Saturday, February 28, 2009

Watt's Thoughts - Georgian Math

I work in the Georgia technical college system, and recently attended a job-related meeting. It was a gathering for the leaders of the system’s computer instructors (I’m chair of networking specialization). We’re beginning the conversion from quarters to trimesters, and the state representative was outlining the general core curriculum requirements. As she explained it, converting to quarter hours, the core could be either 25 or 30 hours. It was up to our committee to decide which.

I popped up and asked, "What is the difference between 25 and 30?"

Without missing a beat, she answered “Five.”

The room exploded with laughter.

Actually, the difference was whether students took one or two math courses. But who could resist such a great comeback?

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Flight of the P-271

I admit I have a soft spot in my heart (or perhaps head) for the zeppelin. So I was very interested in the debut flight of the Lockheed P-791. This hybrid craft, filled with helium, resembles three blimps blended together.

But it performs the tasks it was designed for, taking off and landing without requiring much of a flat surface. The P-791 seems fairly maneuverable once airborne, and it apparently can carry a significant payload.

But what makes this story post-worthy is the accompanying video. Well, rather, the remix of the video. As exciting as this maiden voyage is conceptually, the added soundtrack of this version of the video gives the P-791 a gravitas that would be otherwise missing from a helium-filled airship.

- Ralph

Day 290 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Web 2.0 -- A True Story

A colleague of mine shared a work experience he had recently. He works in the IT department of a school system, and one day he got a request from one of the librarians.

This person had heard quite a lot about Web 2.0 and was ready to bring her kids into the new era. She wanted someone from IT to upgrade her computer's software to Web 2.0, so she could begin.


- Ralph

Day 289 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I bet these guys didn't get it.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Podcast Revew - This Week in Law

I freely admit that of all the podcasts I’ve posted about, “This Week in Law” (TWIL) will probably strike most readers as the most esoteric and least relevant to their daily lives. Not true. The issues and problems discussed on TWIL are of vital interest to anyone concerned with privacy, the limits of governmental power, public access and the basic liberties of our democracy. And there’s no politics involved. Really.

Denise Howell, the moderator is a practicing attorney and an early adopter of web technologies. She’s a podcaster, blogger, Twitterer, and has first-hand experience with social media. TWIL takes a look at the important legal questions raised by the Internet and looks at them strictly from a legal perspective. Howell assembles a panel of similarly-qualified tech attorneys to talk about hot topics at the forefront of emerging technology.

Past topics include the legal aspects of on-line bullying, liability issues associated with blogging, copyright violations on YouTube, fair use and trademark protection, and many more problems that everyday people run afoul of online.

Although the panels are almost exclusively law professionals, the conversation is almost always geared to the layman. Technical terms are explained, and key concepts outlined so the average person can understand them. Howell does a good job keeping the conversation moving, and making sure the important points are covered.

In addition to achieving a better awareness of some of the legal issues surrounding the Internet (which has changed my behavior somewhat), though listening to the program I also now have a better understanding of lawyers and legal thought processes in general. And if a legal stereotype or joke just sprang to mind as you read that, then you need to listen to this podcast. Howell and her colleagues are interested in trying to find ways to balance what’s practical with what’s ethical and what can provide all parties a reasonable amount of protection of their interests. It’s never a boring discussion!

I only have two complaints about the program. First, the title’s a little misleading. Although “This Week in Law” talks about current issues, it isn’t a weekly program. It comes out about once a month. I subscribe to an RSS feed, so I’m not especially worried – it shows up when it shows up. I think, though, that a more regular release schedule would help the audience grow.

Secondly, sometimes the audio can get a little rough. The sound quality can be a little uneven, and some of the Skype connections can be pretty gnarly – especially when more than one person’s talking. Still, we’re talking about a podcast that’s rough around the edges sonically, not one that’s unlistenable.

It’s a pretty painless way to stay on top of the important legal issues. Because ignorance of the law is no excuse. And that hasn’t changed with Web 2.0.

