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Friday, December 30, 2011

There’s Rain in Them-There Clouds

“We’re running in the cloud.”  “Cloud is the answer.”  “Wow.  It’s cloud computing.”  It’s been a long time coming.  But it may vanish pretty quickly.

I can hear the grumbling.

Where am I coming from on this?  After all, what could be better than foisting off all of the technical infrastructure on someone else.  Let them worry about the apps.  Let ‘em worry about the storage.  And the clincher:  Let ‘em worry about the security.

Now call me crazy – Hey! I heard that! – but turning over data to “the cloud” is a lot like moving all your chickens onto another farmer’s land…one that’s even more attractive to foxes than your own.

“They’ll never get hit,” you say, “They know security…better than we do.”  Wanna bet?   Fact is, you’re putting your valuable data in the hands of someone outside your organization who has access only to the same security information and guidelines that you do.  That YOU do.

Apple escaped malware and virus attack for years because the penetration was small; that changed as penetration grew and the Mac universe became attractive to hackers.  The cloud is the same way. 

And your operation is going in the opposite direction.  By that, I mean that if they’re getting bigger at a faster rate than you are, “they” are a bigger target.  So, unless you’re really big, you’re a smaller target than those cloud offerers.  And, of course, if you are “really big”, well, shouldn’t you be looking at an in-house cloud.  Of course, that’s tantamount to putting a diffuser in front of a snoot on a Fresnel luminaire then spotting it down.

You may argue that if they have access to the same security options, you expect them to use them and thereby keep you secure without you having to spend any time on it.  Welllll.  Remember one other thing.  Your data has to get to them and back.  A very vulnerable step in the process.  It eliminates the Internet as an option.  VPN’s?  Not much better.  That leaves truly private lines.  I won’t call them networks because they shouldn’t be.  They shouldn’t do anything but connect you and them.

Are you getting that – and paying for that – now?  If not, wow!  You’re laying it all out there for anyone who wants to watch your payroll figures, development ideas, emails, and patent applications parade past them in true TCP/IP style.  Worse, in FTP, delivering your data in neat, fully functional files.

Yet we continue.  Clients insist on the cloud, seeing it as a major cost saving – fixed costs and variable.  Cut jobs, cut office space, cut electrical. Get a monthly bill that’s service rather than cap-ex.  Couldn’t ask for more.  Then, one day, you can’t get into your “system.”  It’s “over there,” somewhere.  But it’s gone.  Or, a delivery of 100,000 rolls of paper towels you ostensibly ordered shows up, actually set up by a hacker, along with the invoice.

One company is bragging of their 99% uptime.  Anyone do the math on that?  It’s more than 85 hours of DOWN time a year.  And if that comes in 10 minute increments, well, the old saying, “glued, screwed and tattooed” comes to mind as workers have to reconnect with the app or data.

There are a lot of ideas that are terrific on the surface.  Then you look a little deeper…c’mon, it’s called due diligence and it’s what you’re expected to do…and find the pitfalls.  If you know the risks – and your CEO knows them, too, what’s the Daniel Boone quote “…be sure you’re right, then go ahead….”   But when you have 20 seats all vying for the same connection to get data they need to give to the CEO – your CEO, make sure you’re within reach of the phone because if the path or server fails, that phone’s gonna ring…and it won’t be a radio station cash call.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thumbing Your Nose at Brand Contacts

I was in a meeting last week – one of those consulting, “come sit and listen then tell me what you think” kind of meetings. Because much our work is confidential, these folks’ll remain anonymous.

The company offers a service, both online and via the phone.  Their meeting was one of those infamous “rally” sessions about growing the business.  Eye-opening is an understatement.

Let’s start with the top of the list.  If you don’t mind, just read it and then ask yourself if you see anything wrong.  You may have to think about it awhile.  Here goes:
One of the folks in the session projected a path – or paths – for a prospect to follow to acquire the service.  In typical PowerPoint™ style, the slide built different options.  As path three “flew in” from the right in bright green type with a jagged accent cloud surrounding it, the presenter boasted, “…and now we have a way of offering [the service] and a prospect will never have to talk to any of our representatives.”

Applause followed and then a couple of questions after which the kudos fell upon the presenter.
Now that said – what’s the operative word in that scenario?  “Flew in?”  Maybe you think that those sorts of builds are distracting.  How about “green?”  Green type is seldom easy to read, especially over white.  Or maybe it’s the distracting accent cloud that surrounded the fly-on.
Well, you may disagree, but the operative word to me is “have,” as in, “…never HAVE to talk to any of our representatives.”

These guys were proud of the fact that they had eliminated contact.  Hearing them talk about eliminating mistakes, ensuring consistency, and, of course, one more time, “growing the database,” you’d think they were on to something.  I prefer to think they were ON something.
Sales managers/DOS’s:  are your line folks so bad that you’d rather have a javascript applet get your business for you?   GM’s and CEO’s: What’s wrong with your sales department?

And the same for all other departments who think the panacea for them is removal of people from the process.  Even internally – for example, some IT folks pride themselves in an automated help desk.  Between an FAQ feature on their intranet and an automated phone tree that “guides” the caller to some semblance of the right answer, your time saving is their time wasted. 
This is usually discovered when the CEO is under a crunch, with an assistant who is out ill.  The CEO has a problem with his laptop so he calls the number that’s displayed prominently above the screen.  I can promise you – he’ll press 2 buttons on the phone pad then the switch hook and, after he receives a dial tone, your number.  Trust me.  You really don’t want that.

Besides, isn’t it better for you, all the way around, to have contact with folks directly?  People get mad at machines.  People they don’t know are machines.  “That jerk in IT” becomes Bill after Bill takes the call and offers help.  And the next time there’s a contact, it’s on a person-to-person basis.

