Why The Term “Multi-tasking” Is All Wrong

The term Multi-tasking has become prolific.  If you have read an article about the millennial generation, Web 2.0, or the power and impact of the internet recently, you’ve no doubt come across it regularly.  It’s often referenced as the great enabler of the world’s tech savvy youths and just as often it’s fiercely debated as the great quality inhibitor. Prominent efficiency blogs like Lifehacker deride the term and lambaste multi-tasking as a quality and efficiency reducer. Surveys have been done, books written, and a ferocious flurry of debate has arisen around the benefits, negatives, and great undecideds associated with multi-tasking.  A debate that has spilled onto this blog repeatedly with the most pronounced instance occurring in my 2 part series on Educating Millennials. Unfortunately, we have it all wrong.

The term multi-tasking has never sat well with me.  Sure, it seems to fit some of the behaviors and is close enough in definition and appearance to what’s actually occurring that it’s been the best and easiest way to describe what’s going on – but as a tech savvy millennial the shoe never quite seemed to fit.

Multi-tasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple actions. Juggling is multi-tasking, patting your head and rubbing your stomach is multi-tasking. The way I search the web, chat, watch a movie and write all at once — That is something different.  It is parallel processing. The difference is subtle, but significant.

What is Parallel Processing?

First, clear your mind of any pre-conceived definitions you may harbor for the term parallel processing. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with parallel computing or Amdhal’s law. The fundamental difference between multi-tasking and parallel processing is the way our minds respond to, and deal with, the actions we are handling.  Using my previous examples, when juggling or patting your head and rubbing your stomach you’re performing two actions simultaneously.  As I’m sure most of us will agree, that’s incredibly difficult and our performance decreases exponentially the more tasks we add.

Parallel processing, in contrast, deals with a cycling, structured, hierarchical list which is continuously executed at a comfortable pace.  The speed with which that list is executed and repeated depends on an individual’s familiarity with the tasks and the time/focus each task requires.  A juggler can’t stop to take more time with one ball without losing the other 2.  An individual switching between browser tabs, a movie, and several conversations can. The advantage that millennials and tech savvy individuals the world over have developed is not the ability to do more at once, but rather the ability to handle more tasks almost simultaneously in a more time efficient and effective fashion.

The Skill Set

One of the fundamental components of parallel processing is task familiarity. If I sat you down in front of a massively multi-layer online game and you had never played before, your entire focus would be consumed by trying to move forward while interacting with the spatial environment. Chances are the degree of your familiarity with the action would be so small that it would consume almost all of your attention to execute it. However, fast forward a bit and you’ll have gained familiarity with the process and be able to automate most of it subconsciously. Before long you’ll be carrying on 5 conversations through the in-game chat channels, interacting with other players, traversing the virtual world and engaging in complex actions all seemingly simultaneously. In these instances, there are simply too many actions to be able to manage and participate in them all at the same time.  You can, however, cycle through actions based on the immediacy of their need and respond to each fully in lightning quick bursts.

One of our most incredible abilities is to take certain tasks, develop a familiarity with them, and then transition them into a familiar ‘second nature’ skill set.  When you write, you typically don’t have to think about how you hold a pencil or what muscles make the letters you want.  Further, as you write words, the familiar ones come to you naturally almost without a second thought.  It’s only the ones you’re unfamiliar with that you have to pause and spell out letter by letter, sound by sound. There are thousands of every day tasks we take for granted as developed skills and hardly notice. If you wear glasses, have taken them off, but still gone to push them up on your nose, you’ve experienced a perfect illustration of how our brain is capable of executing and automating ‘second nature’ behaviors almost subconsciously.

Why It Matters

The modern business environment is not the only thing changing.  The world we know, perceive, and interact with is being driven forward by powerful, expansive new technologies.  Understanding the way in which we interact with these technologies and how they change our behaviors is fundamental to understanding what’s really going on around us. The process followed while writing a hand written letter in the 1800s is almost unrecognizable when compared to the steps and process employed by a modern individual writing an e-mail or research paper. Significantly more has changed than the technology.  The very way we relate to, formulate, and execute actions has evolved.  Unfortunately, despite changing our behaviors, our perception of how the processes should work and the advice we offer on how to execute it, has not changed drastically.

This also becomes very significant in our understanding of what looks like a social disconnect. If you’ve ever walked up to someone engaging in heavy parallel tasking and had trouble engaging them in conversation or getting a response from them, it’s because you’re disrupting the process they’re comfortable with and the rate with which they’re executing the sequence. Chances are, whatever activities they’re carrying out are balanced near the uppermost end of what they can comfortably process. They’re in a rhythm, executing a sequence of actions and able to perform at that rate. Enter the parent or roommate who wants to talk about their day in real time, without consideration for the other 5-15 processes the individual has going on, and you end up disrupting the flow of parallel processing. The end result is always a general break down across the board.  I find it interesting that social norms tell us it’s rude to walk up to a conversation two people are having privately about African swallows and begin talking to them about astrological geometry, but not similarly rude to effectively do the same thing when an individual is using a digital device.

