VOIP in the UAE

Further to yesterday’s post on Uber, there’s an interesting analogy with governments banning the service: the UAE government’s ban on VOIP calls.

The reason for this ban is succinctly explained in a comment on this forum:

In Dubai there are only two telecom service providers which are Du and Etisalat, Du has monopoly in Dubai and Etisalat has monopoly in Abu Dhabi, both of these service providers managed to convince government to stop Skype,facetime and whatsapp calling giving security reasons but in actual these service providers want to mint money because in UAE around 80% population is expat so they need ISD service and if these services can be availed through internet then these telecom providers would not be able to mint money.

In Simple terms to mint money they banned these services.

Naturally, as the commenter above says, the UAE government cited security concerns as a justification for the ban, claiming the VOIP services provided by the likes of Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime are not “secure” and don’t comply with the national telecoms regulations. This is why when you buy an Apple product in the UAE it doesn’t have the Facetime app loaded and it’s not accessible from the Apple store. I don’t know how they block users who already have it loaded, but they managed to block Skype over the fixed-line connections by detecting when it was in use. Most people I knew who lived there simply signed up to a VPN which bypassed all these restrictions.

As far as I can tell the ban is still in place but it’s becoming increasingly embarrassing for a country that is trying to present itself as ultra-modern and forward-thinking:

Internet restrictions in the UAE, especially banning video and voice calling through social networks such as Snapchat and Whatsapp has not only reportedly angered users living across the country, but also pushed Saeed Al Remeithi, the UAE Federal National Council’s (FNC) youngest member to query the country’s internet restrictions.

Remeithi voiced his opinion openly during an FNC session yesterday, saying that the UAE representatives were “embarrassed in the international federation by this issue,” citing the United Nations declaration that internet use is a human right.

However, Hamad Al Mansouri, the head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority attributed these restrictions to state security and cyber-terrorism concerns saying: “The security factor is important in the country. If we neglect it, online calling will impose risks.”

And put a huge dent in the revenues of those with vested interests in the status quo, much like taxi drivers the world over.


Hotel Internet and Uber

Via Samizdata (and others), it appears Italy has banned Uber:

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

In my recent post on Budapest I said:

I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers.

I remember back in 2004-2006 when I did lots of business travel one would have to check in advance whether a hotel would have internet in the rooms. In those days this meant an ADSL connection in the wall and (sometimes) a cable, and not all hotels had them. In December 2005 I went to Korea and found the (wonderful) hotel had a 100mbs ADSL connection in the room that required no login or faffing about whatsoever, and they didn’t even bother to advertise it. When I went back to Seoul a couple of years later I said:

When I booked the hotel, I couldn’t see whether it had internet connections in the rooms or not.  It mentioned kettles, ironing boards, and hairdryers, but no internet connection.  So I called them up, and I was told they had one in every room.  I seem to remember when I last stayed in Seoul they didn’t advertise the internet connections in the rooms, and this place seems to be no different.  Clearly internet connections in Korean hotel rooms are as standard as doors, windows, and beds.  Sure enough, this place, like my last hotel, has a 100Mbps connection which costs absolutely nothing and works as soon as you hook the cable up to your computer.  No ringing the front desk for usernames, no messing about with passwords, simply plug in and off you go.

I cite this passage because it shows how unusual it was back then to find a functional internet connection in a hotel room even as late as 2007. Within a few years an internet connection became standard everywhere, and shortly afterwards this transformed into a WiFi option which eventually became standard. It may be the case that some hotels still charge for it, some require fiddly logon procedures, and the quality can vary but it is almost unheard of nowadays to find a hotel without WiFi, and it is usually free and often good. I suspect in the age of iPads and WhatsApp, any hotel that didn’t offer WiFi both in the rooms and common areas would quickly go out of business: people simply don’t use the telephone or even wired internet these days.