Now, back to the outside world.  Let me give you the best worst example I can recall.  A major airline lost a bag of mine.  After the expected time in line I was given a receipt with both a phone number and web URL to track my bag.  “Pretty cool,” I thought.   Not so fast, Lennie boy.

I logged onto the website and was greeted to a parsing error.  Couldn’t open the page in IE, Firefox or even Chrome.  So I decided to call the number.  On the telco dial pad I went through a number of keystrokes to tell them what I wanted to do (didn’t want to check my mileage balance, didn’t want to book a new flight, didn’t want to enter a flight number for a previous flight that didn’t credit me my miles and so on.)  Now before you interrupt me, yes, I regularly pressed “0” in search of a human. 
Finally it asked me if I wanted to check on a “misplaced” (they’ll never say “lost”) bag.  I had to enter the flight number and press # then the bag claim number and press # after which (including a couple more presses of “0”) it agreed to transfer me to an agent.  A real live agent.  A couple of clicks in the earpiece.  A little music.  And then the busy signal.  That’s it.  That’s the customer service I was looking for.

According to Integrated Marketing 101, they missed a big chance to solidify their relationship with me rather than whittling it to nothing.

Then the opposite happened.  It was a tech company.  I was traveling and a station was having an STL problem.  I had no manuals with me.  The station’s local technician was away, and the box just quit.  I got as much info from the operator on duty as I could then called the manufacturer.  Got a live person.  Hello?  Live person.  I was shocked, especially since, my index finger was already positioned over the 0 on the dial pad.  And that live person, after they asked my name, referred to me by name as they asked what my problem was. 

She told me who the contact person would be and said that he was on the phone.  Could I hold.  Yep.  About 30 seconds later, the manufacturer’s tech worked through the problem with me and we arrived at the most logical source of the problem…and he asked if I wanted to conference with the station operator to get it done.
Now these guys make good stuff.  And they charge for it.  And maybe that’s why they can afford to give that kind of service.  But I think it’s the other way around.  They provide the service and, therefore, they can charge more for their product because they deliver this kind of what I thought was terrific support.

So as you move forward, ask yourself, “Do I really want to eliminate those contacts – those opportunities to make a prospect a customer and a customer a better one?  Do I want to build a wall between my department and others instead of co-opting the relationship and building their reliance on my folks?”

If you answered yes to either of those, welcome to the year 2002.  Otherwise, get in the Delorean, fire up the flux capacitors and get yourself into the 2012 world.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

EAS - Take a Giant Step "Back to the Future"

The national EAS test has come and gone. I’ve been through about 400 or so posts about what went right (the event did happen, it brought the tech community a lot closer together and spotlighted the common goal of success, a majority of decoders did trigger, there was no Mercury Theater of the Air panic by the citizenry and no actual attacks were initiated during the test period) and what went wrong (missed relays - including an entire state, daisy chains that looped back on themselves, cable and over-the-air test info either duplicated or non-existent, dropped audio, poor audio, reverb/echo/feedback audio and a few others).

The recommendations for moving forward are coming from every direction:

• Scrap the whole system and start over
• Keep the system as-is, the test went well
• Modify the system to (place your favorite verb here) and then ____ (about 50 different ideas)
• Make it smartphone-centric
• Make it satellite-centric
• Make it Internet-centric
• Increase the number of PEP’s
• Decrease the number of PEP’s
• Run more frequent national tests
• Take it away from the government
• Turn it all over to the government

After fielding calls from a number of clients – before, during and after the test – it becomes abundantly clear that KISS (keep it simple, stupid) was made for this.

First, stop and think of what the test was about. This wasn’t CAP. It wasn’t a series of chlorine tank cars on their sides in Omaha or Denver. It was national. It was to see how the system works when there’s an emergency that affects the entire country. That’s it. It sought the answer to a simple question: Can the POTUS (or his/her designate) get a message to all of us in case of emergency. This message may take 30 seconds or it could continue for days or even weeks. After all, we don’t know what the emergency might be and/or what instructions need to be given or citizen actions need to take place.

So now think about KISS. We’re certainly not doing that. The relays and daisy chains work – to a degree – but they take time and every level is subject to error. If you know that you’re going to have a 5% error factor in every layer of relay, which is better: 10 layers or 2? Doh!

So how do you do that. Whew-boy. Here’s where I get pummeled for talking about that positive step backward…to AM radio. To AM being the platform for launching all national alerts.

I must be kidding, right? Well would a kidder go one step further and suggest reexamining 500 kilowatt operation. Now I must really be kidding. Nope. Here’s the thinking:

As was proposed years ago, many of the clears could operate at 500kW. Yes, some may have to directionalize to protect neighbors to the north and south. A few would have to protect one another. But with a little study, we could get to a .5 mv/m or at least 100uv/m coverage* of the entire country with few – very few – facilities. Fewer facilities means fewer mistakes. Remember, this is for national alerts. Yes, the “PEP’s” (not so primary anymore) would be involved and each station would be part of a chain, but with all stations monitoring the 500kw operators, there’s be only two – count ‘em, two – links. Not bad.

Now, a couple of other advantages:

Contrary to using satellites, the web, or cellular as the base platform, 500 kW transmitters with tube modulators and finals are much less susceptible to EMP. Many AM towers are some distance away from cities’ population centers…less likely to be affected by nuclear or EMP attacks (wow – this IS going backwards). In fact, the only real danger would be if an enemy attacked us with CFL light bulbs.

