Book Review: Tubes

Andrew Blum. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 304 pages.

I have a hunch that you know a thing or two about the Internet. After all, you’re reading this review on it, so at the very least you use it every one in a while.Tubes

But most of us who use the Internet daily work work and play really don’t know very much about how it works. Is it really a series of tubes, as Alaska senator Ted Stevens once described it. That remark provoked a round of guffaws, but tech writer Andrew Blum shows us in TUBES that it’s not really that far off the mark.

Blum’s curiosity was fired by a squirrel, of all things. After the tiny critter chewed through the wire that connected his Brooklyn home to the Internet, Blum started thinking of the Internet not as an ethereal entity that lives “in the cloud,” but as a real physical artifact. He then set off on a journey to learn exactly where “the Internet” lived.

That might seem like a quixotic quest, but it’s one that’s worth making. After all, the Internet has to be somewhere, right?

Blum starts out by looking at “The Map” of the networks that, connected together, form the Internet (trust me, he makes it sound much more impressive than I just did) and filling in the reader on a little bit of ‘net history. From there, he takes the reader to several network hubs, data centers, and places where the Internet is at its most physical. Weaving in just enough historical, economic, and cultural context to ground his field work, Blum is able, in the course of 300 pages, to give even a novice reader a very good idea of just what goes into making the Internet work.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were those that delved into the larger impact the Internet’s physical form has had, particularly on local economies. Places like Ashburn, Virginia and The Dalles, Oregon have been transformed since becoming hotspots for network hubs and data centers, respectively. It’s proof that even though we think of the Internet as something that’s simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, it really does exist somewhere.

In short, this is a great book for those who are curious about the Internet. Blum has the gift of being a tech writer who can introduce some at-times high-concept and abstract ideas in a way that makes sense to the non-techie reader but isn’t dumbed down. You’ll have a better idea of how the Internet works after reading this, and you’ll start asking yourself some questions you never suspected you would.

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet


Total American poker revenue guestimate

I’ve heard many projections out there about the potential size of an American online poker market. I’ve yet to see a peer-review study that addresses the question, and most of them are mysterious when it comes to their methodology. Earlier this week while talking to a reporter, I gave my own attempt at finding the potential size of the national market for poker. I’ll run through my calculations here with complete transparency. I don’t have an ideological axe to grind either way–I’m just curious to see if it’s possible to arrive at a credible estimate using publicly-available figures.

First, I’m going to make a big assumption: that people nationwide will play poker in roughly the same proportion as Nevada gamblers. Nevada doesn’t have legal online poker, but it does have 915 poker tables, about enough for anyone who’s looking for a game. This is going to be a conservative estimate that assumes that legalizing online poker wouldn’t exponentially increase the number of poker players, but would instead attract players in the same ratio to the overall number of gamblers as Nevada casinos. That’s a big leap, and it may be completely wrong.

To find what percentage of Nevada gaming revenues are poker-derived, I divide the 2008 Nevada poker win, $115.7 million, by the total 2008 Nevada gambling win, $11.6 billion. I get .99655%, which I’ll around up to 1%.

That gives me the working hypothesis that we can expect legal poker to generate about 1 percent of the total revenue of legal casino gaming.

According to the American Gaming Association’s State of the States 2009 (pdf), commercial casinos brought in $32.54 billion in revenues in 2008 (this includes the Nevada totals).

According to Casino City Press’s 2008-09 Indian Gaming Industry Report (this isn’t available online), Class III (Vegas-style) Indian gaming facilities brought in $24.72 billion in revenue in 2007 (the latest year I can get my hands on).

Add them up and you get a total casino estimated annual American casino win of $57.26 billion.

One percent of that is $572.6 million.

Of course, that number could assumes that online players follow the same patterns as terrestrial poker players, and that people won’t alter their gambling behaviors too much with the addition of online poker. If Americans stopped playing the lottery instead and flocked to online poker, that number would be much, much higher. But then (if you are just legalizing poker to maximize tax revenues) you have the problem of propping up state lotteries, which often are instrumental in funding education. You could divert online poker taxes to pay for education instead, but then you haven’t really created any new revenue streams, you’ve just shifted the burden from lottery players to poker players.

