Facial recognition: The end of privacy?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/22/2016 - 07:50

Facial recognition software is now in wide use by groups as disparate as Facebook, local police departments, Homeland Security, and the NSA. What it means is that whenever you post a picture of you, family, or friends anywhere online, someone can easily identify every single person in the picture, and very likely determine from the caption or comments where you have been and what you are doing.

That information, if scooped up by a private entity like Facebook or Google, is immediately sold to advertisers. Lately, I've noticed that the ads being served on Web sites I am browsing change within one or two minutes of doing a search on Amazon or some other shopping site. It used to take a day or two for me to see those changes.

We are trading privacy for convenience. It remains to be seen how this will all turn out, but Big Brother is really twins: Government Big Brother (all the local, state, and Federal agencies collecting and maintaining data on us) and Business Big Brother (all the large multi-national companies, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook that collecting and selling our personal information).

Welcome your robot overlords

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:31

On the heels of accidents caused by self-driving cars, there is a report of a "security robot" accidentally running over a small child at a California shopping mall.

The 300 pound, five foot tall robot bumped into the child, who fell down, and the robot ran over the child's foot. The child was not seriously injured.

We are going to see a lot more of this, as "robots" of all kinds are rushed to market with poorly tested software.

Microsoft: The company that hates its customers

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/08/2016 - 10:17

I had some hope that Microsoft, once Steve Ballmer departed, might become more customer friendly. And in the past couple of years, Microsoft has made steady improvements to products like the Surface tablet/laptop--I see a lot of them in my travels.

Here at the office, we've actually seriously discussed moving away from Apple for office productivity software because Apple, since Tim Scott took over, has apparently just decided quality software is not particularly important.

But my most recent Microsoft experience has me once again thoroughly soured me on the Redmond company. I have been using a perfectly adequate copy of Office 2011 for years, and dutifully install the frequent patches and upgrades. I've never had any problems with the software until the most recent upgrade, which installed a new splash screen that tries to get me to buy Office 360 (a never-ending software rental). To actually get Word or Excel running on my Mac, I have to click on a little button on the bottom of the splash screen labeled "Use Word for free." For free. Um, I bought and paid for this software, and now Microsoft, via the new unwanted splash screen, tries to tell me that they are "letting me" use their software "for free!"

How generous of them.

If this is not annoying enough, the upgrade deactivated Word and now it only operates in read only mode. So the software I paid for has been hijacked by Microsoft.

I called tech support, and of course they wanted the serial number off the box that I bought five years ago. I can't find it. And the nearly incomprehensible tech support people (very heavy accents reading from a script) really had no idea what I was talking about. I gave up.

So good job, Microsoft. You've hijacked the software of a long time customer and made it unusable. If you think this is the way to get me to buy Office 360, you're wrong.

WiFimobile is the new bookmobile

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/30/2016 - 13:54

Google has helped to fund some middle school buses in Caldwell County, North Carolina with WiFi so that the kids can get some school work done while traveling back and forth to school.

While this is an interesting experiment, the reason behind it is the abysmal state of broadband access in rural America, where whole families have to drive to McDonalds or the local library so mom and pop can get their email and shop, and so the kids can do their homework.

Everywhere I go these days in rural areas, the number one complaint is coming from the mothers of K12 children. Mom is dead tired from trying to manage access to Internet for her children. Stop in a rural McDonalds after 3 PM, and I can almost guarantee you will spot some vans in the parking lot with mom in the drivers seat and two or three kids bent over laptops or tablets trying to get their homework done.

Rural libraries are groaning under the strain of demand for Internet access, and they have to strictly manage time limits on the use of library computers. As the school systems put more and more textbooks and resources online, the problem becomes more acute for families with poor Internet access.

The horror of ordering Internet service

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/10/2016 - 09:13

I just spent 40 minutes trying to help a friend order Internet service for a new home in rural North Carolina. They knew that there was no cable service, but did not know who the telephone company was for the area.

I thought this would be easy.

I tried four different companies: Windstream, AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink. Verizon's site was the worst, as they make it very clear that they don't want to sell you any copper-based services. I spent many minutes clicking around on their site trying to figure out how to order DSL, without much luck. When you do finally find the DSL page, the only "order" button is for FiOS. No matter what page you land on on the Verizon site, it's all FiOS, all the time, along with lots of add-on services they want you to buy to fluff up your bill.

One thing that was interesting: on one of the pages I landed on trying to get to the DSL information, the first thing you see is a full page of information about cellular data plans. So Verizon wants to sell you a cellular data plan or FiOS, and anything else....not so much. I did eventually find the link to check an address for service, and of course, they had none for my friend's home.

