Twelve

twelve2

Above is a gif of an interactive model of hyperbolic space tiled with 12 Days Dodecahedra. It’s part music video, part mathematical model, and all holiday cheer (or absolutely terrifying, depending on who you ask).

At this point it seems obvious to me that one must tile hyperbolic space with right angle dodecahedra that have pictures of gifts from a holiday song that blink on and off in time to a 12-tone rendition of the music, and that it should be accompanied by a holiday craft so you can make your own dodecaration (hyperbolic space not included).

12_days_of_xmas_dodec_craft

Equally obvious is that it should be in virtual reality. The interactive page is webVR-enabled, so if you’ve got a webVR browser and a compatible headset you can navigate through the hyperbolic space and see the interesting stereo effects. It’s cool in a regular browser, and it’s REALLY cool in VR. It’s like hyperbolic space is what VR was made for.

There’s also a video version if you like. The comments are interesting. Most people associate dissonance with horror films, and most people aren’t familiar with the strange curvature of hyperbolic space, so I guess I understand why it’s frightening to some people, despite the ridiculous graphics. Looks normal to me…

The song and craft page are both public domain (CC0), so feel free to do whatever you like with them! You can download the original Illustrator file, pdf, or jpg.

The interactive code stuff comes from a massive collaboration with Henry Segerman, Andrea Hawksley, Mike Stay, Marc ten Bosch, and draws from code by many others. The whole open-source mess is on github.

For more 12 days math fun, see the Gauss Christmath Special:

and for a better understanding of 12-tone music, see Twelve Tones:

In theory I’d like to talk more about this whole project, but I’ve got more twelve tone carols to make!

edit: here’s one!

parable

Parable of the Polygons

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 2.54.02 AMParable of the Polygons is a “playable post” on how harmless choices can make a harmful world.

Nicky Case and I started working on this dynamic explanation of Schelling’s segregation simulator months ago. Little did we know that matters of systemic bias would be even more topical now.

It’s changed a lot as we struggled to make the unusual format work and the ideas come through. I mean, if there’s two subjects that get a really defensive and hateful reaction, it’s mathematics and social justice, so we figured we’d do them both at once.

The simplest design choices took weeks of trying different things. We hope this design, with small rhetorical examples integrated into the text and larger simulations breaking up sections, with cute little shapes and very explicitly stated rules/goals, with graphical double-sliders and changing percentages integrated into text, will seem as obvious to you as it does to us in retrospect. Also we put it in the public domain (creative commons zero).

So give it a read, or maybe a play!

edit: now available in spanish!

A Case Study in Musical Memory and Past Lives

Piano yeah

[I just made this giant tech post on the eleVR blog about audio for VR film, which got me in the mood for a post with actual audio included in it. Sorry for neglecting you, regular blog!]

This is a story about two piano pieces.

Memory is weird. Things change fast and I change fast and sometimes I come across some evidence that I was a person in the past, evidence stronger than words or pictures because it’s in the language I know best.

I might come across a bit of music that I composed, or that past-me composed, and say, like an outsider to myself: “huh, I guess I’m a person. I bet I have feelings and stuff, inside me.”

Here’s a recording I made, trying to remember a piece I’d written and immediately forgotten about three years earlier.

The above recording was created in a literal act of self-preservation. I was out at dinner and found that the above piano piece was in my head. It played inconspicuously for a bit, and then I noticed it was there, and at first I didn’t recognize it as something I myself had written.

Written years ago, in another life, before I had any hope of success and was planning to starve to death as a composer, trying and failing for years to get into a graduate school and unable to come up with any livable plan for myself. I wrote it in under an hour, a throwaway doodle I hadn’t thought of it since.

I didn’t know if I’d ever made a recording of it. I’ve made hundreds of quick recordings of quick compositions, but even more go unrecorded, and sometimes I get something stuck in my head that I know I’ve never saved anywhere, and I wonder if that is the last time it will ever enter a human brain, and I will forget it and it will be dead.

