Collective

For various reasons (mainly economic and geographic) Winnipeg is a Freelance town. Freelance is a topic I write about a lot in this blog these days, writing is one of the ways I deal with the stress of economic uncertainty brought about by freelance employment. The feast v. famine nature of freelancing is not for the faint of heart and it’s compounded by the isolation of working alone.

On paper, I should not be nearly as successful as I am. I don’t do any overt marketing, I’ve never done a cold call (though, I have cold tweeted) and I rarely respond to job board postings. Yet I’m able to get by based on a very small network of trusted connections. I don’t write this to boast about my good fortune. I’m writing this because it feels like I’m doing it wrong, it feels like the bottom is going to drop out any day now, like the other shoes is going to drop, it scares the hell out of me and I feel like there should be a better way.

The Problem: Marketing

The cause of the famine periods of the feast/famine cycle could be boiled down to lack of marketing. When you’re dealing with an excessive amount of work during a feast it can be hard to set aside time to work on marketing, which only leads to compound the famine. In practice, this means that your work has to speak for itself and this is obviously less than ideal.

There are two fundamental marketing problems for an independent professional.

The first is finding new clients. The traditional solution for finding clients is the amorphous “networking.” It’s a term that can encompass any number of things, including “social networking” and Christmas parties. But I think if you asked most professionals what networking looks like, they’d describe something like an informal meetup group or a more formal group like BNI. In my experience, this type of networking sucks, the signal to noise ratio of quality to shit leads, is totally out of whack. As someone who cares more about quality over quantity, bad leads are unacceptable.

The second marketing problem is branding. Branding is a huge topic that I’m not super well versed in, but in this context I simply mean an identity that communicates who you are and what you do; that servers to indirectly attracts new potential clients. In my experience, building a personal brand is really, really hard. Building an audience for that brand is even harder. Contrary to the opinions of pro bloggers and advice gurus, building a legitimate personal brand on a national (let alone international) scale is unattainable for most individuals. I guarantee that every personal brand with more than a few thousand followers on the internet is the product of a team of people (but that is a topic for another day).

The Solution: A Collective

For a long time I’ve had this thought that something like an artists collective should exist for all the various trades that go in to making web stuff: coders, designers, writers, etc. I’m sure that if you’ve gone to art school you are familiar with the concept. As someone who did not go to art school, I had to look it up to make sure I’m talking about the right thing.

Wikipedia defines an artist collective as:

…an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together, usually under their own management, towards shared aims. The aims of an artist collective can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist, this can range from purchasing bulk materials, sharing equipment, space or materials, through to following shared ideologies, aesthetic and political views … Sharing of ownership, risk, benefits, and status is implied, as opposed to other, more common business structures with an explicit hierarchy of ownership such as an association or a company.

The main difference between a web workers collective vs. traditional artists collective is the need for supplies, physical materials and the pooled capital required to buy these things. As virtual workers we have very little overhead in terms of supplies and equipment; and little need for physical meeting space. That said, I there is a lot of value in share aesthetics and shared ideologies regarding the web as a vehicle for free expression.

I see a formal collective as a potentially a great solution to the problems of marketing skills and work individually. By putting intentional thought into a group identity, then acting as a group, displaying work as a group and representing the collective when interacting with the community, these artist collectives implicitly marketing themselves. They build a reputation for a certain type of work and the collective audience of each individual member props up the group.

Granted the economics of being a professional sculpture or painter aren’t exactly the same as the economics of building websites. But I don’t think they’re that far removed either. At the end of the day, you need clients who value your work.

Thoughts?

I’m far from an expert on the subject of collectives. Perhaps is a non-sensical idea. Perhaps something like a co-operative would be more fitting.

I am interested in hearing from other web professionals. As well as people who’d purchase the services of a web professional.

Would you value being a part of something like this? Would you be encouraged to hire a member of a collective?

PS. The sub-text of this post is my belief that a idea of traditional “company” is a bad fit for the web and a worse fit for the way that people work in the 21st century.

Photo credit: Victor Grigas.

Pokémon No

Update: A thread in r/pokemongo addresses most of the game playability gripes i express below. Very useful if you’re new to the game. Check it out.


Much hyped Pokémon Go finally launched in Canada over the weekend (while I was out camping). I downloaded it ASAP, after some expected server issues setting up my account, I fired up the game in a few random places on my way back home. I was able to catch a handful of Pokémon at the random places we stopped along the way and a few at home.

I noticed a Pokéstop down the street so I thought I’d try the walk-around-in-circles-staring-at-my-phone-like-an-idiot thing I’ve been hearing so much about… literally everywhere. The Pokéstop was about 600m away and rewarded me with 3 Pokéballs for my efforts. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I found this to be a disappointing amount. I did not encounter any wild pokémon along the way, so I decided to take a more circuitous route home, in an attempt to stumble across more. I did not.

To be clear, I have no idea how to play this game.

On my walk, I noticed several leaf type patterns pop up on the map, I assumed these represented Pokémon burrowing or scurrying away. So I attempted to follow and capture them.

There is no real in-game indication on how you are supposed to do this. I can’t be sure if I was unable to catch one because I was doing something wrong; there was a server issue; or if it’s intended to be extremely difficult to find a Pokémon. When I finally found one, the process of catching a Pokémon was equally non-intuitive. A target appears overtop of the character, so looks like you’re supposed to try to throw balls right at it. But the “catch” animation seems to happen behind the character. But when you throw a ball behind the character, nothing it doesn’t work! Or maybe it’s random? All-in-all I found it extremely frustrating and disappointing.

