Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Signals: The Science of Telecommunications

Signals: The Science of Telecommunications
Signals: The Science of Telecommunications by John Robinson Pierce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The most shocking thing I've learned from this book: the technology that makes phone number portability possible has existed in widespread deployment for USA customers since 1983!

That's it. The following association and implication of this statement is not within the book, but one I came to with information from other sources, including study of my own phone service billing, so permit this little digression:


This technology was developed and activated long-ago by phone companies to satisfy their internal needs. It has side benefits for external customers of phone service, who could from a technical standpoint access a portability feature. No providers actually made this capability available to subscribers back then.

In the 1990s, as cellular phones drove demand by subscribers to change service providers or service locations, these consumers increasingly desired to keep an old numbers. Eventually, this resulted in government regulations to "force" providers to make subscriber phone numbers portable. The new law compensated providers for their effort by legislating a number-portability tax, which feeds a subsidy program paying providers back for the administrative and technology overhead they insisted would be required to comply with the portability mandate.

This being the case...why are USA subscribers STILL paying federal line taxes to "pay" for the "hardship" phone companies say exists today. In fact, why were USA subscribers EVER paying this tax? The capability was already extant!

The truth is, since at least 1983 (before the portability laws) this capability has been an existing core property of national network! All subscriber lines are referred to by internal network numbers, and have separate external numbers (the number you dial). The association between these two numbers is established inside the phone network, by editing the switching databases in the part of the network your phone is attached to. This is something your chosen service provider must do to establish your service, regardless whether you wanted to port over an old number or were willing to accept an assignment of a new one.

This gives the phone companies the greatest internal flexibility, which is why they implemented it. For their needs. But WE subscribers pay for it, not by private company charges to our phone bills, where competition would work to bring about the best available price, but through legislatively mandated taxation, which works independent of market forces and where, years and decades now since implementation of this network function, we're STILL paying at a fixed rate; as though the supporting switch gear was just installed, and as if new switch gear today wasn't more feature-rich at a lower marginal cost like all other technology we buy.

The galling thing for me is that this is a capability that pre-existed the taxation, and was already necessarily factored into rate-structure for service. Because we foolishly allowed the government to make mandatory, a capability that from a technical standpoint was already available, we end up with a slightly less efficient and unreasonably more expensive system.


The book is not very deep, and aimed at curious individuals who know rather little about the field, and may have little interest in anything beyond acquiring a grand overview.

Curious and technically or mathematically adept people who are otherwise unaware of the field will gain entry points for followup to deeper learning.

I gather the authors were famous titans of comm technology's previous era. I found this a pleasantly easy reading introduction to the world of communications signals, with an early focus on the dawn of radio, and a later concentration on the development of telephone technology.

It's old enough that quite a lot has changed since the book was published. From the perspective of 1990, it's very interesting indeed to read the authors' forcasts for the future. Most of this turned out to be nearly spot-on. We have indeed gone almost entirely digital; optical fiber trunk lines are preferred both locally and internationally.

It's also interesting to read about past technologies that predated the wide adoption and development of internet services, that filled a niche and enjoyed some popularity in some countries for a while. Like videotext in the UK and France (especially France).

With videotext, the driver was a desire for interactivity with high-bandwidth content (video and graphics), but with only low-bandwidth channels available (analog modems). The solution there was to have the low-bandwidth channel control and high-bandwidth broadcast. You got some interactivity in the ability to select amongst a limited set of high-bandwidth object, essentially controlling your receiver to preset to you only the desired objects, and have the others coming over the TV broadcast filtered and discarded.

The future seems to be video-on-demand, delivered via the internet. And while access to fully interactive bandwidth has increased several orders of magnitude for most people, that bandwidth still is not yet wide enough in most cases for efficient service. E.g. it doesn't yet make sense to try to stream HD video content from a server direct to an end user device in most situations.

Yet with proliferation of smart cell-phones, etc., more people are coming to expect and demand access to high-bandwidth services beyond basic phone and low-bitrate web interactivity. They want to treat it like just another TV, and the devices themselves are capable of a good viewing experience, if only the content can be delivered.

We've made the internet work with high-bandwidth media by proliferating caching servers to disparate locations. I don't have data, but there might be more caching data centers online now than commercial broadcast TV transmitters.

In the future, we might want to re-examine neglected multicast technology as a means to get more service to more endpoints out of limited bandwidth channels.

