March 2011

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Gibraltar Reservoir

One hundred and fifty years ago yesterday, the scene above had no water in it, besides the Santa Ynez river, which barely flowed most of the year. Looking down on that scene was William Brewer, who led a survey sent out by Josiah D. Whitney, who had recently been named California’s state geologist, and whose surname was later given to the state’s highest mountain. Brewer wrote many letters from the survey, which are collected and parsed out, exactly 150 years after they were written, by Tom Hilton in Up and Down California. Tom has been using a few of my many photos to illustrate Brewer’s blog posts. Yesterday’s contained the picture above.

Tom’s own shots are here. He explains the project here and here. It’s a cool thing. Check it out.

Real reading

Garrison Keillor on books:

I happen to love the sensual experience of walking into a bookstore and examining the wares, picking up books, smelling them, admiring the covers, reading the first page or two. In 15 minutes, I can always find at least five books that really deeply interest me. I can’t do that online. It just doesn’t excite my viscera the way physical books do. This is a learned pleasure going back to when I was 10 and rode my bike downtown and walked into the reading rooms of the Minneapolis Public Library. It’s not a pleasure I can transfer to a digital image on a screen, just as I can’t get as excited about a picture of a naked woman as I do about one who is walking across the floor toward me.

A few days ago at The Coop on Harvard Square a book that deeply interested me was Garrison’s latest, titled simply Good Poems. So I bought it. From his introduction:

I looked at a truckload of poems to find the few thousand I’ve read on the radio, and it’s an education. First of all, most poems aren’t memorable, in fact, they make no impression at all. Sorry, but it’s true. There are brave blurbs on the back cover (“writes with a lyrical luminosity that reconceptualizes experience with cognitive beauty”) but you open up the goods and they’re like condoms on the beach, evidence that somebody was here once and had an experience but not of great interest to the passerby.

Speaking of memorable, a lookup on Google of Keillor and “condoms on the beach” brings up 70 results, including this one, which spared me the need to transcribe the above from the book. The Web is a handy thing. And so is Good Poems.

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I don’t envy anybody in the airline business. There is so much to do right, and the costs of doing things wrong can be incalculably high. Required capital investments are immense, and the regulatory framework is both complex and costly. Yet the people I’ve met in the business tend to be dedicated professionals who care about serving people, and not just about making a buck or putting in time. And the few bad experiences I’ve had are so anomalous that I’m inclined to disregard them. So, on the whole, I cut them all some slack.

By now I have close to a million miles with United, which is now the largest airline in the world, thanks to its merger with Continental. As it happens I’m sitting in a Continental lounge right now, though I’ll be flying in a couple hours to Salt Lake City on Delta. My original flights with United (from Boston through Chicago) were delayed by snow (yes, it’s snowing here, on the first day of Spring). The Continental club lounge is available so here I sit. For what it’s worth, the Continental lounge is nicer than United’s. In fact, pretty much everything about Continental is nicer, by a small margin. That’s a pat on Continental’s back, rather than a knock on United, which I’ve come to regard with some affection over many years of flying with them. One reason for all that flying is that they made lifetime membership in their club lounge available for a good price two decades ago, and that’s been a tie-breaker for us — in United’s favor — ever since. (Sadly, the offer was discontinued.)

The merger is moving slowly. Most of both airlines’ planes now say United on the side and keep the Continental globe symbol on the tail. (Minimal paint jobs for both, basically.) But the operations are still separate, which in some ways they have to be, since in many locations they occupy separate airport terminals. Their computer systems are also surely different and hard to merge. But, while there is some time left before the merger completes, I thought I’d put out a few public suggestions for both airlines as they gradually become one. Here goes:

  1. Keep Channel 9. That’s the United audio channel that carries cockpit air traffic audio. Like a lot of frequent fliers, aviation is a passion of mine, and listening in on that chatter is a familiar, comforting and engaging experience. Sharing it with passengers is up to the pilots, and I always go out of my way to thank the pilots who choose to share the channel with passengers. I’ve met many other passengers over the years who also love the service. In many cases these passengers are either current or former pilots themselves. Of course it’s not necessary to keep it on that same audio channel; but at least make it available.
  2. Make seat choices easier online. Say what kind of airplane the flight takes, and whether or not there are actually windows by the window seat (on some planes there are some window seats with blank walls). Consider providing links to SeatExpert or SeatGuru.
  3. Allow more conditional choices for upgrades. I like window seats on the shaded side of the plane, and usually choose those seats with great care. So, for example on a United 777, where all the premium coach seating with extra legroom is in seats over the wing. I’m willing to sit in the back with less legroom, just to have an unobstructed view out the window. But often I’ll get an automatic upgrade (as a frequent flyer) to a business class seat that is either an aisle seat or a window seat on the sunny side of the plane, where the view is never as good. In those cases I’ll usually prefer to stay in coach.
  4. Provide Internet connectivity by wi-fi. Put it on all but the small short-haul planes.
  5. Power outlets are nice too. Some airlines have them for all seats. United should be one of them.
  6. The DirectTV system on some Continental planes is nice. So is the completely different system on some other Continental planes (one I flew from Houston to Frankfurt had a zillion movies, but no easy way to navigate all the choices). Whatever you standardize on, make it relatively open to future improvements. And make the headset plugs standard 1/8″ ones, so passengers can use their own headsets.
  7. Get apps going on Android, iPhone and other handheld devices. Continental has some now. United doesn’t yet, though it does now have the paperless boarding pass.
  8. Get Jeff Smisek to cut a new merger progress announcement to run for passengers. The old one has been talking about “changes in the coming months” for about a year now.
  9. In the lounges, upgrade the food, or provide better food you charge for (like you do for drinks at the bar). Right now in the Continental President’s club, there are apples, three kinds of chips in bags, bottom-quality shrink-wrapped cheeses and tiny plastic-wrapped sesame crackers. The United clubs will have the same apples, plus maybe the same crackers and chips, and some nut/candy mixes in dispensers. This Continental club doesn’t have an espresso/cappuccino machine, while United club at the same airport does. (And it’s a much better model than the awful one they had for a decade or more.) Meanwhile at Star Alliance lounges, and in lounges of international airlines such as Scandinavian, there will be a spread of sandwich makings, pastries, fresh baked breads and other good stuff. United and Continental charge a lot for the lounges, yet don’t allow food to be brought in. So at least offer something more than the minimal, food-wise. Free wi-fi in the lounges is also cool. Both United and Continental offer it, but Continental makes it simple: it’s just there, a free open access point. United’s is a complicated sign-on to T-Mobile.
  10. Go back to Continental’s simple and straightforward rules for device use on planes. United’s old rules were ambiguous, all-text and hard to read. Continental had little grapics that showed the allowed devices. That’s what persists in the current (March) Hemispheres magazine is the United text. You almost need to be a lawyer to make sense of this line here: “Any voice, audio, video or other photography (motion or still), recording while on any United Airlines aircraft is strictly prohibited, except to the extent specifically permitted by United Airlines.” Only twice in my many flights on United have I been told not to shoot pictures out the window from altitude, and in the second case the head flight attendant apologized later and offered me a bottle of wine for my trouble. From what I understand, photography is specifically permitted, provided it is not of other people or equipment inside the plane. I’ve also been told “It’s at the pilot’s discretion.” Whatever the rules are, the old Continental ones were much better, and unambiguous.
  11. Email receipts for onboard charges. This especially goes for ones where promos are involved and one can’t tell otherwise if the promo discount went through. For example, Chase bank customers were supposed to get $2 off on the $6 charge for using a Chase bank card to pay for watching DirectTV on the flight I took two Thursdays ago from Boston to Houston. Did I get the discount? I still don’t know.
  12. On the personal video screens, provide flight maps with travel data such as time to destination and altitude. Love those, especially when they aren’t interrupted with duty-free promos on international flights.
  13. Avoid lock-ins with proprietary partners. Example: Zune on United: http://www.zune.net/united. Right now over half of the devices being used in this lounge are non-PCs (iPads, Androids, Macs, etc.). Why leave those people out? And, of course, Zune is a dead platform walking.

Anyway, that’s a quick brain dump in the midst of other stuff, encouraged by conversation with other passengers here. I’m looking forward to seeing how things go.