And remember – you don’t need an iPod to listen to a podcast. You can download it directly to your computer, or just play the audio file on the podcaster’s website.

- Ralph

Day 288 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Is there a statute of limitations for defunct websites?)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Digital transition -- the Congressional way

Well, the deadline's come and gone for the digital TV transition. Congress, as you may recall, decided to push back the deadline because millions of people weren't ready.

That's one way of looking at it -- here's another. Those millions of people translate out to 5% of the population. Doesn't seem quite so compelling when you put it that way.

And because the deadline was pushed back as an outside date, so (with FCC approval) TV stations could switch over anytime before then. In some markets, the stations had to switch in a certain order to minimize interference. But many that could make the switch. Which meant that about a third of the television stations went ahead and transitioned to digital on February 17th as originally planned.

And guess what. The world didn't end.

Rick Boucher (D-VA), chair of the Communications, Technology and Internet subcommittee and one of the masterminds of the deadline shift, said before the change:

“According to a Nielsen Company survey, the areas that are least likely to be prepared for the transition are located in mountainous, rural areas. Many people living in my district, Virginia’s 9th Congressional District, are in that category.”
And what happened in his congressional district when the local stations changed over as scheduled? According to the general manager of WVVA in an interview the Bluefield Telegraph:
“We received 83 calls on Tuesday, and the number of calls has fallen off since then. Most of our viewers seem to be prepared. Really, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the transition.”
Now Congress' fiat had one unexpected consequence -- it put the financial squeeze on a lot of public (and commercial) broadcasters. It costs a station about $10,000 to $20.000 a month to keep the analog transmitters running. And in an era where's money's tight, why do so any longer than you have to?

And as for those millions of poor souls that congress was trying to protect? Well, a third of them were staring at snow-filled screens and scratching their heads on Feb. 17th, anyway (or were they -- see the quote above). So only about 3.5% of the population was spared by Congressional action, and two-thirds of the stations have an additional monthly expense they weren't expecting.

This kind of help we can do without.

- Ralph

Day 238 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Micropayments on Time

Walter Isaacson had an interesting editorial in the Time Magazine recently. Under the provocative title "How to Save Your Newspaper" it outlined a way in which print journalism could survive in the digital age.

According to Isaacson, even as revenues shrink, readership grows -- at least online. So he proposes bringing about some kind of micropayment system. It's a concept that's been around for a while. The original idea was to have some kind of credit system available online so that, for example, you could purchase a blog post for a nickel, or download a great recipe for a dime.

Obviously, those amounts are too small to process credit cards (banks charge a minimum of 25 cents for small transactions -- and that's their best customer rates). That's why some small brick-and-mortar businesses only let you use a credit card for a purchase of $5.00 or more -- they would actually lose money if they were to process a sale less than $5.00.

And the other part of the idea is that the process should be quick and easy. Deciding on dropping a dime should be an impulse buy. If it takes more than a button click, it won't happen (think about those gumball machines at the supermarket. If the mechanism required two or three steps to get the gum, no one would bother). Several schemes have been tried, and few have been successful.

One notable exception is iTunes. The base price for a song is 99 cents, but Apple doesn't bill your credit card every time you make a purchase. Instead, it bills your card one a month. That way, if you buy several songs throughout the month it adds up to a bigger billable amount to the credit card company, and Apple only gets hit with processing fees once.

So is it possible to make such a system available to everyone? Don't know, but I suspect there's real money to be made at it for the person who figures it out.

A single click on a band's website and you've got their new song for 25 cents, or the daily paper for a dime, or that great article you want for a nickel -- it's been tried in the past, but as more and more people turn to the Internet for their content, I think such a system achieves critical mass quickly.

Isaacson makes an interesting point. He writes:
Charging for content forces discipline on journalists: they must produce things that people actually value. I suspect we will find that this necessity is actually liberating.
And I think that would be true of other types of online content creators as well. So who's going to make it happen? Don't know -- but in an economy where everyone's watching their dollars, a micropayment system that works for pennies seems like a good solution.

