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We Won The Internet

13 Mar

Yes, we won the Internet on February 26, 2015. But, first things first.

What is Net Neutrality?
For douchebags,

“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.— Senator Ted Cruz on Twitter

For educated folks, The Oatmeal has explained net neutrality beautifully with an example. Simply put, net neutrality is all about information on the Internet being treated equally. Which means, a movie on Netflix or a video on YouTube has the same priority as any other video from a small startup. The cable companies like Comcast or Time Warner cannot charge money from any company to speed up their videos streaming and slow down feed from companies that do not pay.

In the beginning …
Everything was hunky-dory and information on the Internet was free. Free as in air, not free as in beer. And all information was considered equal. This was the default so we never paid – or had to pay – attention to concepts like “net neutrality”. Everyone received the same content on the Internet and all content from all companies was treated equally.

Then this happened …
Netflix started slowing down for Verizon and Comcast customers. Netflix, being the most popular online TV and movies provider, consumed about 25% of the total bandwidth of the Internet connection in 2012, which rose to 35% in 2014 during peak TV viewing hours. So, some service providers started asking Netflix to pay more for more bandwidth usage. Netflix declined and these service providers started throttling Netflix.

Courtesy Netflix

Courtesy Netflix

Paid prioritization
Because money is king; to hell with customers

In February 2014, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast, and later to Verizon, to stream its videos at higher bandwidth. Then the streaming speed went up again.

Courtesy Netflix

Courtesy Netflix

Verizon vs. FCC
Federal Communications Commission is a US government agency that oversees and regulates all communications, including TV and radio airwaves and wire and cable transmissions. In 2005, the FCC had issued guidelines to promote net neutrality. These were not formal rules, so the ISPs were not legally bound to obey them. In 2011, Verizon sued FCC and asked the court to overturn the open Internet rules. The court ruled in favor of Verizon on the grounds that the Internet providers are not classified as common carriers and as such, FCC does not have authority to regulate them.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996
In 1934, congress enacted the Communications Act to regulate the wire and radio communications. The Act was amended in 1996 into the Telecommunications Act and the Internet was included under its purview. The Act made a distinction between “telecommunications service” and “information service” wherein the telecommunications service are more stringently regulated than information service, which included the Internet service providers. The Act was intended to foster competition among the providers but due to consolidation in the industry, only a handful of providers remained operational in each region. Verizon won the lawsuit on the grounds that it was an information service provider and hence, cannot be regulated by FCC, which was the right decision.

What is Title II of the Telecommunications Act?
One of the seven titles of the Telecommunications Act, Title II outlines the provisions of “broadcast services”, which includes “Common Carriers”. Title II stipulates that common carriers can’t “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” In February, FCC voted in favor of reclassifying the ISPs as Common Carriers, which means the broadband Internet service will be treated as telecommunications service and not information service.

The fight ahead
President Obama has openly and strongly supported net neutrality. The final rules have not been announced; however, there has already been an outcry from the industry, which was expected. However, many leaders of the Republican party have strongly spoken against the rule change. Lawsuits would undoubtedly follow once the rules are announced, and it might take years before things are stable again.

Until then, we, the people, have won the Internet. People: 1 – Douchebags: 0.


Recommended readings

What The FCC’s Net Neutrality Ruling Means For You
Verizon, the FCC and What You Need to Know About Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know Now

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The Digital Babysitter

22 Dec

When I visit restaurants, a very common view is families looking at their smartphones, even with food on the table. Kids playing games on phones or handheld gaming devices while following their parents in grocery stores is not very uncommon. When we gather at a friend’s house, most of the kids play video games on phones, tablets, or a gaming console. Even in parties where people dance, these kids are busy with their phones. The adults are setting a bad example for their kids.

Digital babysitter: When kids are busy with their devices, they don’t trouble their parents, who are already tired from a hard day’s work. So they use these devices as digital babysitters. I’ve seen parents having fun at parties while their children are glued to their screens. I wonder if life is passing by these kids and they don’t even realize it. Eating, while watching TV, has been proved to lead to eating disorders. The diagnosis for ADHD has exploded in recent years, and less parent time is not helping the children.

kids-technology

Empathy: It is going to be the number one job skill by 2020. We develop empathy by interacting with other people, learning about them, getting social cues, empathizing with them. Unfortunately, technology is steering many children away from socially interacting with other children and adults.

My home, my rule: At my home, we have a simple rule: A maximum of one hour of screen time a day at home, and zero screen time outside home. This rule is applicable to kids and adults. My wife and I don’t check emails or go to facebook when we are in movie theaters or restaurants or parks. Our kids run around at social events and dance in parties. We eat without a screen in front of us. We talk, we laugh, and we generally have fun a lot.

Even people leading technology companies – the late Steve Jobs and Dick Costolo – did not approve of too much technology use for their kids.