The other three providers were pretty much the same. AT&T winds some sort of prize for the most obscure service names: You can order U-verse or Gigapower. Snap quiz: Which one is fiber and which one is DSL? Answer: Good luck figuring that out. Finally found the "check address" dialog, and of course, no service. But great news! AT&T is happy to sell you satellite TV and a cellular data plan.

When you go to Windstream, you get a really bad version of Yahoo! News as their front page. CenturyLink actually easily had the best site, with a well-designed front page that made it relatively easy to figure out what plans are available and their cost. But no service in my friend's area.

Despite record profits and high prices, all four companies seem determined to clutter up their own site with ads and "up sell" items, which are probably enormously profitable. But trying to order plain old telephone or Internet service is an exercise in frustration. If I have trouble, I can only imagine the teeth-grinding and keyboard pounding that a typical potential customer goes through to just get some very simple information.

Next step for my friend: She is going to contact some neighbors to find out who the telephone company is. So much for the power of the Internet.

Smombies and the decline of civilization

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/25/2016 - 12:56

It has come to this: The city of Augsburg, Germany has begun to install traffic lights in the street...because so many people are looking down at their cellphones that they are ignoring traffic signals and being hit by oncoming traffic. This is just sad.

In China, the problem is so bad that in Chongqing, local officials have created two lane pedestrian crosswalks. One lane is for normal people who the sense to pay attention when crossing the street, and the other lane is for "smombies," or "smartphone zombies," who shuffle across the street so slowly that they are blocking other pedestrians.

Email is not a sychronous communications tool

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/12/2016 - 09:14

Twice in the past week people have complained that I did not respond to their email. In the first case, they sent the missive to the wrong address, waited two weeks, and then wondered aloud to me if I was really busy and was unable to keep up with email. Well, yes to the really busy part, but no to the unable to keep up with email. I cannot respond to email that I have not received.

In the second case, the sender was upset because they had sent an email in the morning and I had not responded by mid-afternoon. It was a day when I was out of the office with a client, and had back to back meetings throughout the day. I was not checking my email.

The "always connected" Internet culture has created a false sense of connectivity for not just email, but also for things like texting. I travel in a lot of rural areas, where cell towers may be few and far between, so I don't necessarily receive texts a few seconds after someone sends it.

Email and texting are asynchronous services; you send the message, and it may or may not reach its destination in any given time. There seems to be a rising resistance to using the phone for business communications, even though the phone is a synchronous communications medium--if I answer the phone and are speaking to you, you know with certainty that I have received the message.

There is a certain irony at work in our culture when we all have "smart phones" but don't actually use the phone part.

Apple comes to its senses with the iPhone SE

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/30/2016 - 08:10

Wired has a review of the iPhone SE, which is Apple's newest smartphone offering. It is essentially the guts of the iPhone 6 in the iPhone 5 case--meaning you can actually put the darned thing in your pocket without feeling like there is a brick in there.

I've handled both the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, and I don't like either of them--just too big. I don't want or need a mini-tablet.

The iPhone SE finally acknowledges that there is a market for a phone that isn't bigger than a breadbox.

Biking, walking, and fiber

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/30/2016 - 07:49

This Washington Post article talks about the desirability of walking and biking trails in communities. The trails can reduce traffic on roads, improve livability, and attract Millenials. But over and over I again, we see communities making multi-million dollar investments in these trails without thinking about putting in conduit and fiber.

These trails can be extremely valuable as a digital highway. You typically won't connect many homes or businesses on these routes, but these paths often provide low construction cost routes between different parts of a community or even better, low cost routes between two communities.

The myth of meet-me boxes and expensive drops

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 02/18/2016 - 15:30

We are working with a medium-sized city to design a new open access Gigabit fiber network, and the local telephone company is claiming that the connection from the street to the office building (in the downtown area) is "the most expensive part of reaching the customer."

So they are pushing for "meet-me" boxes outside of the downtown buildings, which would terminate fiber from the buildings into a fiber patch panel, and calling this open access.

Well, it is, after a fashion, but meet-me boxes favor the companies that already have fiber in the street or the alley. Any competitive provider that does not already have that advantage would have to spend a lot more money to get their fiber to the meet-me box. So the phone company cleverly "supports" open access by touting a solution that gives them a huge competitive advantage and effectively locks out most competition.

