Here are a few samples of my written/multimedia stories. Click on the title below to jump to each article.
Comcast has been making headlines lately – first, for announcing its plans to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion and then for announcing it had struck a deal with Netflix to better handle streaming traffic.
Both news stories come against the backdrop of January’s court ruling striking down the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) open access Internet rules, effectively ending the policy of net neutrality.
While championed as “the Magna Carta of the web,” net neutrality—the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally—might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
According to T. Barton Carter, a professor of communication and law at Boston University, all the coverage of the end of net neutrality hides the real concern—we have legal and regulatory system that hasn’t caught up with the technology of today.
“The much bigger problem is we’re regulating 21st-century communications with 20th century regulation and under 20th century law,” Carter said in an interview. “We’re still operating under the Telecom Act of 1996, think about things that we have today that didn’t exist then.”
He said the Netflix-Comcast deal came about because users of the video streaming service on Verizon and other service providers had seen a degradation of service and speeds. The latest season of House of Cards—the popular Netflix original series—was slated to hit the site and Netflix didn’t want their subscribers to get stuck with a loading screen.
But Carter explained that the FCC’s open Internet rules wouldn’t have prohibited the Netflix-Comcast peering agreement, and that Comcast is required to adhere to net neutrality rules until 2018, as part of their merger agreement with NBC-Universal in 2011.
“This is what I mean when I say net neutrality wouldn’t necessarily address the issues,” Carter said.
“Netflix and other streaming video products compete with Comcast or Time Warner’s own products and video-on-demand programming,” Carter said. “They’re trying to maintain a 20th century business model, they’re worried about cord cutters, and the reality is, we’re moving in that direction.”
If allowed to proceed, the Comcast-Time Warner deal would combine the first largest and the second largest cable providers into one company. Cable providers rank near the bottom in customer satisfaction surveys.
“Anytime consolidation occurs, ‘oh efficiencies are going to be better,’” explained Carter. “Generally speaking, the more centralized things are, the less innovation there is. Competition breeds innovation and by obvious analogy lowering competition hinders innovation.”
In an op-ed last week in the Boston Globe, Harvard Law visiting professor Susan Crawford lamented the lack of competition and, by extension, the lack of innovation in the Boston area.
“To be the place where the jobs of the future are born,” Crawford writes, “Boston needs to ensure that all its businesses and homes are connected to wholesale high-capacity, fiber lines that allow for competitive, inexpensive, and unlimited Internet communications.”
Below is an interactive map, showing the various cable providers available in the Boston area.
On the streets of Boston, it seems some people want more competition and choices in their high-speed Internet access.
“I actually think big companies tend to be worse,” said Brookline resident Richard Duran of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. Duran said he used to be a Comcast customer, but left for DirecTV and Verizon DSL. “I need a company that’s going to work with me and for me, you want my money, you’re going to have to give me what I want,” he added.
Natalie Marchand and her boyfriend Eric moved to Boston from Manhattan, where they used to be Time Warner customers. In Boston, they have Internet from Comcast.
“I’d love it if there was provider that just offered me really good Internet prices, that didn’t try to get me to buy television and phone service, but just provided really fast Internet service,” said Marchand. “Time Warner had a real monopoly in Manhattan and there was nothing you can do about it, there’s no body else in the city.”
In the city of Boston, Comcast and RCN offer broadband Internet service.
“I’m from Europe, and this is a third world country as far as Internet is concerned,” said Eric, who originally came to the United States from Portugal. “It’s so expensive and the quality of service is not good at all.”
Until the 18th century, a coastal section of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil—from Natal on the easternmost point south to just north of Rio in Vitória—featured an abundant number of Caesalpinia echinata trees. Known more commonly as Pernambuco—sharing its name with the Pernambuco state in Brazil—the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative says the trees only grow in this special area and deforestation of the Brazilian rainforests since the days of Christopher Columbus has shrunk its habitat to less than 5 percent of its original range. The tree can grow to a height of 65 feet, features spotty gray bark, and according to the Smithsonian Magazine, is so short in supply that wood dealers must trek hours deep into the coastal rainforest just to find one or two mature trunks.