I invite you all to join me in changing the dialog surrounding technology and multi-tasking. Before honest dialogue can move forward it’s necessary that we adopt descriptive language like ‘parallel processing‘ that accurately identifies and describes the phenomenon.

Agree?  Disagree? Thoughts or comments?  Please share them in comment form below.  As always I love your feedback and discussion. Additionally, I’d like to thank Dr. John Crosby for his feedback and collaborative ideas on this subject.

Quick Tip: Save An Extra $20-$150 A Month

While significantly improved, gas prices are still extremely high.  The stock market and economy as a whole are MIA, and people everywhere are looking at ways to save money.  My suggestion? Cancel your cable/satellite TV subscription and switch to watching all of your favorite shows and movies over the web. It’s a much better option than you might think.

If you just can’t give up your TV, you don’t have to.  Many of today’s computers can be connected directly to your TV allowing you to watch streaming web-based content in your living room.  All with minimal, unnoticeable quality loss…for free.

If you’re a die-hard sports fan, just laid out a few thousand dollars for a TV, or have a slow internet connection this tip probably isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy getting home from work/class, kicking off your shoes, and settling in to watch your favorite TV series, the news or a movie, start watching a few of your favorite episodes online.  Give it a month, and if you think you’re ok with the switch, cancel your cable.

It’s a relatively new option.  If you wanted to watch your favorite TV shows online a year ago you would have had to be fairly tech savvy, have a lot of patience, and be willing to invest a fair amount of effort and energy locating and downloading the latest and greatest episodes. Luckily for you and me these trailblazers set a precedent which major media has started to adopt in a big way. With advances in video compression and broadband streams you can now watch full screen video in high resolution…all for free.  Not only is it free, it’s on-demand.  You can pause it, load it, and stop it at will AND all the while you’re only exposed to periodic brief 30 second advertising spots instead of 15 minutes of advertising an hour.

I haven’t subscribed to cable TV in a year which has saved me nearly $600 in subscription costs (based on Cox’s pricing). I still watch Dancing with the Stars, House, Fringe, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, the John Stewart Show, Stargate Atlantis, Eureka and others on a weekly basis (when new episodes are airing).  More of a movie person? New websites like Hulu and Joost are constantly adding new movies and episodes to their already sizable collections. If that’s still not enough…a $8.99 monthly subscription to Netflix includes unlimited access to their database of more than 12,000 movies all of which can be streamed online.

Aggregators:

Hulu.com – Relatively new but by far one of the best online movie and TV episode sites around. It is backed by NBC & Newscorp.

Veoh.com – Also relatively new, but with a pretty decent selection of movies and TV episodes.

Joost.com – Just launched a new web-based flash version of their player and while still fairly limited, it is making a major push to add a lot of additional content.

YouTube.com – Has just launched a full episode/movie platform.  However, it’s still very early stage/low quality.

You can also go straight to the horses mouth:

ABC.com – Offers most if not all of their shows online.  They even offer most of them in HD.  Just select ‘Full Episodes”.

Fox.com – Not to be outdone Fox offers a wide variety – some of which is duplicated on their partner site Hulu.com

NBC.com – They’re right there with the rest of the pack.  Get your Conan, Heroes, etc. here.

SciFi.com – Far more stingy with their content, SciFi has been experimenting with streaming episodes.  Expect more from them soon.

HistoryChannel.com – Yep, they’re online too.

Discovery/TLC/Animal Planet – All three offer streaming episodes.

PBS.org – Full length episodes available.

C-Span.com – Watch it live.

Concerned about news?  All of the major news providers offer streaming video. However, instead of watching it, I’d suggest reading it. You’ll get access to a lot more newsworthy information than the 3 news stories the major news outlets repeat every 15 minutes.

One word of caution.  A number of major ISPs have begun metering bandwidth. While most of the caps far exceed what average/heavy users will be using, it is advisable that you double check that your monthly bandwidth allotment is over 20gb download a month.

The list above is assembled off the top of my head.  Have a favorite streaming episode or movie site?  Please share it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list.

*EDIT* – 11/3/2008 – Todd Spangler, Tech Editor for Multichannel News -a part of the Reed Business Network – contacted me a bit over a week ago with an interest in setting up an interview after reading this post. I agreed, and have been featured as one of the interviews in this edition’s cover story “Breaking Free”. You can view the complete article online here.

Educating Millennials – Part II

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Blog Audio: Educating Millennials P2

This post is a follow up to my original post: Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing It Wrong

Since it was posted Part I has received nearly 22,000 views and 80+ responses. At this point in time I think it’s safe to say I hit on a major issue…one we have only just begun to dive into. I’m thrilled by the reception the post received and the opportunity I’ve had to begin dialogue on the subject. The purpose of this post is to serve as an update and to work to clarify several points. Please take it as such.

