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Here is my short list:

  1. Larry Josephson
  2. Howard Stern
  3. Bob Grant
  4. Bob & Ray
  5. Barry Gray
  6. Bob Fass
  7. Steve Post
  8. Rush Limbaugh
  9. Alex Bennett
  10. Allan Handelman

And here are my qualifications: a) the performer has to do (or have done) a show that runs daily (or close),  b) the listener has to sense that they are missing something if they’re not listening, and c) I need to have been a listener.

I bring this up because in January I heard Howard Stern speak regretfully — and movingly — about how Bob Grant was something like “the greatest broadcaster who ever lived,” and how he (Howard) blew the chance to say that to Bob directly while the old guy was still alive. Bob died on New Years Eve at age 84. (Later Howard was not only reminded that he did say kind things to Bob, but somebody produced recorded evidence. Apparently Howard is correct that his memory sucks.)

I first heard Bob in the early ’70s, when he came to WMCA in New York from KLAC in Los Angeles. (Staying at the same spot on the dial, since both were on 570am.) WMCA had dropped its Top 40 format (conceding that ground to WABC and the FM band) and became the first full-time talk station in New York. I agreed with very little that Bob espoused, but found the show highly entertaining, especially when some dumb caller made no sense and Bob yelled “Get off the phone!”

But Howard is by far the best radio performer, ever. There’s nobody close. He’s funny as hell and his celebrity interviews are masterful to an extreme nobody will ever exceed. All his shows are longer than Gone With The Wind, filled with original comedy bits and supported by a veteran and gifted staff of interesting characters who are themselves sources of entertaining studio encounters. On days Howard’s not on, the re-runs — both from the past few days and from archives that stretch back a quarter century — are also brilliant. The show is blue, but I enjoy that. Life fucks itself all the time, or none of us would be here.

I put Larry Josephson ahead of Howard because I’ve never loved a morning host more than I loved Larry. Back when he was on WBAI in the ’60s and early ’70s, my daily life was anchored in Larry’s show. Larry spoke frankly about his personal life, and flouted just about every morning-host formalism you can list. (As Howard still does. But Larry was first.) He’d show up late, eat on the air, and take calls during which you heard nothing of the person at the other end. He was funny (among other things, like me, he was a sucker for puns), wickedly smart, hugely informed, and deeply interested in big issues of many kinds. Years later he leveraged all that into the public radio shows Modern Times and Bridges. I still have many recordings of both on cassettes in my garage. After leaving the air Larry made a living selling recordings of Bob & Ray (next on my list), who were two of the funniest guys in radio, from the fifties into the seventies. Find those and other goodies (including What is Judaism and Only In Amercia) from Larry at RadioArt.org. Meanwhile, also dig what Larry is doing today at An Inconvenient Jew: My Life in Radio. A better biography than this one or Wikipedia’s is here.

Bob & Ray are next on my list because they were the funniest radio comics of their time. Both had warm baritone voices, which hardly changed whether they were playing characters young or old, male or female. Their humor was droll and dry and played for irony at many levels. Buy some samples from Larry.

I’ve got Barry Gray next because he was — at least for me — the father of all the radio talk shows that followed. His slot from 11pm to 1am on WMCA seemed highly anomalous, given WMCA’s role as one of New York’s Top 40 music landmarks. But for me as a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s, it was a window on the intellectual and cultural world, giving me lots of stuff to talk and think about the next day. I liked Barry Farber too (they were both pioneers, and Farber is still at it today) but to me, growing up, the better Barry was Gray.

I put Bob Fass and Steve Post next because they were Larry Josephson’s teammates on WBAI during the station’s heyday, and I loved all three of them (and some others I hate not mentioning, but I’m trying to keep this from getting too long). Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable was required late night radio listening in The Sixties, and had enormous influence on the spirit of that time, including too many events and personalities to mention. I recall Steve as WBAI’s smart and witty utility infielder and team captain. He was more than that, both for WBAI and later for WNYC, where he was active while I was elsewhere. Mostly I enjoyed listening to him whenever he was on.

I put Rush Limbaugh next because he is just so damn good at what he does. For many years I enjoyed listening to him, even though I mostly disagreed with his politics. He was tuned in to a sensibility that I knew well, and in many ways he understood the political left better than it understood itself. Maybe he still does. I’m just so tired of right wing talkers at this point that I don’t listen to any of them. But I want to give credit where due, and Rush deserves plenty.

I first heard Alex Bennett on WMCA in the late ’60s, and followed him to WPLJ while I was still living in New Jersey. Later I picked him up again in the Bay Area when he was on a variety of stations there. Alex was at his best (for me at least), when he brought comedians into the studio to hang out. I’m sure Alex played a key role in the surge in comedy clubs that happened in the 1980s. (Wow, I just learned that Ronni Bennett is Alex’s ex. Guess I missed that.)

Allan Handelman is the only guy on this list (and I regret that they are all guys) who has had me as a guest on the air. It was in the early ’80s on WPTF in Raleigh, to talk about radio, like I am now. I first heard Allan when he was on a little FM station in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 100+ miles away, in Chapel Hill, but had a big antenna on my roof that I would aim east to get Allan’s signal, amazed at the guests he would get to come on. Most notable among those was Frank Zappa. Allan’s discussions with Frank are among my treasured radio memories.

So that’s it for now. I started to write this in January and decided to finally throw a few more sentences in, and liberate it from the Drafts folder. If you care, tweet or comment on your own faves. One I would volunteer for a slightly different category (such as “uncategorizable”): Phil Hendrie.

Now that Al Jazeera English‘s stream has been killed in the U.S., the only two streaming global news organizations available on computers and mobile devices are France24 and RT. They look like this:

In other words, like TV. Talking heads and reports from the field.

Also like PR.

I certainly get that from RT, the initials of Russia Today. Sez Wikipedia,

RT, previously known as Russia Today, is an international multilingual Russian-based television network. It is registered as an autonomous non-profit organization[2][3] funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation.[4][5]

France24, sez Wikipedia,

… is an international newsand current affairs television channel based in Paris. Its stated mission is to “cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.”[1] It started broadcasting on 6 December 2006 under the presidency of Jacques Chirac and prime ministerial term of Dominique de Villepin.

Neither are as interesting to watch as Al Jazeera English was when we could still see it here in the U.S. Nor are they as large and substantive as Al Jazeera.

Yet @AlJazeera‘s apparent disinterest in talking about anything that might not promote its new Al Jazeera America (@AJAM) cable channel suggests the same kind of PR-based DNA. Far as I know (and feel free to correct me), @AlJazeera remains unwilling to talk out loud about why it chose to kill its live @AJEnglish stream in the U.S. — or to cover that move as the real news it was, and still is.

Whatever else it may be (and it’s a lot), Al Jazeera is also vanity project by the monarchy of Qatar. Ideally that would make it an example of what James Fallows calls a way for “this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries (to) re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.”

Jim is talking there about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post. In that same piece, he says, “Foreign reportage, serious investigative or government-accountability coverage — functions like these have always been, in economic terms, parasites that need to ride along on some profitable host body.” In the U.S. the profitable host body in cable news has been its presentation as entertainment, political axe-grinding, or both. One would hope Al Jazeera America takes the high road here, but the fact remains that going cable-only was a low-road move. Especially since the Al Jazeera abandoned the high road it was on — live presentation on computers and mobile devices — along with the infrastructure of public intelligence the company was helping to build there.

On Saturday’s Gillmor Gang, Robert Scoble said he thought Al Jazeera was playing a “long ball” game here. They certainly have the money. But they’re starting way behind. First, they fired — and pissed off — the loyal audience of early adopters they had on the Net. Second, they made the mistake of giving the Al Jazeera name to a wholly new operation in the U.S., where (sad to say) “Al (anything-Arabic)” is certain to be associated by many cable viewers with Al Qaeda, the only outright enemy of the U.S. with a name everybody knows. If they had called it “AJ” (in the manner of Russia Today’s RT) it might have had a better chance. Third, they either got dropped or not picked up by the largest cable companies, while those that do carry it (e.g. DirectTV and Dish Network) have exiled it to more expensive tiers than those CNN and Fox News enjoy. Those operators also run Al Jazeera America’s video in low-def SD instead of hi-def HD. So the new network could hardly be starting farther behind, or in a business with less chance of long-term success.