Yet this one came back, for no apparent reason, during dinner at a place I’d been before, eating my usual. The shape of things was somehow right, and having been there before was part of that shape. And the topic of dinner discussion was not unusual, but also fit into the other shapes in just the right way that when you put them together they had the same shape as the song, somehow. The same outline. Just filled with different stuff.

I tried to grab what little bit of my past self I could.

And then, after recording the above, I found that I did have a recording of the piece from years earlier.

Later I’d feel stupid and inadequate at my awful recreation of a much better original, but the first thing I felt was wonder and joy. I was listening, as if for the first time, to something that had literally been made just for me by someone who knows just what I like, someone who exactly speaks my language. Someone good, really good. I was glimpsing into the mind of someone who is like me, but better.

When the inversion came in, something I’d completely forgotten in my inferior recreation, I laughed out loud. How clever of past-me. And what self-control, what perfect editing, to plow right through the inversion the first time though and go back to that awesome inverted cadence, just a taste before later coming back to it and spending the amount of time I expected the first time, as if I were inverting not just the melody but the form. And I wish I myself could play piano so artfully!

I, current me, know the piece, can reconstruct past-me’s thought process and feel as if I’m the composer, in the same way I can play Brahms and feel I know the piece, understand the necessary place of every note, feel I am Brahms for a moment. I feel equally a stranger, and equally close, to my own mind and many others. I don’t listen to Beethoven, I become him. I’ve been possessed by Schoenberg, I’ve been the brief reincarnation of Bach. Sometimes I even feel I am myself.

I’ve sacrificed something, by not starving to death as a crazy artist. I absolutely do not miss being the person who wrote and recorded that “doodle”, yet, listening to my past self, I can’t help but feel I’ve lost something. I don’t know if I really have.

Here’s where the plot thickens.

All the above happened about a year ago, and I’d thought it would be interesting to write up a blog post but got distracted by whatever. Too many things. So, seeing as it’s been so long, I thought it would be interesting to try recording the piece again, with only a year’s gap this time, and see how it came out.

My first attempt came out like this:

Now, savvy listener, you’ve probably noticed a certain discrepancy earlier than I did. After recording that much of it, I got stuck, and it took me a bit to figure it out.

I knew it was supposed to go into the inversion that I’d forgotten last time. I remembered it being good and clever. Yet I could not figure out what came next! The melody is so simple, and the inversion just didn’t make sense. I didn’t recognize it. I thought I must have been really extra clever, if I’d actually come up with something good. Maybe in the left hand? Still doesn’t seem familiar!

I poked the keys with a frown, until eventually I realized I was playing the wrong piece.

It’s interesting that somehow the melodic information and form information are stored separately enough in my brain that I could accidentally mix and match.

But this incorrect piece was not chosen arbitrarily. I’d written both pieces the same day, perhaps in the same hour, and the two are supposed to be together. They capture the same feeling, though they say different things about it.

Two pieces, written and forgotten together, and also originally recorded together:

Sometimes I feel a pull towards seriously doing music again. I am a much better composer than mathemusician.

Economics wins though: there’s millions of musicians working hard all day every day for years, while almost no one puts that kind of work into making youtube videos about math. The game I’m playing now isn’t easy, but there’s not much competition.

And music is terrifying. You can hear in the above piece how fragile it is, could accidentally tear apart with the slightest touch, a thorn through a dragonfly’s wing. It is my past self telling me to stay away. She’s lovely, but I wouldn’t want to be her.

No real music allowed! Stick with bagels and snails and laser bats and tiny throwaway doodles.

Memory is terrifying too. The only thing that has any real power over me is my own brain.

Music eats you up. It’s easy to get stuck in a piece. I made another attempt and my mind wandered and I got stuck

Research shows that contrary to our perception, the more we recall a memory the more inaccurate it becomes. It changes, warps. We feel as if the more we rehearse it the clearer it becomes, and while it may seem clearer, it’s further from the original. The most accurate memories are the ones that pop up out of nowhere after years without thinking of them.

There’s parts of music that are like that. How a performance of a piece went. How its supposed to be played. How it felt to play it, the energy in the room, the quality of the instrument. The non-compositional details are the ones that fade and change like normal memory. But the thing itself, unlike memory, truly exists. A piece of music is a real thing. It is the part that does not change or fade no matter how often you assert its existence.