This serves as an entry point into new realms of discussion, far afield from the book, so I end here.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book is mostly exposition of specific events in the history of the Sovietization of eastern Europe after WWII. It is very matter of fact, and doesn't stretch out too far in passing judgement on what happened, other than weakly conveying a sense that it was bad. I think that was on purpose, as I found the tales themselves did a good job of illustrating the oppression and "badness" resulting.

This is not intended to be a very serious review, more of a free-form stream of thoughts I'm having since finishing the book.

I think what I found most striking was, that whole nations and societies were quickly and (relatively easily) subsumed into a totalitarian regime with lasting impact to personal freedom and even basic mental and physical well-being. Even if your personal story, living within the regime, was rather benign (as a few were), you could still, mentally, feel the weight of the oppression.

What did that take? Really, I think this was an episode of an epidemic. A period of disease passing over the populations of eastern Europe as a kind of virus of pure ideas. A pathology of thought. Force was involved, certainly, but as the events of the fall of the Berlin wall so clearly demonstrated: always and everywhere, governments consist of some minority which imposes its will and authority upon a larger majority. This majority, acting perhaps under notions individual self-interest, tacitly acquiesces to the authority of the reigning minority (seeing no obvious alternative). The resultant state of affairs can be benign or tyrannical, and the critical realization is that there is nothing preordained about the outcome. You can just as easily land in a totalitarian horror show as in a free society, or at any place along this continuum.

Once set, that's a state of affairs which can persist for a surprisingly long time, possibly indefinitely in some cases. Until, all of a sudden it stops working. By the end of the book we have illustrated for us numerous cases of popular passive and active resistance to the regime. All of a sudden, a sort of critical mass is reached, and enough people stop accepting the authority of the people tasked with being the instruments of the regime. And these implementers, individually realize something alike with their fellows on the other side of the baton and shield. They blink, and the collective effect of these individual actions witnesses an earthquake in the political power landscape. The majority reclaim something of their natural human freedom. The upheaval will later settle out, and society will land at some other point on this continuum of free-unfree.

The fall of the wall, though not addressed specifically in the book, represents the ideas of the final chapters, and represents an idea I took away from a contemplation of the book's accounts. The fall was spontaneous, unplanned and unwanted by the reigning minority. A tipping point was reached as a new meme took root in the minds of enough of the public on both sides of the wall. The asymmetry of information in the hours immediately proceeding the mass descent of the public upon the Brandenburg gates served to be the final grain of sand that starts the whole pile to avalanche down toward a new level. The border guards, steeped in the undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the current oppressive state, and cut off from their leadership at this critical moment, were left to operate on their own individual best judgement. The crushing masses of cheering people on both sides were unprecedented, and seemed to suggest an idea in the minds of at least some of the guards, "perhaps these people know something important which I don't." And finally, when the first few brave individuals (possibly not as brave as you might think since they were acting under the belief that cross-border movement was no longer restricted) moved the final yards to cross the line, the guards had a choice: shoot or let-pass. And without specific orders, they chose not to act, just observe. And the massed majority retook possession of their own individual freedom in a brilliant moment.

This notion of how societies allow themselves to become oppressed, and later retake their freedoms, fascinates me. Within this book are stories tracing the descent of several societies of eastern Europe into fealty and bondage to the Soviet regime. It's frightening how easily it happened, and to be successful, how it had to have taken the action of the transmission of ideas as well as a small bit of targeted coercive force. As the wavefront of the Soviet meme spread, the previously infected peoples actively participated in the process of constraining and coercing the submission of people later exposed to the meme. From an active core, the regime oppressed itself into being. The oppression occasionally reflecting back upon the members within that active core, becoming a self-reinforcing situation for a good long time.

A free society or a totalitarian state? What makes either possible seems to come down to the culture of the moment and the ideas which hold the minds of the people therein. The regimes are sticky, though. Once one sort becomes established, whether benevolent, benign, or oppressive, it seems like it takes a outsized communication of ideas to reach a critical mass strong enough to reshape it into something else. But like an earthquake, the tension can seem to build almost completely unnoticed, until all of a sudden, enough people recognize their inner notions are not just their own, but the same as their neighbors, and the earth heaves and the waves sweep over. Cultural consciousness builds up like a pile of sand grains. At some unknown point, the last few grains before the avalanche fall and bring about an awakening. Depending on the ideas represented by those grains, we seem fated to either knuckle-under to an oppressive tyranny, or emerge into a refounding of respect for our own freedom and our neighbors.

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