Pernambuco’s use in history, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, is one that is intimately tied with Brazil’s—also known as “pau-brasil,” meaning “red wood” in Portuguese, the wood’s ruddy-colored center was used in the colonial era as a dye in Europe. For a time, the tree was the top export back to Portugal, and the colony eventually adopted its name from the wood—Brazil.
In the 1770s, according to Edward Heron-Allen in his book Violin-Making: As It Was and Is, French clockmaker Francis Tourte entered the world of archetiers—bow makers—and changed it forever. Tourte responded to the demands of Parisian musicians who desired a bow to glide across the strings of their instruments that could produce sounds that would better complement the human voice. The inventor of what is today known as the modern string instrument bow, Tourte tried a variety of woods—including wood from used sugar barrels, according to Heron-Allen—until he settled on Pernambuco, because it possesses the right stiffness-to-weight ratio.
Prior to Tourte’s bow design, bow makers produced bows of a more classical form, making the Baroque-style bows into the 1750s. Modern bows feature the same basic shape, a long stick with horsehair strung from one end to the other, resting on a wedge known as the frog. In Baroque bows, the frog is made of a separate piece of wood and the tension of the hair holds the three elements together. One of the benefits of the modern bow, with its more complicated frog and screw at the end, is the ability to make the horsehair tighter or looser by adjusting the screw, explained BU Associate Professor of Music Bayla Keyes in her studio. The player can make adjustments depending on the temperature of the room, the humidity of the climate, and the style of the music.
Why use a Baroque style bow over a modern bow today? “If we want to have an idea of what Bach might have heard, then we’ll try to use the original instruments,” said David Hawthorne, an American bow maker based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
According to Hawthorne, these are the two woods he prefers to use—snakewood for Baroque bows and Pernambuco for modern bows. On a Tuesday in December, he explained that the snakewood he was whittling came from the rainforests of Suriname, a small former Dutch colony facing the Atlantic to the north of Brazil and to the east of Guyana. Hawthorne didn’t personally get the wood there, he bought it from a dealer of exotic wood based in California, but he did buy some of his very own Pernambuco years ago from Brazil. Snakewood is best for Baroque bows, said Hawthorne, because it is exact type of timber used by European bow makers in the 17th century.
Hawthorne is 54 years old. He taught himself how to make crude wood instruments as a kid. Eventually he made guitars, during that adolescent time when he “thought violin playing wasn’t cool, so I learned how to play guitar.” With his proclivity for woodworking, it might have made sense, he said, to attend violin-making school, “But it never occurred to me and perhaps my parents wouldn’t have considered it.” He attended music school instead, while still making wood instruments as a hobby. At 18, in 1979, someone suggested the enterprising instrument maker try a workshop with the bow maker William Salchow, “the best bow maker in the United States at the time.” The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers lists 43 full-time U.S. bow makers on their website. Salchow, who continues to make bows and is based in Golden’s Bridge, New York, was the teacher and inspiration for many of today’s American bow makers, said Hawthorne.
Hawthorne worked for Reuning & Son Violins through the 1990s, before leaving in the early 2000s to start his own shop. Before Reuning, he worked at Boston String Instruments doing maintenance and repair on violins and bows. In his career he estimates he has re-haired more than 10,000 bows. At his shop he makes about 15 Baroque bows and 15 modern bows a year.
“You could do this job anywhere. I could live on the Isle of Rhodes, which is a nice idea. I could be a bow maker there but I’d never meet any good musicians there, because there’s no big orchestra there, people wouldn’t go there to see the bow maker, they’re there to eat octopus and go to the beach,” he said. “If you’re somebody who wants to do high-quality work and you want to see good stuff, you live in a city where there’s a good orchestra and a lot of musicians.”