I’d have to guess that the actual market is bigger, perhaps as much as a single order of magnitude, although again, if that is true, the money being spent on poker would have to come from somewhere, and other gambling expenditures seems the most likely place. I doubt that it would be much smaller. There are too many variables to say for sure what the market is, such as the extent to which those playing illegally today would move to legal sites, or how many home or club poker players would move online, or how many new players legal sites would create.

So as usual I’ve started with a question, worked at finding an answer, and end up with more questions. If anyone has a better estimate, or a better idea for getting the real estimate, let’s have a conversation about it.


Book Review: Ripped

Greg Kot. Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. New York: Scribner, 2009. 263 pages.

In the past ten years, the music industry has seen a revolution in marketing and distribution that’s truly unprecedented. In Ripped, Greg Kot describes the upheaval and tries to make sense of its meaning. He starts by describing the how the industry became, in the 1990s, “Consolidated to Death” thanks to mergers and acquisitions that concentrated the $14.6 billion-a-year industry in the hands of five huge corporations. Since these companies were driven to maximize shareholder value rather than foster musical or creative excellence, this led to pressure on bands to score immediate hits and made long-term career-building an impossibility for new artists.

But while the industry was becoming more concentrated, new technologies were threatened to undermine it. The entertainment conglomerates were successful because they had capital to underwrite expensive recording sessions and costly promotional efforts and the connections to secure radio and video airplay. The rise of the Internet in the 1990s began to undercut this dominance, then with the debut of Napster and succeeding file-sharing sites, completely overturned it.

The Internet changed music, Kot argues, by cutting out the middle-man. Whether this leads to a more diverse, more creative music scene or merely the substitution of one set of tastemakers for another remains to be seen.

On one level, file-sharing devastated the industry by making it possible for listeners to download music for free, rather than buying it. But this was only an accelerated version of music-sharing that had been going on since the introduction of the cassette tape, a process that was made quicker and easier by CD ripping and then moved into the digital age by using the Internet to swap mp3 files.

On the other, it undercut the stranglehold on opinion previously held by print magazine like Rolling Stone. Fanzines had been circulating for years, but they were expensive to produce and had minuscule readerships. Internet critics, on the other hand, were constrained only by their ability to listen to and opine on new music: uploading their reviews immediately and without much expense, they could be read by thousands. This led to a new critical presence, online sites and later blogs like pitchfork.com, which Kot profiles extensively.

Finally, the Internet let bands communicate directly with their fans, bypassing the record companies. The turning point, Kot argues, came in Fall 2001, when the band Wilco streamed its new album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free on its website after record label refused to release it. Other established artists, from Prince to Radiohead, took similar steps to sell or provide music directly to listeners, and lesser-known groups seized on online radio stations and sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook to get their music to potential fans.

Kot does a good job of chronicling the transformation of music in the Internet era, though there is a strong emphasis on alternative indie rock (Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie are some of the bands profiled) and mash-up artists, to the exclusion of other genres. There’s also the nagging sense that the new musical order will not, when all is said and done, lead to greater freedom for artists or a better selection of music for fans to choose from: it will merely result in the exchange of one set of gatekeepers for another. Does it really make a difference whether it’s an editor at Rolling Stone or at pitchfork.com who refuses to review a new album?

On the whole, it’s a good read that presents an in-depth view of the Internet era, focused on the alt rock scene. If your idea of good music is more Clint Black or Grover Washington (or anyplace in between), you might feel a bit like you’re reading about a foreign country whose language and customs you don’t really understand. For those interested in this kind of rock music and the influence of technology on culture, though, Ripped will be both rewarding and thought-provoking.

