Earlier this year Netflix and Comcast had a little contretemps about their peering agreement. Unless you spend time trying to keep up with the various layers, and the players therein, that make up the technical infrastructure of the internet then that statement potentially means absolutely nothing to you whatsoever, but actually its all quite important.
Peering is the name given to the agreements that cover the terms for transferring internet traffic between networks and they are a fundamental cornerstone of the modern internet. Because there is not one single network that covers the whole world it is important that traffic can be exchanged, as required by the needs of the user, with the least possible friction. Historically these agreements were made between engineers and each network simply agreed to open to each other as required, no money involved. Comcast decided that they wanted to buck that history and demanded payment from Netflix. Netflix suggested that prior to this negotiation Comcast were deliberately allowing congestion in certain parts of their network to negatively affect Netflix’s customers (something Comcast denied) and that they had no choice but to pay the ransom.
Level 3 is one of the big global internet backbone companies that carry enormous amounts of web traffic. They are the one of the companies that pay for, and own and maintain, the cable that runs under the oceans. This post on their blog lays out some of the dynamics that go into peering agreements and even though this post doesn’t deal directly with the situation between Netflix and Comcast it should probably give you enough information to understand who is playing the shithead and who isn’t.
I never did try playing Go the ancient Chinese strategy game, and after reading this article i’m starting to think that that is no bad thing. Like chess its a 2 player war game, but unlike chess its a game (possibly the only game left) that retains an unbeaten crown in human vs computer match-ups. Machines beat humans at checkers in 1994 and chess was added to the list in 1997. Now, 17 years later Go still holds out, and holds out with comfort. Every year the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo hosts the UEC cup where computer programs compete against each other for the opportunity to compete against a Go sage, who will be one of the world’s top Go players. The challenge is not one of brute force computing power, its more about strategic understanding and the fact that by all accounts we don’t really understand what goes into being a great Go player, human or otherwise.
Ever wondered why the airwaves are licensed by the government? If you think about it a little, the chances are you will come to what seems like a very simple and straightforward conclusion, which is that the airwaves are licensed so that broadcasting signals don’t interfere with each other. To ensure that when you tune in to 97-99 FM here in the UK, you will receive radio one, not some other outfit broadcasting on the same frequency. Which is all well and good except that electromagnetic waves simply don’t interfere with each other. This concept of interference seems to imply that there is only so much space on any particular frequency that can carry signals, that there is only so much spectrum available. Colours are on the same spectrum as radio waves, separated only by their different frequencies, to suggest that spectrum is limited is to suggest that there is only so much Red to go around, which is clearly a farcical concept.
All of that, which is sound and uncontroversial 6th form physics, does raise some interesting questions about our radios and TVs and mobile phones, all of which broadcast across licensed electromagnetic frequencies. It turns out that the problem of interference is a problem of the broadcasting and receiving equipment not the natural scarcity of the airwaves. We have a system that limits access to frequencies because we are still using a technology base optimised to an old technical paradigm.
This piece published in Salon gives you the full detail and quotes extensively from the work of David Reed an important and prominent scientist from MIT, famous for writing the text that nailed the modern architecture of the internet. Understanding what is actually going on here turns out to be entertaining and enlightening.
I don’t know whether this last link is being serious or not, and that alone might be the best observation I have to make about the state of modern economics.
Alex Tabarrok is a right leaning economist who authors the blog Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen, both are professors at George Mason University in Virginia. This short post, one of many from the right responding to the fuss being made by Piketty’s Capital, offers “2 surefire solutions to inequality”. One is to increase fertility among the rich, dilute the inheritance and reduce capital concentration. The other surefire way? To reduce fertility among the rich! The author of the post puts a lot more detail into this position than I do here. I’m leaning towards the opinion that he is simply having a laugh, but then as he is an economist i’m really not so sure.
It takes something for an article about HR policies to be interesting, but that’s what this article about Netflix’s HR policy is. Very interesting. Over the years I’ve heard pretty much all the cliches that are generally foisted onto employees by management teams. The one that has always provoked mirth, occasionally despair, across the workforce is the one that claims to pay market rate, “we want the best people, so we pay the best wages”. I’ve worked for market leading companies, and companies circling the drain. In both types of company we knew that some people were paid market rate, and we knew that some people weren’t. I even know that one colleague of mine, when presenting the new job offer he had received, which was about 30-40% larger than his current salary, to his employer, was told that they didn’t believe that his new salary offer was an accurate representation of his market rate! No word of a lie. Anyway. Netflix. There is much in here that is innovative and brave, and logical, although in some respects it could be seen as slightly brutal also, but only slightly. There is a lot of detail and substantiation that is worth reading but there are highlights. First the observation that the best thing you can do to keep employees happy is to only hire the best co-workers, which necessitates what can often be a fairly emotionless approach to letting people go. And secondly, that when you do let people go, they get a generous severance package. Quite brilliant really although clearly not for everyone.
This link is another example of an exceptional use of digital media by a modern news organisation. There aren’t that many of these things around and I try to highlight them when I find them. By and large this kind of approach, it’s more investigative journalism than ‘news at 9’ , isn’t that commonplace. I suspect that the economics are somewhat challenging but hope that we are starting to see these new approaches getting some grip. Regardless this is a really good deep dive into the phenomena of mass killings in America since 2006. Its not a wall of text, but instead a mixture of data, story telling, graphics and intuitive use of browser mechanics. The topic at hand is grim, but the journalism impressive.
I wrote a short post about a week ago, which at its heart claimed that in general, business did not use the internet to see what real people were doing, and what real people wanted, as expressed by those people in natural and non prompted environments. I was mostly writing from the angle of the communications and marketing industry (I have always hated focus groups even though they do have their uses) but was aware that it applied to different business spheres also. This article is about the Amazon whisperers, a New Jersey company that scours Amazon reviews, and other web locations, to find products that are missing certain features. They know they are missing those features because the reviews say so. The next step is to commission a company, often in China, to make the product, but fully replete with the features that are wanted. Obvious, yes once you hear about it, clever, yes for sure, but commonplace, no.
Something that has been missing from the regular coverage of the agreement between America and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and the US sanctions is the wider effect this deal has had on other regional players. It is widely reported, of course, that Israel is very unhappy as their position on Iran and nuclear proliferation has been a driving force behind much of American policy in the region for many years now. Just as formative, but much less reported is the role played by Saudi Arabia, both in terms of their relationship to America, and also their fear of Iran’s nuclear program. This article explores those issues, starting with the somewhat bleak assertion that the US/Iran deal may lead to the nuclearisation of the Saudis. I don’t buy that as an inevitable conclusion but its a good place to start.
This next piece is quite long, but again worth a read. it’s yet another take on privacy and the NSA, this time from the hacker/maker community. It’s a good examination, whether you are in agreement or not. I particularly like the observations about misrepresentation as a path to privacy. Its a job that requires some technical sophistication and dedication so I can’t see it being a widespread approach, but interesting nonetheless. This passage in particular stood out for me.
If data kills both privacy as impossible-to-observe and privacy as impossible-to-identify, then what might be an alternative? If you are an optimist or an apparatchik, then your answer will tend toward rules of procedure administered by a government you trust or control. If you are a pessimist or a hacker/maker, then your answer will tend towards the operational, and your definition of a state of privacy will be mine: the effective capacity to misrepresent yourself.