On that last topic, I have to wonder what the calculus of the “deal” to kill the live AJE stream was. That was not only an awful lot to pay for very little in return; but it isn’t even clear who it was paid to. Time Warner? AT&T? Neither carries @AJAM at all. And the others hardly seem to give a damn about the channel anyway. [Later: see my comment here.] I can imagine this dialog between Al Jazeera and the U.S. cable companies:

AJ: We killed our firstborn so it would not offend you. Will you carry our channel now?

SOME CABLE COMPANIES: No.

OTHER CABLE COMPANIES: Um, okay, maybe on one of our high-priced tiers, in lo-def.

AJ: Okay.

On top of all that, @AJAM and @AJEnglish are apparently different services, serving different audiences: cable viewers and computer/mobile device viewers. I suppose @AlJazeera thought its streaming audience would jump at the opportunity to go retro and watch something else from the company on cable. @AlJazeera might be right about that, but that looks to me like something between wishful thinking and outright delusion.

The cable industry’s disdain for Al Jazeera is one more example of why cable is a dead medium walking. As a big coercive silo that many viewers barely tolerate or actively hate — and stick with only because the shows they want to see are trapped inside the thing — its worst enemy is itself. Consistent with that, cable features some of the world’s worst exemplars of bad customer service.

Meanwhile other traditional sources of high-quality TV news have so adapted to life inside cable’s silo that their live streams are almost impossible to get. Dig this, for example:

What you see there is the futility of trying to watch ABC’s live stream online. Talk about a f’d “experience.” Either the app says it can’t determine one’s location (my experience in New York, the Bay Area and Southern California — wish I got a screen shot), or that it’s only available in those areas and three others where the viewer happens not to be. Then, for  those who want the Compleat Futility Experience, there’s that third page there, a non-responsive Web page squeezed to un-readability on a mobile screen.

Here’s the thing: TV hates the Net. Simple as that. It has hated the Net for as long as it’s known that the Net was a threat to its coercive system. That’s why the MSOs (a trade term for cable+satelite) call video distribution on the Net “over the top” or OTT. And also why it’s no surprise to find only one cable program source (Viacom) among Comscore’s top ten online video companies. The rest are Net-native, starting with Google. (See Tristan Louis Is Google Killing Cable? for more on where this goes.)

Most of what people watch on the Net isn’t news. Or, if it is news, it doesn’t look like what we see in those top images above. Nor should it — any more than cars in 1900 should have looked like railroad coaches.

Video on the Net is wild, crazy and exploding out of anybody’s control, including Google’s. Mostly it is coming from everybody. Not just from the usual suspects.

And it isn’t TV.

Let’s face it: TV is channels. (Never mind that what are now called “channels” and “networks” are neither, in the original senses of those words.) In the U.S. those channels are nothing more than a collection of branded program sources delivered by some of the least caring companies on Earth to an audience forced to watch through crappy gear with a horrible user interface. In the growing ocean of video from everywhere on the Net, TV has the buoyancy of a bowling ball.

It’s just a matter of time before it sinks.

It’s also a matter of cost. Cable is expensive, and not getting cheaper.

The biggest thing keeping it afloat is live sports. In the U.S., that’s ESPN. They’re the life jacket on cable’s bowling ball.

At some point ESPN goes direct OTT and the rest of TV will either die along with cable or moult out of cable’s dead husk. If Al Jazeera America is one of the casualties, we’ll be prepared, because we’re already getting practice at living without it. And it won’t be news at all.

[Later (29 August)...]

In response to a corrective comment by Fritz Mills below I’ve done a bit of research to see how cable and satellite companies are carrying Al Jazeera America. Finding out isn’t too easy, because most of these companies (at least on the cable side) only tell you what’s available at a given address. So I just checked with as many companies as I had the patience and time to visit, and got this:

  • AT&T U-Verse: Dropped, and sued by Al Jazeera for breach of contract
  • Cablevision: Dropped when Al Jazeera bought Current TV
  • Charter: Not there
  • Comcast: 254, in the top tier “Digital Preferred 160+” package, in low-def, and moved there (thanks, Dennis McDonald for that link) from the basic tier that @AJEnglish had been on
  • DirectTV: 215, in low-def, as part of  a higher tier
  • Dish Network: 358, in low-def, as part of the “America’s Top 200″ tier
  • Cox: Not there
  • RCN: 326. on its “signature” (second highest) tier, in low-def
  • Time Warner Cable: Dropped back in January, when Al Jazeera bought Current TV
  • Verizon FiOS: On PrimeHD, Extreme HD and Ultmiate HD — a total of six different channels, two apiece on each tier (one SD, one HD)

Meaning you can get it in HD on basic cable only on Verizon FiOS.

There are two fiber-based companies on the list: RCN and Verizon. Fiber is interesting because there is virtually unlimited bandwidth. Bandwidth is more scarce with cable and satellite, which is one reason they carry some channels only in higher tiers (to reduce demand) and in low-def SD instead of HD. They also compress the HD far more than fiber carriers need to, which is why HD channels on fiber tend to look better (provided they aren’t too compressed back upstream).

That’s why Verizon FiOS wins on that list above. RCN could also make AJAM HD, because they have the bandwidth. But instead they make it SD, and put a green $ in lieu of a √ in the checkbox, to make clear that it’s “available at a premium“. Which means it might as well not be there.

On the matter of Al Jazeera coming clean about the deal to kill the @AJEnglish stream in order to be carried by MSOs in the U.S., the closest thing I’ve found to an inside detail is an Email from Marwan Bishara to AJ executives, dated 10 July 2015, posted by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, and featured in his 14 July story, Inside look at the internal strife over Al Jazeera America, subtitled “As the new US network is finally set to launch, serious concerns arise about its brand and intent: especially from within the organization.” One excerpt from the email:

Have we signed a deal where AJAM program/content must be substantially different from AJE? Really!!!! What does substantially mean? Who have we made the agreement with and why? I asked several executives and not a single person can give me a categorical answer about the issue, which by itself is mind-boggling!!! (I have issues with AJE’s formats, and at times perspectives, but we have so much to hold onto).

Does the fear of contractual obligations with carriers etc. mean it’s necessary for some to do whatever they want with Aljazeera, including banning AJE altogether from America and web livestream, just when they themselves try to make the case for a 21st century type television news!!!! . . . .

We still don’t know exactly what the deal was, even the effects are obvious.

I still haven’t seen @AJAM. And, like so many other dismissed viewers in the U.S., I miss @AJEnglish. So, a suggestion to @AlJazeera: make one or both available on a subscription basis. A lot of us might pay for that. Per-stream subscriptions where TV is going anyway, once cable falls apart. Get ahead of that curve.

We’re not watching any less TV. In fact, we’re watching more of it, on more different kinds of screens. Does this mean that TV absorbs the Net, or vice versa? Or neither? That’s what I’m exploring here. By “explore” I mean I’m not close to finished, and never will be. I’m just vetting some ideas and perspectives, and looking for help improving them.

TV 1.0: The Antenna Age

In the beginning, 100% of  TV went out over the air, radiated by contraptions atop towers or buildings, and picked up by rabbit ears on the backs of TV sets or by bird roosts on roofs. “Cable” was the wire that ran from the roof to the TV set. It helps to understand how this now-ancient system worked, because its main conceptual frame — the channel, or a collection of them —  is still with us, even though the technologies used are almost entirely different. So here goes.

tv antenna

Empire State Building antennas

On the left is a typical urban rooftop TV antenna. The different lengths of the antenna elements correspond roughly to the wavelengths of the signals. For reception, this mattered a lot.

In New York  City, for example, TV signals all came from the Empire State Building — and still do, at least until they move to the sleek new spire atop One World Trade Center, aka the Freedom Tower. (Many stations were on the North Tower of the old World Trade center, and perished with the rest of the building on 9/11/2001. After that, they moved back to their original homes on the Empire State Building.)

“Old” in the right photo refers to analog, and “new” to digital. (An aside: FM is still analog. Old and New here are just different generations of transmitting antennas. The old FM master antenna is two rings of sixteen T-shaped things protruding above and below the observation deck on the 102nd floor. It’s still in use as an auxiliary antenna. Here’s a similar photo from several decades back, showing the contraptual arrangement at the height of the Antenna Age.)