- Ralph

Day 237 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Would micropayments persuade WJMA to bring their website back? I'd be willing to pay a little not to see that placeholder anymore.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Podcast Review - Radio One Introducing

Image a place where the government actively encourages the development of new music and helps its citizens get their work before the public by broadcasting their recordings. You're right -- I'm not talking about the U.S.

But that's basically what happens in the U.K. at BBC Radio 1. Their slogan for their "Introducing" programs says it all: "In New Music We Trust." And they do.

The Introducing programs are all about new U.K. artists. Each region of the country has a show devoted to discovering and promoting unsigned musicians. They support them by playing the recordings the bands submit, by having them play live on air, by making first-class recording studios available to them, and by inviting them to perform at major music festivals across the country, such as Glastonbury.

And for some time now, this new music initiative has been available as a podcast from the BBC. "BBC Introducing" is a weekly podcast that takes the best bits of the previous week's 1"Introducing" programs, and presents it in a half-hour format. The show usually starts with a single, then moves to a band session at the BBC Maida Vale studios for an interview and a short live set. The last part features a profile of either a town's music scene (with audio samples of the bands) or a small D.I.Y. label (again, with audio samples).

Huw Stephens is the host, and his enthusiasm for these rising musicians is infectious.

I've discovered some great bands, such as Riz MC, Chow Chow and Plywood Dog, which has made the weekly time investment worthwhile. Plus, I heard the Ting Tings on the Introducing podcast about a year before they broke in the U.S., and Los Campesinos.

But most importantly, the show continually amazes me with the creativity and stylistic diversity of new music. Across the U.K. there are thousands of bands pursuing a dizzying array of styles, and as different as they sound, many of these groups are very, very good. And often times equal -- if not better -- than those currently on the charts.

And that's my secret for remaining a little ahead of the curve musically -- "BBC Introducing."

- Ralph

Day 236 of the WJMA Web Watch. (What's my local music scene like? I have no idea listening to these guys -- it's strictly top of the charts for our hometown station!)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ken's Jeopardy Adventure -- Epilogue

The co-author of this blog, Ken Nail appeared on "Jeopardy" this week. And while he didn't win, I, for one, still regard his appearance as a major accomplishment.

If you missed the show, you can view the stats of the game at J! This fan-run site meticulously records all the questions (and answers) for each game, tracks what each player won or lost and provides the kind of rigorous statistical analysis usually reserved for major league baseball.

There were a couple of places where Ken could have turned the game around -- even in Final Jeopardy (where it was clear only Ken knew the answer, but lost on a technicality). And if you're inclined to sniff at his performance, just try the board yourself at J! Archive. Chances are you'll gain some respect for what he and his fellow contestants were faced with.

Although he didn't fare as well as another Ken on "Jeopardy," we're still very proud of our own. Ken's posts are usually the most popular on the site, he's maintained an impressive exercise regimen and competes regularly, and has many more accomplishments as well. Winning's great, but so's qualifying for competition -- just ask those sitting on the sidelines.

Congratulations, Ken! (If nothing else, you've appeared on "Jeopardy" more often than I have.)

- Ralph

Day 232 of the WJMA Web Watch.

HD Radio and Valentine's Day -- Stick with the flowers

Remember when your parents tried to be cool and use your lingo? Cringe-worthy, wasn't it?

That's sort of the same feeling I got when reading this splendiferous HD Radio press release. The basic idea's fine, but the execution, the demographic the message is aimed at, and pretty much every other aspect of the thing shows the same lack of comprehension our parents displayed when they tried to show their hipness.

The idea is a good one: after years of trying to persuade people to purchase HD Radio tuners to make it worthwhile for broadcasters to invest in content, the HD Radio Alliance is trying the reverse. For Valentine's Day, they're offering special music programming that will only be available through HD2 channels. As they say:

WHY: Because meeting Smooth Jazz on HD Radio was fate, becoming HD Radio's friend was a simple and easy choice, but falling in love with Smooth Jazz on HD Radio, now that's a perfect Love Story.
So if you want the programming, you have to buy the radio. That's what should have been happening all along.

