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Robert McMillen: What Everyone Gets Wrong In the Debate Over Net Neutrality 270

ygslash writes "Robert McMillen of Wired claims that we have gotten Net Neutrality all wrong. While we are all busy arguing about whether there should be regulations preventing large content providers from getting preferential bandwidth, McMillen says that not only have the large content providers already had preferential bandwidth for ten years, but that by now this has become an inherent part of the structure of the Internet and in practice cannot be changed. Instead, he says, the Net Neutrality discussion should be about ensuring a free and open competitive market for bandwidth, so that anyone who wants bandwidth can purchase it at a fair price.
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Robert McMillen: What Everyone Gets Wrong In the Debate Over Net Neutrality

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  • by supertrooper ( 2073218 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:23AM (#47297633)
    ...but he got it right? Sure, why not.
  • Why not both? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:27AM (#47297651)

    Why can't we have both what McMillen is asking for, AND prevent fast lanes. That seems the *most* logical of all. They are not exclusive, they are two separate systemic problems.

  • Strawman (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jythie ( 914043 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:28AM (#47297655)
    While there might be outliers, I generally do not hear the pro-NN crowd claiming that direct peering or colocation should be outlawed, only that traffic should not be shaped based off its origin. So if some data comes in through, say, Level 3, all that should matter is that the data is coming through that pipe, not where it originated from on someone else's network.
  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:31AM (#47297675) Homepage
    The debate about net neutrality is not really about 'equal' speeds. That concept is a ridiculous over-simplification. People in NYC get faster internet access, particularly to things like stock trades that are hosted in NYC, than those in Nome, Alaska. Similarly, when the USA's Constitution says all people are created equal, we don't mean that they all have the same IQ, or are all entitled to the same retirement plan (Sad to say we don't even mean they are all entitled to the same healthcare).

    No. Net neutrality is about ISP's not violating their contracts with their customers.

    My ISP works for ME. I pay them to provide X amount of service. As such they are legally required to provide me with X amount of service, even if take full advantage of their service and use X amount of service every single second of the day. They can't promise me 10gb/second, and then only give me 10gb/second for ten minutes a day, switching to 5 gb/second after those ten minutes.

    They are perfectly allowed to give me MORE than 10gbs a second, if someone else - like say Google - offers to pay for it.

    But they can decide to not give me 10gbs because netflix refuses to bow down to extortion from them, even if I am using all 10gbs every second of every day of every month. Nothing netflix or other companies do gives them permission to break their contract with me.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:36AM (#47297711)

    No, the net neutrality "commies" would have the taxi which takes you to the restaurant drive at the best speed, and not slow to a crawl if your restaurant of choice hasn't paid off the taxi company.

  • by sinij ( 911942 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:39AM (#47297741)

    Libertarian market driven approaches of 'perfectly informed' customers having access to 'flexible supply' are only workable on paper. Sure, it would be nice if we could get there, but meanwhile our situation continuing to deteriorate. Time to abandon this quixotic quest.
    What we need is "mostly works for most people most of the time", and to get there we need policy with teeth that mandates Net Neutrality. Sure, it won't prevent all abuses, but we only need to prevent worst of them and let the rest play out in courts.

  • by smoothnorman ( 1670542 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:41AM (#47297753) not a worthy goal. Robert McMillen is essentially saying "the market is historically uncompetitive" (and thus broken) "but that's not the point" (i always love it when people tell me that their point is the point) "you should be able to receive [only] that broken product at a fair price". If he actually believes and understands what he's saying then he's promoting a system of government supported monopolistic and anti-capitalistic cronyism. (i'll leave it to Godwin to apply a label to that system)
  • by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:45AM (#47297787)

    No. The problem without net neutrality would be that a provider charges on both sides.

    Or to pick up your restaurant analogy. Everyone is paying for their internet access already. Different prices, according to a free market. Dialup custumers pay $5 for their cornbread internet connection, Cable/Dsl customers pay Lobster prices for fast internet connection, and companies like Google and Netflix pay several complete buffets at a dozen restaurants to connect directly to each of the restaurants internet backbones.

