Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lafayette Technology Google Discussion Group

Raymond Camden, Adobe guru and all-around tech guy, has started up a Google discussion group aimed at tech-savvy Lafayette. In a post on the idea he indicates that the group is aimed at providing a forum for "generic technology" discussions. An illustrative bit from the post:
This listserv can be used to talk about...
  • Should I buy a new Mac or PC? (By the way, the answer is Mac)
  • Should I go with ATT or Cox or wait for Fiber? (Cox for now, but switch to fiber when you can!)
  • How do I get into programming?
  • What editor is best for development?
  • What local Best Buy will have the earlier copy of the new Warcraft expansion?
  • Where can I find a job using C++/.Net?
Basically, anything and everything with regards to technology.
They're still starting up but an early discussion explored some issues with Cox's HD service with several folks complaining about breakup on the HD channels. This is interesting to me since I just ordered my first HD TV (doing my bit for the economy) and am eagerly anticipating using the thing.

This is a classic "good thing." Talk is the basis of community and the tech community here could use more threads to knit it together—this discussion group could easily be a thread in that fabric. A bonus: most of the names on the current list of members are familiar and are good folks, not just techy but community-oriented.

Recommended....

It's a new list and needs members—and new discussion. Give it a try.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Durel’s wishlist to Obama

What's Being Said

The INDblog carries news of Mayor Durel's Christmas list for Santa Obama. MSNBC sent out an email asking 100 more than 1000 mayors for their top two wishes of the new administration. Durel's reply could be summarized in a word: infrastructure. First he wants the Feds to fund I-49 between New Orleans and Lafayette (we've been registered for that gift for a number of years now). But the second wasn't so much an ask as a tell:
The city of Lafayette is installing fiber optics to every home and business in the city that wants it. We will give our citizens, peer to peer connectivity of 100mbs -- for free! This is being done through our city-owned utility and we will have something 80 to 90% of America won’t have 20 years from now. The federal government needs to do all it can to encourage municipalities to do what we are doing.
Durel touts our FTTH project and recommends that the nation follow our lead and invest in useful infrastructure.

Can't say as I disagree.

[.......pssst: Joey's first name is really "Lester?" For true?]

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Internet Good for Teens? And US not getting enough?

Apparently, the geniuses over at the McArthur foundation spent a lot of time studying the internet use of teens and how it affected them.

Surprise: apparently hanging out online isn't really bad for for the under-twenties. In fact it teaches "important social and technical skills." Touble is, the parents (roll eyes) just don't get it. (You can get more on this from the source, or read the study, or, hey, more appropriately: watch it on YouTube

So it's been since the world began: kids hang out together and do weird things, the adults grumble and sputter and it turns out that it really was a good thing "developmentally."
"The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on."
So, if it's good to hang out and geek out on the internet then what about this finding that US kids don't get as much interenet as kids from, say, the Czech Republic...are we falling behind in the geeking out on obscure interests and hanging out with friends on the net competition?

Probably. ;-)

NADs, the Digital Divide, the iPhone and Lafayette

Food For Thought Dept.

Mike helpfully emailed a link to a Wall Street Journal article that thoughtfully rewrites a press release from Comscore, a marketing research firm which recently released a study on the influence of the iPhone on the smartphone market.

Long story short: the iPhone is a big deal and is driving some pretty basic shifts in usage patterns. This isn't all that surprising when you realize that the iPhone is pretty much a full computer with an always-on 3G internet connection—usably fast mobile ubiquity. I recently got one to take on an extended vacation and camping trip out west and it was fantastically useful to be able to access mapping, directions, restaurant reviews—and even GPS locations while hiking far from cellular connections. I am not surprised that others find its extended all-in-one capacity both helpful and worth affording. (That trip explains the 2 week LPF hiatus for both of you that wondered.) You can do a search on the terms and find bits and pieces of Comscore's broader analysis. (The full report is a for-pay item.)