I reckon in a few years we’ll be seeing the same thing with Uber, or at least a very similar service that works in much the same way. If Uber can survive a little longer, we will soon have a demographic that has only used Uber and is completely unfamiliar with the archaic practices and unwanted delights of a traditional taxi service, and will not contemplate using the latter any more than they would accept having no internet in a hotel room and instead have to use the single desktop in the hotel “business centre” with a broken mouse and an AZERTY keyboard left in Cantonese mode by the last user.

I give it five years, ten at the most, before cities where Uber is banned and no similar alternative exists start to see a serious reduction in visitor numbers. Like having a decent internet connection, being able to use an Uber-like service will soon become a key requirement of a holiday.


Amazon Go

There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about Amazon Go.  This is a supposedly groundbreaking new concept whereby people walk into a supermarket, take what they want, and then simply walk out again without stopping at a checkout.

Personally I don’t see what all the fuss is about: I used to see chavs in Adidas tracksuits and Rockport boots doing precisely that in Manchester stores as far back as the late ’90s.


The Paris Motor Show

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of cars, but I like them enough.  So when I heard the Paris Motor Show was on this week, I thought I’d take a day off work, stump up 16 Euros for a ticket, and go along and take a look.  I also thought it would be a good opportunity to practice taking photos indoors, which I’ve not done much of.

As things turned out I was a bit disappointed.  Firstly, there was a huge emphasis on electric cars which I think are complete waste of time as I explained here.  Although some of the BMW electric cars undoubtedly look nice.  Secondly, the cars that were not exotic you could see in a showroom and the cars that were you couldn’t get near.  The high-end Porsches, BMWs, Audis, and Ferraris were cordoned off and you needed to persuade a bloke in a suit to let you close to them.  In other words, I found going to the motor show to be a bit like paying to go to a car showroom and then asking permission to look at the cars.  When I grumbled about this to a colleague over WhatsApp he said “Sounds like a typical motor show, mate!”  So it’s probably going to be my first and last.  I think you have to be really into cars to go, and whereas I’d maybe like to sit in a few Porsches I’m not prepared to fight my way through a crowd to do so.

Regarding the photography, I kind of lost interest due to the number of people and the subject matter which I discovered I wasn’t really into: if I want a photo of a Porsche 911 I can find professional quality ones on the Porsche website.  So I don’t think these photos are much good and I’ll not put them on Flickr, but I’ll post some of them here.  For anyone that’s interested, there is more than enough lighting on most of the cars that you don’t need a flash, let alone an external one.  Push the ISO up into the low hundreds and you’ll be fine.  And bring a wide-angle lens, I shot with a 17-40mm on a full-frame camera.  The pre-set white balance options are rubbish on my camera for indoor work, and so I set it manually.


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The End of Private Domain Name Registration?

Via Catallaxy Files I hear about this:

Washington (AFP) – The US government on Saturday ended its formal oversight role over the internet, handing over management of the online address system to a global non-profit entity.

The US Commerce Department announced that its contract had expired with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages the internet’s so-called “root zone.”

That leaves ICANN as a self-regulating organization that will be operated by the internet’s “stakeholders” — engineers, academics, businesses, non-government and government groups.

The move is part of a decades-old plan by the US to “privatize” the internet, and backers have said it would help maintain its integrity around the world.

US and ICANN officials have said the contract had given Washington a symbolic role as overseer or the internet’s “root zone” where new online domains and addresses are created.

But critics, including some US lawmakers, argued that this was a “giveaway” by Washington that could allow authoritarian regimes to seize control.

Which explains the email I received from my domain name host over the weekend:

ICANN, the organization tasked with overseeing domain registrations worldwide, has asked us to change the way we register domains with privatized contact information. They are demanding that we no longer register these domains as “A Happy DreamHost Customer,” but as a separate entity. To appease their lawyers, we’ve formed a separate proxy organization to do exactly that. Very soon your domains will be registered by “Proxy Protection, LLC.” Don’t worry – that’s us!