On the subject of data – I’ve reached out to several government officials and other contacts within academic circles in an effort to locate source educational data to check my hypothesis. However, before I share an update on the progress/issues I’ve had with the data I want to address some background questions.

Background Information

My original post was made as a hypothesis based on observation. I am not an academic researcher, nor is it appropriate that I include all of my research & thoughts in these blog posts.  This is not a research site or news outlet. It is a blog and as such my posts must be limited in length and cannot be as in-depth as many of us might otherwise like. Nor am I a full time academic researcher affiliated with a research institution.  Rather, I’m a curious, passionate millennial observing the world around me, the way my fellows and I interact, and looking at alternative explanations.  It is a place for sharing observations, thoughts, and interesting information. It is my sincere hope that these thoughts and ideas will be picked up by my readership and pursued further.   As mentioned in my previous post, I am more than happy to discuss any concept expressed on this site further/privately.

The Sexes

I received a number of comments accusing me of sexism or being grossly mistaken about the distribution of the sexes in online environments, particularly the realm of video games. While, in most instances, it was obvious from the reader’s comments that several of my main points were missed, or they failed to read the post to its conclusion. I want to take a moment to address this concern. First, I am very well aware of the female presence in online gaming and on the web. I founded and lead one of the oldest/longest running online gaming guilds for 8 years. I am familiar with most of the statistics cited in the comments about web demographics. In fact, I used some of the very same data in my Honors Thesis which I completed a year and a half ago. That said, the male/female demographics of the online gaming community have changed exponentially in the last 3-5 years. That’s not to say that there have not been female gamers for as long as there have been games.  Rather, that the audience who grew up utilizing these games (from an early age) has – until recently – been mostly male and that as a result these individuals will be the most heavily effected.

In addition to the issue of demographics, research has shown that males and females relate differently in social situations.  That same research shows that conventional one-way, top-down, information exchanges like that in most classroom environments is more compatible with the learning styles of women.

The combination of these two factors – as previously explained – is part of why the topic focuses on males. The other part stems from the nature of the post as a response and alternative hypothesis to the commonly accepted arguments for why young males are under represented in higher education. The conventional arguments have revolved around a difference in capability between the sexes and are largely based on notable gender bias. The proposition in Part I of this post, if anything, is far from sexist.  Further, as I’ll discuss later in this topic, one of the greatest issues I’ve had with exploring the data is the lack of unbiased, relevant source data. Many of the official tables provide female percentages and numbers while neglecting their male counterparts.

The Author

Attacking the author is a fundamental part of Internet culture, a fact I completely understand.  While I did not want to spend much time on myself in the original post as I feel it distracts from the actual subject, my credibility and background seems to be a major, relevant, component for a number of readers. Some were concerned I was someone who hadn’t made the cut and wanted to justify my failure. Others assumed it was a complaint written by a frustrated millennial unable to find a job.  Several readers even suggested that my passion and focus for virtual technologies and their impact implied a lack of reading or cultural enrichment on my part. Others suggested that I must inherently suffer from a lack of social skills and connections.  While I’ve responded to each of these concerns independently in the comment section of the previous post I will briefly respond to each of the more frequent comments.

I actually preformed quite well in University. I graduated with a 3.38 GPA from Arizona State University with degrees from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and the Barrett Honors College.  My honors thesis is available for review on the blog roll to the right. It focused on MMOGs and their social impact. In High School I was engaged in the We The People constitutional debate program as well as a Key Club Officer. In addition to my academics, I come from, and grew up in a family heavily involved in academics.

Professionally, I have enjoyed significant success. In the spring of 2005 (summer of my sophomore year of college) I began an internship with the #3 commercial real estate company in the world. By the end of the summer the position grew into a part time position during the school year/full time job in the summer. I was with the company in various capacities (Research, Mapping, GIS, IT) until I graduated in 2007 when I was offered a full time position which I declined.  After a 3 month trip through Europe I returned to the states and immediately accepted a position as an Analyst with one of Arizona’s premiere mid-market mergers and acquisitions groups. In addition to my current position in the M&A industry, I founded the company FusionVirtual.

Socially I have regularly been referred to as a social node.  I’m lucky to enjoy an extensive social network all developed outside of the Greek system.  To use Facebook as a social benchmark, my friends list currently has over 600 contacts virtually all of whom I’m in semi-regular contact with. In fact, I periodically prune the list to keep it up to date and relevant.  To those with doubts, I can assure you I am both socially competent and active.

Culturally I have always enjoyed reading and have tested as post college since 6th grade. I enjoy regular reading, though my recent schedule has made me cut back significantly.  In addition to classic texts I enjoy poetry and the arts. I’ve seen theater on Broadway and in London, opera in Vienna and ballet in Prague. In addition to these experiences I’ve been an avid ballroom dancer for the last 4 years and salsa dance on a weekly basis. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel extensively. I’ve been to Europe three times (once for a year, once for 3 months, and once for 6.5 weeks). I’ve also spent a year traveling across the U.S. and been to Alaska, Mexico and Hawaii.

