Monday, 15 September 2014

Protect the Internet

Waiting until the last minute as is my normal pattern, I have finally posted a comment to the Federal Communications Commission regarding Proceeding 14-28 titled “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”. Today is the deadline but I assume that everyone that actually has concerns about this topic knows that and is either suffering from procrastination like I have been or has already filed their comment, so this isn’t necessarily a call for you to get cracking and get your comment in too. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet planned to do this, you should: FCC Send Us Your Comments page

For the record, although my comments will appear on the FCC’s site in a day or so, here’s what I had to say:

Much of my life depends directly on an open and free-flowing internet. A part of this is that on a very small scale I am a web developer and hosting service. This represents a significant portion of my work and my income. In addition to that, I get virtually all of my news online. The vast majority of my communications come in and go out through the medium of e-mail. Although telephone calls to my immediate area are carried over copper pairs provided by Whidbey telecom, my local telco, most of my calls travel over the Internet using VOIP. I don’t watch television, I don’t subscribe to a dead trees newspaper, and the physical mail that comes to my post office box represents a tiny fraction of the incoming information to this household.

It is crucial for me, and I believe for the future of American society, that the Internet continues to serve all of its users, both publishers and consumers as well as merchants and customers, with scrupulous fairness in terms of transmission capacity and speed.

The business model that has made the Internet what it is today is relatively simple. On one side are the consumer facing ISPs who provide transmission to and from their customers, frequently local, who connect via telephone line, cable services, wireless or cellular connection, and doubtless a few creative niche alternatives that I’m forgetting at the moment. On the other side are the publishers of content, essentially anyone with a website, who either develop their own data centers and connections to the broader network or rent facilities from commercial hosts. Between these two sides exists what we call “the cloud”, the backbone carriers and all of the various interconnections and telco hotels that connect the consumer-facing ISPs on the one hand with the publishers on the other, both of whom charge their respective customers for their services, both of whom pay their upstream providers for connections to the cloud.

There has been one addition to this pattern, probably starting with the founding of Akamai in 1998, and that is what’s called the Content Delivery Network. This allows any publisher with a website hosted on a single server to engage the services of a CDN with globally dispersed proxies to speed up the experience of a user in Portland Oregon, for example, when browsing pages of a site located in Miami Florida or London England. Functionally this is an augmentation of the existing cloud. Clients of a CDN are using that system so that their sites appear to be nearby to users regardless of their physical location. Although the acceleration offered by a CDN directly benefits only the users of that system, by taking significant traffic off of the primary backbone providers every web browser in a specific location will tend to see content loading more quickly even on other sites. It’s hard to see this development as anything but positive.

Does such a system create a fast lane and a slow lane for Internet users? I believe the answer to that is clearly negative.

To take the question one step further, will the recent proposals from ISPs like Comcast to publishers like Netflix, in which those publishers pay a premium to those ISPs for faster delivery, create the dreaded two speed Internet? I have no direct knowledge of the mechanism by which this faster delivery will be accomplished, my assumption is that what is being offered is additional bandwidth across the cloud supplementing the current backbone providers. If this is the case, when Netflix pays extra to deliver their content more rapidly to Comcast data centers, all Comcast customers will benefit and no one will be relegated to the dreaded slow lane.

However, this is true only insofar as the ISPs continue to provide the same level of bandwidth between their data centers and the cloud that they were providing before the special service to those high-volume publishers was implemented. If Comcast and and Netflix contract to add a half gigabit per second of direct connectivity between Netflix and a specific Comcast data center, and Comcast maintains their existing cloud connections unchanged, no slow lane is created. In fact, customers viewing other sites will see an improvement in performance during those parts of the day when video traffic from Netflix is highest. However, if Comcast turns around and reduces their existing connections by the same half gigabit per second, customers viewing other content will see no immediate change in performance but over time, with growth in network volumes, their experience will begin to suffer.

Therefore the existence of these additional service contracts between publishers and ISPs has the potential to benefit the public, but only insofar as those ISPs do not reduce their current pattern of connections to the cloud which all their users will be exploiting in common. Whether ensuring that such contracts actually enhance network services requires a redefinition of the Commission’s structural approach to regulating Internet service providers or not is best left to the attorneys, I have no preference either way as long as the result of those contracts is an improvement for all users.

