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Larry Roberts has died (nytimes.com)
654 points by jbegley on Dec 30, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 93 comments

I highly recommend reading the book “Where Wizards Stay Up Late”, which covers much of the history that this article touches upon. Great book.


It's been years since I read that book, but the one thing that surprised me the most was how much the phone companies didn't believe in packet switching.

They thought anything that wasn't connection oriented was nonsense. The internet basically grew in spite of the established telcos, not thru them.

Around the same time as the book, Wired had an article "Netheads vs Bellheads" [1] which covers the same tension. It's interesting to read an article from a time when it was accepted knowledge that ATM was the future of the internet, and it was newsworthy that a few heretics thought otherwise.

[1] https://www.wired.com/1996/10/atm-3/

> phone companies didn't believe in packet switching.

Sure didn't. It's a terrible way to treat voice calls, and as far as the phone company was concerned, voice was the only thing.

Data could ride a voice-grade connection just fine, but voice suffered badly when "statistically multiplexed", a term used (oft derisively) to refer to packetization.

This is still true, by the way. Radio studios still use ISDN links to other studios, because they have fixed latency and incredibly low jitter.

Customers have gotten used to the latency of digital mobile phones, but some of us still remember the truly simultaneous conversation of a landline or analog cellphone. (I remember the rollout of digital, and the... and the con.... go ahead.... no, you go ahead... okay, the confusion as people were just learning to converse with a delay on the line.) It just turned out that cheaper capacity was more important.

ATM was always a dead-end, though. I think a lot of people knew that even as it was being deployed. If you're packetizing anyway, you might as well throw QoS right out the window and embrace nondeterminism wholeheartedly. It's cheaper, and that writing was already on the wall. Quality had been the mantra for the first hundred years of the Bell system, but deregulation and competition allowed the almighty dollar to prevail over every other concern. Enjoy the jitter!

In a lot of ways, modern voice calls-whether video or just voice-suck in comparison to old landline Ma Bell landline calls. It’s mostly a reasonable tradeoff but I had a hell of a lot fewer dropped calls in the old days.

You also had zero calls outside your house, in the car, or on the go :)

Hence "mostly a reasonable tradeoff." Even many of us who were adults pre-cell phones tend to forget just how tethered to landlines we often were. But we also mostly weren't yelling "Can you hear me NOW??" into our handsets.

> "Data could ride a voice-grade connection just..."

Perhaps this mindset was true at the AT&T / (eventual) RBOC level but at the R&D level I believe the story was different.

My father worked for Western Electric. For those who don't already know, WE's role was to take Bell Labs "raw" R&D and make it work commercially. In any case, when I was a pre-teen / teen (think early to mid 70's, if my memory serves me correctly) I remember going to an annual open house (for family members) an seeing demos on fiber optics.

Maybe the plan was to use fiber strictly for voice, but that feels odd to me.

p.s. Fwiw my father actually worked on a technology that then competed with fiber. As we know now, fiber won. My point is, there was a sense somewhere that additional capacity was necessary. That amount of investment for the growth of voice might be possible, but I don't think so.

Maybe the plan was to use fiber strictly for voice, but that feels odd to me.

If you've seen the eye-watering cost of 1600 pair copper bearers, not to mention the sheer time taken to joint it, you'd see why the telcos were keen on fibre for voice.


“SONET was originally designed to transport circuit mode communications from a variety of different sources, but they were primarily designed to support real-time, uncompressed, circuit-switched voice encoded in PCM format.”

Yes, I get the impression that the plan until ATM came along was to build exclusively circuit-based networks with most of the circuits used for voice and some for data.

Customers have gotten used to the latency of digital mobile phones, but some of us still remember the truly simultaneous conversation of a landline or analog cellphone

Right now in the UK there is a project to replace the emergency services radio network TETRA with a 4G based solution. Of course, it is horrifically late and over budget, so much so that it has well exceeded the costs it was supposed to save already. But its worst problem is the latency. On an old-fashioned system you can push to talk and say "don't shoot!" and be confident that's what the other callsign hears, but on the new system because of the latency all they will hear is "shoot!".

> On an old-fashioned system you can push to talk and say "don't shoot!" and be confident that's what the other callsign hears, but on the new system because of the latency all they will hear is "shoot!".

I know you're just using hyperbole make a point, but I very much doubt that the emergency services use voice commands as easily confused as "don't shoot" and "shoot".