    The proposed anti-neutrality would make it legal for corn farming assosications to pay a restaurant money for serving cornbread to anyone, no matter if they ordered and payed for cornbread or lobster. Or in internet terms again: artificially slow down delivery to customers who already paid more for a faster internet connection.

  • Re:Strawman (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jythie ( 914043 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:46AM (#47297793)
    I have a hard time swallowing the 'asymmetric' argument. Comcast's customers are, after all, paying for access to that data, Comcast is supposed to simply be a path. If the cost of delivering that data is really that unfair on Comcast, then they need to charge their customers more and build out more infrastructure to support the increased load. That is what we pay them for.
  • by Joe Gillian ( 3683399 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:49AM (#47297811)

    What the author of the article gets wrong is the idea that there can ever be a "free and open" market for bandwidth. The holders of the most bandwidth are always going to be major corporations, because they can pay for the infrastructure necessary to keep them going. Sure, I'd love to have my own backbone connection and the server infrastructure to back it up, but in practice that will never happen unless I take out a bunch of loans and somehow manage to start my own ISP (and not be immediately sued out of existence by Big Telco or Big Cableco). It's a financial issue, not one of net neutrality.

    The real issue here is that the United States will never have bandwidth and speeds equivalent to those seen in parts of Europe and Asia unless we start regulating what the ISPs can sell and how they can sell it. Right now, an ISP can promise a connection that goes "up to" any arbitrary amount of bandwidth and get away with it even if they never deliver speeds anywhere close to the upper limit. This allows them to charge more and more for the same inadequate connection. If we start regulating their advertising and start forcing the ISPs to upgrade infrastructure to remain competitive, that's how we'll get the connection speed other countries do. That, in my mind, is part of what net neutrality is - being able to buy comparable connection speeds for a reasonable price no matter where in the world you are or which ISP you're dealing with.

  • by Joel Cahoon ( 2906501 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @10:52AM (#47297827)
    I fail to see how CDNs and direct peering agreements between ISPs and content providers are particularly relevant to the debate over Net Neutrality. As an analogy:

    Comcast owns all of the land and roads in a city (or region, or neighborhood). Google wants to deliver goods to customers in that city, but their warehouse is in another city. Google and Mom-n-Pop Content Provider, Inc. both use the same publicly funded highway to get their goods into the city, and the same Comcast-owned roads to deliver to customers throughout the city. Comcast can deliver goods faster because they have a warehouse in the city. So Google pays to build an air-delivery network (peering) and a warehouse in the city (CDN). I don't see the problem with any of this. The analog to net neutrality, then, becomes whether or not to allow Comcast to (abuse its monopoly ownership of the roads to) raise or lower the speed limit for individual delivery trucks, based upon whether or not they belong to Google, Comcast, or Mom-n-Pop.

    As I've said, IANANE, so feel free to point out any relevant inconsistencies in this analogy. On an 'unrelated' note, Amazon...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:13AM (#47297971)

    No, idiot. It's like a restaurant that only serves cheeseburgers. You can either pay $50 to get in the fast lane and get your cheeseburger fast, or you can eat your $5 cheeseburger cold.

  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:15AM (#47297983) Journal

    What are there, maybe a dozen or so of us left in Amerika that believe in free markets?

    If the ISP/telecom market were truly a free market, you might have had a point.

  • by mellon ( 7048 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:19AM (#47298001) Homepage

    Well, his chart is a good clarifying bit. But aside from that, he seems to be in complete agreement with John Oliver and all the other stories I've read on the topic: the problem is, truly, not with fast lanes, but with slow lanes. If they were not dicking with Level 3 by giving them a more congested link than they give Google, we would have nothing to complain about. The point about the last mile is also true, and going back to Common Carrier-based regulation would address that point, because it would re-open the ability of the FCC to require carriers to sell last-mile bandwidth to their own internal business units for the same price that they sell it to competitors. This is not something new to the discussion, although I will admit that not every article about Net Neutrality covers it.