Channels 2-6 were created by the FCC in the 1940s (along with FM radio, which is in a band just above TV channel 6). Those weren’t enough channels, so 7-13 came along next, on higher frequencies — and therefore shorter wavelengths. Since the shorter waves don’t bend as well around buildings and terrain, stations on channels 7-13 needed higher power. So, while the maximum power for channels 2-6 was 100,000 watts, the “equivalent” on channels 7-13 was 316,000 watts. All those channels were in VHF bands, for Very High Frequency. Channels 14-83 — the UHF, or Ultra High Frequency band, was added in the 1950s, to make room for more stations in more places. Here the waves were much shorter, and the maximum transmitted power for “equivalent” coverage  to VHF was 5,000,000 watts. (All were ERP, or effective radiated power, toward the horizon.)

This was, and remains, a brute-force approach to what we now call “delivering content.” Equally brute approaches were required for reception as well. To watch TV, homes in outer suburban or rural areas needed rooftop antennas that looked like giant centipedes.

What they got — analog TV — didn’t have the resolution of today’s digital TV, but it was far more forgiving of bad reception conditions. You might get “ghosting” from reflected signals, or “snow” from a weak signal, but people put up with those problems just so they could see what was on.

More importantly, they got hooked.

TV 2.0: the Cable Age.

It began with CATV, or Community Antenna Television. For TV junkies who couldn’t get a good signal, CATV was a godsend. In the earliest ’70s I lived in McAfee, New Jersey, deep in a valley, where a rabbit-ears antenna got nothing, and even the biggest rooftop antenna couldn’t do much better. (We got a snowy signal on Channel 2 and nothing else.) So when CATV came through, giving us twelve clear channels of TV from New York and Philadelphia, we were happy to pay for it. A bit later, when we moved down Highway 94 to a high spot south of Newton, my rooftop antenna got all those channels and more, so there was  no need for CATV there. Then, after ’74, when we moved to North Carolina, we did without cable for a few years, because our rooftop antennas, which we could spin about with a rotator, could get everything from Roanoke, Virginia to Florence, South Carolina.

But then, in the early ’80s, we picked up on cable because it had Atlanta “superstation” WTCG (later WTBS and then just TBS) and HBO, which was great for watching old movies. WTCG, then still called Channel 17, also featured the great Bill Tush. (Sample here.) The transformation of WTCG into a satellite-distributed “superstation” meant that a TV station no longer needed to be local, or regional. For “super” stations on cable, “coverage” and “range” became bugs, not features.

Cable could also present viewers with more channels than they could ever get over the air. Technical improvements gradually raised the number of possible channels from dozens to hundreds. Satellite systems, which replicated cable in look and feel, could carry even more channels.

Today cable is post-peak. See here:

catv and cable tv

That’s because, in the ’90s, cable also turned out to be ideal for connecting homes to the Internet. We were still addicted to what cable gave us as “TV,” but we also had the option to watch a boundless variety of other stuff — and to produce our own. Today people are no less hooked on video than they were in 1955, but a declining percentage of their glowing-rectangle viewing is on cable-fed TV screens. The main thing still tying people to cable is the exclusive availability of high-quality and in-demand shows (including, especially, live sports) over cable and satellite alone.

This is why apps for CNN, ESPN, HBO and other cable channels require proof of a cable or satellite TV subscription. If cable content was á la carte, the industry would collapse. The industry knows this, of course, which makes it defensive.

That’s why Aereo freaks them out. Aereo is the new company that Fox and other broadcasters are now suing for giving people who can’t receive TV signals a way to do that over the Net. The potential served population is large, since the transition of U.S. television from analog to digital transmission (DTV) was, and remains, a great big fail.

Where the FCC estimated a 2% loss of analog viewers after the transition in June 2009, in fact 100% of the system changed, and post-transition digital coverage was not only a fraction of pre-transition analog coverage, but required an entirely new way to receive signals, as well as to view them. Here in New York, for example, I’m writing this in an apartment that could receive analog TV over rabbit ears in the old analog days. It looked bad, but at least it was there. With DTV there is nothing. For apartment dwellers without line-of-sight to the Empire State Building, the FCC’s reception maps are a fiction. Same goes for anybody out in the suburbs or in rural areas. If there isn’t a clear-enough path between the station’s transmitter and your TV’s antenna, you’re getting squat.

TV stations actually don’t give much of a damn about over-the-air any more, because 90+% of viewers are watching cable. But TV stations still make money from cable systems, thanks to re-transmission fees and “must carry” rules. These rules require cable systems to carry all the signals receivable in the area they serve. And the coverage areas are mostly defined by the old analog signal footprints, rather than the new smaller digital footprints, which are also much larger on the FCC’s maps than in the realities where people actually live.

Aereo gets around all that by giving each customer an antenna of their own, somewhere out where the signals can be received, and delivering each received station’s video to customers over the Net. In other words, it avoids being defined as cable, or even CATV. It’s just giving you, the customer, your own little antenna.

This is a clever technical and legal hack, and strong enough for Aereo towin in court. After that victory, Fox threatened to take its stations off the air entirely, becoming cable- and satellite-only. This exposed the low regard that broadcasters hold for their over-the-air signals, and for broadcasting’s legacy “public service” purpose.

The rest of the Aereo story is inside baseball, and far from over. (If you want a good rundown of the story so far, dig Aereo: Reinventing the cable TV model, by Tristan Louis.)

Complicating this even more is the matter of “white spaces.” Those are parts of the TV bands where there are no broadcast signals, or where broadcast signals are going away. These spaces are valuable because there are countless other purposes to which signals in those spaces could be put, including wireless Internet connections. Naturally, TV station owners want to hold on to those spaces, whether they broadcast in them or not. And, just as naturally, the U.S. government would like to auction the spaces off. (To see where the spaces are, check out Google’s “spectrum browser“. And note how few of them there are in urban areas, where there are the most remaining TV signals.)

Still, TV 2.0 through 2.9 is all about cable, and what cable can do. What’s happening with over-the-air is mostly about what the wonks call policy. From Aereo to white spaces, it’s all a lot of jockeying for position — and making hay where the regulatory sun shines.

Meanwhile, broadcasters and cable operators still hate the Net, even though cable operators are in the business of providing access to it. Both also remain in denial about the Net’s benefits beyond serving as Cable 2.x. They call distribution of content over the Net (e.g. through Hulu and Netflix) “over the top” or OTT, even though it’s beyond obvious that OTT is the new bottom.

FCC regulations regarding TV today are in desperate need of normalizing to the plain fact that the Net is the new bottom — and incumbent broadcasters aren’t the only ones operating there. But then, the feds don’t understand the Net either. The FCC’s world is radio, TV and telephony. To them, the Net is just a “service” provided by phone and cable companies.

TV 3.0: The IPTV age

IPTV is TV over the Internet Protocol — in other words, through the open Internet, rather than through cable’s own line-up of channels. One example is Netflix. By streaming movies over the Net, Netflix put a big dent in cable viewing. Adding insult to that injury, the vast majority of Netflix streamed movies are delivered over cable connections, and cable doesn’t get a piece of the action, because delivery is over OTT, via IPTV. And now, by producing its own high-quality shows, such as House of Cards, Netflix is competing with cable on the program front as well. To make the viewing experience as smooth as possible for its customers, Netflix also has its own equivalent of a TV transmitter. It’s called OpenConnect, and it’s one among a number of competing CDNs, or Content Delivery Networks. Basically they put up big server farms as close as possible to large volumes of demand, such as in cities.

So think of Netflix as a premium cable channel without the cable, or the channel, optimized for delivery over the Internet. It carries forward some of TV’s norms (such as showing old movies and new TV shows for a monthly subscription charge) while breaking new ground where cable and its sources either can’t or won’t go.

Bigger than Netflix, at least in terms of its catalog and global popularity, is Google’s YouTube. If you want your video to be seen by the world, YouTube is where you put it today, if you want maximum leverage. YouTube isn’t a monopoly for Google (the list of competitors is long), but it’s close. (According to Alexa, YouTube is accessed by a third of all Internet users worldwide. Its closest competitor (in the U.S., at least), is Vimeo, with a global reach of under 1%.) So, while Netflix looks a lot like cable, YouTube looks like the Web. It’s Net-native.

