DISMANTLING NET NEUTRALITY – THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE SINISTER

Senior executive choking internet speed for net neutrality concept

(Photo credit: BackyardProduction @istock.com)

On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on whether to keep or dismantle existing net neutrality legislation. This is the latest skirmish in a series of battles over net neutrality.

So why should you care? Because net neutrality, like free speech, is one of the fundamental principles that make the internet, the internet. Weakening or eliminating net neutrality will shape the internet and our access to it for decades to come. So if you like your internet, and want to keep your internet, read on.

WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?

The basic principle of net neutrality is that ALL BITS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Under net neutrality, internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Cox, and Verizon, cannot discriminate against bits based on type of data, origin, or destination. This is similar to the way the telephone company works: if I make a local call, the telephone company cannot charge me more for talking to Mrs. A instead of Mrs. B, or for calling Joe’s Pizza instead of Sally’s Bakery. Nor can the telephone company give me a lousy connection whenever I call a political organization they don’t like, or talk to someone in Spanish.

Similarly, under current regulations, my ISP must treat all the data they send my way the same, whether it comes from Netflix, Joe’s Pizza, a peer-to-peer site, an alt-news site, or an obscure foreign language blog. In essence, the ISP acts as “passive tubes”, transmitting the flow of data wherever it needs to go without actively influencing it.

This is the way the Internet has (mostly) been run from its inception until now. But in recent years ISPs have been arguing that net neutrality places an unfair financial burden on them, by allowing bandwidth-hogging content providers like Netflix to overload ISP infrastructure without paying their fair share towards upgrading it. And now that President Trump has appointed Anjit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, as head of the FCC, ISPs are seizing their chance to get rid of net neutrality for good.

THE GOOD

So do they have a valid argument? Let’s look at how things work now

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Let’s say we have a major content provider, call it NetFlocks, who provides movies on demand. NetFlocks sends these movies out onto the Internet via their own network provider, PhatTubes, Inc., a Tier 1 ISP with massive bandwidth capabilities. NetFlocks pays PhatTubes handsomely for this privilege.

PhatTubes then sends the data to an Internet exchange, where the data is distributed according to various peering agreements to lower-level Tier 2 and 3 ISPs, one of which is company XYZ. XYZ then uses its infrastructure to send the movies to its customers. These customers pay XYZ, not so handsomely, for this privilege.

But with more and more customers streaming higher and higher definition movies, XYZ is running out of bandwidth. So they have to upgrade their infrastructure, which a) costs a lot of money, and b) leaves less money available for important things, like executive salaries and shareholder profits. XYZ could try to recoup infrastructure costs by jacking up their prices, but if they do that they risk losing customers, because the average American is broke.

So where else could they get the money? Go after the deep pockets. Joe Blow is broke; NetFlocks is not. So how to make NetFlocks pay you, when you’re not their ISP, and they’re not your customer? By violating net neutrality, and holding their data hostage. You identify and deliberately slow down any data coming from NetFlocks (a process called throttling), so that Joe Blow can’t watch a NetFlocks movie without it jittering and hanging. Then you demand money from NetFlocks to restore their service. NetFlocks has no choice but to pay up, or risk losing all of XYZ’s customers.

Unlikely scenario, you say? It’s already happened:  Major ISPs accused of deliberately throttling traffic.

So in essence, when ISPs say they want content providers to pay “their fair share”, what they’re really saying is that they want content providers to pay twice: first to their primary ISPs, for putting their data on the Internet, and then to the secondary ISPs, for transmitting the data to the end-user.

File Dec 14, 4 40 11 AM

Thus the internet is no longer a series of passive tubes, but a series of toll roads, where content providers must pay a ransom at every internet exchange in order to ensure that their data continues forward without interference.

In theory, this extra toll money will be used by ISPs to upgrade their infrastructure, allowing a better internet experience for everybody. In practice, nothing prevents those ISPs from spending that money on hookers and blow. So it’s quite possible that content providers will get gouged, with no benefit to consumers at all.  IOW, the “good” isn’t all that good.

THE BAD

But it gets worse. Let’s take the above scenario to its logical conclusion. If XYZ can successfully hit up NetFlocks for money, why not hit up all the content providers? Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter – they all have deep pockets, make them all pay “their fair share”.

