July 16, 1998


I've been on the road for the last week or so and am trying to catch up on writing and everything else. As I noted in the previous column, the captivity of the plane does offer an opportunity to gather some of my thoughts (unless I'm sitting next to someone interesting). The two conferences were INET-98 in Geneva (Switzerland) and The World Skeptics Congress in Heidelberg (Germany).

No surprise that I was traveling with a reasonable amount of e-gear – laptop, PDA, phone, cameras (APS and DV). And all the smallest feasible. What I didn't have was a good portable GPS that could work independently as well as connecting to my laptop. And I was also missing a good wireless IP connection.

The good news is that world connectivity is advancing apace. No need to hassle currency when ATM machines are readily available. And, once I figure out the local tweaks, I can get a local dial up port. Even better was the Ethernet connection at INET. It's also nice that my power supplies were all110/120 indifferent though I still needed adapters for the outlet (but the bathroom shaver outlet is handy for charging).

But the hotels still lag. At a trivial level is the simple lack of outlets for charging the devices as well as using the laptop. This is minor but annoying. And they are typically not near the phone. Warning: make sure you don't plug into an outlet controlled by the light switch! As to the phones, the world is moving to the US phone jacks so I was able, for example, to use the phone's own RJ-11 connector to connector to my laptop and then use a Y jack so I could reconnect the phone. But when will I get my Ethernet jack? When will German and Japanese hotels use an American dial tone so I don't need to modify my modem settings in arcane ways. But the real need is for the Ethernet jack. Even putting one in the business center would have high value. Remember that hotels were going to go to electronic phones in the 80's but had to drop back to analog in order to assure that laptops would work!

I rented cars in each city to get a better sense of the city and the country. Given the US dollar and the weekend rates it wasn't too bad. I did ask for the driving delta from US to local. It's mainly that there is no right turn on red. And, of course, I had to drive a standard. In Geneva, the roads are labeled with destination such as "France" or "Lausanne" but the maps didn't have village names or the same markers. In Germany, there was much text on road signs giving exception information that I couldn't understand since it was only in German. In both places I was impressed by the narrowness of the streets. One compensation was the wide-spread availability of underground parking though the spaces presumed a tiny car.


I attended INET to pursue my public policy issues. There were some good sessions. The one on unanticipated consequences was fun and a reminder that the major changes come from locally interesting side-effects. In a policy session, Robert Cannon pointed out more problems with the Universal Service for wiring the schools than I had imagined. One issue is that the plan is structured to make sure that Telcos are the only valid providers. I'll incorporate more of this into my essays on the subject.

The conference itself is needs to do a more effective job of explaining the difference between network architecture and the applications on the net. Perhaps next year.

World Skeptics Congress

The World Skeptics Conference is interesting for the people and the topics. The conference is a gathering of people concerned about critical thinking – a seemingly rare commodity. You can look at http://www.csicop.com for more on some of the issues. I'll try to provide more details as I go through my debriefing notes and collected business cards.

I forget to bring the full conference brochure with me and went to the wrong university library. But, as with any library, there was Internet access so I went to the CSICOP web site to find the correct location. Ain't then 'net wonderful?

I was most interested in the attendees, which included many of the authors of relevant books (Bibliography to be supplied separately). The University of Warrick (associated with Cambridge) has a graduate program run by Richard Wiseman which examines phenomena. Wiseman's background as a magician is crucial. One example was his investigation of the Indian rope trick that involves a boy climbing up a rope and disappearing and, perhaps, his limbs falling down. A well-known case that, upon investigation, doesn't as anything more than confused descriptions of partial recollections of simple phenomena such as pole balancing. A classic news paper photo was described in the accompanying article as a genuine composite!

Phone Bill Delays and other Telco Tactics

After I arrive home, I'm curious about my phone charges from various sources. But all these charges are delayed until the next billing period. This is particular problematic for phone charges which are incurred throughout the month.

If I use my credit card, I can see my charges online or in a few days. But the Telcos have benefited from a long tradition of delayed billing. In the old days this sort of made sense since the charges were done by accumulated tickets from all the phone systems and bring them together. But this was also true with the credit card companies but they are no providing in the information immediately.

In fact, why is there no protocol to retrieve the charge information as part of the phone connection protocol? One reason is that the word "protocol" simply doesn't exist in the analog world. Perhaps it would have been possible in the ISDN world but ISDN was simply a poor imitation of the existing service. But the lack of a protocol in analog telephony is no excuse any more since the charge information can be immediately available via the Internet.

900 numbers (a very bad billing macro that strangely enough benefits the Telcos by putting them in a privileged position as providers of credit at a usurious rate) are required to provide some up-front charging information. But this courtesy is not extended to any other calls. And there is no reason it can't be done since one can go through a pleasant long-winded conversation with a human operator to ask what the charges will be given all the tradeoffs and one may even get approximately correct information.

As an aside, I suspect that direct dialed calls are often much cheaper than ATT Direct partially due to the current strength of the dollar and the ability of ATT to stick to their old myths of a price advantage while competition occurs in the direct connections. ATT Direct is also keyed to the strong dollar.

Do I seem to have a vendetta against the telephone companies? I'm a major fan of telecommunications and want the industry to thrive but there is a heavy legacy left by the regulatory environment from earlier in the century. My goal is liberation of telecommunications and the current players happen to be served while by their privileged position.

You can also read my comments on dialing with my ATT PCS phone. I do plan to write a lot more about this phone fairly soon.