Putting the “F” in “FCC”

Ars Technica reported earlier this month that Comcast is bringing an app to Roku. Cool! Now people who want to use their Roku instead of a set-top box for cable can do that. Here’s the trick: once it exits “beta”, Comcast will charge users an outlet fee — essentially treating it the same as an additional set-top box.

What Comcast is doing, then, is charging its customers for the privilege of watching the content they already pay for. I can understand their reasoning: it could lead to additional simultaneous viewings, which means more bandwidth. But given the cable industry’s history of unfriendliness to the consumer, I’m not inclined to be sympathetic. Futhermore, given the trend toward cord-cutting, it seems to be in the cable providers’ best interests to not alienate an increasingly disinterested customer base.

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler favored a rule that would require cable providers to make such an app available for free. It did not pass and the new chariman, Ajit Pai, has no interest in pursuing it. Many in the tech community worried when Wheeler came on board (he had been a cable industry lobbyist), he turned out pretty well. Pai was a Verizon lawyer before joining the FCC in 2012, but I have less hope of him becoming a consumer advocate.

Pai opposes net neutrality, which is a philosophy that has been the foundation for the Internet. De-regulation of an oligopoly, which the ISP market unquestionably is, will spur entrenchment, not innovation. The FCC will likely become much more favorably to industry than to consumer, and that is a real disappointment.

Cloud as technology bookend

Public cloud services are well-known for hitting the middle of the bell curve. General purpose hardware can be replaced by virtual machines in any cloud offering. It makes sense to target this beefy middle. While the margins might not be the best, there’s an unbelievable amount of volume.

But Oracle’s recent earnings call got me thinking about the ends. Oracle continues to insist, despite a lack of evidence, that they’re a legitimate player in Infrastructure-as-a-Service. Oracle is cutting jobs in their hardware business, which has lead some to believe that SPARC processors will primarily  be used in Oracle’s cloud offering.

If that is indeed the case, that signals a surrender of sorts. X86 rules the CPU market these days, and Oracle must see the writing on the wall. As SPARC-based hardware reaches end-of-life, many customers will look to other options. A SPARC cloud gives Oracle a way to convince customers to stay on the platform, at least for a little while, and also helps drive IaaS usage.

This is similar to how I perceive the VMware/Amazon partnership announced last year. Customers are given a gentle exit ramp for a technology that is becoming less relevant, while the vendor gets to extract as much revenue as possible. Public cloud services can serve the tail end of the market, so long as there’s enough usage to keep a minimum offering.

But the cloud can also be where new hardware becomes mainstream. For example, both Amazon and Microsoft Azure have brought field-programmable gate array offerings to market. FPGAs are not new, but they’re certainly not mainstream. Amazon and Microsoft both see them as a worthwhile investment. With easy access to try them out, customers who might never have tried using FPGAs may soon find them indispensable. Once a new technology has a sufficient toe hold, a public cloud provider can give it the boost it needs to reach a mainstream audience. Or it may flop. That can happen, too.

In any case, the bulk of public cloud offerings will sensibly remain focused on the mass market. But don’t be surprised if offerings at either end become more numerous.

January was warm, but in a weird way

Did last month feel warm to you? January was unusually warm in central Indiana, but in a subtle way. The highest temperature recorded at the Purdue University Airport (KLAF) was 63°F — just four degrees warmer than last year. And the lowest temperature — -4°F — was a degree colder than last year. But what if last year was warm, too?

Let’s compare January 2017 to the climate normals (1981-2010). The average daily high was 5.4 degrees above normal, and the average daily low was 5.9 degrees above normal. The average temperature for the month was 5.6 degrees above normal. That’s noticeably warm, but not necessarily outrageous.

What makes January 2017 stand out is the extended stretch of warmer temperatures. More specifically, how it just wasn’t freezing for much of the month. January 2017 was right on target for number of days with a low below zero (3), but it had five fewer days than normal with a low below 32°F. In fact, Lafayette set a new record for consecutive hours in January with a temperature above freezing.

