The Other Stuff

Tubi TV Teaser from adrise on Vimeo.

Although Netflix, YouTube and other video providers offer a whole lot of stuff, I’ve often wondered where the other stuff resides, why we’re not seeing so many old TV series and movies, and why so little that is produced and distributed outside of the U.S. is offered to U.S. audiences.

TubiTV (dreadful name) is about to change that, or, at least, some of that. It’s a new video-on-demand service with about 20,000 titles in its startup library. According to Variety, “Tubi TV content partners include Starz Digital Media, Cinedigm, Shine International, Jim Henson Co., Hasbro Studios, Film Movement, ITV, Endemol, Zodiak Rights, DRG, All3Media, Kino Lorber, Korean TV network MBC and Korean studio CJ Entertainment. In addition, Tubi TV has lined up several digital content partners, which include Newslook, AP, Reuters, anime distributor Funimation, Havoc Television, ACC Digital Network, Viki, Anyclip.com and Wochit.”

When it launches in the U.S. this summer on multiple platforms, it is expected to be free (ad-supported).

 

 

Mysteries of the TV Spectrum Auction

Let’s say you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you’re watching TV with rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, not via cable or satellite. If you live in the green area, you won’t have any trouble receiving a clean signal. In the yellow, you may need an outdoor antenna. If you live in the orange or red zones, you will certainly need an outdoor antenna, and if you’re red, you may still have a tough time. Of course, every over-the-air TV channel broadcasts with its own distinctive coverage pattern— the result of the physics of the specific channel frequency, the antenna height and location, terrain, quality of your home antenna and home receiver, interference with other signals and with physical objects like buildings and mountains. Television broadcasting is a complicated business!

Let’s say you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you’re watching TV with rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, not via cable or satellite. If you live in the green area, you won’t have any trouble receiving a clean signal. In the yellow, you may need an outdoor antenna. If you live in the orange or red zones, you will certainly need an outdoor antenna, and if you’re red, you may still have a tough time. Of course, every over-the-air TV channel broadcasts with its own distinctive coverage pattern— the result of the physics of the specific channel frequency, the antenna height and location, terrain, quality of your home antenna and home receiver, interference with other signals and with physical objects like buildings and mountains. Television broadcasting is a complicated business!

For most Americans, the story was pretty much the same from the early 1950s until June of 2009: turn on the TV, and watch a handful of channels, perhaps a dozen if you lived in or near a big city, for free. In 2009, the number of channels began to double, then triple. Now, I can watch about fifty channels without the help of cable, satellite, internet, mobile technology, or any other means. I just need a TV set, and a decent TV antenna. These days, there is a difference between a television “station”—a license to operate a portion of the local television spectrum (6 MHz, in case you’re keeping score) within a specific geographic area (say, for example, Syracuse, New York), and a “channel” (in technical terms, a “program stream operating on a portion of the 6MHz channel; this is why you see, for example, channels 10.2, or 14.3, when you use an over-the-air television tuner).

So that’s the new status quo. But it’s about to change. Within the next two years or so, the FCC (the government agency that provides and monitors television, radio, and other broadcast licenses) will, in essence purchase, very roughly, 1 in 10 television stations, maybe more, maybe less. They will buy these television licenses in order to sell them to wireless mobile internet operators so that the television spectrum may be used, for example, to stream video any time, anywhere, on to your smart phone or tablet. Most likely, the smallest and weakest of television stations will cease broadcast, including the few that are affiliated with any national broadcast network.

For several reasons, the situation is strange. As a rule, these licenses do not belong to the owners of these television stations, any more than your fishing license belongs to you. It is a permit to operate a broadcast television station, provided at no cost to the broadcaster in exchange for a promise to provide a public service: local news, programs for children, emergency information, and so on. Of course, broadcasters don’t want to simply give the licenses back to the government—why would they, unless they were either required to do so, by law, or, paid a handsome incentive to surrender what is, for many, a valuable asset. This is why the FCC is going to the buyer—the wireless internet provider who will use this spectrum—for the funds needed to encourage the current licensees, the broadcasters, to give up their chunk of spectrum. Why can’t the local TV station contact, say, Verizon, and say, “hey, want to buy our spectrum?” Yeah, that’s a good question, and no, there is no good small answer to that question. There is, however, a good big answer: there are thousands of local television stations, and the FCC is playing middleman in order to maintain some degree of rational organization.