It is important to point out that despite my background and life experiences, the observations raised about the educational system in Part I of this post are every bit as relevant for me as they are for other male millennials. I drilled down and forced myself to complete the higher ed process, but make no mistake, I found myself consciously making the decision to work within the system for the social validation and professional benefit that the degree “check mark” on job applications offered. The system did not serve my needs. It could have done more to challenge on multiple levels. In fact, it also did very little to prepare me for the real world.

So, to those of you who asked, I say;  No, this is not an apology. It’s not a justification.  It’s not an excuse. This is an observation of a failure by the education system. This failure has affected me personally and has affected a large number of my acquaintances and friends.  Read through the comments, look at what the young males of the millennial generation are telling us.

The tragedy is that we are squandering the potential of hundreds of thousands of America’s best and brightest, all because of bureaucracy and outdated tradition. All in a time when we need them the most.

Data

It’s taken over a week for me to make this post in large part because I’ve been having difficulty tracking down relevant data. At this point in time, I’d love to be able to post a few graphs and several tables of data showing clear snapshots of what’s going on in our education system.  The unfortunate reality is, it doesn’t seem possible with the data available.  This would be a great graduate research project. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve contacted the US Census Department, the US Department of Education, and IPEDS (The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). I’ve also worked with several other contacts in trying to find/analyze the data in a way that gives real, relevant data.

It appears that the data collected by the U.S. Education System is in such a confused state and so poorly documented that it’s nearly impossible to find standard enrollment and completion numbers broken up by sex and institution type and relative to U.S. population statistics by year.  The data has been gathered and stored in such a way that anything beyond micro analysis is nearly impossible for the casual researcher. If you have information relevant to the discussion please post it in a comment or forward it to me and I’ll add it to the post. Additionally, if you do any statistical analysis please share your results and methodology with us.

Noteworthy Data:

  1. Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2016-17
  2. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2005
  3. Historical Educational Attainment Reports from 1940 through 1998
  4. US 1990 Census: Population Figures
  5. US 2000 Census: Population Figures
  6. US 2007 Census: Population Figures

Things to note:

  • There is a major data shift in 1995.
  • Enrollment figures provide a % female, but no mention of a % male.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between the gender breakdown in full/part time categories.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between higher education programs.
  • Degrees conferred can not be accurate compared to enrollment data.
  • Degrees conferred are not broken down by type of institution, only level of education*.
  • Population figures: I was unable to locate credible year-by-year projections. Only US Census data by year was publicly available. The 2007 figures were generated through a private information vendor and forwarded to me.
  • Population figures: Should be adjusted based on generational differences in population.

*This is relevant because of the widespread success of web-based Universities like University of Phoenix. If included in the above material (which I believe they are) these web-based Universities have been extremely popular over the last 8+ years. The type of education these programs offer (web-based) is drastically different from the class method and environment utilized in major colleges and universities. As a result, I’m concerned that these may offset significant shifts in the brick and mortar institutions this article focuses on.

*EDIT* – Just saw this and feel it’s very relevant given my mention of University of Phoenix above. UofP was ranked as the #1 recipient of federal assistance/aid for FY 2008. According to the list, Arizona based University of Phoenix has received $2,810,085,079 in aid so far in this fiscal year.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately the data is important, but may be more of a distraction. The theory discussed herein is nothing new. We’ve known since the days of Aristotle and Socrates that instructor-student interactions are the best way to learn. As humans we learn best when we can interact, exchange thoughts, and question. After all, what is a question but the search for information and clarity? When the written word was invented we transformed the way knowledge was shared from the telling of stories to a system of written words. Modern technology allows us to increase the level of interaction between student and professor.  It offers the potential to make the material more engaging, informative, and to increase students’ investment in their education. Sadly, that scares a lot of people. Luckily, the demand for multi-level delivery systems will continue to grow until educators respond.  While we can disagree on some of the details and the execution, ultimately ask yourself if a more interactive, ‘immersive’, and vibrant educational experience will be good for the students.  If your answer is yes, I urge you to stop making excuses for a system that no longer works as-is. I ask that you help work toward a modern, 21st century educational system.

Each day we wait another brilliant mind falls through the cracks.

As always, I value your feedback and will respond to all user comments. Please share your thoughts, reflections, and any additional information you might have in a comment on this post.

*If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to share, please vote for the post on reddit/digg/delicious using the links below and help me spread the word.

*EDIT* I was just linked this amazing video by Mike Wesch which really does an amazing job hitting on/discussing some of the same issues.

Social Networks, E-mail and User Behavior

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Audio: Social Networks and Email

Facebook and MySpace have received their fair share of attention.  Thousands of articles have been written looking at the younger generation’s quick adoption of these sites and their prolific success.  Some of these articles have even taken a look at how older generations have begun adopting social networks, while others have looked at why older generations refuse to invest their time and resources into social networks.  Up until recently a large portion of the coverage portrayed social networks as little more than playground gathering places for youths to chitter chatter with each other … Useful from a social sense but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. With the success and widespread adoption of LinkedIn and record numbers of adults joining social networks that dialogue has begun to change, but it still has largely failed to realize why and how millennials use social networks instead of conventional e-mail and similar resources.

