Tales of the Sausage Factory

Really Getting Away From It All for Bit.

I’m off for my annual escape from the 21st Century. Don’t look for me until after August 10. Sadly, this means I will miss the conclusion of the Comcast bittorrent complaint on Friday, and will no doubt miss a ton of other really cool and important things. Such is life. Frankly, if y’all think I’m a snarky SOB now, you should see me if I didn’t get some vacation.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Inventing the Future

Boring

We had had our usual weekly Engineering Meeting yesterday. Some slides, a couple of charts, some spreadsheet pages, and a bunch of folks arguing. Nothing exciting, although it was pretty cool for random attendees to change the slides and spreadsheet in real time, and to put post-its on them.

As usual, our weekly meeting was in-world. No one commented about the technology. No one commented about the fact that the meeting was lead by a manager away at MIT, some engineers were in Maryland and Oregon, and some folks were at home saving gas rather than in the office. Boring.

Pretty cool, no?

Posted in history: external milestones and context, Inventing the Future | Tagged | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Something Nice About Comcast for a Change

Lest it be said that I refuse to acknowledge a virtue when I see it, allow me to voice my agreement with Mehan Jayasuriya over at Public Knowledge on Comcast’s efforts to track down problems on Twitter and elsewhere.

Mehan refers to this NYTimes piece, which discusses how Comcast customer service folks are looking for complaints about Comcast or its services on open blogs or social network sites and trying to reach out to disaffected customers. Frankly, I see nothing “creepy” about it. I actually think this is a pretty good idea for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, if I am complaining about the service I am getting, I would actually like someone to fix the problem. Most companies have laid off workers and have you go through endless phone trees before you can confirm for someone that yes, I’ve already tried the obvious and would like to get someone who can move past the script and help me with my actual problem. Even sending an email can take a few days for response. I had one incident where I was having difficulty with my cell phone service, sent an email, then resolved the problem, and got a call back two days later (at my work number as requested — they were not completely stupid, just way too slow). This is not useful response time for a service on which I rely pretty heavily.

So I think it’s actually a smart idea to have people monitoring publicly available info to see if you can reach out and solve problems. It may save the company major publicity headaches and help users get their problems resolved.

The other thing is I think it’s a good thing to remind users that what they write on social networking sites or blogs is open to everyone unless they take action to make it private. In this case, the reminder is harmless, perhaps even beneficial. But if you find it “creepy” that a Comcast customer care agent found your complaint about a billing glitch on your personal blog, consider what happens if your boss or coworker discovers your post about what you think of your current assignment and team workers. Heck, even a sophisticated Federal judge can sometimes be surprised with what goes public on the web.

My one caveat is that this works great as long as Comcast, or any other company, identifies itself honestly when making contact just as they do one the phone. For example, if I get a follow up call from my Saturn dealer after my nth gajillionth mile check up, the person identifies himself or herself as calling from Saturn and wanting to know how my service appointment went. From the article provided, it would appear that Comcast staff are identifying themselves as Comcast staff and generally offering help as Comcast customer service staff. Go them.

But it doesn’t take a genius to guess that folks may well begin to wonder whether they can start to use this for direct marketing. Perhaps when you gripe about Comcast on your blog the person that responds won’t be from Comcast but will be from AT&T, offering you a better deal. No problem with that, as long as you remember to change your defaults if you don’t want to be relentlessly market to in this manner. But the real problem is when folks selling products will disguise themselves or their identities. If the helpful commentor that points you to a promotional on DISH is actually working for DISH, but doesn’t identify himself or herself as working for DISH, it starts to get into some very dicey territory.

But again, Comcast actually seems to have a bright idea here. Good for them.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Lobbying and the “All Things Orange” Rule.

Imagine for a moment my local school board is considering a measure to fight childhood obesity by banning “unhealthy” food and requiring that school vending machines only provide “healthy snacks.” Now suppose I am a vendor of things such as nacho flavor chips, cheese doodle equivalents, and other foods of a similar nature. Expecting that such a rule would make it more difficult for me to sell my products, I raise my hand at the school board meeting and engage in the following line of argument.

“Are oranges healthy food?”

“Yes,” the relevant official replies.

“Are carrots healthy food?”

“Yes.”