    So I guess this article is worth reading, because I think it does hit on all the major points, but the characterization that it's the first to do so, and that everybody else has gotten it wrong, is essentially clickbait. Forgivable, since in this case the article is worth reading.

  • Re:Strawman (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bengie ( 1121981 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:34AM (#47298125)
    I made the same mistake my first read through. They were not talking about asymmetric bandwidth, but asymmetric value. Comcast finds it more valuable to not provide the service their customers paid for than to spend money investing into their infrastructure to actually deliver what they advertise.

    This is a competition problem. It's hard to use the law to create competition, but it's easy to put restrictions on what a company can do.

    What we really need to do is just classify what Comcast et al are doing as fraud. They should have to deliver what they advertise and not have an escape from providing sub 1% service because "up to".

    If Ford advertised that their car got "up to" 40mpg on the highway, then you took their car out on a 65mph interstate with no traffic and got 0.5mpg, I'm sure Ford would be in a word of hurt.
  • by BronsCon ( 927697 ) <> on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:45AM (#47298211) Journal

    First, what is wrong with a provider charging on both sides? If Netflix wants to push terabits of data through a network, why shouldn't the network owner be able to charge Netflix for that? You baldly state "The problem..." and provide no support as to why your "problem" is just that. Given that it's the way the internet currently works, how do we know prohibiting such behavior would result in any improvement?

    The first thing wrong, here, is your understanding of the issue. Netflix pays their provider already, and they push their data through their provider; that provider, then, pushes the data through the next provider, and so on, and so forth, until it reaches the intended user. In essence, it is not Netflix pushing the data through each provider, but rather each consecutive provider pushing the data to the next, and they all have peering agreements which should cover situations where there is an imbalance in traffic. None of this is, nor should be, of any concern to Netflix or the end user, so long as they are both paying their respective providers.

    Post a package from the US to China. Do it. Pick a random address in China, put a random item in a box, drive to the post office, and send the box to that address. How many providers carry that box? At least 2. How many do you pay? One. We're talking about the same concept, here.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:47AM (#47298225)

    This is exactly the problem, it isn't the fast lanes. I don't think anyone who wants a fast lane and wants to pay for it is wrong, and the companies offering it should be allowed to provide it.

    The biggest problem, as I see in Canada is that there are ONLY two lines running to my house, one line is owned by Bell, the other owned by Rogers. This means that any service I get is dictated by their equipment.

    I can go to other providers who have, by law, been allowed to use this last mile, but that doesn't mean Rogers or Bell can't dick around with my connection.

    I'm fine to pay the carriage fee to Bell, or Rogers to get to my house, whatever, they ponied up the cash to install the lines, so charge a $5.00 a month fee, or $10.00 a month fee for the last mile, but if I am paying for it it better damned well work and there better be someone responsible to actually manage it.

    On top of that, then I should be able to choose whomever I want to provide my service, and technically I can and do, but I should be allowed to purchase a 10-30-100-150Mbps connection, and HAVE that bandwidth available.

    Again net neutrality is not about whether or not I have a 1Mbps connection or a 1Gbps connection, those are all options on the menu of choices. What is important is that when I pay for 1Gbps, with unlimited bandwidth that whether I open Facebook, the Globe & Mail, a Porn site, download a bit torrent or connect to Netflix, NOBODY should be able to touch the speed of my connection, or throttle my traffic based upon the type of traffic.

    Let me state that again:
    Net neutrality is not about the speed of the connection it is about someone modifying the speed of my connection based on the type of data I am accessing.
    If I explicitly pay for a connection that is going to be 'Speed X' and there is no stipulation that connections to Netflix will be down-speeded, then that is what I should get.

    This does NOT mean that my connection to Netflix is guaranteed, not in the least, but my connection through my provider CAN NOT be messed with, unless I have a package, or service that suggests otherwise.