There’s other similar pieces I wrote just a week before the originals of the ones above, and I kept up with them, remembered them through the years, playing them now and then. Those I recall perfectly and accurately. Unlike memories, the music that suddenly pops up after years is the one that has lost something.

The two original piano doodles above were written the day before I started working on “Doodling in Math Class: Snakes and Graphs,” which was released just a few days later, and was the first of my videos to go viral. It’s no wonder I dropped those pieces entirely from my consciousness for three years. The gulf between who I was that day and who I was the next cannot be reconciled.

If I wrote this piece now, maybe instead of getting distracted and stuck, lengthening, same-ifying, I would immediately become bored of perfect crystal forms and crush it swiftly:

I have so many tools now.

You might have noticed the key keeps changing. The memory I had of the original piece was purely musical, no mechanical muscle memory, no visual where-my-hands-go memory, and I don’t have perfect pitch. And so the original, in g minor, was recreated in a minor a year ago, but for the above version it wanted to feel bumpier to the fingers, and without remembering what the previous keys were, b minor felt right.

B major, on the other hand, would have been the correct original key for the other piece, which I recreated in D major while intending to recreate the other piece that had been in g and a.

Now I am tired of writing this post. Thus ends the story of two insignificant pieces.

[All music in this post is free to download and distribute under a creative commons noncommercial share-alike license.]

Transcendental Darts

So I made that video about different kinds of infinity, and then had to go deeper into explaining Cantor’s diagonal proof that one infinity really can be bigger than another, and then of course needed to answer some frequently asked questions about infinite digits going to the left in a reverse-cantor, and now I’m on to further explaining how the infinity of all the rationals is 0% of all real numbers.

I forget which other video I even mentioned the dart thing in, but yeah, the original script had so many tangents on so many topics that I edited out a potential infinity of spinoff videos, and every time I work on one of those it breeds more… we’ll see what happens next.

Carpool Lane Songs

These are some of the songs I invariably sing when in the carpool lane. Sometimes I fantasize about properly making an entire album of carpool lane songs and then touring the country as a carpool lane rock star, but for today I decided to settle for making rough recordings of a few.

The first, the original carpool lane song:

It’s easy to make up lyrics to the above song indefinitely, but sometimes I want to mix it up.

Lyrics:

Oh, you know that I like diamonds,
but you don’t have to buy me a ring, no no,
just take me in the carpool lane,
and I’ll have everything.

And I don’t need a fancy car, no no,
just as long as it’s built for two, so you,
can take me in the carpool lane,
that’s what I want to do.

Yeah, I just want to have a simple life
Without any traffic or this honking and hubbub and lanes closed slow rolling rubber necking braking

No I don’t need a fancy vacation,
no, I’m happy to travel nearby, so I
can take you in the carpool lane,
and you can take me in the carpool lane,
yeah, we’ll both be in the carpool lane,
and baby, that’s all I need.

Just before entering the carpool lane, I like to burst into the chorus of this one, which someday I’d like to record properly with a full band behind it:

Lyrics:

Life’s too short for the slow lane,
so let’s take the fast lane.
It’s better when we’re together,
You don’t have to be alone.

I know you like your independence,
Wanna control the situation,
But you’re just lettin’ all the other people in your way,
so baby get inside my car.

’cause I know just where to go,
I know just where to go,
Come on, sugar baby, don’t you see
those magical letters H-O-V

I wanna HOV it baby, with you.

I’m goin’ faster than you’re used to,
but just relax and let me drive you.
Baby you know I’m gonna keep you safe
So don’t be scared.

Don’t gotta worry ’bout the others,
It’s more fun when we’re together.
You know I want a high occupancy vehicle,
so baby get inside my car.

’cause I know just where to go,
yeah, I know just where to go, oh, oh,
Come on, sugar baby, don’t you see
those magical letters H-O-V

I wanna HOV it baby.

We’re gonna fly down the highway
we’re goin’ faster, than the rest are
and we’ll arrive at the same time
we’ll be together, when we get there.
Oh, oh, oh, oh…

Maybe someday I’ll share some of my Loading Bar songs.

