Life in the Slow Lane

TL;DR: freepress has a position demanding net neutrality, and there’s a We the People petition about net neutrality.  If you know the discussion, go sign if you are inclined.  If you’re unfamiliar, read the below and come back to sign when you’re done.  Thanks.  —GFM


In the summer of 2013, I interned at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, Virginia.  My office was actually in Tysons Corner,1 and both cities are fairly close to where the Capital Beltway crosses from Virginia into Maryland on the northwest side as it circles Washington, D.C, with Tysons on the outside and McLean inside it.

I carpooled with Brad, a law student at Vanderbilt.  We figured that two professional guys who have gone to graduate school would have more in common with random undergraduate interns.  We stayed in the same dorm apartment — the details of that are a whole other matter — at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, which is a good chunk from the Beltway.  The layout was something like this:

Geof's Commute to MITRE from GMU
Geof’s Commute to MITRE from GMU

You can see that there’s a lot of red there.  It took us about 25 minutes in the morning.  The evening commute was different.  I think that our best in the first two weeks was 35 minutes.  We came down the middle of those three route lines, exiting the Beltway for US 50.  We’d head west from there, cutting down to the southwest, as you can see.  GMU is just outside Fairfax on the southern limits, so getting there required going through Fairfax traffic after going through all the major thoroughfares.

On the Thursday of our second week of the internship, I decided to look into the 495 Express Lanes.  That night, it took us 65 minutes to get back to campus.  As we sat stacked up on Lee Highway, I brought up the express lane.  Brad told me to do it if the money made sense.  I ran the numbers, and they did.  I picked one up at lunch on Friday, and we gave it a test that evening.

We got home in 28 minutes.

We had enough flexibility in our commute to give our friend Siggy — who had been taking the bus from Annandale to Tysons, walking a couple of miles on either side — a ride to Annandale, which you can see was out of our way, but not by much given that the Express Lane exit we used turned left for Annandale and right for Fairfax.  Dropping Siggy off put us coming back into Fairfax on VA-236, which was a better road to campus than the one that the express lanes give you.  It cost us maybe five minutes to save him an hour on the bus, and it was worth it to be kind to our friend and have a third person in the car for conversational purposes.  (I love and miss you, Siggy!)

None of this happens Brad and I weren’t degreed professionals making north of $30/hr.  We could afford to cut the lines.  Hell, I used to half-heartedly laugh at the people stuck in traffic between VA-7 and I-66.  “Those poor bastards.  I’ve been there,” I thought.  Because I had the money to pay for the privilege of driving on a controlled-access road, I had more free time available to do as I wished.

If I’d been making $20/hr, I would’ve been sitting in traffic.  One of those days, as we were zipping down the road at 55 mph2 , we heard an NPR story about priority queueing all across the country, from theme parks to emergency rooms to, yes, vehicle express lanes.  We really didn’t say very much.

Jumping the queue has become a part of the American Way, and I think that’s a dangerous thing.  Waiting in line is the most democratic thing there is: we’re served one-at-a-time based on our arrival.  It doesn’t matter if we’re a CEO or a postman; single, married, or divorced; pretty or ugly; fat or fit; kind or unpleasant: we just wait.  None of us like to wait — just ask anyone about the DMV, or wait, just check Twitter and Facebook — but we all have to.  Frankly, it’s pretty crazy that line-jumping should become a profit center for a service provider, but it’s 2014, and we’re there.

So let’s jump into net equality — or what some people call net neutrality.  I like the former term, because it democratizes the Internet: every packet gets its turn.  Neutrality implies belligerence. Anyway, the EFF has a good primer on net neutrality equality, and I think that you should read it if you’re not up to speed.

“These aren’t alike at all!” you’re saying.  “Paying to go faster on the road isn’t the same as paying for better Internet access.”  And yes, you’re right, in a way.  There’s a fundamental difference.

With vehicle express lanes, the people paying for higher-priority access are the people directly benefitting from the service: the people able to get to and from locations faster than they once did.  With net inequality, Netflix is going to be able to pay for priority, but Netflix doesn’t get the benefit — its customers do.  No family was going to pay Brad and I more to get home from MITRE faster, and MITRE sure wasn’t going to pay us more if we could sleep in 15 more minutes.  But Netflix can sell better access to their customers, and not just from a quality-of-service issue, which customers have always thought (rightly) was Netflix’s problem and not theirs.