Our Focus
But the big picture is not particularly what interests us here today. Instead we focus on the implications of these usage shifts for digital divide issues here in Lafayette.

Part of what Comscore's data shows is that lower-income householders are 1) adopting smartphones and especially the iPhone at a rate that is growing faster than those that are more wealthy and 2) that their use of network functions like email and search are also growing faster than the wealthy as is their usage of music/mp3 functions. (As an interesting sidelight: the overall usage is actually shrinking for non-network centric uses like music listening. hmmn....)

The conclusion that the analysts reach is that folks who need to stretch the dollar are dropping telephone landlines and internet connections in favor of cellular connections when they are pressed—iPhone-like devices make it possible to gain enough of the benefits of these capacities over your cellular connection to make turning off the other services seem cost-effective. You also don't have to pay for a separate mp3 player or computer.

The smartphone/iPhone is emerging as an all-in-one network device that is particularly attractive to those whose need to pinch pennies. It may well become the preferred NAD (network attached device) of the working stiff.

The NAD and the Digital Divide in Lafayette
Just how people attach to Lafayette's shiny new network has been a big issue dating back to the Digital Divide Committee and the Fiber Fight. Both LUS and the city-parish council have made a strong (and specific) commitment to making sure that the benefits of the community's network extend to all. The first and most valuable commitment to equity was to make the the network as cheap as possible and to make the cheapest levels of service much more powerful than is available from for-profit providers. LUS is clearly keeping that commitment with very low-priced, extremely high bandwidth connectivity products. But there was also a commitment to find some way to get computers into poorer people's homes.

Closing the digital divide, digital inclusion, was never just a matter of do-gooder sensibility or even simple justice (as powerful as both are); the impulse always included a healthy dose of selfish realism: We will all advance further and faster if we advance together. A truly advanced digital community must be pervasively sophisticated. To the extent that Lafayette (and any vigorous local community) has decided to invest in a technological future for its children it cannot afford to leave any part of the community behind. No local community has the human resources to waste. No real community would tolerate it.

That was the basis for our commitment to digital inclusion. At the time it was assumed that the NAD would be a desktop computer or maybe a laptop. But the winds have shifted.


The New NADs
It now appears that the NADs used to bridge the digital divide in Lafayette will consist of some mix of 1) newer, radically inexpensive low-powered laptops (aka "net tops", 2) wireless smartphones, and 3) the cable settop box's rudimentary browsing and email capacities. I've discussed 1 and 3 pretty extensively earlier.

What's most interesting about these 3 paths toward accessible network connectivity is not how they differ and the hard choices those differences might suggest but how they are similar and the opportunities that they offer that Lafayette is uniquely situated to grasp.

Net tops laptops, smartphones, and set top boxes are all unabashedly network-dependent devices. Without a good, fast, reliable connection to the internet they are really not very useful or valuable. With an advanced connection, however, they are transformed into powerful, amazingly cheap devices that challenge the functionality of a powerful conventional computer for most folk's purposes. That defines the double-edged sword that inexpensive network devices represent for most people in most places: they are only as good--and as cheap--as the networks to which they connect.

The smartphone/iPhone presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for providing fair access to Lafayette's networked future.

Smartphone Opportunities
The opportunities are pretty breath-taking: hand-held, always-on network devices like the iPhone or newer advanced Blackberries offer the possibility of leapfrogging into a future that must remain a vision in most places.

That vision is of an ubiquitous, always-accessible network that puts rich comunications—ranging from video to voice to text—and huge computational and information resources at the fingertips of users at a price point so low as to make universal use almost inevitable.

If we can line up all these elements we can be both a national and even a world leader in popular access to advanced technologies. Lafayette can be the place to explore today the consequences of sort putting massive bandwidth, new devices, network storage, and online computational resources into the hands of most people in a community. It's a chance for our comunity to help define the future—and to make a place in that future for communities like our own.