What research says: Unregulated physical activity has tremendous benefits in terms of academic achievement and health. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics, the exposure to technology should be limited for children and young adults. Smartphones and tablets are a recent phenomena, so there have not been any long-term research to study the effect of screens on children’s lives. However, some research shows that more time spent looking at devices has a negative impact on academics and social behavior. This, of course, is not a general rule. Some kids who use technology a lot will grow up to be leaders and inventors. Unfortunately, a majority of kids might suffer from its bad effects.

Additional readings
10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12
Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent
Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

20 May

My wife and I have been planning to launch a technology-centric non-profit organization to serve the underprivileged kids in poor schools in India. Much research and analysis needs to be done, and it’s going to take us a few years to get everything right. Fundraising, needed to purchase hardware, would take a lot of time too. However, the software, which would be an online product utilizing an adaptive learning model, can be launched sooner, so that we can iterate rapidly and keep improving it.

On a very basic level, for third-grade math, here are the requirements.

Database
A database of math questions with these fields:

  • Question ID
  • Difficulty level
  • Question number
  • Options
  • Correct option
  • Feedback

Adaptive algorithm

  • A multiple-choice question with four options is served.
  • When an option is selected and submitted, the option is compared with the correct option.
  • If correct, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • if incorrect, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • When the Continue button is clicked, the system checks if the question was answered correctly.
  • If true, another question at the same difficulty level is served to make sure the previous answer was not a fluke.
  • A total of three questions at the same difficulty level is served.
  • If all are answered correctly, the next question would be at a higher difficulty level.
  • If any question is answered incorrectly, more questions at the same difficulty level will be served.
  • If two or more questions are answered incorrectly in succession, a brief tutorial will be displayed showing how to solve the question.
  • The tutorial will be followed by a question at the same difficulty level.

Though there are multiple interpretations of “Adaptive Learning“, I interpret it as a learning model that adapts or shows content based on the users’ current performance. It’s not a one-size-fits-all product, which are common these days though the technology has made rapid advancements. Great content and a great algorithm can be integrated with the right hardware to teach the kids effectively. It’ll take time but I think it’s doable.

A Technology-Centric Non-Profit Organization

14 May

Learning is hard. For most people. Because most of us are average learners.

Learning is hard also because the teachers in schools are not well trained, the classroom size is large, the socio-economic status of some students is low, there are not enough resources in the classrooms, and/or the students don’t expend enough time and effort outside the classroom.

In developing countries like India, there are thousands of schools that suffer from these problems. Surviving on minuscule government funds and poor management, these schools fail to teach their students effectively.

Classroom - India

Classroom in India

A technology-centric non-profit organization
There are many non-profit organizations in India and the US that serve the underprivileged kids. They are focused on training teachers and arranging for resources. Is it possible to build and implement a technology-based learning product for such schools when these schools lack even basic computers?

This is a question my wife and I have set out to find answer to. A few years ago, we’d decided to found our own education-focused non-profit organization to help poor schools teach their kids. This model requires two things:

Software/Learning product: The learning product can use an adaptive model to help the kids learn by creating a personalized learning path.

Hardware: I envision two options.

  1. Cheap 10″ tablets embedded in the desks to prevent mobility and potential damage. This model can be used in the classroom under the teacher’s supervision.
  2. Large touchscreens in kiosk-style stations. This model can be used outside the classroom in common areas to foster group learning and collaboration.

In the next post, I’ll elaborate on my adaptive learning model.

Related:
An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

There’s Something About Print Books

7 Mar

In the middle of the fifteen century, the fist major book – Gutenberg Bible – was printed. With the advent of the printing presses, an advancement in printing technologies and chemicals, and the dawn of the industrial revolution, the print books proliferated. Later, some predicted that the Internet was going to kill books, but the number of books published is increasing every year. However, the sale of print books is in decline, mainly because more and more people are reading books on their electronic devices, mostly tablets, e-readers, and smartphones.

Books

The current generation
The current generation, the so called Digital Natives, are considered to be extremely tech-savvy. They are supposed to own all kinds of electronic devices and live their life in a digital world. The printed paper should be anathema to them. We don’t expect them to use printed books.

So what’s the reality? It’s totally different!

I’ve spoken with more than 5o undergraduate students taking business courses in the past few months. The first thing they do when classes start is buy a print book, either a new book, a used book, or a rented one. Many of them are aware of the existence of ebooks, but they all prefer print books. Cost is a factor but not for everyone. I wonder what’s going on?

I asked some students why they prefer print books and got some vague answers. I’ve even asked myself why I prefer print books. I like the touch of the book, I like to display them on my bookshelf, it’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, but I haven’t been able to come up with a better answer. Do we prefer print books because we have used a print book most of our lives? Is it just a habit that’s difficult to break? People break old habits if something compelling enters their lives. Does it mean the current ebooks are not compelling enough?

