rethinking hd radio

Posted January 3, 2016 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve been skeptical of HD radio for a long time. It strikes me as a solution in search of a problem; the technology is completely controlled by one company and has been a black box that no one could hack or otherwise improve on; what I heard of it sounded thin and…not good.

But I never heard HD in a car until we got our new Passat. Surprisingly, it’s not bad. Driving around today, I listened to WCNY-FM out of Syracuse, a well-engineered station that primarily plays classical music, and when the signal slipped from HD to regular FM, I didn’t hear much difference. That’s good, because HD is almost universally regarded as worse than FM. Bonus: the signal didn’t slip from HD often; WCNY has an FM translator in my little town, (a small ‘repeater’ station which takes the signal from the mothership and rebroadcasts it over a more distant territory) and it apparently is passing HD as well.

If problems didn’t show up on the main channel, I would certainly expect to hear HD’s weakness on the sub-channels (WCNY operates two – an oldies channel and a jazz channel) under the theory that bandwidth starts to run out, but listening to the jazz channel, it sounded decent. Caught Michael Feinstein’s public radio show, and I was struck by how the thing HD proponents have pushed – more channels, and sometimes those channels represent niche interests – is an actual, real advantage.  In my little town, you can now get classical music and jazz, sounding pretty good, for free.

By way of comparison, everything I heard today sounded far better than the SiriusXM service in my wife’s car, including Symphony Hall, which is the best sounding satellite channel.

I still have objections to HD: I really don’t like how closed the system is (one of radio’s greatest values lies in how well understood the technology is) and I’m still not sure why most people should care. I’m going to bring the little SONY (the semi-legendary XDR-F1) out of retirement to see if I can get the same channels in my family room. My guess is the sound will disappoint me; still, most people listen to radio in their cars, and now that I’ve heard HD that way – and enjoyed having extra channels – I’m willing to admit there may be a point to it after all.

a cold friday night

Posted December 22, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It was cold in my little town Friday night, and trucks and cars poured in and out of the municipal parking lot downtown. Technically, the lot is there for city hall, but on weekends people park and walk to the bars half a block away. City hall doesn’t get a lot of business at 10 PM on a Friday.

Except I was standing there, waiting for the police to show up with three people – two of them charged with murder, one with robbery. The accused killers were 19 years old.

I used to do this a lot – stand some place, wait for something to happen. I don’t do it any more, except for rare one-offs like Friday night.

A car pulled up. The window rolled down, a woman looked at me and said “Is there an arraignment here tonight?”

Yes, I said.

“Are you the judge?”

No, I said, press.

Much earlier Friday, a young man had been stabbed to death inside his apartment on a city street four or five blocks from where I live. The street’s been going downhill for 30 years, but if you drive just a block or so, cross over one of the main streets in my town, you’re on an old money street, where you can still find doctors and such maintaining large houses built for the era when a family of six was small.

Back in the 90s I ended up in New York City one afternoon, looking for the family of a notorious murder suspect. I was working with a freelance crew that specialized in getting footage of crimes and fires, most often in rough neighborhoods. But as we got close to the address, the neighborhood didn’t seem to be getting worse – in fact, it was a little better. Two blocks, one block, one of the guys remarked how nice everything was, we turned a corner and…everything went to hell. It was like rounding the back of a Hollywood set. What was propping up the nice neighborhood we saw on the way in was not nice at all. The guy not driving turned around, looked at me and said, Get in, get out.

You could get something of the same effect here Friday. You’re on a decent, ordinary street and all of a sudden there’s police tape and flashing red lights blocking your way. And the neighbors a block over are no doubt wondering why they haven’t gotten out before now.

The woman looking at me out the car window was the dead guy’s mother. I didn’t say I was sorry – one of the things that grates on me most is the  way reporters tell the families of victims how sorry they are, right before grilling them – not that I haven’t done it myself. So I just answered her questions – Yes, you can be here for the arraignment. Yes, this is a parking lot and you can use it.

The newspaper’s reporter dug in with her for a bit. It sounded like a tough life all the way around. Then it was time to go in. The D.A. and the detectives made weary, professional small talk with each other. It had been a long day, but from their point of view a good one – three people in custody and in court at 11 PM for a killing at 5 AM.

The court appearances were almost over before they started; no one had lawyers yet, so there wasn’t much for the judge to do besides say, You’re charged, you’re in jail, come back Monday.