Smartphone Challenges
The new, cheap NADs Lafayette is considering as tools to close the digital divide are all not only network-centric but network-dependent. These inexpensive devices all require two things to make them function as adequate substitutes for traditional computers: 1) an always-on, large-bandwidth connection and 2) —and this is less well understood—on line storage and computational resources dedicated to each NAD user.

We have the dense fiber backbone. And the crucial public ownership. But we need more.

1) We need, first, to make sure that we beef up the wireless network that is currently being deployed along with the fiber and offer it as an adjunct to a citizen's network connection. We can provide wifi within our own homes by attaching it to the fiber, but on the streets and and in public places our network connectivity needs to follow us. Wifi (for other practical reasons as well as the current considerations) shouldn't be a seperate network.

2) We need to provide substantial online storage for individuals. NAD's are noticeably short of storage space. That's part of what makes them light and inexpensive and hence good digital divide devices. There is no reason to have massive storage located on an always-connected device. But beyond compensating for NAD shortcomings, a central online repository will soon become a practical necessity as people move toward using multiple, differently capable devices online. It is easy to see a time in the near future when the typical user might login daily from 1) a home computer, 2) a work or school computer, 3) their personal NAD, 4) their settop box to view some net content communally or on the large screen, and 5) from a friend's house or public space. A single, online "home" would allow everyone to use their personal "stuff" (from docs to passwords to bookmarks to online applications and beyond) from any device at any location.

3) We need to provide real network-based computational power. NADs onboard computational resources are weak. But with a robust local network there is no need for a supercomputer in your hand...just access the computational power of the supercomputers on the network. The settop box solution would be greatly enhanced by locating a linux desktop on the network. A small server farm (or a nice virtual server like the one that Abacus has) could serve out the capacity of a full computer with a full suite of powerful applications to any screen---from the settop's TV to a NAD's small one. The technology is currently being called "cloud computing" but it could be arrayed cheaply by any community with the will to do so.

With fiber, fiber-driven wireless, online storage, and network-based computation Lafayette could cheaply and easily meet the commitment made during the fiber fight to closing the digital divide. And it could do it in a way that would benefit every citizen no matter what their income, neighborhood, race, or level of tech savvy. Meeting above challenges would help shape Lafayette into a community with an unrivaled capacity to meet future challenges. Since everyone would benefit it would be easier to sell politically. In these hard economic times it would be a huge boon to the whole community and mark Lafayette as a progressive, self-reliant locale in which to do business.

Really this should be a no-brainer.... don't you think?


Lagniappe:

Should you be tempted to think that this is ahead of its time or that Louisiana is behind those times:

About 25 percent of Louisiana's 4.2 million people have a Blackberry, iPhone or similar device, which May said "is really a computer."

That's from an Advertiser story on the community college system reformatting online coursework to make it accessible via smart phones....since it is "really a computer" qualified students can get aid in buying a smartphone since it can be regarded as educational.

The future is just around the corner. This stuff is all in sight.

Friday, November 21, 2008

And We're Not Amazed

Food For Thought


That's Kevin Kelly sitting in the red chair on a darkened stage. He's talking to an assembly of some of the world's finest minds at a recent TED conference. He's earned their attention by being, over the last 40+ plus years one of the most prescient thinkers on the globe. He not only sees real patterns — which is rare enough — but he has an ability to see the direction in which those patterns are moving. That's a forbiddingly abstract talent and it's always been hard for Kelly to make himself sound sensible when he first points to a pattern. It's only later that his positions come to be taken-for-granted wisdom.

As you might surmise, Kevin Kelly has been a hero of mine for a long time; since the old Whole Earth Review through his work on chaos theory. His sort of integrative, obsessive, reportorial focus on what's truly important is always worth listening to....and even if you are tempted to think that this time it might be a little over the top you should remember that he has pretty much always been right....

This time he's on about the web. How amazing it really is. How amazing it is that we're not just poleaxed by what we've got. How that's only the beginning How the web is turning into an ever-more all-inclusive machine. And how that machine is evolving.