According to this article https://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/01/08/airwave_tetra_switc... that is the example given by the Armed Forces as to why this is problematic

Push-to-talk latency isn’t a problem in the “it might replace SMS” scenario the mobile industry once envisaged for it, but it is in an emergency. The classic example the Armed Forces give is to imagine a commander who has a team of snipers on a roof pointing at a target. He gives the command: “Don’t shoot”. Unfortunately, in a cellular, IP based device, it takes a fraction of a second for the app to fire up and make a connection – a fraction of a second which is just long enough for the word “Don’t” to fail to make it into the message.

In my military training for the communications troops more than 35 years ago, we were drilled to "Think, Push, Breathe, Talk", because analog equipment has warmup latency, and besides, one would easily tend to unconsciously talk already while pushing the talk button.

If anything, it would be EASIER for digital equipment to work around this, analogous to how shutter buttons in digital cameras work: Run the microphone in always on mode and keep a short ring buffer of the audio prior to the button push.

That’s an odd example - surely the whole message will be delayed, and not cut off, unless you push the button before you start speaking?

Apparently delaying the message is rather hard for regular solutions. I've worked on a project where delaying the message (and playing a few tones first) was sufficiently hard that one of the reasons we got that project in the first place is because we actually could.

Thanks for the reference. I don't doubt that push-to-talk latency is a problem but I'm afraid my common sense still prevents me from believing that particular example, despite the Register's quotation of "the Armed Forces".

It may have delays, but there is no message cutting if you push the button before you talk.

Is there any way to get real-time voice connections over the modern internet?

Is it just a matter of setting up VOIP and then mercilessly debugging latency issues on both ends?

Is FaceTime or any other commercial solution close to zero latency?

Presumably a lot of the unavoidable latency (in any particular Internet path) compared to a dedicated switched circuit comes in when the routers examine packets, decode addresses, perform routing table lookups, execute routing algorithms, and then copy the packet into another interface.

If you had a physically switched circuit you could imagine that the data would travel over it at the speed of electricity in wires, while for packet switching there's some kind of software step and "hesitation" as the router "thinks" about the routing problem posed by each packet.

There are some Internet connections where the speed of light limitation dominates the routing issues, but I don't think this is the case most of the time when dealing with short-to-medium-distance connections involving multiple commercial ISPs. (Especially for peer-to-peer connections on residential broadband, you also don't have the latency benefit of a possible CDN node colocated with or direct CDN peering with your own ISP.)

So I think the best answer to most of your questions is "not really", although it would be really interesting to see a detailed breakdown in a traceroute of speed-of-physical-medium vs. various router tasks for each hop. (Then you could imagine improving some of these by changing the physical medium, reducing the number of hops via better or different peering arrangements, and getting fancier routers in some places that contribute less latency per hop.)

Periodically on HN we see pieces about the extreme lengths that people engaged in high-frequency trading will go to in order to get really low latency. Those folks know all the details of exactly where the latency comes in and exactly what could be done about it. But the huge expense and trouble that they have to go to in order to get some of these improvements suggests to me that we're probably not going to see the same improvements easily on the typical consumer broadband connection.

Decision time in the router usually isn’t an issue. That’s mostly a fixed cost that can easily be kept under a millisecond. Most of the time gets spent queueing for your turn to either come off of the interface or to go onto the egress interface.

All of your jitter in a stable configuration router is going to be coming from those varying queue depths.

Thanks, I don't really have any intuition for the relative contribution of these factors!

> people engaged in high-frequency trading

These people pay to have their servers colocated with the trading servers they are communicating with. That would be like having a VoIP call with someone sitting next to you connected to the same switch.

Though I doubt the difference between a 50ms vs 2ms latency would be perceivable for a phone communication.

If by "modern internet", you mean TCP/IP, then no. You'd need a circuit-switched network to do that, and those are all obscure/niche networks except for the Public Switched Telephone Network.

Real landlines work even if the power is out.

> as far as the phone company was concerned, voice was the only thing

I wish the phone companies would take another look at the way they handle voice calls. The entire experience is terrible. You can get better voice quality and less spam using just about any service (like Facetime or Skype) other than a standard voice line.

I don't know about that, Skype clogged up with random invitations and messages (when I last used it 6-7 years ago..) about as often as I get spam calls now.

I get at least two spam calls per day now. My record in one day is eight calls. I've started using Google's call screen feature and that makes it much more bearable, but really I wish I could have my phone give a busy signal to anybody not in my address book.

I get maybe four or five spam Skype invites per year.

> Radio studios still use ISDN links to other studios, because they have fixed latency and incredibly low jitter.

Can confirm. We have a good friend here in LA who is a voice actor (among other talents).