Edit: Ok fine, here’s a sneak peak!

Introducing eleVR

Short version: earlier this year it became clear to me that virtual reality is now the near future of everything, so I found the best people (Andrea Hawksley and Emily Eifler) and we started a project called eleVR, where we do stuff like create an open source web video player compatible with the Oculus, produce the first VR vlog (for, not about, virtual reality), and figure out how to film and produce stereo spherical video, sharing our findings on our blog the entire way.

I'm pretending to work very very hard

Long version: I’m somewhat involved with the game dev community, and at the beginning of the year I started to encounter game after game being developed for the Oculus rift. VR gaming in the Oculus was clunky, low-res, and unconvincing to me, but I did come away certain that VR was the future, not because the Oculus headset itself was all that impressive, but because of the passion of the many developers putting so much time into creating content for it.

It’s games that sell gaming platforms, and VR was getting the games. All those kickstarter backers were fully invested, making new sorts of experiences that the gaming genre desperately needs. VR hardware will get better, and better, and suddenly I looked at the limited little rectangle of my videos and saw something soon to be archaic, an arbitrary shape chosen by technological convenience rather than anything fundamentally meaningful to the human experience, and I saw VR as the platform for video, for social media, for the entire internet.

I’m not going to wait around until my medium is dead, then jump onto other people’s platforms after they’ve already made the rules. I decided to get in right away and create a VR video culture that is open, diverse, and in the hands of individual creators, just as the Oculus got its start as an open platform in the hands of independent game developers. I saw two possible futures: one where people sit around detached from the world all day every day, absorbed in vacuous AAA games and websites designed to addict you with algorithmic perfection, and then the other future, where virtual reality is developed and controlled by real people, the ultimate personal tool for communication and self-expression. In this second future, sure the addictive AAA experiences exist, but it is not only huge corporations that have control over the virtual world.

That was what I was thinking about before Facebook bought Oculus. Now that the creators of the rift no longer have ultimate control over how open it stays, I’m all the more determined to do what I can to make the virtual world be our world, created and experienced by anyone who wants. Hence the creative commons videos, tech posts, and open source video player.

eleVR is a project of the Communications Design Group, a research group supported by SAP, which means I get to spend lots of time having fun researching how to do VR video and sharing it all on eleVR in addition to making my usual videos. It’s pretty awesome having a job that lets you work on so many different things and then give it all away for free, unlike all the VR-related startups and kickstarters that have to worry about making money and having an actual product if they want to be able to do stuff, so I’m really lucky I can do this.

And the questions that come up in VR video research are surprisingly in line with some of my favourite things in math. In VR video, we have to deal with spherical projections, vector fields (see my post on the hairy ball theorem), and quaternions, and just wait until we get to the spherical audio stuff… so much fun!

elevr.com

Proof some infinities are bigger than other infinities

A followup to How Many Kinds of Infinity Are There? that contains Cantor’s Diagonal Argument and The Fault in our Stars references.

Also see Numberphile’s video about the proof with James Grime, and Minute Physics‘ short and sweet version.

Nothing ever gets done if you wait for ideal circumstances. In the first infinity video, I had 20 minutes of time in our very professional sound booth before my office mate needed to use the booth and mic. When it comes to great audio, it’s hard to beat couch-cushion-fort-under-a-desk, so that is an example of ideal circumstances.

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 11.03.43 AM
Sometimes there’s no time for building professional pillow forts because you have to record in a big echoey room in time to make your flight and then edit audio on a plane with your arms all crunched up like a t-rex to use the keyboard of your laptop that’s half-shut because the person in front of you had the audacity to lean their seat back. Not quite ideal, but still good enough for getting things done, and not exactly an uncommon occurrence.

There is a third video on infinities half-scripted, so we’ll see how that goes.

How many kinds of infinity are there?