Like the web you could just about take off anywhere in that talk and dip into some really fascinating and important stuff. For instance, Kelly mentions, in quick passing, photosynth. Long-term and retentive readers will vaguely recall that term; I posted on it back when I fell across the technology on the web. Take a look; I think you'll see how it fits his thesis. Then consider: He considers that a throw-away line. There's a lot of meat below that almost-glib surface.

Here in Lafayette we've got to start taking such stuff seriously. It's now inevitable that we will be able to inhabit the leading edge of this brave new world when it appears. We'll have bandwidth to burn in LUS' 100 megs of intranet and the wireless network now abuilding and attached to that hard-wired backbone can provide ubiquity at speeds that will stun. (In my neighborhood mysterious black cylinders are being attached to LUS fiber on a pole on every block. As I walk past with my iPhone NAD a wifi network pops up....) But, frankly, having the hardware doesn't give us the vision. We could use it to just give us "more" of the same—bigger bandwidth, better phones, more fun cable, all for less. And we should do that. But that is the LEAST we can do with our new network.

A network-centric future is upon us. The web will connect, for practical purposes, all points from hand-crafted links, to databases, to our relationships, to the bevy of things we make and use. What ties all that together; what makes it work; is how it is integrated. Right now we're calling it "search" and Google is the god. But simple textural search and link-ranking (which is most of what Google does) is only the tip of the iceberg here.

What the world needs—and what Lafayette and a few other places are positioned to supply—is what will replace search. The new web needs big bandwidth and ubiquity—practically speaking a tightly integrated fiber-wireless network. The next web also needs the huge calculative power that Kelly mention but does not emphasize. Between LITE and ULL's underutilized supercomputers we'll have computational power to do the sorts of pattern recognition and integration that things like photosynth and other database integrative applications will need. Kelly notes that the new web will no be like the old web any more than our web is like television. The new way of making acessible all those things which the web will connect is the crux of the difference. I trust his insights there and can see the outlines of the patterns he points to.

What Lafayette, and other communities with the resources, should be doing is supporting and providing incentives for companies and individuals that want design for what only we can currently do: provide the next generation of integrative technologies—that which will replace search. Any x-prize, any portal, any support that does not take that into account will be missing the boat.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

NPR Download: Feufollet

NPR today provided the nation with a look a the hot young band Feufollet with an Acadiana swamp story that gratifyingly contrasted with the recent news out of the red hills of Bogalusa.

Feufollet is the revered band of "youngsters" that that started playing the festival circuit together at ages like 8 or 12 and have matured into one of the most respected bands in the region. The story nicely captures both their respect for tradition and their willingness to expand the boundaries.

This is the sort of tale that displays NPR is best at: a bright, sharp, fond look at a bit of lived culture. It's also an example of the quality multiple media that you can only find on the net. A user can check out the story page, which contains an edited textural version of the radio story. There you can find links to listen to the full story, and you can listen to 3 full songs from the band that illustrate some of the points made in the story. And, if you are so moved, travel to the artists pages and buy some songs. This is what is meant by "rich media."

One of the advantages of a community-owned fiber-optic network is that we could make it dead-easy to do this sort of thing for ourselves and not wait around for occasional good publicity from the national media. Every ISP (Internet Service Provider) that you care to name puts up a server and gives its subscribers storage space on the network. Sometimes this is mainly a server to handle the email accounts that are given to subscribers and some online storage to keep the email. They do it because it brings in users by boosting the value of being on their network—and because, frankly, it costs next to nothing to offer it. Cox, AT&T and every other provider understands that providing services that add value to the network and are cheap when spread out over the subscriber base is a huge win for them. It's so cheap that organizations like Google and Yahoo provide free email, massive storage, and even free applications over the web.