Earlier this year Beth Kanter explored the topic briefly with several significant statistics and insights.  View her post here. To illustrate several of the points I’ll be making later in this post I’ve borrowed the following graph from her post:

Credit: Beth Kanter & Morgan Stanley
Credit: Beth Kanter & Morgan Stanley

This shouldn’t surprise you.  Millennials use Facebook more than older generations, and similarly neglect conventional e-mail which has a significantly stronger usage base among older generations. While this graph breaks the age groups into 15-24 and 44+, I believe individuals currently aged 27-28 is where you will see a very important shift in behavior.   The status quo explanation for this has attributed it to a youth- based fad which I believe is inaccurate.

As a 23-year old heavy Facebook user and early adopter I’ve been able to observe my fellow millennials while comparing those observations to my professional interactions which have predominantly involved individuals in the 26-70 age bracket.

Why Millennials Prefer Social Networks

Non-Millennials embraced the internet during a period where ISP and work associated e-mails were king.  You had one e-mail address, probably associated with your home internet service provider and/or a professional e-mail used for work purposes. Most non-millennials have had the same e-mail address for years and usually only change e-mail addresses when forced to by a move, or employer change. As a result most individuals in this age bracket have had only had one or two e-mail addresses in the last 10-15 years.

Millennials on the other hand grew up wanting and needing privacy, but without the access to ISP/work-based e-mails that their parents had. As a result we turned to free e-mail account providers – companies like Yahoo, MSN and lately Google. En mass we flooded onto these sites and in youthful form registered e-mail addresses that reflected our perception of cool … SurfDude42, Sunbabe555 and thousands of other e-mail addresses were registered.  For example, my first e-mail address was the_ageless_dark_phoenix@yahoo.com – how’s that for a long/odd one? For many of us we registered our first e-mail towards the end of middle school/in the first years of high school. Similarly many of us flooded onto AIM, ICQ and eventually MSN messenger. The combination of these tools meant that we spent most of our time talking to friends on the phone or IM and relied on e-mail for organizing events, communicating with older generations, and exchanging files.

What is particularly significant is that unlike our parents who were still adjusting to e-mail and using it for professional and more measured correspondences, we were talking about school, stuff that interested us, and signing up for every cool web survey and service we could find. This meant that most of us ended up with heavily inundated, under utilized e-mail addresses. However, that was only the beginning.

  • By high school some of us were forced to register a new school e-mail address.
  • For some the spam we’d accumulated from signing up for web surveys and the like caused us to abandon one e-mail in favor of a freshly registered restart.
  • As the offerings evolved many of us also re-located from one provider to another – eg: from MSN to Google.
  • By College we had our college e-mail and were forced to switch over or balance several accounts simultaneously.
  • As we began to search for internships and look for professional opportunities many of us then were forced to register new more professional e-mail addresses.  Things like Alex.Berger@gmail.com to replace the older playful names.
  • By graduation most of us then had to adopt new work e-mail addresses with our employers.  Meanwhile our University e-mails eventually expired.

The end result is that you’ll be hard pressed to find a Millennial who has had fewer than 4 separate e-mail addresses.  Further, because of the fluid nature of our relationships and people constantly updating e-mail addresses most of us have underutilized, out of date, or empty address books. Contact management based on e-mail that non-millennials live off of is virtually non-existent among the millennial population.

Why Social Networks?

Social networks provide an aggregation of the services we were already using.  It has profiles, the ability to instant message, the ability to publicly message and group communicate, and e-mail-like messaging.  All of which is essentially spam free (especially on Facebook and LinkedIn).  Further, it’s name/profile based, not e-mail based so as your school changes, job changes, e-mail changes, etc. you maintain the same profile.  All the while it facilitates large scale social connections and collaboration in a way that group e-mail lists can’t come close to.

Usage Behavior

What you’ll find is that Millennials almost exclusively use e-mail to communication with/for 1) Non-Millennials 2) Professional Exchanges and 3) To transfer files or store information.

If you look at females (as they are more prone to regular social conversation) in the 26-35 age group, I believe (from personal observation) that you will find that a large percentage e-mail back and forth in a conversational manner very similar to the exchanges that regularly take place on social networks.  The difference being they are outside the millennial window and as a result still rely on the more conventional e-mail-based exchange.

As technology continues to evolve, so too will our reliance on virtual mediums to facilitate communication.  I had a wonderful reminder and illustration of this yesterday during a conversation with my roommate – a 1st grade teacher.  She shared a story with me about one of her co-worker’s 8-month old daughter who, despite not being able to speak or walk yet, actively uses a basic video game. When she strikes a key the game plays a brief video. She shows signs of recognition when the laptop is brought out and is always eager to play the game.  That is the type of digital native which will re-shape the way we view technology 18 years from now.