In fact, it is worse than that, because in this city there is a second provider that also has some fiber downtown, and they also like the meet-me box solution. Of course they do. The two companies would get an effective lock on the business market downtown and would be able to maintain their existing cartel-like pricing.

So this brings us to the notion that the fiber cable between the street and the building is the "most expensive part" of the network. It is not. As a general rule of thumb, it represents between 20% and 35% of the cost of a new build, and could be even less than 20% if the drop is made from a pole in the right of way to the side of the building (could be as low as 5% to 10% of the total build cost).

The incumbents are really stuck on "owning the customer." But the world is changing.

How about G.Fast for the rest of us?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/02/2016 - 08:54

Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent are touting improvements in G.Fast, claiming 11 Gig speeds on copper. But when you read the fine print, that's on pristine brand new copper cable in the lab.....and....wait for it....over a distance of 150 feet.

Rural local loop copper is measured in tens of thousands of feet. Call me when they are getting 100 Meg speeds over ten thousand feet of fifty year old rural local loop copper with cracked, worn insulation that is letting water in every time it rains, and I'll get a bit more excited.

A charger that might be a win

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 12/03/2015 - 16:40

Here is an interesting variant on the ubiquitous battery pack many of us carry around for a quick recharge of our smartphone or tablet. The MyCharge HubPlus combines three functions in one nicely designed package.

It has a built-in lithium ion battery, fold out prongs so you can plug it directly in the wall and use it as a charger for your phone or tablet, and it has built in Lightning (Apple) and mini-USB cables. If you travel a lot, this could reduce the number of things you have to lug around.

Death of TV: Part LXXV: NBC version

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/27/2015 - 10:51

As "TV," which from here on out I will always put in quotes, since "TV" now really just means "sitting on the couch and watching video from any one of hundreds (thousands?) of sources," continues its death spiral, NBC is a perfect example of stupidity perfected.

NBC refuses to put some of its most popular shows on services like Hulu. Instead, they want to force viewers onto the NBC Web site and watch those shows using NBC's own streaming video. What is so bad about that? Well, two things.

The big one is that the NBC video service is total crap. Trying to watch "The Blacklist" is an exercise in frustration. The app is slow to start the video, but because streaming video is SOOOOOOO difficult, the app spontaneously restarts the program from the beginning...over and over again. And every time it starts over, it forces you to watch two minutes of commercials. The same commercials you just watched a couple of minutes ago before the last restart.

If it restarts and you want to fast forward to the place where you were watching before you restarted, guess what? You are going to have watch two more minutes of commercials. Fast forwarding, in the NBC world, is apparently cheating, and NBC Incompetentcy World, cheating is not allowed.

Want to switch from full screen mode back to the browser window in the middle of the show? No problem! NBC restarts the entire show for you, along with two minutes of commercials.

If you have not dozed off reading this litany of stupidity, you might be wondering what the second problem is....which is NBC lards up its streaming shows with the same kind of incessant commercials that you would see on regular "TV."

So NBC, convinced that it can do better forcing its viewers to watch its own streaming service, makes it so painful that you lose interest and go off to Netflix or Hulu, which for some strange reason, don't seem to have problems whatsoever streaming video without restarting the program over and over again.

As far as "TV" goes these days, the elbow is dead and the unlike rock, the heart stopped beating years ago. But the corpse is still slightly warm.

Colorado communities strike back at the Empire

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 11/08/2015 - 09:14

Forty-four Colorado communities passed referendums that give those the communities the right to build their own broadband infrastructure.

Colorado is one of those states that had a legislature pass a law forbidding local community investment in broadband unless a public referendum was voted on. At the time (ten years ago) the incumbents probably figured that was a bar too high for those towns and counties to jump over.

But after a decade of poor and slow service, the referendums passed easily. As < a href="http://eldotelecom.blogspot.com/2015/09/fccs-sohn-forget-incumbents-build-your.html">Gigi Sohn of the FCC noted recently, communities are going to have to build their own modern networks. And so they are.

Death of TV: Part LXXIV: The networks start to jump ship

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 10/22/2015 - 15:48

Just as Apple is about to roll out the next version of its Apple TV box, the company has announced that CBS and NBC will be making much of their channel content available via Apple TV.

The networks are realizing that the future is on the Internet, not on cable and satellite. I do not believe that over time we will spend much less on content than we do now on a household basis. But instead of writing an $85/month check to TimeWarner or Comcast, we will be buying our entertainment in smaller bits and pieces. We might spend $30/month for Apple's package of TV, and we might end up spending another $9/month for a Netflix streaming subscription, and another $30/month for on demand and pay per view content.

