Derecho Community Wireless

I came home from the Allied Media Conference to a DC melting in 100+ degree heat and a home without Internet access, courtesy of the now-infamous east coast derecho. Verizon provides our home Internet service, but they did not restore it until this past Thursday – five days after the storm. Happily we still had access thanks to the community wireless network, since the gateway in our part of the network uses Comcast. Comcast could have easily come down during the storm as well, but because the lines were separate, and on opposite sides of the street, people had a recourse. I noticed that the network had much less bandwidth available during Verizon’s outage. We never lost power either, thanks to the power lines being buried under the street.

Despite 70 mph winds and downed trees and limbs, that community-controlled infrastructure never went down. If MtPCWN already had direct chat running on the network, people could have easily logged on and started checking if everyone was ok – even if Comcast and Verizon were both down. As long as folks have Wi-Fi devices with batteries and the routers have power, we can communicate easily during a disaster.

At HacDC the other day, someone suggested that we could fortify some of the routers with backup battery supplies, specifically for use in disaster scenarios. This would be a good idea for a retrofit for a few key MtPCWN routers. When neighborhoods plan out community infrastructure, they could designate a certain number of routers – maybe 40% – as “critical infrastructure,” with the implication that they should be able to run for up to x hours, and connect to other critical infrastructure, in case of a power outage.

Treat It Like Infrastructure!

I had the great pleasure to speak to Nick Feamster‘s NOISELab group about Commotion and the Mount Pleasant Community Wireless Network while I was at Georgia Tech for ICTD 2012 last week. One of the Commotion slides shows a graphic of MIT’s RoofNet mesh network. When Nick saw this, he laughed – “I was a RoofNet node!” he exclaimed. “But people would just shove them next to their windows, or even dangle them out of windows so the routers hung only by the Ethernet cable.” Sometimes the network would go down for a week or more until the admins discovered that someone had a party over the weekend and a reveler knocked out a router’s cord from the power outlet.

Compare this to MtPCWN. In MtPCWN, all of the routers are mounted externally on the roof as high as possible, and we ensure that the power / Ethernet cord enters the building as securely as can be done with our resources. We even make sure that the PoE injector plugs into the wall close to the occupant’s existing Internet router, so if they ever choose to become a gateway, it won’t be a headache to connect their bandwidth to the public network. The hardware is all Ubiquiti and high-quality, and the silicone-filled Ethernet cable is designed for outdoor deployment. Meanwhile, the Broadband Bridge’s Bloomingdale network comprises almost no rooftop nodes, uses cheaper and weaker OM1Ps, and lacks any gateways right now – out of 26 routers in the network.

Preston Preparing the Ethernet Cable

I discussed these thoughts with Brian, who responded thusly: “If you want community-controlled infrastructure, you have to treat it like infrastructure.” That’s right. Our infrastructure must be appropriately priced, but if we use “cheap,” we’ll get “cheap” in return. If we think of community wireless as a community “hobby” or equate it with other “volunteer” efforts like cleaning up a park, then our expectations are the same as they are for other hobbies or half-day outings with pizza at the end. There’s plenty right with pizza at the end, but we should look to the Verizons and the FM radio stations of the world to understand how they manage their physical infrastructure. Towers are designed to stand for decades. Access to antennae is heavily restricted. Providers take great pains to place repeaters and broadcast towers atop of the highest ridges and the tallest buildings. Compare this with one of the Broadband Bridge network’s erstwhile gateways, a cafe. Their gateway Bridge router is placed haphazardly on the server side of their bar, an area that is not only high traffic, but experiences high and random throughput of dishes, liquids, mugs and plates. If we could take one hour to put it somewhere more out of reach and use cable staples to keep the cable out of line, most of the problem is solved.

Much of this is about control on the telco’s part, the problem we are trying to solve with community wireless networks. But we can’t associate everything about their infrastructure with their control. I think that one of the unexpected successes of MtPCWN so far is that because we treat it like infrastructure, it’s not in the way of people’s daily lives at the host locations. When the router is securely mounted on the roof and the cable doesn’t intrude on a resident’s regular passage, they can ignore it 99% of the time. That’s a good thing, because humans are humans, and we make mistakes. Keeping the devices out of sight and out of mind in this case is part of what makes community infrastructure human-focused. It’s accessible when we need it, but respects our ability to make a mess of things.

The Risk of Information Catastrophe

The other evening I watched Apocalypto for the first time. Great movie!

Mel Gibson wanted his film to depict “civilizations and what undermines them.” Apocalypto shows the stresses on the Mayan civilization’s means of production – maize failure, lack of rain, plague, and socio-political turmoil, only soon to be followed by Spaniards and what hell they would bring to Mesoamerica.

Today we live in a so-called knowledge age, in which our civilization-wide and personal access to prosperity – and thus effectively the source of power – is heavily correlated with our access to the means of knowledge production.

Communications is one of those means to knowledge. Our networks can leverage our access to knowledge, and thus prosperity for ourselves and our communities, if we design them appropriately and according to the right values. Notably, if we use a community-centric social process to design the network with values of community prosperity and resilience built-in to the network, then an increase of prosperity through the network would yield more power in the community to affect our world and tell our own stories.

In Apocalypto, the source of the Mayan crisis in the early 1500s is drought. Drought brings maize failure and community turmoil, which leads to starvation, the destruction of villages and human sacrifice by the religious-state complex. These events and conditions leave the Maya people already reeling before the Spaniards arrive on their shores to eventually destroy their society.

