Make my phone more like email

I used to love email. I still do, except so few people use it any more.

I used to use email almost like people use text messages now. I’d write little, one-topic messages and send them to one (or a few) people. Most of the people I exchanged email with had their email on for most of the day, so they’d get the message in just a few minutes and then be able to respond (or not, if they didn’t want to). If they (or I) didn’t want to be available to be contacted for a period of time, it was easy to put the computer to sleep, or turn off email notifications.

It was also easy to get a little more fancy than that. For example, I often set my email client to check email every hour or every half-hour, instead of the default of every few minutes. I was still able to be responsive to people who sent me email, but I wasn’t constantly interrupted by random notifications from random sources.

That’s half of what I’d like to be able to get my phone to do—batch up alerts, and then give them to me on a schedule that I pick.

The other half is to shut up about telling anybody else about what I’m doing. My email didn’t send any information back to people, except the information I told it to send back. (Sure, my mail server knew when I was connecting and from what IP address, but it kept that information to itself.)

If I was going batch up notifications so that I’d only get them every hour anyway, I’d like my phone to disconnect from the network for the 59 minutes in between. There’s no need for anybody, including Verizon and Google, to know where I am in between.

(Of course if I get my phone out to check something I’d like it to quickly connect to the network so it can do so, but that technology works just fine.)

I could almost do that by just turning my phone off for 59 minutes and then turning it back on, except that obviously doesn’t do the trick unless I carry around another timing device to remind me every hour that I want to turn the phone back on. Plus it’s a lot of fiddling around for the hours in which I don’t receive any notifications (not that there are very many of those).

Admittedly, all kinds of things are made easier by being always connected, such as the ability to prioritize a handful of alerts to come immediately—phone calls, text messages from intimates, tornado warnings, etc. But for me, the mental model of email was vastly preferable to the stupid array of alerts I’ve got now.

What cell phones teach us about the power grid

Back in the day the telephone network was a regulated monopoly. As long as the phone company kept the regulator happy, they were permitted to earn rate of profit on their investment. This resulted in a couple of interesting effects.

First of all, the company was incentivized to invest more in infrastructure: The more they invested, the higher their profit (which was a regulated rate times the size of their investment). This is very different from an unregulated company, where investment is viewed as a cost.

Second, while keeping the regulator happy was always a complex dance, the regulator tended to focus on a few key metrics, one of which was network uptime. This incentivized the phone company to use that large infrastructure investment to produce a network of extreme reliability.

And that network was reliable. In my personal experience with wired phones in that era a wired phone always had service: For two decades as a youth I had literally 100% success picking up a phone and getting a dial tone. Likewise, calls did not drop. Service was rated in nines: 99.999% uptime was 5 nines, 99.9999% uptime was 6 nines.

Of course, that sort of reliability is impossible with cell phones. They move around. Worse yet, they go places where radio signals simply can’t reach.

Cell phone reliability is pretty darned good—let’s call it 98%, as long as you’re not trying to get service in places where nobody else cares if there’s service (the middle of the desert, the middle of the ocean, etc.). But people are not surprised when they find a spot where there’s no service, nor are they surprised if a call drops when elevator doors close or they drive into a tunnel.

This is not to say that cell phone service is bad. My point is simply this: To get the advantages of cell phones, people have accepted a drop in telephone service reliability from six nines down to less than two.

I think this is particularly of interest because I see a potential parallel with the power grid.

The big problem with solar and wind power is that they’re crappy at providing baseline power, for obvious reasons: nighttime, cloudy days, calm days, etc.

If you want a power grid to provide five or six nines of availability, you really need to have enough fossil fuel (or nuclear) generation capacity to provide a large fraction of your total power needs—at least 80%, probably more if you don’t have considerable diversity in your renewable sources (both diverse sources: solar and wind, and geographic diversity: the wind is always blowing somewhere and the sun shines different hours different places).

But just as people learned to get by with less than two nines of phone network reliability, people could certainly learn get by with a less reliable power grid as well.