There is no reason that a community-owned network couldn't do a much better and more thorough job of providing on-network services. After all providing service is not an incidental part of the job of making money (like it is for Google or Cox) but is the core reason that a utility like LUS exists. We can, and should, offer every community member a place on the network and the tools to work with. With 100 megs of internal bandwidth serving real applications—and even a full virtual desktop—would be easy. And it would differentiate Lafayette's service and make its competitive advantage clear. No one would consider using an ISP that didn't offer email. If you got hassle-free web space and the tools to use them from Lafayette's network I'd bet good money that it would soon become a must-have part of having a network connection locally.

If LUS didn't want to offer that directly (and I can see a few valid reasons why it might not) then pass the responsibility over to a funded nonprofit built on the PEG model—like Acadiana Open Channel—give it bandwidth and funding and make it an independent, nonpartisan, open resource for the whole community.

We talk here in Lafayette, based on Richard Florida's work on the creative class, about how necessary it is to pushing Lafayette ahead to build a community around the synergies of Talent, Technology and Tolerance. We've even made some strides toward that goal. The Feufollet article suggests that we could go much further toward harnassing the creativity and talent of the local community if we made the technology to present it to the world (and each other) much more available.

Hell, it would even be good business—and a development project to boot.

(A hat tip to the Independent's blog where I found this tidbit.)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

LUS to buy user-produced electricity

Lafayette has yet another opportunity to step out front by leveraging its new fiber network. Tuesday's City-Parish Council meeting put in place rules that will enable citizens to sell electricity back to LUS. With the new ordinance and an LUS supplied bi-directional meter customers can get credit for electricity that they supply the grid—effectively getting paid the going rate for electricity they produce.

The Good
That's pretty neat; a recent story line in the Advocate focused on solar panels and other green energy with a solar power system at Lafayette Middle School playing the star role in the discussion.

Louisiana actually has some of the more encouraging laws in the nation with state tax credits that can pay half the cost of a new solar system worth $25,ooo dollars; so if you want a gadget-guy dream system the state will eventually pay for half. Even so the raw economics are not quite there yet; at least not in the city:

...Bercier said, LUS rates are low enough that the economic incentive is not great at this time.

“LUS is a hard one. They are still relatively cheap,” he said. “We are definitely never going to put them out of business.”

Of course, the price of oil will be more next year than this and the cost of solar energy continues to drop. We're very near the break-even point nationally right now from what I read and even with the good deal we get from LUS Lafayette's turn can't be far behind.

The Better
All that is good green, conscientious, community-oriented, money-saving stuff. Beyond that, though, lie some pretty exciting opportunities for Lafayette to leverage its new network to do an do an even better job of reducing our carbon footprint and lowering the costs of providing power to the community.

As good as they are those bi-directional meters are the crudest and least efficient way to allow customers to take some of the burden off the electrical grid. We've already noted here that the real cost savings come from dealing with "peak demand"—there are huge costs associated with providing a lot of extra capacity that is only used for a week or two during the hottest—and hence most AC-intensive—days of the year. With active metering instead of merely static bi-directional recording LUS could 1) turn off high energy consuming devices (do you really need to heat your water to 150 while the temperature is 102?) 2) charge more for power at peak times--such power costs us all more to generate—and also pay more for power that is produced by individuals. (Your solar panels are likely to be producing real power while that August sun is beating down.) 3) Turn on and off small home generators. (How many Lafayette homes have a natural gas generator sitting on a pad near the AC unit post-hurricanes? Plenty.) We in Lafayette just built a brace of very expensive natural-gas fired electrical plants chiefly to supply peak demand. In fact those two plants cost twice as much as our fiber network. A cost-benefit analysis would, I suspect, reveal that firing up those residential generators very occasionally would be cheaper than building more such hugely expensive capacity. All that is something you can only do if you have your own communications network in place.

Lafayette could well lead the country in devising innovative ways to both lower the use of electricity and lower its costs by using our new network to full capacity.

Interested?

Langiappe: KLFY has also produced a short story on this.