In my own reading, I was struck by some parallels and several divergences from the gaming industry, which is similarly concentrated and facing and similar leap to the digital frontier, but which is not subject to the same centrifugal forces as music, chiefly because the industry is organized around major resorts. Since ownership of them is more dictated by financial markets than technology, the Internet has not impacted the mainstream gaming industry to the same extent as music, though its effects on ancillary betting forms, particularly poker and sports betting, has been immense.

I may develop these thoughts further, but 760 words is enough for anyone in one day, I think.


States take the lead?

This story from the LA Times sums up what I’ve been saying about the prospects for Internet gaming in the new administration, and raises another possibility that I think is more realistic:

At a time of war and economic troubles, legislation on Internet gambling may not be high on President-elect Barack Obama’s to-do list.

But the issue is about to rear its head in Washington, in Sacramento and perhaps in other states in the coming year.

Internet gambling mogul Ruth Parasol and her husband, Russ DeLeon, retained Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations back in August and paid $30,000 to the firm to lobby on Internet gambling issues in the third quarter of 2008, Fleishman's latest filing shows.Internet_poker

Parasol grew up in Mill Valley in Northern California. But given her business, she is said to make her home overseas, in Gibraltar. Parasol made her millions by co-founding PartyPoker.com.

The business took a turn for the worse when Congress successfully sought to make Internet gambling illegal in 2006. That's no doubt where Fleishman would come in, although lobbyists there have not returned phone calls.

Meanwhile, back in Sacramento, lobbyists are contemplating legislation that would legalize Internet poker to be played solely within the boundaries of California.

Rodney Blonien, who represents California Commerce Club and Hollywood Park Casino, said current federal law would permit intrastate gambling over the Internet. As it is, he estimated, 2 million Californians a week gamble on Internet sites based offshore.

War? Healthcare? Energy? Recession? Let’s play poker | Top of the Ticket | Los Angeles Times.

The best hope for Internet gamers right now is to pursue regulation at the state level. As it is written UIGEA allows a state to permit and regulate Internet gaming within its own borders.

Suppose Nevada did what Blonien suggests California do. There’s already legislation in place to permit Internet gaming. It’s just a matter of ensuring identity (particularly age) and geographic verification. If a casino operator could prove to regulators that they had those problems solved, they could then get licensed and start accepting bets within the state of Nevada.

California wants some of that revenue, but let’s say they don’t want to license and regulate Internet casinos. They then sign a revenue-sharing agreement with Nevada and amend their laws to permit betting at licensed Nevada casinos. Since Internet betting is legal in both states, there can’t be any federal objection, and bettors would be free to use any financial instrument they liked to open accounts.

If this system works well and proves itself to be scandal-free and relatively bug-proof, you’d have an almost bullet-proof case for expanding Internet gaming elsewhere. Seeing as only two states in the US ban all betting, is there really a moral argument against allowing online betting?

You know, I once wrote a book on the topic. Sometimes even I forget about it.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that anything these days gets made or unmade law because of eloquently-stated public policy briefs or carefully considered social and economic arguments. So maybe the industry should just hire more lobbyists. Hey, they should ask for a bailout while they’re at it. It seems to be the way things work these days.


New AC website

Atlantic City’s got a new website:

Your trusted source for all things Atlantic City just got better! The new look and easy navigation will make using the site a cinch. In addition to new features such as Google searches and RSS feeds, all of the great things you love, like our calendar of events, room bookings and restaurant guides will still be there waiting for you and easier than ever to use. Check it out today!

But they still haven’t changed out that 5 year-old picture of the beach skyline. It’s really cool though, that they’ve finally got “Google searches.” I hear that’s the hot new search engine. I doubt it’ll ever be more popular than Infoseek, though.


Online gaming study

There’s a new study on online gambling, and the authors think that playing online should be regulated. From the LV Sun:

Gamblers in the UNLV study weren’t asked about gambling addiction, but rather what gambling meant to them and what motivated them to gamble online versus in bricks-and-mortar casinos. Researchers asked gamblers, 20 of whom primarily visited casinos and 10 of whom mostly gambled online, to create visual collages representing their feelings about gambling.