Some theories
Humans have evolved to be responsive to visual and tactile signals as these traits helped them survive in the wild for thousands of years. Books are tangible things, ebooks are not. Flipping the pages in a physical book is easy and visual/spatial. Research shows that it’s easy to retain information when using a print book versus an ebook. Reading a print book is faster than reading on a screen. Taking notes and highlighting is easier with a print book. There is no battery to charge, no worries of damaging it. The ebooks are mostly a replica of print books.

Some people say that the next generation who are growing up using digital devices since childhood will be more inclined to use ebooks. However, the schools still use mostly paper books and homework though the tests are computer-based and kids use some ebooks and digital learning tools. It might take another 15-20 years before college students use only ebooks.

There must be something about print books.

Related readings
Why Printed Books Will Never Die
E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps

The Revolution That Wasn’t: Part 2

28 Jan

I recently read some comments about MOOCs.

Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds: Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium

The findings, released in a report on Wednesday, reveal a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs. The report also suggests that conventional, tuition-based online education is still growing, although not as swiftly as in past years.

The article – Top Issues Facing Higher Education In 2014 on Forbes.com, ends with:

You may observe a notable omission from this list: MOOCs. Increasing awareness of their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of “enough already” will make these yesterday’s news in 2014.

The pioneer of MOOCs, Stanford Professor and founder of Udacity, predicted in 2012:

In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.

Recently, however, he changed his opinion of MOOCs:

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea.”
“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. (emphasis mine)”

I have taken a few MOOC courses on Udacity, Coursera, Stanford Venture Labs, and NovoEd. I’m enrolled in one or two courses all the time, which I complete at my own pace. I believe it’s a great but overhyped idea, and MOOCs are not a replacement for traditional students and universities.

Meanwhile, I stand by my take on MOOCs two years ago – Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

Suggested Readings:

The Search For An Ideal Kids’ Computer

24 Jun

I’d promised my son a laptop on his eighth birthday. He already had a 7″ Kindle Fire and a Dell netbook (small again), and he needed a bigger screen. With so many different types of computers available in the market these days, it’s really hard to make a decision and not regret it later. But I had to, and here’s what I did.

Use cases
The screen size, processor speed, RAM, operating system, touchscreen, keyboard, and all other specifications depend on how the computer was going to be used, so I created some use cases first. It was important to establish who was going to use the computer, what their skill level was, when and where they were going to use it, and so on. Based on my son’s previous usage of his laptop and tablet, I figured out that he needs a tablet 80% of the time to play games, watch YouTube and Netflix, and read some Web sites. It was easier to use a tablet for all these activities. He sometimes used Xtramath.org, which his class teacher required to build addition and subtraction fluency. Xtramath required a keyboard. Looking at the future, he would need a keyboard to write papers and create presentations or might need MS Excel too.

He would use the computer anywhere in the house – on the dining table, study table, or his bed so it needed to be lightweight. 6-10 hours of life between battery charges would be good. He should also be able to take the computer to vacations though using one in the car is not allowed. The computer should be able to withstand a decent amount of shock due to rough handling.

And I’m going to use it too so it should support multiple user accounts.

The decision
Based on all the considerations, I decided that a touchscreen laptop would not be an ideal computer because of the weight and the difficulty of using the touchscreen by extending the arm. So I decided to compare the laptop-tablet “hybrid” computers that Microsoft is trying to promote with Windows 8. My research led me to Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, Samsung Ativ, Dell XPS, and Asus Vivotab. Lenovo had a 360 degrees screen rotation mechanism that put the keyboard at the bottom when used in the tablet mode, which was weird and heavy too. Samsung and Asus came with detachable screen but didn’t come pre-packaged with MS Office, which would put the total cost to about $1250. The benefit was the screen size of 13.3″ but it was just too costly for a kid’s computer.

I wanted a bigger screen but finally bought a Microsoft Surface, which is a tablet with an innovative cover that also works as a keyboard. The good part was that the keyboard ($129) was available for free. Surface cost me $530, less than half the amount of the other options. The only thing I had to compromise on was the small screen size of 11.6″. And it comes pre-packaged with MS Office.

Microsoft Surface

Why not the iPad
Before buying the Surface, I considered the iPad too. It’s a great computer – super fast, elegant, and the app store is full of apps. However, we don’t need a million apps. The iPad doesn’t interact with our Xbox, and the addition of a keyboard is very clunky and un-elegant. Moreover, there are features in Windows 8 that I really like, such as using two apps side-by-side and the handy search and share features.

I understand that I might have made a mistake going with a first-generation device from a software company (they do make Xbox hardware). However, my previous experience switching from an iPhone to a Windows phone has been wonderful, and I hope my experience with the Surface is a similar one.