Now the forgotten selling point: give me a little wire, let me unwrap a 1N34A from its lead-foil package and attach it to a crystal headphone and I’m listening to AM. No discriminator, no limiter, no D/A converter, NO BATTERY. Now someone’s going to say that I need a tuned circuit – and offer to sell me a 365mmf variable – but, believe it or not, in many cases, one station will dominate, at least enough for communication to take place. Yeah, if you live in Itasca, IL, halfway between the WBBM and WGN towers, I don’t want to hear from you. Go buy yourself a ferrite loop and tuning cap. And don’t bring up preemphasis. It’s not a factor here. The words will get heard.

Heck, you could even go digital! CW that is. I just don’t want to be the telegraph operator if they direct cathode-key the final.

Your counter to that argument should be, “Wait, you said national emergency and that AM’s should be the primary platform.” That’s true. The recommendation is that the super power AM’s provide the initial link. So the entire discussion of individuals and their 1N34a’s shouldn’t apply. Well, take the whole emergency thing one step further. It’s an actual emergency. EMP or other types of non-ionizing or, worse, ionizing radiation has limited or prevented travel while, at the same time, wiping out all those MOSFET gates, TWT’s, and maybe even good old bipolar transistors. Let’s hope it never gets to that point but if it does and my local FM’s and lower power AM’s are off the air, I’d sure like to unwrap the lead from around that little gem, hook it up, and find out if it’s safe to drive the heck out of town.

OK, back to EAS. High power AM can work. Because it’s just simple. Now – why won’t it happen? The filings and counterfilings, suits and countersuits that will ensue as stations seek upgrades, the jealousy of owners locked out of a power increase because of an overlap, and the thinking that complex is better than simple. Or the thinking that complex employs more people than simple.

But remember, to reach the entire country, the fewer hops the better. And this one has just 1. That’s probably its downfall. The president communicates to the 500 kilowatters and everyone monitors them. Just doesn’t sound complex enough to work.

Then I think of DaVinci’s words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” If you do a study of 1400’s Italian you find the translation actually means KISS.

*Important to note that man made noise certainly has impact here. Power lines, ignition noise and those great compact fluorescents will definitely be a problem. But then, there’s a lot of this country where power lines and ignition noise aren’t problems…and CFL’s can at least be turned off – if there’s any electricity at all.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Convenient" TV Mail

If you remember Minority Report, you recall Cruise having advertising and promotion delivered to him at every turn.  Retinal recognition, fingerprints, facial characteristics...they all triggered an ad of some sort.

I'm not the first person to talk about ad saturation, I know.  But I do want to mention an interesting one.  DirecTV.  Seems they've implemented TVMail.  They deliver emails to a DVR.  In fact, they're waiting for you when you power up your box.

Well, that'd be mildly acceptable if one were asked and if there were anything but promotions in it.  Yet a subscriber has to clean it out regularly - from every machine under his/her control.

Do we need another brand contact?  Do we need the constant hammering about upgrades and PPV's?

I corresponded with DirecTV, first receiving canned responses but eventually a real human email which told me, "As such, Mr. ______, those customers not wishing to participate in, view or read messages and programming within these features may simply disregard them entirely. If you would like, please write back including the specific reason you choose to delete these items on each of your receivers so that, with the additional understanding, we may be able to offer more appropriate assistance."

This tells me two things.  First, they don't realize the intrusion of the flag and, second, they don't get it when it comes to customers (they need additional "understanding"?).

And yet, they keep on truckin'.

Moral:  If you're in it just for promotion, you're gonna honk off your customers.  If you really HAVE to do it, put something in it for them.  Something to make them want the communication.  Otherwise, cut it out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Being Smart with Databasing: Less Really IS More

Ya’ know, I want this blog to be positive – to be helpful. There is no intent to convey anger. But…(there it is!) Yep. This one’s for the idiots managing web databases, the ones charged with gathering too much information about all of us, no matter what.

With plenty of experience in databasing, please let me give you a thought: You don’t need to know everything about me – nor do you deserve to – unless the quid of your quid pro quo is substantial!

I know you’ve convinced your management that you can squeeze the number and location of all birthmarks from site visitors but you’re doing your company no favors. And if your CEO ever gets hold of stats from competitors who aren’t hounding users for data, and he realizes how you’re actually damaging the corporate image, you may well be gone. But, meantime, you’ll continue your harm.

Case in point. (This is just one. It happens all the time but this is the latest). Pantone. They generate color products and services. In fact, just about everyone is familiar with “Pantone 100 C” description. Cool company. In fact, it is the standard for colorimetry.

I happen to own one of their Huey products. It’s used to calibrate monitors so that you know what you’re really getting. And, not to overuse “cool”, but that’s what the device is. It works flawlessly on XP Professional and on Macs.

And then, I upgraded to Windows 7. Aha. Needed a new driver. Loaded the disc that came with the Huey and, of course, nothing there. So I made my way to the manufacturer website. There the milking started. Seems some database guy/girl there is convinced they need to know everything about me in order to give me the driver. And he/she did his/her doggoned best to make sure they got it, with every data box asterisked as a required field.

First: I paid for the doggoned thing. That’s enough.

Second: You don’t need to know everything about me in order to support your product. More importantly, I don’t need nor do I want to join your “club”. I don’t want your emails, I really don’t need your forums. I just need the device to work.

Third: If you do manage to pull the wool over your CEO’s eyes and convince him/her that you’re entitled to all that information, at least do a decent web design so that the page functionality doesn’t make me repeatedly complete the page, e.g., if you have to have (a good page doesn’t, but…) a phone number in a particular format, tell me it’s “xxx-xxx-xxxx” instead of returning the page with a “violation” and, at the same time, wiping other info you forced me to enter. Guys, that’s just insulting. But again, apparently you’ve been able to buffalo your top management.

I did finally get the driver and that cute Huey stepped up and recalibrated the video card in the new 7 machine in about a minute, but now I feel I’m on intimate terms with their website – all for their enabling a device they sold me to continue working.