Alice, to illustrate how she felt about gambling online, showed a cartoon character fighting off a pack of bulldogs.

The study comes as the debate heats up around Internet gambling, which is the focus of at least five bills circulating through Congress.

The study doesn’t conveniently serve arguments for or against legalization of online gambling and therefore is unlikely to register in the debate. But it does offer a glimpse into an activity that is growing in popularity and is little understood by many involved in the debate.
Players in the political debate interpreted the study in contradictory ways.
Dressing down: Web gambling’s hallmark – Las Vegas Sun

I’m not so sure about this “visual collage” thing. It’s not the sort of thing I’d expect an adult to do. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if I was talking to someone and asked them to describe how they felt by selecting a cartoon, they would whack me in the head pretty hard. Maybe I should broaden my range of acquaintances.

The thing about gambling online is that it’s still just gambling. Sure, there are differences. But there are probably differences in how consumers relate to restricted slot locations (the bars, gas stations, and markets w/ 15 or fewer games) and major casinos. As I said yesterday (when I was talking about owner/investors) some people will win, some will lose. I would say that some are born to sing the blues, but I’d rather select a cartoon to tell you my mood than quote a Journey song here. The only problem is, they play it so often on the radio that I’ll never be able to forget it. Can we do a study on that?


What will it take?

Internet gambling is getting bigger and bigger. The NCAA, for example, has learned that, shockingly, people are using the phrase “March Madness” to promote betting on its championship tournament. And the organization is piping hot mad: it’s issued cease and desist orders.

To protect Americans from online gambling, two Congressmen have re-introduced the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. Ostensibly, they want to protect children “placed in harm’s way.” Seriously. But given the fact that other countries are free to license online betting sites, and it is difficult at best to restrict access to them (at least with things like privacy rights and freedom of information cluttering up the scene), it’s doubtful that Congress can legislate the ability to place bets online away. How could it be done?

Well, this is the approach that China is taking (from China Daily):

China’s Internet media and content providers have pledged to protect cyberspace from pornography, gambling and other “unhealthy content” through self-regulation and legal measures.

The call was made at a regular meeting on Saturday held by the Internet News Service Work Committee under the Internet Society of China (ISC) in Haikou, capital of China’s southernmost island province of Hainan.

“In 2005 alone, we received 127,010 complaints from the public, including 68.2 percent about pornography and 8.15 percent about gambling frauds,” said Li Jiaming of the ISC.

Li said since his center was established on June 10, 2004, it has received 240,000 complaints from the public.

The work committee passed several self-regulation agreements in 2005, pledging to improve the conduct of Internet Industry Participants and promote and ensure the sound development of the Internet industry in line with the law.

China to cut down on pornography and gambling

While I was interviewed for a newspaper article on the subject, I observed that, in a nation where the President is under fire for allowing law enforcement to eavesdrop on people who call al-Quaeda, voters are hardly likely to get behind any attempt to prevent Americans from gambling where they want. It might be a bit of an oversimplification, but I’ve learned that pithy beats laboriously analyzed any day of the week, particularly when you’re talking to a reported on deadline. Still, it’s something to ponder: do we want the government exercising China-style influence over the Internet?


The pope’s blogsite?

If the new pope wants to buy his own domain name and start a blog, he’s going to have to deal with a crafty web wizard who has just snapped up the name “BenedictXVI.com.” Good news, though: even if the pope doesn’t buy the domain, it won’t become another Texas Hold’Em site–but not for lack of trying.
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An interesting headline

China is cracking down on porn, gambling, and “religious cult” sites, and I don’t have too much in the way of innovative analysis. Still, I thought this was a catchy headline:

China Versus Porn: Round 2



For those of you awaiting my second book, today is a good day. I got the manuscript in the mail to University of Nevada Press, and look forward to a quick production process. With any luck, this should be out by Fall 2005.

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