Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Old techs DO Die - Farewell, Telegraph

Large scale telegraph systems will end next month, as India terminates its state-run telegraph system. The actual use of the telegraph as a technology has been minimal for decades, replaced by more efficient telecommunications technologies, but the provision of "telegraph service" lingered for cultural/legal reasons; but at a large cost.  As nations privatized telecommunication providers, cost began to trump tradition.  Telegraph service ended in 2006 in the US, and only lasted 2 years after British Telecom was privatized in 1980.

Source -  Telegram system ends. Stop. Replaced by text messages.  Stop.,  the Telegraph

Friday, June 14, 2013

Greece turns off state broadcasting

In what is termed an austerity move, the Greek government closed down state radio and television stations earlier this week. An announcement from the Finance Ministry said that the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. (ERT) has been formally disbanded, and its 2500 employees laid off.
  The layoffs are the first substantial layoffs of public employees, coming after almost a million jobs have been lost in the private sector.

Source -  Greek state TV, radio broadcasts go off the air, Bloomburg BusinessWeek

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Panopticon - American Style

The myriad (and growing) surveillance leaks of the past few weeks put me in mind of Foucault's thoughts on panoptic surveillance.

  The idea of the Panopticon traces back to the work of Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century.  Bentham coined the term to describe a design for prisons where every inch of every cell was under constant surveillance by prison authorities; yet prisoners would not know when, or if, they were actually being watched.  Bentham held that unverifiable surveillance was an efficient and economic exercise in state power, while providing the state with a viable mechanism for discipline and control.

French philosopher Michel Foucault used the idea as a metaphor for the modern state's mechanism for control and punishment.  Under Benthan's unverifiable surveillance, individuals are never sure whether or not they are being watched, or by whom.  As a result, Foucault argues that individuals are "trained" to resist any impulse of misbehavior or "abnormality" for fear of being caught, uncertain whether such a display is safe or not.  Also, as more and more information is gathered on individuals and their behaviors, Foucault argued, people become "objects of knowledge" to state authorities - whose actions can be tracked, examined, catalogued, examined, compiled, and acted on - if that is in the interest of the state.  Foucault argues that this gives hegemonic authorities great power - to identify, track, and punish those whose behaviors lie outside the state's idea of "normal" - and allowing the state to "humanely rehabilitate" those of their citizens who stray from the path of enlightenment (or at least what the hegemonic authorities think is appropriate).

I had originally put Foucault's social theories among those critical theorists who had interesting ideas and insights, but whose insistence on the prevalence of a powerful hegemonic state authority seemed unrealistic.  Then came the leaks and the leaks about the state's response to leaks.

First there were the revelations of the Department of Justice intercepting and tracking phone calls and emails of journalists who broke and wrote about various "leaks" that weren't seen as beneficial to the current administration.  Then came the Guardian's story about the state's downloading of all call information from one of the US's largest operators - Verizon.  The FISA warrant was notable for its breadth - instead of looking for individual records, or those meeting certain behavior patterns or posing identifiable threats, the NSA sought, and obtained, permission to gather all records for everybody - who called whom, where calls originated and terminated, and length of the call.  Also included were customer records, emails, and Internet activity routed through Verizon's system.  Further, all of this was supposed to occur without any notice being given to the individuals being surveilled.  A perfect example of the concept of panoptic "unverifiable surveillance."  [For those of you on other networks, Verizon's just the one the published the warrant for - it's a safe bet that similar warrants have been granted for most, if not all, telecommunications operators in the US.]

If that level of unverifiable surveillance wasn't bad enough, there was PRISM.  The Prism project actually consists of a number of different efforts with a common goal - to gather, copy, and analyze all electronic communication.  There's a physical basis in the form of a large complex for data storage and analysis, and it's known that other aspects involve collecting the information running through various checkpoints on the Internet, ostensibly from, and with the cooperation of, major Internet players (who have subsequently vociferously denied any cooperation with, or even awareness of, the program).  The Guardian reported that one of these programs, called "Boundless Informant," collected more than 3 billion pieces of information from U.S. computer networks last March (2013), and that the intercepts do include specific information such as IP addresses.  All for a program that is supposed to be limited to foreign communications.
  Whether it is focussed terror-related intelligence or a broad and comprehensive surveillance of all electronic communications - including those of its citizens remains a bit unclear.  But NSA testimony to Congress has shifted - from insisting that it does not collect any type of data on large numbers of American citizens, to that the NSA had not "wittingly" (purposely) collected data on large numbers of Americans, to tightly parsed denials that the NSA could, in fact, "physically" collect very specific bits of information (the kinds of things that you can't tell from online communications).  And in a classified slideshow the Prism folks use to market their activities to other agencies, they clearly suggest that they can deal with most all forms of electronic communications.

