The internet is a series of tubes

This is helpful. Senator Ted Stevens explains how the internet works.

And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck.

It’s a series of tubes.

And if you don’t understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

Stay with this idea, please, because it is how I’m going to get rich. My plan is to install peristaltic pumps on fiber optic cables, and working on the same principle as a tube of toothpaste, it will squeeze data through. Now as you know, it’s far easier to squeeze the toothpaste out when the tube is full; when it’s nearly empty, you have to work at it, and you have to roll the tube up from the bottom, and no one else in the family ever does it, so I’m the one who’s always stuck with trying to scrape the last little film of toothpaste out…and, dang it, what was my point again? Oh, yeah, it works better with a full tube. So this is why we need more stuff dumped on the net, and why you need to buy my special SqueezyNet™ Internet Accelerator.

Next week, I’ll tell you all about my secret for getting even faster internet performance: keep your hard disk nearly empty, creating what I call a Data Vacuum™, so it helps suck your data in over the internet cable.


  1. quork says

    creating what I call a Data Vacuum™, so it helps suck your data in over the internet cable.

    But my data already suck!

  2. G. Tingey says

    I’m still not sure I believe this.

    I know our legislators are thick, but yours seem more, erm EMPTY, is that the word, or lacking, or vacant (as opposed to engaged you understand) …..

    Please tell me it’s a joke …..

  3. says

    It’s the best analogy his crusty old mind could come up with. See, the internets are like those old pneumatic message tubes and, if too many people are jamming too many message carriers into the tube, why, your message will get stuck in traffic. And somewhere, these’s a huge switching center, looking like that scene from Metropolis, with huge turning gears and steam venting and zombie-like workers pulling levers.

  4. says

    This reminds me of a quote from Cannery Row:

    And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way that it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all, but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting at its end product.

    Apparently the output of political parties is much the same.

  5. allastair says

    Somehow for me the funniest, or perhaps the most terrifying part of that statement, was the part about his delayed email:

    I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why?

    That is not a statement that could be made by someone who has even the most minimal understanding of the technical concepts involved here. He doesn’t even understand the most basic terminology of the technology he is talking about and, despite that, he will be highly influential on determining the public policy with respect to that technology. That is deeply nauseating and jarring at the same time.

  6. flame821 says

    I’m not sure which is more hysterical. His obvious lack of understanding, or your sarcasm.

    Although SqueezyNet™ does have a rather catchy sound to it, and I bet you could market it in quite a few areas in the USA, as they apparently don’t really know any better.

    *sigh* For the days when schools actually educated instead of trained

  7. says

    That’s it, I demand a re-match on the Coot Off! I think Stevens just earned himself another whole Yosemite Sam.

    And flame821, keep in mind, Stevens is 70-something years old, so he’s a better indication of how schools used to be than how they are now.

  8. says

    He isn’t all that far off. Networks are also referred to as a “packet collision space” which are managed by switching systems to prevent said collisions. Your system dumps packets (which are fragments of your total data transfer) that have destination and order information, and those packets are reassembled into complete information on the other end of the line.

    As networks approach functional capacity (which will always be a great deal less than theoretical capacity) you can get packet loss which causes the receiving machine to tell the sending machine, “I am missing packets 3, 6, 19, and 25; please resend”.

    Not the best analogy I’ve heard, but not so bad for a politician.

  9. PaulC says

    I guess he’s trying to explain the concept of limited bandwidth. It’s a pretty terrible analogy though, particulary when you combine it with his contrasting point that “it’s not a truck.” Trucks can also be filled, so it wouldn’t be any better if the internet was a truck.

    I think if you just say that the Internet has a limited capacity to send information around, that should be enough for most people. We’re used to dealing with limits, and anyone with an internet connection has probably experienced them. If you really want to understand the cause of those limits, you’d need to understand signal processing and switching speed. If the issue is spam, then the limit of human attention occurs long before any of those ultimate limits are reached.

  10. PaulC says

    Actually, after reading the whole statement, my assessment is far more negative. It’s amazingly incoherent. I think what’s going through his mind is something like “My important email was delayed because of those damn kids ‘downloading’ their rock and roll music.”

    He doesn’t believe that the internet should be regulated, but apparently thinks that users should need to pay the real cost of sending things by internet. I’m not exactly sure how he proposes to do this in a pure market framework. I’m all for avoiding externalities that encourage waste, but I doubt it would be very efficient if we had to pay separate charges for every separate part of the trip taken by every packet.

    Finally, at this time, we still want certain commercial interests “massively invading this world of the internet” if they’re providing innovative and beneficial applications. Stevens seems to like the fact that you can order DVDs that come by mail, but this is just an annoying workaround to the lack of true video on demand (and in energy and labor terms probably far less efficient). There is no reason that we could not have the bandwidth to stream DVDs at the rate people are capable of viewing them (you might want to have multiple distributed sources for the DVDs). If we start clamping down, that will remove the current incentives for improving internet capacity.

  11. PaulC says

    BTW, I realize that a DVD is a physical format that cannot be streamed until we get Star Trek-style transporters. Please replace “DVD” above with “DVD’s worth of content.”

