Friday, June 30, 2006

A connectivity compromise

The effort to prevent US consumer broadband providers from charging anyone except end-users for improved quality of service has stalled in the Senate. Andrew Orlowski skewers the paranoia of the Neutralistas as only the Register can. He writes:

“Rather than confront the underlying, and very real problems it seeks to redress, the blogging wing of the US left has instead created an alternative cyber-reality - populated by phantom demons, imaginary conspiracies, and bogeymen. [...] The immediate consequence of the focus on "Neutrality" has been to permit the cable lobby to write the most anti-competitive bill for thirty years. Perhaps they knew the bloggers were only playing a game, and wouldn't think to look at the rest of the legislation.”

People may at last be in a mood for a compromise. Here’s one: wireline network operators may not block traffic but they can prioritize it, as long as any content provider can buy prioritized access on equal terms. The conditions can be lifted if true competition in consumer broadband materializes.

The situation

There is fear on both sides:

  • The content community fears that the network operators could use their market power to integrate vertically, lock out new entrants, and extract rents.

  • The operator community fears that anti-competition rules will have unintended consequences that suppress their profitability below sustainable levels.
  • One can address both sets of fears by recognizing that market power should be mitigated, while taking into account that competition in last-mile broadband would reduce the need for such actions.

    A solution: the Open Offer Internet

    I start with the premise that there is insufficient competition in last mile high speed broadband networks, and that this concentration is likely to suppress innovation and raise prices, thus decreasing consumer welfare. This situation justifies the imposition of "Open Offer" conditions on both telephone and cable companies that offer broadband access:

    1. No traffic blocking; all sites to be accessible to consumers

    2. The operator can enter into arrangements with 3rd parties to improve content delivery, but this offer should be available on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms (taking into account discounts etc.) to any comer.

    3. Operators shall interconnect with all other broadband networks on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.

    This is not a perpetual mandate, and can change if the competitive situation improves. There would be a review every few years:

    • The FCC reports on compliance with the Open Offer terms. The FCC can get access to confidential company information to make this assessment, but may not make such information public.

    • Operators can request for Open Offer conditions on them to be lifted, if they can prove that the markets they operate in are all competitive.

    • The FCC can (re)impose Open Offer conditions on operators if they see anti-competitive behavior.


    Operators may offer tiered service tiers to consumers if they wish.

    I don’t use the FCC definition of broadband; saying that anything faster than 200kbps is broadband is just silly. Today, “high speed broadband” effectively means speeds faster than 2 Mbps. This will always be a moving target, so it’s better to define it in relative terms. For example: define the threshold of high speed broadband as the lowest speed provided to the top 20% of homes.

    Thursday, June 29, 2006

    Useful self-delusion

    Susan Stamberg’s interview with Lawrence Summers [1] puts on view the kind of person that cannot conceive of personal failure. I don’t think he’s denying responsibility for his failure; he is simply unable to see it.

    This characteristic is so common among leaders that it’s probably a requirement for success. Such people inspire loyalty just because they always see the bright side of every situation. They can persuade others that they’re on the side of right because they believe themselves to be so. When something goes well, it must be because of their actions; when something goes wrong, it must be someone else’s fault.

    Their motivational ability follows from an inability to see their own flaws. In a sense one can’t blame them for not taking responsibility; personal failure is just not the truth as they see it.

    Jeff Skilling of Enron fame is another recent example. A Wall Street Journal article [2] reports that Skilling believed that if he just told the "real" story of Enron, he'd be in no danger. This led him to providing prosecutors with pieces of information that they effectively used against him at the trial. He didn’t believe then, and doesn’t believe now, that he committed any crimes, even though a Houston jury convicted him of 19 counts, including conspiracy, fraud and insider trading.

    The “little people” find it hypocritical when leaders insist that employees take responsibility for their actions, but then don’t hold themselves accountable. The beam in the CEO’s eye doesn’t prevent him from seeing the splinter in everyone else’s... But be gentle; how can it be hypocritical if the Chief Ego Officer truthfully doesn’t believe that they’ve done anything wrong?


    [1] NPR Morning Edition, “Summers Looks Back at Harvard Presidency,” 29 June 2006

    [2] John Emshwiller, The Wall Street Journal, “In New Interview, Skilling Says He Hurt Case by Speaking Up,” 17 June 2006

    Wednesday, June 28, 2006


    Outsourcing angst is due to insecurity: fear that a comfortable status quo is going to change for the worse.