So the first week into the job ICANN – the new entity overseeing domain name registrations – is demanding an end to registrees being anonymous.  Authoritarian governments must be rubbing their hands with glee.  How long will it be before domain name hosts are required by law to obtain proof of residential address from all registrees and hand over this information to any government body which demands it?

I’d like to say I’m surprised that this has been carried out with barely a wimper from the media, but finding a politician or journalist committed to civil liberties is like finding a gangsta rapper at a bluegrass festival.

[Stephen Crocker, ICANN’s board chairman said]: “This community validated the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. It has shown that a governance model defined by the inclusion of all voices, including business, academics, technical experts, civil society, governments and many others is the best way to assure that the Internet of tomorrow remains as free, open and accessible as the Internet of today.”

Business, governments, techical experts, and academics.  Oh yes, those vanguards of freedom and liberty, how could I forget?

This cartoon sums things up nicely:


Thanks, Obama!


Ludicrous Indeed

Unsurprisingly, the BBC gives us a puff-piece on Tesla’s latest offering:

[T]his upgrade enables the Model S to travel from 0 – 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, giving it the fastest acceleration of any currently available production car … Like all electric vehicles, that more powerful battery delivers 100% of its dual-engine torque immediately, pushing the four-wheel-drive saloon past records heretofore the domain of million-dollar supercars.

Million dollars? Let’s first be generous and assume this car actually can do 0-60 in 2.5 seconds and will make it into production (visit Streetwise Professor to see why skepticism over Elon Musk’s pronouncements is warranted).  According to Wikipedia, the Porsche 991 can match this which, according to Porsche USA, costs about $188,000.  This isn’t so cheap, but it’s not a million dollar supercar.  And the Tesla is no bargain, either:

The Model S P100D saloon will start at £114,200 and the Model X 100D sport-utility vehicle begins at £117,200, and older Teslas can upgrade their battery packs for a mere £15,000.

£114k is about $150k in today’s money.  That would buy you an awful lot of Porsche.

That’s expensive, but Tesla is taking the Toms shoes model approach to your wallet. “While the P100D Ludicrous is obviously an expensive vehicle, we want to emphasize that every sale helps pay for the smaller and much more affordable Tesla Model 3 that is in development.” In other words, your need to go very far, very fast helps fund the electric vehicle needs of others less fortunate than you.

Hmmm.  As a business model, this doesn’t sound very sustainable.  You could probably expect some cross-subsidising between models in order to maintain a brand and market share, but this seems to be ass-backwards: it’s normally the high-volume margins on the cheaper brands which provide the cash for developing high-end niche products, not the other way around.  Are Tesla really going to be selling enough of these $150k supercars, and the margins high enough, to be able to reduce the cost of the mass-produced models?  I’d love to see the numbers on that.

The holy grail of EV range has long been 300 miles, which would bring electrics into the full-tank range of most petrol-powered vehicles. Now, 300 miles doesn’t make for a stress-free cross-county road trip, but there’s a lot to be said for enjoying a real meal while your Tesla charges rather than buying Slim Jims and Diet Dr Pepper in the 10 minutes it takes to gas up your petromobile.

If sitting and having a meal for a couple of hours is preferable to stopping for 10 minutes, why don’t more people do that already?  After all, there is nothing preventing owners of petrol cars doing so, is there?  What the article is doing is trying to make light of the biggest issue facing electric cars, which I’ve written about before:

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.

The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.

The author’s glib suggestion that people will be happy to sit and have a nice meal while waiting to continue their journey isn’t supported by people’s actual behaviour.  A decent journalist would have addressed this issue properly, but then this is the BBC: the entire article is simply a puff-piece for the latest darling of the political establishment:

Mr Musk is betting big on batteries. He’s going to make sure we get to the future  — and quickly.

This is what £3.7bn per year gets you.  Couldn’t they at least send Tesla an invoice next time?


Self-Driving Cars

I am probably not in the majority in finding this wholly unsurprising:

THE GOVERNMENT revealed Thursday that a Tesla Model S crashed into a truck in Florida in May, killing the electric car’s driver.