Now one of my big issues is people who complain without offering solutions. So, here you go.

• Weigh what you’re offering against what you’re asking for

• Ask if you really need those data or if it’s just so you can puff out your chest or, worse, sell it

• Consider incremental databasing. Don’t know what that is? Then you probably shouldn’t be in your job. But when a person comes to your site the first time, you can ask for a bit of info. On return, you might ask a bit more. One more return and maybe some more. And, of course, if you sell them something, you’ll be able to gather additional transactional information. Don’t think it’ll work? I’ve seen it and done it.

Again, the point here is the positive aspects – if you’re running a database, think about what you’re asking for. If you’re entitled to it, go for it. If not, leave it out. Hey! It may actually improve business.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Gone in Sixty Seconds

The star of this one isn’t Nicolas Cage and the title really isn’t as above but rather, Obsolete in 18 Months.

Technology keeps marching, for sure but now it’s double time or better. Maybe it’s the technology or maybe it’s just churning the masses and generating new purchases.

Hey, I can understand true advances but the one I’m writing about is not. It’s an “upgrade” by what you want to think is one of the good guys. Google.

Google and T-Mobile launched the MyTouch and Android pairing. Pretty good competition for iPhone. Worked great. I bought one. The Android platform is open source and thousands of folks are developing apps. I’m amidst one right now.

Well I was – until awhile ago. The phone slowed to a crawl. Sometimes locked up, even rebooted on its own. But the biggest annoyance is that the touch screen runs slowly, often responding to a touch long after a finger has left it. And with that, slow screen changes including over a minute for the screen to rewrite itself after dialing a phone call or reading an email.

Calls to T-Mobile were a laugh with the first one beginning with, “Have you turned your phone on and off?” Well actually, it didn’t begin there. It began with them asking if I was aware of a certain promotion…I had to remind them that they shouldn’t be pushing anything on me while my phone was misbehaving.

At first, the person denied that it was a common issue – until I pointed to pages on T-Mobile’s own forums and all of the problems and complaints posted. Then she admitted that, well, there have been some other calls. Well, if the calls were like the posts, people aren’t happy. In fact, they’re angry at both T-Mobile and Google

There were no improvements after the first call. Reset a lot of things, turned off one app that had decided to run all the time, but no improvements.

I made a trip to the T-Mobile store. “You’re not alone,” the kind guy behind the counter said. “I probably had five or six others just today.”

“So what is it?” I hoped for an instant fix.

“Google.” Well, Android 2.2, to be specific,” he smiled.

I wasn’t smiling as he continued, “1.6 was fine but when they went to 2.2, the MyTouch 3G saw all sorts of problems. Looks like your phone has most of them.”

“How do I fix it?”

“Go back to 1.6,” he said. But you don’t have long on your contract…stick it out and get a different phone.”

That wasn’t the right answer. Especially when he said the alternative was to go back to 1.6 which meant wiping everything on the phone, reverting to the old version of Android and reloading it all. I asked if there was a patch coming for 2.2 which would fix the problems and he said it wasn’t likely.

OK, off to the web. The guy was right. Lots of folks getting burned by a non-caring Google. At least that’s how it seemed. Apparently, I was lucky. At least my alarm still worked and I could get text messages. But as I read the complaints and checked them out, I found I had even more issues. Battery life, for sure and keyboard freezes. Now I get the battery life issue – a newer OS may be running more items in the background and it’s all those cycles in CMOS that suck current – but keyboard freezes? C’mon, Google. A $600 stock price doesn’t give you the right to ignore your customers…unless your goal is a $300 stock price!

Next came another call to T-Mobile. “May I have your phone number?” he asked.

“You mean the one the automated system already had me type in?”



“And the last four of your social…”

“And you mean the ones the automated system already me type in?”

“I’m sorry. That information doesn’t come over to us.”



“Never mind. I know it’s not you. Let’s hope someone actually listens to the recording you’re making for ‘training’ purposes. Where do we start?”

“First, let’s turn your phone off and back on.”

I resisted the urge to stick my hand through the phone. “OK, but if you have any of my account history in front of you, you know this is going to take some time.

“That’s OK.”

So we waited…and waited. Did get to talk about weather.

“OK. We’re back up. I counted almost four minutes. How about you?”

“I’m sorry sir. How is it working? Can you open an app?”

The first one opened perfectly, as fast as I touched it. But when I closed it out and opened another, it slowed to its usual crawl. After some investigation, he was hard-pressed to believe that no one had told me that 2.2 allowed me do move apps from the phone to the SD card and that that should clear everything up.

The migration started…and stopped. “These apps have the “Move to SD Card” option greyed out,” I told him.

“Yeah. Some don’t work except on the phone.”

One after another gave me no option but to leave the app on the phone. But convinced that moving the apps would free up needed phone memory, I made a mistake. I told him that I could do these changes without holding him up and I’d call back if there were further problems. He thanked me, promised he had noted everything in my account history and hung up.

I moved another eight or 10 applications to the SD card then restarted the phone. The house of hope fell in on reboot. No better. I mean no better.

Another browse session just showed more disappointed users. I called T-Mobile customer care again and, as you would expect, went through the same restating of my information as before. I got to an unsympathetic lady who
• Read my account history
• Confirmed that a lot of people were having the problem
• Asked if I had turned the phone off and back on
• Disagreed when I asked her if she thought that Google and T-Mobile have rendered my phone obsolete (“…after all, you can revert to Android 1.6 and your phone will work…” she said.) – as if somehow asking me to spend hours fixing a problem brought about by an “upgrade” was fine with her
• Told me she didn’t know how to get my message (that Google and T-Mobile have to provide support for their products or say goodbye to consumers) to her supervisor or others in “management”

So, with an 18 month old phone, I’m on the make again. This time, though, it’s for a new service provider as well as new phone. I’d say, “Farewell, Android, [Aquarius] and we thank you,” but the astronauts on Apollo 13 were saved and Aquarius helped. Android burned up on reentry.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Working out of your Element

Sometimes we get asked to perform tasks outside our job description – or outside our area of expertise. Most of us, smartly, investigate the job and, if we can do it, we just do. But what happens when you’re totally outside your area.