Chart of 1995 and 2017 above-freezing streaks.

Streaks of January hourly temperatures at or above freezing at KLAF. Chart from Iowa Environmental Mesonet.

Since records began at KLAF in 1972, only two years have had a 10-day or longer above freezing streak. In 1995, we had a 10-day streak. This year it was 10.9 days. It just didn’t get cold for the second half of the month. Four of the last 10 Januaries had at least 5 days with a high temperature above 50°F. Four of the last 10 years also had at least one January day above 60°F. This year’s 2 is bested by 3 in 2008.

So if you were thinking to yourself “wow, January was really warm” but the high temperatures didn’t look all that off, rest assured that it was. It just forgot to January.

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Sports rules

Not like “sports rules!”, but the rules of sport. My beloved Boilermakers went down to Bloomington and beat the Hoosiers on Thursday night. It was a joy to behold, with the exception of one weird call toward the end of the game. It’s been called a “blarge“. IU’s Thomas Bryant lowered his shoulder and barreled into Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. One referee called a blocking foul on Swanigan, another called a charge against Bryant (it was a charge). As a result, the call was a double foul.

This turns out to be the correct way to handle it. It’s also really terrible. Those two calls are mutually-exclusive. Especially in this circumstance, because it caused each team’s best player to foul out in the final minutes of a close rivalry game.

But it got me thinking about how and why the rules of sports get changed. Major League Baseball is apparently considering a rule change to speed up extra innings. I hope that goes nowhere. In my mind, it’s a fundamental change to how the game is played. Ostensibly, it’s to shorten games. MLB has made several changes over the past few years to try to speed the game up.

But here’s the thing: I like baseball because it’s a slow game. Baseball is a deliberate game that invites conversation and statistical analysis in-game. I don’t mind rule changes, but they should be to improve the game. Speed isn’t automatically an improvement. It can even be a detriment.

An alternative history of Microsoft

Microsoft released their latest quarterly results two weeks ago, and the news was good for them. They beat analyst expectations for the third consecutive quarter, but perhaps the more important part was the cloud revenues. Up nearly 100%, Microsoft’s cloud business continues to get stronger. That’s very important for their future growth.

You could say things are going pretty well in the three years since Satya Nadella took the corner office. The market certainly seems to think so. Microsoft stock is up 68% since Nadella took the helm. This is compared to the 38% increase for the Nasdaq composite index. His predecessor Steve Ballmer had a less stellar record. In 14 years under Ballmer, Microsoft’s stock price fell 37%. He did have to deal with both the dot-com bubble burst and the Great Recession, but the Nasdaq managed to recover, up about a percent and a half over the same period.

Microsoft stock price under Ballmer

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from January 2000 to February 2014.

Microsoft stock price under Nadella

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from February 2014 to February 2017.

There’s more to a company than its stock price, of course. Ballmer oversaw a 215% increase in net income. During Ballmer’s tenure, Microsoft launched XBox and the enterprise business (e.g. Exchange and SQL Server). The Azure offering that is driving much of the Nadella-era growth started during Ballmer’s reign as well. Of course, the Ballmer era also saw failed attempts to enter markets: the Zune music player, Windows Phone — as an OS as well as the Nokia acquisition.

An alternate history

As an open source software enthusiast, the “new” Microsoft’s good-faith entry into the open source world is the most interesting change. Whereas Ballmer called the GPL a “cancer”, today’s Microsoft is embracing open source (albeit under permissive licenses). Microsoft has opened .NET, ported SQL Server and Powershell to Linux, and has partnered with Red Hat and Canonical on various efforts. So what if Ballmer never happened?