The suspects were smaller than I expected – they looked like three-quarter size scale models of themselves. They were younger looking in person than their mug shots, and you could imagine them each in their last year of high school. When the lead suspect, the guy who allegedly did the stabbing, came out, the victim’s mother said loudly “Go to hell.” The cops and the D.A. kept trying to quiet her, like a teacher quiets a recalcitrant child. They looked like they knew it was a losing proposition; when the last of the three had appeared, the mother stood up and announced “See you Monday.”

As for whether any of the three gets what they (allegedly) did, or how thoroughly they’ve wasted their lives, I have no idea. They didn’t look especially one way or the other – not visibly afraid, but not making a show of bravado either. If, as seems likely, drugs were involved, then this killing may be no more complicated than business dealings gone bad,  unremarkable except that it ended in a death in a town where such things are still rare. What days like Friday do is add a small increment of doubt: is this the way we’re headed? (To the extent there’s a ‘we’ at all, or that there’s one direction.) It hasn’t happened so far, and it’s hard to see there being enough potential business here for things to get really bad. But they have elsewhere – an even smaller mill town a hundred miles from here has struggled with foreclosures and drug dealers from out of the area. The word that comes to mind is tenuous – we can’t fully put into words how broken things are, our tools for fixing it don’t seem up to the task, and we’re stepping very carefully, hoping the 19 year olds with knives and guns don’t get too close.

 

considering paris II

Posted November 21, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It should be obvious by now that we are drowning in bullshit, as politicians, partisans, spooks, alleged journalists try to turn what happened a week ago in Paris into an all-purpose 9/11 part II.

My son pointed out to me that the one-step-away-from-not-breathing language we’re hearing is exactly like what we heard as the reaction to 9/11 morphed from grief, shock, anger and resolve into something worse. “This time it’s different” is a phrase uttered in haste, regretted for a generation.

So language counts, a lot. And this paragraph, from a longer, angry piece by George Packer in The New Yorker is worth doing the digital equivalent of cutting out and pasting on the bathroom mirror.

A lot of people in this country are disgracing themselves this week. They include politicians of both parties—though many more Republicans than Democrats—and all regions. Their motives vary: deep-seated bigotry, unreasoning fear, spinelessness, opportunism, or some unholy mix of them all. During the House hearings, Republicans kept demanding guarantees of absolute security. “I haven’t heard a single one of you say there’s no risk,” Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Administration witnesses. There’s no such thing as no risk. Parisians could stop going out to cafés, Germans could turn back every single Syrian at the border, Americans could stop admitting anyone as a refugee, and there would still be risks. It’s absurd, and infantilizing, to demand that our officials promise to keep us absolutely safe. We don’t live that way, nor should we. Instead, we have to find the balance between safety and a decent life in a free society during an age of terror. Like every compromise, it will leave us unsatisfied. But the alternative is unfreedom and injustice.

Yes, exactly. In a sea of bull, pieces like Packer’s are life rafts. (Paul Krugman had a good one too.)

considering paris

Posted November 15, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

In the wave of news about the terrorist attacks Friday night in Paris, I was struck by a reference to a book – not available in English, unfortunately – from the French philosopher André Glucksmann.

Glucksmann wrote a book called “Dostoevsky in Manhattan,” in which “he insisted that modern terrorism, including Islamic terrorism, is nihilist before it is religious and even before it is political.” That’s Adam Gopnik’s description of the book, in a post for The New Yorker.

Gopnik continues, channeling Glucksmann:

He attached its motives to the terrorism of the century before—to the violence, which Dostoevsky and Conrad dramatized so well, which redounds not to a political end but with a wild vengeance and the existential message, “I kill, therefore I am.” Certainly, the communiqué in French from ISIS, taking responsibility for the mass murders—the blind assaults on the stadium, the rock concert, the cafés, none of them exactly haunts of the wealthy—had, for all its apparent political logic, a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness, down to the ancient fury at the existence of Paris as a place of pleasure.

When George W. Bush posed the question in the wake of 9/11 “Why do they hate us?” he answered “They hate our freedoms.” Implicit in the former President’s answer was the idea that no rational, sane or decent person could hate freedom. Therefore, the terrorists of 9/11 were irrational, and the question of “why” was really a question of pathology, a way of diagnosing sickness.

Of course, there is another, more disturbing way of looking at this.