OK, friends…this one’s kinda political. Specifically about politicians and appointees who think that “just because it’s a good thought, it should be implemented.”

Now, I’m not against implementing good ideas. But when someone comes up with one of those “good ideas” which is outside their area of expertise, it spells danger. Case in point:

The FCC continues its push for reassignment of broadcast television spectrum to personal services like smart phones and PDA’s. “Everyone should have broadband,” is the thinking. And, yes, it’s admirable. And in support of it, Richard H. Thayer, professor at a major university, filed a story with the New York Times. Now, I do give him credit for his statement that it, “…sounds too good to be true…” because it is.

Professor Thayer makes the point that there are a lot of folks who aren’t on cable or satellite who could be converted – by forcing the systems to provide low cost service – thereby freeing the broadcast spectrum. He also tries to draw a picture of broadband being more efficient than broadcast.

This is a perfect example of someone working outside their area of expertise. And, yes, it’s dangerous.

First, think about the physics. It is evident that Professor Thayer doesn't understand the "economics" of spectrum allocation. (The Buried Treasure in Your TV Dial, New York Times, 2-27-10).

Do the math on the spectrum requirements for people in 1200 autos, 2 C&NW trains and two "El" trains on the Kennedy Expressway in his city and you will see that there isn't enough spectrum space available even including that currently allocated to broadcast TV.

Then do the math on efficiencies. In New York City, a program with a 5 rating is reaching about 550,000 households or (with an average VPVH of 1.5) 825,000 individuals. Divide that 6 megahertz TV channel by the 825,000 and you get a spectral "cost" of about 7.3 Hz*. Not kilohertz, just good old Hertz! Now stack that up against the multi-kilohertz to megahertz of bandwidth required PER PERSON under Professor Thayer's proposal and you'll quickly see his tremendous error.

*I’m being generous since the full six megahertz is only used in the 1080i HD mode.

Once again, good ideas need to be tempered with reality. Otherwise, you may be creating rules against the laws of physics. Hey, if that’s possible, let’s outlaw auto accidents and heart attacks, too.

We live through this regularly as legislators pass regulations without looking at the real world. Today, for example, automakers were informed that their new MPG target is 54. Think they’ll make it? It’s double what the rules are today. Might happen but the laws of physics say it has to be with small, light – and potentially unsafe – cars with fewer weight-adding amenities and no pickup. Or with electric cars, right? Infinite MPG – while they push the pollution caused by coal. Again, politicians think electricity is free…and they don’t realize that there’s actually a real live formula for converting horsepower to watts. That law against hurricanes must be just around the corner.

It’s a shame Professor Thayer didn’t run his idea past a truly distinguished professor from his same school, Prof. Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics. I doubt he would have let Thayer’s work out of the building.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Amazing Transducer/Filter/Equalizer

So I sat listening to Siegfried Idyll and tracking the first horn part. Even amidst a swelling tutti section, I was able to hear every note. ‘Bout an hour later, Buddy Rich was cranking away on Big Swing Face. Love his bass kicks and, again, it’s pretty easy to pick them out, separating them from the bass part, the piano left hand and the bari sax.

Revisiting the “How do it know?” punch line of the Thermos® bottle, you have to ask, “How?”  After all, I’m talking about a pair of ears. That combination of membrane, bones, hair cells, nerves and brain interpretation that processes what we call sound.

Try this some time: Point a mic at a street corner and tell it to “pick out what the girl in the tank top is saying.” Good luck.

OK – so you cheat and use a hypercardioid mic to pick out what’s coming from her direction. But there’s plenty of noise. So you load up Adobe Audition and open the file. Now – tell Adobe, “Pick out what the girl in the tank top is saying.”

Guess what. We’re not there yet. Yes, you can open the equalizers – graphic and/or parametric or sample the noise and try to cancel it – items – items you have to operate…but think about the fact that ears do all that automatically and in real time. You decide you want to hear the lead guitar and that’s what you hear.

The craziest part is that these wild transducers inside our heads have a lot of problems. First, they’re nonlinear. It’s a good thing. If ears operated linearly, we’d be able to handle about 50dB (softest to loudest) before losing the ability to hear the sound or covering ears to relieve the pain. Yet, given a combination of mechanical operations including the outer hairs in cochlea, we get to around 120dB volume range. Remember that decibels are logs so 10dB higher = 10 times the level but 20dB higher is 100 times, and 30dB is 1000 times, etc. Woah, Bessie, pretty good range. In fact, better than a standard CD.

“But wait, there’s more!” as Billy May (a voice any ear could recognize) would say. In its nonlinearity, the ear is subject to intermodulation distortion. OK. I give. Either bring it down a notch or go away. No, it’s simple. When two tones hit an eardrum, additional frequencies can be created. Well – not created physically…if you were to use a mic to measure the tones, a spectrum analyzer would show only two tones…but the human ear (tin, golden and in between) will hear additional tones. For example, listen to a 500Hz tone. Then add a second tone – 600 Hz. Intermodulation products begin to form as the level of the 600Hz tone is increased. You will “hear” 1100Hz (600+500) and then 100Hz (600-500) and, possibly, 1600Hz (2x500 + 600) and 400Hz (2x500 – 600). There actually are nearly infinite “orders” of intermodulation products, of varying levels, depending upon the level of the original two tones.

