Sunday, May 18, 2014

Old telecoms should be let to die

Today's techno-melodrama is on the damage old incumbent telecoms like AT&T are doing to the American economy by reducing our efficiency as their customers. We should just let them die of natural causes and move our service as soon as we can to newer technologically savvy companies.

In 1984, when I started working at Xerox PARC, I did not get a plain old telephone. Instead, at PARC we were using the Etherphone, which was packet based instead of being circuit based like plain old telephone service (POTS). We were wearing active badges, so the Etherphone system knew where we were in the building. When a phone call came in (this was before robocalls) the system would transfer the call to the nearest phone and play our personal tune (Doug Wyatt had skillfully arranged a Beethoven Prélude for my tune). To make a call, you could either dial a number, or just type "phone jane doe" in a command tool viewer and the Etherphone would look up Jane's number in the phone book and initiate the call.

Not being a great communicator, at home I have kept living for the last 30 years with the same anti-diluvial POTS from Ma' Bell. This was until May 7, 2014 when I made the bad decision to switch to AT&T's voice over IP (VoIP) service. More precisely, the bad part of the decision was to stay with that moribund dysfunctional colossus that is AT&T. I should have done my homework and switched to one of the new skilled VoIP providers.

I am not using the phone a lot, so at first I did not notice the line had been cut by AT&T for a couple of days. It was only when my roommate noticed that I was no longer getting robocalls (that theater of the absurd where the computer of a solicitor illegally calls the computer of my AT&T digital answering machine and bizarrely tries to sell to it some useless service such as carpet steam cleaning), that I checked if a phone was off the hook and noticed the line was dead.

Indeed, that same day on May 7 AT&T had promptly disconnected my landline, but instead of giving me VoIP, they switched my number to a service they call "AT&T Wireless Home Phone" which is run by their subsidiary Cingular Wireless, as their service people keep calling it. In my house I get zero to one bars on AT&T wireless, so I am not interested in that. Also, they gave me the Uverse equipment for VoIP, not the Wireless Home equipment.

So far, I have made three trips to the AT&T store in Palo Alto and I have been on the phone literally for several days with a number of people in AT&T’s support organizations (they have several and they do not talk to each other: they are dysfunctional). However, except for once for a few hours last Saturday’s morning, AT&T has not been able to restore my phone service.

This is where companies like AT&T are recklessly damaging the American economy. The life task of us scientists and engineers is to invent technologies that make society more efficient. The task of service companies is to deploy these technologies so general wealth is increased and we get to live in a better world.

Dysfunctional companies like AT&T not only prevent us from becoming more efficient: through their dysfunction they prevent us from doing our work and therefore they are a dead weight to society by slowing down its productivity.

AT&T Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Randall L. Stephenson

AT&T is a $127 billion conglomerate led by Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Randall L. Stephenson. Obviously, he does not know how to run an efficient organization. Maybe the campaign "It Can Wait" for which he is famous refers to his inability to integrate the companies making up his conglomerate.

According to the target compensation table on page 44 of AT&T’s 2014 proxy statement, Mr. Stephenson’s total target compensation is $20,600,000 per annum. Assuming Mr. Stephenson works 48 weeks a year and shows up five days a week, he works 240 days a year. Therefore, he makes over $85,833 a day.

So far, Mr. Stephenson wasted 11 days of my life, so he owes me already $944,163. To be honest, he does not owe this money to me but to my employer, because for 11 days so far at work I could only type with one hand since the other hand holds my phone while I am on calls with his various disconnected support services. In my free time I cannot relax to recharge my batteries to get back to work in good shape. Instead I have to interact with powerless AT&T employees.

I am sure this is not only happening to me but to thousands of AT&T customers. When we tally up the wasted time using Mr. Stephenson’s total target compensation, we get a significat number of the economic damage this causing to our society in terms of dollars.

Could Mr. Stephenson just be an innocent victim of a broken system? No! In January 2000, I spent $4,500 ($6,135 adjusted for inflation) to run an underground conduit from the utility box in the sidewalk to the service entrance in the back of the house. The City of Palo Alto had us put in the pipe because they had run an optical fiber cable in our neighborhood’s street as part of their Fiber to the Home (FTTH) project.

After the first 90 or so houses got hooked up with a 100 mbps Internet connection, the City turned off the light in the FTTH cable. This was because AT&T and Comcast had sued the City on this initiative and the City determined it did not have the financial means to fight out a battle in court. This proves that the AT&T executives are not innocent bystanders. Rather, they are ruthless bullies.

When I commute to work, I do not take the Ford street or the General Motors street and pay them a fee of $300 per month for their service. Rather, the respective governments own and maintain the various road communication systems like the interstates, the county roads, the city roads, etc. We call them freeways and we pay them through various taxes, fees, and tolls.

Today the Internet has the same economic importance as the road transportation system. It is time for the various governments to exercise their eminent domain rights and take the communications infrastructure over from inept private companies unable to provide a dependable service.

In light of the 2000 Watt Society, it would make sense to tax the consumption of electric energy to finance the Internet infrastructure, because of the energy footprint of the digital economy. To pay for the necessary new infrastructure investments, the government can levy installation fees, tolls on expensive usages, etc.