…After moving many of their products to an open core model, Microsoft saw its dominance continue. Apple gained a toehold in the desktop market with OS X, but was never able to make serious inroads. When the iPod became a runaway success, they got out of the computer business altogether. Meanwhile in the server market, Unix was giving way to Linux. Microsoft saw this trend and developed a new server operating system based on the Linux kernel. Some of the UI improvments made it back to the Linux ecosystem and 2005 was officially declared the Year of Linux on the Desktop. Seeing the success of the Microsoft-backed Linux, Mark Shuttleworth disbands his young company and focuses on returning to space. He eventually partners with Elon Musk to help fund early SpaceX efforts. By 2017, industry analysts begin seeing Amazon’s cloud offering as a serious competitor to Microsoft Azure…

Back to reality

Okay, so maybe that’s not how it would have played out. Maybe Microsoft would have come to dominate the smartphone and tablet instead of Apple. Maybe they’d have a terrible CEO who would drive the company off a cliff. Cynics would say that Microsoft is only embracing (without extending and extinguishing this time!) open source because they’re struggling to remain relevant as technology paradigms shift out from underneath them. Maybe the cynics are right. As with all counterfactuals, we’ll never know, but Microsoft’s investors have to wonder “what if?”

Google Voice lives!

I’ve been a big fan of Google Voice for years. I first started using it when my office was in a sub-basement. Google Voice was a way for me to text with my wife without having to play submarine by going topside every so often. It also made it so that I could give people one number that would catch me in my office or on my cell phone. The ability to make phone calls with my computer (on the rare occasion I make phone calls) was also appealing. But as time wore on, Google Voice got no love.

Over time, people began including me in group texts or sending me pictures. Google Voice didn’t handle that well. I got the pictures in my email, but the group texts were basically individual messages. As Google developed new communication tools and Voice got no love, I figured it was always going to be that way. I gave in and started using Hangouts for my Google Voice messages.

This got me the ability to use group messages and MMS, but it meant always leaving myself signed into Hangouts on my phone (I could have messages forwarded to my carrier number, but meh). I had avoided this because I didn’t want to always be available, but it turned out to not be that big of an issue. Then last month Google announced an update to Voice. Holy crap, it’s still alive!

Once the new app reached my phone, I switched back. I’ve been using it for a week or so and I have to say that I like it. The new UI looks great and the mobile app is much quicker than Hangouts to find the person or number I’m typing.

There are three main drawbacks. First, it turns out that I really liked having my SMS/MMS messages trated like IMs in my Gmail window, but that doesn’t work anymore. Second, when using voice commands to send a text, it still uses my carrier number instead of my Google Voice number. This is apparently just a missing feature (it was a problem in Hangouts, too), but I hope Google fixes it. I don’t usually speak to my phone, but if it behaved the way I wanted, I might use that feature more. Lastly, the widget disappeared. Not a big deal, but a minor annoyance.

The “classic” web interface for Google Voice.

The new web interface for Google Voice.

Google Voice is perhaps the most valuable of all Google services to me. I worried for years that they would give up on it. I worry less after this update. Hopefully they continue to put more effort into it as Hangouts becomes the abandoned project.

Moderators’ Choice Award

As regular readers are aware, I am a Community Moderator for Opensource.com. This involves writing and recruiting content, tending to comments, and the like. On Wednesday, I learned that my fellow moderators selected me to receive this year’s Moderators’ Choice Award.

I struggle to find the words to express how honored I am. The Community Moderator team is incredible, not only in terms of their knowledge and writing ability, but as people. It’s a privilege to be counted among them. That they selected me for recognition is unbelievable. From my perspective, it’s all I can do to keep up.

I know this sounds way overdone, but it is fully sincere. It’s truly a pleasure to work with the team, including the Red Hat staff and the community at large. This is a great way to start the year, and I’m really looking forward to continuing my contributions.

Congratulations to all of the other community award winners this year. The community is what makes the site great.

Other writing in January 2017

Where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

The Next Platform

I’m freelancing for The Next Platform as a contributing author. Here are the articles I wrote last month:

Opensource.com

Over on Opensource.com, we had our fourth consecutive month with a milion-plus page views and set a record with 1,122,064. I wrote the articles below.