We wish to believe that freedom, secular society, progress, music, science, sport make up the natural tendency of humanity. The Islamic state is the most extreme incarnation of the counter-argument: if you take Glucksmann seriously – and you should – then the question is unavoidable: what’s behind “a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness?”

Perhaps this. An alternate vision of how the world works, one awful to contemplate but with its own cold rationality. George Orwell’s 1984 is, as always, prescient. Here, the key speech of O’Brien, as he tortures Winston Smith:

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.

Movements like the Islamic state will eventually fall apart, implode; they are inherently unstable. But what if they aren’t and don’t? What if they gain strength from the slaughter?

the not so great migration

Posted November 9, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Missed this: the estimable John Anderson, writing at the end of October about the F.C.C.’s order on AM revitalization, the most important part of which is that AM station owners get more opportunity to grab FM translators in their markets – in other words, to effectively move their business from one band to the other.

Anderson, who is very smart and experienced on this issue, sums up AM’s future this way:

Once all the relatively minor technical tweaks to AM engineering have been exhausted, AM-HD proponents give up the ghost, and rising environmental interference functionally overwhelms smaller AM stations, we’ll begin to see the sunsetting of the band entirely. Broadcasters will argue that the economics of running an AM station are no longer sustainable, at which point they’ll lobby to “upgrade” FM translators into stand-alone primary stations along with a loosening of local market ownership caps to keep this ploy within the bounds of legality. In the end, these policy efforts should be categorized more accurately as migration, not revitalization.

He’s right, of course. There’s an inevitable quality about all this, a gravitational pull of money and incumbency which will end with yet more dross on the FM side, and an AM band mostly abandoned. Oh, well. One can hope that once AM is left for dead maybe squatters will move in, throw up some junkyard furniture and find new use for it.

no limits

Posted November 1, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

One thing trafficked in frequently these days – maybe the thing most frequently sold to us rubes – is the increasingly threadbare notion of “no limits.” They may not use those exact words, but they say the new iPhone 6s will do more, faster, better than any iPhone, or any other phone out there. Which might even briefly be true, but the hard limits of network and processor speed and  memory quickly outweigh the wow factor.

A phone is new for about a day. Then it’s 24 months of $30+ bills for something that is unlikely to get you a better job, a better relationship, a better anything. But we believe, or sort of believe, in the same way we used to believe a new car could solve our problems.

Still, maybe having something positive – no matter how false – in our lives that promises no limits is necessary, because on the other side of the ledger, no limits is a concept that is scarily real.

A Russian airliner crashed in Egypt Saturday, killing 224 people. The New York Times reported many of them were young families on vacation. A branch of the Islamic State claims responsibility, but it doesn’t look like they have the capability to do such a thing, so they may have taken credit for something awful that was not their doing. What is this?

What this is, is a world in which the wheels have come off, there are no adults left to settle things, and it’s every man, creed, political party for him or herself. In such a world, you shrug and say “Sure we did it. Because we’re right and no one else counts.”  In fairness, not much is new – for most of human history, there haven’t been any adults in the room, just brute strength and weakness. But imperfectly, sometimes – not often enough – we managed to get past that in the 20th century.

And the hits keep coming: a couple of mass shootings back – it’s easy to lose track – President Obama decried how routine the whole thing had become, from the grief of the relatives to his words to the reaction of the anti-gun control side. The shootings are no longer anomalies; they’re more like a constant, sick-making infection. Today, for instance, there’s “1 Dead, 1 Hurt” in a university shooting down south, my local paper says. It’s a Sunday so it might get a little more attention than usual, but it won’t be that big a deal on the news tonight. And there will be some “we’re so bored with this we can barely deliver our lines” business about it being a mental health problem not a gun problem, and how more weapons on campus is really what we need.

(Edit – Foolish me. I didn’t bother to see whether there were any other mass shootings this weekend and completely missed the one in Colorado Springs Saturday in which a gunman walked down the street, shooting people with a rifle until he was killed by police. Just another weekend afternoon….)

Finally, the New York Times has a fascinating investigation up about how big companies have systematically opted the rest of us out of the justice system – at least when it comes to suing the companies for wrong-doing – by forcing us to agree to binding arbitration when we do everyday things like sign up for a credit card or cable TV. This is, the newspaper points out, a historic change in the way civil law is carried out, as well as being a royal screwing of the public – and it has happened in plain sight, in all those agreements you click through to get to whatever thing it is you need to buy, to get.

