The Web


“Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.” β€” a Hopi Prophecy

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has sent hundreds of internet communications satellites into low Earth orbit, and has plans to launch thousands more such satellites in the near future. Other companies, among them Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, have similar plans. Within the span of several years, the number of satellites launched into orbit could double from the amount that have been launched since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957. The clutter could interfere with astronomers’ observations and measurements, and even with casual enjoyment of the night sky by lay people.


A fleet of East Indiamen at sea
“A Fleet of East Indiamen at Sea”, an 1803 painting by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821).

There are terrestrial alternatives to webbing near Earth space with tens of thousands of satellites in order to get internet service to rural communities around the world. in the United States, rural electric cooperatives have worked steadily for years to overcome infrastructure and regulatory obstacles to provide internet service along the last mile to their members. It is the big telecommunications and cable television companies, with their friends in big government, that have often made operations difficult for alternative internet service providers. Even when the local governments of towns and small cities try to cooperate with small internet service providers, their efforts are often undercut and overruled by larger government entities working at the behest of large corporations that will brook no competition.

Now comes SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, backed by their founders’ deep pockets and enabled by their existing links to big government, links that will only strengthen and deepen as the companies take over near Earth space and provide launching and communications services to government agencies. The partnership with government may even prove to be the primary consideration for both companies, and providing internet service to private individuals a secondary, though lucrative consideration. The partnership could develop into a Space Age equivalent of the British East India Company’s close association with the British Empire, which saw the two entities merging in so many areas public and private that eventually one could hardly tell where one left off and the other began.

In addition to the Space Age, the modern era has come to be known as the Information Age. The internet via the world wide web has become the chief vector of information in these times and, as many have often observed, information is power. In the days when the British East India Company held sway along with equivalent companies sanctioned by other European powers, trade goods from far off lands were the valued currency that governments sought to procure and protect. Governments guarded the trade routes to and from the far off lands as well as the lands themselves. Over time, the various East India Companies adopted their own paramilitary arms to protect their interests. Similar relationships could develop in the coming years as companies seek the help of government in protecting their interests in space in return for providing essential services.

Why should SpaceX, for instance, invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the infrastructure needed to establish colonies in space with the potential for enormous profitability in the long run without being assured tens of billions of dollars in government contracts in the short term and the perpetual cash cow of providing internet service to billions of people every day? Look up in the night sky for answers and soon enough you’re likely to see the winking reflections off tens of thousands of satellites, glinting like dew along the strands of a spider’s web.
β€” Techly

The last scene of the 1982 meditative documentary Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, with cinematography by Ron Fricke and music by Philip Glass.


Sped Up and Soapy


Last Sunday night, MeTV, a nationally syndicated broadcaster of television shows from the 1950s through the 1980s, aired some episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show that the show’s creator and producer, Carl Reiner, had selected as his favorites. For anyone familiar with viewing the show on a high quality format such as the Blu-ray boxed set, MeTV’s presentation most likely looked terrible not because the source they used may have been inferior, but because of what MeTV did to it, speeding it up to cram in more commercials, which unfortunately also gave it a “Soap Opera Effect”.


Speeding up old TV shows is a technology that has been widely used by cable and satellite channels for almost a decade now, but over-the-air broadcasters have used it less probably because their video is not compressed like cable and satellite signals, making more noticeable any dickering with their higher quality signal. In order to send the signals of hundreds of channels to their subscribers, cable and satellite providers compress them. High definition video over cable or satellite is often lower quality than the uncompressed video broadcast over-the-air. In addition to video compression then, cable and satellite channels have been digitally speeding up some old TV shows to put in more commercials. Speeding up a half hour show by 7 to 8 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to fit in 3 to 4 more commercials.

Chaplin The Kid
A publicity still from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, with Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. The jerky motion evident in movies of the early twentieth century was caused by shooting at a lower frame rate than the film’s projection rate. To avoid similar jerky motion when speeding up old television shows, programming providers interpolate digitally manufactured frames which unfortunately give the shows a more or less disquieting “Soap Opera Effect”. To see digital manipulation done well and not on the cheap, and for a worthy creative purpose, see Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary using archival footage of British soldiers in World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old.

