Archives for October 2004

A breakthrough in TV over the Internet

Here’s a must-read for anybody interested the idea of real convergence. Bob Cringely over at tells of a recent encounter with Ken Schaffer, inventor of the wireless microphone and friend to rock stars. Schaffer’s been up to something pretty cool, using pre-processing circuitry (like his wireless mikes) ahead of video streaming to produce an amazingly beautiful TV picture from a long, long way away.

If this was anybody else, we might think this a fantasy, but as Cringely explains, this is Ken Schaffer we’re talking about. Schaffer’s invention was really a necessity for him to watch Moscow television in the U.S. He has a residence there and is married to a Russian woman.

But what blew me away this week when I saw a demo of TV2ME in Schaffer’s cluttered New York apartment was the quality of the image. Sending live TV over the Internet is a very difficult thing to do, especially over distances like that from Moscow to New York. There are live TV feeds from Moscow available today, and they look terrible no matter how much bandwidth you have. But Schaffer’s feed, running at an average of 384 kilobits-per-second, looks like TV. When you change channels to any of the 60 or so on the Moscow cable system, it takes about 10 seconds to rebuffer, and then you have TV. Amazing!

Like his wireless mikes, Schaffer attributes the quality to how he preprocesses the video signal before it enters the MPEG-4 encoder chip. I don’t know what he does, but it seems to work.

This is the future of TV for people who will never be satisfied with Basic Cable. A couple years from now, it will be a huge driver of broadband sales to ethnic communities, allowing Grandma to watch her favorite soap operas from the old country. This and Tivo-like recording devices are going to change TV (right down to the business model) as we know it. Some people get this, some people don’t.

We get it, Bob, but most broadcasters don’t. They will view this as a way to increase (and measure) their mass audience, but what the technology really means is a victory in the war against the major broadband obstacle — bandwidth — one that will allow anybody to “cast” a TV signal over the Web.

It isn’t cheap (around $5k right now), and that has the good folks over at Engadget poo-pooing the device. They also point to products by Sony and a start-up, Sling Media. But I’m with Bob on this one. Schaffer is THE MAN, and his wireless mikes used to sell for $4,400 back when the Rolling Stones first bought them. They go for about $300 today. The best predictor of future success, it seems to me, is PAST success.

It’s one worth watching.

Annie's "threat" was a prayer

Here is Annie’s original post, the one that got her a visit from the Secret Service (see this). Thanks to Chloe and Google’s caching.

10/14/04 09:25 am
a prayer for dubya

Dear God:

Wassup? How’s it hanging? Yeah, I know it’s been a long time since we talked. This probably stems from my belief that you do not exist. Anyway, the reason why I’m calling you is because last night, President Bush said that he could feel it every time we prayed for him, and since he apparently doesn’t listen to anyone but you, Lord, I thought you might pass this along to him.

Please kill George Bush. I hate him so much. I think he is a giant dick and I want terrible things to happen to him. I’m not really big on the specifics of how he dies, but if you could at least arrange it so that the authorities find his dead body on top of an underage black male prostitute surrounded by a mountain of cocaine and child pornography, that would really be super-awesome. And maybe you could have some media people there when the police find the body, so they can take pictures and stuff. That’d be fucking GREAT. Am I allowed to say “fuck” in a prayer? Shit, I just said it again. Ah, well.

Anyway, that’s my prayer, Lord. Please, please, please kill Dubya. And Dick Cheney. And everyone else in the Bush Administration. Maybe they can all commit mass suicide together or something. I don’t know. You’re the one with all the ideas. You come up with something. I need more coffee.

Smooches and Huggles,

Come on, people. Share your own prayers for Bush. Maybe if we all pray hard enough, Bush will feel it so deeply he’ll have an aneurysm! You never know! *squeezes eyes shut and prays harder*
feeling: cranky cranky
on the radio: Muse — Apocalypse, Please

I’ve heard Pat Robertson pray for the demise of Supreme Court Justices. Perhaps he should get a little visit.

David Weinberger gets on the case.

Voting early in Tennessee

They have this thing called “early voting” here in Tennessee, so the wife and I went and voted yesterday. Holy cow, was it crowded!

Nearly half of the registered voters in Davidson County (Nashville) have already voted. 1.1 million statewide.

Friday rant: New bank rules will effect the economy

This story has been grossly underreported, which is just fine with the banking industry. Perhaps it’ll get the attention it deserves after the election, ’cause frankly folks, this, this THING known as the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act (aka Check 21) is bullshit. The “new golden rule” is he who has the gold makes the rules, and that’s what’s happening here.

Designed to advance a paperless banking system, Check 21 means no more cancelled checks in your bank statement, because it allows banks to replace a real check with a facsimile thereof. That makes electronic banking quicker, and writing checks will be almost the same as using a debit card.

That’s because it will shorten “float” — the window between the time a check is written and the time it is cashed. Each day, billions of dollars exist in this “float,” and much of that is from poor people who’ve learned how to stretch their income by a day or two or three. Yeah, it’s illegal, but it also has existed since banks first brought about the “luxury” of checking accounts. And it’s easy to get black and white about this when your paycheck isn’t due in two days and you need some food.