Bassem Youssef, “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” got his start on YouTube, and then expanded into regular TV. He’s still on YouTube, even though his show on TV got canceled when he was hauled off to jail for offending the regime. Here he tells NBC’s Today show, “there’s always YouTube.” [Later... Dig this bonus link.]

But is there? YouTube is a grace of Google, not the Web. And Google is a big advertising business that has lately been putting more and more ads, TV-like, in front of videos. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a proven system. The question, as we move from TV 3.0 to 3.9, is whether the Net and the Web will survive the inclusion of TV’s legacy methods and values in its midst. In The TV in the Snake of Time, written in July 2010, I examined that question at some length:

Television is deeply embedded in pretty much all developed cultures by now. We — and I mean this in the worldwide sense — are not going to cease being couch potatoes. Nor will our suppliers cease couch potato farming, even as TV moves from airwaves to cable, satellite, and finally the Internet.

In the process we should expect the spirit (if not also the letter) of the Net’s protocols to be violated.

Follow the money. It’s not for nothing that Comcast wishes to be in the content business. In the old cable model there’s a cap on what Comcast can charge, and make, distributing content from others. That cap is its top cable subscription deals. Worse, they’re all delivered over old-fashioned set top boxes, all of which are — as Steve Jobs correctly puts it — lame. If you’re Comcast, here’s what ya do:

  1. Liberate the TV content distro system from the set top sphincter.
  2. Modify or re-build the plumbing to deliver content to Net-native (if not entirely -friendly) devices such as home flat screens, smartphones and iPads.
  3. Make it easy for users to pay for any or all of it on an à la carte (or at least an easy-to-pay) basis, and/or add a pile of new subscription deals.

Now you’ve got a much bigger marketplace, enlarged by many more devices and much less friction on the payment side. (Put all “content” and subscriptions on the shelves of “stores” like iTunes’ and there ya go.) Oh, and the Internet? … that World of Ends that techno-utopians (such as yours truly) liked to blab about? Oh, it’s there. You can download whatever you want on it, at higher speeds every day, overall. But it won’t be symmetrical. It will be biased for consumption. Our job as customers will be to consume — to persist, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.”

Future of the Internet

So, for current and future build-out, the Internet we techno-utopians know and love goes off the cliff while better rails get built for the next generations of TV — on the very same “system.” (For the bigger picture, Jonathan Zittrain’s latest is required reading.)

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse, in fact.

But it will get better, and I’m not saying that just because I’m still a utopian. I’m saying that because the new world really is the Net, and there’s a limit to how much of it you can pave with one-way streets. And how long the couch potato farming business will last.

More and more of us are bound to produce as well as consume, and we’ll need two things that a biased-for-TV Net can’t provide. One is speed in both directions: out as well as in. (“Upstream” calls Sisyphus to mind, so let’s drop that one.) The other is what Bob Frankston calls “ambient connectivity.” That is, connectivity we just assume.

When you go to a hotel, you don’t have to pay extra to get water from the “hydro service provider,” or electricity from the “power service provider.” It’s just there. It has a cost, but it’s just overhead.

That’s the end state. We’re still headed there. But in the meantime the Net’s going through a stage that will be The Last Days of TV. The optimistic view here is that they’ll also be the First Days of the Net.

Think of the original Net as the New World, circa 1491. Then think of TV as the Spanish invasion. Conquistators! Then read this essay by Richard Rodriguez. My point is similar. TV won’t eat the Net. It can’t. It’s not big enough. Instead, the Net will swallow TV. Ten iPad generations from now, TV as we know it will be diffused into countless genres and sub-genres, with millions of non-Hollywood production centers. And the Net will be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, however, don’t hold your breath.

That meantime has  now lasted nearly three years — or much longer if you go back to 1998, when I wrote a chapter of a book by Microsoft, right after they bought WebTV. An excerpt:

The Web is about dialog. The fact that it supports entertainment, and does a great job of it, does nothing to change that fact. What the Web brings to the entertainment business (and every business), for the first time, is dialog like nobody has ever seen before. Now everybody can get into the entertainment conversation. Or the conversations that comprise any other market you can name. Embracing that is the safest bet in the world. Betting on the old illusion machine, however popular it may be at the moment, is risky to say the least…

TV is just chewing gum for the eyes. — Fred Allen

This may look like a long shot, but I’m going to bet that the first fifty years of TV will be the only fifty years. We’ll look back on it the way we now look back on radio’s golden age. It was something communal and friendly that brought the family together. It was a way we could be silent together. Something of complete unimportance we could all talk about.

And, to be fair, TV has always had a very high quantity of Good Stuff. But it also had a much higher quantity of drugs. Fred Allen was being kind when he called it “chewing gum for the eyes.” It was much worse. It made us stupid. It started us on real drugs like cannabis and cocaine. It taught us that guns solve problems and that violence is ordinary. It disconnected us from our families and communities and plugged us into a system that treated us as a product to be fattened and led around blind, like cattle.

Convergence between the Web and TV is inevitable. But it will happen on the terms of the metaphors that make sense of it, such as publishing and retailing. There is plenty of room in these metaphors — especially retailing — for ordering and shipping entertainment freight. The Web is a perfect way to enable the direct-demand market for video goods that the television industry was never equipped to provide, because it could never embrace the concept. They were in the eyeballs-for-advertisers business. Their job was to give away entertainment, not to charge for it.

So what will we get? Gum on the computer screen, or choice on the tube?

It’ll be no contest, especially when the form starts funding itself.

Bet on Web/TV, not TV/Web.

I was recruited to write that chapter because I was the only guy Microsoft could find who thought the Web would eat TV rather than vice versa. And it does look like that’s finally happening, but only if you think Google is the Web. Or if you think Web sites are the new channels. In tech-speak, channels are silos.

When I wrote those pieces, I did not foresee the degree to which our use of the Net would be contained in silos that Bruce Schneier compares to feudal-age castles. Too much of the Web we know today is inside the walls governed by Lord Zuck, King Tim, Duke Jeff and the emperors Larry and Sergey. In some ways those rulers are kind and generous, but we are not free so long as we are native to their dominions rather than the boundless Networked world on which they sit.

The downside of depending on giants is that you can, and will, get screwed. Exhibit A (among too many for one alphabet) is Si Dawson’s goodbye post on Twitcleaner, a service to which he devoted his life, and countless people loved, that “was an engineering marvel built, as it were, atop a fail-whaling ship.”  When Twitter “upgraded” its API, it sank Twitcleaner and many other services built on Twitter. Writes Si, “Through all this I’ve learned so, so much.Perhaps the key thing? Never playfootball when someone else owns the field. So obvious in hindsight.”

Now I’m having the same misgivings about Dropbox, which works as what Anil Dash calls a POPS: Privately Owned Public Space. It’s a great service, but it’s also a private one. And therefore risky like Twitter is risky.

What has happened with all those companies was a morphing of mission from a way to the way:

  • Google was way to search, and became the way to search
  • Facebook was way to be social on the Web, and became the way to be social on the Web
  • Twitter was way to microblog, and became the way to microblog

I could go on, but you get the idea.

What makes the Net and the Web open and free are not its physical systems, or any legal system. What makes them free are their protocols, which are nothing more than agreements: the machine equivalents of handshakes. Protocols do not by their nature presume a centralized system, like TV — or like giant Web sites and services. Protocols are also also not corruptible, because they are each NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it.

Back in 2003, David Weinberger and I wrote about protocols and NEA in a site called World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It For Something Else. In it we said the Net was defined by its protocols, not by the companies providing the wiring and the airwaves over which we access the Net.

Yet, a decade later, we are still mistaking the Net for TV. Why? One reason is that there is so much more TV on the Net than ever before. Another is that we get billed for the Net by cable and phone companies. For cable and phone companies providing home service, it’s “broadband” or “high speed Internet.” For mobile phone companies, it’s a “data plan.” By whatever name, it’s one great big channel: a silo open at both ends, through which “content” gets piped to “consumers.” To its distributors — the ones we pay for access — it’s just another kind of cable TV.

