Monday, May 30, 2005

VOIP will kill people

Recently a woman in Massachusetts died after calling 911. She lived a few blocks from a fire station, but Verizon had installed new 911 software that broke automated caller location. She stopped breathing as rescuers tried in vain to locate her home, and she died.

See: Fatal failure halts installation of 911 caller-ID system

For over a year I've worried that as people flock to Voice over IP (VOIP) local phone service -- using your broadband Internet connection to replace your old-fashioned analog telephone -- someone would experience a similar tragedy. If an emergency strikes during a power outage, your VOIP service can't complete a phone call -- not even to 911.

VOIP telephony providers have a competitive advantage over traditional phone companies: they're not assessed fees, such as the fee to support the 911 system. They also don't provide the kind of 911 services that real phone companies do:

  • Normally the 911 system can locate the origin of a land-line phone call. This has saved many lives, in cases where the caller is barely able to speak. We know of cases where a 4 year old who don't know his own address called 911 and saved a parent's life: the 911 system told the paramedics where to go. In one case recently documented, a helper dog hit a programmed button to dial 911 when its owner fell ill, saving the life of the woman he was trained to care for. These stories would not be possible with VOIP technology; currently, it cannot give rescue personnel the caller's location.
  • The old Bell System phone companies -- called "incumbent local exchange carriers" by the regulatory crowd -- can provide telephone service for many hours during a power outage. They use battery backup to power the system until the electric company restores power. With VOIP, if you don't have electricity, your home telephone is dead, and therefore you can't call 911. (Your cell phone may not work either.)

The FCC recently mandated that VOIP providers must provide 911 locator services. My question is how they will mandate that your broadband service complete the 911 call during a power outage?

Your old-fashioned phone service will last for hours or days during a power outage. The Bell System built a "local loop" network that ensured that telephones work during power outages. Your phone connects to a "central office" that has massive banks of batteries to keep the phones and switches online. Here's a photo I shot of the battery banks at the central office of a traditional Bell System provider:

Even today, local phone companies expend a lot of dollars and effort keeping those batteries charged, ensuring continuity of service during a power outage. I'm the last person to express love for SBC, but it's worth more than a little to know that when an ice storm takes out your electricity, your phone is likely to continue to work. I've experienced an inordinate number of power outages at my home in Okemos, but have never failed to get a dial tone when I call to report an outage to Consumers Energy. That's why I intend to keep an old-fashioned POTS phone line indefinitely.

VOIP providers don't have this infrastructure. If their power is out, in general, you can't complete a 911 call. Even if they do have uninterruptible power in their offices, that doesn't solve the problem:

  • Your house needs battery backup. If your cable or DSL modem has no power -- heck, if your computer or Vonage phone has no power -- you can't complete a broadband phone call.
  • Your broadband provider needs battery or generator backup for you to complete a broadband phone call.
  • Every Internet link between you and your VOIP provider must have battery or generator backup in order for you to complete a broadband phone call.

The bottom line: if your home phone line is VOIP over residential broadband, it isn't going to work during a power outage. The FCC can order 911 locator standards for VOIP, but they can't mandate electricity backup from your house to your VOIP provider. If the masses flock to VOIP to replace their local loop phone service, people who critically need 911 service when the power is out will die. This outcome is entirely predictable -- I'm predicting it right now -- but I suspect the public doesn't understand this risk. I predict a multi-million dollar lawsuit when the first person dies because their VOIP phone is dead during an emergency.

And precisely how will the FCC force Skype to comply?

Friday, May 27, 2005

On life and purpose

They've decided to resurrect the old TV show "Flipper." This time, Flipper not only saves people from threatening situations, he also gives inspirational life lessons.

The new show will be named "The Porpoise-Filled Life."

Elliott Ness padlocks his first Web site

The FBI has shut down a Web site named The site allegedly offered first-run movies, including the new Star Wars movie, via Bit Torrent distribution. But the FBI didn't just shut down the site; they put up a new Web site in its place:

I'm trying to think of a real-world analogy to this. They didn't just padlock the perp's joint; they put up a new sign out front. I wonder if this is a first.

May the Force be with you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

In memoriam: Herbert H. Wiggins, Jr.

Herbert H. Wiggins, Jr. died May 22 in his home town of Decatur, Alabama.