The problem here is simple: it’ll be a race to the top of the heap.  The obvious players — Google (for YouTube primarily), Facebook, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, ESPN, the sports streaming sites, etc.3 — are going to pay.  Where are they going to get that money?  You will be the ones paying a premium for an improvement on service that was, quite likely, adequate in the first place.  But I’d be very surprised if there’s Netflix and Netflix Premium, with the former on the Beltway and the latter in the Express Lanes.  No, I expect that everyone’s going to get to pay the freight for the better access, and that will mean:

  • Higher fees
  • More ads in our faces
  • More creepy data mining assented to in inscrutable Terms of Service that no one really reads anyway

… among others.  In other words, we’re going to pay for this access either by being a great customer or the product itself.  As someone who is on the record about not trusting free Internet services, I worry about the last two.  In the first case, I’m not sure that higher fees are going to excite me.

But I’m following the line of argument that everyone follows, and it’s worth discussing, but there’s another thing to consider here.

The people that are making these decisions to allow for priority pricing — for net inequality — are the very people who have the financial resources to skip any damn line that they want. They think that people will be attracted to priority pricing because the world that they know is priority pricing.  These decisions are made by people who either pay for priority lines or pay someone to stand in line for them.  Of course this seems like an attractive proposition to them, because they’ve grown accustomed to it.  I’m not arguing that any of the people making these decisions are bad people.4 But I am arguing that you’re going to be okay with inequality and for the “winners” retrenching their gains with legislation and regulation.

Let’s be honest: the services that have the resources to pay for priority pricing are the ones already running a profit or bilking money from investors.  But many of those that would be paying for priority pricing are actors that wouldn’t have been able to reach these dizzying heights with an unequal Internet.  It’s classic retrenching: garner success and then build walls around it to keep contenders out.  While that’s a classic American business practice, we shouldn’t let our Internet — the one that our tax dollars, cable bills, and phone bills — have paid for to suddenly become unequal.  The amazing disruption that is the Internet should be allowed to retain its disruptive power.

If net inequality were possible in 2006, just after NewsCorp bought them, Myspace could’ve built a wall around its part of the Internet that would’ve made it impossible for Facebook to supplant them.  Whether or not you feel that we upgraded when we got Facebook — as a former GeoCities user, I think that we did — we couldn’t have gotten there if Rupert Murdoch had been able to outspend Facebook’s investors.

The Internet should be an amazing, chaotic, wonderful place, one that keeps participating providers honest and vigilant to interlopers.  Net inequality allows the current winners to stay winners while sending us the bill.  I won’t sit still for that.

[ETA: The New York Times‘s editorial is worth reading.]

  1. I still want to put the apostrophe in there 

  2. The speed limit increase to 70MPH happened while we were there — I dropped the hammer in the WRX to celebrate. 

  3. This list is not exhaustive.  I’m running up at 1000 words here. 

  4. Their judgment is questionable, but I’m not going to get into their moral fiber. 

Cable Ties

Since I had to send my iMac off to get checked out, I took the opportunity to re-do my workspace.  I have previously used Belkin’s cable ties for cable management, mainly because they’re big and colorful.  I read good reviews of Velcro’s ties, and the price was right, so I bought some.

2014-04-20 20.32.35

This isn’t the best photo in the work, but the Belkin is at top and the Velcro at bottom.  Note that the Belkin has that big flag to help you identify cables and remove the ties.  Removing ties is not what I want to do.  I looped both ties around my left pinky for this image, and handling the Velcro unit was much easier, as you loop the tail end of the tie through a loop at the head, which you can then Velcro to the outside of the tail.  After that, you just start making loops.  They’re easier to handle, cheaper, and I feel like they hold things more securely.  Add in the cost factor and it’s a no-brainer.

Lessons from the Sacrifice (?)

  1. I really don’t care very much about Facebook, which is probably not something that makes my mother very happy.  I pretty much didn’t miss it.  I used the hell out of Facebook Messenger, but Facebook itself?  Nope.  I expect that my Facebook traffic will become even more broadcast-heavy and even less about interaction.  I browsed the timeline tonight but got very board.  Facebook is something that I would’ve loved to have had in college, but I’m just not there anymore.  [I mean, I’m in college, you get it, shut up, no you shut up.]
  2. I missed Twitter more as time went by, purely because you can usually just wade into the river and see how things are going on.  I used to sit on the river and watch it go by me, but I feel like that will happen less often now that I know that I can do it and not feel guilty about it.  It was a couple of hours today before my thought was, “What’s on Twitter right now?”  I’ve been on it a bit today, but I also read for class for three hours.
  3. I did miss my friends, but I fought that with a simple email: “Tell me a small story from your life in the last couple of days.”  That kept the focus narrow and light.  I could find out about how my friends’ kids were doing with their spelling homework without having to feel like Big Huge Things Are Being Communicated.  I didn’t do enough of it.
  4. I don’t miss the drama.
  5. I don’t miss being a cause or treble of the drama.  Well, I didn’t miss it, and then I stepped right in it when I got back.  Did I learn anything?  Hmm.
  6. I like email.  I knew that, but I like email a lot.
  7. I can get a lot done when I’m not dinking around on social media.
  8. RescueTime is awesome.
  9. I’m really ready for a break from school.
  10. Lastly, I was really aware of the fact that a lot of what I wanted to share was negative.  I took to doing some private journaling, and there’s a solid week (or more) of me just being really, really angry.  Now, I know exactly why I was angry and what my part in that anger was, but I think that the desire to spew forth the anger is a desire for someone else to make it right, as if that were even really possible.  I’m not going to be zero-anger, but I am going to shoot for less-angry.