In the Florida case, the car failed to detect a large truck that had crossed into the Tesla’s path, perhaps because it blended in with a brightly lit sky.

A lot of people who are not engineers, and a lot of people who are, have a touching faith in the ability of technology to solve every problem there is.  People tend to look at technological progress in one area and assume that it can be seamlessly transposed into something entirely different provided enough minds are working on it.  This is why people are so optimistic about self-driving cars: they look at the amazing advances in computer power in the past few decades, they see Google has a huge stack of money and a very clever search engine, and conclude that self-driving cars are just a matter of time because…well, technology, innit?  And the same people often think it is self-evident that computers will always do a better job than humans as the former are infallible.

Personally, I understand enough about how things work to know that technological progress in any given area is not inevitable, there must be a mechanism in place for the shift to happen, e.g. a step-change in technology in the vein of the PCB or transistor.  When you consider how long the humble motor car has been around and the hundreds of millions of manhours that have been spent in trying to improve it in every possible way, it is astonishing how little has changed since the Model T Ford.  The basic principles of how a car is powered, controlled, and physically laid out haven’t changed.  They even still have wing mirrors and a driver’s rear view mirror.  So much for technology.  There have been plenty of improvements and enhancements, but no step-change in motor car technology since the first one rolled off a mass production line.

Google reckon they can make his step-change by doing away with the driver, and everyone seems to be confident they, or somebody else, will be successful in doing so.  Why I’m don’t share their confidence is because of two technical reasons: the first, which I’ll write about at length in a separate post, is the cost of manufacturing, testing, and maintaining extremely reliable electronic systems.  The second is that I do not believe computers will ever be as good as humans at driving in the environment in which humans live.

The mistake people make is to assume every action in driving is one of simple measurement, and conclude that computers are far better at measuring things than humans are in terms of speed and accuracy.  However, driving is often about judgement as opposed to pure measurement (and this is why it takes a while to become a good driver, judgement improves with experience), and much of this judgement relates to the interpretation of visual information.  The recognition of objects by computers is still only in its infancy, and nowhere near robust enough to deploy in any safety-critical system.  Given the pace of development of other areas of computing abilities, such as sound recognition in apps like Shazam, object recognition is seriously lagging behind and I suspect for very good reasons: software, being made up of pre-programmed algorithms, simply isn’t very good at it.  And even then object recognition isn’t enough, a self-driving car would need to be able to not only accurately acquire visual data but also interpret it before initiating an action (or not).  Computers are unable to do this for anything other than the most basic of pre-determined objects and scenarios, while the environment in which humans operate their cars is fiendishly complex.

There are those who think that advances in computing power will solve this issue, but I think the problem of visual data acquisition and interpetation is one more akin to aesthetics than measurement, i.e. its a judgement, not a binary decision.  Are we confident a computer will one day be able to write a decent novel?  Or generate a picture which is not a pre-programmed mathematical model which the coder knew in advance produces nice shapes?  With enough computing power, do we believe a computer could write a better song than a human could?  Personally, I don’t think this will ever happen because so much of aesthetics is down to judgement and involves variables which cannot be properly defined, much less defined in advance in a piece of code.

I believe a human’s ability to determine at a glance that an object in the road is a shallow puddle and not a large rock is the same ability which can differentiate between an operatic aria and a pet shop on fire.  Computers don’t have this ability, as the failure of Tesla’s to tell the difference between a large truck and the sky shows.  What does amaze me though is that computers are being put into cars with the belief that they can do things they demonstably can’t.  A hefty lawsuit and tighter regulations can’t be too far away.

If self-driven cars have a future, I believe they will take the form of manually-controlled machines which switch to self-drive mode only once they are driven by a human onto a very tightly controlled and sterilised environment such as a motorway specifically designed to take only self-driving vehicles.  I am confident we will never see self-driving vehicles moving around cities and towns as we currently know them, ever.