Herb passionately loved railroads. He volunteered for rail museums in Chattanooga and Calera (near Birmingham). Recently he traveled by rail across Canada and revisited his beloved Alaska. (Herb served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era, including a tour of duty in Anchorage.) Herb loved nature and helped build walking trails in North Alabama.

Many who encountered Herb’s sometimes gruff and demanding exterior later grew to know a gentle man of great integrity and compassion.

Herb is survived by a brother, Richard Wiggins (Judy Matthews) of Okemos, Michigan as well as numerous relatives in the Wiggins and Gardiner families. Close friends and their families meant much to Herb: Julian Hamilton, Deana Baker, Tim Butler, his “honorary grandson” Chris Reed and the Qualls family, and many others. Jackie Turner provided comfort in Herb’s last days.

Those who loved Herb will gather in June for a memorial service. In lieu of flowers, please donate to a charity of choice, or say a kind word to a loved one.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Joie de vivre or joi de vivre?

A French phrase came to mind and I didn't know how to spell it. So I did the unscientific thing, I Googled the phrase as I thought it might be spelled.

joi de vivre

Hmmm, only 16,000 hits. So I asked Google:

define: joi de vivre

Nothing. So I Googled for:

joy of life french

Paydirt: an entry on French phrases showed the correct spelling of "joie de vivre".

Along the way I stumbled on a Web site at . Hmmm, should domain registry services offer spell checking?

Fine photography portraiture for Chicagoans who don't speak French? Nope, it turns out the photographer is named Joi Rosenbaum and the spelling is therefore intentional.

I hope this story has brought a little joy into your life...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The browser wars redux: Netscape 8 crashes on first use

News stories report that Netscape 8 needed security patches within hours of its release. Curious how the new Netscape compares to Firefox, I downloaded it to try it out. The very first URL that I entered into its address field caused it to crash. I agreed to let Windows send an error report, which brought up a Microsoft screen -- Online Crash Analysis -- that I'd never seen before. Pretty funny to see Microsoft advise me to upgrade my Netscape browser...

Thursday, May 19, 2005

About time: the Times offers archives to its subscribers

The New York Times has announced that it will begin charging for folks to read some of their content, notably its popular columnists, on the Web. They also announced that print subscribers will have access to the new Times Select service for free, and that the service will include access to the Times' archives.

About time! I've thought they should do this for years. Those of us who pay hundreds per year to get the print paper deserve access to the archives. We've already paid for the content once. The kind of person who subscribes to the print Times is the kind of person who needs to look up that article from two weeks or two months or two years ago.

The Wall Street Journal paved the way for this years ago with its for-fee online edition. Naturally, the Google ad engine takes note:

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Excellent polemic on future of old media, new media, and Google

An 8 minute Flash animation offers cool graphics, ominous narration, and a cautionary tale of how Google will devour the old media.

They manage to weave in themes of media consolidation, Google and Amazon vs. Microsoft, the impact of blogs, identity, personalization, social networking, and even grid computing. It's definitely worth a watch -- or two. Very nicely done -- even if you don't buy the vision. The piece reminded me of the movie Network -- whose cautionary tale is alas where we are today.

Over the last few years I've given a talk on "Yesterday's Tomorrows: the Challenge of Predicting Internet Futures." These folks did something cool -- they propose what the future might be like, looking back from 2014. Call it "Tomorrow's Yesterdays."


It's a long learning curve, not a steep one

You often read quotes from folks who say that it will take a long time for people to understand something because "it's a steep learning curve."

If you think about it, a steep learning curve means learning occurs rapidly. If the Y axis is amount of learning, and the X axis is time, then a steep curve means rapid progress.

When folks say that, they're conflating the cliche of "a steep hill to climb" with the concept of a learning curve.

But an AP article run in Business Week online quotes someone who gets it right:

Microsoft tests version of tuneup service

MAY. 13 2:08 P.M. ET Microsoft Corp. is rolling out a test version of an all-in-one subscription service that aims to protect computer users from viruses and spyware and give them tools to make machines speedier.
"There is a long learning curve in producing a live security service," said Risto Siilasmaa, F-Secure's chief executive.

It was so refreshing to see someone use the learning curve metaphor and actually get the math right! I know, I know, I shouldn't take metaphors that seriously. Making pithy comments for the media is a tough row to hoe.