Welcome to the world of unverifiable surveillance.  But the Foucault conception of panoptic discipline also requires the ability to take all that surveillance data and use it to identify outliers - those who stray from social normality.  And that brings us to the data analysis side of Prism, and the developing field of data mining.  One of the things that data mining is good at is identifying outliers - individual cases that vary significantly from the vast muddle in the middle that we can consider typical or normal.  In other words, we're becoming very, very good at treating people as "objects of knowledge", and being able to recognize and identify outliers.

Finally, the Obama administration has amply demonstrated its interest in disciplining those who stray from the enlightened path, and not necessarily through humane rehabilitation.

Maybe Foucault's fears are more realistic and immediate than I originally thought.

MSNBC: "Not a News Network"

MSNBC's recent ratings tumble (down 20% from last year) brought out an interesting response from the channel's President, Phil Griffen.  He suggested that MSNBC really didn't do breaking news, saying "Our brand isn't that."

So what is the brand?  The network's tagline identifies it as "The Place for Politics," with a heavy skew towards left-wing and "progressive" political talk.  Which kind of explains why its coverage of the 2012 Presidential race went 90/10 for Obama in terms of stories, and 99% of its Romney coverage was negative (according to Pew's analysis).

Perhaps they'd do better with real news.

Source -  Devoted to Politics, MSNBC Slips on Breaking News, New York Times

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Goin' Mobile - Speeds and Content

Some quick notes on the expanding mobile broadband/online video front -

The last leg in mobile broadband for most people will be their home, office, or public WiFi loop.  Telecomm research from the Dell'Oro Group note that the wireless LAN market (i.e. WiFi) grew 17% in 2012.  But even more significantly, the new 802.11ac standard, which offers speeds up to 1 Gigabit/second data rates will be increasingly available on hardware devices this year - contributing to a convergence of wired and wireless data speeds.

There's a massive data speed war in Japan, with multiple operators offering 1 Gbps services over fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks, and one operator announcing the rollout of the Nuro 2Gbps FTTH residential service.  So-Net's initial pricing for 2Gbps runs around $50 a month, significantly lower than competing 1 Gpbs services. Meanwhile, Japan telco NTT is said to be working on a 10Gbps residential network, to be available in a few years. 1 Gbps networks are popping up sporadically in the U.S. and Western Europe - Google's test markets offer 1 Gbps data plus multichannel video at around $100-150, and independent 1 Gbps network operators are pricing their services at $200-250 per month.  For most potential residential subscribers, there is little noticeable difference between 2 Gbps and 1 Gbps top data speeds, or for that matter 100 Mbps (corrected  from Gbps) speeds, so there is minimal incentive to switch to ultra-broadband services - aside from bragging rights, and price.  So many analysts are cautious about the rush to ultra-fast broadband, wondering if the cost of upgrading network speeds is recoverable from residential subscription fees.

On the content front, research from ABI is predicting substantial growth in use of the movie industry's UltraViolet "content locker" initiative.  Ultraviolet offers those with accounts online access to selected movies they've purchased on home media and registered with the service.  Ultraviolet currently has 6-8 million accounts; ABI estimates that the global market is likely to reach 65 million users (100 million if several major movie distributors join the program).  What's holding up growth at the moment, the report concludes, are consumer attitudes about trust and usability.
Consumers don’t yet trust the concept, with most still opting for subscription and digital content rental services such as Netflix and Hulu. “The ease of accessing and storing digital video libraries must approach that of digital music,” noted ABI practice director Sam Rosen.

Sources -  Wireless LAN Market on Fire,  CableFAX Tech
Broadband operators must beware the dangers of FTTH 'speed race',  telecoms.com
ABI: UltraViolet Could Radiate 65 Million Accounts… or More,  CableFAX Tech

Edited to correct typo in broadband speeds in middle story.

New Comm Tower on One World Trade

There's a new broadcast tower in New York, at the top of One World Trade Center.  The new One World Trade Center is North America's tallest building, topping out at 1776 feet.
Instead of a flat rooftop on which to place two-way radio antennas, the configuration at the base of One World Trade Center spire includes three "Communications Rings". This space will allow us to place many antennas on each level, depending on operation. Satellite down-links, ENG, RPU, point-to-point microwave (fixed and steerable), two-way radio antennas, fixed and steerable cameras, relay links, etc. are just a few of the types of communication equipment that will be atop the building.
The exact configuration of broadcast and radio signals will be determined after the FCC's proposed "repacking" of broadcast frequency assignments and spectrum grab, and the subsequent spectrum auctions.

Source - Re-establishing One World Trade Center as a Major Communications Hub in NYC, TV TechCheck

Hulu+: 3 Bids Over $1 Billion

News reports are indicating that at least three of the bidders for video streaming service Hulu+ are offering $1 Billion or more in the current round of bids.  One is identified as DirecTV.

Hulu+ currently has more than 4 million subscribers and generates around $700 million annually from subscriptions and ad revenues.