He still pays for an ISDN line at his residence to allow remote work — obviously, high audio quality is a must have for professional use.

At work I have our VoIP phones (and fax ATA) running over a cheap T1 connection. Never had a call quality problem. It's amazing.

I also remember the very high latency of long distance, international calls from the analog days.

For those wondering what a reference to an "IPhone" is doing in a story from 1996 -- it's referring to the Infogear/Cisco/Linksys IPhone; a VOIP product.


I worked on code, protocols and a chipset for ATM and it was very, very quickly obvious that in the LAN environment ATM LANE was a total mess and the supposed driver for LAN ATM was desktop video conferencing which "required" QoS. At the time the competing LAN technolgies were 10Mbps Ethernet and 16Mbps token ring. What became very, very obvious was that 100Mbps Ethernet with switches was doing to win because... known technology (for IT departments), same cabling. I was just a peon but watching upper management talk about ATM being the future was very instructive: they weren't close to customers.

You might enjoy this 1996 presentation from my old employer: https://www.slideshare.net/redpineapple/atm-sales-from-madge...

Technological progress was much faster than political progress. - Joseph Henry Condon, Bell Labs

A generation before, with the telephone:

This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us. What use could this company make of an electrical toy? - Western Union (1878)

Two generations before, with printing:

The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter. - Thomas Hobbes (17th century)


A little bit of history, repeating... - Alex Gifford (1997)

.. via http://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup

I think Hobbes is right there, if you include the "compared with the invention of letters" part of his sentiment.

Writing as a whole is a more difficult, more consequential, and more culturally challenging invention than printing (even though printing is definitely all three of those things).

Before print (and after it but not yet relying on it) we had literacy, schools, mathematics, written personal and scientific correspondence, accounting, and to some extent written legislation and written accounts of legal and governmental decisions. All of those things were definitely expensive and largely elite phenomena in many places, but they were all real and had enormous impacts. People today still avidly study sacred texts that were written down hundreds and even thousands of years before the advent of printing, as well as history and literature from the same timeframe.

Thomas Hobbes had his own works printed during his lifetime, so I don't think he meant to suggest that printing was a useless curiosity.

You can probably find much more naive and categorical dismissals of printing from around that time. :-)

(Also, I think you might mean "century" rather than "generation".)

Agreed. Also prior to writing there was also folklore, which was surprisingly accurate: there have been many major events from folklore verified by science (earthquakes, astrological events, extreme weather / floods, etc.) IIRC in some cases (Australian aborigines) well over 5,000 years ago (they have been in Australia for 60,000 years!). FWIW I meant generation in the sense of a generation of communications technology, rather than a human. Who measures in human lifespans these days? Hehe.

Folklore does work, but it’s incredibly lossy and low bandwidth. It’s incredible how little of the aborigine history for the 40k years was preserved, even taking into account the mass murder of many of the elders.

In addition I'd also recommend "Casting the Net" by Peter H Salus:


I have both books (each now over 20 years old), but I think "Casting the Net" is a slightly more rigorous and somewhat less "journalisty" history with a better collection of diagrams and scribbles by the key figures involved.

And don't forget "The Dream Machine" (https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Machine-Licklider-Revolution-Co...).

It's not solely about the internet but does an awesome job covering the rise of the PC industry and the launch of the internet.

I'm just about finishing the Stripe Press re-release. It's an amazing collection of stories in a beautiful book. Can highly recommend it.

Looks great,I am about to order. From the intro on Amazon: "Twenty-five years ago, it didn't exist. Today <1998!> 20 million people worldwide are surfing the Net."

Lovely description: "Twenty five years ago, it didn't exist. Today, twenty million people worldwide are surfing the Net".

This book is mediocre at best, first time I had trouble getting past the first half of a book in ages.

If you're going to be that critical of something, you should probably offer some reasons. Personally, I've read the book and remember it as being a decent history if not a particular page turner.

The pages dragged on and on, it could have been half the length it was and lost nothing of value. I find the topic interesting and was looking forward to reading this book based on other HN comments, but it was not written in a way that I find engaging at all.

Edit: the intention of my comment is to prevent another user like myself from being disappointed if they have better things to read. Reading is a time-consuming process, I'm rather annoyed when I bother to read a book that leaves me feeling like I've wasted a significant amount of time with little to show for it.

Based on another comment here, I'd recommend giving Casting the Net a read instead.

On one hand, I hear you and agree.

On the other hand, 95% of the non-fiction I read usually feels like it could be half as long.

