Author Archives: Michael Froomkin

A Quick Comcast Update

Faith just called. She hadn’t seen my email, but her boss had either seen it and/or seen my blog posting, and she’s been tasked with sorting things.

The contractor is coming on Tuesday some time between 8am and 8pm. As it happens I have several meetings on Tuesday but no classes, so I ask if maybe the contractor could call me before starting work and I’ll rush home. Faith says she is going to try to make this happen.

If so, I say, it would be the first pre-visit phone call I’d gotten from Comcast in this process. Faith explains that they call before in-house visits, but not for visits that involve only outdoor work, since you don’t need to be there. (Except, I think to myself, when you are needed to open the invisible immaterial fence, but I don’t say that; Faith is too nice to snark to.)

What do people without blogs do?

Previously:

  1. A Report From Comcast Hell
  2. Comcast Discovers that Burying a Cable Requires Digging a Trench
Posted in Shopping | 1 Comment

Comcast Discovers that Burying a Cable Requires Digging a Trench

I got up at 8am in case a Comcast person turned up at our door without phoning. I felt for some reason that I ought to be fully dressed for such an occasion.

No one turned up from 8-10, of course, and no one called either.

But some time not long after 10am, a Comcast cable moving person appeared at our door. Unfortunately by then we’d given up and gone out to forage for the week’s food. I left my son to hold down the fort, and what follows is based on his report.

It seems our work order is in the system as “low hanging cable” and therefore Comcast has not yet gotten its collective mind around the idea that it should be buried rather than moved. The guy we got today had equipment for burying a cable – to wit, a shovel – but looking over our yard he decided that the cable would have to be buried more than six inches deep. That means the trench is beyond the capabilities of shovel technology, and requires some actual mechanical digging equipment. This, alas, he did not have. As a result he is passing the buck to one of Comcast’s contractors, people who have the equipment that will dig a trench. (Why the cable needs to be buried more than six inches and/or why this fact was not evident to last week’s guy, is opaque to me … unless it was that last week’s guy, being unequipped with shovel technology, was himself in no danger of having to dig a quite long trench.) Today’s guy took some photos and assured my son that the contractor would turn up at some unspecified date and time this week, but not to worry as it was all outside work and we didn’t need to be home. The way it works is that the contractor digs the trench, lays the wire and fills up the hole, but doesn’t actually connect the wire to the house. That job is reserved for true Comcast people who come at some later time to disconnect the old wire (and, I hope, remove it) and connect up the new one.

The idea of some contractor turning up at a random time and digging trenches in my back yard based on photos doesn’t fill me with glee, especially given that there are sprinkler lines and the AT&T phone wire buried down there just waiting to be severed. I’d like to be here when the contractor comes, but for that to happen (1) I’d have to know when he was scheduled for, and (2) be free then, and not least, (3) he’d actually have to turn up more or less when promised. None of these seem like high-probability events, and if you multiply the three probabilities together you get the sort of small numbers usually associated with the resolution of an electron microscope.

Faith, the lady from “we can help,” told me that her hours were 8-5, Sun-Thursday, so I tried calling her to see if she could tell me when the contractor might be scheduled to turn up. She didn’t answer her phone, but the message tells me that I’ve reached her desk and can leave a message. I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.

[Update: I emailed instead.]

Previously: A Report From Comcast Hell

Posted in Shopping | 1 Comment

A Report From Comcast Hell

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I had AT&T DSL. It did what it promised, but it wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the multimedia demands of my internet-media-gulping family (especially when both kids were home), plus the upload speed was capped too low to permit us to take advantage of DISH Anywhere – a service that would let me watch local basketball on my laptop on the road, and to route saved movies to any computer in the house. AT&T doesn’t offer FIOS here. There’s Xfinity, but that wasn’t much faster than what I had, and it cost more unless you bundled with video, which I didn’t want to do since we are happy with Dish and, more to the point, are locked in by the DRM encryption they put on all the movies we’ve saved to watch some day that will in most cases probably never come. Yes, DRM is the root of all evil. But that’s a different story.

So, despite everything bad I’d ever heard about it, and yes I read quite a lot of awful, I got Comcast (for internet only) right before the Xmas holidays. The price was right – even after the first six months of big discount I’d be paying about the same as I paid AT&T – and the speed was more than four times faster down and six times faster up. A good deal.

Except for one thing. Our AT&T cable is buried. I asked Comcast if they would bury the cable, and all the sales guy would say is to ask the installer. The installer didn’t have the equipment to bury cable, and he was in a hurry. He hung a low slung line from the pole to my house, right along the line of palm trees our neighbor has running on the property line. Those trees have big big fronds, and they fall. The line was clearly tree bait. So I decided I had to either persuade Comcast to bury the line, or go back to AT&T, as my service would never survive even a medium-sized storm, much less a tropical storm (which we get with some frequency) or a hurricane (two big ones so far in my time in Miami).

Thanks to the internet, I found the email address of the Comcast people you write to in order to explain you want your line buried. I sent the following email (I’m quoting it because this will be relevant later):

From: Michael Froomkin
To: we_can_help@cable.comcast.com
Subject: Burying the cable

I recently ordered comcast service for the first time. I asked on the phone if they would bury the cable, they said that was up to the installer. The installer seemed to be in a great hurry, and just ran a very low-hanging line from the pole to my house. This thing is tree bait.

It won’t survive a big storm, much less anything serious. Do I have to go back to AT&T — which is buried — or is there some way you can run this line in a more safe manner?

I live at xxxxxxxx, Coral Gables, FL 33146. Account number is **** ***** ******* .