Why? Also a good question, especially when you consider that about 90 percent of U.S. television viewing has little, if anything, to do with the local television stations and their broadcasts. Nearly all of us ignore the thirty or forty free television channels available via any good recent TV set and a connected antenna, and instead choose to pay Verizon, Comcast, or similar companies about $1,000-$1,500 per year to receive nearly 1,000 channels, plus DVR services, on demand, etc., as well as home internet service. So we’re protecting an asset that is vital for about 10 percent of us, and, largely, irrelevant to the rest. Except, of course, when there is an emergency, or so we’d like to believe. In reality, television is probably the fifth most important communication medium in an emergency situation (for example, Hurricane Sandy): first comes word of mouth, probably followed by cell phone, then internet and mobile, then radio, and then, if the power is on and the television stations’ antennas and transmission systems haven’t been zapped by power or ice or other maladies, there’s TV. Certainly, TV does a better job with storytelling—the term “team coverage” comes to mind—but communication of details is better handled, in 21st century life, by other media that are less needy in terms of power and complex operation.

Which leaves us…where? It leaves us with FCC auction in which wireless providers will bid, market by market, to provide the FCC with the funds needed to purchase the spectrum and associated licenses to broadcast on that spectrum, by some companies (and nonprofits) that currently hold those licenses. I am reluctant to use the term “sell the license” because the term suggests that the operator owns something other than a right to operate for a period of time, but the vernacular has the FCC “buying,” so I guess stations are, somehow, selling.

Will this matter? It’ll matter if you have a favorite small television station that struggles to pay its bills, or simply wants to move past the 20th century notion of local television broadcasting in favor of a different idea. Some state or local colleges own noncommercial educational licenses, and provide PBS service, for example, and some of these could go away because the colleges may decide to “sell” and put the money to other use (for example, establishing a new distance learning scheme for the 21st century, or building new facilities for other educational activities, or hiring many more professors, or just endowing their future). An owner of commercial stations—perhaps even a group of stations—might sell to raise capital, and then put that capital to work in another part of the media business, or another business altogether. The FCC is positioning the auction as a means to raise capital for these kinds of opportunities.

Will this really happen? And might it happen again, until most or all of the broadcast television stations are gone? Yes, it will really happen, unless the new FCC chief, Tom Wheeler, can either politically maneuver in another direction (always possible), or some other part of the Federal machine shifts into an unexpected direction. If all goes as planned, some local broadcast channels will go dark (especially in the top 20-30 largest markets), and many channels will find new homes, new channel positions on the broadcast spectrum, a change that will probably be invisible to most consumers who (a) watch on cable or satellite anyway, and (b) see their over-the-air channels “masked” with channel numbers that do not represent spectrum position, but instead, reflect convenience and tradition (for example, channel 10 in Philadelphia has always been channel 10 in Philadelphia, but it has been broadcasting on channel 34 for several years). As for future changes, there is nothing in place to support the contention that this will not be the final auction, but anything is possible, and the need for over-the-air broadcast stations in the top 20-30 markets is doing the opposite of growing. (In areas that are poorly served by cable, broadcast remains viable in small regions.)

So that’s the story, for now. The FCC plans to release a plan in May, and that could change half of what I’ve just written.

Grandpa, what’s a camera?

Infographic-1920-1200-ver-2-0-1024x640This infographic comes from a website called Lensvid, which is filled with interesting photographic stories, inspiration, reviews and more.

The site attempts to explain what happened, but their editors as as mystified as I am. Clearly, smart phones are having an impact— why spend the money and tote around a separate smart box when the phone contains a perfectly fine snapshot camera.

But there are hobbyists, amateurs, professionals—and it seems unlikely that shipments dropped by as much as 40 percent in a single year. Unless it was a tipping point. The graph on the top left certainly illustrates a multi-year drop. But why haven’t lenses dropped by a similar percentage? Maybe because the sale of lenses wasn’t so hot in the first place—and once an amateur buys into, say, the Canon system with a digital SLR, they tend to keep their lenses when they buy the new camera body from the same manufacturer.

No surprise that sales of compact cameras are dropping so quickly—a 60 percent drop since 2010—because those the cameras that are most effectively replaced by the cameras in smart phones.