Like in road transportation the government provides the freeways but not the cars or the gasoline, the role of ISPs and content providers can be left open for competition to the many skilled new companies that know how to run communications services efficiently.

For example, my current ISP is AT&T, but they outsource the service to Yahoo!, which could provide me the ISP service directly. Similarly there are many efficient content providers and telecom providers that can do this much much better than the old companies. Examples are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hulu, Netflix, Ooma among the most well known ones.

Let us jump ship from the old companies that are no longer able to provide reliable and affordable services. We do not need people making more than $85,000 a day while not delivering. Let them go back into the trenches and splice optical fiber cables.

In the meantime, I am incommunicado, so if you want to reach me, either come to my door or send a carrier pigeon.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Color-coded pedestrians in Shibuya

NTT Docomo Inc. made a computer simulation visualizing what would happen if 1,500 pedestrians walked across the famous crossing in front of Shibuya station in Tokyo while texting: only 36% would make it across safely.

The pedestrians are color-coded by departure point and walk at 3, 4, or 6 km/h. They all have average height and weight, i.e., 160 cm resp. 58 kg. The model further assumes that texting reduces the vision range by 80% to 1.5 m. The green light lasts 46 seconds.

The result shown in the simulation is that only 547 pedestrian crossed without accidents. The others collided and either had to stop to apologize, fell, or dropped their phones.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Commuting to work

For most of my life I have been lucky to work just 3 km from home, so I have not been exposed too much to the commuting woes. For example, when I arrived in the Silicon Valley, the 101 freeway had two lanes in each direction separated by a wide median strip planted with oleanders. Over the years, the median strip has disappeared and 101 became a freeway with four crowded lanes in each direction. For the last two or three years, a fifth auxiliary lane is being added in each direction in the portion between Marsh Road (Facebook) and 85 (Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft), so I have heard a lot of yammer from my coworkers.

For the past year I have been a commuter myself, barreling down 23 km to the San Jose airport every day. Unfortunately there is no usable public transportation, so I am condemned to this daily freeway maltreatment. It starts after 2 km, when I enter 101 on Embarcadero, where about 20% of the drivers illegally cross two double lines at a 90º angle to force themselves in a passing lane before the actual freeway entrance, while pushy Gbusses force themselves from the high occupancy vehicle lane to the exit lane and a few 100 m later a slew of cars try to make a –90º turn from the leftmost lane to the San Antonio Road exit.

During the past year I have tried to develop a driving model that would reduce my stress, but not very successfully. Last Saturday finally was able to see a sophisticated model in action and it was an eye-opener: I got to ride a Google Car from the Googleplex down 101 to the 280 interchange and back.

Sitting behind the "driver" I had a good view of the laptop on the lap of the lady in the front passenger seat, displaying the car's model of the surroundings based on the lidar spinning on top of the car and also a radar in the front of the car, an inertial sensor in the rear wheel axis and last but not least on countless hours of tweaking the model based on the feedback of skilled professional drivers like Anja—our pilot on this trip—who rides full-time for her work.

On the console we see the freeway lanes, our projected route, and the surrounding vehicles. When a vehicle creates a dangerous situation, it is marked with a danger sign. The model recognizes the lights of emergency vehicles and can pull over according to the law. However, it ignores other car's blinkers. In fact, the American driving culture is that the other drivers are your enemies and you do not want to warn them by letting your intentions to be known: the blinker is either never turned on or left blinking.

While as a human I can model a few cars around me, Google's algorithm can model many cars around our self-driving car, in all directions. When our car gets in the blind spot of another car, the icon of that car is flagged with a danger sign. With a surprising frequency, the flagged cars cut us off at a dangerously close distance. Since I am not driving, I can look in the offending cars and can never see those drivers turning their heads to check the clearance. Therefore, they are all driving erratically without looking, resulting in the car being cut off, breaking and propagating this backwards to the following cars.

Like computers can beat humans at chess because they can predict a larger number of steps, Google's car is better than human drivers because it can by far model more vehicles than a human can. Yet, humans are too stupid and reckless for Google's algorithm to be completely foolproof. For example, at one point in Santa Clara we were in the right lane and a big truck tried to pass us driving above the speed limit and on the shoulder. Our pilot Anja recognized, maybe from the truck's exhaust fumes, that he did not have enough torque to pass us and the shoulder turned into a ditch a few meters further ahead. This would have left the truck driver to either go full speed into the ditch or ramming us, so she floored our brakes.

Those reckless drivers are in part professional drivers who spend their working day on the freeway driving trucks, taxis, limos, etc. This indicates that most humans are unfit to drive cars.

But are driver-less cars the answer? When I was a teenager, I thought that by 2014 I could fly to the moon with TWA or PanAm and get to Paris in a couple of hours on a Trans Europ Express (TEE). It would never have crossed my mind that in 2014 I would be driving a car on a freeway full of incompetent erratic drivers.

The mistake being made by the Caltrans agency is to build those auxiliary lanes. Instead, they should have built a train like the S-Bahn on that old median strip. A skilled professional train driver could get me to work in a few minutes, safely and without stress.