A truly embarrassing truth for wireless phone companies

A recent story in the New York Times (which I learned about by way of an entry in Techblog) exposes quite a bit about how wireless carriers transmit text messages (SMS). These articles (the NYT article in particular) are good reads for the terminally curious. I’ll summarize the main points for those readers who lack the time, however:

  • Text messages ride the control channel, space normally used to control operation of the network (hence its name).
  • Thus, text messages cost very little, in fact almost nothing, for the wireless carriers to pass along.
  • The 160-character limit comes from the length of a call set-up message.

Now, combine these points (particularly the first two) with the fact that all wireless carriers which charge separately for text messages, have doubled the rate for casual use messages over the past three years ($0.20 now versus $0.10 before). If anything, this rate should have gone down with time, due to advances in technology, not up.

I have always smelled a very faint odor of bovine excrement even during the dime-a-message era. Something told me it can’t possibly cost the wireless carriers this much per message, even with an allowance for a reasonable profit margin. Turns out I had a pretty good hunch. Unfortunately it took the greed of the wireless carriers to turn the right heads (Senator Kohl) and trigger a closer look.

The profit margin today is anything but reasonable. This makes the long-distance rates of the AT&T monopoly era (often a full order of magnitude what they were after the deregulation of telephone long distance) look like the convenience store clerk keeping the penny when you’re owed change of $0.71 on a soda. If the phone companies were selling gasoline, we’d probably be up to $8/gallon, with station owners scrambling to prepare for an inevitable $10/gallon (most current signage only goes up to $9.999).

Am I going to cancel my text messaging plan? Of course not. I will, however, follow this closely and hope we at least get reform, if not some of the money back.

(All currency amounts are US dollars.)

The human nature of sharing vs. felony on the high seas

This recent article in Coding Horror (linked from TechBlog) at first glance appears to be at first about murder and theft on the high seas. Oh wait, sorry, need to take a closer look. Let’s change that last part to “programmers getting ripped off by unauthorized copying.”

Surprisingly, the lead-in is a quote from letter from none other than Bill Gates to the Homebrew Computer Club, way back in 1976, when we were still about three to four years away from the first popular video games, and I was probably still learning to walk. The quote (which I am retyping from the image):

The feedback we have goten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however. 1) Most of these “users” never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent of Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

The blog post then goes on to make numerous other dubious comparisons with theft and murder on the high seas and unauthorized copying of software, citing a more recent example (World of Goo) where a similar 90% rate of unauthorized copying is claimed. (The only accurate part of that is ten different IP addresses are posting a high score for every purchased copy of the game, so this could be anywhere from 25% to 99.5% of unauthorized copies, of those choosing to post their high scores online, or possibly even higher or lower.)

For titles such as World of Goo, I think any divide-and-conquer, no-sharing, don’t-you-dare-help-your-neighbor license agreement is probably a mistake. This title should have been released as free software (as in GPL v3), selling copies and related merchandise to help fund further development.

Let’s face it, there’s a reason it’s a bad idea to equate the natural human desire to share with nautical felonies. The FSF has already said something about this and the way “piracy” gets thrown around in articles like the one in Coding Horror linked above just underscores that.

Autorun, autoworm

It’s a bit old, but just today I read an entry in Ed Truitt’s blog about how the Pentagon got infected with (what I would guess is) a Windows worm.

To quote the quoted message:

Someone infected thumb drives with the WORM then dropped them around the Pentagon parking lot. The employees, picked them up, took them into their offices and plugged them into their office computers to determine the owner of the drive. (emphasis mine)

To me, it seems the real risk is not plugging unknown devices into a computer. Rather, this whole incident is a very damning indictment of Windows’ infamous autorun feature and the risks thereof. The act of merely accessing a device should never automatically run any executable that may be on it, at least not without prompting the user.

This is a security hole big enough to drive a tank through, and inexcusable negligence on the part of Microsoft. This is not something a user should have to explicitly disable (whether permanently or with an obscure trick like holding down Shift while plugging/inserting media).

OpenBSD uses the slogan “secure by default.” Here’s hoping that Windows 7 will be the first version that “insecure by default” doesn’t apply to.