Isn’t it odd: we are taking more pictures than ever before, and yet, the camera business is falling apart. Reminds me of a recent post on LinkedIn by my friend Paul. It appears below, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind.

30e72c12-a53d-11e3-93ba-12313d026081-medium

 

 

 

 

 

The News About The News

the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Kai Mörk

News coverage of a press conference, not a TV camera in sight. But most people still get their news from their TV sets. Attribution: Kai Mörk. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

During the past twenty years, each of the network’s evening newscasts have lost half of their viewers. These days, about 18 million Americans—that’s 18 million out of 240 million American adults—watch the nightly network news on ABC, CBS or NBC, with another 1 million watching PBS NewsHour. Still, most Americans still get their news by watching local and network television—that number hovers around 60 percent. If online is the second most popular source, it won’t be second for long, and it may have overtaken television in many peoples’ lives. Despite its convenience, radio is on a steadily decline; since 1991, it has lost about half of its role as a news provider. Its decline roughly matches the decline of newspapers, down.

For the most part, we pay for our news by watching and reading advertisements, and clicking on some, too. Advertising accounts for more than 2/3 of financial support for news. The second largest segment? Direct payments from the audience in the form of subscriptions, roughly 1/4 of the pie—the portion of your cable bill that pays for CNN, your subscription to a newspaper, your contribution to NPR or one of its member stations.

In the U.S., the news business is a very substantial: about $64 billion per year. That’s about 1/10 more than Google, which is, of course, just one company. Starbucks is about 1/4 of the size of the U.S. news business, but the global video game industry is about twice the size, so maybe Americans (alone) spend as much money on videogames as they do on news.

About 1/3 of all Americans now watch news video online, and that fraction increases to 1/2 for those in the 18-49 age group, but this is still a very small part of the whole news business—less than 10 percent of revenues, in fact.

Newspapers are changing—essentially eliminating their printing presses, trucks, ink and other 19th century concepts in favor of digital distribution. Among all newspapers, 1/4 to 1/3 of readers are using a digital device regularly, and among the 15 largest newspapers, nearly 1/2 of readers are enjoying their daily or weekly editions on screens, not on paper.

In just six years, Time Magazine and The Economist have lost about half of its newsstand sales—once a common model, picking up the magazine at the newsstand, now seems hopelessly old-fashioned. The New Yorker and The Atlantic have lost only about 1/4 of their newsstand sales. The decline is steady, and probably inevitable, but it’s difficult to explain why certain magazines have lost so much more than others. During the same period, revenues for Fox News Channel have doubled (but both CNN and MSNBC have shown only modest gains). In case you’re curious, it costs about $800 million a year to run Fox News, and about the same amount to run CNN (MSNBC costs less than $300 million.)

Five or six years ago, many journalists panicked because their industry seemed to be disintegrating. Some decided to take action. Since 2008, more than 100 digital nonprofit news outlets have popped up all over the country (in just about every state except Utah, the Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Utah. The San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston have been especially well-served. Some are sponsored by universities or nonprofits, some are independent, some are foundation funded. It’s certain a significant trend, albeit a new and fragile ecosystem. Many began with the financial assistance of a startup grant, typically under $100,000, that renewed only some of the time for a second go-round. Still, foundation funding is the principal source of funds for many of these fledgling operations. They deserve our support—especially during the critical early years. Happily, most surveyed felt that they would succeed in the long run through a combination of advertising, sponsorships, live events, individual subscriptions, and other forms of economic support. This an interesting phenomenon, and you can read more about it here.

The biggest change? Digital news sites are now strong enough to hire top journalists from newspapers, and entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar) are investing in the future of news gathering and distribution. The good news: this once-doomed industry is again showing signs of life, imagination and energy. As you time permits, I encourage you to fully explore the SPECTACULAR collection of reports that comprise the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project’s State of the News Media 2014 report. It’s all online. Or, download Overview PDF here.

 

 

 

 

 

Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

The Opposite is True

When my car dealer contacted me for a recall, I made an appointment. Then, the weather forecast turned foul, and I needed to find the phone number to reschedule. Quickest way: look up the website. Now, when I visit my usual collection of websites, none of them related to cars or my recall experience, the advertisements promote my car dealer.