As always, I value your insights, feedback and stories!   Please post them in a comment below.

Generation Cox – A Brave New World…of Hypocritical Crap

Generation Cox – Audio

I have to confess.  There is a special place in my heart for Cox Communications. Few things leave a mark in a consumer’s memory like the distinct pleasure of spending hours on hold with a company on multiple occasions, only to be told boldfaced lies. As if that wasn’t enough, their disgusting version of – it can’t be us, it must be you – tech support has definitely scored them points. Despite my previous low estimation of the company, the revelations I’ve had and discoveries I’ve made over the last 6 months have shredded any remaining respect I had for Cox. I’ve debated making a post outlining some of these experiences in the past, but it took their new advertising campaign combined with concrete testing, rankings done by the P2P community, to really push me over the edge and today’s announcement by Japanese ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that they would start throttling upload bandwidth…on users that use over 30gb…a day.

I’ve discussed it previously and as a result will only briefly mention it here, but what makes the ISP/Bandwidth debate all that much more pathetic is that the U.S. – the founders of the internet – is now ranked 15th for broadband penetration.  This fails to even realistically consider how far behind we are with respect to broadband speeds. The US is talking in single digit gigabyte connections while foreign nations are offering as much as triple digit connections for the same price…or less.

You may or may not be familiar with the current struggle being waged in Washington and throughout the U.S. between consumers, visionaries and ISPs. In brief, the argument is that P2p (Peer 2 Peer) users are using a disproportionate amount of the bandwidth available driving up ISP costs and heavily impacting the quality of the connections of their fellow users.  Ever notice how your internet slows down distinctly after 5:00? Thus far the ISP’s chief argument and technique for lobbying tech-oblivious lawmakers has been to claim that not only is the P2P network traffic unfair, it’s illegal. As a result they have pushed for laws banning P2P altogether, while simultaneously secretly operating software that blocks certain types of high bandwidth applications and hinders your connection.

The catch is P2P isn’t illegal. Don’t get me wrong – a fair amount of the content transfered through it is – but the software itself is not. From the distribution of open source software, to video game patches, to authorized music, ebooks, photos and home video, it has a multitude of uses all of which are being legally employed. Beyond that, certain other types of high bandwidth content that’s getting throttled is also completely legal.  Things like massively multiplayer online games (think World of Warcraft), and even streaming video resources like Hulu.  ComCast just got in a fair share of legal and PR trouble for the techniques they employ. Not to be outdone, Cox has been ranked as the 2nd worst bandwidth throttler in the U.S.  Very little action is being taken against these groups in large part because the average consumer doesn’t realize just how badly they’re being screwed. ArsTechnica reported:

Of the nine ISPs in the US found to block BitTorrent, Comcast and Cox were far and away the most aggressive. Both blocked more than half of all attempted BitTorrent tests on their networks (82 of 151 tests on Cox were blocked, while 491 of 788 tests on Comcast met the same fate).

What makes it that much more agitating is that not only does Cox block certain types of streaming high bandwidth traffic, they will also reset your cable modem secretly forcing you to power down and reboot before the system will recognize you again…All the while blaming it on your hardware or other failures.  In recent months techs have started fessing up if you ask them directly, but as little as 3 months ago they would blatantly lie to your face about it blaming software, the network, outages or faulty routers. I can’t even begin to guess how many customers spent hundreds of dollars replacing hardware for no reason or how much money Cox made off tech support calls (if they don’t find a problem you get charged).  Again, this doesn’t only apply to LEGAL P2P use, it applies to gaming and some types of streaming video.

It gets worse. Not only will they throttle/kill your service illegally they also limit your alloted traffic without bothering to tell you, all the while using deceptive advertising that leaves you thinking that they’d be doing the exact opposite.  Before I outline the details, let’s take a look at their advertising and weboffering:

Keep in mind that this video is one of several in their current “A Brave New World” campaign.  All of which make equally deceptive and ludicrous claims and implications.

To recap the video, the advertisement states that “soon virtually everything they watch will be in HD and available at any time.  They’ll even watch TV on their cell phones” The second advertisement depicts streaming video conferencing and again talks about the future.  In addition to the ads there are two pages on the website in particular I want to take a closer look at.

Page 1 – PowerBoost: One of the cornerstones of Cox’s advertising is their PowerBoost technology. About which Cox claims, “When extra bandwidth is available on Cox’s local fiber-hybrid network, you will experience a faster download. Speeds will be boosted up to 29% faster for Preferred customers, and up to 33% faster for Premier customers”. So, while you may think you’re buying a 9mb connection you’re really getting 7mb. The page describing powerboost references all sorts of wonderful uses for your bandwidth such as video, music and even photos.

