in a constant state of improvement. Inappropriate regulation – treating the Internet like a telecom network – is the only way to put an end to that cycle.

If it’s Wednesday, this must be London

The Net Neutrality event went well in Brussels yesterday, and today I’ve set up shop in London for another go-round. I love London. I’m within walking distance of the British Museum, McDonald’s, and Krispy Kreme, and two tube stops from some Kerala food. It rains like Portland, just to discourage the tourists, but not so much as to make a real difference.

A Turgid Tale of Net Neutrality

An article by Glenn Derene on net neutrality in Popular Mechanics is getting a lot of attention this week. It attempts to define net neutrality – always a perilous task – and to contrast the positions of our two presidential candidates on it:

…there’s no accepted definition of network neutrality itself. It is, in fact, more of a networking philosophy than a defined political position. A pure “neutral” network is one that would treat all content that traveled across it equally. No one data packet would be prioritized above another. Image files, audio files, a request from a consumer for a web page—all would be blindly routed from one location to another, and the network would neither know nor care what kind of data was encompassed in each packet. For most but not all kinds of files, that’s how it works now.

When they were created, TCP/IP protocols were not intended to discriminate routinely between packets of data. The idea was to maintain a “best effort” network, one that moved packets from place to place in an effort to maximize overall throughput. But the protocols did allow for discrimination when it was needed. “Even the very first design for IP, back in 1980, had a “type of service” field, intended to provide different levels of traffic priority in a military setting,” says John Wroclawski, the director of the computer networks division at the University of Southern California’s revered Information Sciences Institute.

“The big question is not ‘can you do this technically,'” Wroclawski says. “It’s ‘how do you decide who to favor?'” In today’s multimedia-saturated Internet, streams of time-sensitive voice and video data are routinely prioritized over nonsequential data transfers such as Web pages. If one bit doesn’t follow another in a videoconference, for instance, the stream falls apart. For the most part, even proponents of net neutrality are okay with that level of discrimination.

This passage illustrates the problem with the kind of hardcore neutrality that was bandied about prior to the introduction of bills in the Congress to mandate fair treatment of network traffic, and it misses the point of a non-discriminatory network. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing packets according to application requirements, and it would be silly not to do so. That’s one of the reasons that the IP header has a TOS field, as the quote indicates. The problem of who sets the TOS (actually DSCP in the current iteration of IP) is also not at all troubling – the application does it. So a proper definition of net neutrality is to treat all packets with the same requirements the same way, regardless of their origin, destination, or the application that generated them. And in fact that’s what the bills required: they didn’t ban QoS, they banned fees for QoS, embracing a flat-rate billing model.

And that’s a problem, of course. If we’re going to allow carriers to work with users to prioritize packets, which we should, we should also allow them to create service plans for this kind of treatment, and it should be legal for the carriers to sell QoS services to third parties (think VoIP providers) that would take effect when the consumer hasn’t purchased any QoS services. The problem of applications that set all their packets to highest priority is controlled by establishing account quotas for volume-per-minute (or less) for each priority. If you use up your quota for high-priority traffic with BitTorrent, your Skype is going to suck. And you have to deal with that. If your applications don’t signal their priority requirements to the network – and most don’t – you can allow your ISP to classify them for you, as they’ll be happy to do.

The flat-rate billing model that’s insensitive to load is a primary reason for the American controversy for net neutrality. Countries like Australia that have volume-metered pricing simply don’t have this issue as their ISP networks aren’t magnets for P2P file distribution. Net Neutrality is indeed an American problem. And moreover, there’s no particular need to cap data volume as long as the carrier is free to deprioritize bulk data. The postal service does this with very good effect, after all.

The fundamental dilemma behind the net neutrality controversy is the desire of activists to have it both ways: they want a QoS guarantee on the one hand, but no prioritization on the other. We can certainly do that in network engineering, but not without substantial changes in the network protocols and routers in use today. What we can do quite practically is provide high-confidence QoS for small amounts of data, sufficient for a single VoIP or gaming session over the typical DSL or wireless broadband link, and that should be sufficient for the time being.

If we can’t prioritize, then it follows that the only way to control network congestion is with crude caps and user-based QoS schemes that have unfortunate side-effects. And nobody really wants that, once they understand what it means

Both candidates are clueless on the issue, so I don’t see it as determinative of which to vote for.

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The best in women’s wear

Y’all should go read about this amazing dress designer, Miranda Bennett, in Time Out New York

A very feminine and elegant woman’s line with a little edge and a lot of versatility. “For my current collection, I imagined a really well-packed suitcase,” she explains. “I wanted the pieces to function together and fit a woman’s daily transition as she leaves the house in the morning, goes to work and goes out afterward.” Utilizing a casual wool fabric, Bennett innovatively creates jumpers; soft, flowing dresses; and flattering tops that look chic in any setting. And, unlike most multipurpose items, each piece has a surprising touch, like hidden pockets or a cozy silk lining. “I like to give the wearer a hidden luxury—it’s a nice secret for her to have.”

She does really amazing things with the cloth, like this:

Miranda dresses
a Miranda dress

Go forth and purchase.