Yeah. You're wasting half your time. But the question always remains: which half? ;)

Non-fiction writing will often repeat the same thing in different ways. Different phrasings resonate with different readers. The goal of the nonfiction writer is communication, not entertainment, and he will try to illuminate his subject from different angles to reach the widest audience.

Some of it is economics. You can't really publish a standard book that's less than 200-300 pages. It's also the case that a lot of "filler" does add to the readability and general intellectual heft of a book; the reader's digest form really wouldn't have as big an impact.

I would many times pay extra for a shorter book on a subject. Maybe some books could be padded with a few hundred blank pages so that it would be the acceptable thickness for publishing?

With regards to your edit, I feel the same way.

I found it spellbinding, personally. I guess it depends on how well the author's style works for you.

I subsequently lost my copy in a flood, but I quite enjoyed reading it.

It's easy to underestimate the importance of actually deploying those first long-distance internet links, at substantial expense. Links within a campus weren't compelling enough to invent things like email to make use of them, because you could just walk over to the other guy's office. But high-speed (for the time) links between campuses made people want to use them for real work.

I wonder if they knew how powerful this infrastructure would be at the time they did it. This presentation [1] (by Larry Roberts, actually) indicates that basically nobody other than ARPA actually wanted this capability - the other big institutions at the time either didn't want to share their data (universities) or thought the whole technical approach was crazy and brain-dead (telcos).

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkD4HVRnGJE#t=580

Large institutions had these capabilities since the 1960s. There were parallel universes like Tymnet and companies would set up first party networks using vendor protocols like IBM's SNA (which had a few precursors like QTAM). Users were concentrated onto large machines but machine to machine communication was equally important. This history and significance seems appallingly preserved.

There were even parallel universe packet switched networks by phone companies like Bell and MCI in the US.

The novelty of the ARPANet was that it allowed for the construction of a resilient open access network (Tymnet and various phone companies packet switchers were centrally administered walled gardens). Once the code was coupled to UNIX in the form TCP in BSD, it rode that wave and the sequel of "open systems" a few years later into ubiquity across all operating systems.

Yes as a former member of TEC (Tymnet Engineering centre) the whole OSI networking tech is poorly documented.

I remember running map reduce code on the largest(non black) UK PR1ME network in the 80's which was cool.

OSI's problem was it was designed in a world where each country would usually have a single PTT - in the UK it also suffered from not billing as an all you can eat model.

Tymnet existed into the 1990s at least. I used it for dial-up access to servers at work for remote nighttime support of batch jobs. I don't miss those 2am calls.

The auto assembly plant I worked in had SNA (active, but unused) in 2006.

Various circuit switched (ISDN) or non-IP packet switched technologies (SNA/X.25/Frame Relay) are apparently often used as backup links for various automotive EDI stuff for JIT ordering.

It was the uplink to the mothership for vehicle content broadcast. JIT was local DSL.

In college (on the arpanet) I teleneted to all the hosts on the internet (cross country) and back to where I was (a major ivy university). Just for fun. Just to see how long it took for my keystrokes to return. Back then no pw was needed to do that.

To those who have never used a green terminal or teletype it was actually plenty of fun. The teletype was fun because of the noise and the tactile feeback you got and printing pounding out some output. The green terminal was fun because crt's are mesmerizing or at least they were to me. I still have one of the computer tapes that I had to buy to store the 'programs' that I wrote.

(One of the TA's in the computer center was Eric Raymond..).

I knew Larry Roberts in the mid 1980's when he was on the Board of OCLC (a library network). At the time he was president of a company on the west coast of the US and another on the east coast. He claimed to visit both of them every week! He was excited about Group 3 fax that was going to rapidly change how libraries worked and tried to convince OCLC to replace our computers with a network of IBM AT's. Both ideas had just enough sense to be dangerous, but the software, networks and general infrastructure wasn't there yet and it was beyond our capability to build them.

Interesting. The Times interviewed him in May of this year for his own obituary.

"He recalled that one of his youthful experiments produced a chlorine gas byproduct, 'which put me in the hospital under an oxygen tent because I sniffed it to see what was happening,' he said in an interview for this obituary in May."

It’s actually somewhat common. They have ~1000 obit drafts prewritten at any given time, including interviews with subjects when it’s possible.

> It’s actually somewhat common ...