  12. David Harmon says

    Excuse me PZ, but the “hydraulic analogy” is perfectly good for those folks who never, ever, need to examine a packet directly, or even think about it’s routing. Of course, one of the limits to the analogy is that the various implications of “pressure” don’t carry over to the data side. Of course, that’s exactly where his explanation stumbles, in a way which shows he’s aware of the problem. And of course, it’s what your own satire depends on….

    As for the truck, I recall an old saying: “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of magtapes”.

  13. says

    To add to DOF and PaulC’s comments, I’ve worked in IT for several years, and have routinely heard a network connection referred to as a ‘pipe’, and bandwidth as the ‘size of the pipe’. I’ve even heard ‘the pipe is full’ and ‘the pipe is clogged’.

    That said, an e-mail taking several hours to arrive likely has nothing to do with network congestion. And I don’t believe we’re currently encountering major bottlenecks on the backbone; most people can get as much throughput as their ISP’s throttling (or the physics of their connection) will allow.

  14. says

    Senator Stevans is a moron. This is what anyone that undestands basic networking would say. Due to switches and routers, network traffic acts like a well designed traffic system. The probablilty of the internet slowing down due to increased traffic is not very likely, even with more people getting on and population swelling. This is because the internet has many inter-connections. So if you sign on to, today your packets might travel one direction, but for whatever reason, tomorrow they might go a different direction. And as telecom companies get more profit, they will start to switch out more and more of the copper lines for fiber. Already, depending on your area, you can get fiber internet from the telcom’s. This will increase bandwidth, and allow for larger packet sizes.

  15. says

    Stevens is actually 82.

    Ah, well. I guess time goes by fast. Point is, dude is old.

    “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of magtapes”

    On the other hand, your latentcy…

  16. idlemind says

    A better analogy to his email problem is an old-fashioned mail room with insufficient staff, since the delayed mail is in all likelihood lingering on an overloaded server and not waiting to transit an overloaded network.

    The tube analogy isn’t that lame, relative to the world of lame technical analogies we live in. In fact, it’s an analogy we can work with, by pointing out that there are an enormous number of unused tubes already laid (dark fiber) waiting to be used, that use of the tubes is already paid for by those who use them, and that the telco’s are trying to charge extra for certain uses of the tubes that compete with their carrier pigeon service. In other words, the telco’s want to set up a protection racket to replace the enormous revenues they obtain from their monopoly on the local loop and their technologically backwards long-distance telephone service.

  17. sgent says

    The worst part?

    This guy is 3 heartbeats away from the presidency (Cheney, Hastert, then Him).

  18. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I think Stevens in his stumbling way was discussing the problems that streaming video would put on a congested net. (See, there are other similar concepts. ;-) Where I live I believe it’s a concern, since it would need massive investments in more capacity to both give streams with enough quality and maintain the old functionality – streams and IP telephony have their own more demanding protocols, right?

    That isn’t too bad a problem since those investments are needed, the problem is the lack of market, ie the monopoly, in the bulk net. It slows down expansion and upgrades, and makes them needlessly expensive. As idlemind notes.

  19. says

    I like the image of an overloaded mailroom. The majority of email messages are small. They can’t be stored in the ‘tube’ – it has to be happening in his mail server or some other component.

    What the good senator does not understand is that the capacity of our present system was driven by the demand for games and porn. And the capacity of the future system will be driven by YouTube, WoW and NextLife et. al. Once the roads are built (tubes soldered together? Strings hung from trees?) then commerce starts travelling on them and you get even more economic activity.

    Imagine if someone had said; “our roads can’t handle trucks; let’s limit trucks and stick to cars”. More porn! More games! More goofy videos of Brainiac scientists burning French cars with thermite!

  20. ajay says

    keep your hard disk nearly empty, creating what I call a Data Vacuum™, so it helps suck your data in over the internet cable.

    You can also help download speeds by putting your computer on the floor; gravity will help your data flow faster. (Of course, if you are uploading, you should be in the attic. To boost your email speeds, after clicking Send, tilt your laptop away from you so the data flows easily out of the computer and pours down the ethernet cable.)

    This is why TV masts are very tall – the signal flows downhill to all the houses.

    It’s also why so many data centres are moving to India. India, being further south than Europe and the US, is therefore downhill. Transmitting data to India is thus cheaper than it would be to, say, Canada. Transmitting it back is also easy – India is hotter than the US, and so the data produced by Indian data centres are also hotter, and tend to rise. When the data arrive back at your server, they give off heat, which is why your server room is always so warm (and – can you smell it? – has a slight aroma of spicy food).

  21. says

    Funny. A former coworker told me about an ex-boss (so administer a cc of NaCl) who, upon learning that a network problem had been caused by the lack of termination on a specific cable, asked in all seriousness whether that was a security issue.


    “Because couldn’t the data have leaked out of the end of the cable? Is there a way to check if any data is loose in the office?”

    I wish I was kidding.

  22. says

    Djur: I’m reminded of the Dilbert comic strip (back when it was good) about the misplaced “token ring”. Oh dear, though I do take it with a pound of FrF, not just NaCl. ;)