There is one question that has come up in the past that must not be forgotten: any attempt that an ISP might make to prioritize one type of traffic over another or to favor the traffic from one source over another, once that traffic has reached its data centers, must always be prohibited. This must apply regardless of the reason, whether an ISP simply doesn’t like BitTorrent, disapproves the politics of certain sites, or wants to block VOIP traffic to protect their own telephone business is irrelevant, there must be no favoritism shown by an ISP for one packet over another once that packet arrives at the datacenter.

If I Were King, net neutrality would be the law of the land with or without my comments.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger

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Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

FFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton, 2014, 271pp

I am not a sports fan. I once attended a Seattle Mariners game — we had great seats, front row at third base. I was bored by the end of the first inning. I did enjoy a few Everett Giants games, but in the minor leagues the baseball is probably not the important part. Giants games were outdoors, they had far better hotdogs and beer than anything at the Kingdome, and the tickets were free because I only went when the Empress Larkin was in charge of the alto line in the national anthem. Oddly, I seem to actually enjoy sports movies; The Natural, The Replacements, Bull Durham, and Moneyball all come to mind. In the last case, I also read the book, and was somewhat surprised to learn that Michael Lewis could actually make baseball statistics interesting. When Flash Boys came out, relating to a somewhat more interesting subject, I had to take a look.

As the book opens, Lewis relates that 205 eight-man crews were laying fiber between the South Side of Chicago and Carteret, New Jersey. The crews had no idea what they were building, but if they had all gotten together to plot their work on a map they would have seen that they were laying a conduit along a straight line, therefore the shortest distance, between two data centers. The route had not been selected for speed of digging, in fact they spent a great deal of time boring through mountains rather than deviate from that path. a digital signal from the Chicago Board of trade and NASDAQ data centers required 16-17 ms to make the round trip. Some traders had discovered a Verizon route that cut the time to 14.65 ms and were able to make significant money on the times they found themselves on “The Gold Route”. Those crews were laying a conduit to carry 400 strands of fiber along a path that would require only 12 ms, and they planned to lease the use of the cable for millions. A high-speed trading firm wanting a pair of those fibers (one each way) was asked to pony up $300,000 a month and several million in start up costs. And they all signed up.

Why on earth would these brilliant players shell out that kind of scratch to save 2.35 to 5 ms to send a few messages from Chicago to Trenton? Well, it wasn’t a few messages, it was thousands per minute. And the high-frequency traders (HFTs) had discovered that if their connections were fast enough they could learn a buyer’s interest in a stock, including the price the buyer was offering, and rather than arrange the trade at the best price in the market, they would buy the shares for a penny or two less and pocket the difference when they delivered the shares to the buyer. So who cares about a few pennies? Well, just about anybody that can do it a million times a day. The HFTs could do that, and though there is no real accounting for their results, Lewis estimates that their advantage earned them over $10 billion per year. Even if investing holds no interest to you, that kind of money probably does.

Lewis identifies several participants in the marketplace who discovered and attempted to eliminate these games; one was a manager of electronic trading at Royal Bank of Canada (Brad Katsuyama), one a communications wizard who had worked for MCI, Qwest, and Level 3 but really wanted to be in finance (Ronan Ryan), and one a Russian programmer working for Goldman Sachs (Sergey Aleynikov). Katsayuma led a group that formed IEX, a trading platform based on introducing delays in transmissions to eliminate the time differences that some of the HFTs were using to exact their hidden tax on most transactions, some of which Ryan made possible. IEX is currently treated as one of the “dark pools” but with far greater transparency than any others in that group and is working on the process of becoming an actual exchange. Their current volume is similar to Deutsche Börse, higher than Hong Kong, but less than 5% of the size of NASDAQ. I see that IEX traded over 116 million shares on the 4th, they got a lot of attention when this book hit the market.

Lewis also looks at the risk of things like the “flash crashes” that have staggered markets a few times, but only in passing. The question that this book really addresses is whether or not the HFTs are a positive part of the market. As Lewis documents, they have been trading in ways that come close to theft but they have also forced the buy/sell price spread down which benefits everyone. Some argue that the HFTs contribute by “making a market”, but Lewis points out that they don’t actually perform that function when a stock is under pressure which is the only time it really makes a positive difference. My conclusion is that the HFTs may have been important in providing the volume that made today’s trading so inexpensive, but what the HFTs are actually doing on those networks is a net loss to the economy.

