by Kieran Healy on July 4, 2006

Senator Ted Stevens is getting a lot of stick for “his description”: of how the Internet works:

bq. 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.

Now, Net Neutrality is great and everything, and Stevens is on the wrong side of that issue (and many others), but why all the snickering? Sure, he rambles a bit, and in the long version he accidentally says “an internet was sent by my staff” when he clearly means “an email.” It seems, though, that it’s his saying “tubes” and “a series of tubes” that’s provoking most of the derision. But network nerds the world over regularly refer to the availability of bandwidth in terms of fat or narrow “pipes”:, which is essentially the same imagery. Odd.

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a crank’s progress » Ted Stevens would do with some schooling from Richard Stevens
07.04.06 at 7:21 pm



Guest 07.04.06 at 5:50 pm

He’s getting a lot of stick because he’s a Senator, he’s talking about a fundamental technology, and he sounds like a complete retard. Why is that odd? :-)


me2i81 07.04.06 at 6:00 pm

He’s also spewing a bunch of hooey about email delivery times, which are virtually never the fault of the “tubes”, but almost always the fault of one endpoint or the other. My emails usually arrive in 15 seconds.


nathaniel 07.04.06 at 6:05 pm

Stevens, from the same piece: “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?”

I get a lot of email – I can’t think of any I’ve recieved days late – at least not after it was sent anyway. Anyone else?


Michael 07.04.06 at 6:22 pm

We tend to take for granted that e-mail arrives in a few seconds. But it is often forgotten that the SMTP protocol which delivers mail is best-effort and non-guaranteed. It works fantastically well most of the time and there are various safeguards to ensure e-mail is not lost. Also, e-mail used to be a lot slower in the early years of the Internet, without the fast connections we have now.

E-Mail can indeed be kept waiting in various queues and take longer to arrive. When your mailserver is unavailable for whatever reason, SMTP puts the message in queue and tries again later to deliver the message. Often an exponential backoff system is used where a message will first be retried in 5 minutes getting exponentially higher as the message fails to deliver.


Chris 07.04.06 at 6:24 pm

It helps to be familiar with Uncle Ted and his inane ramblings. Suffice it to say, when he talks about “receiving an internet” it wasn’t an aberration, and when he talks about tubes he doesn’t have the same conception geeks do when they talk about pipes.

Ted’s always incoherent (especially when he gets mad and starts stamping his little feet and turning all red in the face), this just happens to be on a geek issue so it’s hitting more of the blogosphere.

Chris (lifelong Alaskan)


Steven Poole 07.04.06 at 6:46 pm

I occasionally get emails days late.

The Senator’s language is quite charming, but I’m confused about his argument. Isn’t he saying that he thinks commercial entities shouldn’t be able to dump huge amounts of stuff on our mom’n’pop internet and so clog up the, ah, tubes?

If he’s worried about that, why is he opposed to any form of net regulation?


paul 07.04.06 at 7:09 pm

Imagery is fine but the esteemed senator seemed to really believe that the internet(s) is a modern-day pneumatic tube system, where there are real blockages and other artifacts of the physical world. The idea of packet switching and the reliability that is at the heart of the internet’s core protocols seem not to be understood. The pipes used by net nerds are metaphorical, yes, but I think most of them understand that. 

I can accept that some of these people are out of their depth with anything more complex than a TV remote, but surely they can be briefed a little more completely/cluefully? 


paul 07.04.06 at 7:19 pm

What’s somewhat ironic about this is that the canonical books on TCP/IP internetworking are known as “the Stevens books”: their author was “W. Richard Stevens. Shame Ted’s staff didn’t know that. 



Melinda 07.04.06 at 8:36 pm

I’m not sure that the issue is so much the choice of metaphor but the incoherence of the delivery. It comes off as someone reading aloud something written in a language he doesn’t speak/understand, which is really is the case when you get right down to it. I guess in large part the problem is that he doesn’t understand the limits of the metaphor, not that it’s a terrible metaphor to start with.


Amardeep 07.04.06 at 9:19 pm

Melinda is on the right track — it has more to do with his familiarity with a set of discursive codes and markers than the technical applicability of the metaphor.

He’s doing things that “tech-savvy” people wouldn’t do in conversation, which shows he’s outside of that discursive community. It would be like judging an Emo band by how “emotional” they are, or a Hip Hop act by how “hip” they are.

Of course, most of us inside that community don’t know that much more than he does about how the internet works, but we know how to sound convincing enough about it not to embarrass ourselves.