Time and technology march on, and in the past few years even syndicated broadcasters whose channels primarily arrive to viewers over-the-air, like MeTV, have gotten into the digital manipulation for profit game. It’s also manipulation of the viewers, who may get the disquieting feeling that suddenly there is something off about their favorite old shows. They may feel they are losing their marbles, or being gaslighted by the programming provider subtly changing the look of shows. Some viewers, maybe most, may never notice the difference, which is of course what the programmers are hoping. The programmers want to make more money while not editing the shows for length. They are not concerned about artistic integrity in not editing as much as they are about too many viewers familiar with the shows noticing the edits and complaining, as well as having to put up a disclaimer at the beginning of the show.

It is beyond the scope of this post to explore why the FCC doesn’t require a disclaimer for time compression of shows or how the rights agreements work between the owners of the programming and the broadcasters. Ordinarily altering a creative work without permission from the originator would be a violation of copyright. Apparently the rights agreements allow time compression, at least for some shows. Since the manipulators can time compress digitally now without noticeably raising the pitch of the actors’ voices, as on a record played at the wrong speed, the use of the technology has broadened to more shows. Some viewers may notice that the actors in late twentieth century TV shows now talk as fast as the actors in screwball comedy movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Since the actors on the TV shows didn’t intend that kind of speed, the comic timing of their speech rhythms are disrupted.

The “Soap Opera Effect”, also known as “Motion Smoothing” or something similar, comes from interpolating digitally manufactured frames to keep the sped up video from looking jerky. New television sets have the feature in their settings for those viewers who like the way it makes fast action easier to follow. The reason it can make some video look like a soap opera shot on cheap videotape equipment is because of how it shares the characteristic of a higher frame rate than programming shot on film. Many viewers don’t care for the effect and, if they know where to find the setting on their TV, turn it off. Seeing a program sped up by the provider can make viewers scratch their heads and wonder if somehow the “Motion Smoothing” setting on their TV turned itself on again. No, do not adjust your set; that unsettling look of your favorite old show is originating from the programming provider.

TBS (Turner Broadcasting System), a basic cable and satellite channel, has been a primary purveyor of sped up programming, which is ironic considering its sister channel TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is committed to presenting movies in their original form without interruption.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a high quality program in every way, from the writing to the acting to the photography. Like many shows before and after the relatively brief popularity of shooting on videotape in the 1970s and ’80s, The Dick Van Dyke Show was shot on film. Viewed on a standard definition television set smaller than 30 inches in diagonal measurement the higher quality of film was barely discernible from videotaped programming. It is in faithful reproduction on DVD or Blu-ray formats, viewed on a high definition television set larger then 30 inches, that the photography of of old shows shot on film really shines. Viewed under such conditions, The Dick Van Dyke Show is crystal clear and not in the least bit muddy or odd looking. All that went out the window last Sunday night with MeTV’s sped up presentation of the show. It’s doubtful Mr. Reiner, by all accounts a man of integrity, and as shown in his lifetime of work a man devoted to high quality creative presentation, knew or approved of MeTV’s video corruption of his most prized creation. In all likelihood he selected the episodes for presentation and contributed some promotional bits and that was the end of his involvement. Meanwhile, let the viewer beware.
β€” Techly


Surprise, Surprise


After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) five member board voted along party lines to roll back Net Neutrality regulations last month, it wasn’t surprising to see some major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) trot out rate increases soon afterward. The new regulatory structure doesn’t take effect until 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which may take a few more weeks while the FCC completes final edits to the paperwork, but companies like Comcast just couldn’t wait. Meanwhile, in another predictable outcome of the end of Net Neutrality, over 20 states have started instituting their own rules in an effort to adhere to the old guidelines, while also suing the FCC to prevent it from trying to impose its new rules within each state.


This comes down to regulating interstate commerce in the form of communications companies, which is the only reason for federal agencies such as the FCC to exist. It will all have to be sorted out in the courts, and that could take years and many millions of taxpayer dollars, all because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai turned a deaf ear to the majority of Americans while he listened very closely to his corporate masters, such as at Verizon, where he worked as a corporate lawyer before being appointed to the FCC by President Barack Obama, at the behest of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Reinstate Net Neutrality sign, Women's March, DTLA, Los Angeles, California, USA (39824631401)
“Reinstate Net Neutrality” sign at the January 20, 2018, Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

There have been noises from Congress about legislating Net Neutrality, or a semblance of it, once and for all, thereby stripping the FCC of its bouncing ball regulations. Even if one of these measures manages to squeak by with enough votes in Congress, it will then cross the whistle-clean desk of Supreme Leader, who after all is the one who elevated Ajit Pai from FCC board member to chairman, most likely with the express purpose of encouraging him to gut Net Neutrality for the benefit of corporate giants. Supreme Leader will veto any legislation that undercuts his man at the FCC, and there will not be enough votes in Congress to override his veto, since that would require the votes of two thirds of the members.

Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality 04
One of the ironic slogans used by the non-profit organization Fight for the Future to promote the July 12, 2017, Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality.

In that case, it appears everyone will have to get used to paying through the nose for broadband internet service in areas of the country where there are only one or two providers, which is to say most areas. Consumers could pay less in a tiered system for service at the speed of dial-up, which is what the FCC has opened the door to now. Instead of being regulated like utilities, which must provide similar service to all consumers universally, the ISPs will be regulated like cable television companies, a business some of them have also been in for years.

The problem vexing consumers is that they usually have few choices for providers of these services, although they have slightly more choices than they do when it comes to their electric service. Still, in a market with limited competition, the advantage lies entirely with the unregulated company that is unfettered to charge whatever it can squeeze from captive consumers. Take it or leave it.

“Wildflowers”, the title song of Tom Petty’s (1950-2017) solo album from 1994.

The last area where ISP giants are working to complete their cornering of the market is in the contest over municipal broadband services, which are usually public/private partnerships between municipalities and smaller ISPs, where the municipality provides some infrastructure and subsidies, and the private company provides the hardware, operations, and maintenance. Municipal broadband often provides better service and better rates to consumers than they can get from the big companies, and is likely to provide service to poor and rural consumers who otherwise would have no service options. No wonder the big companies are intensively lobbying state and local officials to choke off municipal broadband. It appears their greed compels them to throttle competition and now, at their discretion, some services to their customers.
β€” Techly


I’m Not a Cook, But I Watch Them on TV


At a time when cable television shows are promoting cooking, and cooking in superbly designed and equipped kitchens, like never before, Americans are cooking at home less than ever before. In this sense of cooking, throwing a prepared meal from the supermarket into the microwave, oven, or a frying pan does not qualify. Cooking means readying and blending raw or minimally prepared ingredients in such a way as to constitute a full meal. Cooking in this sense refers to how many households prepared dinner, if not breakfast or lunch, forty or fifty years ago.

For dinner at least, the American home cook of 1960 or 1970 visited the grocery store to pick up ingredients in the produce department, usually the meat section, and perhaps the middle aisles for flour, sugar, spices, and canned goods. The home cook of that time rarely picked up things from the frozen food section, and then only basic ingredients like frozen vegetables instead of any of the frozen meals, of which the selection would have been limited anyway. At that time there were only a few cooking shows on television, and those, such as Julia Child’s show, were buried on public television where relatively few people saw them. Home improvement shows with their enormous kitchen remodels hadn’t even shown up yet, and wouldn’t do so in anything like their current form until the 1990s.

African woman working
African woman frying bean cakes at a roadside. Photo by IKoye.

In the years since the 1960s and 1970s, home cooking has dropped off considerably, and at the same time interest has risen in TV cooking shows and home improvement shows that feature enormous, professionally equipped kitchen remodels. It’s comical to watch on television these upper middle class couples with too much money tour homes that have kitchens large enough for the staff of a small restaurant, and which statistics about current trends and your own instincts as a viewer tell you the couple will never need nor use to its full capability, and to see them ooh and aah over it as if it’s perfect for them. These shows seem to be more about fantasy wish fulfillment than realistic expectations, and the same dynamic appears to operate for the cooking shows which have taken over cable television.

At a time when over one billion of the world’s population goes hungry, Americans are enthralled by television shows which detail how to prepare rich and intricate dishes, often with elements of stressful drama added for no reason other than to intensify viewer engagement in an otherwise prosaic process. This is perverse. Few of the viewers will actually attempt to make the dishes themselves, but that is besides the point. It is like the expensive and needlessly over-equipped kitchens on view on the home improvement programs. It is a sort of pornography. Those in the lower classes might wish they could make those fancy dishes in those elaborate kitchens. Those in the middle classes might ponder that with a home equity loan the kitchen would be possible for them, and then what times they would have in it, cooking and entertaining!