    If Granny only wants to get a 1Mbps second connection so she can check email or look at videos on Facebook, then sell her that connection, but don't turn around and sell me a 10Mbps connection and tell me that the reason my connection to Netflix is slow is because of the backhaul on the internet when I know damned well that you have sole my 10Mbps connection to 12 Grannies who all happen to be watching the world cup of knitting at the same time, in the hopes that you will get a quicker return on your investment.

  • by whistlingtony ( 691548 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @11:59AM (#47298315)

    I love the Free Market crowd. I usually just challenge them to show me a free market, one that isn't tinkered with by a large organization (government or private) anywhere in the world.... I'll wait.

    Free Markets are a useful tool to explain some economics concepts, but do not exist in real life.

  • by pepty ( 1976012 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:04PM (#47298365)
    This analogy is falling apart, but: It's not a demand that all entrees be equally priced. It's whether the guy who owns ALL of the restaurants in town can charge more for fish and deliver it cold and 20 minutes after the other seafood entrees sent to the table if that fish was sourced from a competitor instead of from his own fishing boat like the other seafood items. Not really a problem in a competitive market, but a big problem in monopolies and duopolies.
  • SciFi come to life (Score:5, Insightful)

    by whistlingtony ( 691548 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:11PM (#47298423)

    Everyone's arguing about this or that net neutrality opinion... They're missing the big point. The internet is a miracle, and we shouldn't fuck it up.

    I didn't have the internet when I grew up. When I wanted to know something, I had to go to the library and read for hours. When I wanted to communicate with someone, I had to write a letter and wait weeks. When I wanted to shop remotely, I had to get a catalog, fill out a form, send a check, and wait 4-6 weeks for delivery...

    The idea of instantaneous (or near enough) access to all the knowledge and culture of humanity was a science fiction pipe dream that would only come in a fantastic future. We don't have flying cars, but we DO have access to all the knowledge and culture of humanity. That's AMAZING. That's a miracle.

    We finally invented the future. It's here. We have an amazing tool. Now some assholes want to gate it off and double dip, to charge you more than they should, and to charge the giver of knowledge or culture more to be seen, even though we're both already paying for connection.

    This is outrageous. This is why we need net neutrality. Real net neutrality. The pipes should not be allowed to dictate WHO gets to play in the bright future.

  • by pepty ( 1976012 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:15PM (#47298463)

    First, what is wrong with a provider charging on both sides?

    Nothing really, so long as different charges and levels of access aren't used to put competing content providers at a disadvantage. If your electric company was also a distributor for Anheuser Busch would you object if they charged more for electricity and let the voltage wander when your refrigerator was full of Stone smoked porter instead of Michelob? Charge more for better service by all means, but a utility (which is how broadband should be classified) shouldn't play favorites.

  • by guruevi ( 827432 ) <evi&evcircuits,com> on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:17PM (#47298479) Homepage

    Net Neutrality is about preventing the providers from fiddling with your bandwidth simply because they want to extort money.

    QoS was never part of Net Neutrality. If a Google or an Amazon wants to pay 1Mbps for a line directly to my house, that is FINE with me. They pay for the QoS and peering agreements at that point. However that does not mean the provider can now give me 9Mbps instead of 10Mbps because the Googles of this world paid for 1Mbps direct lines. And that is what this is all about. Comcast/TWC wants to sell my 10Mbps that I have over and over again to the highest bidders so I have 1Mbps to the Google, 1Mbps to the Netflix, 1Mbps to the Amazon and 7Mbps for the rest of the world. I want my 10Mbps and decide who I want to get services from.

    I paid Comcast/TWC for the 10Mbps, I could reasonably assume that they give me 10Mbps to the "Internet". They pay for peering at an Internet Exchange. Google pays for peering at an IX, Netflix pays for peering at an IX. The IX makes sure that there is plenty of bandwidth at the IX to have the 10Mbps from Google to go to Netflix and TWC. The problem is now TWC wants to squeeze the Netflixes and the Googles simply because they are a large portion of the traffic they've been seeing and thus they're an easy target. TWC has been oversubscribed 1000:1 and even though data requirements have increased 10-fold, I am still at the same speed that I had 10-15 years ago. So now they need to actually get along with the rest of the world and they don't want to, they'd rather someone else pay for it (over and over again).