Belle Waring 07.04.06 at 10:10 pm

dude, he says someone sent him an internet. how can that not be hilarious. also “the internet is not a truck.” thanks, moron!


saurabh 07.04.06 at 11:43 pm

Even if SMTP gets hung up, me2i81 has it right – it’s got to be the fault of the endpoints, in queues on either end, not on TCP traffic. There’s simply no way that the message could take days to deliver because of delays in transit. I.e., this has nothing to do with the bandwidth/net-neutrality debate.


Demogenes Aristophanes 07.05.06 at 12:13 am

… but why all the snickering?

Aside from the obvious humor to be found in Stevens’ befuddled description of the internet, so ably ridiculed by above commenters, there’s this:

His metaphor stinks, too. What, trucks have endless capacity to “dump” things onto? They can’t be “filled” like these “internet tubes” he complains about? And then, like, if you wanted to “dump” some of your stuff in a particular “truck”, but it was already “filled” … what, you wouldn’t have to wait in line for another truck?

That and the fact that there’s a hint of the angry man of privilege in his complaint that an “internet” sent by his staff – that’s a US Senator’s staff internet! – had to wait in line behind the plebes’ internets. I mean, have you ever heard the like?!?


etat 07.05.06 at 2:04 am

Father Ted misunderstands the character of the internet. His speech is littered with peculiar distortions of both the mechanical and cultural characteristics of internet use. As Michael (above) points out, email handling is not the same thing as bandwidth limits, even if one affects the other. Stevens might be forgiven for glossing that difference. But his thinking about various ‘nets – one for the DoD, one for the family, one for video customers, and so on, profoundly misplaces these networks.

His understanding is so confused that he makes statements that appear self-contradictory:

Maybe there is a place for a commercial net but it’s not using what consumers use every day.

It’s not using the messaging service that is essential to small businesses, to our operation of families.

If the commercial net is not what consumers use every day, then what is? And if it isn’t using the very same network as small business and families, what is it using?

Stevens is laughable when he uses phrases like ‘sent an internet’, but he is risble when he miscomprehends broader workings so badly.


Saint Fnordius 07.05.06 at 6:13 am

If Senator Stevens was trying to compare the Internet to the old-fashioned pneumatic tube system that used to move documents in office buildings, he still gets it wrong. It isn’t about the tubes, but the routing junctions that send the requests to the next station getting the rights to charge the original packet sender extra.

What net neutrality is all about is that the routers want to be able to extort fees based not only on raw traffic, but also based upon the sender. Currently if you connect to a web site, only two sides get paid directly (your ISP and the content provider’s ISP), and they have contracts compensating the other servers that the packet passes though. That means the income spreads from the two ends to the middle, and it works.

By ending net neutrality, the packet is automatically slowed down as the router now has to analyse not just the recipient’s address, but the sender’s address as well to calculate the fee. THEN it decides whether to take its time forwarding to the next router or not. This procedure will happen each time a signal crosses a corporate border.

Net neutrality is important not just for the individual users, but to prevent “double dipping” as routing companies charge not only per packet, but also per address. Dropping net neutrality could also cause a slintering of the net as cartels form, are undercut when servers are circumvented, and content providers learn to spoof identities.

I suspect the windfall of income the telecoms are expecting would be frittered away in devising toll booth schemes and undermining competitors, and nothing would be invested in the backbone any more. But this octogenarian senator is too short-sighted to realise this (or he does, but is too dishonest to admit it).


kerryinalaska 07.05.06 at 8:03 am

Ted stevens is a joke here in alaska with anyone not sucking the GOP koolaid. His rants, red faced and foot stomping, are comedy routines that engender much ballyhooing. What a rube. He makes little sense in his coherent times and during his rube speeches he becomes apoplectic and unintelligable.
Somehow this maniac has got his name on the Anchorage International airport. Too bad his death wasn’t required to do that.


Adam 07.05.06 at 8:12 am

Kieran — One may have a “pipe”, i.e. a physical connection to the internet of some throughput, but that’s not to say that that’s what the internet is. The internet, as you know, is the network of nodes created by a set of shared standards and protocols for communication over just about any medium (including pipeless wireless ones. It’s a bit like saying that the transportation infrastructure is a series of train tracks.

There’s also the humor of mistaking a metaphor for reality. Maybe Stevens knows the internet isn’t a series of tubes, but he’s old enough and out of touch enough that it seems as though he might not.

Lastly, he’s a turd.


luc 07.05.06 at 8:14 am

I wouldn’t now Ted from Fred but the truck example shows he does now his networks.

The famous Tanenbaum quote on this subject is “Never underestimate the bandwith of a stationwagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.”

I can download only a few DVD’s a day through my ADSL “tube”. The postman on the other hand wouldn’t notice if he had to throw an extra package of a dozen DVD’s in his truck. He would still deliver all my mail on time. A reliabilty Ted apparently doesn’t get from his email provider.