And while they've finally come around on the concept, the execution is decidedly flawed. Here's the pitch: For Valentine's Day radio stations across the country will be broadcasting a special smooth jazz programming to get everyone into the mood for romance. All you need is an HD Radio tuner, and....

Listen and relax with the likes of peaceful Kenny G, silky Sade and Benson and the soulful Marvin Gaye. These multicast stations... are providing some of the best romantic smooth jazz ballads to make your special day a little sweeter
Ick. Only someone living in radioland would think this is a good idea. Let's break it down, shall we?

1) The format -- Smooth Jazz appeals to primarily to 25-54-year-olds, skewing slightly female. Audio gear is purchased primarily by men. So only about half the people they're pitching to are potential buyers.

2) The coverage -- The scope of the project is underwhelming. While we're talking about nationally distributed programming, it's riddled with caveats. First, it's only being broadcast in select cities. If you're in East Weewah, WI, too bad, or Richmond, VA, or Denver, CO or many other cities. So take the group of potential buyers from Point 1 above and trim it by about 80%.

3) The programming -- Who wouldn't want a non-stop mix of romantic music for Valentine's Day? I do. So I've set up a special playlist on my iPod. And that's what more than a few people will do -- those that just don't choose an appropriate Internet radio station, that is. After all, I don't like Kenny G, so having him in my Valentine's mix would be, um, something of a buzz kill. Why take a chance? I can select all the songs I want, hit random play, and start talking like Barry White. Ooooh, baby!

4) The concept -- If you take a step back, the whole concept's pretty goofy. To make Valentine's Day special, you should purchase an HD Radio tuner. Yep, nothing says "love" to your partner like specialized audio components! And what's the point, here? To provide background music? See Point 3. To show your love? I'm thinking flowers, candy, dinner, and more importantly, time together might be a better and perhaps less expensive choice.

And what happens after Valentine's Day? Will the smooth jazz continue? Will it change to something else? Will those channels go dark? I don't know. But I sure as heck would want to before shelling out any kind of serious dough. According to the press release,

Tell her you really love her with the clear and dulcet tones of Smooth Jazz on HD Radio
It's so Romantic!
Thanks, mom and dad. I think I can take it from here.

- Ralph

Day 233 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I wonder how many of the staff will be given their wives/girlfriends HD Radios for Valentine's Day.)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Ken's Jeopardy Adventure -- Part 2

Monday, February 9, 2009, Ken Nail, the co-writer of this blog appears on "Jeopardy" as a contestant. You may recall he tried out for the show back in May and made the cut. The actual taping was in early December.

It's one thing to be a watcher; quite another to be a participant. Everyone here at "C.E. Conversations (including our guest bloggers) are really proud of Ken. Watch tonight and you'll see the real brains of this outfit!


Day 229 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I'll take "Missing Websites" for $100, Alex)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The DTV Intransigence

Imagine getting on a small shuttle flight that holds 30 passengers. All the seats are filled save one, as the final boarding call's announced. Where is the missing passenger? At the food court? Looking for their ticket? Finding a place to park? Just waking up after sleeping through the alarm? Doesn't matter to you -- you're on the plane and in your seat, just like the rest of your fellow travelers.

What happens next? Well. in the real world, the planet takes off as scheduled, with 95% of its passengers on board. In the world run by the Congress, however, the plane's takeoff would be delayed for three hours to give that last poor soul a chance to get on board.

Because make no mistake: that's exactly what happened with Congress pushed back the deadline for DTV conversion. Representative Rick Boucher (who's usually more tech-savvy) explained that this ensures millions of Americans won't get left behind, but the other way to think of that is just like my example above. 5% of the population isn't ready -- so we all have to wait.