    In a free market, I would go to whoever gave me the fastest connection to the Netflix. However in the US at least there is no choice so I am at the mercy of my provider. And even though they are a monopoly, they also don't want to be classified as a utility since then they could be regulated and forced to play fair like my other utilities.

  • by frank_adrian314159 ( 469671 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:20PM (#47298509) Homepage

    ... it would be nice to know if it has a source.

    Well, I would assume it emerges as a corollary of a Libertarian mind-set that wants a market solution for everything. Don't attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by stupidity.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:29PM (#47298579)

    I'd say the illegal drug trade market could be an example of a free market at work. Every buyer and seller has the same risks and same barriers to entry.

  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:38PM (#47298653) Journal

    I love the Free Market crowd. I usually just challenge them to show me a free market, one that isn't tinkered with by a large organization (government or private) anywhere in the world.... I'll wait.

    Free Markets are a useful tool to explain some economics concepts, but do not exist in real life.

    It's not an either/or thing, but a question of how much impingement there is on the consumers' freedom to choose before you can confidently declare the market free or closed.

    For example, grocery stores are a free market almost everywhere - there are different companies competing for your food-buying money, no artificial barriers to entry, and the choices can be freely made or changed without any undue burden on the consumer.

    Out here (PDX Metro) we have chains like Kroger (viz. Fred Meyer) Albertson's, Safeway, Thriftway, Wal-Mart, Target, the organic/new-age stores like Whole Foods, New Seasons, Trader Joe's, the little independent operators (including ethnic stores like Uwijamaya (Beaverton), various Latino, Vietnamese, Filipino, Russian and Halal markets, etc), and finally the farmers' markets and vegetable stands. Sure, they have various regulations (see also FDA, USDA, ABC and other various state boards), but a typical middle-class family can pick and choose what and where they shop, can do so in almost a literal heartbeat, and these stores all know it.

    As a result, these stores go out of their way to entice you to spend money there, and none of them would dare try to overtly screw you over, lest word get out and the store's sales collapse. They also know full well that anybody can open a new store, wow the customers, and suck up all the money (which is why the local New Seasons store is giving Whole Foods and Trader Joe's a huge run for their money). The barriers to entry are relatively low - most of those barriers being related to food safety regulations.


    On the other extreme, you have the telecoms, which are pretty much a closed market. In a given area, you have a couple of choices, each with various restrictions or limitations. Minus dial-up, you're usually stuck with one or two at the most (Cable and/or DSL), with perhaps a third if you're lucky (FIOS). In rural areas, you;re stuck with maybe one if you're lucky (usually low-end DSL). They know full well that you have no real choice, and they happily collude on pricing, caps, and limitations. Comcast knows full well that Charter or Time-Warner aren't going to show up and provide competition for cable broadband. CenturyStink knows that they won't see another DSL provider rear its head and start providing competing DSL. And besides, where are you going to go? If you get mad at Comcast, your only other options are to ditch your 50mbps cable line for a 15-20 mbps DSL line in most cases, or if you can still get FIOS, you could go there, but either way, the 'competition' is not all that much different if they also decide to screw you over when it comes to how fast and how much data you give/get. Finally, the barriers to entry are relatively high - only someone the size of Google could intrude on their cozy little setup.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:53PM (#47298765)

    If Netflix wants to push terabits of data through a network, why shouldn't the network owner be able to charge Netflix for that?

    The first thing wrong, here, is your understanding of the issue. Netflix pays their provider already, and they push their data through their provider; that provider, then, pushes the data through the next provider, and so on, and so forth, until it reaches the intended user. In essence, it is not Netflix pushing the data through each provider, but rather each consecutive provider pushing the data to the next, and they all have peering agreements which should cover situations where there is an imbalance in traffic.