The biggest player in cable is not Comcast or Time Warner. It’s ESPN. That’s because the most popular kind of live TV is sports, and ESPN runs that show. Today, ESPN is moving aggressively to mobile. In other words, from cable to the Net. Says Bloomberg Businessweek,

ESPN has been unique among traditional media businesses in that it has flourished on the Web and in the mobile space, where the number of users per minute, which is ESPN’s internal metric, reached 102,000 in June, an increase of 48 percent so far this year. Mobile is now ESPN’s fastest-growing platform.

Now, in ESPN Eyes Subsidizing Wireless-Data Plans, the Wall Street Journal reports, “Under one potential scenario, the company would pay a carrier to guarantee that people viewing ESPN mobile content wouldn’t have that usage counted toward their monthly data caps.” If this happens, it would clearly violate the principle of network neutrality: that the network itself should not favor one kind of data, or data producer, over another.Such a deal would instantly turn every competing data producer into a net neutrality activist, so it’s not likely to happen.

Meanwhile John McCain, no friend of net neutrality, has introduced the TV Consumer Freedom Act, which is even less friendly to cable. As Business Insider puts it, McCain wants to blow the sucker upSays McCain,

This legislation has three principal objectives: (1) encourage the wholesale and retail ‘unbundling’ of programming by distributors and programmers; (2) establish consequences if broadcasters choose to ‘downgrade’ their over-the-air service; and (3) eliminate the sports blackout rule for events held in publicly-financed stadiums.

For over 15 years I have supported giving consumers the ability to buy cable channels individually, also known as ‘a la carte’ – to provide consumers more control over viewing options in their home and, as a result, their monthly cable bill.

The video industry, principally cable companies and satellite companies and the programmers that sell channels, like NBC and Disney-ABC, continue to give consumers two options when buying TV programming: First, to purchase a package of channels whether you watch them all or not; or, second, not purchase any cable programming at all.

This is unfair and wrong – especially when you consider how the regulatory deck is stacked in favor of industry and against the American consumer.

Unbundle TV, make it á la carte, and you have nothing more than subscription video on the Net. And that is what TV will become. If McCain’s bill passes, we will still pay Time Warner and Comcast for connections to the Net; and they will continue to present a portfolio of á la carte and bundled subscription options. Many video sources will continue to be called “networks” and “channels.” But it won’t be TV 4.0 because TV 3.0 — TV over IP — will be the end of TV’s line.

Shows will live on. So will producers and artists and distributors. The old TV business to be as creative as ever, and will produce more good stuff than ever. Couch potatoes will live too, but there will be many more farmers, and the fertilizer will abound in variety.

What we’ll have won’t be TV because TV is channels, and channels are scarce. The Net has no channels, and isn’t about scarcity. It just has an endless number of ends, and no limit on the variety of sources pumping out “content” from those ends. Those sources include you, me, and everybody else who wants to produce and share video, whether for free or for pay.

The Net is an environment built for abundance. You can put all the scarcities you want on it, because an abundance-supporting environment allows that. An abundance system such as the Net gives business many more ways to bet than a scarcity system such as TV has been from the antenna age on through cable. As Jerry Michalski says (and tweets), “#abundance is pretty scary, isn’t it? Yet it’s the way forward.”

Abundance also frees all of us personally. How we organize what we watch should be up to us, not up to cable systems compiling their own guides that look like spreadsheets, with rows of channels and columns of times. We can, and should, do better than that. We should also do better than what YouTube gives us, based on what its machines think we might want.

The new box to think outside of is Google’s. So let’s re-start there. TV is what it’s always been: dumb and terminal.

 

Eleanor SearlsMom would have turned 100 this week. She got to celebrate her 90th ten years ago, though it seems like yesterday. She died several months later, of a stroke while recovering from a botched gall stone removal procedure. The stroke was preventable, I believe; but I won’t lay blame. Mom lived a long and full life, and wouldn’t have wanted to make a stink about it. That wasn’t her style.

She was a smart, fun, loving and thoroughly wonderful woman. I remember once, when I was in my twenties, sitting around a fire in the little commune-like community where I lived near Chapel Hill. One of the others asked, “Who is the most sane person you know?” When I answered “My mother,” the rest were amazed. Not many people our age said things like that about either of their parents. But there was no doubt in my mind. Mom was profoundly sane. There wasn’t a crazy cell in her mind.

She was raised in Napoleon, North Dakota, the middle child among five. Her parents were from large Swedish homesteading families. (For the genealogists, Oman — or Ohman — and Sponberg.) She could read as a small child and entered school early, graduating high school at sixteen. Her colleges were North Dakota State and the University of Chicago. For a while she taught in a one-room schoolhouse, starting at age 19. She was doing social work  in Alaska when she met the man who became my father, and who proposed to her by mail while in Europe fighting in WWII. They married when he returned in 1946 . I showed up a year later, and my sister Jan two years after that. We lived in Maywood, New Jersey, during the year, and in Brick Township, by the Jersey Shore, in the summers. Mom’s last and longest job was teaching 3rd and 4th grade in the Maywood school system. She and Pop retired to Graham, North Carolina in 1974. Pop died in 1979, and Mom carried on as a pillar of the local community — just as she was a pillar of everything she supported in her life.

I could go on, but instead I’ll share what I posted on my blog on the day she died:

1953 Wanigan:
Except for school, I had a happy childhood. That means my summers were idylls.
In the summer of 1949, a couple months after my sister was born and while I was turning two, my parents bought an acre and a half of land near Cedarwood Park on the edge of the pine barrens in South Jersey (near The Shore, pronounced Da Shaw), bought a small wooden building, towed it to a clearing on a flat-bed truck, sat it on a shallow foundation, built a kitchen out of cast-off boards and windows, erected an ourdoor privy over a pit, pounded a pipe into the ground for well water, screwed a hand-pump on the top of the pipe, furnished the place with garage sale items, hung a pair of Navy surplus canvas hammocks between scrub oak trees, and called our new summer home “The Wanigan,” which they said was “Eskimo” for “house that moves.” (Apparently the derivation is Ojibwa, but so what.)
It was paradise. Grandma and Aunt Ethel had a place nearby. So did my great aunt Florence and Uncle Jack. Aunt Grace, Uncle Arch and my cousins Ron, George and Sue all lived in Marlboro, not too far away. They’d bunk in Grandma’s garage. Other friends and relatives summered nearby, or would come visiting from near and far, sometimes staying for weeks. Over the next thirteen years the Wanigan got an additional room and indoor plumbing, but was otherwise blissfully unimproved. We never had a TV. For years our only phone ran on DC batteries and connected only to Grandma’s house.
We went to Mantoloking Beach almost every day. For a change we swam the beaches and lagoons of Kettle Creek (we had a little land with a dock on Cherry Quay Cove) or the Metedeconk River on Barnegat Bay. We fished and crabbed in small boats. On the way home we stopped at roadside farm stands, bought tomatoes and corn, and enjoyed perfect suppers. We rode our bikes through the woods to the little general store about a mile away, bought comic books and came home to read them on our bunk beds. We grazed on blueberries, three varieties of which comprised the entire forest floor. We built platforms in the oak trees, collected pine cones and played hide-and-seek in the woods. Bedtime came when the whip-poor-wills started calling. We fell asleep to a cacaphony of tree frogs and crickets.
The picture above was shot in the summer of 1953, when I was turning six (that’s me with the beer in the front row), behind “Bayberry,” the house Grandma Searls shared with her daughter, our Aunt Ethel. That’s Grandma at the top left. Aunt Ethel is in the next row down next to Mom. Behind both are Aunt Grace Apgar and my great Aunt Florence Dwyer (Grandma’s sister). Then Aunt Catherine Burns, cousin Sue Apgar, Mary Ellen Wigglesworth (a neighbor visiting from back in Maywood, our home town), then Uncle Arch Apgar. In front of Arch is George Apgar. Pop (Allen H. Searls) is in the middle. In the front row are my sister Jan Searls, Kevin Burns, myself, Uncle Donald Burns and Martin Burns (who today remembers being scratched by that cat).
Grandma lived to 107. Aunt Florence made it to her 90s too, as I recall. Aunt Grace is now 91 and in great health. (Here we are at Mom’s 90th birthday party last April.) Aunt Katherine is still with us too, as is everybody from my generation (now all in their 50s and 60s).
I’m waxing nostalgic as I plan a return visit this weekend to North Carolina, probably for the last time in Mom’s life.
I’m also remembering what late August was like back then, as we prepared to end another perfect summer. It was wanting paradise never to end — and knowing, surely, that it would.