This email resulted in a phone call in which “Faith,” a friendly and helpful and as it proved aptly-named Comcast rep, first called to say she would take care of it, and then called a second time to set up an appointment for the following week. I basked in my Google-fu, the value of the DSL Reports web site, and looked at the I thought soon-to-be-buried line sagging its way to my house with less worry.

Oh, the hubris.

Continue reading

Posted in Shopping | 1 Comment

New Privacy Paper: Mass Surveillance as Privacy Pollution

I just uploaded a draft of my new paper, Regulating Mass Surveillance as Privacy Pollution: Learning from Environmental Impact Statements to SSRN. Be the first on your block to read it!

US law has remarkably little to say about mass surveillance in public, a failure which has allowed the surveillance to grow at an alarming rate – a rate that is only set to increase. This article proposes ‘Privacy Impact Notices’ (PINs) — modeled on Environmental Impact Statements — as an initial solution to this problem.

Data collection in public (and in the home via public spaces) resembles an externality imposed on the person whose privacy is reduced involuntarily; it can also be seen as a market failure caused by an information asymmetry. Current doctrinal legal tools available to respond to the deployment of mass surveillance technologies are limited and inadequate. The article proposes that — as a first step towards figuring out how to understand, value, and ultimately regulate this mass-privacy-destroying behavior — we should borrow from the environmental movement and require anyone planning a large-scale public data collection program to file a Privacy Impact Notice (PIN). The PIN proposal is contrasted to the existing much more limited federal privacy analysis requirement, known as Privacy Impact Assessments. The bulk of the article then explains how PINs would work and defends the idea against three predictable critiques (the claim that there is a First Amendment right to data collection, the claim that EISs are a poor policy tool not worthy of emulation, and the claim that notice-based regimes are in general worthless). It argues that PINs have applications to surveillance and data-collection in online public spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, and other virtual spaces. It also considers what the PINs proposal would have to offer towards addressing the now-notorious problem of the NSA’s drift-net surveillance of telephone conversations, emails, and web-based communications.

Modeling mass surveillance disclosure regulations on an updated form of environmental impact statement will help protect everyone’s privacy: Mandating disclosure and impact analysis by those proposing to watch us in and through public spaces will enable an informed conversation about privacy in public. Additionally, the need to build consideration of the consequences of surveillance into project planning, as well as the danger of bad publicity arising from excessive surveillance proposals, will act as a counterweight to the adoption of mass data collection projects, just as it did in the environmental context. In the long run, well-crafted disclosure and analysis rules could pave the way for more systematic protection for privacy – as it did in the environmental context. Effective US regulation of mass surveillance will require that we know a great deal about who and what is being recorded and about the costs and benefits of personal information acquisition and uses. At present we know relatively little about how to measure these; a privacy equivalent of environmental impact statements will not only provide case studies, but occasions to grow expertise.

I welcome your comments. I really mean that.

And if you are a law review editor, I’ll be sending it out soon…

Posted in Writings | 4 Comments

Evidence that ‘Thinking With Your Gut’ Works?

The right gut bacteria can make you more or less stressful, and perhaps more or less clever too:

And now evidence is emerging that these tiny organisms may also have a profound impact on the brain too. They are a living augmentation of your body – and like any enhancement, this means they could, in principle, be upgraded.

His team tested the effects of two strains of bacteria, finding that one improved cognition in mice. His team is now embarking on human trials, to see if healthy volunteers can have their cognitive abilities enhanced or modulated by tweaking the gut microbiome.

– BBC, Body bacteria: Can your gut bugs make you smarter?, via Slashdot, Gut Bacteria Affect the Brain.

Apparently a very monotonous diet reduces the variety of gut bacteria. I’m just waiting to hear that processed food was a long-term Communist plot to make us dumber.

Posted in Science/Medicine | 3 Comments

Iodine – Could be Handy

Meet Iodine:

iodine by Kryo

iodine lets you tunnel IPv4 data through a DNS server. This can be usable in different situations where internet access is firewalled, but DNS queries are allowed.

It runs on Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD and Windows and needs a TUN/TAP device. The bandwidth is asymmetrical with limited upstream and up to 1 Mbit/s downstream.

Compared to other DNS tunnel implementations, iodine offers:

Higher performance
iodine uses the NULL type that allows the downstream data to be sent without encoding. Each DNS reply can contain over a kilobyte of compressed payload data.
Portability
iodine runs on many different UNIX-like systems as well as on Win32. Tunnels can be set up between two hosts no matter their endianness or operating system.
Security
iodine uses challenge-response login secured by MD5 hash. It also filters out any packets not coming from the IP used when logging in.
Less setup
iodine handles setting IP number on interfaces automatically, and up to 16 users can share one server at the same time. Packet size is automatically probed for maximum downstream throughput.

See the README, the CHANGELOG and the man page

Wiki, bug tracker, source browser and more is available at our trac page. iodine is released under the ISC license.

Test your DNS setup here: http://code.kryo.se/iodine/check-it/

Free wifi in hostile environments like some other universities? And airports and cafes?

Posted in Software | Leave a comment

Turtles All the Way Down

I nominate this for second-silliest US political ad to make reference to a turtle:

The candidate, Dwayne Stovall, is a Tea Party guy trying to unseat Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx) in a primary…although the ad seems to be as much about someone and something else.

The holder of the turtle-reference championship, of course, remains the wonderful and bizarre ad by Mike Gravel in 2007 as part of his quixotic campaign for the Presidency.

Posted in 2014 Election | Leave a comment