    The most obvious fear is that of losing one’s job, sooner or later, because someone in Asia can do it more cheaply.

    Since the outsourcer is usually in another country, a fear of foreigners – xenophobia – rapidly creeps into the discussion. There’s more than a little “issue bleed” between the off-shoring and immigration debates.

    Since the conversation is driven by Baby Boomers, there’s also the fear of another Other: the young. The Boomers are now parents and proud grand-parents. They can’t admit to loathing their off-spring; it doesn’t fit the wholesome self-image. However, they are getting old, and the next generation is beginning to threaten their prerogatives.

    Energetic, optimistic, in the full bloom of youth: today’s Menace are the Asian ephebes.

    (Thanks to Nicholas Shum for help with the Greek.)

    Thursday, June 22, 2006

    The engineering brain

    Tren Griffin alerted me to an article by Debra Schiff in EETimes which floats some ideas that have a bearing on the Hard Intangibles problem [1]:
    1. Spatial abilities appear to be more localized in the brain than other skills, such as verbal ability.
    2. Spatial ability is a key trait for engineers, scientists and mathematicians.
    3. The brains of engineers have systemizing mechanisms that are set at a higher-than-average levels.
    As Lakoff has pointed out [2], organizational structure is conceptualized as physical structure, as in “The theory is full of holes,” “The fabric of this society is unraveling,” “His proposed plan is really tight; everything fits together very well.” Since systems are complex abstract structures, it’s plausible that we use spatial brain centers to think about systems, and that spatial talent would lead to systematizing ability.

    This raises the obvious question: Has MRI shown that engineers or high systematizers in general, have more extensive spatial manipulation centers in their brains? Listening to software engineers definitely suggests that spatial metaphors are central to their practice.

    I dream about putting a software developer in an fMRI while they’re writing code, and seeing the spatial centers in the brain lights up. And as an encore, seeing what happens when the system problem cannot be modeled in 3D space, eg “high dimensional” challenges like concurrent systems.


    [1] Debra Schiff, “What drives you? Pick your brain,” EETimes 6/19/2006

    [2] Lakoff and Núñez (2000), Where Mathematics Comes From

    Thursday, June 15, 2006


    The Diary of a Tired Black Man video clip reminded of the custom in the African-American community to describe people in one’s community as “brother” and “sister,” even if they aren’t relatives.

    Curiously, Afrikaners – those paragons of racism – used to do the same. The secret elite that ran Afrikaner culture was called the “Broederbond,” that is, the society of brothers. Afrikaners of my father’s generation (though not my father) would often call each other “broer” as a sign of solidarity.

    I’ll take as read the vast differences between these groups, such as the oppressed/oppressor distinction.

    There are a few similarities, though, that might have led to this common usage:

    • Both communities are deeply religious, with a strong Protestant strain
    • Both see themselves as threatened racial minorities in a sea of people of another color
    • Both have a folk memory of being displaced, of being strangers in their own land

    Monday, June 12, 2006

    The dreaded decline in American science

    I’m tired of the moaning about the supposed decline of American science and technology. There are frequent forecasts of doom, along with calls (by professors) for increased funding of education, and (by business people) for increased R&D subsidies.

    It doesn’t necessarily follow:

    It’s not at all proven that the US lags in science and technology; see e.g. data cited by Fareed Zakaria on page 2 of his MSNBC column “How Long Will America Lead the World?” According to him, the U.S. is currently ranked the second most competitive economy in the world (by the World Economic Forum), and is first in technology and innovation, first in technological readiness, first in company spending for research and technology and first in the quality of its research institutions.

    Even if it’s true that the US lags, it’s not proven that science/tech is the key factor in innovation. Innovation is creating a new product that makes a difference. Science and technology is necessary, but not sufficient; I’m not even convinced it’s the key factor. iPod is a great market innovation, but Apple wasn’t the inventor of the MP3 player or on-line music stores. Rather, the key was to design a compelling whole.

    Even if technology were the key factor in innovation, it’s not clear that science/tech is the US’s key competitive advantage going forward. Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage in trade suggests that countries should focus on the activity where they’re “most better” at. If the US is better at business model innovation than engineering, then it should focus on business, even if its engineering is the best in the world.

    I’m reminded of the old story about the California gold rush: the diggers went home poor, but Levi Strauss made a fortune selling jeans. I suspect that having a science-educated workforce is the gold fever of the knowledge economy boom.