As Will Rogers might have said, I never metaphor I didn't like.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Google Maps places D.C. in Kansas

Ever since 9/11 I've felt strongly that Washington National Airport should be converted into an Air Force base, and no commercial or civilian flights should be allowed in D.C. air space. Of course this was politically infeasible, as Congress critters love flying into National and taking the Metro or a limo on a short hike to the office.

After the incident yesterday, when a civilian plane stumbled -- can an airplane stumble? -- into D.C. air space and caused a panic, I wanted to see once again how close National is to the White House and the Capitol.

So I went to and searched for:


I got a list of chiropractors in Kansas:

This is why everyone who offers a search box on their home page needs to do search log analysis.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mainstream media continues its fascination with blogs and bloggers

Couple of interesting pieces in today's NYT about blogging:

The Latest Rumbling in the Blogosphere: Questions About Ethics

Published: May 8, 2005

Bloggers like to demonize the MSM (that's Mainstream Media), but it is increasingly hard to think of the largest news blogs as being outside the mainstream. Bloggers have been showing up at national political conventions, at the World Economic Forum at Davos and on the cover of Business Week. Establishment warhorses like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. are signing on to write for Arianna Huffington's blog collective. And Garrett Graff, of FishbowlDC, broke through the cyberceiling recently and acquired the ultimate inside-the-Beltway media credential: a White House press pass.

Blogging is at once revolutionary and mundane. It's just another way to poke content onto the Web. The Drudge Report and Dave Farber's Interesting People list were extremely influential long before "blogging" entered the lexicon. They merely used different tools to publish. As Bill Moyers has pointed out, the pamphleteers who helped incite the American Revolution were the real pioneering bloggers: they got their hands stained with ink. Blogging is the continuation of the Web revolution; it's an authoring tool, not its own revolution.

: time to talk about emperor's new clothes, and someone steps up to do it.

A Blog Revolution? Get a Grip

Published: May 8, 2005

At a time when media conferences like "Les Blogs" in Paris two weeks ago debate the potential of the form, and when BusinessWeek declares, as it did on its May 2 cover, that "Blogs Will Change Your Business," Mr. Denton is withering in his contempt. A blog, he says, is much better at tearing things down - people, careers, brands - than it is at building them up. As for the blog revolution, Mr. Denton put it this way: "Give me a break."

"The hype comes from unemployed or partially employed marketing professionals and people who never made it as journalists wanting to believe," he said. "They want to believe there's going to be this new revolution and their lives are going to be changed."

Finally someone deflates hype about blogging. My favorite NYT commentary on the blogging phenomenon remains a wonderful photograph they ran in the magazine in 2004, showing Old Media trying to figure out New Media, aka Wonkette:

I think that's R.W. Apple of The Times on the left, and Jules Witcover of the Baltimore Sun on the right. The blonde needs no introduction. Just a hell of a great image -- worth thousands of words.

Of course I do like this photo from The Times as well:

You should Contact Us in order to Contact Us

Trying to determine benefits available to a family member, I encountered this gem in the official Federal government employee benefits Web site (emphasis added):

The Office of Personnel Management does not recognize Powers of Attorney filings. If you are responsible for the care or custody of a person who is either mentally or physically unable to handle his or her own money, you should contact us as soon as possible. Contact us to determine how to reach us. We will give you full instructions on what to do to take care of the benefits. You should provide the claim number, name, and Social Security Number of the disabled person as well as the name and address of the responsible person.

Ya can't make this stuff up:

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Tom Friedman, New York Times rug merchant

For years I've admired Tom Friedman, the NYT columnist who writes about globalization. He's especially good at telling the Bush administration, or the Arab world, or Israel, or Times readers (myself included), when they don't "get" globalization or geopolitics.

Lately he's gone over the top selling his new book The World Is Flat. Any author appreciates an opportunity to hawk their new book -- it'll help put his daughter through Harvard someday. But Friedman has lost his compass.

Friedman's most recent column in The Times was essentially an advertisement for his book. He begins by, um, casually mentioning he's currently on book tour, then twice alludes to his "world is flat" metaphor. Watch him carefully as he tours the talk circuit: he'll mention his book title as often as he can remind Oprah or Wolf Blitzer or Gwen Ifill or Dr. Phil that "the world is flat."

Tom Friedman is no longer a serious and respectable columnist; he's a multimedia huckster. Hmm... he's now the Mitch Albom of The New York Times.