And what about the little guys? Joe’s Pizza, Sally’s Bakery, Sanchez’ Auto Parts? They don’t have deep pockets. So why should an ISP waste precious bandwidth, bandwidth that could command top dollar from the big boys, on their shitty little websites? If you can’t pay, you can’t play. High bidders will get the phat pipes; small businesses will get relegated to the internet hinterlands with dial-up speeds.

But why stop there? If you can get extra money from content providers by holding their data hostage, why not do the same to your customer base? Want to shop at a store that isn’t Amazon? Then you’ll need to buy our extra MegaShopper Package for an additional $29.99 a month. Want to access news sites that aren’t Facebook or Twitter? Then you’ll have to buy our special Informed Citizen package for a mere $49.99 a month. Want to access international websites? Get our all-inclusive Potential Terrorist Package for the low, low price of $149.99 a month, with NSA surveillance thrown in for free!

Thus the internet will gradually start to look like cable TV – a tiered system, with a “Basic Package” allowing access to a dozen or so major websites, and costly optional packages for accessing smaller sites, if they can be accessed at all. Which brings me to the next section.

THE SINISTER

Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a country where the government is not your friend (difficult, I know). A country where the government considers its people as resources to be exploited. Such a government would want it citizens to be smart enough to work, consume, and obey, but not smart enough to think for themselves or to organize resistance. How would such a government view the internet?

On the one hand, it’s a wonderful tool for indoctrination and distraction. On the other hand, it exposes the proles to dissenting opinions and alternative news sources. This might give the proles ideas. The proles might start to ask questions.

So it needs to be controlled. But how? Overt censorship would generate pushback; eliminating the internet would cause a revolt.

So do it gradually. Start by soothing the proles with talk about how you’re protecting them from “fake news” and “hate speech”. Use throttling to restrict access to any sites expressing forbidden views or unpleasant truths, without exposing yourself to accusations of overt censorship. Use a tiered Internet structure to herd all the proles into “digital ghettos” – a handful of websites run by government friendly entities, where the government can control everything the proles hear and see, and monitor everything the proles write or buy.

Even more Orwellian, you could use these sites for psychological experimentation – manipulating the proles’ information space and then studying the effects it has on their mood and behavior.

Think it can’t happen? Facebook has already admitted performing “experiments” on their users to see how their emotional states responded to changes in their news feeds.

Think ghetto-ization can’t happen? Look at conventional media – 90% of all media outlets, including radio, television, movies studios, and newspapers, are owned by the same six companies. This was not by accident. Consolidation was encouraged to facilitate control. Now imagine if 90% of all Internet pages accessible to you were provided by the same six companies. This is the power that the government can gain by eliminating net neutrality.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

  1. Get informed – research net neutrality and its implications for your own life.
  2. Make your opinion known – you can find instructions on how to leave a comment for the FCC here, and/or you can call, email, or write your congressman. If you don’t know who your congressman is, you can find out here.  You can find out who your senator is is here.
  3. Get active – join a net neutrality activist group, or start one of your own. Make as many people aware of the issue as you can – there is power in numbers.

My prayer is that the FCC will bow to the will of the people. My cynicism says they won’t. In which case, the next step is to take it to the Congress and the courts. Educate yourselves, and don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t read. Information needs to be free.

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On Faith and Fear

Welp. Been a while.

I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Even roughed out some blog posts. But I couldn’t settle on what to write. An explanation for my absence (short answer: health problems)? A mission statement? Random observations? Continue reading

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On Kind Atheists and Hateful Christians

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A friend sent me this picture on Facebook. She shared it from Being Liberal’s Facebook page, but I don’t know the original source. The following is a copy of my response to her.
Continue reading

Posted in Religion | 5 Comments

Franklyn and the Problem of Pain

“Religion is deemed by the commoners as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

This quote opens the movie Franklyn, a thoughtful look at the problem of pain and how people attempt to deal with it.

The words are uttered by Jonathan Preest, a mercenary in the futuristic Meanwhile City. Meanwhile City is awesomely conceived, a vast metropolis with a kind of Gothic steampunk feel and lots of religious iconography. “Religion is the law” in MWC, but any religion will do. As Preest observes wryly, “These days you can form an entire congregation simply based on washing machine instructions.”