Revisiting Austin radio

One of the things I’ve always liked about is listening to Austin radio while I’m in town. I remember discovering KGSR on my first visit in 2006, and there are always new surprises. Here’s what I blogged back then:

Great radio lives

at /107.1 in Austin. Entertainment Weekly called it “an only-in-Austin blend of alt-country, hippie jams, singer-songwriters, and lots of Willie Nelson, of course.” (Sorry, no link.) It doesn’t seem to have the non-stop funky personality of KPIG, but the music is in the same league. They don’t play anything I don’t like, or anything I’m very familiar with, which is an amazing combination.
Wow, they just played Hot Tuna, Willie Nelson (“Shotgun Willie”, an early one, from an album by the same name I’ve long since lost), Stevie Ray Vaughan (I have all his stuff, I thought, but this one wasn’t familiar to me), a new Bonnie Raitt. Creedence (“Midnight Special”). Now they’re playing a local artist; missed the name, but awfully good.
They’re not the biggest station in town: 39,000 watts at about 500 feet, from a tower 16 miles southeast of Austin, near Bastrop, the station’s actual city of license. But they put a city-grade signal over Austin. Does the job.
Says here they’re tied for #9 in all listeners 12+, but I’ll be they’re strong in demographics that matter to advertisers. Hope they are, anyway, so they live.

On this latest trip to Austin (I was there from Thursday to Monday, March 10-14), I was worried at first when I found KGSR missing on 107.1, replaced by a Spanish station. But I quickly discovered that KGSR had moved to 93.3, and a much bigger signal. (This wasn’t KGSR’s first move. It’s long history is explained in Wikipedia.) Other new and old radio finds were:

  • the variously eclectic (and very locally-focused) and , sharing time on 91.7, and on 88.7;
  • classical on 89.5;
  • alternative (101x) on 101.5;
  • landmark news/public/music on 90.5; and
  • old-fashioned “beautiful music” (aka “easy listening”) over on 91.3.

Back to KGSR. I didn’t hear them bragging, but what they have now is the biggest FM signal in town. (now KLZT) was 49,000 watts at 499 feet above average terrain. is 100,000 watts at 1927 feet above average terrain — only 73 feet below the legal maximum height of 2000 feet. With more than twice the power and nearly four times the height (both matter on FM), the coverage area is much bigger. Other stations in the market equal KGSR’s power, but none radiate from the same height. (There are coverage maps at both those last two links.)

Another fun find is that KUT kicks butt in the ratings. Check this out. KUT is tops in Austin in January with a 9.3 share of 12+ listening. Far as I know there are no other public stations in the country that come out #1 in the ratings, over and over, which KUT appears to be doing. KGSR is pretty far back, with a 2.3. KMFA gets a 2.4. KROX gets a 3.3. KNCT gets a 1.8. KOOP gets an 0.2. KAZI and KVRX are no-shows. KLZT, the Mexican music station that now radiates from KGSR’s old transmitter, gets a 5.3. It’s also cool to see five streams listed in the ratings, which is impressive just at the factual level.

What sent me to the ratings was this September 2009 piece in the Austin Post by , about KGSR’s move to 93.3. Writes Jim, “According to Arbitron, the #1 Radio station is KLBJ AM, broadcasting news and information, recently in the news for its decision to reinstate the Todd and Don Show.  The show had been cancelled earlier this year after Don Pryor used the slur “wetback” repeated for about an hour on the air with no management stepping in to stop it.  The station is still #1 with a 7.1 rating.  The #2 station is breezy KKMJ FM.”

Used to be Arbitron didn’t publish noncommercial numbers (and I’m guessing they didn’t when Jim wrote that piece), but now they do, at least through http://radio-info.com. If you’re reading this, Jim, go here: http://www.radio-info.com/markets/austin . Lots of interesting Austin radio story fodder in that list.

For most of my life all I knew about Austin radio was that KLBJ’s story was tied up with its former owner, Lady Bird Johnson, and her husband Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former President. Writes the KLBJ history page, “In December 1942, a buyer, armed with limited capital, a dream, a journalism degree from the University of Texas, and no broadcasting experience, became the new licensee – Lady Bird Johnson.” But there’s more to that story. Here’s Wikipedia:

In January-February 1943, Ladybird Johnson spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase ,[3] an Austin radio station that was in debt. She bought the radio station from a three-man partnership which included a future and a future , .

