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Blogging from Sydney | Australia
Some past thoughts
Saturday
Aug142010

Why the Coalition's $6.3bn broadband plan is a waste of money

According to The Australian, under a Coalition broadband policy, we'll be getting:

  1. "$6.31 billion over seven years"
  2. "$2.75bn to the construction of an optic fibre backhaul network but also relies on at least another $750 million from the private sector"
  3. "$1bn in grant funding for a rural and regional wireless network"
  4. "$1bn to build a wireless network in metropolitan Australia"
  5. "Satellite coverage for the remaining 3 per cent of the population will receive a $700m boost"

Why is this a waste?

Firstly the Coalition could have had another $6.3bn to spend on other things like roads, rail or healthcare.

Secondly they're building a "optic fibre backhaul network" - that sounds pretty similar to what MFS-WorldCom, New Edge Networks and others in the United States spent over $90 billion on in their technology boom, depending on who you believe much of that is still wasted "dark fibre".

Thirdly while I'll agree a wireless network makes sense in rural areas with very low populations, it doesn't whenever you get more than a few simultaneous users. On a properly built fiber network, you can get the full speed - Labor and the NBNCo are promising 100 Mbps minimum if you are willing to pay for it. That is a guarantee.

On a wireless network (and the Telstra/Optus HFC "Cable" networks) you have what is called contention - when other users use the same network the performance you get degrades. It's not uncommon for many users to degrade the performance of WiFi 802.11b networks from 11Mbps to 1Mbps or even lower making the network unusable (try this in a university library for example) even with the best algorithms to share the bandwidth.
And consider for a second - everyone on a wireless network must obey the rules - anyone with a misbehaving piece of equipment (or even someone who was deliberately being malicious) could interrupt service - not for one user but for dozens or hundreds - at once.

That makes applications like healthcare monitors for elderly citizens impossible - it's simply too risky. It also makes latency sensitive applications, like videoconferencing or online gaming, much less engaging (if you've had dropped telephone calls in the past - how often have you dialled the person back and how did you feel?)

Fourthly, even if you were *extremely* optimistic about the Coalition's wireless technology, it might be capable of a peak theoretical 1Gbps with the commercialisation of the still in progress 802.16m WiMAX. Now split that between 100 users per deployed node (10Mbps?). Many metropolitan and regional users today have ADSL2+ DSLAMs featuring up to 24Mbps. However you cut it, the proposed wireless technology either doesn't exist today or is inferior to existing wired technology, and vastly inferior to a fiber network.

Finally satellite coverage is receiving a $700 million boost. The NBNCo is planning to deploy 2 satellites for rural Australia at $500 million each, providing better bandwidth and redundancy in the event of one failing. There aren't that many makers of satellites, it sounds like the Coalition might end up wasting $200 million right off the bat and get just a single satellite.

Now I should be clear, I believe in the private sector moving forward with wireless deployment, it has great applications, especially in the mobile phone/laptop/netbook/tablet space. But wireless spectrum is still relatively scarce and relatively limited - and for the forseeable future it will remain so. There's are many more good reasons the IT industry has wholeheartedly slammed this Coalition broadband plan.

Friday
Aug132010

Twitter!

So if you stumble across this place and decide for some reason you'd like to contact me, the simplest way is via @pzrq on twitter =)


P.S. It never ceases to amaze me the treasure trove Wikipedia has become (most of the time) :

Tuesday
Jul272010

Homeschool education

To homeschool or not to homeschool? What generates the better outcome for your children?

TLDR version: We just don't know, but here's my thoughts on how you might begin, if it's the right question to ask in the first place.

Why should parents have a choice? Because parents who are passionate and motivated will assess the options available to them, the current life circumstances such as career, income, educational attainment and marital status, and only then be able to make an informed decision about what they believe is best for their children and themselves collectively (that's why it's called a family).


This started with frankly a little offhand tweet of mine:
The biggest problem w #homeschool is your kids aren't gonna get the practical social knowhow they need to be part of any real team/workplace
And a reply from @farmmom4him:
@pzrq My Hsed children R able 2 interact in conversation w/ all ages, not jst their same aged peers. cnt say that 4 PS children. #homeschool
Which to my mind prompts the question I frankly was ill-equipped to even try to fully articulate, let alone answer before bed and with work in the morning...
What effect does homeschooling have on a child's social outcomes? And how does that effect compare to that of public/private schools?
What do I mean by social outcomes? I think I've defined it but I'll flesh it out as effective integration into teams and workplaces, whether built on surfing, tennis, soccer, climbing a mountain or other sporty things; debating or writing, software or hardware development, diplomatic or trade negotiations, banking and stockbroking, politics, advertising, podcasting, or whatever other collaborative endeavours are needed in the modern world...
...through effective social interaction.

Unfortunately that is not a simple question...it sounds like a topic of vague abstract notional institutional thinking, or perhaps a long term research thesis (and if I ever do one of those, it'll almost certainly be on something in technology). We also have to immediately discount all the anecdotes and stories, things like "cnt say that 4 PS children" - because I can with overwhelming probability guarantee there are some who can!

To be clear, social outcomes are something we can't easily measure. It's not like financial outcomes or standardised test scores which are both very well defined - it's easy to see who does better because they get a better result in the form of earning more money or a better mark (e.g. for a good overview see this HSLDA report by homeschooling advocate Brian D. Ray)


Now why did I start defining my question with "what effect does"? It is asking not the relatively easy question of correlation, but the much more difficult one of causation! To those unfamiliar...here's a clever example from Steve Gibson on Security Now! Ep 209:
imagine [you're]...watching the street...in New York, and [you] noticed that suddenly everyone put their umbrellas up and, oh, look, then windshield wipers all began going on the cars. Well, if you didn't know any better, you didn't understand anything about what was really going on, you could say that raising umbrellas caused windshield wipers to go on.
Causation...
Because it's not too hard to believe society has defined the default education as a public (or private) education by teachers in classrooms and lecturers in theatres, which means only people with a motive will seriously commit to an alternative such as homeschooling. People with a motive are probably more passionate and more concerned for their children's education, so much so that they wish to spend a significant part of their lives participating in precisely that - being a teacher/guide/mentor to their children.

Unfortunately, none of the mentioned homeschool material I've come across, for example:
as far as I can tell addresses this much more difficult causal question, but I'll keep my eyes out.

I think for the time being it's consigned to the heap of often extremely subjective questions like

What is the best diet?

I'm also skirting the other raised issue of how do you measure social outcomes...anyone should be able to come up with a counter example to simple things like the number of friends you have, the number of extracurricular activities you participate in, or how satisfied you personally feel about your relationships with other people.

I think the real reason questions like mine have not been seriously asked, let alone answered is simply that homeschooling simply involved too small a number of people for as long as I've known, and the statistics appear to show a trending increase in recent years. I'm sure historically there were much more interesting and accessible questions available for anyone passionate about education.

I'll close with what I think is a remarkable insight - perhaps this is the wrong question to be asking anyway (if you have to ask it) :
The answer will not be heartening to obsessive parents : in this case, school choice barely mattered at all...a student who opted out of his neighbourhood school was more likely to graduate whether or not he actually won the opportunity to go to a new school...the students - and parents - who choose to opt out tend to be smarter and more academically motivated to begin with. But statistically they gained no benefit by changing schools.
-Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics, International Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, Ch5 What Makes a Perfect Parent?
I'll forgive anyone for thinking much ado about nothing, but I believe that's how real knowledge begins. You must ask the right questions.

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