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From Now On

A Monthly Electronic Commentary
on Educational Technology Issues

Vol 5. . . No 1 . . . September, 1994
Contents Page
1. Monthly Comments
2. Bandwidth Hogs & Other Culprits
3. Firewalls or Censorship?
4. Virtual Truth:
Frequency + Proximity = Value

Bandwidth Hogs & Other Culprits

Strange as it sounds, there may be some times in this decade of technological marvels and miracles when a picture is not worth a thousand words.

For those of us fortunate enough to be creating school district on ramps to the electronic highway, pictures - because they are enormous bandwidth hogs - can clog up a WAN (wide area network) like great wads of unwanted sewerage, slowing down the performance of the entire network and blocking access to relatively free and fast-flowing text files.

Perhaps because video flows so cheaply and efficiently across the TV screens of our society we have developed insatiable appetites for full motion video on our PC monitors. We expect full screen, full motion video from CD-ROM encyclopedias, and we frown at text-based front ends to the Internet. "Give us something user-friendly like Mosaic!" cry recent converts fresh from an introductory course. They have tasted impressive Internet graphics (usually projected from a single PC) and they want them on their desktops.

The problem is fairly simple and straight forward. Digitized pictures flowing as data through networks amount to huge data files. A text document of 15 pages may require a file of 30K. A full color Edward Hopper painting from the Dallas Museum of Art requires 250,000K. The text file arrives in "no time." The painting may "take for ever." Using an old 2400 baud modem and standard telephone lines, the painting takes well over an hour to arrive. Special telephone lines meant for data transmission when combined with a district "Internet hub" can significantly speed the transmission, but even those lines can be quickly clogged if there are many users.

To give concrete examples, Bellingham presently connects to the Internet through its own Internet hub to the state K-12 educational backbone called "WEDNET." The connection is a 56KB line. It is a "pipe" which can transmit or receive 56K per second. This is * times more capacity than a single household telephone line. If I am the only Internet user when I try to download the Hopper painting from Dallas, it takes 1 minute and * seconds. If four users try to load similar images all at the same time, they must each wait * minutes. Imagine providing Internet access to 1500 desktops with such a 56KB line! We must stick to text at first until we can upgrade to a T1 line when one comes available in January.

A T1 line is a much bigger pipe, offering transmission or receipt of 26 times the data carrried by a single 56KB line. This pipe would allow a single user to download the Hopper painting in just * seconds. But even this pipe will not support hundreds of Mosaic users. As soon as 26 users try to download graphics files of 250,000K, things begin to bog down. It takes each one * seconds.

How demanding is Mosaic? Let me describe a typical sequence from fairly visual part of the World Wide Web. I will list the events, their memory requirements and the time they each require on a 56KB line with just a single user.

********** Internet's virtual library *********

This "hurry up and wait" phenomenon has its counterpart when it comes to CD-ROM encyclopedias. Some learning experiences are painfully slow. Working on a stand-alone computer with a mere "double-speed" CD-ROM drive, a student can spend * per cent of the research time waiting for something to happen. As an example, I tested Microsoft's Enkarta on three different Macs, a Mac IISI, a MAC LCII and a Power Mac. I timed how long various events took on each machine and calculated the percentage of wait time for the student with each machine.

The research task? "Compare the paintings of 10 different American painters and select your two favorites. Mark all 10 with bookmarks, copy your two favorites, paste them into a PageMaker file and explain your choice."

1. Open Enkarta Mac IISI - 38 secs. Power Mac - 29 secs.

2. Open "Find" and insert "American near painter" as search strategy - 18 seconds of machine wait time. 90 seconds of thinking about choices and keywords. 175 topics found.

3. Browse to identify and bookmark 10 articles with paintings - 6 minutes and 4 seconds of machine wait time. 3 minutes and 18 seconds of thinking .

4. Open each bookmark and enlarge painting to full screen - 46 seconds of machine time for each painting. (25 secs with Power Mac) Spend 4 minutes considering the painting. Open word processor function. Machine time *seconds. Write comments in 3 minutes.

5. Enlarge and copy a painting to the clipboard - 38 seconds.

6. Open Pagemaker and paste painting to document. One minute of machine time.

Firewalls or Censorship?

At a recent conference sponsored by Apple, a corporate vice president kicked off the day by lauding AppleSearch - a software program meant to deliver WAIS services from the Internet to desktops through Apple file servers - as a "firewall" to protect school employees from "firing" and protect students from various harmful and dangerous materials available to those who "surf" the Net without such software guidance. The sales pitch emphasized the beauties of natural language searching (discussed in the next section) while striking an ominous and quite derogatory tone regarding less restricted access to the Internet.

For those of us who have successfully shepherded students onto the electronic highway and expected them to stay away from potentially offensive materials, the tone of the remarks seemed alarmist. The sales strategy seemed inappropriate. The message seemed . . . well . . . un-Apple-like. Is the sky really falling?