CULT LEADER: And always remember (dramatic pause) to check the tags on the clothes! (Applause)

There’s a hysterical scene (if you like black humor) at the Religious Registry:

CLERK: What’s your religion?
PREEST: What’s yours?
CLERK: Well at the moment I’m with some Seventh Day Manicurists (looks over at a group of gossiping women with pink plastic capes and beehive hairdos), but I’m thinking of changing. (Looks critically at her nails), “the level of discussion isn’t great and we’ve really run out of colors.”

Preest prides himself on being the last unbeliever in Meanwhile City, the last man unwilling to succumb to the mass delusion. His atheism comes at a price, however: Preest is a wanted man. After failing to save one of his clients, a young girl who was killed by a mysterious cult leader known as the Individual, he is betrayed by his informant and incarcerated for four years. When they finally let him out, it is on one condition: that he kill the Individual. No problem, thinks Preest, he was planning on doing that anyway, to avenge his client: “To the Individual and his senseless faith, she was just another soul sacrificed.”

The story then shifts to this reality, specifically, modern-day England. Milo is a twenty-something young man who has just been jilted at the altar, apparently the culmination of a long line of failed relationships. Emilia is a young woman bristling with anger and self-loathing, which she tries to exorcise with her art (which leads to some interesting conversations with her art professor). And Peter Esser is a church warden, whose young daughter was killed in an accident five years prior, and whose son is a psychologically traumatized Iraqi war veteran.

The writer does a skillful job of weaving these four storylines together, leading up to their inevitable intersection. We see each character trying to deal with their pain in their own way, whether through revenge, escape, self-destruction, or religion. And as the movie progresses, we start to see hints that these characters are not being completely honest with themselves, that even Meanwhile City is not what it seems.

Being a Christian myself, I empathized most with Peter Esser, the church warden. Initially we see him taking refuge in Christian tropes:

“It was God’s will that Sarah was taken from us… We have been severely tested as a family, Mr. Tarant, but I have trust in God.”

Technically true, but chilling. Did God really intend for his little girl to die?

“If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able, than He’s not omnipotent. If He is able, but not willing, then He must be malevolent. If He is neither willing or able, then why call Him God?” – Preest

This is a question near and dear to my own heart. I long ago settled the issue that God was omnipotent: one good look at the universe will tell anybody that. But I struggled for a long time with the question of whether or not He was malevolent. There was a point in my life where I entertained the idea that God was sending me all this adversity because my salvation had somehow been a mistake, that He was trying to “unsave me” by making me so miserable that I would renounce my faith and commit suicide so He could send me to hell.

So why cling to my faith?

66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. 67 Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
68 But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6)

I was in deep shit and I had nowhere else to go. There comes a time you can study all you want, plan all you want, examine options, collect opinions, draw charts and make tables, and none of it makes a difference. So I had to turn to something outside of myself, and that Something was God. Despite my doubts of His intentions.

As I matured and gained more experience, I started seeing how God could bring good things out of bad circumstances. Struggling with a career-ending illness made me see just how all-consuming my career had become to me. Medicine was not just my vocation, it was my identity: if I could not be “Dr. Putterer”, I was nothing. Illness forced me to reevaluate myself and my priorities. Having to give up my apartment and move back in with my parents forced me to address some issues in our relationship that otherwise would have gone undealt with, and gave me the opportunity to be there for my father when he died. Having too much time on my hands allowed me to explore and develop aspects of my personality that had lain dormant during all those achievement-driven years. And having to deal with my own set of adverse circumstances made me more compassionate and more understanding of other people dealing with their own battles.

Peter Esser makes something of the same journey. In the end, we see him, arms open, naked face, risking his life to reach out to his damaged son one last time. Technically this movie’s “happy ending” is Boy Meets Girl. But it was Esser’s journey that held the most meaning for me.

Posted in Personal, Religion, Reviews | 2 Comments

On Hugo, Clockworks, and Uselessness

Don’t know why I’m writing this (actually, dictating). Don’t even know what I’m writing. It started off as a review of the movie Hugo, and turned into something else.