Seven random things

So I saw this meme on a few other blogs, and I figured it’d be a great way to get the ball rolling. Most people did this meme because they were tagged by another blogger somewhere; I’m a bit different, I just saw it and did it because I was bored out of my mind for the heck of it.

Seven random things you may or may not know about me:

1. I have a rather random and bizarre sense of humor.

I’ve been known to crack some of the weirdest jokes. Sometimes, my sense of humor goes underappreciated, unappreciated or even ignored, but it’s something I’ve gotten used to.

2. I have a very diverse and eccentric taste in music.

I grew up listening to country music, then pop/rock, then harder rock, and finally I started expanding my tastes to just about anything with a discernible melody (i.e. not rap). I may well  listen to 80’s pop, heavy metal, new age, and classical in the same sitting. It depends on my mood.

3. I am often a fan of “less-populated culture.”

I often love movies, music, and television that seems to completely miss the target with most of the population. I think the best example I can come up with is the movie Howard the Duck, which for many years was my all time favorite (of course, this was when I was in middle school). Yes, the same Howard the Duck movie that ALF made a barfbag joke about.

Now, this does not necessarily imply I always go for the weird, bizarre, eccentric, eclectic, less populated, etc. However, I consider myself less afraid (in fact, much less afraid) than average to stray from the beaten path.

(Interestingly, the film that finally displaced Howard the Duck as my all-time favorite was Some Kind of Wonderful, the story behind which I’ll save for another day.)

4. I don’t have a college degree.

I did take some college classes, but most of the stuff I know has been self-taught. It’s more of a case of lacking patience as opposed to not being able to understand the material. I often consider the only exams that really matter to be the ones given in the real world.

I take driver’s education as the best example of this. I have forgotten at least most of the distances, such as how far in advance you’re supposed to signal a turn, exactly how far from a railroad track you have to be to be legally parked, etc. But I’ve been given plenty of such tests in my current job (courier/messenger) as well as the years of driving before that and I certainly feel overall I’ve earned a passing grade.

5. I’m a huge fan of arcade gaming.

In particular: 80s to early 90s video games, and solid-state (roughly, late 70s/early 80s to present) pinball. I have a huge list of favorite games, too many to even try to narrow down to a top 5 or top 10. Again, through the magic of MAME (particularly the xmame version at the moment), I’ve been able to find many old gems that I never got to really play in the arcades. In particular, someday, I want to play a few games of Snake Pit on its original hardware. However, that’s far from the only game in that category.

6. I’m a huge fan of the free software movement.

Not to be confused with the confusingly named open source movement, which I do not support at all; the actions of the open source splinter faction, while they may have had noble intentions in the beginning, have done much more harm than good to the great work of Dr. Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. For now, I’ll leave it at that; this isn’t intended to be a “seven mini-rants” meme, after all.

7. I’ve never travelled outside the country.

I’m not particularly proud of that, but that’s the truth; I’ve never had the pleasure of going through customs. The closest I’ve come to that was leaving the mainland for a trip to Hawaii some years ago. I’ve also been to Disney World in Florida; casinos in Lake Charles, Louisiana; a relative’s wedding in Virginia; and when I was very young, Mississippi (I think it was Biloxi but of course that part of my brain has flipped way too many bits to remember for sure).

The countries I would most like to visit are (in order) Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. I will probably wind up visiting other countries not on this list, and may not make it to all ten of the countries I listed in this lifetime.

Now that I’ve finished, I’m supposed to tag seven people. This is tricky, because most of those I would tag have either already been tagged elsewhere, or have already done this. So, I’m just going to leave it up to the first seven people who haven’t already done this, to tag themselves. I might add, this is a great reason to start a blog if you don’t have one already; this was originally supposed to be one of my first entries.

The downside of textbabble, confirmed

This recent article by the BBC finally confirms something I have long suspected:

While writing in textese was significantly faster across the board, nearly half the students took twice as long to read messages aloud as compared to standard English versions.

In other words, the five seconds one saves by not spelling out words like “too”, “you”, “your”, “anyone”, “people”, etc. is quite possibly spent on the other end anyway by the person receiving the message who has to decipher it.

(While I do abbreviate in text messages occasionally, I limit it to words of seven letters or more or phrases with a relatively well known abbreviation.)