Naturally, I don’t perceive this highly-targeted advertising as anything but intrusive. The goodwill and emotional capital that the car dealer has banked with me is now gone. I no longer trust the sites that I visit every day. So we have a perfect lose-lose-lose. The work of a mad scientist that we now accept as perfectly reasonable behavior.

It’s unreasonable, and its growing. One person I know is now receiving telephone calls from websites that he visited. Privacy policies are poorly communicated, and somehow, that’s okay.

I’m fine with a car advertisement, targeted to me, based upon my recent web behavior, BUT ONLY WHEN I APPROVE THIS USE OF MY DATA FOR THIS PURPOSE.

What we need is a change in policy, brought about by well-organized consumer pressure. And if that doesn’t work, what we probably need is new law. That’s not easy to do because laws regarding rights of privacy are difficult to create and even more difficult to enforce.

So what should we do?

First, contact the advertiser and tell them that this practice is bothering you. In many cases, a local advertiser will not completely understand what is happening, why it is happening, how it is impacting their customers and the company’s good name. Most likely, their web advertising is either being controlled by a third party or by an advertising agency. A well-placed email to the owner of the car dealership (in my case) will certainly bring about a colorful internal meeting.

Second, don’t rely upon the Federal government. I just did a Google search (which will, no doubt, result in more unwanted ads) for “consumer protection unwanted web advertisements.” The first result was an FCC page about unwanted faxes (!), and the second was about unwanted telephone calls. So, the Feds have some catching up to do. Instead, handle this by visiting your local state legislator (there’s one whose office is probably in a shopping center not five miles from where you live or work). The first relevant site: number ten on the list, a company called Abine. Theyre based in Boston, backed by serious investors, operated by a credible team, and clear on their role:

Since its launch, Abine has emerged as the online privacy leader. And now that we’re on a roll, we’ve recruited a team committed to giving our users a more private web experience. Our engineers are building the next generation of web tools, our marketing and press teams are advocates for change, and our support and operations staff go beyond service to provide daily advice to those navigating the complexities of online privacy.

Feeling good about what they’ve written on the web is one thing, but the necessary action is to download their app, and for this, one must provide some personal information. Yes, there’s a Better Business Bureau bug at the bottom of the page, and yes, their blog does a fine job in explaining, for example, the latest Target credit card debacle, but at this point, I’m not sure who I ought to trust. When I download their software, will I make the situation worse? Or are they one of the good guys? What if they’re hacked? Does that release a storm of additional refuse throughout the internet, all with their users’ names on it?

Gosh, we have allowed ourselves into a mighty mess. And we continue to feed the monster with more personal data every day, gently forgetting to remind ourselves that the data entered into one site is easy connected to the credit card purchase made two weeks ago, and the EZ-Pass data and the gas station data and the ATM data, and the list goes on. And everything we want to do online, or in an app, requires just a teeny bit more disclosure.

If there is an advertisement on this blog, you’ll have to tell me because, as a writer, I don’t see anything except a word processing screen. And if there is an advertisement that connects your personal web behavior to your reading this website, that makes me part of the problem. Which makes this whole web journalism thing that much more complicated. But we will get nowhere if we just accept the present-day reality, which isn’t good. We do need to change it. And that begins with articles like this one, and with your comments and ideas.

From Abine’s media kit, a comparison chart. It’s fascinating to see the list (left side) of issues to date, and the sheer number of solutions indicated by the green check marks. Clearly, I’m late to this party. But at least I’m here now, and paying attention. (You are, too, but I guess you knew that. Your computer and a dozen other websites certainly do now.)

full_privacy_tool_comparison_chart

Post-CES 2014

Sony-wideIn the old days, I used to go twice a year: once to Las Vegas in the winter and once to Chicago just before summer began. There were so much to see!

This year, CES came and went, and although I wanted to be there just for the fun of it, I was surprised because I didn’t notice the usual flood of stories and cool products that I wish I had seen for myself. I suppose there are a few reasons why: many of the products of the past were driven by their own unique hardware needs, so the physical design and functionality of so many products were unique. Now, many of these innovative ideas use the same portable computer—the smart phone or the tablet—so the form factor and the functionality is less original. Often the innovative idea is iterated as software or accessory, not a whole new thing. (On the far side of this timeline, my basement is no longer quite so full of old stuff that seemed like a great idea at the time, and so, my garage sales are less frequent and less thrilling for the neighbors).