If you have a mind to learn how to play the HFT game for fun and profit, you could learn a lot from this book but it isn’t going to teach you the nuts and bolts of how to do it. Flash Boys does a great job of illuminating the processes of today’s markets for those that are interested, and like I said at the outset, Michael Lewis, who wrote a book that made baseball statistics fascinating, writes in a way that makes even the backrooms of the market’s heavy hitters sound interesting.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Cover imageEverything Bad Is Good For You
Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2005, 238pp

Having misread a blurb regarding this book, I was hoping to gain support for my idea that the nutritional benefits of, say, butter and rice cakes are actually proportional to their levels of flavor. Sadly, I received no such reinforcement but I’ll stick with that belief anyway. What Johnson does advance in this book is the surprising concept that television, video games, and the Internet are actually making all of us smarter. As far-fetched as that might sound, he makes strong case.

He starts with games. As a boy Johnson deeply explored fantasy baseball games at a time when these were strictly on paper. He enjoyed analyzing the many factors that went into success of a player and a team, and the differences between various tools involved in his exploration. Touching on significant research he examines modern video games, the fact that they’ve forced the player to spend hours of time that isn’t particularly enjoyable simply learning the rules needed to complete the game. Johnson marvels at the growing complexity of video games from the likes of Pac-Man, for which a single page describing patterns to watch for was all the documentation extant, to Grand Theft Auto III, for which a 53,000 word “walk-through” exists that many find essential to playing the game. Where the cynic expected games to offer the path of least resistance to players, in truth they have become impressive challenges, much like the efforts he put into hypothetical baseball. Johnson applauds the devotion of what others see as slackers to learning and mastering the complexity of these games.

He then moves on to broadcast television. He recalls how Newton Minow, an FCC Commissioner, declared TV to be a “vast wasteland” in 1961. He looks closely at the growing complexity of prime time shows. He takes the police procedural genre for one set of examples, noting the absolute consistency and linearity of Dragnet (1951-1959), relating that Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) introduced a second subplot, normally comic, to start and end each show while the bulk of the time was still spent on a purely linear story. Years later, in 1981, came Hill Street Blues, a program that routinely had six or eight simultaneous plots developing, some of which had started in previous episodes and some extending into future ones. This development was followed by other programs until the Sopranos routinely involved a dozen distinct threads with 20 or more recurring characters. (He doesn’t mention them, but two of the procedurals from Don Johnson that were followed in the royal rec room, Miami Vice and Nash Bridges, reinforce the idea.) In other words, during several decades broadcast television was changing from the most simple of entertainments to dramas nearly as complex as a novel.

Johnson sees the internet in the same light. Not only does it provide resources for enhancing other parts of life, including access to helpful information about video games and staggering amounts of discussion about television (look for the extensive analyses of both the drama and the medicine in House, M.D. that can be found on-line), but it has pushed us into a new way of learning. He quotes Steve Jobs as positing that the difference between television and the internet is the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. But the whole book points out that we have been moving from the former to the latter in other pursuits.

Johnson asserts an underlying change that he calls the “Sleeper Curve”, an increase in societal mental acuity that is quietly enhancing the intelligence of just about everybody that participates in our increasingly-complex society. Where George Will sees “an increasingly infantilized society”, Johnson sees “a kind of positive brainwashing” in the same media that Will, and many other observers, deride.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Despite watching this happen, I didn’t see what it really meant. Before getting too excited about your kids’ media habits, consider Johnson’s view and look closely at what is actually being watched. Odds are good that they are stimulating young minds rather than creating the zombies that so many parents fear are sitting on their sofas, when parents prefer more identifiable homework.

Alas, I’m not sure this helps me personally. I rarely watch broadcast television and the only game I seem to play is Freecell, which can be mastered in thirty seconds and I mostly use to let my brain wander without doing much of anything. Did you think that video games were just modern pacifiers? In most cases, as Johnson points out, the answer would be no, but in my case it’s true. I do think the internet has had a positive impact on my intellect, but I’m completely missing the benefits of games and TV.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

No Place to Hide

No-place-to-hideNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald
Metropolitan Books (a Henry Holt imprint), 2014, 253pp, backmatter online

Opinions regarding Edward Snowden tend to be neatly divided, some see him as a hero, the rest see him as a traitor. I fear that only the former group is likely to read No Place To Hide, I might as well admit at the outset that I am in this group. I feel we owe a great deal to Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning as well, and reading this book convinces me that I need to add Glenn Greenwald to the list, considering the significant risks he took in bringing Snowden’s revelations to light.