So, imagine a full orchestra playing. All those notes impinging on ear drums. A lot of intermod going on…but our brain understands it. Listen closely and it’s there, but it doesn’t get in your way.

Think this is all bunk? One speaker company is working on a new way of transmitting audio: If you want to create a 50Hz tone in someone’s ear, just generate a 22,000Hz tone and a 22,050Hz tone. Both are above audible range but a number of people have ear drums which move at those frequencies and if they do, they’ll generate the intermod tone of 22,050 – 22,000 or 50Hz.

And if you want to experience intermodulation in its basest form, listen as two oboes tune. (Actually, the riddle asks, “How do you make two oboists play in tune?” “Shoot one.”) As they come close in frequency, you will hear a “beat” between the two. That beat will waver at the frequency equal to the difference in frequency between the two. So if the wavering (not one oboe’s vibrato but the beat between two oboes) is occurring at twice a second, the two are one-half Hertz off in frequency.

Then add harmonic distortion on top of that and you wonder how we hear anything beyond mumbling and the cacophony of a bad orchestra tuning up. Harmonic distortion occurs when the eardrum – or any of the other devices of the ear – begins to move at twice or three time the frequency exciting it. If a 1000Hz tone is played into a human ear, to varying degrees the ear will generate harmonics (2000, 3000, 4000Hz) along with the fundamental. These harmonics are only a percentage the loudness of the fundamental but they’re there. It’s why an oboe sounds a little brighter than its spectral print says it should.

If you’re still hanging in here, let’s jump to the ultimate insult to the ear – audio compression schemes. Digitizing an audio signal for a CD means sampling each channel 44.1 thousand times a second, giving each sample a 16 bit number (one for each channel) for each of those slices of a second, then recording each digital “number” representing the signal at that point in time. A lot of data…like 700MB for 74 minutes of music. Doesn’t take much to fill up an iPod.

So we get crafty. We analyze the music/speech/whatever. We look at human ear response curves, impulse response, fatigue and more. And we find that, wow. When there’s a loud note of a particular frequency, it tends to mask other information in a small sliver of the audio band on either side of it. We tell the recording program to toss out that other info. And it does.

And what do we get? Kind of a skeleton of the music. As you listen, you know it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan. But a rhythm guitar playing an e softly behind his much louder note will be dropped – discarded. And what does that mean? Well tell your ear to listen for the rhythm guitar when listening to the CD and you may well hear it. Tell your ear to listen for it in an MP3 and your ear will reach around and smack you, know that it can’t. It’s a trick because the note just ain’t there. The greater the compressing, the less music is left.

Yet millions of folks, most without realizing it, record in a compression mode, tossing notes into the drink without thought. mp3, wma and similar formats are very good at sending content to the great beyond but either the lack of knowledge or the desire to put every K-TEL recording ever made on their iPods drives them to give themselves less that quality listening experiences. And it seems that the younger the person is, the more intent they are on cramming the most onto their devices. And the saddest part there is that they’ll never be able to experience critical listening. The “critical” has been removed by a process that leaves only the boldest notes.

Noise to the rescue. Another part of listening surrendered. There’s more radio listening in cars than at home. Noise surrounds iPod listeners on the street or in a plane. That noise masks some of the other problems created by compression. So now, listening to compressed audio, masked by noise, I have an interesting experience. A good one? Not really. But it is interesting. And seldom will you find a place where there are low enough noise levels to actually experience and analyze the music. Besides, who wants that? You miss the phone ringing, your special “other” talking to you, or the announcement of the next stop on the Red Line.

About here is where I’m supposed to offer the solution. Well I don’t have one. With no one buying CD’s today (OK, not many or the industry’d be in a little better shape) there’s no one with the gear to listen critically. They’re stuck. Their kids are stuck. Instead, they get excited over separation – as if the fact that the bass is mixed far left and the vocal is mixed center is the major point of the music – or other effects. It’s just not the music anymore…because there aren’t any music listeners any more. Except me – and maybe you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I'm Seeing Yellow

I’m seeing yellow.  No, really.  Finally.

I’m talking television.  Since 1953 we’ve been watching color television in NTSC and its compromised chroma modulation.  Yellow suffered tremendously – the combination of chrominance and luminance on a bright yellow object would lead to overmodulation…so that whole sextant of the chroma topography was compromised, usually sent toward the darker shades.  Nearly as bad, differential phase problems are most easily seen in the yellow areas.

Enter ATSC.  The yellows are just another bunch of numbers as is any other color.  And they get equal treatment.  So the likelihood of yellow being yellow is a LOT greater.  Of course, magenta (and all her sisters) is better, too, but that yellow thing really makes a difference.  At least one manufacturer is bragging about better yellow through the addition of yellow LED’s but in reality, it’s the modulation scheme that makes the real difference.

So – all those better yellows.  Now turn your attention to compression – not ATSC but the compression being applied to video signals over cable and DTH satellite.  Well, so much for yellow…and red, blue, and green and all their buddies, too.  Bit reduction and other compression along with conversion (in some cases) to QAM took that wonderful yellow away.  Well actually it didn’t – it took away the range of yellows; packed them all into one convenient “yellow.”  Same with the rest of the spectrum. 

Wondering why faces look “cartoony” and the color gradation seems inconsistent at best?  Put an ATSC over-the-air signal next to your cable or satellite version.  Check it out.

The solution?  Less compression, of course but is that going to happen?   Doubtful given the channel proliferation and competition between cable and satellite suppliers.  It points to other access methods that might allow download of the full digitized signal, maybe beyond ATSC.  Hint:  web services like Hulu and others.  If these services provide full bandwidth digitized signals, as Americans see the difference, they will gravitate toward the better service.  After all, with one-to-one delivery, number of channels is meaningless.