In past articles, I’ve written about the new 4K HDTVs, and now, we’re starting to see digital cameras (including a $2,000 camcorder from Sony) that can create content for the new format. New screens are curvy, which is cool, but so far, not so useful. Still, this is among the things to come that we will own within a few years—whether as part of a phone or a living room TV set.

This was supposed to be the year of the wearable computer, and that’s going kinda slowly. Pebble updated its cool smart watch, which is now smaller, heavier (but still okay), and comes with twice the memory (4MB up to 8MB). For details about this Bluetooth device, and a taste of other wearable devices from the same company, be sure to read a very helpful article on The Verge. Their article about Razer’s Nabu wristband is also interesting, perhaps more as a trend report than a piece about something you’ll be buying this summer; ditto for the backgrounder about Nuance, which is bringing Siri-like technology to wristbands another small devices.

Sony A5000Happily, Sony is beginning to regain some of its juice. The image that tops this article is a fun piece about Sony’s CES presentation using 4K technology and a fair amount of hands-on creativity. The company will introduce a new short-throw HDTV projector this summer that will allow, for example, useful projection onto tabletops (though what I really want is the touch-screen desktop surface used on Hawaii Five-O). Sony’s still cameras (which shoot video, of course) are becoming more and more impressive—and smaller. New to the line is the A5000, but if you haven’t checked out the RX-100, I encourage you to do. It’s my favorite camera (right now, anyway).

Lots of heat re: 3D printing, which is increasingly ready for prime time. Once again, The Verge does a superior job in explaining what this technology is all about, what happened at CES, and why this may become important to you in 2014. For example:

Unsurprisingly, everyone at the CES 3D printer zone thinks that consumer-level 3D printing is on the cusp of something big. “It’s just kind of a whole ecosystem that has to be built up, and it’s kind of slowly growing out,” says Abdullah. “I don’t think we’ve hit that tipping point obviously, but I think that we will get there soon.” Chang describes 2014 as “like the year when the Apple II came out.”

Yes, TV sets will become that much larger, and digital cameras will become that much smaller. More of us will be wearing digital wristbands of some sort, no doubt communicating with one another or with some super server as we track what we eat or where we go or how thoroughly we exercise. Somehow, with each passing miracle, these seem to be less newsworthy. And yet, it’s fun to see what the latest Jawbone portable Bluetooth loudspeaker can do, or how successfully Beats is invading popular culture (now with its own music service). So we are we not all completely crazy about the potential of 3D printing or wall-sized video projections? Because we’ve got a 5MP phone in one pocket and a tablet that’s much smarter than most of NASA’s old school gear in the hand that used to tote around a MacBook Pro but doesn’t anymore because that’s just too heavy or too much of a pain to connect using the smart phone’s portable internet hub. We’ve become so sophisticated, everything exciting seems commonplace, or predictable.

Me, I think I preferred the naiveté and twice-annual festival of wonder.

Completely Unreasonable

9780262019354Sitting in my big comfortable chair, I feel as though I’ve traveled several million miles since I started reading Noson Yanofsky’s new book, The Outer Limits of Reason. When I measure the distance from the comfy chair in the family room to my bed (where I read several chapters) and to my office (several more), I suppose I walked no more than 100 feet (round trips included). I think I started reading the book on December 30 and I finished it today, January 5—a week, pretty normal for an interesting book. Actual distance traveled, book in hand: 7 days x 1,600,000 miles per day for a total of about 11 million miles. How did I rack up so many miles? While I was sitting in my chair, reading in bed, or listening to music to accompany several chapters in the office, the earth never stopped moving. We tend to forget that part of the travel experience because, well, everything’s relative. We tend to think that we’re pretty much stationary in space, in a fixed position of some kind, but of course, we’re not. This is not new information: we’ve known this to be true for more than a century (thanks to Albert Einstein).