The new bid level is certainly more welcome than those obtained in 2011 - when Hulu+ owners News Corp, Disney, and Comcast first put the service up for sale, only to back off when bids didn't approach the amount they wanted.  Of course, the problem then was the unwillingness of the owner group to guarantee long-term access to their programming.  It's not clear what kind of commitments they might be willing to give prospective bidders this time around, but the increase in bids is at least partly a reflection of the growing success of subscription video streaming services and market.

Source -  DirecTV, two others bid over $1 billion for Hulu: source,  Broadcast Newsroom

Monday, June 3, 2013

Journalism or Press Release?

One of the complaints about modern journalism is that much of it seems to be minor re-writes of press releases, without original, independent, investigation.  Until now, the question seems to be how much is lifted from other sources (press releases, other news reports) and how much of it is original.

Thanks to the Sunlight Foundation, press critics have a new tool to find out.  They've developed, and released, a new tool called Churnalism, where press reports are compared to an archive of U.S. government, corporate, and other promotional content.  It's based on a similar project in the U.K.
"The tool is, essentially, an open-source plagiarism detection engine," web developer Kaitlin Devine explained to me. It will scan any text (a news article, e.g.) and compare it with a corpus of press releases and Wikipedia entries. If it finds similar language, you'll get a notification of a detected "churn" and you'll be able to take a look at the two sources side by side. 
 Not everything the tool detects will be a problem - quotes, for example, are likely to be identified by the tool.  In fact, Devine noted that science news scores poorly in Churnalism checks because technical and scientific language is often "so specific that it becomes very hard to reinterpret."

In the current environment of "journolists" and the  repeated repetition of talking points, this is not likely to help the image that journalists like to portray of their field - of independence and skepticism.  But it will confirm for many, I suspect, how limited and poor original reporting is among news organizations.

Source -  Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here's a Tool to Help You Find Out, The Atlantic

Goin' Mobile - For News

Sales and diffusion of mobile devices, particularly tablets, are continuing its fast pace.  The good news for journalism is that people are also increasingly using them for accessing news.

A survey by the University of Missouri's Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI), in connection with the Digital Publishing Alliance (DPA), conducted early this year found that roughly one-third of U.S. adults have and use a larger media tablet.  The rapid growth was fueled by the introduction of major new tablet models from Samsung, Google, and Microsoft, Apple's move into smaller media tablets, and new larger-screen smartphone models that may provide competitive alternatives for smaller tablets.

The good news for journalism and news media is that most mobile device owners report using their devices to access news. For most age groups (and both smartphone and large tablet users), roughly two-thirds of the sample reported using their devices for news.  Among smartphone news users, a majority report still using web and search portals to get news, but the acquisition and use of specific news apps is rapidly growing.  The survey reported that more smartphone owners had downloaded apps from newspapers than any of the other traditional media - although almost as many had "niche" apps (those affiliated with special events or narrow topics such as weather).  The survey found that for smartphones, only a third of the oldest respondents (65+) used their devices for news.  Interestingly, men were much more likely to use smartphones for news than were women (across all age groups).

In contrast, media tablet owners seem to prefer sites and sources that allow them to take advantage of their larger screens.  While have had downloaded newspaper apps, a whopping 94% had television (video) news apps on their devices.  Looking at the demographics of large tablet news yielded some interesting highlights.  For tablet owners, usage of tablets for news was lowest among the youngest group included in the sample, at 42%. News use for tablet owners in the 25-64 age group (66%-70%) mirrored the rates for smartphone owners, although the older 65+ group was slightly less likely to do so (60%), while less than half of tablet users in the 18-24 age group reported using their devices for news.  There's also an interesting interaction between age and gender - among the youngest and oldest groups, women were more likely to report using tablets for news (than men), while for those between the ages of 25 and 54, men were more likely to be news users on their tablets.  Tablet owners also expressed a small preference for using news apps rather than browsers for their news content.

It's looking like mobile is becoming a significant market for news access by audiences - although in many ways one that is still under development.  As news organizations face increasing competition and declining usage in their traditional markets, this seems to be one that news organizations should take seriously - in reaching out to new audiences, and in the opportunities mobile presents for new ways to package and distribute news and information.

Source -  2013 Q1 Research Report 2: Media tablets now used by at least one-third of U.S. adults,
RJI-DPA Mobile Media Research Project release

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chicago Sun Times dumps Photogs

The Sun Times group has fired its entire photojournalism staff - indicating that relying on candid snaps from cellphones and social media photo-sharing would appeal to an "increasingly digital-savvy" readership.  It's also been reported that all reporters will be taking mandatory iPhone workshops for photo training.

Is this validation of the shift to backpack journalism, or another short-sighted attempt to cut costs by reducing the product's value?  While I think arming all reporters with the capacity to capture photos, audio, and video can be helpful, a trained photojournalist can add value through framing and their ability to identify and capture "the moment."  And that quality is one of the few competitive advantages major news outlets have over their online competition.  Is it really one to ditch for possible short-term cost savings?

Source -  Chicago Sun Times Fires Its Entire Photo Staff