Also, the 2016 Open Source Yearbook is now available. You can get a free PDF download now or wait for the print version to become available. Or you can do both!

Cycle Computing

Meanwhile, I wrote or edited a few things for work, too:

  • Use AWS EBS Snapshots to speed instance setup — Staging reference data can be a time-expensive operation. This post describes one way we cut tens of minutes off of time for a cancer research workload.
  • Various ghost-written pieces. I’ll never tell which ones!

Posts not sharing to social media

Once upon a time, I artisinally hand-crafted my social media shares. Then I installed the Jetpack plugin for WordPress which handles publicizing to social media for me. Doing it myself suddenly sounded like a lot of work, so I decided not to. Since then, Jetpack has dutifully shared to Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn whenever I publish a new post.

This has worked out pretty well for me. Most of the meager traffic I get on the day of a new post comes from Twitter, with a few from Google+, and the occasional LinkedIn post. (Don’t you people use RSS readers anymore?) Until earlier this month when suddenly I noticed my new posts weren’t hitting Twitter.

There were no obvious indications about what when wrong, but I did notice that it seemed to roughly coincide with applying a few updates. I started playing around a little bit. All of my posts recently have been scheduled, so I wondered if immediate publication would trigger the publicize feature. Sure enough, it did. (As an aside, at least one person was quick enough to see that tweet and click the link in the brief moment between when I deleted the post and when I deleted the tweet).

Armed with the knowledge that it was only a scheduled post issue, I turned to Google for answers. Pretty quickly I found a WordPress forum thread that seemed to be about the same issue. It had a link to a GitHub pull request for Jetpack that fixed the issue.

Normally, I’d wait for a new release, but this was really hurting my personal brand. So I applied the patch by hand to my install. And that’s how my scheduled posts started hitting social media channels again. If you have a WordPress installation that won’t share, give that patch a try.

I apologize if you missed any of my “terrific” content. It’s all still there for you to read.

Don’t memorize what you can look up

“Never memorize something that you can look up” is a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein. And it happens to be pretty solid advice in most cases. No value is added by being able to recite facts from memory. Value comes from being able to piece together the facts to make something new. It’s one thing to know the syntax of a command or a language function. It’s something else entirely to know how to use it to get the desired result.

I recently had a conversation with a gentleman who was applying for a volunteer gig at a non-profit. The role involved doing some work with spreadsheets, and they had him sit down and implement a few features while they watched. At one point, he looked up how to perform a particular task. They ended up not accepting him.

I don’t think we have quite caught on to the idea of looking up instead of memorizing. As Seth Godin points out, ubiquitous lookup is a very new concept. The idea of being able to rattle off easily discoverable facts is still appealing to us. In some cases, that’s still desirable. I really want EMTs to know how to perform first aid without Googling it. Pilots should know what the various switches and buttons in the cockpit do. Programmers? Meh.

Anecdotally, the tech industry is ahead of the general population in terms of avoiding memorization. I have a hunch as to why that may be. Memorization comes from repetition, and in tech repetition is something we strive to avoid. If you’re repeating the same thing over and over, you’re doing something wrong. That’s not necessarily the case in other fields.

When I think the things I have memorized, few of them are useful. I’ll probably never need to know that the McDonald’s restaurant in Georgetown, Indiana is store 12895. Or the one in Clarksville is 383. Or the one on Grantline Road is 12900. I remember IP addresses for defunct hosts that I haven’t worked on in eight-plus years. I don’t remember the argument order for Perl’s split function (it’s always the opposite of what I think it is), but that’s okay. When I need to split a string in Perl, I can look it up. It’s more important that I know when it’s appropriate to do that than to instantly recall the implementation details (and I suspect if I spent more time coding, I’d remember more syntax).

I hope the “don’t memorize” philosophy continues to take hold. For my part, I’ll never reject someone because they had to use Google. If anything, the ability to use search engines and other fact-finding tools is among the most important skill one can have.