Julia Child, the original television cook, demonstrating on her public television show The French Chef that perfection is not always possible, and that’s alright.

The upper classes, of course, find all of this unnecessary, because they have, as they have always had, people to do all of this for them. As long as they can come down to the kitchen at midnight and find the makings for a sandwich on their own, they should be okay with any kitchen, however elaborate. The real target of these television programs, both the debt-inducing kitchen remodels and the guilt-inducing cooking shows, is the middle class, and especially those already in the upper middle class or aspiring to make it to those heights. What’s the point? Spend money, even money you don’t have, to become part of the People Living the Good Life. Eat well, even if you have to pretend to know how to do that. There’s no need for all these cooking shows. A few would suffice. Instruction in cooking for a good life doesn’t need hours upon hours of elaboration and drama; cooking to impress others with your station in life apparently requires whole cable television channels.
― Izzy


Light the Way

“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” ― the Rev. William L. Watkinson*(1838-1925)

The nonprofit organization Fight for the Future has set up a website called Comcastroturf which allows people to check if their name has been used surreptitiously to file anti net neutrality comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC had recently opened up a public comment period in anticipation of rolling back net neutrality regulations, and within a short time they were inundated with anti net neutrality comments which appeared to be generated by Internet Service Provider (ISP) astroturfers from hijacked subscriber lists. Comcast threatened Fight for the Future with a lawsuit, from which they have since backed down after it appeared obvious even to them that it was a tone deaf public relations debacle. They blamed the company they outsource their brand defenses to for excessive vigilance.

Let there be light
Let there be light; photo by Flickr user Arup Malakar, taken in the Kamakhya Temple, a shakti temple on the Nilachal Hill in the western part of Guwahati city in Assam, India.


It’s clear from new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks on net neutrality that he does not support the FCC net neutrality regulations adopted in 2015. Since the rest of the now Republican controlled board of commissioners will most likely go along with him when they vote on the regulations in September, the public comment period appears to be a mere formality. That apparently hasn’t deterred the ISP industry from feeling the need to generate a phony campaign to support the anti net neutrality commissioners. Perhaps they were concerned about the pro net neutrality campaign of John Oliver. Now Comcast and other industry giants have egg on their faces, and Chairman Pai has not escaped squeaky clean either, as he has declined to question the validity of the astroturfed comments, while distracting the attention of the public by complaining about mean tweets.


There are customers of Comcast who complain endlessly about the company’s high prices and lackluster, even adversarial, customer service, yet those customers do little or nothing to explore alternatives to Comcast. They sit grumbling in the dark and won’t lift a finger to light a candle. Such people do a disservice to themselves, but since they seem to be satisfied with that in a masochistic way, the rest of us are left having to listen to their grousing while they do nothing to improve their situation. That shouldn’t be a problem for those of us who can get out of earshot, though in the broader perspective it is those dissatisfied but immovable customers of Comcast who grant the company its monopolistic power in the marketplace, and that’s a problem for everyone because it limits affordable options as smaller companies struggle to establish themselves when confronting the obstacles thrown at them by industry giants and the legislators and regulators they have in their pockets.


Comcast and companies like it might behave better if they started experiencing mass defections. Comcast has been losing subscription television customers, while increasing broadband customers. Cord cutting does not affect Comcast’s bottom line if the customers doing so are merely moving their dollars from one part of the service to another. City dwellers and suburbanites have more options for internet service than people in the countryside, and so they have fewer excuses for continuing with Comcast even while they dislike the company intensely. Ultimately the choice comes down to a decision about what to give up, at least in the short term. Even without streaming video, life goes on. For the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants, the whining of some Americans about how to get along without access to each and every National Football League (NFL) game over either the internet or subscription TV, or the latest “must see” TV series, must appear ingloriously obtuse and selfish. These companies have too much power because we have given it to them. It’s like being abused in a relationship and not working to free yourself because you can’t imagine life any other way. Who knows, life untethered from the Comcast umbilical cord could be better than you think.
― Techly


Pigeon Point Lighthouse Fresnel
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, south of San Francisco, California; photo by Diedresm.



What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?


It’s fair to say subscribers to cable and satellite television services dislike their providers in large numbers due to high prices and poor customer service. With the option of internet streaming television service becoming more popular every year, cable and satellite subscribers are increasingly resorting to getting their television service the newest way and dropping the old service, though ironically they can sometimes still be tied to the cable company because it provides their internet service. For some people, particularly those with a low bandwidth limit on their internet service, the oldest way of getting television service can be the best, which is to say receiving broadcast television with an antenna.