The book is surprisingly evenhanded while discussing the incredible details of the NSA’s invasion of our privacy, because of his involvement with Snowden and the timeliness of the story the book largely focuses on this matter but without attempting to demonize America compared to other surveillance states. He could easily have been much harsher, for example his quote of Sen. Joe Biden from 2006 excoriating the metadata collection of the NSA under President Bush is mentioned, the hypocrisy noted, and then Greenwald moves on.

Still, after delineating the extent of the NSA’s surveillance and the cooperation of the other four members of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand) we are left knowing that no surveillance state in history has matched the current levels.

I didn’t grow up under the Stasi like Angela Merkel did, but I was raised in a surveillance state. No, not some reprehensible communist regime, but rather the warm and comforting environment of small town America in the ’60s. My parents were prominent members of the community and any wayward act I might have committed was very likely to be relayed to them by those who happened to see it. Somehow, I came away from that with a warm regard for the safety fostered by that natural watchfulness. As Greenwald clearly points out, governments rely on the expectation that their watchfulness is only a risk to malefactors, that those of us who go about our business responsibly have nothing to fear and in fact benefit from it. Of course he also points out that the division between those we think should be watched for our safety and those who should be left alone tends to change with the times. Ten years ago it was Democrats decrying the ominous intent of the NSA programs we knew so little about at the time, while today most Democrats defend the White House policies and it is the Republicans who are more likely to cry foul. The Panopticon is real, if there is one chapter in Greenwald’s book that is important, it is the one that documents the general dangers of government having the kinds of information that the NSA is currently collecting.

He also does a fair job of demolishing the idea that such surveillance will actually make us safer. He makes it clear what a tiny part of the government’s use of this data has had anything to do with terrorism and how the use of that scary word is a flatly fraudulent excuse for assaults on our rights. Investigating the Brazilian oil company Petrobras or listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls obviously have nothing to do with terrorism, and breaking into Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers systems is all about maintaining the NSA’s ability to “collect it all” rather than any defense against future terrorist acts. He points out that in order to justify the incredible expense of the NSA’s operation, compared to our investment in normal police activities, they would have to stop over three hundred realistic attacks a year when they have, in fact, stopped none at all.

As Greenwald released the first of Snowden’s cache of documents, he was attacked not only by the governments eagerly participating in the surveillance be revealed, but also by journalists, many of whom were quick to define him as an activist or a blogger rather than being one of their august company. I won’t expand on that here, suffice it to say that the chapter covering the foolishness and bad taste of much of the journalistic community is choice reading.

The most devastating effect of reading this book is the awareness that those we see as “the good guys” are, when they are in power, just as likely to pursue these reprehensible activities. Looking back over history it seems to me that even the power of surveillance that J Edgar Hoover had when he so eagerly dug into the background of Martin Luther King, Jr was probably excessive, and I would very much like to see us roll back the federal capabilities in this area at least a half century. If I Were King, I’d like to think that I would dismantle all of it. Alas, this book leads me to wonder if I could do that once I was on the other side. But it should be dismantled, this level of surveillance is damaging to our society and provides little or no safety at huge expense.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Communications needed in the Levant

A few days ago I opened up a nasty can of worms by suggesting that one of the reasons the US should keep the Warthogs on the job was the vicious fighting in places like Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine. I hope that it doesn’t actually come to that. In fact, if there is to be a deployment of US air power in that part of the world I think the best plan would be to establish 24/7 drone coverage of the Ukraine-Russia border so the world knows exactly what levels of troops and materiel transfers are going on there.

But before any decisions are made on that possibility I think there’s another program that would serve the interests of the US and quite a few others. My thought is that whether on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq or inside the various dictatorial states that aren’t actively at war, one of the crucial needs is communication between individuals and from the area to the outside world.

Google has tested a balloon-based internet system in New Zealand. Several players have talked about other possibilities, such as a lightweight solar-powered aircraft that would carry the wireless equipment for networking on the ground below, loitering for months at a time. If the Sunni population under ISIS control had a way to get videos of atrocities out to YouTube it wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be a good thing. If an Iranian Snowden or Manning could upload nuclear plans to Wikileaks it could dramatically help efforts to come to a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran. (It would royally piss off the mullahs that rule there, please don’t think this would upset me even slightly!)