Types of infinite numbers and some things they apply to:

Cardinals (set theory, applies to sizes of ordinals, sizes of Hilbert Spaces)
Ordinals (set theory, used to create ordinal spaces, and in ordinal analysis. Noncommutative.)
Beth Numbers (like Cardinals, or not, depending on continuum hypothesis stuff)
Hyperreals (includes infinitesimals, good for analysis, computational geometry)
Superreals (maximal hyperreals, similar to surreals)
Supernaturals (prime factorization matters, used in field theory)
Surreals (Best and most beautiful thing ever, maximal number system, combinatorial game theory)
Surcomplex (surreal version of complex numbers)
Infinity of Calculus (takes things to limits)
Infinity of Projective Geometry (1/0=infinity, positive infinity equals negative infinity)
Infinite Hilbert Space (can be any Cardinal number of dimensions)
Real Line (an infinite line made up of all real numbers)
Long Line (longer than the real line, in topology)
Absolute infinity (self-contradictory, not really a thing)

Non-infinite kinds of numbers:

P-adic (alternative to real numbers)

Natural numbers (1, 2, 3…)
Integers (…-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2…)
Rationals (1, 1/2, 2/1, 2/3, 3/2, 3/4, 4/3…)
Algebraic (sqrt 2, golden ratio, anything you can get with algebra)
Transcendental (real numbers you can’t get using any finite amount of algebra, like pi and e)
Reals (all possible infinite sequences of digits 0.123456789101112131415…, includes all of the above)
Imaginary (reals times i, where i^2=-1)
Complex (one part real, one part “imaginary,” a consistent, commutative, associative, 2-dimensional number system)
Dual numbers (instead of imagining a number where i^2=-1, make up a number where ε^2=0 and use that)
Quaternions (make up numbers that square to -1, but are different from each other. i^2=j^2=k^2=ijk=-1. 4d, noncommutative.)
Octonions (make up even more numbers, 8d, noncommutative and nonassociative.)
Split-complex (imagine if i^2=+1, but i isn’t 1)
Split-quaternions
Split-octonions
Bicomplex number, or tessarine
Hypercomplex (category that describes/includes all complexy number systems that extend the reals)

Also see combinatorial game theory, which extends the surreal numbers to get numberlike but not-quite-number values such as “star.” Star gets confused with zero, in a mathematical definition of confusion, but it is not actually zero.

You can also write real numbers in other bases, including negative bases, irrational bases, and even complex bases.

Every Thing

A snail on a viola scroll experiences mellow depression:

Song up on Soundcloud.

This is the third in a series of “Crazy Snail” videos, after a quick snail video throwing some footage together, and then what was supposed to be a quick video throwing more footage together but accidentally turned into something more.

I had the concept for this one not long after I finished Crazy Snail 2, and recorded a mock-up of the beginning of the song. I got stuck at the point that I needed a violin, and figured I’d get one eventually, so it sat. For a year.

I’m finally moving out of my snail-infested apartment, so I figured now was the time. I had the bright idea that an electric violin would let me record without worrying about both making and recording noise in my thin-walled apartment. Maybe I could actually record something without my upstairs neighbor turning up his music to unbearable levels in noise-revenge!

I hunted outside for a snail and found one hidden in the leaves within minutes. Filming snail footage takes patience and improvisation and snail knowledge. You can drip water on a sleeping snail to convince it that it might be a good time to check out what’s up in the world, but besides that, one cannot coerce a snail into doing much of anything. All you can do is follow it along and take advantage of the individual snail’s personality.

And snails do have personalities. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of snail filming experience, it’s that snails are individuals. They behave in different, and recognisable, ways. I would have thought they’d be rather algorithmic, so this surprised me.

Luckily this snail was nothing like the snail the song’s about, and took to the viola scroll quite happily. The way it arched and swayed while I was playing! The way it happily curled up to sleep when I was done, right at the top! How it perched on a tuning peg and regarded its spiral companion… I wonder if the scroll triggered familiarity in its snail mind?

I knew I had some great footage. Now time to produce the song!

It turned out the cheap electric violin I got for this makes more extra noise than any amount of neighbors and leafblowers ever could, but it was too late to turn back now, so I went ahead and used my trusty old viola. Heavy, loud, and has survived past video abuse (see What Is Up With Noises). Had to change up the composition a lot, from high tiny delicate life to dark and low and slow, and of course as soon as I start recording, my neighbor turns up the beats.

