ecology shapes communications technology

It seems that The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes. This is a large-scale example of ecology shaping communications technology.

This sort of effect also occurs at a much smaller scale. Compare the geometric patterns in the paintings in the Morgan Picture Bible of Louis IX to those in the Marc Chagall Bible Series. The artists that produced the Morgan Bible primarily illuminated books. Marc Chagall primarily produced individual paintings. Not surprisingly, the Morgan Bible’s paintings look a lot like text, while Chagall’s don’t.

text messaging is unnatural

Recent research indicates that human visual processing capabilities have shaped text. Letters in 96 non-logographic writing systems, Chinese characters, and natural scenes all have similar distributions of topological configurations. The human visual system evolved to process natural scenes. Writing systems from around the world and throughout the history of written language appear to be well-matched to the evolved visual capabilities of human beings.

This same research indicates that motor complexity of writing is less important than visual processing for reading in shaping the distribution of topological configurations. The frequency ranks of topological configurations in widely used writing systems are not significantly correlated with a measure of the motor effort required to produce the letter or character. Moreover, shorthand, which is designed to be written quickly, has a significantly different topological distribution of letters than does more widely used writing systems. Young children’s scribbles, which reflect relatively weak motor capabilities, also have a significantly different topological distribution than widely used writing systems. Within the space of relatively simple topological possibilities, motor complexity seems not to have strongly affected the design of writing systems.

from the sky

This research suggests that the design of text favors reading over writing. That’s a plausible design orientation. The invention of text was probably oriented toward the market for memorializing events and storing knowledge. Those are communicative functions that involve writing that is read many times. Text messaging among family and friends is not that type of communication.

Text has other disadvantages as technology for personal communication. Compared to audible language, text has a relatively high bodily cost. Babies easily learn audible language. In contrast, the capability to read and write requires from humans a large, specialized investment in time and attention (schooling). Moreover, broad patterns of media use indicate that persons prefer spending time with audiovisual media than with text. This suggests that the marginal bodily processing cost of reading is higher than for audiovisual communication.

The design of text and the design of the human body disadvantage text messaging for presence-oriented, personal communication. Experts in the field assure me that their teen-aged daughters find great value in text messaging among their friends, value that voice communication does not provide. I respect this expertise. The research discussed above, however, at least indicates the importance of considering carefully how text messaging creates value relative to voice communication.

reaching down to the well

Addendum: The research on topological configurations in written languages is brilliant, pioneering research. Extensive discussion of the analysis and duplication of the findings would help to ensure that they are correct. I noticed that the analysis did not weigh topological configurations by frequency of use in representative text. Perhaps this wasn’t done because generating such weights might require considerable additional effort. I would like to see future research at least consider the significance of use weights.

The full citation for the research on topological configurations is:
Mark A. Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo (2006), “The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes,” American Naturalist, v. 167, pp. E117-E139.

Update: Included in Tangled Bank #54, hosted by Science and Politics. Check out that carnival for other interesting science posts.

Public Service Recognition Week

To celebrate Public Service Recognition Week (should’ve been a month), I watched Ikiru. In this film, Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat, notes three rules for bureaucratic success:

  1. Always be on time.
  2. Never take any vacation.
  3. Do no work.

He also poignantly sings

Life is brief
Fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom
Fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion
Cool within you

With less than a year to live, Watanabe takes a vacation and works passionately and successfully to transform a mosquito-infested cesspool into a children’s playground.

Kanji Watanabe died a hero in public service. He received full bureaucratic honors in his funeral. May the memory of Kanji Watanabe live on in the public service of bureaucrats around the world!

rights to communicate using radio spectrum

An important trend in communications policy has been to give persons more freedom to communicate using radio devices. The U.K. Office of Communication (Ofcom) currently is consulting on new ways of defining licenses for communicating using radio spectrum. Ofcom proposes to specify in licenses spectrum usage rights. It proposes to define these rights by specifying geographic boundaries and about thirteen parameters relating to power flux density, including parameters relating to time and location density. Of course, many other parameters will be relevant to modeling and measuring these rights. Compared to the structure of parameters embedded in specific technologies and applications, this new structure of license parameters gives licensees more freedom to communicate using different radio technologies and for different purposes.

Adjudication of spectrum usage rights through an institution separate from the spectrum regulatory body would make spectrum usage rights less uncertain and more secure. The authoritative meaning of spectrum usage rights may not be clear. If the spectrum regulatory body adjudicates the spectrum rights that it issues, it can further specify or revise the rights it grants through the adjudicatory process. If an independent body adjudicates the rights, then the spectrum regulatory body cannot do this. Independent adjudication disciplines the public specification of spectrum usage rights. Similarly, the spectrum regulatory body might prefer at some future time to revise spectrum usage rights granted earlier. Having an independent institution adjudicate spectrum usage rights makes those rights more secure under subsequent changes in spectrum policy.

cities are important structures for internetworking

The growth of the Internet has emphasized functional rather than structural aspects of networking. The end-to-end principle, the concept of “the Internet,” and widespread concern about “bandwidth of connections to the Internet” push into the background ownership interfaces between networks and the geographic structure of interconnection. One result is that opportunities to innovate at the edges conflict with network “pipe” innovation, i.e. the paradox of the best network.