She served as President of the company, LBJ Holding Co., and her husband negotiated an agreement with the CBS radio network. Lady Bird decided to expand by buying a television station in 1952 despite Lyndon’s objections, reminding him that she could do as she wished with her inheritance.[6] The station, KTBC-TV/7 (then affiliated with CBS as well), would make the Johnsons millionaires as Austin’s monopoly VHF franchise.[27] Over the years, journalists have written about how Lyndon used his influence in the Senate to influence the Federal Communications Commission into granting the monopoly license, which was in Lady Bird’s name.[28][29]

Eventually, Johnson’s initial $41,000 investment turned into more than $150 million for the LBJ Holding Company.[30] Johnson remained involved with the company until she was in her 80s.[6] She was the first president’s wife to become a millionaire in her own right.[3]

That squares with my own recollection of the story, from  back when I was involved in broadcasting, in the 1970s.

KLBJ is on 590 on the AM dial, radiating 5000 watts by day and 1000 by night. The night signal is also directional, with dents (“nulls”) to the north and the southeast. From my window seat on the flight out to Houston, I spotted KLBJ’s four-tower transmitter , and got this series of pix, which I’ve posted at the Infrastructure collection on Flickr.

By day, KLBJ’s primary coverage area stretches from Waco to San Antonio, 90 miles in opposite directions. Secondary coverage includes Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Fringe coverage reaches across most of Texas and into Oklahoma to the north and Mexico to the south. And that’s with just 5000 watts, or 1/10th the legal limit. The reason is ground conductivity. Texas has some of the best in the country. (Here’s a station in Atlanta on the same channel with more than twice the power. And it basically covers North Georgia and that’s it.)

Here’s Jim McNabb on what has happened to KLBJ since he served as news director there 35 years ago: that it’s become another mostly-right-wing foghorn. (Here’s a schedule.) The same can be said about countless other news/talk stations, of course.

Back on FM, the most anomalous station I heard was also the most anachronistic: , out of in Killeen. Its format is “beautiful music,” or what we once called “.” This was the “mood music” often disparaged as “elevator music” or “music on hold” back in the decades. I didn’t miss it when it went away, but it did kinda give me the warm fuzzies to hear it again. Sadly, the station doesn’t stream, or you could sample it.

Anyway, I just wanted to dump my thoughts on Austin radio before moving on to other matters, also involving broadcasting.

An 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan yesterday, and a tsunami is spreading, right now, across the Pacific ocean. Thus we have much news that is best consumed live and uncooked. Here’s mine, right now:

aljazeera

Not many of us carry radios in our pockets any more. Small portable TVs became passé decades ago. Smartphones, tablets and other portable Net-connected devices are now the closest things we have to universal receivers and transmitters of live news. They’re what we have in our pockets, purses and carry-bags.

The quake is coming to be called the 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami, and your best portable media to keep up with it are these:

  1. Al Jazeera English, for continuous live TV coverage (interrupted by war coverage from Libya)
  2. Twitter, for continuous brief reports and pointage to sources
  3. Wikipedia, for a continuously updated static page called 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami, with links to authoritative sources

I just looked at ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, CBC and BBC online, and all have recorded reports. None have live coverage on the Net. They are, after all, TV networks; and all TV networks are prevented from broadcasting live on the Net, either by commercial arrangements with cable and satellite TV distributors, or by laws that exclude viewing from IP addresses outside of national boundaries.

Television has become almost entirely an entertainment system, rather than a news one. Yes, news matters to TV networks, but it’s gravy. Mostly they’re entertainment businesses that also do news. This is even true (though to a lesser degree) for CNN.

At NBC.com, you won’t find that anything newsworthy has happened. The website is a bunch of promos for TV shows. Same with CBS.com, Fox.com and ABC.com. Each has news departments, of course, which you’ll find, for example, at Foxnews.com (which is currently broken, at least for me). Like CNN and BBC, these have have many written and recorded reports, but no live coverage (that you can get outside the U.K, anyway, in the case of BBC). Thus TV on the Net is no different than print media such as the New York Times. None. Hey, the Times has video reports too.