Ah well, so much for production quality. You can hear the distant pulse of pumping bass in a bunch of my videos, and hopefully this will be the last, what with the new place and all. In the end, with the many tracks overlaid with echo it evens out to a low distant thunder that I kind of like, which makes me wish that I had bothered a little more with production quality in other aspects. Oh well.

And none of those things are the things people care or ask about after watching the video. They want to know about EMOTIONS. Well! I’d meant to capture an infinite curled-up moment of a particular feeling, including the odd self-aware beauty of feeling that feeling. That stuff is in a snail video because the snail is the perfect metaphor, literally curling up in its delicate spiral shell, an ugly distasteful thing portrayed in all its first-person beauty.

Net Neutrality in the US: Now What?

Comprehensive info. Time is of the essence, so forgive my inevitable errors.

For those like me who communicate through high-bandwidth media, the FCC’s proposal would be particularly silencing. Better to delay the video I was working on and make this one, rather than do nothing and possibly see all future vihart videos delayed.

A very different sort of video for me. An enjoyable challenge.

Script with embedded links, general links at end:

So say your local mail delivery truck stops in front of your house, which is good because two days ago you ordered two different books with two-day shipping, sent out at the same time from similar locations, and you’re pretty excited for them both.

The delivery driver picks up your two packages and starts reading the labels. One is from a small independent book store they’ve never heard of, the other is from a large chain they’ve already delivered like 20 packages from today.

Instead of just dropping them both off, the driver makes a phone call to the big book seller and says: “Hey, I sure deliver a lot of your packages.” The company replies: “Yes, our customers really like our stuff.” The driver says: “I’m pretty sure your packages take up, like, 30% of the space in my truck. We’re gonna need to hire more trucks if you keep this up.” the company says: “Wow, you must be so happy that our customers are paying you to deliver so many packages from us that you can expand your business!” And the driver’s like: “right, look, I’m thinking I don’t want to carry more than one package all the way to this customer’s door, and there’s this other package from another address for them so I might just deliver that one.

And the big company is like: “what? That customer paid for two day shipping from you, you can’t just decide not to deliver it, what, because we give you too much business?”

The driver says “relax, I’ll deliver it eventually, just might take a while. Unless of course you’d like to help us out, just a little extra shipping fee and we’ll deliver your book on time”

As the customer waiting for your books, what do you think you and the book company should do? Report the driver? No way what they’re doing is legal. So you report them, but it turns out their lobbyists have convinced the government that what they’re doing is ok. No, it’s not just ok, it’s innovation! Fine, maybe you can do capitalism to it. The big book chain starts using another delivery company, one that appreciates the amount of business they’re getting from those deliveries, and of course you’d rather pay for shipping from a company that actually follows through on their promises, and new businesses grow, hooray!

That’s how it should work, which is why a lot of people think that’s how it does work.

So say you have a one-hundred dollar a month contract with Comcast to deliver to you whatever data you order at a certain speed, and you order data from Netflix, and Netflix sends the data your way. But just before it gets to your house it has to go through cables Comcast owns, and Comcast says, “Wow, Netflix, you give us so much business, pay us money or we’ll slow down your site until it’s frustratingly unusable.” Netflix should be able to say “Yeah, no thanks, first of all you’re going to lose customers if you don’t give them the service they’re paying for, and second, why wouldn’t you want to lay down more cable and expand your business? Wouldn’t that make you more money?”

It would make so much sense if Comcast’s reply was, “Gee, Netflix, you’re right! We don’t want to lose customers, we want to lay more, bigger, cable, expand our business, and make more money!”

But, as anyone who pays for their own internet and has tried comparison shopping knows, that’s not how it works. Comcast can reply, “First of all, we’re not gonna lose customers. What can they do, move somewhere else, that has cables laid down by one of our very good friends? Second of all, we don’t need the business from delivering your content, we can already charge as much as we want. Look, this sucker is paying almost a hundred bucks a month for 10 megabytes a second on a good day. third, Netflix competes with our own video content; if Netflix is unwatchably slow and people leave to watch Cable TV, which we’ve conveniently packaged in with their internet service, that’s a win-win, and both wins are for us. Fourth, when your site doesn’t load it may be our fault, but the customer doesn’t see us artificially restricting the data they ordered, they see you being slow. So pay up.”