Page 2 – Tiers and Pricing: This page describes the 3 tiers that Cox offers outlining important numbers like your download speed, upload speed, and price. Then they go so far as to offer a wonderful ‘features section’ telling you what you can/should use that added speed for.  If we overlook the fact that most of the numbers for the first tier are complete lies, we can see that in the standard mid-range tier they have the gall to list Multimedia Web Surfing, Streaming Video/Music, and Downloading Large Files and Online Gaming, Telecommute/Remote Office as “You could, but…”. If they were actually delivering the 7mb connection (which in my experience they usually actually only provide 1.5-4mb connections) you should have more than sufficient bandwidth for any of the activities on the list. While they’re starting to catch up, most webhosts can’t offer more than 400kb/s.  In actuality the lion’s share of sites you probably use peak out at about 75kb/s. Keep in mind that there are 1,000kb in a mb, and 1,000mb in a gigabyte. For my part I’d LOVE the ability to actually pull data at 7,000,000kb/s wouldn’t you?

In fact, if they weren’t meddling with your connection and were actually delivering what you paid for, the 1.5 mb connection would be more than sufficient for playing online games, downloading at 400kb/second, and watching streaming video…simultaneously. What makes the whole thing that much more deceptive is the upload rates which are horrible.  THAT is where a large part of the bottleneck occurs since even while accessing a website you are both sending and receiving information.  It’s also what complicates things with P2P networks and to a lesser extent online games in which you’re sending data symmetrically instead of the classical asymmetrical way you access the WWW. In this way they effectively reduce that 7mb connection with “power boost” to a 512kb connection. Slick, huh?

That’s not the extent of their misinformation though. You see, Cox also has monthly bandwidth caps. Even if you’re fairly tech savy and a capable consumer you probably didn’t know that, ehh?  They don’t mention it ANYWHERE on either of the order pages.  In fact, to find it you have to select the “Policy” link (which is super fine print) in the footnote of the page.  Then navigate down through the legal speak to point 13: “Bandwidth, Data Storage and Other Limitations” and select the link to “Limitations of Service“. This page is so obscure they don’t even bother keeping it up to date.  As of this post, it was last updated 11/7/07 and outlines the following for the “Preferred with Powerboost” option:

  1. Maximum downstream speed : 5 – 9 megabits per second
  2. Maximum upstream speed : 512 kilobits – 2 megabits per second
  3. Maximum monthly consumption cap : 40 gigabytes downstream; 10 gigabytes upstream
  4. Personal WebSpace account size : 10 megabytes of disk space per User ID
  5. Personal WebSpace traffic : 300 megabytes of traffic per month (for visitors viewing your pages)

That’s right, you no doubt had no clue, but there’s a 40gb monthly cap associated with your account. Please recall that the Japanese ISPs just adopted one of these with a 30gb DAILY cap for UPLOADs. So the individual’s subscribing to that Japanese ISP are recieving 90 times more bandwidth than you are with your Cox account. Still think that the American ISP’s argument that they can’t provide the bandwidth is valid?

I rest my case. On a parallel note:

I don’t subscribe to Cable TV anymore. Frankly, there isn’t really a point.  I run dual 22 inch wide-screen monitors and the ability to surf the web, pause, start, fast forward, and chat while watching a film/show in full screen far outweighs sitting on my sofa in my living room staring at a slightly larger monitor.

In addition to the lack of flexibility, I’ve always found the business model abusive. In what other delusional reality would it be acceptable for a service that costs $30+ a month to sell you a service, for which you have to purchase all of the peripherals to use it, in which you pay for a set continuous service, and then have to sit through 15 some odd minutes of advertisements every hour?  Do the math – 15 minutes, is 25% of an hour.  So in reality, I guess that $30-50 is really only buying you 45 minutes of programing an hour.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then have the nerve to sell you channel packs full of useless crap. I appreciate the sentiment, but I really, really don’t need the biblical channel or the Latino vibes channel and since you’ve already acquisitioned 25% of my time, I’d rather not spend any more of what’s left flipping through channels than I have to.  In fact, all I really want is 5 or 6 channels that don’t suck.  With all that said, I suppose it’s not really a surprise that I jumped ship as soon as possible and switched over to services like Hulu.

It’s time we hold these crooks accountable.  Sadly, our representatives are either too corrupt or inept to protect us and look out for our best interests.  Write to them, demand accountability from them, and don’t swallow the pigswill they’re trying to feed you.

With friends like these ushering us into the digital age, who needs enemies?

Safe Surfing: Important Steps To Protect Your Information

Friends and family are often surprised when they find out that I only rarely run an anti-virus program. That despite the lack of anti-virus software, high levels of web use, and regular downloading [open source programs, images, etc.] I vary rarely get hit by viruses. Similarly I have very few issues with spyware infestations. You’ve no doubt heard about spyware and have been told to be careful when opening e-mail attachments, but if you’re like most web users you probably are not overly familiar with phishing links and the danger they pose. These links are the Trojan Horse of the modern Internet created for the specific purpose of harvesting your login and password information.