    It's more than even just that. Netflix was not pushing data through Comcast's network, Comcast's network was asking to receive the data; then Comcast turned around and claimed that Netflix would need to pay Comcast for the privilege of responding to the requests from Comcast.

  • by Kremmy ( 793693 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:54PM (#47298769)
    A cache option at the end-user would do absolutely nothing to solve the problem. It's the same situation: You're sending all that data to the end user.

  • by Chas ( 5144 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:56PM (#47298787) Homepage Journal

    First, what is wrong with a provider charging on both sides?

    Because Netflix isn't the one generating the request for traffic? The provider's OWN CUSTOMERS initiate the transaction and are ALREADY PAYING THE PROVIDER FOR FULFILLMENT while the providers are leaving their peering points to the public Internet under-provisioned DELIBERATELY to damage service to these content providers unless the content providers agree to be extorted.

    Because content providers like Netflix already pay for the bandwidth they use from their own provider(s).

    Because such fees are an anti-competitive tool from providers who are trying to lock their customers into their own, competing streaming video solutions.

  • Re:Strawman (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Arker ( 91948 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @12:58PM (#47298821) Homepage
    The benefit is only asymmetric if you (as Comcast appears to do) define 'fulfilling our contractual obligations to our customers' as a non-benefit.

    Comcast sees more benefit in refusing to provide the service they are being paid for than in living up to their obligations, and that's the big problem here. The fact that they have no effective competition for most of their customers is a big part of why. The fact that they provide their own services at higher margins that compete with third party services accessible on the internet is the other big piece of it.

    Both problems could be solved at once by simply making it law that ISPs have to be ISPs, and cannot be part of a larger business. Existing conglomerates like Comcast would have a period of time to spin off the ISP service which would from that point forward be ONLY an ISP and statutorily disallowed from acquiring or being acquired by other sorts of businesses.

    And yes, I am a free market 'fanatic' so to some this will be a shocking view from me, but 1. the existing market is far from free and 2. a simple statutory restriction is a lot better than giving more regulatory power to the bureaucrats which will only be captured.
  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @01:46PM (#47299171)

    First, what is wrong with a provider charging on both sides? If Netflix wants to push terabits of data through a network, why shouldn't the network owner be able to charge Netflix for that?

    Because Netflix isn't pushing terabits of data. I'm pulling terabits of data, and I already paid my ISP for that.

    Bandwidth is finite. How do you define "artificially slow down delivery" in a world of finite bandwidth and complex and continually changing network topologies? So Hulu and Netflix have to have the same performance to every customer? No matter what the physical network layout is between server and user?

    "Artificially slow delivery" is a delivery that gets a lot faster as soon as the ISP gets paid its extortion money.

    Also, while bandwidth is finite, that's your problem, not mine. You sold me a connection with a certain bandwidth, so make sure your network can handle it. Make whatever peering agreements you need, ensure that high-bandwidth sites have big fat pipes on their routes, etc. It's what you're paid for.

    Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot I'm talking to American business shill. Of course your corporate masters would rather just collect checks and never invest a single cent back to the company. But that tactic is self-destructive; even telcos won't have a captive audience forever. So maybe you should, y'know, actually try and become competitive rather than sue anyone who tries to break your regional monopolies?

  • by operagost ( 62405 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @02:50PM (#47299595) Homepage Journal
    I'm sorry, but I only understand car analogies. Does this restaurant have a drive-thru window?
  • by Rinikusu ( 28164 ) on Monday June 23, 2014 @02:55PM (#47299627)

    Not really. Even in the drug trade you find preferential treatment and local monopolies. I mean, what do you think crips vs bloods was all about? It was about distribution monopolies, forged not by agreement or fair competition, but by force. I know a girl who sold a lot of X back in the 90s. She was really good friends with several promoters and when they threw events, she would be the "official" dealer at the party. If you got caught dealing, they'd kick you out. In return, the promoters got a piece of the action and everyone made a lot of money. It did help that she had a good line to quality product.

Thus spake the master programmer: "When a program is being tested, it is too late to make design changes." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"