    Rising countries are strong in science and technology; but it doesn’t follow that science and technology is the source of their competitiveness. It is just as possible, and more likely, that it’s the “technology” of market capitalism, selectively applied.

    The talents required to succeed in this economy may well be soft, human skills, like those advocated by Dan Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind”. I have my doubts about it – not least because Dan Pink argues that the future belongs to people like Dan Pink – but it give a provocative counter-point to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) advocates. Pink’s six essential aptitudes for the coming century are design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning; very little along those lines is taught in engineering school.

    I hear echoes of the Manhattan Project and its successors in the battle cries of the technocrats. The supposed success of science in winning the second world war led to Robert McNamara & Co running the Vietnam war by the numbers, with such great success. Not to mention Donald Rumsfeld’s Technology Über Alles strategy for winning the war in Iraq….

    Of course we need people who can excel in knowledge-intensive jobs – but that’s not the same as STEM jobs.

    And of course we need a good supply of engineers. However, the problem (if any) is one of demand, not supply. If engineers were indeed so valuable to companies, then employers would increase salaries until all positions were filled to their satisfaction. A “Help Wanted” sign in a diner’s window doesn’t mean that there’s a shortage of short order cooks; it mostly means that the owner of the diner isn’t willing to pay a decent wage.

    I’ll concede that there is a problem with US education. (Though… when hasn’t there been? And which country doesn’t agonize over education?) The NAS panel recommended that more science teachers be recruited by paying sign-on bonuses (PDF exec summary). However, this is a palliative at best. The core problem is that teachers aren’t paid enough (blame the Right), and that the teachers’ unions have a stranglehold on workplace rules (blame the Left). There is a gap in teachers’ salaries, and a lack of accountability.

    The American Federation of Teachers salary survey reports that the average job offer in 2004 to college graduates who were not education majors was $40,472; that’s $8,768 more than a starting teacher’s salary. A sign-on bonus will help, but only if salaries for mid-career teachers also increase. At this point, there’s no financial incentive for good scientists and engineers to stay in teaching.

    Here’s one reason why school science scores are better in emerging countries: in those places, teaching is still a relatively well-paying job. The US problem of affluence will catch up with them in time. For example, India is struggling to find university lecturers in computer science, since they can earn so much more in the commercial sector. American science education will only improve if the society decides that teachers are as important as design engineers, and pays them accordingly; sadly, that’s not on the cards.

    Wednesday, June 07, 2006

    Math as Metaphor vs. Multiple Intelligences

    Jonathan Aronson alerted me to the relevance of Howard Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences to my “hard intangibles” project.

    Gardner argues that intelligence isn’t a one-dimensional capacity that can be measured by (say) an IQ test. He defines it as “the ability to solve problems, or to fashion products, that are valued in one or more cultural or community settings.” He argues that there are seven distinct intelligences: linguistic; logical-mathematical; spatial; musical; bodily-kinesthetic; interpersonal; and intrapersonal. Each person has a different mix of skills. [1]

    He applies this theory to education. In ref. [1] he gives the example of a child that’s having trouble learning mathematics because the principle to be learned (the content) exists only in the logical-mathematical world and it ought to be communicated through mathematics (the medium); however, the child struggles with math. A good teacher finds a way around this problem by translating the principle into another domain, e.g. through a story or a spatial model. Gardner observes that this alternative route to understanding “is at best a metaphor or translation. It is not mathematics itself. And at some point, the learner must translate back into the domain of mathematics.”

    This raises a question about Lakoff’s work [2] about the underlying sensory-motor metaphors in mathematics. If Gardner is correct that mathematics is a domain with its own intelligence, and if there’s a distinct basis for each intelligence in brain physiology, then his claim that mathematics is based on spatial and bodily-kinesthetic metaphors may be nothing more than a way to make math intelligible to people with good spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Those who are proficient at mathematics use their “mathematical faculty”, and don’t have to fall back on sensory-motor metaphors.

    From my reading of their work, Lakoff makes a more persuasive case than Gardner, and I’m therefore inclined to doubt that spatial models in mathematics are simply crutches.

    Still – it’s notable that two of Gardner’s intelligences (logical-mathematical, and musical) do seem more remote from the sensory-social experiences of childhood, which Lakoff argues shapes our cognitive abilities, than the others. It suggests that one might expect another collaboration from Lakoff, on “Where Music Comes From”.


    [1] Howard Gardner (1993), “Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice”

    [2] George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez (2000), “Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being”