Family watching television 1958
Family watching television, 1958; photo by Evert F. Baumgardner.
What, no rabbit ears? They must have had a rooftop antenna.


There is no such thing as an HDTV (High Definition Television) antenna except in the minds of marketers and confused consumers. An antenna is an antenna is an antenna. Standard definition and high definition digital signals are merely the format of the content that TV stations broadcast, not the method. The method is the same as it was when the format content was analog, and that is electromagnetic frequencies in the MegaHertz (MHz) band of the spectrum, in Very High Frequency (VHF) or Ultra High Frequency (UHF). Any antenna can pick up analog and digital signals as long as it is optimally configured to pull in those frequencies. That is known as the antenna’s “gain.”


It is the tuner in the television set that needs the capability of properly displaying the digital signal. That is why older analog television sets needed a digital converter box when the the digital television transition occurred in 2009. No one needed to go out and buy a different antenna then, but that didn’t stop unscrupulous or ignorant salespeople from selling plenty of “HDTV” antennas to confused consumers.


Because many of the new antennas being marketed as “HDTV” have a mod, futuristic profile, looking much different than the old rabbit ears indoor antennas and the old coat hanger outdoor antennas, consumers can come to believe they are not like those antennas, and marketers are happy to let them believe that. In truth, much of the new antenna designs are due to making them omnidirectional or UHF-only, both of which are not necessarily improvements over the old designs.


Log periodic VHF TV antenna 1963
VHF TV antenna, 1963; photo by Edward Finkel.
VHF-only antennas were used when few UHF stations were on air.


Omnidirectional antennas pick up signals over 360 degrees, but that also means they pick up a lot of interference and are weaker at picking up a strong signal from one direction. The old design, a large coat hanger antenna on the rooftop is still best at picking up a distant signal from one direction and tuning out interference from other directions. The UHF-only design allows an antenna to have a low profile because of the characteristics of the UHF signal, but at the obvious cost of not being able to pick up VHF signals. Manufacturers did this in the belief that after the digital transition there would be far fewer TV stations broadcasting over VHF because the digital signal is more efficient over UHF, and because they felt consumers would prefer the smaller profile.


Consumers prefer small profile antennas for some settings in particular, such as apartments and in neighborhoods with a homeowners association, where landlords and homeowners association boards would like to have them believe they are not allowed to put up a high gain antenna outdoors. Section 207 of The Telecommunications Act of 1996 says landlords and association boards cannot get away with blanket prohibitions. This is especially worth noting because clear reception of a digital signal requires a higher gain antenna than is necessary for receiving an analog signal. A preamplifier on the antenna can help, but because a preamplifier increases signal noise as well, it is best used for boosting the signal as it travels down a long cable run to the television set, rather than as a stopgap to make up for low gain from the antenna. A strong over-the-air signal is worth the trouble it can require, however, since the resulting television picture is much sharper than an equivalent cable or satellite derived picture. In order to carry hundreds of channels, cable and satellite companies need to compress their signal data, losing definition. Broadcast signals are not compressed.


Antena de TV - TV antenna (3149926874)
Modern UHF-only TV antenna; photo by Flickr user shaorang,
from Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz, EspaΓ±a.
UHF elements in front are backed by corner reflector elements.


Whatever you do when you cut the cable or satellite TV cord, think twice before falling for the “HDTV” antenna ads currently airing. Like all con games, they rely heavily on the greed of the mark in believing he or she can get something for nothing. To that end, the TV huckster does not say directly that the mark can get all the same channels cable and satellite services provide, but through clever wording he allows the unsophisticated mark to infer that and jump to conclusions. The wreckage can be found in online forums. Tempting as it can be to jeer at these consumers for getting what they deserved, they are more deserving sympathy in the recognition that it has taken only one generation to pass for them to forget or never realize there once was a way to watch television without paying for it. These people often are purchasing the product because they are too poor to continue paying high cable and satellite bills. The marks more deserving contempt are some of the better educated high rollers who, ignoring reality, willed themselves to believe Bernie Madoff really was getting them something for nothing. They might have been better off cutting out the middle man and investing directly in the booming market for “HDTV” antennas.
― Techly