It's been cast as a national tragedy if those poor folks (like Ethelred the Unready, pictured above) are cut off from their only source of news and emergency information, but how true is that, really? We're talking about people who only receive over-the-air broadcasts. No cable news, no on-demand programming, just what the local NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates are broadcasting. It's not likely that this 5% is only watching the news and then turning off the set.

No, when the transition is made, they'll be deprived of the shows they regularly watch: like "judge Judy," "All My Children," 'Wheel of Fortune." and "Regis and Kelly." So it's not really a life-or-death matter if viewing gets interrupted.

Now the given reason for the delay is there aren't enough coupons for converters, but so what? Despite six months of heavy advertising, people didn't get moving on the coupons until a few weeks ago.

What's going to happen next? People will forget about the switch until June, when -- once again -- there will be a run on coupons.

So what will change in three months time? More coupons? Maybe. Will people use them? Perhaps. More confusion? Definitely -- already people can't remember when exactly the date's been pushed back to. And has Congress spared that 5% from having their TVs go dark until June? Not really. Some stations have already said they're going ahead and switching as scheduled. So mission not accomplished.
Going back to our original analogy, for those people who missed the final boarding call, the plane may fly without them, or wait for an hour, or two, or three -- just depends on what gate it's leaving from. And how does help the majority of people who fly?

Of all the problems facing our elected leaders, this was one that didn't need their attention at all. How about some change that isn't unbelievably bone-headed?

- Ralph

Day 225 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Good thing digital radio wasn't part of the mandate -- we might have dead air in addition to a dead website here.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Pandora, the Radio Pandemic

The most recent comment by Pandora's Tim Westergren has the public radio listserves I subscribe to buzzing. According to a Cincinnati Enquirer interview with Westergren,
"Our goal right now is nothing less than to completely replace radio with this whole new thing called personalized radio"
Well, there's been a lot of hand-wringing and righteous indignation as you can imagine within the public radio community, but let's take a closer look at what's going on here.
First off, what is Pandora? It’s basically a music selection service. You start by creating a "radio station" (carefully chosen terms, those) by selecting some songs and/or artists. Each track in the Pandora database has over a hundred different characteristics assigned to it. Pandora starts by using its algorithms to select a song that fits the criteria of your core tracks.
The selection then plays, and you decide if it's great (thumbs up), awful (thumbs down) or OK (no response). “Thumbs up” adds that song (and its criteria) to the guidelines for the next selection. “Thumbs down” does the opposite, and helps filter the list.
The more you work with your "radio station," the better Pandora gets at finding music that fits your "format."
Most of the negative responses I’ve seen on the listserves tend to run along the following lines.
  1. People will get tired of hearing the same old thing. They'll come back to the wonderful variety of our programming.
  2. It's too high-maintenance. People will get tired of voting for every single song all day long soon enough and come back to our broadcasts.
  3. Other media was supposed to kill off radio but we’re still here. This, too, shall pass.
  4. Pandora’s not very good with classical. You only get individual movements, not complete works.
Well, there's truth in all of the above. But it’s clear some of the commentators have no first-hand experience of Pandora. As a user, here's how I see it.
  1. People do get tired of hearing the same old thing. That's why they're moving away from commercial radio. And as for public radio, the genres are different, but are playlists really that much broader?

    Speaking just as a classical music listener, I can count on my local public radio stations (WTJU excepted) to NOT play any lieder, early music, contemporary works, anything from the renaissance, any significant amount of chamber music, or any compositions over 40 minutes in length. So just how varied is this variety?
  2. It's too high-maintenance. That just depends on how high-maintenance you want your Pandora radio station to be. I've set up some of my stations with deliberately broad criteria so I don’t have to mess with them. I just press play and get taken on an adventure.

    Some of my other stations I treat like audio bonsais and scrupulously work the selections to get just the mix I want. But I don't have to. Sometimes I just let those channels play untouched as well -- if I don't vote on the track, it doesn't change the parameters.
  3. Radio’s still here. Well, other media may not have killed radio, but each new development impacted what radio was. Initially, everything was on the radio -- concerts, news programs, comedy shows, variety shows, comedies, dramas, soap operas – even audio adaptations of popular films. TV pulled away the dramas, soaps, sitcoms and variety shows, leaving radio to play records and cover the news – the audience changed.