Last year I suggested we should be developing a reasonable anti-aircraft weapon that included user identification and target verification to eliminate any possibility of the weapons being used by jihadis against us. I’m not aware of any development of such weapons, but if someone did read that post and wants to make them real, they’ll need a reliable network to make them work.

If you’ve been reading my posts here for a while, you know for certain that If I Were King I would support open communications within my realm. I’d also be willing to temporarily extend such a boon in other areas where poverty, military action, or small-minded governments prevent their people from enjoying what should be available to every sentient being.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Supremes wrong on Aereo

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in American Broadcasting Companies vs Aereo that the service provided a “public performance” of broadcast materials and thus infringed on broadcasters copyrights. I believe that they got it wrong, and I am disappointed in several of the justices while equally surprised that the three most conservative members of the court (Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) got it right.

The narrow basis for the decision is that the Aereo’s service counts as a public performance. There is rarely any infringement in a private performance, for example watching a time-shifted program at home, or even sharing it with family and friends, while it has always been an infringement if you shared the same video with the paying customers in your tavern. In one of the earlier cases, a lower court actually pointed out the differences that would need to be maintained for Aereo to be considered as a conduit for many private performances, and Aereo built their system to accomplish exactly that. Apparently the facts don’t matter, it looks like a public performance so it must be an infringement.

Actually, the court has ruled correctly on this distinction in the past, specifically Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc. (1968) and Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc. (1974). The ruling lays out that history and notes that Congress’ desire in drafting revisions to the Copyright Act in 1976, specifically to overturn the court’s rulings in those two cases. As we said in an earlier post, until then, cable systems were seen for what they were, a service to viewers in remote areas by which they could get clear reception from distant stations, or from stations that were otherwise difficult to watch over the air as often happened with reflections from buildings in big cities even for nearby stations. The changes to copyright law clearly should never have been made, the cable systems were acting on behalf of individual viewers and though they were making money as a result of carrying that copyright material, their service benefited the broadcasters by expanding their audience at no cost to the stations.

But money was being made and the copyright interests had already bought enough congress critters to change the law and grab some it in the form of “rebroadcast fees”.

Even with those changes, I feel that the sophisticated way in which Aereo organized their systems is legal. If I Were King, this would be dispositive. I’m not, so the case goes back to the Second Circuit which will, most likely, end the service soon.

Update, 29 June 2014

Chet Kanojia, chief executive of of Aereo, sent a letter to all Aereo customers yesterday, announcing the suspension of service, “We have decided to pause our operations temporarily as we consult with the court and map out our next steps”. “The spectrum that the broadcasters use to transmit over-the-air programming belongs to the American public, and we believe you should have a right to access that live programming whether your antenna sits on the roof of your home, on top of your television or in the cloud,” said in the letter, which also asserted the suspension was temporary and promising refunds of the last month’s fees.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Circle

A few days ago I finished my struggle with Dave Eggers’ The Circle. I have mixed feelings about it.

The reason that I struggled was that Eggers apparently has been paying attention to part of the advice given to novelists, specifically to pile the risks and troubles on your protagonist so the reader will be eager to see how the hero can possibly get to the end of the book alive. Eggers does this in excruciating detail, creating what seems like Chinese water torture — for the reader. Mae Holland is sucked into the surveilled and broadcast realm of The Circle (the name of a company as well as the title of the book) in detail that goes on for page after page. If fifty of his 491 pages had been edited away the book would be better for it. Elmore Leonard is a good model, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

The deadly pace doesn’t change the fearful core of the novel.

The book opens with Mae starting her career at The Circle, a technology and communication maelstrom that wraps up all of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and just about anything else digital you might think of. In fact, The Circle had bought Google, Facebook, and Twitter, plus a list of fictional names. By the middle of the volume they’ve started handling myriad payments, replacing not only PayPal but Visa and MasterCard, your friendly neighborhood bank, and currency itself. By the end of the book they taking over police manhunts and are offering to take over voting. And Mae facilitates all of this, becoming one of The Circle’s most compelling public faces.

How would you feel about a biometric monitor worn on your risk, displaying your vital signs? How about if that were available on-line in real time? The Circle developed such a system, and Mae was happy to wear it.

On the face of it, this world is not as scary as Margaret Atwoods The Handmaid’s Tale or Orwell’s 1984. There are no forced medical procedures or torture. But the surveillance of society is at least as complete as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison concept and getting worse by the page. At the end of the book an existential threat to The Circle is sidestepped, the rapid (dare I say “cancerous”?) growth presumably continues.