As a postscript, I should add that Grace is still doing fine at age 100. Katherine made it to 99. My cousin Ron Apgar (one of Grace’s two sons, who opted out of the picture above when he was eleven) died early this year at 70. He was an awesome dude and like a big brother to me when we were growing up. The rest of us are all well. Life is good.

I came late to personal computing, which was born with the MITS Altair in 1975.

The first PC I ever met — and wanted desperately, in an instant — was an Apple II, in 1977. It sold in one of the first personal computer shops, in Durham, NC. Price: $2500. At the time I was driving one of a series of old GM cars I bought for nothing or under 1/10th what that computer cost. So I wasn’t in the market, and wouldn’t buy my first personal computer until I lived in California, more than a decade later.

By ’77, Apple already had competition, and ran ads voiced by Dick Cavett calling the Apple II “The most personal computer.”

After that I wanted, in order, an Osborne, a Sinclair and an IBM PC, which came out in ’82 and, fully configured, went for more than $2000. At least I got to play with a PC and an Apple II then, because my company did the advertising for a software company making a game for them . I also wrote an article about it for one of the first issues of PC Magazine. The game was Ken Uston’s Professional Blackjack.

Then, in 1984, we got one of the very first Macs sold in North Carolina. It cost about $2500 and sat in our conference room, next to a noisy little dot matrix printer that also cost too much. It was in use almost around the clock. I think the agency had about 10 people then, and we each booked our time on it.

As the agency grew, it acquired more Macs, and that’s all we used the whole time I was there.

So I got to see first hand what Dave Winer is driving at in MacWrite and MacPaint, a coral reef and What early software was influential?

In a comment under the latter, I wrote this:

One thing I liked about MacWrite and MacPaint was their simplicity. They didn’t try to do everything. Same with MacDraw (the first object- or vector- based drawing tool). I still hunger for the simplicity of MacDraw. Also of WriteNow, which (as I recall) was written in machine, or something, which made it very very fast. Also hard to update.

Same with MultiPlan, which became (or was replaced by) Excel. I loved the early Excel. It was so simple and easy to use. The current Excel is beyond daunting.

Not sure what Quicken begat, besides Quickbooks, but it was also amazingly fast for its time, and dead simple. Same with MacInTax. I actually loved doing my taxes with MacInTax.

And, of course, ThinkTank and MORE. I don’t know what the connection between MORE and the other presentation programs of the time were. Persuasion and PowerPoint both could make what MORE called “bullet charts” from outlines, but neither seemed to know what outlining was. Word, IMHO, trashed outlining by making it almost impossible to use, or to figure out. Still that way, too.

One thing to study is cruft. How is it that wanting software to do everything defeats the simple purpose of doing any one thing well? That’s a huge lesson, and one still un-learned, on the whole.

Think about what happened to Bump. Here was a nice simple way to exchange contact information. Worked like a charm. Then they crufted it up and people stopped using it. But was the lesson learned?

Remember the early Volkswagen ads, which were models of simplicity, like the car itself? They completely changed advertising “creative” for generations. Somewhere in there, somebody in the ad biz did a cartoon, multi-panel, showing how to “improve” those simple VW ads. Panel after panel, copy was added: benefits, sale prices, locations and numbers, call-outs… The end result was just another ugly ad, full of crap. Kind of like every commercial website today. Compare those with what TBL wrote HTML to do.

One current victim of cruftism is Apple, at least in software and services. iTunes is fubar. iCloud is beyond confusing, and is yet another domain namespace (it succeeds .mac and .me, which both still work, confusingly). And Apple hasn’t fixed namespace issues for users, or made it easy to search through prior purchases. Keynote is okay, but I still prefer PowerPoint, because — get this: it’s still relatively simple. Ugly, but simple.

Crufism in Web services, as in personal software, shows up when creators of “solutions” start thinking your actual volition is a problem. They think they can know you better than you know yourself, and that they can “deliver” you an “experience” better than you can make for yourself. Imagine what it would be like to stee a car if it was always guessing at where you want to go instead of obeying your actual commands? Or if the steering wheel tugged you toward every McDonalds you passed because McDonalds is an advertiser and the car’s algorithm-obeying driver thought it knew you were hungry and had a bias for fast food — whether you have it or not.

That’s the crufty “service” world we’re in now, and we’re in it because we’re just consumers of it, and not respected as producers.

The early tool-makers knew we were producers. That’s what they made those tools for. That’s been forgotten too.

I wrote that in an outliner, also by Dave.

Interesting to see how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go.

Bonus link, on “old skool”.

When I was a kid I had near-perfect vision. I remember being able to read street signs and license plates at a distance, and feeling good about that. But I don’t think that was exceptional. Unless we are damaged in some way, the eyes we are born with tend to be optically correct. Until… what?

In my case it was my junior year in college. That’s when I finally became a good student, spending long hours reading and writing in my carrel in the library basement, bad flourescent light, cramping my vision at a single distance the whole time. Then, when I’d walk out and the end of the day or the evening, I’d notice that things were a little blurry at a distance. After a few minutes, my distance vision would gradually clear up. By the end of the year, however, my vision had begun to clear up less and less. By the end of my senior year, I needed glasses for distance: I had become myopic. Nearsighted. I remember the prescription well: -.75 dioptres for my left eye and -1.oo dioptres for my right.

I then began the life of a writer, with lots of sitting still, reading things and writing on a typewriter or (much later) a computer. Since I tended to wear glasses full-time, the blurred distance vision when work was done — and then the gradual recovery over the following minutes or hours — continued. And my myopia gradually increased. So, by the time I reached my forties, I was down to -3 dioptres of correction for both eyes.

A digression into optics… “Reading” glasses, for hyperopia, or farsightedness, are in positive dioptres: +1, +2, etc. As magnifiers, they tend toward the convex, thicker in the middle and thinner toward the edges, or frames. Corrections for myopia tend toward the concave, thicker on the edges. You can sort-of see the thick edges of my frames in the YouTube video above, shot in June, 1988, when I was a month away from turning 42 (and looked much younger, which I wish was still the case). My glasses were Bill Gates-style aviators.

I also began to conclude that myopia, at least in my case was adaptive. It made sense to me that the most studious kids — the ones who read the most, and for the longest times each day — wore glasses, almost always for myopia.

So I decided to avoid wearing glasses as much as I could. I would wear none while writing and reading (when I didn’t need them), and only wear them for driving, or at other times when distance vision mattered, such as when watching movies or attending sports events. Over the years, my vision improved. By the time I was 55, I could pass the eye test at the DMV, and no longer required glasses for driving. In another few years my vision was 20/25 i

n one eye and 20/30 in the other. I still had distance glasses (mostly for driving), but rarely used them otherwise.

I’ve been told by my last two optometrists that most likely my changes were brought on by onset of cataracts (which I now have, though mostly in my right eye), and maybe that was a factor, but I know of at least two other cases like mine, in which myopia was reduced by avoiding correction for it. And no optometrist or opthamologist I visted in my forties or fifties noted cataracts during eye examinations. But all have doubted my self-diagnosis of adaptive myopia.

Now I read stories like, “Why Up to 90% of Asian Schoolchildren Are Nearsighted: Researchers say the culprit is academic ambition: spending too much time studying indoors and not enough hours in bright sunlight is ruining kids’ eyesight“… and the provisional conclusion of my one-case empirical study seems, possibly, validated.

It also seems to me that the prevalence of myopia, worldwide, is high enough to make one wonder if it’s a feature of civilization, like cutting hair and wearing shoes.

I also wonder whether Lasik is a good idea, especially when I look at the large number of old glasses,  all with different prescriptions, in my office drawer at home. What’s to stop one’s eyes from changing anyway, after Lasik? Maybe Lasik itself? I know many people who have had Lasik procedures, and none of them are unhappy with the results. Still, I gotta wonder.

