Wednesday, October 01, 2014

On recent events in Hong Kong, and related lessons from American history

The BBC reports:

In China, an editorial in People's Daily warned of "unimaginable consequences" if the protests continued...

Unimaginable consequences! I literally can't imagine, actually. They can't roll out the tanks this time. In the age of ubiquitous digital photography and the Internet, it won't be a few grainy shots of one guy with a shopping bag.

I've been telling people for a while that I think that Chinese leaders are way too fearful of political protests. Look at the United States. Street protests may have affected the course of history a half century ago, but in my lifetime, street protests in America have proven to be ephemeral outbursts of emotion, more a substitute for change than a precursor of it. As I've said before, the system of government by elected representatives has evolved a nearly 100% effective immune system against alteration via protest.

For example, a hundred thousand people took to the streets of New York protesting the Iraq war. A decade later, we appear to be mired in eternal war in the Middle East. At this stage, I have serious doubts that the United States military will leave the Middle East in my lifetime. But those protestors, oh, I bet they felt heroic, like they were doing something world-changing when they were marching down that street in such massive numbers. Even that one inevitable guy holding the "Free Mumia" sign at the anti-war rally.

China's leaders need to learn to relax. Rather than clamping down on protests, they should learn from the West: create free speech zones, let the protestors expend their energy, let them lose focus and direction as the tide of life's million distractions gradually erodes their morale, and meanwhile make all the important decisions in incredibly boring committee meetings and reports, which are freely available (and sometimes even broadcast on television channels that nobody watches) but too numerous and too dull for any normal person to keep up with.

It turns out that if you construct your society just right, the drama and glamour of protests can be used, in a judo move, to undermine their effectiveness. The protest becomes a big identity-affirmation party, an end-in-itself. The shorthand "demo", which is what many activist groups in the U.S. call a street protest, is apropos: the point becomes to show off. After the demo winds down, a bunch of energy has been expended, yet the same people are in charge and are even quite likely to be re-elected.

I don't know quite how we got here, and I'm not saying that I have a better answer, but I will note that if you told aliens that a widely held theory of change among many political activists on Earth was

  1. throw a parade;
  2. the government changes its behavior.

then the aliens might be confused. They might ask: what is the mechanism that you propose for this causal effect, given that the formal mechanisms for altering laws generally make no reference to parades, but rather to activities that take place mostly indoors, such as voting, drafting legislation, bureaucratic rule-making, and court decisions?

Ultimately, the Chinese government's attitude towards protest displays a deep, perhaps even touchingly naive faith in the raw power of people to change the government. It is heartwarming, in an odd way. And, all cynicism aside, I sincerely wish the Chinese people the best with the whole protest thing. Maybe they can keep it working better than we did.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

US ISPs do not deserve much credit for increasing broadband speeds

Disclaimer: I worked for Google from 2006-2013, although not on Fiber.

Towards the end of this Twitter thread sparked by Timothy B. Lee, a commenter writes (by way of defending US ISPs):

Internet speeds have increased 1500% in ten years. 250k Wi-Fi hotspots are now available. That's progress.

When I read this, I just thought, this is such bullshit. Taking it apart with sufficiently satisfying thoroughness requires more than 140 characters, so I'm going to say it here.

US ISPs are riding the wave of technological progress. Giving them credit for the wave is evidence of cluelessness so extreme as to strongly suggest intellectual dishonesty.

First, crediting ISPs for the spread of wireless hotspots is especially egregious: it's a bit like giving them credit for Moore's Law. Even if ISPs had completely failed to increase speeds beyond dial-up, people would still want local networks without the hassle of Ethernet cables. The development and spread of wireless technology was not driven by ISPs. In fact, in some ways the opposite is true, as many ISPs retained official policies against running an open wireless hotspot (or even connecting multiple devices via NAT!) long after broadband became widely available.

Second, as for a 15x improvement in ten years[0]: that might sound impressive to some people, but all I can think is that ten years equals nearly seven doublings of Moore's Law and 27 = 128. Network speed doesn't track transistor density exactly, but computing technology is full of exponential curves like this (storage density, for example, doubles even faster than Moore's Law). To anyone with a clue about computing technology, 15x in 10 years obviously sounds somewhere between mediocre and lousy. In fact, Nielsen's Law predicts compound improvement of 57x over 10 years, or nearly 4x the observed improvement claimed by Dietz.[1] When Dietz calls out 15x improvement as a talking point in ISPs' favor, he is trying to rhetorically exploit an information asymmetry, namely his audience's presumed ignorance of exponential curves in computing technology.