Check 21 eliminates the float by tapping your account for the money written on your account within 24 hours. Consumer experts are predicting a landslide of bounced checks and overdraft charges as people “get used to” the new system. For consumers — especially the poor — much of the float exists between the time they deposit that paycheck and when checks are drawn off of it, and that’s where they’ll get hurt even while being honest.

That’s because while the new rule speeds transfers between banks, it does not require those banks to put the money into their customers’ accounts any faster. WTF? So when I write a check, they tap my account within 24 hours now. But when somebody writes me a check, the same rules don’t apply. Currently, banks credit local checks to their customers accounts within two days and out-of-town checks within five days. Are you beginning to see the problem?

I don’t care that the industry is “doing all it can” to speed up the transfers, the reality is they don’t have to. And what’s their incentive anyway?

There are billions of dollars at stake in this, and the banks only stand to gain from you and me (once again) holding the short straw. I’m not smiling.

Bloggers beware. Your postings are not private, and somebody's watching.

Let me introduce you to 22-year old Annie Sewell-Jennings of Charleston, South Carolina. She describes herself as “just your average Internet geek who really doesn’t like our president,” and because of that, the FBI now has a file on her. Here’s why:

On her LiveJournal blog, “Anniesj,” she recently wrote some not-so-kind things (she calls it satire) about President Bush. Annie wrote in a later entry: “We laughed, we ranted, we all said some things. I thought it was a fairly harmless (and rather obvious) attempt at humor in the face of annoyance, and while a couple of people were offended, as is typical behavior from me, I saw something shiny and forgot about it, thinking that the whole thing was over and done and nothing else would come of what I said.”

But it wasn’t over. Tuesday night, the Secret Service showed up at her door. Somebody had tipped the FBI, and the Secret Service wanted Annie to know that what she’d written could be understood as a threat to the President. She apologized and posted her adventure for all to read.

She was kind enough this afternoon to answer a couple of my questions by email. She said she doesn’t think people realize how seriously the government takes threats and noted that the Secret Service told her they don’t like publicity. “Which seems silly, in a sense, because I would think that educating people about the finer points of satire would be helpful in the sense that it would at least keep harmless people from clogging up the complaint lines.”

What was the essence of the rant that got you into trouble?

I made a post to my LiveJournal the morning after the final presidential debate, during which President Bush said something along the lines of how he could feel it every time someone prayed for him. Irked, I posted my own “prayer”, in which I asked God (after stating that I don’t actually believe in God, therefore rendering this prayer meaningless) to inspire Bush and his cronies to commit mass suicide. I then made the joke that if we all prayed hard enough together, maybe we could give Bush an aneurysm. My friends and I laughed, I thought everything was okay, and then two weeks later, the Secret Service show up because someone found it threatening.

I apologized to the Secret Service and I stand by that apology — I did not know that what I said could be construed as a threat against the President’s safety, and I understand how that could seem threatening. They were very considerate and polite, and they understood that what I said was a joke but warned me not to say anything along those lines again. Believe me, I certainly won’t. Lesson learned.

What’s happened to/with you since you let the world know that the Feds are keeping an eye on you?

I’ve been really surprised by the outpouring of support and the outpouring of criticism. I can understand that people would doubt the validity of my claim, as I’m just a stranger on the Internet, but some of the comments about how the Secret Service would never investigate a matter like this are unsettling. I can’t make people believe my personal story, but I hope they can at least take with them the knowledge that they should be very careful about what they say, lest they end up with a visit from the Secret Service, too.

I’ve also been really surprised by the way this thing has spread across the Internet. I’ve been contacted by a couple of other media outlets, and I saw earlier that this post made it to, which was kind of cool.

It’s good to know that people are at least reading the message, even if some of them don’t want to take anything from it. Spreading awareness about the limits of free speech on the Internet is always a good thing. I think a lot of people take the Internet to be completely anonymous and separate from their real lives, and the fact of the matter is that’s just not true.

She sounds like a smart young lady to me. Annie’s experience should be a big lesson for all of us. In cyberspace, never assume anything is private — ever. That means email and everything else. And if you’re a blogger, for crying out loud be careful about what you post, even in the comments section of somebody else’s blog. The first amendment is not absolute, and it’s pretty easy to find you.

Pew: Internet users better informed politically

The Pew Internet Project has come up with some new findings. Good stuff for debating the naysayers:

As wired Americans increasingly go online for political news and commentary, we find that the internet is contributing to a wider awareness of political views during this year’s campaign season.

This is significant because prominent commentators have expressed concern that growing use of the internet would be harmful to democratic deliberation. They worried that citizens would use the internet to seek information that reinforces their political preferences and avoid material that challenges their views. That would hurt citizens’ chances of contributing to informed debates.

The new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Information survey belies those worries. It shows that internet users have greater overall exposure to political arguments, including those that challenge their candidate preferences and their positions on some key issues.

You can find a .PDF of the report here.