And Netflix did. This already happened.

Truth is, there’s a lot of homes and businesses where the local internet service provider has a monopoly. Capitalism does not work when monopolies block the way between producers and consumers. That’s not rhetoric, it’s math. Capitalism doesn’t work when it’s impossible for a new business to emerge in a market. Look how much trouble Google is having with Google Fiber, and they’re Google. In many parts of the US there’s a good chance that Comcast is your only option. You’ll pay for internet because you need internet, but you’ll be paying 3 times as much as people are paying for internet in Seoul or Tokyo, for service that’s 10 times slower. We’re being artificially held back, on purpose.

When you order a book, the delivery truck drives on their own driveways, public roads, toll roads, the private lane that goes to the book store’s warehouse, all the way to the street outside your house and then:

In this allegory, you pay Comcast to hire a company to make and maintain a driveway, so that the Comcast trucks can get from the road to your house, and because they built the driveway, only their trucks are allowed to use it. If you lived in Tokyo, you’d have a nice wide perfectly-paved road, but comcast made you a little dirt road full of pot holes. You’d like comcast to fix it, or to hire someone else to, but there’s no one else to hire, so instead of fixing it Comcast charges you even more and still doesn’t fix it.

Here’s the officially proposed rule the FCC is considering: internet service providers must offer some amount of access to all legal internet things, but they can offer a “fast lane” to certain content providers. This sounds like maybe Comcast and Netflix collaborate to put in a special cable all the way from Netflix right to your home to get superfast Netflix service, but that’s not what this fast lane is. It’s not even a nice new paved driveway. The “fast lane” means that comcast puts a gate at the front of your driveway.

The netflix trucks are allowed in right away because they paid off the gatekeeper. You invite your friend over, and your friend has to wait outside the gate for a while, even when no one else is using your driveway.

If you want to watch netflix right now, yes, you should be able to prioritize netflix’s data and slow everything else down. But if after that you want to torrent the latest vihart video, there’s no technical reason you shouldn’t be able to put that in the “fast lane”. You’re not paying your ISP for content, you’re paying them to deliver the content you choose.

Except they decided maybe they do want to control what content you can choose, and the FCC’s proposed rule would make that officially ok. Which is a huge reversal in the FCC’s position that happened when Tom Wheeler, a former cable lobbyist, became chairman.

In 2004, the FCC basically said, “Hey, ISPs, we made some network neutrality rules for you, yay for open internet!” And then Comcast started throttling bittorrent, which was against those rules. There was a court case that Comcast won, with the argument that the FCC couldn’t legally enforce those rules because they weren’t official enough. So the FCC created the Open Internet Order of 2010 and voted on it and passed it and finally, net neutrality had real offical rules! And Verizon took the FCC to court and was like, “Are you sure these rules are for us? Because, they look a lot like the rules for common carriers, and we’re not common carriers, so we’re thinking the rules don’t apply to us.”

And Verizon won. So if the FCC can’t enforce their own rules because ISPs aren’t classified as common carriers, a lot of people think the FCC’s next move should be to classify ISPs as common carriers.

Basically, a common carrier can’t discriminate among the things they carry. Airlines and Telephone Companies are common carriers, so Apple can’t pay Virgin America to not let any Microsoft employees on their flights; T-Mobile can’t purposely drop your call while you’re trying to order a pizza if Domino’s won’t pay them a cut of the order.