The only issue that affects the full bandwidth delivery will be the decision of ISP’s and alternate suppliers to move from “all you can eat” to metered bandwidth charges.  In that case, maybe that beautiful range of yellows isn’t worth it after all.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Memoriam: Broadcast Radio and Television

It’s been almost a rule – every time a new technology comes along, older ones don’t die…they just morph into something else and coexist.  Radio was supposed to destroy the phonograph, television would annihilate motion picture theaters - and radio on the way past.  Seems like the same should be true for radio’s surviving its current onslaught from, wow, every direction.

Well, there’s a flaw in that morph theory.  It really refers to types of entertainment – not the delivery mechanism.  If that weren’t the case, we’d all still have players for 45’s and 8-tracks connected to our systems.  And when was the last time you watched home movies?

The roadside of tech advances has dead formats everywhere – and homes and offices packed with media for it.  Fact is, they’re not coming back and they didn’t morph into anything usable.

Today, broadcast – that’s-over-the-air – is facing its maker.  True, radio and TV are forms of entertainment, but broadcast is a very definitely a delivery mechanism and one being rapidly displaced.

Looking at just the front line of offenders, there’s the iPod, then streaming, then XM and Sirius and Slingbox and even CD’s (which play .mp3’s, of course).  Tough to fight a war on three or four fronts…especially when you look at the model.

First, it’s a WYWWYWI (what you want when you want it) world.  Not many restaurants survive serving ham only between 6 and 6:30, pizza from 6:30 to 7, fish from 7 to, well, you get the picture.  So hearing the song you want only when a station plays it, well, who’s kidding whom?   Watching CSI at 9 isn’t convenient.  Then there’s the sorting through the clutter.  When commercial loads are as high as they are, existing viewers and listeners abandon in droves, knowing they have at least three minutes before they need to punch back in. 

Add to that the disappearance of live talent.  Hey.  You may think you’re listening live but there’s a lot of voice tracking going on out there and even more music coming out of the sky from New York, Dallas, or Denver, picked by a PD that has never even been to Phoenix, let alone programmed to it. 

And, on the TV side, more and more comes from a “network” or other central source.  “Centralcasting” has taken hold.  We now see the same news stories multiple times and, often, they incorporate – are you ready for it? – amateur cell phone footage.

Then there’s the quality issue.  That one’s being skewered on two fronts of its own.  First, faced with a choice of quality versus “now-lity”, now wins out.  Witness the number of iPodders who choose to store thousands of songs at slightly better than AM quality versus hundred at higher quality. BTW: even at its highest quality, the coding dictates that out ≠ in.  Hasn’t slowed sales.  And streaming to 2½ inch cell phone screens is commonplace.  Yet on another front radio, through the wonders of IBOC, is scrambling to improve quality.  Who ordered that focus group?  “Let’s see, we can only feed one song at a time, we’ve got a ton of commercials.  I know.  Let’s improve technical quality.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

So You Want to be a Broadcast Equipment Supplier with a Website

Interesting:  Two major pieces of gear faced our tech folks – both in need of specific parts to correct their failures.  Went to the respective manufacturers' websites looking for in-depth information (translation:  more than the user manual), latest software/firmware, and other tech-friendly materials.  Nothing!  One offered contact information to request the needed info; the other sent us into a wonderful loop, asking for the model number of the device, serial number, date of purchase and, I believe, the names of the capitals of all the states before going to a page asking if we wanted to subscribe to their newsletter which went back to the original request page.

Yes!  The station should have maintained the service manuals, schematics, CD-ROMs.  But they didn’t.  And that brings us to the point of this article…not the stations’ errors but the manufacturers who purport to have equipment websites but really have only interactive equipment sales tools.

Broadcast is different from other electronics areas.  It’s called 24/7 and when you’re down, you’re down.  And you need to get back on the air. 

While it’s understandable that some manufacturers can’t support a ‘round-the-clock engineer-on-call, if the company makes mission critical items (defined here as ones which, if they fail result in an off-the-air status) they need to provide every possible level of informational help on the website.

When the GM is looking over the engineer’s shoulder as minutes of commercial time tick by, the last thing one needs to see is a splash page for a new transmitter.   Instead, he should be able to get to the “info and downloads” page for his piece of gear as directly and quickly as possible.

Once there, a service technician should be able to download the service manual without entering serial numbers, dates of purchase or other info that slows down the process.  Attached to the manual should be a log of changes, adjustments, previous fixes and related information.  Too often, after trying to implement a repair, one finds that, in fact, the gear was updated/upgraded without current owners being notified.  Or – that the company is aware of a simple fix or a chronic failure that can be easily repaired.  Neither of these needs to be discovered by waiting through the night until the factory or parts department opens at, “…eight o’clock central time…”

Then there’s the dreaded “email us” link.  It may open your email client preaddressed to their info/service department.  OR…it may open a form, again requiring way too much information (ever get the “Valid Zip Code Missing” return because you didn’t see the asterisk?) for the moment.  NOT user-friendly.

Even if it opens your email, it may point you to their sales department.  Nine times out of 10 that means it’s going to the wrong person.  And by the time it gets to the right person, you’ve found some other solution or decided to “decommission” the gear with a Louisville Slugger.

Another note on emails:  If you want to be a broadcast equipment manufacturer with a web page, respond to emails…promptly.  Too many times we are charged with creating solutions to problems and, in the course of research, contact manufacturers with questions about their equipment.  And almost just as many times, manufacturers fail to respond.  I have one on my “bring up” file that has had four phone messages and five (count ‘em) emails to “info@” with a simple question.  No answer.  Nada.  Not even a parting gift.  You have to respond if you want to keep the business going.