I’m not convinced that present trends have any potential for translating into something like the world Eggers creates. But If I Were King, I’d be one of the people that The Circle would be most interested in getting their clutches on and one wonders how successfully one might resist. You should probably read this book, even if it is the rare book that would actually benefit from a Readers Digest “condensed edition” treatment. On the other hand, it’s probably best to read the original: A well-edited manuscript would give you nightmares.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

After the 2012 presidential election, I recall reading in some detail about the differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns’ digital efforts. The stories focused on the tablet applications to be used for supervising voter turnout and other details of election day, but also referred to the IT operations throughout the campaign cycle. The Obama campaign had developed all of their efforts in-house, tested with scores of volunteers, hosted with Amazon Web Services for flexibility, and had a great success. The Romney campaign had farmed out their efforts to consultants, done almost no testing at all, and found early on that Tuesday morning that they had laid a big goose egg. I will admit to an unseemly Schadenfreude at that point, but like most, came away with a great confidence that the Obama team “got it” in the digital realm. Apparently not.

In fact, one could almost think that the Romney campaign had designed the Obamacare website, The work was farmed out to multiple consultants and supervised by those who had no experience and simply didn’t comprehend the task at hand. Horror stories related by a friend who temped with the developer early this year bore this out.

Could I have done better? Well, the job was too large in scale for me to consider bidding on, but damned straight I could! Not that that’s saying too much, a properly staffed approach would have been far better.

Within hours of approval of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama should have chosen a champion to create the website for those states choosing not to create their own. That champion should have been someone with significant experience in databases, electronic marketplaces, or other-large scale networking projects. (Wikipedia and Google, among others, would know how to build a site that could be scaled from hundreds of simultaneous users to hundreds of thousands.) Most important, that champion should have been an employee of the government, reporting to an appropriate level, not an outside contractor.

A small team should have been assembled to design the flowchart for the site. Within a month the first version of the website should have been online. Not open to the public, and limited in function, but up and running.

A plan should have been established to connect to the IRS or the Social Security Administration to establish eligibility for discounts. At that point this could have covered a very limited population, say single persons in a few states, but something to test against. As the months went by, the interface could gradually include a wider range of users.

At least two insurance companies should have been recruited. One of these should have been chosen because their database was typical of other companies while the other was chosen because it wasn’t. There are several ways the databases could have been deployed. One possibility was to allow the insurance companies to access the database created in the exchange. Another would have been to establish a joint database for each insurance company and use native synchronization. Least useful would be to have a daily batch export from the exchange to the insurance companies, leading to the possibility that when a user made a change to his application the insurance company would end up with a duplicate record. Needless to say, this last approach was chosen. I doubt that this would have been the case if testing had been done at every stage of development.

Commerce sites are built using relational databases, mostly using the Structured Query Language or SQL. The nature of these systems is that the data itself is strongly structured. There are purposes for which nonstructured data is the rule, search engines frequently use tools that do not require an enforced structure. Transactions, inventory, mailing lists, and a host of other common data perfectly fit the traditional relational database. Insurance companies love them. Nonstructured databases are a relatively new development and apparently have some sex appeal or something. Those in charge of chose a nonstructured database, making it much less likely that experienced developers would be available and that existing database code could be used to rapidly get the site working.

The site wouldn’t have needed to be pretty, just functional so the flow of user interaction with the site could be tested. A properly coded site can be given an entirely new appearance with a new style sheet the night before going public if need be. Because the Affordable Care Act was already law, there should have been no need to keep the site secret. The testing should have expanded as development progressed, first to key members of Congress and the administration, and their aides, then to a wide range of folks from the general public. At some point, truly expert useability experts should have been contracted, someone like Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. Not to mention people knowledgable about access by the disabled, and not just to tick off the boxes required by law but to actually make it work.

There were things that shouldn’t have needed testing. Most notably, the question of whether or not a user needed to establish an account and verify his identity before shopping for plans. Rudimentary usability testing would have shown that this was a poor approach. On the other hand, having team members familiar with purchasing would have led to the same decision without testing. I’m not talking about complex Defense Department procurement here, merely sufficient experience and wit to go to a deli for a ham sandwich and come out with something involving bread and protein. Despite this low bar, they got this one wrong too.