In the movie, Hugo, from his vantage point at the top of the Paris train station clock tower, observed that the world is like a giant clockwork, and that the thing about clockworks is that there are never any extra pieces. He would console himself with that thought, alone in the clock tower, after the death of his father.

I guess the scene impressed me because I’m feeling like an extra piece of clockwork myself. Had yet another visit with yet another specialist last Wednesday, and her opinion was much the same: ocular myositis (AKA idiopathic orbital inflammatory disease). It’s a rare disease, she said, difficult to treat, but I’m doing better than most, and therefore (she implied) I should be grateful.

It’s tough to be grateful for “not normal”. A year ago today, my eyes were perfect. A year ago today, I could study and read to my heart’s content. Couldn’t get around much, because of my back, but my brain was otherwise unfettered. Now using the computer is a chore, watching a movie is a rare treat, and reading a book is a thing of the past.

I’ve been blessed with more talent than most – intelligence, an inquisitive nature, a good memory, logical thought. I thought at one point that God meant me for medical research, but the back ruled that out. Then I thought He wanted me to be an engineering professor, but the back ruled that out as well. So finally I thought, He wants me to be a writer. Now even this seems unattainable.

So I’m left feeling like a piece of extra clockwork, beautifully made but useless. I have no purpose, and like a broken compass I can’t seem to settle on a direction.

This represents a major challenge for my faith. The Bible states that we are created to do good works planned for us ahead of time (Ephesians 2:10), that God ordered our days long before we were even born (Psalm 139:16). The Gospels record Jesus telling the disciples to pick up even the fragments of bread left over from the miracle of the loaves and fishes, leaving nothing to go to waste.

So God is not in the habit of letting things go to waste. So what’s wrong with this picture? Am I doing something wrong? Is this just a waiting game, with better things in store for me in the future? Or am I one of the unlucky few who get the “dwindle and die” life path?

I don’t know. But I do know that to check out would be a staggering act of unbelief. It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t believe You can do anything with the wreckage of my life, and I’m too angry with You to even let You try.”

So I hang in there, hoping that this is just a waiting game, and that at some point the next step will become clear.

God? Anything?

Posted in Personal, Religion | 1 Comment

Adventures in Methotrexate – Going Full Dork

As mentioned in my last post, I failed the steroid taper for my idiopathic orbital inflammatory syndrome. My physicians and I therefore opted to add on a steroid sparing agent to help control inflammation, allowing my steroid dose to be decreased to avoid long-term side effects.

Ordinarily a rheumatolgist would be brought on board at this point, as they have experience prescribing such drugs. Instead my internist hemmed and hawed, and finally suggested that he prescribe methotrexate himself. When pressed, he said I was a “difficult patient”, and he preferred not bringing another doctor on board whose opinion might muddy the waters. I did not take offense. I am difficult: partly due to having an unusual, difficult-to-diagnose disease, and partly due to being a doctor myself. 😛

So it was that I found myself with a bottle containing eight evil-looking yellow pills. I drew a skull and crossbones on the lid to remind myself that this was a medication to be taken once a week and not once a day:

SkullNCrossbones
And with that cheery reminder, I took my first dose.

Methotrexate targets actively dividing cells, such as cancer cells or (in my case) hyperactive immune cells. Chemically it resembles folate, a B vitamin essential for DNA synthesis. The “bad” cell starts to divide, and mistakenly gobbles up methotrexate instead of folate.  This stalls DNA synthesis and eventually kills the cell.

Unfortunately, not all rapidly dividing cells are “bad” cells. Other rapid reproducers include hair follicles, bone marrow, and the lining of the GI tract. Methotrexate targets these “innocent bystanders” as well, and it is the death of these cells that results in side effects (described here).

So my first dose was like watching physiology in action. I swear I could track the passage of those little pills through my intestines by the location of the pain. First heartburn, then stomach pain, then lower abdominal pain, finally culminating in a nice bout of diarrhea. Oh, and let’s not forget the gas. For a while there I rivaled the Bakken Shale, and considered having myself designated a renewable natural resource.