Therefore, the reality is that US ISPs are badly managed technological laggards, just like everyone thinks.

In fact, the pace at which ISPs have taken up technological innovation is so bad that an entrant from another industry was able to enter the market and, without even trying very hard, spank the incumbents so thoroughly that it became a national embarrassment.

Google does so many things so well that you may not even be properly surprised by this fact. Let me try to give you a visceral feel for how anomalous Google Fiber is. Consider what happened when Google entered a market where its major competitor really was pushing innovation to the limit: consider Android. Google had to dedicate hundreds of its best and hardest-working engineers to the project and enlist the support of essentially every other company in the industry, and after eight hard-fought years, the best it can show for its efforts is rough technological parity with Apple.

Or, to take an example where Google was the defender, consider what happened when Microsoft decided to enter the search engine market. Again, this is a market where the strongest competitor really was pushing innovation to the limit. Billions of dollars and millions of engineer-hours later, Bing's search quality is still slightly worse than Google's.

I don't know the head count for Google Fiber (and even if I did, it would be covered by my NDA) but I will venture a strong guess that its engineering head count is far less than Android's, like at least an order of magnitude. In Google's product portfolio, judging by the scale of investment and strategic value, Google Fiber is basically a hobby, one that Google would never even have tried if US ISPs were remotely as good at their jobs as, say, ISPs in South Korea. And yet, technologically, Google Fiber simply outclassed these incumbents, who are supposedly competing and innovating furiously to earn your dollar.[2]

Imagine you had a friend who claimed to be training super-hard at tennis. But whenever you're at the courts, you see them go out to the court, set up the tennis ball machine, and swat lethargically at balls for about ten minutes, after which they sit down to sip an energy drink and diddle around on their phone. Then, one day, your niece, who's in reasonably good shape but has never picked up a tennis racket in her life, drops by, and she walks onto the court and crushes your friend in straight sets without breaking a sweat. You might reasonably question whether your friend was really training as hard as they claim.

In short, lauding the big US ISPs for their piddling achievements is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

But don't worry, ISPs, America isn't giving up on you. We believe that if you're subjected to the right mixture of tough love, including the right kinds of competition and regulation, you're capable of achieving just as much as Google Fiber did. Or, at a minimum, we believe that the ISP market is capable of achieving that. In the meantime, we'll try hard to ignore the risible bullshit of telecom hacks who claim that you're doing well enough.

[0] Engineers generally use multiples rather than percentages to describe improvements of this magnitude. Dietz's use of "increased 1500%" rather than 15x is a classic PR hack's way of making modestly sized numbers seem gigantic.

[1] Nielsen's predictions are fitted to observations, but those observations are for "high-end users". Dietz's number, which presumably describes mean or median users, reveals how poorly ISPs have done at making high-speed internet affordable despite the march of technology. Note that we do not see this failure in other, more competitive areas of computing technology: Intel's mid-range notebook-class processors follow Moore's Law just as well as its high-end server chips.

[2] This paragraph contains a logical honeypot for telecom hacks, who are likely to see an argument that they think they can debunk, but which they can only debunk by resorting to utter bullshit, which they will promptly be called upon. See if you can spot it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An anecdote from the UK, autumn 2013

With polls opening tomorrow for Scottish independence, I feel like sharing a little story. Last fall, A. and I were in Scotland and England for a couple of weeks*. In Scotland, there was more or less incessant discussion of independence: it was discussed constantly on BBC Scotland; there were leaflets, posters, and newspaper headlines; one cab driver gave us a long disquisition, during a short ride to the train station, on the evils of Blair's capitulation in Iraq and how an independent Scotland was nae goan tae be dragged intae wars over Israel and oil any longer by the U.S.

Now, if you travel through Scotland and then England as a tourist, there is a good chance that you will pull some money out of an ATM in Scotland and want to spend it in England. And although the UK shares a single currency, bills printed in Scotland look different from bills printed in England, and the Scottish variants are rare enough in England that paying with a Scottish £10 note in London elicits a moment of surprise. (Apparently it is not even technically legal tender in England, although everyone accepts it anyway.)