 

 

Hassle House poster panel

That’s what many thought when they first saw the poster for Hassle House, in Durham, North Carolina, back in ’76 or so. As soon as any of the posters went up, they disappeared, becoming instant collectors’ items. At the time, all I wanted was to hire the cartoonist who did it, so he could illustrate some of the ads I was creating for a local audio shop. That cartoonist was the polymath Ray Simone, who went on to become the creative leader of Hodskins Simone & Searls (HS&S), the advertising agency I co-founded with Ray and David Hodskins, in 1978, and which thrived in North Carolina and Silicon Valley for the next two decades.

When I put up Remembering Ray, which (among much else) expressed my wish to re-surface the Hassle House poster, Jay Cunningham said in a comment that he could scan his copy. Which he did, and the results are here. In another comment Rob Gringle gives more of the back-story than I had known at the time.

Before HS&S, David and Ray were both with a small “mutilple media studio” called Solar Plexus Enterprises, which grew out of the Duke Media Center. Also there was Helen Hudson Whiting, who was a first-rate epicure as well as the fastest and most capable typesetter I had ever known. I just looked Helen up and found this nice write-up from Duke Magazine Books:

In Helen’s Kitchen: A Philosophy of Food


By Helen Hudson Whiting. Regulator Bookshop, 2000. 241 pages. $17.95.

In the text below is this:

Helen Hudson Whiting ’75 was, among other things, a bookseller and co-owner of Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, a reader, a writer, and an amateur chef. For nineteen years, she wrote food commentaries for Triangle area publications: first for WDBS-FM’s The Guide, and then for The Independent.

In Helen’s Kitchen, organized posthumously and edited by her friends and colleagues, features an eclectic selection of these columns, as well as remembrances from people who knew Whiting and cherished her enterprising, adventurous culinary attitude and her zest for pleasure and her keen intellect.

I worked with Ray, Helen and David at Solar Plexus before we founded HS&S, and Helen continued to work alongside the new agency, doing most of our typesetting. So she became a good friend as well.

But that’s not my point here. My point is that ours was a special community, and at the beginning of many things, although we didn’t know it at the time.

At Ray’s memorial gathering in Pacifica last Sunday, Steve Tulsky made that point beautifully. He said our artsy-hippie community in Durham and Chapel Hill back then was a special group. Much was born there, in music, art, performance, writing, publishing, business, events, and other fields. The Independent, modeled by The Guide, is still going strong. So is the Regulator Bookshop. WDBS is long gone. So are WQDR and WRDU (as what they were then, anyway), which carried forward the radio torch WDBS lit when it went on in 1971. But their spirits survive in Good Radio everywhere. The Festival for the Eno, still going strong, began as the Folklife Festival, in 1976, on the country’s bicentennial. WDBS was highly involved, as the station broadcasting the many musical acts playing there. (Perhaps some old tapes still survive.)

While I was working with David, Ray and Helen at Solar Plexus in ’77, I also worked with the Psychical Research Foundation, which studied scientifically evidence for life after death, and was located at Duke University. The PRF spun off of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, led by J. B. Rhine, who launched the whole parapsychology field out of research he conducted at Duke in the 1930. Among the many decendents of that work is the Institute of Noetic Sciences, headed by Marilyn Schlitz, another member of our community back in the decade.

Here’s another weird connection. One of the central institutions of that time in Durham was the Durham Bulls single-A baseball team, which played at an old athletic field surrounded by brick tobacco warehouses. It was a special team at a special time and place. You might remember the movie about it.

Anyway, I just wanted to bring back to the foreground some of what we’ve lost or forgotten from that wonderful formative period in so many lives, and in so many ways.

“When I’m Sixty-Four” is 44 years old. I was 20 when it came out, in the summer of 1967,  one among thirteen perfect tracks on The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. For all the years since, I’ve thought the song began, “When I get older, losing my head…” But yesterday, on the eve of actually turning sixty-four, I watched this video animation of the song (by theClemmer) and found that Paul McCartney actually sang, “… losing my hair.”

Well, that’s true. I’m not bald yet, but the bare spot in the back and the thin zone in the front are advancing toward each other, while my face continues falling down below.

In July 2006, my old friend Tom Guild put Doc Searls explains driftwood of the land up on YouTube. It’s an improvisational comedy riff that Tom shot with his huge new shoulder-fire video camera at our friend Steve Tulsky’s house on a Marin County hillside in June, 1988. It was a reunion of sorts. Tom, Steve and I had all worked in radio together in North Carolina. I was forty at the time, and looked about half that age. When my ten-year-old kid saw it, he said “Papa, you don’t look like that.” I replied, “No, I do look like that. I don’t look like this,” pointing to my face.

Today it would be nice if I still looked like I did five years ago. The shot in the banner at the top of this blog was taken in the summer of 1999 (here’s the original), when I was fifty-two and looked half that age. The one on the right was taken last summer (the shades on my forehead masking a scalp that now reflects light), when I was a few days short of sixty-three. By then I was finally looking my age.

A couple months back I gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum where I was warmly introduced as one of those elders we should all listen to. That was nice, but here’s the strange part: when it comes to what I do in the world, I’m still young. Most of the people I hang and work with are half my age or less, yet I rarely notice or think about that, because it’s irrelevant. My job is changing the world, and that’s a calling that tends to involve smart, young, energetic people. The difference for a few of us is that we’ve been young a lot longer.

But I don’t have illusions about the facts of life. It’s in one’s sixties that the croak rate starts to angle north on the Y axis as age ticks east on the X. Still, I’m in no less hurry to make things happen than I ever was. I’m just more patient. That’s because one of the things I’ve learned is that now is always earlier than it seems. None of the future has happened yet, and it’s always bigger than the past.

While arguments over network neutrality have steadily misdirected attention toward Washington, phone and cable companies have quietly lobbied one state after another to throttle back or forbid cities, towns and small commercial and non-commercial entities from building out broadband facilities. This Community Broadband Preemption Map, from Community Broadband Networks, tells you how successful they’ve been so far: Broadband Preemption Map Now they’re the verge of succeeding in North Carolina too.

This issue isn’t just close to home for me. I lived in North Carolina for nearly two decades, and I have more blood relatives there than in any other state. (Not to mention countless friends.) Not one of them tells me how great their broadband is. More than a few complain about it. And I can guarantee that the complaints won’t stop once the Governor signs the misleadingly-named “Level Playing Field/Local Gov’t Competition act” (H129), which the cable industry has already been lobbied through the assembly.

The “free market” the phone and cable companies claim to operate in, and which they mostly occupy as a duopoly, is in fact a regulatory zoo where the biggest animals run the place. Neither half of the phone/cable duopoly has ever experienced anything close to a truly free market; but they sure know how to thrive in the highly regulated one they have — at the federal, state and local levels. Here’s Ars on the matter:

Let’s be even clearer about what is at stake in this fight. Muni networks are providing locally based broadband infrastructures that leave cable and telco ISPs in the dust. Nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee’scity owned EPB Fiber Optics service now advertises 1,000Mbps. Wilson, North Carolina is home to the Greenlight Community Network, which offers pay TV, phone service, and as much as 100Mbps Internet to subscribers (the more typical package goes at 20Mbps). Several other North Carolina cities have followed suit, launching their own networks. In comparison, Time Warner’s Road Runner plan advertises “blazing speeds” of 15Mbps max to Wilson area consumers. When asked why the cable company didn’t offer more competitive throughput rates, its spokesperson told a technology newsletter back in 2009 that TWC didn’t think anyone around there wanted faster service. When it comes to price per megabyte, GigaOm recently crunched some numbers and found out that North Carolina cities hold an amazing 7 of 10 spots on the “most expensive broadband in the US” list.

And here’s what Wally Bowen and Tim Karr say in the News & Observer:

North Carolina has a long tradition of self-help and self-reliance, from founding the nation’s first public university to building Research Triangle Park. Befitting the state’s rural heritage, North Carolinians routinely take self-help measures to foster economic growth and provide essential local services such as drinking water and electric power. Statesville built the state’s first municipal power system in 1889, and over the years 50 North Carolina cities and towns followed suit. In 1936, the state’s first rural electric cooperative was launched in Tarboro to serve Edgecombe and Martin counties. Today, 26 nonprofit electric networks serve more than 2.5 million North Carolinians in 93 counties. Strangely, this self-help tradition is under attack. The General Assembly just passed a bill to restrict municipalities from building and operating broadband Internet systems to attract industry and create local jobs. Although pushed by the cable and telephone lobby, similar bills were defeated in previous legislative sessions. But the influx of freshmen legislators and new leadership in both houses created an opening for the dubiously titled “Level Playing Field” bill (HB 129).