“So all things orange, like carrots and oranges, are healthy foods. Good.” Whereupon I sit down.

Subsequently, I try to sell my nacho chips and cheese doodle equivalents to schools. When informed they are not “healthy snacks,” I become quite upset. I invoke the “Rule of Orange Things” that declares that we need to treat all orange things fairly by treating them the same, so we either have to let me sell nacho chips or ban people bringing oranges and carrots. I will also complain that there is no way I could possibly have known that nachos and cheese doodles might not be “healthy food,” since they have an FDA mandated nutrition label (so they must have nutrition) and who the heck knows what “healthy food” means anyway, since we can see that many nutritionists are now down on juice and even on certain fruits or other foods long considered healthy alternatives to cookies and sugar sodas.

In such a situation, most of us would have no problem saying that nacho chips and cheese doodle equivalents are not “healthy food” despite being orange — because what makes oranges and carrots “healthy food” has nothing to do with their color. Most of us would also agree that while their may be some marginal cases around things like apple juice v. water v. soda, there is no definition of “healthy snacks” in use outside the junk food biz that would include nacho chips and cheese doodles — mandatory “nutrition label” notwithstanding.

Which brings us to the National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA) filing last Thursday just at the close of the bell in the Comcast/BitTorrent complaint docket (because the FCC issued a public notice for the meeting at which it will decide the complaint, the docket is now closed).

A bit more below . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Kevin Martin, champion of Net Neutrality?

According to Freepress.net, Martin joins a “Bipartisan FCC Majority” to punish Comcast for its peer-to-peer blocking funny business, already discussed here lots of times.

Like everybody else, I’ll await the in depth analysis sure to come from Harold Feld.

But assuming that this is what it appears to be, I hereby congratulate Chairman Martin. As I reported here, I had a chance to talk to him at the reception following the FCC hearing in Boston. And I found him sympathetic to the point of view that net neutrality was about more than consumer rights, it was about preserving the Internet as an engine of democracy. I wouldn’t be surprised if that argument figured in the deliberations on this ruling. In any event, I’m cautiously optimistic.

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My Thoughts Exactly

Omnivorous Hippies

Last nnight I went, with Dear Wife, to a big-ole “slow food” pot luck dinner at the Ag Hall, which is a big-ole barn out in a field where they have the County Fair every summer and the Christmas pageant every winter.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, gave a talk afterwards. Then a string band played.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast Not On Notice? They Were Told Point Blank!

It is a rather trite cliche that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But in law, where concepts such as precedent and law matter a great deal, there’s an even bigger problem: Those who do not learn from history are likely to miss the obvious.

As we all know, Comcast has invested a lot of time in arguing that they lacked notice that the FCC would enforce the principles of the policy statement via a complaint against them. “How could we possibly have known?” Comcast has asked, winning sympathetic nods from a variety of folks. “Policy statements aren’t enforceable! How can you possibly punish us for something we didn’t know we might be held accountable for, all our public statements to the contrary?”

Well, let us suppose that Comcast was told two years ago today that the FCC would entertain complaints if Comcast blocked or degraded traffic. Would that make a difference? If the FCC had said directly to Comcast: “If in the future evidence arises that any company is willfully blocking or degrading Internet content, affected parties may file a complaint with the Commission.” I would think we could all agree that this constituted “notice,” yes? Perhaps not notice of whether or not the behavior at issue constituted blocking or degrading — that is, after all, what the Commission determines in a complaint. But certainly if the FCC had told Comcast directly, to its face, no ifs and or buts, the above quoted line, I would hope we could all agree that Comcast had received reasonable notice that parties could bring complaints to the Commission, asking the Commission to determine whether the parties had behaved in an inappropriate manner.

Because — Surprise! — exactly two years ago today, that is exactly what the FCC told Comcast.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Wireless Mic Follow Up: Turns Out Public Safety Did Get There First

One may logically ask, if I am right about the wireless microphones being such a big problem for public safety, why haven’t the public safety folks complained to the FCC about this?

Answer: turns out they have. But, the public safety folks being quiet and unassuming, failed to make themselves heard.