You can take these few examples, and the many, many more piled up behind them every day, week, hour, as a test, an effort to find out just how much we can take, a “How low can you go?” Some Neuromancer-era bored scientist at work. That’s one option. But the other argument is that the people at the top of things understand how broken it all is already, and either aren’t able to stop, or see an advantage in not stopping –  an “if climate change is inevitable, why not burn more gas?” sort of thing. And “no limits” refers to depravity and poverty and the painful recognition that this just isn’t going to get any better.

doomed, but i like it

Posted October 14, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

After my last post, “The Future of Windows Phone,” I decided to take matters into my own hands. Out came the Lumia 822, the Windows 8.1 phone I carried until recently. Knowing that it will be a while, if ever, before Microsoft rolls out an official upgrade – much less Verizon sanctioning it – I downloaded the Windows Insider app, told it to go get the fast ring, and settled in for a lengthy transition to Windows 10 Mobile beta.

I was not disappointed.

I started early afternoon Monday, and was still patching and upgrading late Monday night. The install appeared to come in two or three stages – a first upgrade that got me to some early, incomplete version of 10 and a very unstable, basically unusable phone, followed by a second round of downloading and upgrading, which got me a much better result and then a final upgrade to build 10536.

The phone is completely usable now. It’s not as fast as it was on 8 or 8.1 – it feels like apps take a second to open instead of just being there instantly. But once you calibrate your expectations accordingly, the experience is pretty smooth. Given that the 822 began life as a no-better-than-midrange, utterly mediocre phone, I’m pleased it runs as well as it does.

And there are some obvious pluses. For me, having the new browser, Edge, is a big deal. Remember, I had to get off the Windows phone platform because my company’s app doesn’t run on it. Obviously, that’s still the case, but now the mobile version of our web site displays more or less correctly, which it could not do under Internet Explorer in 8/8.1. So I’ve regained the ability to somewhat monitor what we’re doing in mobile.

The 822 is a small phone, and under 8/8.1 the default was two columns of icons. That’s now three, with the option to extend some icons to fill two spaces or to shrink a “one space” icon down to a miniature. But even though the 822 doesn’t have a lot of real estate, and the resolution isn’t great, the three column screen doesn’t feel crowded or wrong. I still have no trouble scrolling down the front page one-handed and clicking on a program tile, even though in absolute terms the tiles are smaller. In fact, after a day of use I think I prefer things the way they are now. And the new look is lovely in a way the old one wasn’t.

Microsoft’s own apps are good; even though I don’t believe in keeping email on my phone, I set up Outlook and find it to be decent, if a little pokey. (Imagine that: Outlook slow…) I’ve opened a couple of things in Word and they seem fine as well.

There’s a really good Instagram substitute called 6tag. It says it offers “in-app purchases,” presumably to turn off the ads which are occasionally served, but I can’t seem to find how to pay, and to whom. My preferred podcast client, Pocket Casts, has a native WinPhone app which works about as well as the Android app. My other modest needs – TuneIn, Kindle, a few others – run fine.

The settings section is a little confusing: even though system —> notifications appeared to pertain to what shows up on my lock screen, I couldn’t make the count of unread Outlook messages go away until I found a separate “lock screen” section. The lock screen itself remains far better than what I have on the Note II. There, you type in the pass code and hit enter; here, you type in the pass code and the phone just opens, as it should.

I’m not completely sold on the revised texting app yet, (I thought the one in 8/8.1 was the greatest thing ever) but I still love the fact that when I get a new text it appears at the top of the screen. This is better than how texting is organized on the Note II, where – if you’re using the phone but not in the app – you’ll get notice of the message, but not the start of the contact itself. The typeface and size of the labels on the phone dialer strike me as too small, but nothing I can’t get used to.

More disappointingly, unless it’s a Microsoft app I don’t see a lot of interest in using “live tiles” to maximum advantage. Folks, live tiles are a big reason Windows phones are great – I’m talking to you, New York Times.

All that said, the fact that Win 10 runs decently on a modest, three year old phone is an achievement. That, and the fact that they’ve bent but haven’t broken any of the interface elements that make Windows phones the joy they are. Picking it up and using the phone during the day today just felt right in a way that the Android phone doesn’t. My plan now is to use this phone for a week, switch back to Android for a week, switch back to this, etc., etc., but I can already tell I’m going to be looking for excuses to stay right where I am, with my doomed, beautiful phone.

 


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