Major industry trends have major implications for network geography. Municipal networks, such as wi-fi networks or open-access municipal fibre optic networks, are a rapidly developing form of network infrastructure. From a regional or national perspective, municipal networks make cities important elements of network structure. If you just understand these networks to be providing Internet connectivity, you miss that they connect residents of a city to other residents of that city in a distinctive network organization.

Network geography significantly affects the cost of providing network services. If communication bandwidth cost is distance-senstitive, then local caching reduces the cost of distributing content. That effect is particulary important for high-bandwidth content such as video. Even if you believe that bandwidth costs will rapidly go to zero irrespective of physical distance, transaction costs associated with providing services are likely to remain distance-sensitive. At any given degree of infrastructure ownership consolidation, the number of ownership interfaces are likely to increase with distance. Ownership interfaces are a source of transaction costs. In addition, customer behavior and customer service have local components. Local knowledge allows a service provider to respond better to (local) customers’ needs.

The economic geography of internetworking is starting to attract more attention. In an interesting presentation at the recent Firstmile conference, Mike Hrybyk discussed BCnet transit exchanges in British Columbia (if you’re wondering, that’s in Canada). These transit exchanges provide a low-transaction-cost environment for the exchange of network services, including peering of local users and user purchasing of network services from a variety of carrier suppliers. Research and educational institutions seeking to foster local network development and to experiment with innovative networks have led the development of these transit exchanges.

The Internet is wonderful. Future forms of internetworking can be even better. Recognizing cities as important structures for internetworking can help to make the Internet better.

essential reading to prepare for the future

Ponder the possibilities for funding network infrastructure. Think about how to contact persons dispersed after a cataclysm. Understand the deep significance of exchanging a chicken. This isn’t highly successful fiction, or merely a fantasy game that you can enjoy from the comfort of your telecom fortress. If you’re not reading Telepocalypse, you really are gonna be left behind!

fortress telecom

spineless gene contributes to smell, taste, and color vision

As an FCC bureaucrat, I’m intrigued by a recent discovery about the spineless gene. I’m trying to understand better the demand for communications services, particularly across sensory modes. A leading researcher on the spineless gene in fruit flies explained:

“Spineless plays a key role in the antenna and maxillary palp, the two major olfactory organs of the fly,” said Ian Duncan. “It’s also important in mechanosensory bristles and in the taste receptors of the legs, wings, and mouth parts. There has been a sensory theme to the gene, and now we learn from Claude’s work that it plays a key role in color vision.”

The spineless gene also produces certain random structures apparent in the eye:

“Nobody knew what controlled this random pattern,” said Dianne Duncan. “Now we know it’s spineless.”

This discovery may provide an important insight into the evolution of the communications industry.

fruit fly

For more information and images of invertebrates, check out this month’s Circus of the Spineless at Burning Silo.

law review article distorts reality

A forthcoming Michigan Law Review article on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series indicates that these books present a “scathing portrait of government”:

a Ministry of Magic run by self-interested bureaucrats bent on increasing and protecting their power, often to the detriment of the public at large.

The author, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, explains that Rowling’s critique of government:

is also particularly effective because, despite how awful Rowling’s Ministry of Magic looks and acts, it bears such a tremendous resemblance to current Anglo-American government.

This is mere fantasy. It’s self-interested scholarly attention-seeking that makes little contribution to public knowledge at large.

los burocratas

innovative broadband project in India

All of the 21,000 villages in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh will soon have 100 Mbps Internet service. The state government sought private-sector bids for the project, contributed about 14% of project equity, provided free right-of-way permissions, and signed on as an anchor customer (40,000 government buildings connected for a fixed annual fee). The total cost of the network: about US$90 million.

Connections within villages to residences and business are left to competing local cable companies. Such cable companies have brought cable TV to about 40% of residences in Andhra Pradesh. The state-wide network is required to make available at the village points-of-presence (POPs) wholesale video distribution, telephony, and internet services at agreed prices. This makes the business plan for village networks simple: bring the services available at the village POPs to individual customers for a mark-up. This seems like a practical implementation of decentralizing local connectivity while standardizing wide-area service distribution (pdf).

Competition among network service provides can have large costs (pdf) relative to the cost of the network infrastructure itself. Government initiatives that promote a good structure for competition can help to make broadband services widely accessible at low cost. The Andhra Pradesh Broadband Project promises to do just that. Other innovative broadband projects, such the Singapore National Broadband Network and municipal broadband projects, have different institutional structures. More comparative institutional analysis would be helpful for informing communications policy.

Randeep Sudan, now at the World Bank, helped put together the Andhra Pradesh Broadband Project. He described the project in a recent presentation at the FCC. With his permission, I have posted his slides here.

end your morning with citizen journalism

Democracy depends on an active, informed citizenry that is not continuously angry, frustrated, or depressed. Citizen journalism, open source journalism, grass-roots journalism, the fifth estate, pajamas media — whatever you want to call it — has many potential public benefits. Not often recognized, but most importantly, it is a vital defender of public good humor. Serve the public interest as a citizen journalist!