Sunday, December 9, 2012

Communications, Twitters, and Twits

There’s a lot of buzz around the miraculous awakening in the Middle East. I am so excited to see people in the streets demonstrating for their freedoms. Our country was founded on freedom, including some that seem to always be in jeopardy, such as freedom of speech and press and religion. Freedom to make a decent living for you and your family is important too, although we are only guaranteed the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious that economics plays a major role in both the unrest in the Middle East and the unrest in middle America.

I want to focus on the role of communication in all this awakening. I was talking to my good friend William yesterday about the situation in Egypt and elsewhere and how technology and communications was so integral to the changes we’re seeing. He is an expert on the subject since running a large communications station in Germany during the 60’s and his current role as a mainframe computer operator at a major mortgage company. He said, “We wouldn’t have had the reformation without Gutenberg.”

Sort of puts it all in historical perspective, doesn’t it? I recall many years ago reading a sign about printing and fonts and it said roughly that printing was an essential technology for society to exist. Now that might be a little bit of an overstatement, but maybe not. Where would society be without printing? Include printing prior to Gutenberg in your answer. I think it was the scribes, starting with the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hebrews down through the Greeks and Romans that actually built modern civilization.

Ironically, if it had not been for the work of the Arabs and Muslims of this same Middle East region preserving the knowledge of ancient times that the renaissance would not have had a foundation to be built on. The Muslims saved Euclid and Democritus, Aristotle and Plato, and many others. It is a funny fact that Algebra is a mispronounced version of a Middle Eastern name, Mr. Gebra – Al Gebra! That is because the Greek knowledge of mathematics was preserved in Arab writings later reintroduced to Europe during the middle ages.

So we do owe much to communications. Any historian will admit that the best understanding of the thinking of man over the centuries prior to the twentieth is contained in the myriad of personal letters and small distribution pamphlets that were popular for the last thousand years. It is in this written communications that we have a deep understanding of our past. To this day, presidents of the United States found libraries where the key personal documents that formed their lives and decisions are stored for the use of future historians. Books and magazines are important too, but I think it is the personal writings that contain the real gems of understanding the attitudes and beliefs of our forefathers (and mothers).

Yet things changed greatly during the twentieth century, a time that started with the telegraph and undersea cables connecting the continents, and a time that ended with movies, television, telephone, cell phones, and satellite communications.

Now look where the computer has brought us. Weekly Linda and I hold a Skype video call with our family in Alaska and think nothing of viewing the events all around the globe and in space on the nightly news or on the net or in a You Tube video. So much has been said about the importance of cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other internet communications in the occurrences in the Middle East and Africa. I share pictures of a snow storm in Oregon with family and friends in two dozen states. This note will be initially shared on the internet using Facebook. Vanity publishers, we don’t need you now!

One interesting news item spoke of how the government of Egypt was able to shut off most internet access during the troubles. That surprised the technical community since the internet was originally designed to be able to route automatically around failures, so it seemed that no country could shut it off completely. It was something of the unique Egyptian infrastructure that made that possible. Almost all network traffic out of the country went through a very few government controlled locations.

Let me give you a little background on the internet to explain what happened. The internet is based on something called TCP/IP. That’s the Telecommunications Protocol/Internet Protocol. This was originally developed by DARPA, a US Defense research arm. They created a network design that would automatically route communications around failures.

Key to how the internet works at a technical layer is the fact that information and communications are broken into little groups called packets. Imagine you wrote a long novel and wanted to mail it to your publisher, but you don’t have any large envelopes. So you put a few pages in a small envelope and few more in another small envelope until the whole 1,000 page book is contained in 250 envelopes. Your plan is to mail all the envelopes, so you number each one so the receiver will know what order to open them. You then drop them all in the mail box. Conceivably, some of the envelopes will be sent to the destination by truck and some by plane and some by boat. When they all get to the destination they may arrive out of order. Your publisher can then use the numbers on the envelopes to reconstruct the novel. Internet communications is similar. The many small packets may arrive at their destination by various means and at various times. The receiving computer then puts them back in order to obtain the original message.

Now let’s talk about internet nodes. Take a blank sheet of paper and put 26 dots on it. Mark each dot with a letter from A to Z. Now connect each dot to the nearest four or six dots. What you end up with is a network. The dots are nodes and the lines are communications links. Now think of a route from dot A to dot Z. If they are not directly connected, then imagine a path from node to node. For example, it might be A to G to M to P to Q to X to Z. Now imagine that one of the nodes doesn’t work. Maybe node M is broken. Can you imagine a path around M? Maybe now the path is A to G to H to R to Q to X to Z.