170px-Yogi_Berra_1956Somewhere between Yogi Berra (“half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”) and the goofiness of language (“This sentence is false.”), Professor Yanofsky, of Brooklyn College, runs through thought experiments at the edges of reality and reason. One of my favorites (which may be familiar) is the ship of Theseus, which won many battles and was therefore allowed to linger in the port for hundreds of years. Over time, it began to rot, so the good people began to replace rotten planks with new ones. That way, they figured, the ship would last longer. Reconstruction and restoration were, and remain, common practice, but the ship, and the practice, raise some questions. With each each new plank, a portion of the original ship, rotten though it may have been, disappears. In time, most of the ship is composed of new planks, so it’s reasonable to wonder how much of the old ship still exists. Eventually, the answer may be none at all. Of course, this is about more than decomposing ships. Are you the person that you were a decade or three or more decades ago? Natural processes suggest otherwise: your brain, your blood, so much of each of us is naturally replenished. on a regular basis (doctors and other practitioners may add, delete, or replace more).

Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus Du Sautoy explains the Monty Hall Problem on YouTube.

Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus Du Sautoy explains the Monty Hall Problem on YouTube.

Breezing through Zeno (Achilles and the Tortoise), Monty Hall (why you should change your mind when making a deal), and The Traveling Salesman problem (where computer or logical routing becomes an impossibility), Yanofsky pursues progressively more mind-bending stuff. Again, some of this is likely to be familiar if you follow this sort of thing: The Butterfly Effect, which abbreviates “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (not exactly, but probably, sort-of). There’s quite a bit, well-explained, about the strangeness of quantum mechanics (that is, unlike the observable and more easily measured physical world), also not new anymore.

An internet place to explore tiles and other interesting things to make and do.

Click on the pic to visit an internet place where you can explore tiles, and see what people have been making in extraordinary ways.

I’ve always been taken with tiling problems: the shape of tiles that can fill a large space with only adjacent edges between shapes. Of course, a square is perfect for this sort of thing, and so, too, is a hexagon, but pentagons and circles don’t work at all (you need to fill in the blank spaces with other shapes). I had never seen the Myers shape, an odd solution to this interesting geometric design problem. (Thanks, Noson, whose childhood ponderings probably included palindromes.)

Much has been written about the relationship between mathematics and the universe, and Yanofsky summarizes this situation in terms that I could (mostly) understand. The fascinating essence: how is it that we, mere mortals living on this strange planet that is, mostly, inhospitable to human life (tornadoes, bacteria, extreme climates and attorneys  [his humor]), manage to develop a language based, mostly, upon numbers and calculations that somehow manages to explain so much of how it all works. When mathematics and science fail to explain the natural world, or present conundrums and paradoxes (for the correct plurals of these words, consider this from the Guardian), Yanofsky becomes interested, and offers the right illustrations to begin the conversation. Sometimes, there are formulas (too many, in fact), but I’d suggest that you skip past the Stephen Hawking “dictum that every equation halves the number of readers” and simply do your best to navigate the sections that are mired in equations and symbolic logic; the book can be easily enjoyed without fussing over the likes of p(A^~ C) ≤ p(A^ ~ B) + p(B^ ~ C).

So is all of this mathematical musing without much of a point? Or is he flirting with the true nature of the universe? I suspect he could speak eloquently about the former, but in the end, he may conclude the latter. After carefully defining reason as “the set of processes or methodologies that do not lead to contradictions and falsehoods” (why not “or falsehoods?), he italicizes this important idea: we human beings already live beyond reason. He goes on:

Our minds do not live in a world of stones, carbon-based life forms, and molecules following habitual laws of physics. Rather, we have feelings and emotions that are not dictated by reason and logic. We have a sense of beauty, wonder, ethics, and values that are beyond reason and defy rational explanation…In this sense, every one of us already transcends the bounds of reason.”

So here’s the ultimate paradox. A man spends his career thinking about, and teaching others, about the intersection of mathematics, science and reason, then writes a very good book about the success and failure of that way of thinking, then decides, on the final pages, that the edge of reason has nothing whatsoever to do with mathematics or science. Instead, it’s the soft stuff that defines the edge of reason, the ideas that cannot be quantified or measured. Not now, at least. Maybe someday.

Steve Evans from India and USA. Permission: (Reusing this file: Creative Commons attribution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Photo by Steve Evans. Permission: (Reusing this file: Creative Commons
attribution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

All I Want for Christmas (or immediately thereafter)

Heck, the stores are too busy, and there’s no law that requires all of the good stuff to show up on December 25. Here’s a rundown of fun stuff on the holiday list. And yes, I’m allowing myself just about anything I want, regardless of whether (a) I need it, and (b) something else on the list is, pretty much, the same thing. On Prancer, on Blitzen… (and be sure to scroll down to the Niagara Falls video—it’s amazing!)