Several years ago I encountered Friedman at the Burger King at Detroit Metropolitan Airport -- no doubt he was en route to Asia. I nearly told him how much I admired his writing, but I chose to give the man some space. Now he'd probably say "This hamburger is flat -- and the world is flat -- did you know that? I wrote a book about the flat world. You can buy The World is Flat in the bookstore near gate A45."

Times columnists often publish books that attract a wide audience; more power to them. But does The Times explicitly offer their columnists free column inches for their book ads?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A very different college of cardinals -- this one poops on your car

Months ago my brother Herb told me that one or more cardinals were attacking his car. One male cardinal, or perhaps more than one, saw themselves in the outside rear view mirrors, thought they saw a rival bird, then pecked at and pooped all over the mirrors, the doors, and the windshield.

Frankly, I thought Herb was losing his faculties. I've never heard of such a thing.

Then, last week, Herb had a heart attack. I'm in town to be with him. (Thankfully his best friend Julian and others are giving Herb much needed care and attention.)

The last two nights I've stayed at the house I grew up in, which Herb now owns. And I now know that in fact the cardinals rule the roost. I came out to my rental car yesterday -- and it had been pecked and pooped upon exactly as had Herb's car.

Here's the fake owl that Herb bought, which doesn't scare the cardinals away:

Here's what the cardinal(s) do to Herb's car:

Here's the license plate for Herb's car, if you care to track the cardinal sins:

And here's the Mercury Grand Marquis grandpamobile I rented for this visit:

And here is the corresponding bird poop that the cardinals adorned the rental car with:

I do not have photos of me screaming at the two male cardinals I saw in the back yard, but they know that a crazy guy did just that. Next trip we'll see if the college of cardinals are as keen on adorning GM or Chrysler products....

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The incredibly unbelievable things that "information must be free" types believe about music file sharing

Dave Farber often posts things to his "Interesting People" list about the evils of the record and movie industries. While I typically agree with Dave politically and ideologically, he seems to accept the most ridiculous defenses of file sharing as benign. Here's my response to a recent thread, which Dave chose not to post:


The zeitgeist on IP seems to be that file sharing hasn't hurt record (CD) sales. You see this claimed over and over again on your list. I say, baloney, and those who so claim who to know better just won't admit reality. Pleae offer some credible evidence, or stop making the claim.

I work at a major midwestern university and I know from talking to students both formally and informally that music and movie file sharing is rampant. One student proudly bragged that he made a living as a party DJ and had not bought a song in years for his party collection.

Ask 50 current undergrads if they share music on the net, and 48 hands go up.

Who is kidding whom here? Let him who has not file shared cast the first stone.

I believe that both sides are disingenuous here. I've pressed students about intellectual property rights: How would you feel if you had a collection of poetry, or short stories, or even recipes -- and a major publisher lifted the collection off the net, published a book, and made millions in profits with you not seeing a nickel? Pressed to the wall, students admit that would not sit well.

I think the record industry also is disingenuous. They now face two groups: those who know how to file share, and those who don't. They sue those who know how, and they charge even more rapacious prices to those who do not.

To claim that file sharing hasn't affected music sales, to me, is like claiming the sun doesn't set. It is ridiculous on its face. I've met students who make professional CD art to go with their pirated collections. I've talked to young people who've never bought a CD. I saw the checkout clerk at the local boutique grocery store practically weep when the original Napster was shut down. We had a thriving Tower Music in East Lansing until file sharing came along. The manager told me the demise was due to file sharing. Will someone propose a credible alternative theory? (And please, don't tell me there wasn't enough new music. I know lots of young people who know 70s pop music better than I do.)

Why do people persist in denying the obvious? When millions of people have broadband connections and thousands of music download sources and readily available tools to download music for free, they will do so. Why don't we just admit this??

Without being puritanical about it, can we please admit simple truths?

Could we please have a bibliography of "every independent study" that proves that file sharing of commercial music doesn't impact sales -- and the studies' methodologies?

The "album" paradigm has been busted up. There has got to be a sweet spot price, somehere between the iTunes cost of 99 cents per song, and the file sharing cost of zero cents, where we can strike a fair and happy balance cost for downloading music without violating copyright.

One side won't admit their rampant piracy -- theft, as far as I'm concerned -- is hurting the industry, and the other side won't admit they need to change their business model.