The site is finally getting fixed, ever since Obama appointed a single person to take control. The vultures are circling, demanding that at least some heads roll from a great height. Before the Senate changed the filibuster rules this wasn’t likely because there was little or no chance of ever getting confirmation for a replacement if Kathleen Sibelius had gotten the axe, now this is possible. But I would say that while there are lessons to be learned and applied, no career-ending blame needs to be laid on anyone.

If I Were King, I would realize that the fault should be charged against “the system”. The structure of government made it unlikely, perhaps impossible, to assemble a staff to build this site on the understanding that most of the team would depart within weeks of the site going live. “The system” says this sort of work needs to be defined in advance so competitive bidding can be used to dole the tasks out to contractors. “The system” is wrong. If nothing else, nobody has ever defined a great website in advance, the best sites evolve over time based on lessons learned building out the initial plan. Obama and his advisors know how to do this kind of work, what they didn’t know was the importance of insisting that this site would be built the same way they built their campaign sites.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Shop local – at Costco?

This afternoon the Empress Larkin and I went to the mainland to shop at Costco, setting a new personal record for both expense ($463.71) and weight (didn’t weigh it but the four cases of pop were not even half the total). Back on Whidbey we passed a sign that says “Shop the Rock”, exhorting all good islanders to spend their money with local merchants. I didn’t feel guilty, but it caused me to reflect on what “shop locally” might mean to different people.

Although I have absolutely no sense of patriotism, even consider it an evil influence and a mental health problem, I do believe in supporting my community. Part of this is for purely selfish reasons. It makes for a more pleasant community if the local businesses are making enough money to live reasonably. While I buy most electronic components on-line, I intentionally overpay at the local Radio Shack in hopes that they will always be there. (Of course I only buy one over-priced video cable there, I normally buy four or five on-line for about the same total price. But sometimes I need one – now.)

Sunday afternoon is not the best time to go to Costco, it’s a zoo. It’s an experience that would, to most people, shriek “evil national big-box store”, the very antithesis of shopping local. Except I got a Costco membership within two months of their opening the very first store (sorry, “member warehouse”) on 4th Avenue South. That was five miles away by the shortest route, six by the fastest. To me, shopping at Costco will always be shopping locally.

Millions of avid readers (readers in general, not my readers) deplore the changes in the book industry. To most of them, the absolute epitome of evil is Amazon. Yes, it’s true that local booksellers worldwide are having a hard time. Even Borders Group, with 175 Waldenbooks stores and 511 Borders superstores, went bankrupt in the face of the changes Amazon has led. But back in 1994, there weren’t a lot of us on the internet so a cheeky little outfit setting out to take on Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown Books (also gone), B. Dalton (ditto), and the rest of the meatspace book retailers was something of a hometown boy setting out to fight the world and we cheered. Doubly so for me as it was a hometown boy twice, once for being on the internet and once for being based at Seattle.

When it comes to local businesses being swamped by huge international chains of stores the very first thought probably turns to McDonalds with over 34,000 stores worldwide, starting from just one in 1940 and really getting started in 1955. But the Starbucks juggernaut may be even more reviled for their 12,000+ US outlets and almost 21,000 worldwide. Right, big time trouble from out of town. But from 1971 to 1976, Starbucks didn’t brew coffee to serve, they just always had samples available. They were at 2000 Western Avenue at the time, I was at 2414 Western Avenue and frequently stopped in on my stroll to the Pike Place Market. I knew those guys. So even though I don’t often drink coffee (heresy, I know, for a Seattleite), Starbucks is local as far as I’m concerned.

On the other hand, Bill Boeing started his company south of town in 1916 and many of us have been cheering the brand ever since. “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going!” has been seen on bumpers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs for decades. I’ll probably go to my grave with a certain feeling of loyalty to the company (I did work there briefly, oddly enough in the finance department, and I did some emergency short-run label work for them in the ’70s) but they are going out of their way to take themselves outside my sense of local. They moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago, arguably so management would lose it’s problematic sense of responsibility to the community that nurtured them. They bemoan the actions of the unions that represent their employees, even though those unions are exactly the organizations created by Boeing management’s tactics over the years. They setup a competing non-union operation at Charleston, South Carolina. Now they’ve announced that they’re whacking 1500 IT jobs in the next year, moving the work to less-expensive locations around the country.

So what is local? What is your community? What obligations do we have to our community? Significant questions that I’ve only recently focused on. But it will probably help me to realize that I will be shopping locally in ways that most people will consider anything but. If I Were King, anything in my realm would, by definition, be local. Until then, it’s a bit more complex.