    Cable TV took over the role of news coverage, leaving just music and talk shows -- the audience changed again. The rise of social media (of which Pandora is a part -- you can share your stations and check out what other people are listening to on the site) is replacing the radio as the place to discover new music. Sure, radio will be around, but what will the remaining audience want of it?
  4. Pandora isn’t very good with classical music. Agreed. Some people are quite happy to hear the middle movement of a symphony followed by a piano prelude, followed by the minuet from a dance suite and so on. I personally prefer to hear a work in its entirety straight through.

    Advantage public radio? Depends on which station you listen to. WTJU (where I do my classical music show) has a policy of airing complete works. The other two classical music broadcasters in our area have no such qualms. So that’s not entirely true.
So will Pandora totally replace radio? Not the medium, certainly. But just as TV took over part of radio’s programming, I think Pandora will do the same. When radio soap operas and dramas lost their audience, programmers moved on to different formats. The danger here – and it’s the same one commercial broadcasters made years ago – is that public radio broadcasters will assume that Pandora and similar services are but a passing fad and that it’s business as usual.
It isn’t, and it’s not.
- Ralph
Day 224 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I guess if you consider the whole Interwebtubie thing a passing fad, Pandora doesn’t even show up on the radar.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Basics of Media Old and New

CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield wrote an interesting op-ed piece "Media is Changing, But Some Things Endure." In it, he reflects on the 30-year run of "CBS Sunday Morning." While most of it centered around the program itself, at the heart of it was a concept that sometimes gets forgotten.
Whether on a TV screen or computer or cell phone or toaster, the fundamental things still apply (or should). A love of story-telling, a love of clear, vivid language, a respect for history - the world didn't start five years ago, even if YouTube did - these still matter most.
And if you look closely at the successful elements of new media, you'll find that to be true.

Who gets the most followers on Twitter? The people with the most interesting stories (told in 140-letter installments). Which new media video programs are the most successful? Those that engage and use visual story-telling effectively. Which podcasts continue to thrive? The ones with a set framework (either tightly constructed or loose) that provide purpose and flow to the content. Which blogs are the most useful? The ones that are easy to read (because the spelling and grammar are correct), and provide background links to the information.

Shiny new things can be appealing, but eventually, the shine dulls. Look at all the YouTube one-hit wonders. Evolution of Dance garnered over a hundred million views, but the follow-up only a tenth of that. Well-constructed new things can outlast their newness. Witness Coverville (over 540 episodes), or Rocketboom (over 5 years of weekday vlog posts).

So what should companies moving into new media keep in mind? The basics. What's the story you're trying to tell? And what's the best way to do it? There's plenty of examples out there -- just don't confuse the package for the contents.

- Ralph

Day 223 of the WJMA Web Watch. (So what's the story here? I guess if you don't have one, you don't need a website.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Podcast Review - Indiefeed Podcast

One nice thing about podcasts (as opposed to syndicated radio programs) is that they're just as long as they have to be. Radio programs have to fit into hour, half-hour, and -- in rarer cases -- fifteen minute segments in order to have any change of being scheduled.

The Indiefeed Podcast does something no syndicated radio show possibly can -- it plays one song, gives you some information about the band, and that's it. It's a great way to find out about new independent music, and while I don't always have time to devote to a longer-form podcast, it's rare I don't have a few minutes to check out an Indiefeed episode.

Indiefeed has several channels, so you can focus on the genre(s) you're most interested in. You can listen to alternative/modern rock, blues, dance, electronica, hip hop and/or indie pop. I've heard some outstanding music through these podcasts, including groups like Over the Rhine, Calexico, and the Black Angels.

Five minutes of new music? Yeah, I got time for that!

And remember -- you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast. Just click and download to your computer.

- Ralph

Day 222 of the WJMA Web Watch.