That’s a dramatic example, but our communities are no less bound by the need for resilience today than communities in Mesoamerica were at that time. In the recent recession, the financial services industry dipped sharply from contributing 8.3% of US GDP in 2006, to less than 6% in 2009. A ~2..5% drop in an industry with a significant chunk of the wealth generation of the country is bound to create reverberations for many, and harsh shocks for some. This doesn’t only hold for GDP – any reduction in the capacity of the means of production produces these reverberations and shocks.

Our communications networks are to our economy like what rainfall was to the Mayans. If a drought caused so many bad turns for their society then, what would be the result of an information catastrophe today? Our ability to leverage network effects while maintaining resilience in our communities has eroded in many places, and the integrity of our networks is at constant risk. We outsource our communications to giant corporations, who maintain facilities that run wires or beam signals from far away. It may be economically efficient for them to build their network that way, but this does not serve the needs of the community. As much as we hate telecom in less-catastrophic times, the specter of an abrupt and extended communications drought should make us think about the consequences when we lack those resources and skills in our communities.

BMW GINA: A Way Forward

To hell with the ego-tourists. This is the real way forward. Stop thinking you’re all that for using acidic batteries in your car to increase your mileage per gallon – although that is better than carbon credits, but so is cycling.

It’s this kind of thinking which will really drastically reduce your carbon footprint. For scientific proof (although with the recent fervor around biofuels, it’s clear no one cares about that anymore), check out the time-tested laws of force and work, both of which are directly proportional to mass – the unchanging weight, if you will.

Briefly, work is directly related to energy (what we all need, and what we’ll never get more of) by: ΔE = W, or the change in energy (which produces things like life, your light turning on, and your car moving forward) is equal to the amount of work done to change that energy. Work is defined, in terms of kinetic energy (energy in action) as:
W = ΔEk = Ek2 – Ek1 = (1/2)mΔ(v2), or the amount of work done is equal to the change in kinetic energy (say, 0 to 60 in 4 seconds?) which is equal to one-half the mass of the object times the velocity squared. Fundamentally, what affects how much energy we use is how much mass an object has (speaking practically, how much it weighs) and how fast it goes. Since we’re not figuring out instantaneous wormholes anytime soon, the only way to make the work go down is to decrease the (…Bueller?) mass!

If you’re still not convinced, another equation for work is W= Fd, or work is equal to the force times the distance exacted upon an object. That one’s simple: you can push against a wall all day but not have done any work because your force does not happen over a distance, but if you were to run your car in park and gas the engine for a minute, you would have done quite a bit of work because of the distance the pistons in your engine would have traveled. Don’t do that though because that’s against the spirit of this post. Force, in its turn, is related by F = ma, or the force is equal to the mass times the acceleration of an object. This is why you don’t really feel any force against you when you’re in a train or plane or car moving at a constant speed, because it’s not accelerating, and so there is no force on your body relative to the earth / vehicle. However, your pistons are changing their acceleration at an amazing rate, constantly reversing direction, which represents a double acceleration change. Once again, this one is most fundamentally only changed by reducing the mass of the object in question, but not gunning your engine at a red-to-green light change is another way to be smart about it.

In short, a fabric car body can be a great sustainability milestone. Since the car will weigh less, it will require less energy (and therefore less fuel) to make it go the same distance as before, and lighter cars are also less lethal weapons to innocent bystanders.

July Wades Into

Still nothing on the job front. Still working.

Istanbul looms ever closer – I leave Monday. Of course I’m very excited about that – but I’m quite unprepared for what comes after September 3rd. I don’t even have a plane ticket out of Turkey. Do I need to pack for warm weather or cold after that date, based on the place in which I don’t know I’ll be? But for certain, many changes will occur there. Seeing all the old friends and making hundreds of new ones, and working in a way I’ve never worked before will prove rewarding I’m certain.

I’m pleased that someone with whom I’ve tried to redevelop a good relationship has responded very warmly to it, and we now hang out quite a bit. I’ll miss it while I’m abroad.

I have recently finished two books which I found particularly interesting on the subject of the economy and the way it affects our livelihood and builds our society. They are The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman and Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. I finished The World is Flat in Europe, and picked up Deep Economy in Frisco and finished it on the Hawaii trip. I learned a lot from Friedman’s book and I agreed with – and was excited by! – much of what the book establishes and predicts, especially in relation to the prospects of the post-capitalist economy. As was to be expected though, Friedman’s viewpoint was taken from the prevailing paradigm of study and instead of getting excited about things like Free Open Source Software, he asks in an almost frightened way “When are the right people gonna get paid for it!” McKibben’s book, however, was of a different subject and nature altogether – a very refreshing one. Deep Economy, in the vein of Ishmael, is about changing the very way we live and build our economy in favor of slowing (or even stopping) growth, and focusing as much as possible on local networks and sources to produce everything from quality food to culture and entertainment. I will think and search for a long time for the place in which the global, approaching-egalitarian world described by The World is Flat meets the local and sustainable world urged by Deep Economy. I also had many problems with the way that Friedman’s description of our own economy didn’t care much of any bit about sustainability or cultural quality, and had quite the assumption of superiority – perhaps it would be better to say the lack of an assertion of equality. This is most notable in the way he portrays Indian business executives smilingly and enthusiastically explaining to Friedman that the “place” for Indian IT workers is in call centers, while the “place” for American and “Western” workers is in more dynamic and powerful fields, like consulting and design. I have this lone wanderer-hero to thank for introducing me to the concept of sustainability, which is growing in my personal interest and will probably develop into a life-quest by the time I leave Georgia Tech.

The days inch on by leaps and bounds. But we’ll fight for that inch.