There were other effects. I had fatigue and muscle aches, similar to the symptoms you get before the flu. My hair shed more than usual. This was accompanied by a metallic taste, mild nausea, and decreased appetite. The latter counteracted the increased appetite I’ve been getting from steroids; it’s always nice when the side effects of your medications cancel each other out.

One side effect, however, surprised me: I became extremely sensitive to sunlight. I’ve always been fair, but now my skin burnt after only a few minutes of direct sun. Since I need to go outside periodically to walk (steroids cause osteoporosis, if you remember), I’ve had to adopt protective measures:20121205-152749.jpg

I call this look “going full dork”.

The ultimate issue is, of course, “does it work?” Methotrexate can take anywhere from 3 to 12 weeks to take effect, but I noticed improvement with the very first dose. So here’s hoping this drug will do the trick.

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How to Fail a Steroid Taper in Five Easy Steps

If you’ve read my “Not Dead!” post, you’ll know that this past year I have been struggling with a condition called orbital pseudotumor, AKA (also known as) ocular myositis, AKA idiopathic orbital inflammatory syndrome.  The fact that it has three different names tips you off that the medical profession doesn’t know much about this disease. Parsing the most modern name: “idiopathic” = we don’t know what causes it; “orbital” = it involves the eyesocket; “inflammatory” = it involves some kind of inflammation; and “syndrome” = it’s a collection of symptoms that we can’t explain. Continue reading

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Mac OS X Grapher – A Quick Note on Changing the Range of Theta in Polar Plots

This post is in response to Tommy’s question on the Getting Started post, namely, how to plot a polar spiral (e.g., r = θ) *without* using the default Grapher range of θ = [0, 2π]. It turned out to be trickier to answer than I thought, so I’m dedicating a little mini-post to it.

Grapher has an option in the Grapher → Preferences menu, Advanced tab, to change the default range of the polar coordinate θ from [0, 2π] to [-π, π]:

Unfortunately, I could not make this option work.  Anyway, it limits you to one of the two choices given, with no provision for custom θ ranges.

So, after refreshing my memory with my own damn Parameters post (middle-aged brain), I tried plotting the curve as a polar parametric equation:

Here I’ve plotted r=θ for θ=[0, 4π].  The first parameterization worked the best, i.e.,

  • setting θ=t
  • rewriting r as a function of t (in this case, since r=θ, r=t)
  • specifying t as a continuous parameter from 0 to Aπ, where A = some specified integer.

I also tried a second method (the second and third equations in the equation list) using a hybrid of continuous and discrete parameters, where θ= [0..Aπ], and A = {1,2,3,…N}. This led to unpredictable results. Specifically, the A=1 curve corresponded to θ=[0,4π]; the A=2 curve ↔ θ=[0,π]; A=3 ↔ θ=[0,2π]; and A=4 ↔ θ=[0,3π]. Go figure; I’m writing it off as a bizarre Grapher bug.

Upshot: for best results, plot spiral as a parametric curve, using t=0…Aπ, where A is specified.

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Not Dead!

Just a quick note to let you all know I’m not dead, although there were times this year when I wished that I were.  I’ve been diagnosed with a condition called Primary Orbital Pseudotumor, and am currently undergoing treatment.  The condition is characterized by eye pain and double vision, which means no staring at the computer for hours.  In fact, it meant not using the computer at all.  For five months.  That has never happened to me before.  I have not been away from a computer for more than a few days since I got my first Apple III back in the… well, let’s just say it was a long time ago.

The saga of the diagnosis is a blog post in and of itself; I’m thinking of titling it, “Why I Hate American Medicine”.

In the meantime, I’ve approved all the stacked-up comments, and will start composing my replies.  Thank you all for your patience, and I hope to be online soon.

Posted in Personal | 4 Comments

Mac OS X Grapher: Axes, Grids, and Backgrounds

Finally, a post! I’ve made some changes to the blog.  First, I’ve added a Donate button to the sidebar;  clicking the button takes you to Paypal, where you’re free to contribute to my “Feed the Putterer” fund.  I do realize that most of you are broke, grumpy college students without much cash to spare.  Still, if any of you are (independently wealthy) ∩ (grateful for my Grapher efforts), contributions would be appreciated. Continue reading

Posted in Grapher | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments