Sunday, May 31, 2009

The marketers want your five bucks

Have you been to one of those so-called iMax theaters--just another room in the multi-screen complex down at the mall? What is happening is the theaters are giving up a few rows of seats at the front (that none of us want to sit in anyway) so they can hang a bigger screen. Then they use a newer digital projection system to screen what they are advertising as--and that the iMax people authorize them to do--an iMax movie.

It ain't.

But you willingly pay $5 more for the "experience." Truth is, theater owners are facing increased competition from digital home sources that look really, really good, like Blu-ray, and easy-to-obtain films such as via Netflix. I have to admit, unless it is something really spectacular, like the recent Star-Trek feature, I would rather see it on my 48-inch hi-def screen in Blu-ray format, with my store-bought popcorn and dressed in my shorts and t-shirt with no shoes.

But lying to me? Telling me I can see an iMax film when the only real extra I'm getting is a bigger screen? Foul!

See critic Roger Ebert's take on this at his blog. It's interesting reading.

Two notes: one is I disagree with Roger that the new technology--48 frames-per-second--has any chance of catching on. Most people are very happy with the digital projection systems now being used. And it's cheaper for distributors, too. The digital ship has sailed. 70mm film is NOT the future.

And speaking of iMax, how many of you know that the sound system for iMax was invented right here in my hometown of Birmingham? One of the folks involved was Jim Cawthon, who is also a ham radio operator.

Don N4KC

Twitter: don_keith

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Let's pick on radio again

I know. I should quit picking on a medium I really and truly love. And one that fed my family for 22 years. But gosh, things just keep on getting sillier. Here's a blurb from INSIDE RADIO, one of the trade pubs that is more a mouthpiece for the big owners than anything else:

Radio’s reign as king of in-car listening may not be over, but there’s a new threat. Autonet Mobile has begun selling Wi-Fi for the car at more than 3,300 stores nationwide, including Best Buy. But a Jacobs Media survey finds just 6% want Wi-Fi in their next car. Most prefer an iPod connection.

I'd love to see the specs on the Jacobs Media study. That 6% does not include the folks I hang around with who break out in hives if they have less than five bars on the signal strength from the wi-fi.

And maybe somebody can tell me why preferring an iPod connection is any better than them glomming onto wi-fi as they zoom down the freeway.

Anything that siphons off ears is a bad thing for radio. And especially if those ears are part of a tribe that advertisers value.

Read previous posts re: wi-fi in the car. When it becomes as ubiquitous as over-the-air radio -- or even close, because there are plenty of other things competing for the attention of the folks in their cars...cell phones, satellites, etc. -- then over-the-air radio is dead. Quite dead. Comatose. Expired.

To quote Monty Python.


Twitter: don_keith

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Top ten technical failures of the decade

I know I have been especially verbose lately but stuff just keeps coming that I have to vent about! This one is not quite so serious, though...but interesting. And in keeping with the theme of this humble blog. TIME magazine just did a list of the top ten technology failures of the decade, presented in no particular order. See if you agree:

1. Microsoft Vista. Failure? I dunno. I think it did lots of good internally, being less vulnerable to hackers and such. But it does eat a lot of RAM. And I do get tired of it fussing at me about not setting my User Controls. And it IS a rip-off of Apple's user interface. Still all the Microsoft bashing is growing tiresome.

2. Gateway Computers. Goodbye to the cow. These guys were #3 in computer sales in 2005 with 25% market share. Now almost a non-factor. Big ball dropped by Gateway: failure to get into the laptop biz early in the game.

3. HD DVD. One of them had to blink. It was Toshiba. Considering Sony seemed determined to do whatever it took to establish BluRay, you can't blame them. And when WalMart went BluRay, that did it. Although BluRay is hardly a staple in homes yet. I love mine, though.

4. Vonage. Maybe it was that yodeling that got to everybody.

5. YouTube. The #1 video sharing site in the world by a mile a failure? Considering they still aren't making any money, and not even Google has figured out how to do that yet, yes!

6. Sirius XM. Not even the merger has stopped the bleeding of money. The subscriber base seems to have stagnated, too. Let's see. 100 channels of commercial free programming (mostly a jukebox of songs) for a monthly fee. Or an iPod I own with just the songs I really want to hear that I bought. Which one do I choose?

7. Microsoft Zune. I wasn't even sure what this was. Oh. An MP3 player. Trying to compete with iPod. 'Nuff said.

8. Palm. One of the themes in this list is that there are several companies who pioneered what they did (Gateway, HD DVD, YouTube, Sirius XM) but when others jumped in and did it better (or marketed it better), they faltered.

9. Iridium. Satellite phones, for those who don't know. It took 66 satellites to do what they needed to do. A single phone cost over $3000. The average call cost $5 per minute. How many customers really needed to keep in touch from the jungles of Borneo?

10. Segway. Cool idea! Unforeseen problems. They cost $3000 to $7000 each...almost Smart Car level! In some countries, you have to license them as street vehicles. In others, they are forbidden to get on streets. A mess.

Can't say I disagree with any of these. How about you?


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sunspot panic!

Ham radio ops have been in a state of panic over the slow, slow return of sunspots. See, spots on the sun cause the inonosphere to better reflect radio waves so that amateur radio types (like me) can easily talk to others all over the world. The cycles are typically about eleven years in duration from minimum to peak to minimum, but the beginning of cycle 24 has been a bit stubborn in ratcheting up. Some fear another Maunder Millenium, a period of almost a hundred years in the 1500s with no appreciable sunspot activity.

But that is not the real panic lately. An error by some very authoritative sources caused some consternation this week. Ted K7RA does a weekly propagation report, and tells about the deal in this week's edition:

There seems to be more confusion regarding the difference between number of sunspots and sunspot number. Mike Khokhlov, UA9CIR of Ekaterinburg in Asiatic Russia notes that the new Solar Cycle Prediction update for cycle 24 from NOAA (see issued a week ago said the cycle may peak four years from now ''with a maximum sunspot number of 90''. But in other reports, such as ARLS003 (, this was changed to ''Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with 90 sunspots per day on average''. got it wrong also, saying ''The panel predicts the upcoming Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with 90 sunspots per day, averaged over a month'' (see

As mentioned in past bulletins, a good explanation for the arcane method for computing daily sunspot number is at, a NOAA page about the work of Johann Wolf. The two references above to the ''90 sunspots'' error were actually widespread. Just Google the phrase ''90 sunspots per day'' and you will get hundreds of hits. Although NOAA was the source of the original correct information, NOAA News got it wrong at

Dennis W9SS saw an Associated Press story last weekend titled ''Warning: Sunspot cycle beginning to intensify''. It was titled differently in different publications (see and note that this also has the ''90 sunspots per day'' error) but Dennis wondered about the geomagnetic storm of 1859 and if it could happen today with the dire results mentioned in the article.
As far as I know, the tales of telegraph wires starting fires and aurora visible around the world were taken from contemporary nineteenth century accounts, and are true. I've heard this story for a long time, and seen references to 1859 newspaper accounts. This would make an interesting subject for historical research.

We really have no way to predict whether this will happen again, but the NAS predictions of 4-10 years recovery and trillions in damages certainly gives one pause for reflection. We do have much more complex and concentrated infrastructure currently, and seem more vulnerable.

This reminds one of the old stories about EMP (electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast) in warfare, and the vulnerability of solid state vs. old vacuum tube technology. In the Cold War, one side felt that their military hardware, in fighter jets for example, with modern solid state electronics was far superior to the other side, which may have used older designs with vacuum tubes. But it was pointed out that vacuum tubes are much less vulnerable to an EMP blast. The simpler, hardier design may be superior in a real life battlefield environment that has escalated to the unthinkable level. Thank goodness it was never tested with EMP in a real battle.

Ninety sunspots a day?!? Major interruptions in electric power. Telephone and power lines bursting into flames. Communications being interrupted by solar storms. And not a thing we can do about it. Sounds pretty dire.

But if it helps me chew the rag with that ham in Asiatic Russia...

Follow me on Twitter at don_keith

Monday, May 18, 2009

A line has been crossed...

Story in today's media-industry trade publications:

Against Arbitron's wishes, the FCC has opened a formal inquiry into the impact of the Portable People Meter's impact on minority broadcasters. While commending Arbitron for switching to electronic ratings, acting chair Michael Copps says the FCC has a "strong interest" in promoting ownership diversity.

For those who don't know, the Portable People Meter is a device that can be worn or carried by people as they participate in a "panel"--theoretically a statistically representative panel--recruited by Arbitron. The device can hear tones encoded in radio, TV, Internet streams, satellite and anything else that makes a noise, so people's true listening/viewing can be much more accurately measured than it ever has been by previous methods.

The PPM is showing different listening habits than the old way did. The "old way" was asking people to keep a written diary of their listening for a week. Nielsen, who built their company on A.C. Nielsen's meter technology, still gathers most of its TV audience data by diary. So does Arbitron.

More accurate ratings means ratings will probably show different results than the old methodology did. So far, that has hurt stations who program to African Americans and Latinos more than anyone else. Fact: the PPM shows that not as many people listen for as long a time to those stations as the diary did.

But a line has now been crossed when the federal agency that is charged with regulating the airwaves can "investigate" a publisher of syndicated ratings estimates. For you hams, that would be the equivalent of the FCC investigating how well Simpson measures current and voltage. Or the FTC investigating to see what is wrong with how they determine the average selling price of cars in a particular zip code.

I'm all for a level playing field, and for minority ownership of media to thrive. But I think:

-- The best way for any medium to do well is to have accurate audience or readership or page-visitor estimates for advertisers to evaluate.

-- The best way to get higher ratings is for a station to consider the results of those more accurate ratings and adjust programming to attract a more sellable audience...not necessarily the biggest...the most SELLABLE.

-- The worst way to inspire advertiser confidence in any ratings information is to threaten to call in the feds or sue the companies who produce those data, sending a loud message that the ratings are junk.

-- The FCC has no more business--legally or logically--investigating Arbitron than Congress does looking into steroid use in baseball or whether or not there should be a national college football playoff.

-- Even if the FCC decreed that Arbitron's data are a scourge on hip-hop and salsa stations, that they are crap and totally whack, that they are putting minority-owned radio stations out of business left and right, what could they do about it? Please, somebody, show me where they have jurisdiction here?

-- The marketplace will take care of Arbitron if they don't do a good job of measuring the listenership of any ethnic or demo group. They are no longer a monopoly. If they do a bad job, competitors who do a better job can prosper. Just like with radio and TV stations.

That's what I believe. How about you?

Don Keith

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cursed audience ratings

Several stories in the news today about audience ratings. And an interesting observation from a media reporter after speaking to a group of college students. Look, I know you may think ratings don't really matter to YOU. Well, yes, they do. They determine what shows get put on the TV and which ones get axed. They determine which shows and which stations get to stay around and which ones go down the toilet. Which formats prosper on the radio and which ones go the way of Big Band. Even which products stay on the shelves or which businesses get to continue making stuff.

Ratings for radio and TV are currency. It is how media is bought and sold. And that impacts you in many, many fundamental ways.

So when WSVN-TV in Miami threatens to sue Nielsen, you need to know. The reason for the lawsuit? Because their audience ratings plunged when Nielsen began using a new-technology meter to measure TV viewing. Turth is, it is more accurate than the old meter and diary-measurement previously employed. More accurate is bad? No, it's not. Accuracy is a good thing for everybody. And when a TV or radio station sues a ratings company, claiming their product is flawed, it sends a bad message to potential advertisers. That is especially a bad thing with the accountability, accurate measurement, and pay-for-performance offered by the Internet.

Here's another one, from the web site:

Early in 2009, TiVo announced the further development and expansion of their Stop//Watch Ratings service. Because hard wired TiVo television sets track second by second TV viewing back to TiVo headquarters, we now have a means of instantaneous audience feedback. The implications of this are either very cool or very frightening….depending upon your perspective.

Were you Tivo users aware that your viewing habits were continually being uploaded back to the home office? And that with that data, TV programmers can see tiny slices of peoples' viewing habits. Will they soon eliminate any content that consistently causes a sizeable number of people to tune away or fast-forward? Is that a good or bad thing? As the article says:

Boring programming elements can be avoided, initial program hooks can be measured, or the players in a local newscast can be given an electronic “approval rating”. Joe the sports guys goes, and RoxAnne the weather girl is a keeper. All based on the second by second audience data provided by TiVo.

Of course, advertisers may find that too many people skip their commercials and they are not worth nearly the money the stations and networks are charging. So they either make stations/networks run more spots to make up the difference, or they take their business to an entirely different medium. TV can't stand much of that! It is getting tough enough already for them to make a living. Have you noticed how sparse live bodies are getting on many news sets these days? That is only the beginning!

Finally, there is a column in Broadcasting and Cable magazine by its new editor-in-chief, Ben Grossman. He writes about how he was recently scared to death:

I went back to my old business school, UCLA's Anderson School of Management, as a guest lecturer in an M.B.A. class. I was talking about how the current television model has been methodically picked apart in recent years by the technologically induced shift in viewing habits.

And those M.B.A.s put the fear of God into me by hammering home just how much faster we need to change our ways, or more to the point, our models.

When I took them through the current model of network television, viewing habits and advertising, I felt like I was explaining why New Coke was a great product.

This was a group of younger, probably somewhat well-off, educated men and women with zero investment in the old ways of doing things. They had become happily accustomed to getting the milk for free, and didn't see that genie going back in the bottle.

There were actually very few cord-cutters, but nearly all had watched a show on Hulu in the last month. And when I asked how many of them would be willing to pay even a little bit if the free tap got turned off tomorrow—you could hear crickets.

To quote Astro, that great Jetsons sage: Ruh-roh.

This is a group that advertisers dearly want to reach, but one that dares marketers to come find them. They want a free, on-demand world and they don't understand why they haven't gotten it yet. They can't figure out why television and the Internet haven't met in one box yet, and they don't care who gets it right so long as someone does, and soon. They don't know a CBS show from an ABC show, and they don't care.

Is this a representative sample of TV viewers. Of course not. But if you think these guys are that much different from the typical TV user, you are kidding yourself. You are about to be witness to the greatest upheaval in media in...well...ever. Some of us have to watch and worry because it directly affects our businesses. All of you will be affected, though. Affected profoundly.


Don Keith N4KC

Follow me on Twitter: don_keith

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Of change, chaos and cobblers

Bob Garfield writes for Advertising Age, the primary trade publication of the ad biz, but his words below apply to more than just media. His new book is called The Chaos Scenario and it addresses exactly what this blog is about: rapid technological change and how it effects society and media (and, sometimes, ham radio! No, Bob does not deal with that in his book!). This is from a recent interview, and I could not have said it better:

It’s very difficult for people to move beyond the status quo. It’s very hard to get them to do anything more than the most incremental little changes. Incremental change is fine, and maybe that’s the only way to get large things done, but if you’re too slow in accomplishing them, the race is over before you get to the finish line.

We are not talking about an incremental technology step. We are talking about the difference between living on a planet where men did not make fire and now a planet where man does make fire, where there was no agriculture, now there is agriculture.

It is revolutionary and it has already changed human behavior on a grand scale. Industries are falling like dominos and the media are one of them. It’s not just a question of weathering a little transitory storm; it’s what happened when the Industrial Revolution overnight made cobblers unnecessary.



Even Google Drives Away from Radio

Headline in a trade pub this morning:

Google: Radio ROI still a mystery. Google CEO Eric Schmidt says its algorithm-driven system wasn’t able to crack radio's ROI code and present a definitive return-on-investment to advertisers. Google exits radio at the end of this month.

Hate to say, "I told you so..." but, well, I did. Google's take on how to make a trillion bucks on broadcast radio was an old idea: the remnant sale. Stations cut deals to make leftover spot time available to Google to go sell in big, anonymous blocks. Advertisers could get dang cheap commercials and stations could sell time that otherwise went by the wayside. Perfect!

Hardly. You rarely knew which station would run your commercials, who their audiences were. In most markets, you had few choices of stations. Few advertisers want tonnage anymore. Not even cheap tonnage. What they want is to be able to reach people who are likely buyers for whatever it is that they are selling. Maybe there is a little branding and name recognition in there, too, but even that needs to be targeted toward folks who really care. Beyond that, advertisers want (and are getting from many media) the ultimate ROI: only paying for customers who act. And they are willing to pay more for those who actually become customers.

That is so foreign to how most ad media are set up to operate that many in the media can't grasp it. So they keep peddling their 30- and 60-second commercials and their 1/4-page ads, priced on audience estimates or readership audits, while the real world moves on.

Google should probably distance itself from radio anyway. Their stock is, what, $500 a share? Several major radio companies are below a buck and trading now over-the-counter.

Run away, Google! Run away!

Don Keith N4KC

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Those of you who know me are aware that I write extensively about submarines, and especially World War II submarines. In fact, I just spent most of the weekend working on my next book, the story of an amazing incident aboard USS Billfish...a 15-hour depth charge attack that brought out the best and worst in her crew...and a story that was not told outside the hull of Billfish for 60 years!

At any rate, there is a very good story in today's Cleveland News Herald that anyone with an interest in WWII history and/or submarines may enjoy. It is about the USS Cod, one of the museum ships that have been restored and opened to the public. I wrote about it and her 16 WWII sisters in my book Final Patrol. Thanks to my ham radio buddy, Fritz, K8WLF, for sending me the link.

Don N4KC

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Of gall bladders and spaceships

So I was comparing gall bladder surgery notes with a fellow employee at Education Corporation of America today. He had his taken out a couple of weeks ago and has a couple of tiny scars and is at work. I had mine removed in 1974 and have a foot-long scar to show for it. I was off work for five weeks. They use laproscopy nowadays. In 1974, it was a saber and a butcher knife.

Well, maybe not that drastic, but things have changed. In my description of this blog, I mention the statement I once read that claimed that scientific knowledge doubles every five years, but medical knowledge doubles every three years. Some have looked at me askance...whatever "askance" is...and said, "Well, bright boy, if that were the case, wouldn't they have cured all diseases already? And wouldn't the swine flu have been shot down the first week? Oh, and wouldn't we have regular spaceships to the moon if we doubled our scientific knowledge even every five years?"

What we have to keep in mind is just how ignorant we are. Not so long ago, we were bleeding sick people to clean out the bad blood. And those Wright boys were just managing to skim the ground out there on Kitty Hawk.

Knowledge could double a whole bunch of times before we make a dent in our ignorance.

Don N4KC