Allow me to change that. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, a federation of public safety associations, sent a letter to Chairman Martin asking that the FCC address the problem of wireless microphones back on June 30, 2008. i.e., about two weeks before I filed. While I wish I could claim that it was the NPSTC letter that inspired me, I had no idea it was out there until today. My conversations with the public safety guys were all informal and off the record. Still, as always when folks remind me I’m not an engineer (or an economist, or technologist, or any of the other topics on which I chose to share my humble layperson’s opinion), I am rather pleased to find a bunch of actual engineers that agree with me.

Mind you, the NPSTC letter asks the FCC to go a heck of a lot further than I have. NPSTC wants wireless microphones kicked out of the entire 700 MHz band. I, OTOH, think lots of folks can productively use the broadcast white spaces. Still, I do feel compelled to point out that wireless microphones do not have nearly the level of intelligence/sophistication being discussed for interference avoidance for the white spaces devices at issue in 04-186. Perhaps we should require wireless microphones to rely on sensing as well, or require that they consult an online database for possible new users in the band, or require them to acknowledge some sort of “permissive beacon.” Perhaps public safety entities like NPSTC should administer the database or beacon, and we should require wireless microphone users to pay for these services.

I mean, after all, we wouldn’t want to let these devices run around loose, would we? Think of the terrible interference that might cause. Unless these devices can meet the same rigorous standards that Shure and others seek to impose on unlicensed devices in 04-186, I don’t see how we can ask NPSTC to abide by circumstances that they feel place our public safety at risk.

Stay tuned . . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Deep Thought about the New Yorker Cover

So, the New Yorker mag has a cover depicting Barack & Michelle Obama in the White House, in which she’s Angela Davis with a bandolier and rifle, he’s an Indonesian Moslem, Osama Bin Ladin’s portrait is on the wall, and the American flag is burning in the fireplace. As I’m the 23,452,998th person to point out, the satire is a little weak because it’s not clear whether the Obamas are being mocked or if it’s the people who circulate the Manchurian Candidate emails about them.

Whatever. It’s a magazine cover. I was kinda annoyed by it at first, but now actually it makes me smile a little.

What I’m waiting for now is the New Yorker cover that does to St. John McCain what this cover does to St. Barack Obama. It would have to include McCain setting the aircraft carrier Forrestall on fire (& killing 134 sailors), making propaganda tapes for the North Vietnamese, deserting his first wife (disfigured in an accident) for a mega-wealthy heiress, and having senile dementia.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

We File Wireless Microphone Complaint: Shure Says Breaking Law Should Be OK If You Sound Good.

As regular readers will know, among my many wireless fixations are the use of the broadcast white spaces and the 700 MHz auction. So what happens when I get to combine the two together?

Answer: A 50 page complaint and Petition for Rulemaking, another 175 pages of evidence that Shure and other manufacturers have been marketing wireless microphones in violation of FCC rules, then using the victims of this deceptive marketing scam as “human shields” in the white spaces debate, and a possible road map toward solving the potential for massive interference with new public safety and wireless services operating on the returned UHF bands. As a side benefit, it also provides a route to authorization for the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of illegal wireless microphones, finds a use for that leftover 5 MHZ band in the AWS-2/AWS-3 proceeding (waste not want not), and potentially changes the debate in the white spaces fight by getting the goddamn fact that the overwhelming majority of wireless microphones are (at the moment) used illegally out in the open so people can have a rational discussion about interference protection.

Oh yeah, and it will require the wireless microphone manufacturers to clean up the mess by exchanging the old, unauthorized equipment for new equipment that doesn’t work on Channels 52-69. I love a plan that only punishes the guilty rather than letting the wireless microphone guys reap yet another windfall by requiring the unauthorized users to pay for their own equipment replacement.

And what was Shure’s response to the complaint? According to the Associated Press, Shure did not deny breaking the law. Instead, they said: “today’s uses of wireless microphones provide a valuable and irreplaceable public good, regardless of the licensing scheme.”

Or, in other words, “yeah, we broke the law — but it doesn’t matter because we will use Broadway and churches as human shields if you try to go after us” (insert international gesture of respect performed with raised middle finger at FCC).

You can see the press release here, and get copies of our complaint/Petition here. (Links to the Exhibits are on the press page.) You can see a bit more analysis from yr hmbl obdn’t below….

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