So, I was buying a sandwich at a Pret a Manger in London, and as the cashier was eyeballing both sides of the note, I remarked, "Got it in Scotland. Still a part of the UK, for now."

The cashier looked at me and laughed, saying instantly, "Oh, that's not going to change anytime soon."

"Really? It's all they can talk about up there. It's on the radio all the time..."

"Nah, it's not going to happen."

Her tone was casually amused, not so much Scotland shouldn't secede, that would be terrible and more Ha ha, this Yank, thinks that silliness up north is going to amount to something.

Her accent was English, of course; being American, I don't have the ear to pare it down more finely than that, but she was dark-skinned, of African or South Asian descent, and she sounded to me like any other working class London girl. I would venture to guess that this wasn't really your classic upper-class English snobbery about Northerners at work, at least not directly. I think, rather, that the English and Scottish, despite sharing a government, a currency, a language, and a relatively small island, amply interconnected by transit, media, and commerce, had developed completely different collective understandings of the state of the Scottish independence movement. There were, for example, no front-page headlines in London papers (that I can recall) about Scottish independence.

As it turns out, the Scots were right. Even if the current referendum fails, independence has clearly become a real possibility. And it's interesting to me how unseriously the English seemed to take the whole thing, even as late as last fall. Why didn't they see that how real this was? Did most English have no Scottish friends, did they not travel to Scotland? Or maybe the thought of the UK breaking apart was just too massive an event to ponder, sort of like how San Franciscans live in a state of day-to-day collective denial about The Big One?

*Photos (more than any normal person would want to see): Edinburgh, Holyrood Park, Edradour distillery, Quiraing on the Isle of Skye, miscellaneous Scotland; London, York.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The world's most popular functional language, and what it teaches us

I realized today, when I read the phrasing of this LtU post, that my last two posts were too pessimistic about functional programming languages. There is, of course, at least one very popular functional programming language, and that is Emacs Lisp. Emacs Lisp is even widely used, at least a little bit, by countless programmers who never use any other functional programming languages at all. But this just confirms my original hypothesis that language popularity is driven almost entirely by platform, not by characteristics of the language itself.

Monday, September 08, 2014

More on programming language adoption, from Meyerovich and Rabkin

A little bit of vindication from Meyerovich and Rabkin; a quote I found particularly interesting (emphasis added):

A given prior language only occasionally correlated with the choice of a specific different language for the next project. Most notably, developers have high propensities to switch between Windows scripting and application languages, such as VBScript and C#. These languages also correlate with Microsoft web-development languages such as ASP. Such correlations are also visible in the results of Karus and Gall [12], who found groupings such as WSDL and XML being used in conjunction with Java.

Notably, we do not see significant exploration within linguistic families. There is a relatively low probability of switching between Scheme and LISP, or between Ruby, Python, and Perl. We conclude that developer movement between languages is driven more by external factors such as the developer’s background or technical ecosystem than by similarity of the underlying languages. This implies that language advocates should focus on a domain and try to convince programmers in that domain, instead of trying to convince programmers who use languages with semantic similarities to the new language.

Note that this clearly weighs against the Chaudhuri/Hicks hypothesis that education or unfamiliarity with functional programming is the "real problem". If developers tended to choose languages based primarily on comfort and familiarity, then we would expect them to switch more frequently among languages within a family than across families. Instead we observe the converse pattern: developers switch quite freely between programming language families whenever they need to do so in order to get work done in their domain.

In fact I think Meyerovich and Rabkin are too tentative in their formulation (maybe appropriate in an academic paper, but here we don't need to be so tentative). I think it is quite unlikely that developer background is a major deterrent to new language adoption. To repeat something I said the other day, developers routinely learn all kinds of weird, complicated, and frequently frustrating technologies in the course of their work. New programming languages are not fundamentally harder than all these other technologies, and programmers will learn them when they need to in order to get work done. The problem most unpopular programming languages face is simply that nobody needs them to get work done.

Overall, people who wish to change the mix of programming languages currently in use should spend less time extolling the virtues of their language (and criticizing competing languages!), and much, much more time developing platforms and libraries to make their language of choice a stellar tool in some concrete domain.