Remember those guys in the garage who dreamed of micro-computers revolutionizing the lives of average citizens by putting information power in their hands? Recall John Sculley's vision of knowledge navigators sailing through vast islands of infomation?

Suddenly the script reads more like "Barbarians at the Gate."

While there may be regions of the country where fear of information and the Net reigns supreme, it is hardly appropriate for a corporation to fan the flames of such fears with warnings of "firings." Those who fret that pornography will spew forth across the screens of kindergarten classroom monitors know little about bandwidth hogs and the challenges of FTP. Sure there is objectionable material available on the Net if the user makes a special effort to find it, but most home cable TV offers far more impressive, sexually explicit graphics with far less effort.

At a second session, a second Apple presenter handed out materials which stated, "***** and Get Fired." Another slide in the handout stated, "******"

The main thrust of Apple's sales pitch is the ease with which school personnel may restrict students to (allegedly) carefully screened materials. School librarians, we are told, may identify "safe" WAIS servers and aim the information pipeline to just those sources.

What ever happened to the ALA Bill of Rights, which clearly upholds the principle of freedom of access to information? What becomes the basis for determining what is "safe?" Do certain political views get excluded? Who decides? Who will even know what was excluded? And would those sources really be safe or just seem safe on the surface?

While all of us must achieve a balanced relationship with our families and community regarding the potentially offensive materials available to those who drive onto the Internet, some of us who have offered student accounts and "surfing" tied to parent permission forms have found the dangers, the anxiety and the fear greatly exaggerated. In a democratic society, censorship and broad scale limitations on access to information are unacceptable. While schools must guide student use, especially at early ages, they must be careful about restricting access.

This nation was formed by people fleeing the tyranny of state religions and state truths. As we lead young ones through the initiation rites of citizenship, we open doors and windows to a world of conflicting opinions and statements, teaching them and trusting them to make i

The Internet is much more than an electronic highway to entertainment and sports statistics. For our generation and the next century, telecommunications, broadly conceived and free of undue restrictions by corporate entities, may provide the dramatic kind of support for a democratic society that Tom Paine once expected from the printing press.

As Vic Sussman puts it in US News & World Report (1/17/94, Vol. 116 Issue 2, p55):

"Freedom, it seems, has become the ultimate Internet worm, burrowing into 100 countries and 10,000 computer networks, settling into the ethos of this wired world of 15 million users."

Sussman quotes Mike Godwin, legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "Cyberspace may give freedom of speech more muscle than the First Amendment does." Indeed, it may already "have become literally impossible for a government to shut people up."

Shall schools open their electronic doors and windows to the world, allowing students access to the highway and the freedom of information, or shall we install screens and barriers and dark shades and shutters to keep out the light? I hope we do the first.

Virtual Truth: Frequency + Proximity = Value

In previous issues of From Now On I have shared concerns about the hidden logic behind what software people call "natural language" searches. The issue is whether or not the person conducting the search understands how little the computer might understand and how unskillful the computer might be.

AppleSearch, according to the vice president mentioned above, uses two main strategies for identifying articles in a database. It counts how often certain words appear in each article and it considers how close they appear to each other. The premise is that the more frequent the appearance of the words and the closer they are to one another, the more valuable the article must be. The computer searches, counts hits, weighs proximity and then ranks the articles from 5 stars down to 1 star - something like restaurant ratings.

When the VP demonstrated the searching, he cut the list off at the top 20 articles as if the others would not be worth scanning.

Those who have done much searching will quickly tell you that frequency and proximity tell you little about value. A verbose and opinionated fool's diatribe, unrestrained and redundant, would tend to score more highly than one crafted with a good thesaurus. Numbers of words do not tell much about the quality of thought, the weight of evidence or the structure of an argument. They tell little of an author's credentials or credibility. They reveal little conflict of interest, bias or affiliation.

It is quite likely that some of the most insightful and provocative articles might be missed if one only read the top twenty identified with these two criteria.

Another concern with natural language searching is the separation from the logical implications of various word choices.

In locating articles related to the declining salmon harvest in the Northwest, certain words (just like different kinds of nets and hooks) lead to different catches of articles.

"Salmon and fishing" leads to quite a different collection than "Salmon and overfishing" or "Salmon and fishery."

Ultimately, info-glut may obscure the truth while offering "fool's gold."

Can you imagine selecting an Italian restaurant by counting the number of times "pasta" appears on the menu? Would it rate five stars if the word "pasta" appeared in proximity to the word "sauce?"

Those who search for insight, rather than mere information, know full well that one must scan through dozens of articles which may contain few hits but a few gems. One must continue to "read" articles. We cannot rely upon machines to do our thinking for us.

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format educational, non-profit school district use only. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.

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