After finishing this post I’ll do some research, I’m sure I must be doing something wrong. After all a game with such mass appeal must be much more intuitive.


From a more technical perspective, the augmented reality aspects of the game are a little overblown. The game does 2 things that are being called “augmented reality.”

1) Spawning locations and characters on top of a real world map. I suppose this is interesting, but not a ground breaking technical achievement in 2016. It seems to rely mainly on readily available, quality, map data.

2) The Pokémon appear in the real world! Except they don’t really. The game seems to pick a point, roughly on the horizon and the Pokémon graphics are overlaid over the image of the camera, rather dumbly. Pokémon aren’t hiding behind bushes or taking into account the real world in any way. I caught one that spawned on my son’s face.


Overall, to someone who was a few years too old to be caught up by the original Pokémon craze, the most interesting thing about Pokémon Go is the cultural phenomenon. I think it’s popularity can be attributed solely to the popularity of the Pokémon brand.

I’ll be sure to report back with a followup post after I ask a 10 year old how to actually play the game.

 

TIL Netflix Packets Never Leave Town!

I got a message from my ISP’s (Shaw) Bandwidth Team today. I wasn’t able to return the call, but I suspect they were calling to scold me about my bandwidth usage.

Some History

Bandwidth cap policies were a knee jerk reaction from ISPs ill-prepared for the era file-sharing on Napster and later voracious bittorrent usage. An era when someone using hundreds of gigabytes of bandwidth every month was likely a digital media hoarder, pirating more MP3s and MKVs than they could ever consume in a lifetime. An era of poor network management technologies, when a heavy movie pirate, could legitimately have a massively negative impact on other customer sharing their node.

I would never condone the hostile vilification of customers that these sorts of policies brought on. However, I am a reasonable person and I can understand where the ISPs were coming from. One the one hand they had the MPAA to deal with, on the other than they had technology and networks that were still maturing and not totally up to the task.

Times Change(d)

In 2016, it is a completely different landscape.

ISPs, hardware vendors and standards bodies have come a long way in improving network congestion. One of the reasons you don’t see buffering youtube videos is not because your ISP and copyright lawyers have convinced your neighbour to stop pirating with bittorrent. It’s because the the network has improved in general.

Even if your neighbour has stopped torrenting movies though, they’re probably consuming media online than ever. If he’s anything like me, he’s been using perfectly legit streaming services and the amount of bandwidth used by these streaming services is just as intensive as bittorrent. Netflix and friends are not doing anything magical to compress the video any more than the high quality rips you can find on the pirate bay.

Free-for-all (well, except the customer)

However, they have done something magical that makes these bit free for your ISP.

In 2014, Netflix revealed that they provide an “Open Connect Appliance” to ISPs. Free of charge.

Netflix’s OCA is a $20,000 server, that sits inside your ISP’s datacenter and stores a good chunk of Netflix’s library. They give it away for free because it is key factor in loading Netflix movies without having to wait for buffering. It stands to reason that Youtube, Crackle, Akami or any company looking to provide fast content has a similar set up (but they haven’t said as much).

Before today, I assumed that Netflix probably only had a few of these boxes in each ISP’s network. I assumed Shaw’s would be located in Calgary or wherever their HQ is.

Nerd Stuff

Then I dug into it by using very rudimentary investigation tools. Every resource on the internet has a unique URL and Netflix’s URLs seem to have logical names, so it wasn’t really too hard to figure out.

Here’s the breakdown:

When I load a video from Netflix it’s served from a URL that starts with: https://ipv4_1-lagg0-c005.1.ywg002.shaw.isp.nflxvideo.net.

This isn’t a website you can actually visit, it’s just the URL were Netflix videos are hosted. For me.

You see, before I even load the video, Netflix has figured out the closest physical location of the video file I’ve requested. When every second of load time counts, every kilometre of fibre is important. Hosting a file in Winnipeg instead of Calgary makes a difference.

I think it should be clear to most what’s going on in the URL, but if not. I’ll break it down further. URL are ordered from right to left.

.net = network
.nflxvideo = their stock symbol + the word ‘video’
.isp = Internet Service Provider, indicating that every URL above sub-domain are for an individual ISP
.shaw = my ISP
.ywg002 = Airport Code for Winnipeg + 002, probably the #2 OAC in Winnipeg
ipv4_1-lagg0-c005.1. = It’s hard to guess what exactly this means. It almost looks like it has something to do with my connection type.

In other words, when you request a video from Netflix your request does not get routed through expensive backbone connections to some far away server in Dallas or San Francisco, it does not even leave the city! It might only good a few metres down the street.

To further confirm this, I ran a traceroute, a command that follows a packet through the network.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 12.41.48 AM

I’m uncertain where those IP addresses are physically, they don’t have convenient hostnames that give it away. Maybe a Shaw employee could leave the details in the comments. But it’s clear that the packets absolutely stay inside Shaw’s network.

Stop Harassing Customers

In conclusion, when packets do not leave your ISPs network, your ISP does not have to pay a third-party to transmit and receive those packets to and from their destination. Whether you are watching 1 hour of Netflix per week, or 100 hours, it doesn’t cost your ISP any more money.

If this is true for other content providers and content distribution system (and it probably is), then we actually have a network architecture where the heaviest data is the least expensive, if not completely free.

Harassing customers about bandwidth usage is non-sensical.

 

Update for clarity: The IP addresses that the Shaw related hostnames resolve to are owned by Shaw themselves (as verified by ARIN).