Hawthorne’s studio is a small, three-room space across the hall from the offices of “Dewey, Cheetham, & Howe,” the playful name of NPR’s Cartalk business office. The studio is two stories above the Curious George toy store, marketed as the only one on Earth, at the corner of Brattle Street and John F Kennedy Street in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. Cork flooring, to protect the precious woods from accidental falls, covers each of the three rooms. The largest of the rooms, where Hawthorne made himself a mug of tea at a kitchenette area, also serves as a welcome area for customers and features at a small table, a place for his daughter to do her Spanish homework. His actual workspace—a room to the right of the entrance room, probably no larger than 10 feet by 7 feet—has one window overlooking Harvard Square, a tall woodworker’s table littered with various tools and pieces of wood filings, and a red patent leather stool with a short back to support him as he leans over his work.
The piece of snakewood in Hawthorne’s hands, starting as a long and thin rectangular piece cut roughly into the shape of a bow offsite with an band saw, will sell for about $2000 once finished. In his initial stages of crafting, the stick of spotted wood—it resembles snakeskin, from which its name derives—looked like a crude magic wand from a Harry Potter film; not quite smooth yet, but starting to take the shape.
He studied a laminated sheet of paper, a template with the exact dimensions of the bow he is carving. He was making, in fact, an “almost exact” replica of a bow made in 1680. He said it wasn’t a famous bow, or at least not famous enough to be compared to and identified with the style of the famous bow makers of the time. As Tourte’s bow came into fashion, the Baroque style of bows fell from grace and few from the transitional years were preserved. He estimates that hundreds of bows of this model were made in the 1600s, most of which are now lost. After 1700, bow makers would stamp their work, but the bow he is replicating lacked any sort of identifying marker.
He measured the stick at various points, using the same Vernier caliper—an extremely precise measuring tool—he had used when sketching the dimensions of the original French bow. The Baroque bow consists of three simple components—a carved piece of snakewood, a frog made of Pernambuco, and horsehair, said Hawthorne. Very little else goes into the making of the bow—no pieces of ivory or mother of pearl ornamental inlays which adorn some modern bows; just wood and hair. As he told me about the original French bow, his hands worked on the stick, scraping a small plane along the grain of the snakewood, curling shards of it off and flaking onto his black apron. His immediate work area was lit both by the fall sun, which slowly set outside the window, and a floating arm lamp anchored to the back of the worktable. Hanging on the wall behind the worktable, directly in front of Hawthorne, and on the back of the table itself was a variety of tools—rows of little wooden hammers and mallets, coping saws, flat files, long files, skinny files that come to an almost sharp point, and at least 10 drill bits.
While working, Hawthorne wore steel-rimmed glasses, as well as a headband magnifier, essentially two round lenses attached to an elastic band, to better see the wood he was planing. The stick started as a rectangle, and Hawthorne, over the course of two hours, planed it down to an octagonal shape. Then, with a smaller plane, he proceeded to plane it into 16 sides, tapered from thicker at one end, thinning down to the head at the other. To the untrained eye, at this stage, the snakewood looked almost round, but there was still much to be done.
He stores some of his tools in cigar boxes, including the various grit sizes of sandpaper imported from Germany. The original French bow might have been sanded smooth using volcanic pumice, but this dense stick—a test Hawthorne uses to see if the wood is dense enough to make a good bow is to see if it sinks in water—was sanded first with different types of files, then by progressively more fine sheets of sandpaper. He started with a fine 180 grit, progressing to 220, 320, 800, 1200, and finishing with an ultra fine 1500. Using super fast hand motions, sliding the paper up and down with the grain of the snakewood, he polished it to a point where it shined without varnish or polish.
The tension of the horsehair—a material that Hawthorne says they have not been able to replicate synthetically and he buys from a British company—holds the two pieces of wood together, the Pernambuco frog and the snakewood stick. “There’s no glue in this, just a couple of pieces of wood,” he said. The bow is exactly 58.5 centimeters long, and felt heavy in the hand. There’s a small notch on the head, and a larger notch on the other end; he’ll string the hair from the head to the frog Pernambuco piece tomorrow. One of the final steps is to stamp his name—“Hawthorne.” The period included—and a number into the stick, on a spot right above the frog, with a weight heated by the blue flame of a hand-held blowtorch. This particular bow, numbered 924, was his 124th numbered replica of the 1680 French bow. After a quick rubdown with Everclear alcohol, a coat of Watco Danish oil, Hawthorne placed the stick into an ultraviolet light box to dry overnight. It would be ready, he said, for the customer’s use the next day.
Bayla Keyes, BU Associate Professor of Music, Violin, owns one of David Hawthorne’s gold-mounted modern bows. Her father was a composer and her mother a pianist—her bed as a child was under the piano. “Since they were both very good pianists, I didn’t like being the worst player in the house, so I started studying the violin,” said Keyes in her Boston University studio, at the end of a long hallway in the College of Fine Arts. After graduating from music school, Keyes founded the Muir String Quartet, with classmates of hers, touring the world for 16 years. She left the Muir Quartet in 1996 and joined BU teaching.
On the afternoon I met her, Keyes had played in a lunchtime concert—before a room of about 15 students. The quartet, which was played by Keyes and three of her students, was written by the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz in 1964 and featured movements of various tempos—the first, fast and almost spooky sounding; the second, slow and melancholy; and the third, intense and upbeat. The four women pulled their modern bows across the strings of their violins, their heads bobbing up and down to the tempo of the music.
“My father used to say the violin is the closest sound to the human voice,” she said. “I think that’s true—it’s so versatile.” In fact, Keyes believes the violin has a dual nature.
“It can, and quite often does, represent the angelic, the greatest aspirations of humankind; everything pure and noble,” she said. “But it belongs equally to the Devil—there are all kinds of musical pieces where the Devil uses the violin to try to seduce a soul.”
And if money truly is the root of all evil, then perhaps the violin does belong to the Devil. According to The Economist, the most expensive violin in the world, an 18th century Italian violin, was sold last year to an anonymous buyer for $16 million. In the most recent economic downturn, instrument prices didn’t waver for a moment. In October of this year, according to CNN, one of the violins played on the deck of the sinking Titanic was sold for $1.7 million. And the violin Keyes played on during her midday concert last week? She bought that violin, made in 1740 in Italy by the Gagliano, for $350,000 from a dealer in Chicago. “We bought the violin instead of a house, when we were first married,” she said with a laugh. “My husband wanted to build an extension on it so we would at least have someplace to sleep.”
“It’s very difficult for young string players to afford these instruments,” she said. “But a modern instrument is considerably less—you can get a good modern violin for $30,000, which is still a significant chunk of change.”
Hawthorne compared the expensive violin and violin bow market to the art market. He said some 19th century French bows can cost between $50,000 and $80,000. “Why is a Picasso painting worth so much?” he asked. “It’s because art dealers and rich people agree that a genuine Picasso or Van Gogh is worth a certain amount. It’s irrefutable that those artists occupy a place in history, they were pioneers, there is something really resonant with seeing the actual thing.”
“That’s true of old bows too—bows made by famous people and played by famous people,” Hawthorne said. “But I’m a little bit irritated at the super high prices all these things have achieved.”
“Boston Symphony Orchestra players can afford a $20,000 bow and a $300,000 violin,” he continued. “In normal cases, with a good, normal job, let’s say you get paid $100,000 a year, then you might buy a house and a car and save up to send your kids to college, but you don’t have to buy a $300,000 violin to work.”
As he sanded the head of the snakewood bow he was making he said, “Yes, they’re very expensive, but at the same time in a parallel world, they’re just pieces of wood.”
September 23, 2013, The Weekly Standard. VOL. 19, NO. 03
According to a recent analysis by Sandvine, Netflix, the streaming video service, accounted for one-third of all Internet traffic in North America last year, making it the single largest user of bandwidth on the continent. Apart from being a repository of old Star Trek episodes, Netflix has recently ventured into producing successful streaming-only series of its own, such as the Washington drama House of Cards and a new season of the cult favorite Arrested Development. Netflix now has more subscribers than HBO.
So it should come as no surprise that Internet service and cable TV providers—Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon FiOS, etc.—are keeping a close eye on the little streaming service that could, the content company that is changing the way we watch television and threatening their video-on-demand services. And we know what that ultimately means for the cable companies’ bottom lines.
All this high-definition video-streaming uses a lot of bandwidth, particularly during peak usage hours, prompting the companies that control the “last-mile” tubes of the Internet—that is, the cable companies—to be very much concerned about consumption. One way they propose to deal with network congestion is to cap data usage, an idea that could put a company like Netflix out of business.
Susan P. Crawford, who teaches at Cardozo Law School and was a special assistant for technology policy in the Obama White House, is so concerned about this possibility that she regularly notes that readers of Captive Audience might have to substitute “any new online video-distribution company” for the word “Netflix.” (So far, it isn’t necessary.) She argues that, since the cable companies view Netflix as a direct content competitor, it is in their interest to curb usage of that service in favor of their own offerings. One way to do that would be to allow unlimited streaming of certain content but have Netflix streaming, or other Internet traffic, count toward data caps.
Crawford, an ardent supporter of net neutrality—the idea that governments and service providers should treat all Internet traffic equally, no preferential processing or speeds for certain types of data—suggests that such policies would stifle innovation and prevent “the next Netflix (or Google, Facebook, Amazon)” from being born. In fact, Verizon and the FCC are currently battling in court over whether the commission has the authority to enforce its 2010 Net Neutrality rules.
With America’s Internet future in the hands of a few major corporations, Crawford argues, the prospect of continued American supremacy in Internet innovation is bleak. Like the emergence of electricity a century ago, high-speed Internet is today the lifeblood of our economy, not a luxury but a necessity for rural and lower-income Americans to be able to compete in the global economy, bring their products to market, and find new and better jobs.
Crawford laments how far we have fallen behind the rest of the developed world in wired Internet access, comparing us unfavorably with nations such as Japan and South Korea, where more than half of all households have super-fast fiber lines. The percentage of Americans with access to fiber? Seven percent—and at five times the price of the same service in Sweden. Yet it hardly seems fair to compare ourselves with countries such as South Korea, which is roughly the size of Virginia. As we’re often reminded, usually by the cable companies themselves, it is extremely costly to rewire a country the size of the United States. And maybe that’s where Crawford’s arguments are strongest: We should view high-speed Internet access as a utility, not a luxury reserved only for those in metropolitan areas or with the means to pay sixfold the international standard.
It was a contentious issue in the 1930s, but no one would reasonably argue today that the Tennessee Valley Authority should have been a private company, or that households should have multiple providers of water or natural gas. Yet in terms of high-speed Internet access, much of America is already experiencing it as a privately owned utility, the precise opposite of the head-to-head competition favored by deregulators. Local franchises of cable and Internet companies make agreements with municipalities, effectively creating local monopolies of service, and, in many cases, making it almost impossible for other providers to enter certain cities or towns. Crawford highlights the (perfectly legal) “agreements” between the titans—Comcast gets Boston and Chicago while New York is Time Warner’s playground—which allow the big fish to never be in direct competition, turf agreements that would have made Al Capone proud.
“Comcast is the communications equivalent of Standard Oil,” writes Crawford. Indeed, in many major metropolitan areas, Comcast is the only option for high-speed wired Internet. But Crawford’s constant refrain that “Comcast=bad” tends to overpower the reader, who might suspect that the author has a personal grudge against that mammoth corporation. (For the record, Comcast ranks annually among the lowest in customer satisfaction for any American corporation.)
However, apart from a lengthy history of the railroad industry, the breakup of Ma Bell, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the intimate details of Comcast’s family history, Crawford succeeds in laying out a vision for the future of Internet connectivity. She sees an America where reliable, affordable, truly high-speed access is available to most citizens. She highlights success stories and places where she sees glimmers of hope—including municipalities (Chattanooga, for example) that are spending city money to build their own public fiber networks, attracting investment from companies based hundreds of miles away, and creating local jobs. The best part is, these municipal Internet services offer residents faster speeds at much lower rates than Time Warner or Comcast.
James Bologna is a graduate student in the College of Communication at Boston University.
December 17, 2012, VOL. 18, NO. 14
Recently, Google unveiled a new feature on its website: the ability to tour, via “street view,” its Lenoir, North Carolina, data center, one of its numerous, highly guarded campuses. Google is attempting, at least partially, to lift the iron curtain—for which it has been much maligned—and show the world one of the physical strongholds where our personal data are stored. Might we trust the behemoth more if we can catch a glimpse of it from inside?
The Internet is largely thought of as a nebulous cloud of information, floating around us everywhere but existing nowhere—light, ephemeral, omnipresent. But our general concept of the web couldn’t be further from the truth. As Andrew Blum explains here, the Internet is very much a solid structure, grounded in the need for electricity, undersea crossings, and transcontinental fiber-optic cables. The Internet hangs on poles outside our homes, it slithers underneath our office buildings, and gets converted into wireless cell phone signals by operator towers made to look like pine trees.
When things happen—natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, a fallen tree in Ohio causing the 2003 East Coast power outage, or, as Blum writes, “a seventy-five-year-old grandmother in the country of Georgia slicing through a buried fiber-optic cable with a shovel, knocking Armenia offline”—the invincible Internet stops working. Not quite an information superhighway, the Internet is more like a network of airports (which are vulnerable to weather conditions), where bits of information are shuttled to and from hubs all over the world.
Fortunately, instead of a mind-numbing recitation of technical statistics (although he certainly can speak that language), Blum opts for a compelling tale that could be considered travel literature. Starting in his own neighborhood, he reaches out to network engineers and far-flung experts in his journey to visit the physical place that is “the Internet.” He drives along the Jersey Shore in an attempt to locate where the underwater cable from Europe rises out of the Atlantic. He visits Portugal to see where Europe and Africa really connect. And he enters the subterranean world of New York’s utility workers, men in hardhats who lay mile upon mile of optical fiber under the metropolis each night.
One of his stops is in Ashburn, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington D.C., about three miles from Dulles airport, where the massive tubes of the Internet literally come out of the ground. This network warehouse farm—like others Blum visits in Los Angeles, New York, Oregon, London, and Frankfurt—is where the routing (and “peering”) of global Internet traffic takes place. As he explains, it is in facilities such as these that the zeros and ones of our Netflix streams, cat meme emails, and Honey Boo Boo tweets are redirected either to networks feeding our computers or to giant data centers (such as Google’s in Lenoir) which contain the servers that house websites.
In these giant routing warehouses (such as the ones in Ashburn), with no windows, few doors, heavy security—airlocks, bulletproof glass, biometric scanners—and lots of air conditioning, sit rows and rows of router towers, filled with the same routers you might rent from Comcast or Verizon, but on steroids. These warehouses, strategically located all over the planet, are places for companies to lease space for their routers, and for their networks to plug into other networks (a network of networks!)—Verizon’s routers sit next to Amazon’s routers and Comcast’s routers and Netflix’s routers, and so on. In a sea of yellow and blue wires, a handful of network engineers, dwarfed by the colossal heat-throwing machines, continually string new networks together. Cables on top of cables all converge into one final box with blinking lights, the last box before the mother lode of tubes exits the building and enters the soil.
That tube leads to thousands of other tubes just like it, transporting all our web traffic to other parts of the world. But where, exactly, are our pictures, videos, e-books, and emails stored? When Blum attempts to find out—by “touring” one of Google’s data centers from the outside—he’s guided around nondescript Silicon Valley buildings, encircled by layers of barbed-wire fencing, surrounded by handlers unwilling to answer even basic questions.
But the street view of the Lenoir campus is a baby step toward Internet transparency. It’s important because more and more of our digital lives are moving to these web-based data centers—pictures on Facebook, files in Google Drive, music on Apple’s iCloud, books and entire libraries in electronic formats—and these campuses, some totaling more square footage than six U.S. Capitol buildings, grow larger and more energy-hungry each year. (Two percent of global power consumption is already attributed to data centers, and that number expands 12 percent annually.)
So much for the reviewer’s perquisite of a new volume for my bookshelf, though: I read this book entirely in electronic format, having downloaded it to my Kindle, tablet, and smartphone. As I flipped the “pages” of the e-book on the subway, I got to wondering which data center had housed my copy: Was it in Oregon? California? Nearby at Amazon’s servers in Ashburn? Tubes, which makes a valiant effort to transform the intangible world of the Internet into a concrete thing and place, had become, itself, an intangible resident of the web.
James Bologna is a writer in Washington.