We won't spend a lot less, but we will be much more satisfied with the money we are spending.

Why wireless won't replace fiber...

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/19/2015 - 14:12

All wireless "unlimited data" plans come with an expiration date. Once a cellular company's sales targets for new customer has been met, they change the "unlimited data" plan.

In this example, it is Sprint which has announced that once you use your monthly "unlimited" allotment of 23 Gig of data, you get throttled.

Exhibit Number One in the Museum of Why Wireless Won't Replace Fiber is data caps. If wireless was so wonderful, the cellular companies would not have to put data caps on their service. But the data caps PROVE that the wireless infrastructure can't handle the demand. If it could, they would not be doing this bait and switch.

A pox on LinkedIn marketing trolls

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/16/2015 - 09:55

I would say that now, about half my LinkedIn invitations are coming from marketing trolls who obviously want to sell me something. I deleted three invitations this morning, from an insurance rep, a CPA, and a car repair shop. I don't know of any of these people.

LinkedIn seemed like a reasonably modest "good idea" when it started, but I can't say I have ever used it for its supposed intended use--networking.

Here is the problem. You can accept an invitation from almost anyone, but you will quickly be inundated with LinkedIn messages asking for a minute of your time, and there are only so many minutes you can give away to LinkedIn contacts you don't know.

If you are very careful about who you accept as a LinkedIn contact, then you are using LinkedIn to stay in touch with people you pretty much already know...so you already have their contact information and don't need LinkedIn at all.

It's a mess.

The decline of the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/07/2015 - 10:13

LinkedIn can't seem to decide what it wants to be. A while back, it added Facebook-like features that everyone (including me) used for a while, but it takes time to sit on LinkedIn and read everyone's posts. Over time, the traffic on the groups has declined to the point where it is nearly non-existent. I know that some very large LinkedIn groups have a lot more postings, but my view is that if you have lots of time to write and respond to stuff on LinkedIn, you are probably not doing your job.

I got a message from someone today, and when I tried to reply, I found that LinkedIn had again changed its interface, and unless I missed it (entirely possible), there is now an instant message style interface. It took me ten minutes of clicking around a bunch of mostly blank screens before I was able to respond to the message request.

The new interface was (is) obviously buggy. So like many other Internet-based services, as these companies fiddle with the interface and the features, the software just becomes harder to use.

Once Skype was purchased by Microsoft, we noticed a gradual and steady decline in the quality of the software. As an example, we used to use the file transfer feature all the time (i.e. several times a day). We are back to emailing files around or putting them on the shared server (both less convenient) because the Skype file transfer fails so often we now just ignore it--if you can't predict when it will work and when it will fail, it is useless.

Apple has similar problems. In their desired to make all their Mac apps "the same" on the Mac and on iPads/iPhones, they have not only removed features, screwed up a wonderful interface, and introduced bugs. And they don't really seem to care very much. Steve Jobs has to be spinning in his grave.

Porsche say "No!" to Google and Android

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/06/2015 - 08:11

Carmaker Porsche has chosen to go with Apple's CarPlay and will not support Android in its 2017 car models.

Google apparently wanted a complete and constant data dump from every car, all the time. Apple was not making that kind of requirement in its CarPlay licensing.

As Internet-based technology matures, I am glad to see that some companies are recognizing that privacy is still more important than technology. Kudos to Apple and Porsche for respecting their customers.

Did the Internet just jump the shark? Is Peeple real?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/05/2015 - 10:52

So certain portions of the InnerTubes are all abuzz over this supposed new app and service called Peeple.

It is hard to know where to start, as there are layers of fear, loathing, intrigue, and suspicion swirling around this new service. The fact that it already has a page on Snopes.com should tell you something.

In short, Peeple is being described as "Yelp for people." So instead of posting a review about the restaurant where you just had dinner, you can post a review about your boss, your mother-in-law, the roommate that cheated you out of the last month's rent...anyone you like or don't like.

This has to be the worst idea of all time, and part of the reason some people suspect the whole thing is a hoax is because the core concept is so horrifying--is there anyone who thinks this could turn out well? Apparently the two founders do; they have a background in corporate HR, so you can sort of imagine that being able to easily check up on prospective hires might have some appeal.

But right now, the app and the underlying service seems to be vaporware, and there is much discussion that the November date for a beta version seems unrealistic.

I'm a bit jealous, as this would make a great April Fool's joke, but it is October, not April, and there are reports that they have raised several million dollars in venture capital.

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