On a daily basis I see the results of successful phishing on friends FaceBook and MySpace accounts as their accounts are hijacked and turned into viral spam generators. Even among the web savvy Millennial Generation people don’t know what to look out for and fall victim to phishing regularly. Far more advanced than the early Nigerian banking phishing e-mails modern phishing attacks are carried out in a number of much more subtle ways and can compromise even your most secure online banking logins.

Phishy Links

I mentioned FaceBook and MySpace but don’t think phishing ends there. Quite the opposite. Your bank account and auction accounts are prime targets and can lead to identity theft. Arstechnica which is a major web technology news outlet recently reported that, “47 percent of all phishing attacks were being launched at either eBay or PayPal, an eBay-owned company” view the full article here. While I believe that these figures deal more with financially oriented phishing scams and fail to consider the porn/ringtone/other types of phishing which is a regular occurrence on social networking sites – it should give you an idea of the severity of the issue.

You’ve no doubt been told not to click on links you don’t recognize, not to install programs you’re not familiar with, and not to open random e-mails but what happens when a friend sends you an e-mail or posts something on your wall like this message I recently received on my facebook wall from a friends account:

Alex..

MANNNNN this place just hooked me up w/ F REE tones for a month. Just got a bunch of unreleased tones!!!

Here’s the secret site.

http://hs.facebook.com/sre_rct.php?url=http:/******.blogspot.c*m

Unlike a lot of automated/generic phishing scams, the post directly mentions me by name and while a typical spam target, also seems somewhat legitimate. In this instance, the dead give away is the space between the F and the R in free. In order to get around a lot of spam blockers, spammers/phishers will substitute letters/add spaces/reformat the post. Had I clicked on the link then navigated back to my facebook page I’d probably have had my login information stolen and my account used to send out similar messages. Since most of us use the same password/login across multiple sites a dedicated phisher can potentially gain access to your banking, credit card, and e-mail accounts with a little investigative work.

Despite being somewhat clever the above example is a fairly direct fishing scam. More subtle approaches will use linked images that re-direct to respectable looking websites. Romania, China and Russia have all been hot-spots for major phishing groups and the national domain names – .ru, .cx, and .ro should always be a cause for concern.

Always Inspect Links

Because of the way that domain names are structured a website URL can be setup to look authentic while actually taking you to an entirely different site. For example, with my www.virtualwayfarer.com domain name it would be possible for the owner of a phishing site to set up a sub-domain on their www.xyz.com domain that looked like www.citadel-of-light.xyz.com. It’s important to note that sub-domains are useful for sites like yahoo – who want to allow users to directly link to say the movie section directly: movies.yahoo.com but when exploited create easily mistaken web URLs.

Where it gets really dirty: advanced phishing e-mails will copy standard e-mailings from sites like paypal, citibank, chase etc. retaining the formatting, direct linking all of the images while swapping out a dummy URL for specific targeted links, which often follow the sub-domain convention in order to look legitimate. These links then typically do one of two things. A) They will direct you to a dummy site designed to look just like the banking site where you will enter your username and password which they will retain and store before returning you to the real website’s login page or B) They will create a tiny 1 pixel frame which will instantly re-direct you to the legitimate website. That frame will typically be invisible and contain code that tracks your web activity.

A variation of the sub-domain technique involves long domain names that look 100% correct but which end with .cx, .ru & .ro. Regardless of how legitimate a link looks if it ends in one of these three extensions or another unfamiliar .ext be cautious. I’ve seen links like: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=24668690156.cx To be honest I’m not sure how exactly these work, but they’ll snap up your information in a heartbeat.

Mis-Typed URLs

Even the most computer savvy among us mistypes the occasional URL. When we goof, one of two things typically happens. You will either get dumped to a default – this page does not exist placeholder, or to a domain name that is loaded with search results and advertising. As an easy rule of thumb never surf forward after mistyping a URL. If just doing general surfing, hit the back button until the previous/safe page you navigated from comes up, then re-type the URL. If about to perform sensitive/confidential activities (e.g. banking etc.) I would recommend closing the tab/browser window and opening a new one. It’s a little inconvenient but it will significantly increase your security.

Spyware/Phishing Sites

Walk around a corporate office and you’re bound to see two things. The first is people taking a quick break by playing web based flash games, the second will be a number of computers with desktops/screensavers that cycle through beautiful photos. While there are a number of legitimate/clean sources for flash games/screensavers/desktop apps there are an equal number that are significantly less reputable. Unfortunately, for all of it’s benefits Flash is a programing language – and a powerful one at that. In rare instances malicious coders will create applications to be used as data loggers/spyware/adware distributors. My advice? Stick to sites like Yahoo & Microsoft for your basic flash games. The screen saver/desktop downloads are often offered free but delivered with one of two nasty things – a keylogger which is installed with the program and runs in the background recording your key strokes and yes – your passwords – or a second type of package which installs adware/spyware usually in the form of a toolbar.

Hopefully none of this is new information, unfortunately in my experience most of it isn’t covered or addressed in mainstream conversations/warnings. Have an additional tip or question? Post it in the comments!