Let me stop to give credit to a couple.  1) Broadcast Tools.  Same day response to every email I’ve ever sent them.  Courteous.  And, in one case, the response was a recommendation that did the job better than I had asked…and for the same money.  2) Delta RF Technologies.  Have a question about RF pallets used as power amplifiers?  You get an answer.  And, again, maybe “another way of doing it.”  Thank you both for a breath of fresh air in the CO2 world of emails.

Bottom line:  Broadcasting is 24/7.  Manufacturers have to come as close to that as possible.  It can be done – and for little money.  Try it.  Remember that consultants and contract engineers have a LOT of input into purchases.  Give it a little time to win those guys over.  Watch the business grow.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System

What phenomenal technology! Launching a rocket carrying a spacecraft that would eventually leave our solar system, our galaxy…onward forever. Well, not quite. What we really want is for someone – something – to find it. After all, that was the goal of the Voyager program which launched two unmanned probes, Voyager 1 & Voyager 2 (pretty smart naming by NASA, eh?) in 1977.

They flew past their initial goal, studying Jupiter and Saturn, collecting data and images of the solar system, then kept on going. Now, in January of 2011, it’s exited the solar system altogether – onward in the general direction of the Ophiuchus constellation – that new 13th constellation that's messing up astrologers – where lies AC+79 3888. And it’ll be there in only about 40,000 years!

Celebrate. Pop the cork! Our technology is “out there.”

Now…what technology did we put inside the spacecraft? Only the highest. Especially the “identifier” aboard. We sent out an LP!

We're hoping the probe would someday be discovered/captured/otherwise-examined by extraterrestrials.

Check out the photo of this very expensive pressing. This was gold plating on a copper disc. It contained sounds representative of life on Earth and images of earthlings (laid down in analog). Also included were sound effects worthy of the old Pepper-Tanner recordings…birds, whales, and a variety of other animals, wind, thunder, surf and musical selections covering a number of cultures and times. 

I tried to make out details on the label - wouldn't it be ironic if it were Sony or Polygram?  Oops.  Back to the topic at hand.
There are greetings from Earth in over fifty languages and messages from then President Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.

Interestingly, the record is recorded/encoded at 16 2/3 RPM (the 1970’s version of data compression.) There was compression – likely by reducing modulation to add additional groove space – to make room for 90 minutes of music and the 115 images

Smartly figuring that the finders of the record might not have a Shure or Benz Micro dealership nearby, the record was sent with cartridge and stylus. Further, written and symbolic instructions were included in the hopes that these extraterrestrials will “figure it out.”

And what will they figure out? Well, think about it.

“Hey, Glop, look what someone launched into space.”

“Yeah. Can’t believe it. And, from the pictures, it looks like we have to spin this thing then scratch this pointy thing against it to find out what’s in it.”

“Right. And how long has it been since we had anything that spun? A million years?”

“True enough. I mean, holy creator, these guys are really primitive. Things have to move to make sounds or pictures.”

“Oh, the farquar with it. I don’t care, do you?”

“Only if that disc says they’re close by.”

How far have we come in 40 years? What would we send today? DVD? Laptop complete with hard drive full of “Earth”? (And what battery will we send with that?).
To be fair, many very bright scientists contributed to the creation of this documentation of Earth. They employed the best methods of the time to convey us to the universe.  And it’s a bang-up idea…provided the discoverers aren’t a bunch of Jedis with very fast space ships!

So after looking back. let’s look forward. What would we be able to include in the spacecraft if we launched in 2077, instead. Progress. It’s a good thing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Who's Listening?

Who’s Listening. No…I mean it. Who’s listening – as in nobody listens anymore. Want to prove it? Walk into a McDonald’s or Starbucks and tell them, “I’d like a large, black, decaf coffee.” “OK. And do you want room for cream?” “Large, black, decaf coffee.” “Right. Small or large?” “Large, black, decaf coffee.” “Sure. And did you want regular or decaf?” “Could I just have a glass of water?” And so it goes, more times than not. And it’s true in the rest of the world. “OK. Let’s patch around the processor.” “OK, I’ve got it into the processor” “Around the processor.” “Oh. Well, that explains the overload LED.” or… “Grab the tripod; leave the batteries in the van.” “Here ya go. I got the batteries.” So what’s the solution. Ah…solution. See, I’m not just ranting. Well the first part of the solution is to make sure you’re saying what you mean – and in the manner you intend the action to occur. Yes, the “other guy” isn’t the only responsible party. As your instructions become vague, the chances of a correct response become less. Then, be sure you have the other party’s attention. If it’s a person-to-person meeting, make eye contact throughout the entire instruction. Give instructions in easy-to-understand language and don’t rush through them. Make sure not to leave anything out. While that doesn’t mean, “OK, walk to the door. Grab the handle, turn the handle counterclockwise, push the door, walk through, close the door behind you,” it does mean you can’t leave anything germane out and expect the other party to fulfill your request. Finally, be exact. “The box below the green digitizer box – I think that’s it. Right hand knob, no, switch. Turn it on.” Now, there’s a good one. It may solve the problem or it could launch a cruise missile somewhere. Then, get the other party to repeat the instruction back to you. No big deal. Happens in air traffic control all the time and when a person feeds it back to you properly, you know you at least have half a shot of their getting it right. This is especially important if you’re communicating via phone or in some other remote manner. Yes! Even texts get misinterpreted. One last important point: better communication usually comes with more communication - the more you work with someone, the better the odds of getting your point across or understanding theirs. Take the personal time to get to know the folks you work with. It's makes things a lot easier!