That is how the internet routing mechanism works. The packets are routed from node to node and some packets in a message may take a different route than others. The nodes are always verifying who is at the other end of a connection and building route maps. If a receiving node fails, the sending node takes a different path. When the message gets to the final destination, then a short confirmation message is sent back. That’s the most powerful part. If node A sends a message to node Z via node G, and doesn’t get a response, it resends the packet via a different node. That powerful routing and confirmation architecture makes the internet very error tolerant. It also makes it a difficult environment to ensure quality of service and to stream large data communications such as movies, but there are technical methods to deal with those problems. The original design was focused on communications in time of war and is very reliable. It seems like there should be no way to shut off the communications since it does not depend on a single connection or a single node and it is continually reconfiguring itself in response to changes in network links, amount of traffic, and bandwidth available. It is an extremely dynamic and self healing communications system.

That is why it is hard to shut off the internet. However, in many small countries, the number of connections with other nations is very limited. In Egypt, let’s assume all access to the nodes in the country was through three nodes, call them E123, E456, and E789. The government simply shut off those three nodes. There were other paths into the country, but they were not large bandwidth connections. It is like sending all the vehicle traffic from the interstate onto a tiny back road detour, it didn’t work very well when the main thoroughfare was shut down.

China and other totalitarian countries want the flow of information on the internet for business and research, but want to control it. Very sophisticated firewalls are built, sadly with the assistance of American technologist, which filter the communications and block certain ideas and terms. If Google can’t search for it, what are the chances you will find it? Some call this the “great firewall of China.” Makes you wonder how much Microsoft and Cisco and the like had to do with building this great wall? As a famous communist once said, “the capitalist will sell us the rope we use to hang them.”

So that’s the technical background. We are very fortunate in this country that we have freedom of speech and no censorship on the internet. Oh really? As a former chairman of the Longmont Public Library Board, I can tell you we do have censorship in this country. First, we have to protect the kiddies. More bad laws have been passed with the intent of “protecting the children” than from any other reason I can think of. Why people have even tried to censor the bible – there’s that racy stuff in Song of Solomon you know! So it isn’t a surprise that both pornography and censorship exist in all our media including the internet.

But it is hard to stop the flow of ideas on a media that allows access to anyone who wants to post on a bulletin board, make a comment on a news article, or write a blog. That is really what Facebook and Twitter really are, self publishing by the masses with little or no censorship. That’s a good thing. Right?

Now freedom and democracy are based on discussion in the town square and an honest press is essential to keeping our freedoms, even when the press is a corporate entity with its own motivations and goals. Then the people will save us. The open dialog on the internet makes it impossible to hide the truth. Sure, that’s why people think Obama wasn’t born in the US and that George Bush actually blew up the twin towers. No editing and no censorship is freedom, but it also requires discernment in the news consumer. Those “news” reports from the people should be consumed with great care. Editors did serve a key purpose, and the unedited internet can be as wild as Dodge City when Wyatt Earp ruled with a six gun. Remember people, the internet has no “fact checking,” and even basic facts, without logical and complete discussion, can just become fighting words.

I read a lot, including a lot of stuff on the internet from all kinds of sources, both “professional” and “amateur.” I have to say I find a lot of red herrings, straw men, and ad hominine attacks. I find it jarring and an insult to my intelligence and education to read what some people spew as facts. People, you have a right to your own opinions, but not your own facts. A little knowledge of the formation of a cogent argument seems to be something else lacking in our modern education system. Or maybe people were out sick on that day. Let’s just say the level of discourse on the radio, TV, and especially the internet leaves a whole lot to be desired.

I would start with some respect for your fellow man (and women). How can such dogmatic statements possibly be true? Isn’t the truth a little more subtle and nuanced than that? I think so. I don’t care which side of the spectrum you are on, please tone down the self righteousness and confidence that you are right, everyone else is wrong, and there is no compromise to be had.  (Whew, glad I got that off my chest. You have to admit that I’m right, right?)

Democracy and freedom depend on an intelligent, educated public that is informed in the context of that education and the messages are filtered by thinking minds. Sadly, what I see in general on the internet is not very filtered nor does it appear to involve thinking. Rather, it is mostly emotion.

Now I’m all for emotion. I love my team and I cheer them on sunny days and rainy days. And I’ve got my favorite political views and politicians, and I tend to go with them through thick and thin. But a democracy is also built on an attitude of common good and respect and love for our fellow man. Boy has that been lacking in what I’ve seen and heard lately. The Bush haters are now bemoaning the Obama haters and the Obama haters can’t seem to understand how anyone could be so hateful of Bush. Personally, I don’t think hate is the solution for either political party, but that would lead me off on a big tangent, so I’ll not digress.