Phew I thought you were referring to chlorine gas poisoning for a moment :-)

We had a pretty crazy science teacher when I was in grade 8. If we'd been anywhere in the West he would have probably been suspended for gross negligence faster than anything, but we kids loved him :D

One day we were covering chlorine in chemistry class, so he simply decided to make some. We didn't have a fume cupboard or anything (our lab at the time was still very rudimentary), so we simply set the equipment up on a desk and waited for things to happen. When green smoke started billowing forth, we hurriedly opened all the windows and evacuated the lab. All other science lessons that day had to take place in different classrooms...

This was the same guy who showed us the thermite reaction - indoors - and with whom we used potassium+water to light a bunsen burner when we'd run out of matches. This year I was back at that school, now as a science teacher myself, and was there for the move into a fancy new lab building. But the old lab still had the burn marks on the ceiling, from some of his wilder experiments...

Indoor thermite and burn marks on the ceiling (and other stuff I won't mention now) also happens in the US, at least as of 10 years ago when I was in high school. I loved that class.

I hope it is because otherwise I'm a moron.

I managed to chlorine-gas myself right before a date once because I threw a little bleach on the bathroom floor before I took a shower and it turns out there was a mostly dried puddle of piss in the same spot. Only thing worse than chlorine gas is chlorine gas that's been nebulized from steam...


My Dad was a high school principal and I got to play around with chemical kits as a young 'un.

Never poisoned myself but must have come close.

I once decided to add some ammonia to bleach water while mopping a walk in produce cooler. Bad idea but didn’t put me in the hospital luckily.

Generally, you are unlikely to be poisoned by chloramine because most cleaning solutions are dilute, and the amount needed to be actively harmful is far above that which is required to make the scent obvious and give you a warning to move away.

That picture is not from "a conference in Spain". They received the Prince of Asturias Award. This is the most important award you can get in Spain. It is similar in spirit to Nobel prizes. Of course, it does not have the same prestige, but NYT should know better.


That’s the caption of the photo from Getty Images which is an accurate depiction of what’s in the photograph, it does not depict the award ceremony itself.

“Internet Pioneers Attend Media Conference OVIEDO, SPAIN - OCTOBER 24: (L-R) Internet pioneers Vinton Cerf, Lawrence Roberts, Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee attend a media conference the day before they receive the Prince of Asturias award for Science and Technology investigation October 24, 2002 in Oviedo, Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)”


> One thing you ought to watch out for is you can’t send out personal message stuff, that’s illegal. That’s against the postal laws and you’ll be in jail in no time.

Is this true, that "postal laws" used to prohibit personal email?

I've heard that interpretation. The US post office has a government-granted monopoly on delivering mail. There was an exception in the original law for "extremely urgent material", which allowed Fedex to come into existence [0]. If Fedex hadn't been tough (and beloved by law firms who needed a lot of overnight delivery) they might well have been sued out of existence by the USPS.

So early users of email tried to be careful to not too obviously use it a replacement for postal mail.

[0] https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-US-postal-service-considere...

If a few people are doing something illegal, it's a crime. If everyone is doing something illegal, it quickly stops being a crime, or there is widespread outrage when someone is prosecuted.

If only.

(Counterexamples: Drug laws, speeding laws, digital piracy...)

I once worked for a guy in the early 90's the said to stop fiddling with that UUNET machine... the government's never going to let anyone the Internet for commercial purposes. He genuinely believed it too.

Unlikely as a practical matter. At least we never considered it as something in the 1970s. Commercial activity more broadly was a more significant issue but that was dealt with before it became a broad concern.

Is it still illegal?


Recommendation: I saw the black bar but this post was already fairly far down the page, maybe make clicking on the bar take you to the post that precipitated it.

I have a second recommendation: Since Nancy Grace Roman has also died, it's not clear whom the bar is for. Possibly for both? It would be nice if there was a way to find out. Maybe something in the footer, or as you say, by making something clickable.

I have this problem with flags at half-mast in my town, also. It's at half-mast quite often, but people seldom know why.

Wow... it's a spacer gif: <tr><td bgcolor="#000000"><img src="s.gif" height="5" width="0"></td></tr>

here is his website, doesn't seem very updated (latest stuff is from 2009). RIP http://packet.cc/

Indeed, another one of the legendary internet pioneers are now gone.

And meanwhile his efforts help route around the loss.

Did the internet just learn of Roberts death today? He died 4 days ago. Is the black bar for Roberts? If so, why wasn't this up 4 days ago?

> ...why wasn't this up 4 days ago?

Because the NYT obituary linked here was published today.

As far as I can tell, this was the first posting of the news to HN. Surprising that it took 4 days to appear.

Yes, it was surprising is all, I meant no offense.

death fucking sucks

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