Thinking of household use, there are certain things that really need fairly reliable power (refrigerator, freezer, furnace), but beyond those few things, we only require a high-availability grid because we’ve set things up with the expectation that it would be there.

Just two or three modest changes to the way we use power could easily accommodate a less-reliable grid.

The easiest one would be for each household to have a guaranteed level of power—enough to keep your food fresh, your pipes unfrozen, and a couple of lights turned on—and then make additional power available on an as-available basis. Alternatively, you could go with a market-based measure where power was cheap when it was plentiful and expensive when it was scarce. A third option would be to distribute the resiliency, with each household providing its own backup power storage or generation capability.

My point here is not to solve the issues for a smart grid, but just to make this point: For a big enough payoff—like the payoff of a internet-connected supercomputer that you can carry in your pocket—we would accept a considerable downgrade in reliability from our power grid.

The payoffs from renewable energy arguably are that big. (In particular, not rendering the planet uninhabitable for humans. But that’s a payoff that’s uncertain and diffuse, with the gains—especially the early gains—going to people other than the ones who need to make the sacrifices.) But there are payoffs to everybody: less particulates in the air, fewer pipeline and tanker spills, fewer truck and rail accidents hauling coal and oil through towns and cities, fewer worker deaths in the coal-mining and oil-drilling industries. And then there are the cost savings: Renewable power has the potential to be very cheap and very reliable in the out-years, once the infrastructure has earned out its initial capital costs.

It might well be worth getting past the idea that the power grid should provide near-perfect reliability, given the payoffs involved in accepting a bit less.

Thinking again about my own server

Student-built supercomputer at the National Petascale Computing Facility
Student-built supercomputer at the National Petascale Computing Facility

I ran my own server for a while. It was an OpenBSD box running on a cheap 386 board in a re-purposed PC case with an extra ethernet card. It sat between my cable modem and my home network and acted as a firewall. It also provided a few services to me in the outside world. In particular, it ran a little program for tunneling ssh traffic through the http hole in the corporate firewall, so I could get into my home network from work. (It was not, let me be clear, the supercomputer shown in the image to the right.)

I turned it off several years ago. Desktop computers got more secure, so the firewall was no longer necessary. I quit working at a regular job, so I didn’t need to tunnel my ssh traffic any more. But the main thing was that external firms started providing the sort of services that had previously made it seem worth going to the trouble of running your own server.

I use a bunch of those services. I share photos at Flickr. I host this website at Dreamhost. I post things on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. I read RSS feeds using The Old Reader (and share things there as well).

I’d previously thought that it would be best to have my own server for all these things—in particular sharing stuff I wanted to share—my writing, my pictures, my calendar items, etc. But the commercial services were better than what I’d have had if I ran my own server. Flickr provides a much better gallery than I’d have managed to put up, if I’d had to host my own. (The idea of serving—and owning—your own data was the impulse behind Diaspora as well, of course.)

Just lately, though—especially since Google announced that they were shutting down Google Reader—I’ve begun to rethink things.

If I ran my own server, I wouldn’t have to worry that some giant company would abruptly decide that providing some service I was using “no longer aligned with corporate priorities.”

I’m not in any hurry to move from this new thinking to actually running my own server again. For one thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to try to run a public-facing server at home over a consumer-grade home network link. (Although maybe one of the higher-grade packages through UC2B would be good enough.) But I am thinking about it. I don’t like any of the calendar services out there; maybe running my own calendar service, just for me and my family, would be just the thing.

In any case, running a server would be a lot easier now than it was back when I did it before. The hardware is cheaper and faster. The software is more reliable and easier to use. Before, I had to painstakingly build everything. Now I could just do a quick install on a Raspberry Pi, maybe with Freedom Box software.

I’ve always known that with “free” corporate services I’m not a client; I’m a commodity being pimped out to advertisers and others. I’ve tolerated it, because the “free” services are often pretty good—better than I could manage if I had to roll my own. But it’s always bugged me. Now, between the hardware and software for rolling my own getting cheaper and better, and the increased visibility of the consequences of going with free services that get can get turned off on corporate whim, maybe I’ll get it together to make the jump to my own server once again.