I’m a big fan of Facebook. For me it is a place to keep in touch with family and friends that are far removed from my life by distance and other barriers. I’m not a big letter writer, even emails, so it is a daily place I can go and see who is doing what. I’m not fond of politics on FB. The advice about not discussing those issues at a party should also apply to FB. I’m much more a fan of “I’m happy today” or “I’m sad today” or “I just got a new job.” (And I like to hear about the restaurant you're at, what you're having, and who you are with. After all,if I ran into you tomorrow at the grocery store, that is probably what we'd talk about -- not world peace.)

It isn’t important communications, but it is what keeps family and friends together. I call it "small talk." That's what we share at parties: small talk. I think that Facebook (and other modes of internet communications that I don’t use daily) have good facilities for this kind of communications. Facebook has status updates and comments, pictures and videos, links to web sites, messaging, email, long diatribes like this Note, etc. More important is that your personal Facebook community is chosen by you and typically contains friends and families.

But what if you want to communicate with strangers? OK, there are media for that like blogs and comments on news articles. Facebook does allow you to make your information available to all. So there are many internet applications and sites that allow you to share your thoughts with others in either a limited forum or a worldwide, this is what I think, forum.

One popular internet communications mode troubles me however. That is Twitter. I think it is funny that messages on twitter are called “tweets.” I think that is so the term “twit” can be used for the sender. I admit I don’t really understand Twitter, but then I don’t have to understand something to dislike it. If I like something, then I am motivated to learn more about it. I’m not interested in Brussels sprouts either, and I don’t really know any good ways to prepare sprouts. My suggestion to the cook is to throw them right in the trash.

Still, I’m an educated and thinking person and don’t like prejudice, so let me explain. I have enough problems with the garbage I often encounter on the internet, but I think Twitter is super heavy duty doo-doo. The inventors of Twitter based the service on a concept that all useful communications can be boiled down to 140 characters. They based that on research into the size of texting messages. But, again, texting is usually between people that know each other.

Certainly brevity is a valuable concept, especially in our busy lives. After all, the Readers Digest has made a very successful business out of boiling down content to minimize the time required to read it. Executive summaries are one of the most important parts of any business document, and abstracts are essential in reviewing scholarly papers. What’s wrong with concise? (Never mind that I never learned to be concise -- terse and laconic -- sure, but not concise.)

Have you ever read a tweet? Talk about inane.  I can't quite understand the rationale for providing a forum essentially for emotional discharge, a forum, because of its formal limitations (140 characters per "tweet"), actually excludes rational discourse.

I’m sure you have all heard about the latest problem with someone’s tweet. A player criticized a coach or another player. A movie star knocked probation or rehab. A politician made light of a tragedy. (Now Charlie Sheen, that one I can’t blame on Twitter.) The spontaneity of the communication is largely to blame, but what tweet can actually explain itself in such a restricted format.

Let me be concise: with Twitter concepts are not developed; observations are not documented; even emotions cannot be sufficiently nuanced. If I wanted to invent something that would destroy thought, intellectual responsibility, and introspection, I could do no better than Twitter. It is therefore not surprising that Twitter has also encouraged expressions of sadism and bigotry. With Twitter, the less thought and intellectual content, the better.

There, I’ve said it. If some of you out there twit, then I don’t apologize for hurting your feelings. If you think that tweets encourage intelligent discourse then I think the old saying about a disarmed person at a battle of wits applies to you. I realize that this doesn’t sound loving from someone who just stated bigotry should not be encouraged. But I think your twits are sharp knives. The apostle Paul warns about sharp tongues. I’m sure he had Twitter in mind. I have taken the time to explain my rationale for my great distaste for Twitter. If it helped the revolution in Egypt and elsewhere, then bully for twits. But I would much rather the revolution was televised and the discussion was rational and complete. Maybe it was really the cell phone and Facebook and who knows what social sites that were the activating mechanism. Maybe Twitter was good for “meet at Joe’s café – viva la revolution.” I don’t know.

I always joke that I am terse and laconic. The joke is that both words mean the same thing and I am anything but terse. That may be why I dislike Twitter so. It is terse and laconic. But can complex problems really be discussed in a caring manner without some amplification and discourse? I leave it to you, gentle reader. Am I a Twitter bigot? Who will speak for the twits??

Originally written on February 25, 2011.

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