No one disputes the importance of broadband access for economic growth and job creation. That’s why five cities – Wilson, Salisbury, Morganton, Davidson and Mooresville – invoked their self-help traditions to build and operate broadband systems after years of neglect from for-profit providers, which focus their investments in more affluent and densely populated areas. Not coincidentally, all five cities own and operate their own power systems or have ties to nonprofit electric cooperatives. (While the bill does not outlaw these five municipal networks, it restricts their expansion and requires them to make annual tax payments to the state as if they were for-profit companies.) How does a state that values independence, self-reliance and economic prosperity allow absentee-owned corporations to pass a law essentially granting two industries – cable and telephone – the power to dictate North Carolina’s broadband future? This question will be moot if Gov. Beverly Perdue exercises her veto power and sends this bill where it belongs: to the dustbin of history.

We don’t need more laws restricting anything around Internet infrastructure build-outs in the U.S. That’s the simple argument here.

We need the phone and cable companies to improve what they can, and we need to encourage and thank them for their good work. (As I sometimes do with Verizon FiOS, over which I am connected here in Massachusetts.)

We also need to recognize that the Internet is a utility and not just the third act (after phone and TV) in the “triple play” that phone and cable companies sell. The Net is more like roads, water, electricity and gas than like TV or telephony (both of which it subsumes). It’s not just about “content” delivered from Hollywood to “consumers,” or about a better way to do metered calls on the old Ma Bell model. It’s about everything you can possibly do with a connection to the rest of the world. The fatter that connection, the more you can do, and the more business can do.

Cities and regions blessed with fat pipes to the Internet are ports on the ocean of bits that now comprise the networked world. If citizens can’t get phone and cable companies to build out those ports, it’s perfectly legitimate for those citizens to do it themselves. That’s what municipal broadband build out is about, pure and simple. Would it be better to privatize those utilities eventually? Maybe. But in the meantime let’s not hamstring the only outlet for enterprise these citizens have found.

Here’s a simple fact for Governor Perdue to ponder: In the U.S. today, the leading innovators in Internet build-out are cities, not phone and cable companies. Look at Chatanooga and Lafayette — two red state cities that are doing an outstanding job of building infrastructure that attracts and supports new businesses of all kinds. Both are doing what no phone or cable companies seems able or willing to do. And both are succeeding in spite of massive opposition by those same incumbent duopolists.

The Internet is a rising tide that lifts all economic boats. At this stage in U.S. history, this fact seems to be fully motivating to enterprises mostly at the local level, and mostly in small cities. (Hi, Brett.) Their customers here are citizens who have direct and personal relationships with their cities and with actual or potential providers there, including the cities themselves. They want and need a level of Internet capacity that phone and cable companies (for whatever reason) are not yet giving them. These small cities provide good examples of The Market at work.

It isn’t government that’s competing with cable and phone companies here. Its people. Citizens.

No, these new build-outs are not perfect. None are, or can be. Often they’re messy. But nothing about them requires intervention by the state. Especially so early in whatever game this will end up being.

I urge friends, relatives and readers in North Carolina to Call Governor Perdue at (800) 662-7952, and to send her emails at  governor.office at nc.gov. Tell her to veto this bill, and to keep North Carolina from turning pink or red on the map above. Tell her to keep the market for broadband as free as it’s been from the beginning.

Bonus link.

[Later, as the last hour approaches...]

Larry Lesig has published an open letter to Governor Perdue, Here is most of it:

Dear Governor Perdue:

On your desk is a bill passed by the overwhelmingly Republican North Carolina legislature to ban local communities from building or supporting community broadband networks. (H.129). By midnight tonight, you must decide whether to veto that bill, and force the legislature to take a second look.

North Carolina is an overwhelmingly rural state. Relative to the communities it competes with around the globe, it has among the slowest and most expensive Internet service. No economy will thrive in the 21st century without fast, cheap broadband, linking citizens, and enabling businesses to compete. And thus many communities throughout your state have contracted with private businesses to build their own community broadband networks.

These networks have been extraordinarily effective. The prices they offer North Carolinians is a fraction of the comparable cost of commercial network providers. The speed they offer is also much much faster.

This single picture, prepared by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, says it all: The yellow and green dots represent the download (x-axis) and upload (y-axis) speeds provided by two community networks in North Carolina. Their size represents their price. As you can see, community networks provide faster, cheaper service than their commercial competitors. And they provide much faster service overall.

2011-05-20-broadbandgraph.png

 

Local competition in broadband service benefits the citizens who have demanded it. For that reason, community after community in North Carolina have passed resolutions asking you to give them the chance to provide the Internet service that the national quasi-monopolies have not. It is why businesses from across the nation have opposed the bill, and business leaders from your state, including Red Hat VP Michael Tiemann, have called upon you to veto the bill.

Commercial broadband providers are not happy with this new competition, however. After spending millions in lobbying and campaign contributions in North Carolina, they convinced your legislature to override the will of local North Carolina communities, and ban these faster, cheaper broadband networks. Rather than compete with better service, and better prices, they secured a government-granted protection against competition. And now, unless you veto H. 129, that protection against competition will become law.

Opponents of community broadband argue that it is “unfair” for broadband companies to have to compete against community-supported networks. But the same might be said of companies that would like to provide private roads. Or private fire protection. Or private police protection. Or private street lights. These companies too would face real competition from communities that choose to provide these services themselves. But no one would say that we should close down public fire departments just to be “fair” to potential private first-responders.

The reason is obvious to economists and scholars of telecommunications policy. As, for example, Professor Brett Frischmann argues, the Internet is essential infrastructure for the 21st century. And communities that rely solely upon private companies to provide public infrastructure will always have second-rate, or inferior, service.

In other nations around the world, strong rules forcing networks to compete guarantee faster, cheaper Internet than the private market alone would. Yet our FCC has abdicated its responsibility to create the conditions under which true private broadband competition might flourish in the United States. Instead, the United States has become a broadband backwater, out-competed not only by nations such as Japan and Korea, but also Britain, Germany and even France. According to a study by the Harvard Berkman Center completed last year, we rank 19th among OECD countries in combined prices for next generation Internet, and 19th for average advertised speeds. Overall, we rank below every major democratic competitor — including Spain — and just above Italy.

In a world in which FCC commissioners retire from the commission and take jobs with the companies they regulate (as Commissioner Baker has announced that she will do, by joining Comcast as a lobbyist, and as former FCC Chairman Powell has done, becoming a cable industry lobbyist), it is perhaps not surprising that these networks are protected from real competition.

But whether surprising or not, the real heroes in this story are the local communities that have chosen not to wait for federal regulators to wake up, and who have decided to create competition of their own. No community bans private networks. No community is unfairly subsidizing public service. Instead, local North Carolina communities are simply contracting to build 21st-century technology, so that citizens throughout the state can have 21st-century broadband at a price they can afford.

As an academic who has studied this question for more than a decade, I join many in believing that H.129 is terrible public policy…

Be a different kind of Democrat, Governor Perdue. I know you’ve received thousands of comments from citizens of North Carolina asking you to veto H.129. I know that given the size of the Republican majority in the legislature, it would be hard for your veto to be sustained.

But if you took this position of principle, regardless of whether or not you will ultimately prevail, you would inspire hundreds of thousands to join with you in a fight that is critical to the economic future of not just North Carolina, but the nation. And you would have shown Republicans and Democrats alike that it is possible for a leader to stand up against endless corporate campaign cash.

There is no defeat in standing for what you believe in. So stand with the majority of North Carolina’s citizens, and affirm the right of communities to provide not just the infrastructure of yesterday — schools, roads, public lighting, public police forces, and fire departments — but also the infrastructure of tomorrow — by driving competition to provide the 21st century’s information superhighway.

With respect,

Lawrence Lessig

To contact the governor, you can email her. If you’re from North Carolina, this link will take you to a tool to call the governor’s office. You can follow this fight on Twitter at @communitynets
You can follow similar fights on Twitter by searching #rootstrikers.

Well put, as usual. Hope it works.