I make no promises about that last one being true in these last two weeks of the semester.  No sleep ’til May Day.

Webb Divorce

Shameful.  Painful.  Terrible.  I’m glad that I was mostly off of Twitter and Facebook for Thursday while my corner of the Internet reacted.  I’m done with him.  I’ll forgive him eventually, but there’s nothing that says that I have to maintain a relationship with him.  Call me what you will for the public unfollow: I will not care.

No Future Support for Junk Mail Scripting

My Lion-ready scripts for routing junk mail to the FTC’s site still work, but I have a high crash rate when using Mail Act-On 3.x to initiate that script.  The crash logs say that MAO is to blame for the crash, and perhaps that is so.  But it also feels like I’m screaming into the void here with the spam reporting, and so I will no longer be updating these scripts.  They are provided as-is from the July 2011 release.

You are free to use them as you see fit, and if you want to update, upgrade, and publish them, that’s great!  All I ask is that you link to at least one of the posts here.  People do land here on Google, and so I’d like to keep that chain unbroken.  When I see incoming link traffic, I’ll make a link to your site so people know that there is indeed a future for them; you may also let me know via email.  It’s been a good run.  I originally released this script in 2007.

If you’re curious, all I’m doing is culling ham out of the spam folder using Fastmail’s Web interface, and I’m filing all known-bad messages in that ConfirmedJunk folder that I mentioned in the previous posts.  Those are simple commands for a batch of messages.  I really wish that I had a way to easily pull ham out of the Fastmail junk folder without using the Web interface, but they’re seemingly not set up for that.  It doesn’t take that long to fire up Fastmail in a browser, so I’m just dealing with it.

Finale of the Tip Jar Experiment

Well, I’m done with the tip jar experiment, and the changes that I made in Round 2 really didn’t matter very much.  I got a very mixed result.  In the first round, tip jar size and the time of day dominated the effects.  In making each day an experimental run, I controlled for that some, but the response I got was that size was statistically significant — but only after dropping out insignificant terms from the model, and the result was 180 degrees off of the previous result: smaller was now better.

There was no statistical significance to seeding or opacity, meaning that my main hypothesis is thoroughly shattered.  Oh well, that’s why you run experiments!  That there was no significance for either in 16 experimental runs tells me that it doesn’t matter.

One of the baristas told me on the first or second day that she didn’t think that I’d get good results given that “some baristas just get more tips than others”.  Even that didn’t necessarily hold true, as one barista got 3x the response today as she did a day earlier this week, and she always works opening shifts at that store.

What this tells me is that there are nuisance factors at play — things that you can’t control for.  The key nuisance factor is the amount of traffic the store does.  I could control for this by indexing the tips to that day’s sales.  Does that give me a perfect answer?  No.  Does that give me a better answer?  Yes.  However, I decided that situation was out of my control and that information was beyond what I could expect to be given.

Another nuisance factors is indeed what my friend suggested: some baristas just get more tips than others, for whatever reasons.  Now you could do some observations and see why that is, but you can also block for operators and say, “We’ll have Geof do all of these variations on his shifts, run the analysis, and see what turns up.”  Frankly, what may work for one barista may not for another one, but it could also be that isolating by blocking would help to reduce that noise factor.  Also, baristas tend to work the same shifts over time, so you’d be going back toward the time-of-day factor that I controlled for with this second run.

I really did think that I’d get conclusive results on this, but I estimated the main effects yesterday and realized that the small-jar days had three of the four highest responses; when I got a low response for the larger jar yesterday, I knew how this would come out.  It’s a little disappointing, because I’d like to be able to go back to the women and say, “Here’s your answer!”  I can’t.