Nikon’s new $3,000 Df DSLR, recently announced, available in black or silver. It’s expensive—and it doesn’t include a full-frame sensor, and it’s not 20MP like the best new cameras, but just 16MP instead. Still, it looks really cool, very much like a 1980s era Nikon SLR. There’s all of the expected stuff that you’ll find in most DSLRs costing half or two-third as much, but it’s the holiday, so why not?

A $350 Tascam DR-60D 4-channel linear PCM recorder, or, in short, a digital audio recorder that mounts on a tripod just below your DSLR, it and can record up to four microphones simultaneously. It records with 4 AA batteries.

A Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter—not the one for $350 that takes a GoPro camera (though that’s cool, too), but the FPV model that costs over $1,000 (FPV = “first person view”). It can fly for nearly a half hour, and the wireless controller (an app for your iOS or Android device) can be 1000 feet from the remote helicopter in flight (but it must be line-of-sight). The app allows you to start and stop video recording from afar. With all sorts of cool stabilization features. This is easily the coolest gift on the list. The more I learn about it, the cooler it seems. Take, for example, this little film made ABOVE Niagara Falls…

Sony’s $800 DEV-3 Digital Recoding Binoculars. I’ve often wondered why most or, at least, many binocs don’t include a video sensor and some storage. Here’s the start of a whole new thing…you can record in HD, or shoot 7MP images, record on SD cards, and enjoy 10x magnification. Is it a camcorder with a 10x zoom? No, better than that. Is it kind-of-like a digital still camera with a pair of 10x lenses? Well, that’s probably closer to it, but the long-term viewing experience through a pair of binocular lenses is far superior to a camera experience. It’s a very good pair of binoculars, and also, a high-quality camera.

For just $200, Røde’s iXY stereo microphones snaps into a iOS device for much-improved sound recording. It’s a much better way to record music, meetings, etc.: a pair of crossed half-inch cardiod condense captures and onboard  analog-to-digital conversation in a small package. And, of course, it’s all controlled by an app. You can record up to 24 bit / 96 kHz with the device (warning: a paid app upgrade here for better recording—an odd way to charge customers for quality.)

In the “I already have one, but maybe you don’t” department: you can now buy Zoom’s H4n portable digital recorder for about $170, and that’s about $100 less than before. It’s a terrific little recorder, well-suited to all sort of professional needs. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it a year or two ago.

Finally, I think I’d like to experiment with a Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera, and the starting place might be the $1000 Pocket Cinema camera. The key here is 13 stops of dynamic range, and my ability to use existing micro four thirds lenses (and legacy lenses via adapter). The result of the extended dynamic range (and other features): that irresistible film look. It’s a pocketable camera that can be used to shoot an independent film. Then again, I think I might prefer the $2,000 model. Or, perhaps, because it’s the holiday time (the best time of the year), maybe one of each. Here’s the start of a three-part review worth watching. at least for those who want every possible detail.

Old-School Selfies

DurerGosh, I am so tired of hearing the term “selfies.” It’s been named ‘word of the year’ for Oxford University’s Dictionary. You’d think they’d choose something more interesting.

Charley Parker put together a far better definition of the term, in pictures.

Three links, all worth a visit, as are so many of his posts on the altogether wonderful Lines & Colors blog: Selfies, More Selfies, and Selfies #3.

Among Charley’s selections, I think I like the self-portrait drawn by Albrecht Dürer best. Dürer was thirteen years old when he drew that picture. Think about that for a moment: he was thirteen in 1494, just two years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And now, we’re reposting the teenager’s drawing image on a website.

There are a lot of self-portraits on the three posts, but I think I like N.C. Wyeth’s portrait second-best. Pictured below, I think this particular image is one of N.C.’s  best.

As for iPhone selfies, no so much.

Last year’s OED word of the year was “omnishambles” – “a situation that has been comprehensibly mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunder and miscalculations.” As in so many situations that involve the word (you saw this coming a mile away): “selfies.”

Wyeth

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