NPR has the same problem. You don’t get live radio from them. Still, you do get live radio from nearly all its member stations. Not true for TV. Lots of TV stations have iPhone, iPad and Android apps, but none feature live network video feeds, again because the networks don’t want anything going “over the top” (of the cable system) through Net-connected devices. This is a dumb stance, in the long run, which gets much shorter with each major breaking news story.

Here’s the take-away: emergencies such as wars and earthquakes demonstrate a simple and permanent fact of media life: that the Net is the new TV and the new radio, because it has subsumed both. It would be best for both TV and radio to normalize to the Net and quit protecting their old distribution systems.

Another angle: the Live Web has finally branched off the Static Web (as I wrote about in Linux Journal, back in 2005), and is fast becoming our primary means for viewing and listening to news. To borrow a geologic metaphor, the vast tectonic plates of TV and radio are being subsumed along their leading edges by the Live Web. Thus today’s wars and earthquakes are tectonic events for media old and new. The mountain ranges and civilizations that will build up along the new margins will be on the Live Web’s plate, not the old TV, radio and print plates.

A plug… Those  worried about how to pay for the change should support the VRM community’s development of EmanciPay. We believe the best consumers of media will become the best customers of media only by means that the consumers themselves control. For free media that’s worth more than nothing (as earthquake and war coverage certainly are), the pricing gun needs to be in the hands of the customer, not just the vendor (all of which have their own different ways of being paid, or no means at all). We need a single standard way that users can say “I like that and want to pay for it, and here’s how I’m going to do that.” Which is what EmanciPay proposes. The demand side needs its own ways and means, and those cannot (and should not) be provided only by the supply side, or it will continue to be fractured into a billion silos. (That number is a rough estimate of commercial sites on the Web.) More about all this in another post soon. (It’s at the front of my mind right now, because some of us will be meeting to talk about it here in Austin at SXSW.)

Meanwhile, back to your irregularly unscheduled programs.

[Later...]  I’ll add notes here…

  • Joey Trotz reports that http://cnn.com/live has four live streams. And, as others say below, so does the BBC. All can be viewed on a browser with Flash, and a disabled popup window blocker. Therefore some laptops and Android devices should also be covered, to a degree; but it’s all bit of a kluge. To me the standard is a live stream using at least a relatively open standard like .mp3 for audio and whatever-it-is that Al Jazeera is using for video (on the iPhone and iPad, at least, it can’t be Flash, so what is it?). The key: ease of viewing (fewest clicks) or listening. This means an app, usually, as of today. Note that nearly all smartphones in use today will be old hat two years from now.
  • I just downloaded and added the CNN app to my iPhone. It has “live” in its tabs, but the picture isn’t moving for me. Not sure what that means.
  • Thanks to Danilo, in the comments below, for suggesting that I make clear some distinctions that at least a couple commenters have missed. I do that in this comment here, and I’ll say it here as well. This post is not a slam on the good work that broadcasters do. Nor am I declaring the death of TV and radio as we know it. I am using AND logic here, not OR. When I say the Net is subsuming radio and TV, and that broadcasters need to normalize to the Net, I am saying that the Net is becoming the base medium. Broadcasters need to be streaming online as well as over the air and over cable. Back when he renewed his contract with SiriusXM, Howard Stern said as much about satellite radio. The new base medium for Howard’s SiriusXM channels, as well as all the other channels in the satellite radio lineup, is the Internet. Satellite distribution will become the backup live stream service, rather than the main distribution system. This is why Howard has been out stumping on TV talk shows for the SiriusXM smartphone app. Yes, it is true that the satellite system will cover many areas that the cell and wi-fi distribution system will not. But the reverse will also be true. SiriusXM on the Net is a global service, rather than one restricted to North America. The service is also not capacity-limited in the number of files and streams that can be offered, which is the case with satellite alone. Another point I’m making is that TV networks especially are restricted in their ability to stream by the deals they have with cable companies, and (in the case of, say, the BBC) by blocked use over IP addresses outside national boundaries. These are severely limiting as more and more viewing moves to hand-held devices. And those limitations need to be faced. Al Jazeera shows what can be done when the limits aren’t there.