And if you’re charitable to the guy, even his argument is slightly coherent. If you want your email delivered pronto, you have the industry deliver services that does that. Apparently he thinks that his email didn’t get delivered instantly because of p2p, spam and other high bandwith (or “commercial”) internet use, and not because of incompetence of his provider. That’s where he gets it wrong. But since 99% of the industry uses this excuse for not delivering email on time, why blame him?

And to appeal to the sensitivities of his American audience he adds that email is essential to “our operation of families”. What more do you want from your favourite politico?


paul 07.05.06 at 8:53 am

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, unless your mom&pop messages happen to have a couple megabytes of attached pictures and HTML, they’re going to have a darned hard time being delayed for more than a few milliseconds by anything. Two packets, maybe three?


ex-Alaskan 07.05.06 at 9:51 am

C’mon, give him a break: he’s probably using for his home ISP. How reliable, really, can mosquitos be?


Rasselas 07.05.06 at 10:01 am

He has impuned the honor of Lady Internet. I demand satisfaction.


Gorkle 07.05.06 at 10:12 am

Stevens has a lot of power, is rarely reticent in expressing disdain for those with whom he disagrees, and revels in supporting special interests of the moneyed kind.

Or: he displays a staggering ignorance over the very stuff he will help fashion legislation regulating.


me2i81 07.05.06 at 10:43 am

But since 99% of the industry uses this excuse for not delivering email on time, why blame him?

Because he’s arging against net neutrality using email delivery time as an example.


Govt Skeptic 07.05.06 at 1:45 pm

This sycophant doesn’t actually know anything except how to please his corporate masters so he can get reelected. He sounds just like the old guy who lived across the street and used to shake his rake at squirrels. Which was okay, because that crazy old codger wasn’t crafting life-changing legislation.

The sad part about all this is that the forces seeking a multi-tiered internet don’t seem to understand that they’d be starting the first internet-world-war — in which they would be massively outgunned. A virtual militia of geeks would instantly dream up a thousand ways to bypass the tiering system, and then there would be the inevitable stupid/misguided legislation to outlaw those methods, etc etc.

Every time these clowns in Congress try to pass pro-corporate legislation like this, it becomes clearer that the citizen is not represented in our federal legislative body any longer.


canis latrans 07.05.06 at 2:22 pm

Well, at least he realized “the internet” is singular. Mebbe we should cut him some slack. Or would that be the soft bigotry of low expectations?


mpowell 07.05.06 at 5:17 pm

#25- when you’re talking about technical issues that only a small percentage of the population can actually understand, its pretty much inevitable that the lobby with the most financial backing will win. Its not that the government doesn’t represent the political will of its citizens, its just that on an issue like this, there is no political will and so the lobbies win out. Its pretty hard to imagine a democratic government functioning any other way. Its exteremely frustrating- but do you have any solutions?


rea 07.05.06 at 6:07 pm

What’s funny about Stevens and his “tubes” is that he clearly was given a careful briefing on anti-neutrality talking points, including the semi-term-of-art “pipes”–and that he proved incapable of reciting prepared talking points coherently.


cm 07.05.06 at 6:43 pm

In the corporate world, email is held up by sender ad receiver side spam/virus scanning and the complexities of routing/processing between internal email systems.


J Edgar 07.05.06 at 7:22 pm

Instead of ‘tube’ use ‘roll’ as in
‘the telecoms want to roll everyone else.’
No confusion there.


jet 07.05.06 at 7:34 pm

I had the same idea. “Tubes” is just a strange word to use, but if you are a clueless monkey it might come to mind when trying to remember the word “pipe”.

In Soviet Russia the internet tiers you!


blah 07.05.06 at 10:00 pm

he accidentally says “an internet was sent by my staff” when he clearly means “an email.”

You don’t find that fucking hilarious? How often does that happen? I still haven’t stopped laughing.


blah 07.05.06 at 10:01 pm

Seriously, how clueless do you have to be to say that somebody sent an internet? It’s probably not a mistake that even your average idiot would make.


Tom F 07.06.06 at 12:55 am

I think he is still hung up on Saddam Hussein’s aluminum tubes.


abb1 07.07.06 at 6:30 am

What Cm said. Here we have an internal email system and an SMPT gateway. Sometimes the gateway is down or clogged and then the ‘internet sent to my staff’ can be delayed for hours – or days, perhaps – while the internal email system is working just fine.


Wesley Hetrick 07.07.06 at 5:32 pm

Becuause the way he is describing it sounds like there is only 1 “tube” between any 2 points which we all know is not true.

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