Up ’til recently, ISPs have been acting like common carriers. They built their businesses on customers’ expectations that they were common carriers, like other telecommunication services, and with the benefit of the legal protection given to telecommunication services, such as not being liable for the content that moves through their cables. In 1998 the Digital Millenium Copyright Act thing happened, which gave ISPs more protection from liability for their user’s actions, still back when ISPs acted as if they were common carriers. Right now ISPs control content without being liable for that content.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped ISPs become big and powerful, they merged and formed monopolies, and then they decided it was in their best interest not to be considered a “telecommunications service,” but an “information service,” which would be less regulated, and also have fewer protections, but since they were now protected by the DMCA that wasn’t a problem. There were a bunch of hearings. They won, they lost, and then in 2005 they managed to convince 6 out of 9 judges that even though the internet is a telecommunications service, they also do other things, and the Telecommunications Act that would have classified them as a common carrier telecommunications service does not clearly state that they have to be classified that way even if they also do other things.

Many net neutrality activists are asking you to call your representative and sign petitions and make an official comment to the FCC that the current “fast-lane” plan is not net-neutrality, and that the FCC should instead hold strong to its original plan of treating ISPs like common carriers by actually designating broadband internet as a title II common carrier telecommunication service. If you’re going to make that call or official comment I want you to make it with full confidence that it is right and fair, because it’s not legal to classify corporate entities as being whatever you want just because “yay internet.”

And the internet has other problems besides net neutrality. There’s only a handful of ISPs, they’re huge and powerful with huge powerful lobbyists, many of which are now FCC employees, they have local monopolies, they work for each others’ benefit instead of as competitors, and there’s no way for a new competitor to enter their market. Making them common carriers will limit the damage they can do but it won’t make them any less of a cartel.

Comcast is trying to get approval to buy Time Warner Cable and it’s completely nuts that the FCC is even considering it. We have antitrust laws because it’s one of those beautiful mathematical inevitabilities that without intervention, monopolies will form. If you think stopping the biggest ISP from merging with the second-biggest ISP is what antitrust laws were made for, please speak out against this merger and mergers like them.

Links included for doing stuff and learning more. You can call, tweet, or email Tom Wheeler and the other FCC commissioners and tell them what you think about net neutrality, the merger, concern over having so many previous cable lobbyists now working for the FCC, whatever it is you care about. You can ask your local representative in government to do what they can, you can sign petitions, and you can make an official comment on any FCC proceeding on the FCC website, which very few people bother to do because 1. most of the momentum around “saving the internet” is built up around signing up for 3rd party websites and mailing lists or retweeting and upvoting infographics and articles, and 2. For it to be a real official comment, you have to publicly give your real name and address, which might put you off if you’re not absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing.

I hope this video makes things clearer for you.

Politicians love when you personally contact them! It is a fact. If you’re not in the US, make sure your local government considers this state of affairs an embarrassment for the US, not something to model your own rules on.

List of FCC commissioners and their twitters, emails, blogs, instagrams, etc

Don’t know how to contact your representative? Find out who they are and let them know you’re watching them!

Comment form for proceeding 14-28 “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”

Comment form for proceeding 14-57 “Applications of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. for Consent to Assign or Transfer Control of Licenses and Applications”

List of all proceedings available for comment

General “open internet” FCC inbox: openinternet@fcc.gov

whitehouse.gov petition for net neutrality in general
petition for reclassifying broadband as common carrier specifically

Learn more about all this stuffs:

Court case ruling cable internet as an “information service” rather than “telecommunications service”

Communications act of 1934, describing common carriers under title II

Telecommunications act of 1996, including Title V, the CDA

Communications Decency Act, part of the Telecommunications act of 1996, which protected ISPs from liability from certain things

The FCC’s Open Internet Order 2010
Verizon had the above overturned in 2014 as not applying to non-common carriers

Neither of these attempts at net neutrality got through:
Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006
Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Bill of 2006

Data on internet speed and cost: “The Cost of Connectivity”

Terms to know
Antitrust law
Cartel
Common carrier
DMCA
FCC
Game theory
ISP
Monopoly
Net neutrality
Oligopoly
Telecommunication

Also see these other videos on the topic:
BlinkPopShift: Net Neutrality is Dead, Long Live Net Neutrality!
CGPGrey: Internet Citizens: Defend Net Neutrality
Extra Credits: What a Closed Internet Means for Games
Hank Green: The Net Neutrality Debate in 3 Minutes

Thank you Emily Eifler and Christopher Hart for their advice!

This video is Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike.