Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's not exactly flying cars but...

Sometimes we forget how amazing the world we live in today is; and frankly, for all that sucks about life (and god knows, there's plenty of that to obsess over). just how great it is to be an American today.

This Louis C.K. video (or similar vids from Adam Carolla and Patton Oswalt) has been linked so much it's beyond viral and into the cliche zone (I would insert the ironic trademark symbol here, but that would be even more cliche)... but the reason it's become cliche, it's because it's so completely and obviously true:

There was a great commercial back in 2000 (for IBM actually), narrated by the incredible voice of Avery Brooks (a.k.a. Hawk from Spenser for Hire, and Captain Sisko from DS9 ) where he says "where are the flying cars. I was promised flying cars":

That commercial is so popular, when I typed in the name "Avery Brooks" into my youtube search box, the very first thing the auto-complete came up with was "Avery Brooks flying cars".

God knows, I'm a geek, a futurist of sorts... hell, I'm even, literally, a rocket scientist (well... an airplane and rocket engineer. I have a degree in aerospace engineering) by education; so yeah, I've quoted that commercial about a billion times.

Anyway, the whole thing above is about the expectations we set for ourselves 40 and 50 years ago. Where we thought we would be, and how we would be doing things... how much we thought the world would have changed.

We thought that by 2000 we'd be the Jetsons. Instead, it's now almost 2012, and in a lot of ways, things haven't really changed.

Oh that isn't to say I'm discounting the many fundamental and revolutionary changes that have occurred in society, and in technology in that time... but life today would be MOSTLY recognizable to someone from 1962.


It's actually pretty amazing to see what we got right, what we got wrong... but more interesting to me, is the things we never even thought of; and how those have changed our lives, and the world, in ways we never could have predicted.

Forty five years ago in "Star Trek"; Gene Roddenberry looked into a world 300 years in the future, and he saw interstellar travel, and a post scarcity society (with instantaneous rearranging of bulk matter into whatever you want, no substance is rare or scarce, except those few we cannot manipulate; and with near limitless energy... the only scarcity is on the periphery of civilization)... but computers still took up rooms, and we all still accessed big central mainframes by remote links from essentialy dumb terminals and i/o devices.

He reasonably accurately predicted cell phones and pervasive communications technologies; but completely missed mobile computing, pervasive computing, and mobile data networks.

The most amazing thing is though, in America, even the periphery has access to the comforts and conveniences that our technological society has afforded us.

Two years ago, my wife and I decided to move someplace, and live full time, where we would want to vacation. Someplace beautiful, quiet, peaceful... someplace away from everything. We chose to move to, EXTREMELY rural, Bonner County, in north Idaho.

This is where we live:

You might note, there isn't any urbanization anywhere near the middle of that picture. I live on the shore of that big lake, in the middle of those big woods, in the middle of those big mountains (in between the Selkirk and Cabinet ranges of the Rockies), in the middle of... nowhere.

The nearest city of more than 100,000 people (Spokane, WA) is about 65 miles away. That picture represents about 100 miles square, bounded at the top by the Canadian border, at the bottom by Coeur D'Alene, on the west by Spokane, and on the east by Libby, Montana.

Although about 750,000 people live in the area shown on this map (which, given that's 10,000 square miles is actually almost nothing. It's 75 people per square mile; about half the average population density of the earth, and about 10% less than the U.S. average) about 675,000 of them live in that bottom corner, between Spokane and Coeur D'Alene.

From the Bonner county line, just north of Athol Idaho, to the Canadian border, and in between those two dark lines representing the WA and MT state borders; is 3300 square miles (about 70-75 miles high depending on where you are, and exactly 45 miles wide). That area has a total population of less than 50,000; almost all of whom live in the dozen or so small towns (the largest is 7,000, most are under 500) and unincorporated townships (including us) within 5 miles of the two US highways (us95 and us2) that run north/south, and roughly east/west.

There are more remote, and more sparsely populated areas in the lower 48 of course; but not many. We are very definitely "away from it all", "in gods country" etc... We are Rural with a capitol R.

I'm not saying it was a hardship, by any means. In fact, I think it's among the best decisions we'ver ever made, and I honestly believe it has saved my life. It simply means we had to give up, or accept lesser quality or variety of; many of the luxuries and conveniences we had become accustomed to in the modern American Urban Island.

One of those compromises, was in communications.

Internet access is much more difficult and expensive here than it was in Scottsdale; and smart phones, less useful; because you don't have the pervasive high speed networking you do in the urban island, and because connectivity in general is spotty in the region (both because of the lack of sites, and because of the terrain; which is pretty rugged once you get off the main road).

When we moved up here we were both on AT&T (with iPhones), and we had to change to Verizon; because although AT&T offers service in region, that service was (and still is) poor, with extremely iffy coverage.

Of course, the fact that in a community 50 miles from an interstate highway, you could get both wireless voice, and data service, AT ALL, is an amazing thing; we've grown pretty spoiled and lazy and expect everything everywhere... but again, that's Louis C.K.s rant above.

Also, it turns out that moving to Verizon was great; because we moved on to the Android platform, which we much prefer to the iPhone (for many reasons, as I've gone into many times here before).

At any rate, when we moved here we switched to Verizon.

When we switched, they had good voice coverage but marginal data coverage and speed. However, within a few months they had upgraded the 3g coverage and speed in our area, such that our smart phones were once again the useful little limpets we had become addicted to living in the metroplex.

Our primary internet access was (and still is) a different story however.

Where we live, in an unincorporated area a few miles south of the county seat (Sandpoint, population about 7,000) there actually is some DSL and cablemodem service; but it doesn't extend as far south as we are. Our options were dialup, satellite (completely unacceptable), and microwave (expensive, but high bandwidth and low latency).

We chose to go with microwave; and for the most part we've been happy with it. The kicker is, the cost: We pay $180 a month for a business class 5Mbit synchronous connection, two static IPs, and two VOIP lines.

That's a lot.

Most people in this country pay $50 or less for their internet access (admittedly, slower than us. The average DSL speed is 512k and the average cablemodem is 1.5Mbit; but also the low end service rates are usually $30 or $40 a month); and in most major urban areas in this country, you can get a 10Mbit or even 20Mbit connection at home with your cable company, for $49 to $79 a month.

We could be paying a lot less for non-business class service; but that would be at 512k bandwidth, no VOIP capability, and no quality of service guarantee. With the business class service, what I'm really paying for is the guarantee that I'll get the bandwidth and the latency I've been paying for (or I don't pay).

I need that guarantee, to run my business, and to be able to work from home for my corporate masters; as I did for most of the last two years.

It's also why we won't be changing any times soon; even though it is so expensive. No other service locally, can give us the guarantee that we're going to get the bandwidth, latency, or uptime that we need.

We looked at the possibility of using the Verizon 3g service as our primary internet; but the combination of limited bandwidth, monthly data caps, and no quality of service made that impractical and a poor value for us.

But this post is about how much we have, even though we ARE so rural; not what we don't have.

As of this morning, what we have, is 5 to 12 megabit 4g wireless service.

A few months back Mel and I upgraded our 18 month old Droid Xs, to Droid Bionics, with 4g capability. I also got a 4g MiFi router for when I travel (it looked like I was going to be doing a lot of travel at the time... I probably will be again too).

They've been great, but we only had 3g up til today; with a theoretical bandwidth of about 2Mbit, and realistically a couple hundred Kbit of actual bandwidth (it's not nothing sure; but it's not really enough for everything you might want to do).

I did a speed test from my phone earlier... 8Mbit a second.

In Sagle Idaho, the middle of nowhere, I get 8Mbps... Enough to live stream HDTV, or download a full DVD... on my PHONE.

It's not flying cars, but it's something.